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Amazon workers fight for better COVID-19 conditions

(BUSINESS NEWS) Amazon workers organize locally, nationally, and globally in an attempt to get Jeff Bezos’ attention to gain safe working conditions at warehouses.

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Amazon workers

While Amazon claims it has taken serious measures to increase facility cleanings and encourage social distancing measures at its fulfillment centers, workers nationwide feel the tech giant’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been inadequate.

Workers have complained that Amazon has maintained standard work procedures such as fulfilling an hourly pack rate to meet customer demand, which can be used to track and reward (or demote) worker performance. Employees claim the metrics don’t allow them time to practice safe sanitary practices like visiting the bathroom to wash their hands after sneezing or coughing. They also raised concerns about standing meetings, where workers are gathered shoulder-to-shoulder to receive updates.

Many workers have also lodged concerns about lack of transparency regarding confirmed cases at their warehouses. Multiple walkouts have been staged after confirmed cases were reported and the warehouses continued operations. Workers believe their managers are not disclosing the real number of cases.

The following is a non-exhaustive timeline of employee unrest at Amazon, and some of the company’s reactions.

  • March 13: Two Amazon HQ office workers are diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • March 16: Amazon announces effort to hire 100,000 additional employees and qualifying employees will receive increased pay of $2/hour in the US, Canada, the UK, and EU countries.
  • March 17: Amazonians United NYC write a post on Medium petitioning for coronavirus protections from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. As of this writing, 5,210 workers from around the world have signed this petition.
  • March 18: Workers at the DBK1 warehouse in Queens, New York, receive confirmation that a worker has been diagnosed with COVID-19. This is the first confirmed case at an Amazon warehouse.
  • March 29: Two workers are diagnosed with COVID-19 at the EWR4 warehouse in Robbinsville, New Jersey.
  • March 30: At least a dozen workers walk off the job at EWR4 in Robbinsville. Workers at Staten Island JFK8 warehouse stage an organized walkout led by Chris Smalls. He is fired later that day.
  • March 31: Whole Foods workers organize sick-out demanding “guaranteed paid leave for employees who isolate or self-quarantine instead of coming to work; reinstatement of health care coverage for part-time and seasonal workers; hazard pay for coming to work; and the implementation of policies to facilitate social distancing between workers and customers.”
  • April 1: A third confirmed case of coronavirus is announced to workers at the DTW1 warehouse in Romulus, Michigan. A handful of workers walkout.
  • April 3: Chicago workers stage walkout after a colleague tests positive for COVID-19 a week earlier, demanding the facility be closed and sanitized.
  • April 7: Amazon pilots disinfectant fogging, mandates social distancing, temperature checks, and masks throughout shifts.
  • April 10: Amazon fires UX designers and outspoken members of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa. A warehouse operations manager from Hawthorne, California dies of COVID-19, the first reported death at Amazon.
  • April 13: Amazon says 100,000 jobs have been filled and another 75,000 will be added. Amazon encourages workers from especially impacted industries like hospitality, restaurants, and travel to apply.
  • April 14: Amazon confirms firing Bashir Mohamed, a Minnesota worker who had also been calling for safer work conditions.

It is unclear exactly how many employees participated in each of the walkouts. It is unlikely that a protest by even 300 workers of the nearly 300,000 Amazon employees would have a major impact on production, or Amazon’s practices, for that matter.

But their efforts are gaining traction. New York Attorney General Letitia James, Senator Bernie Sanders, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have all made public statements denouncing Amazon’s treatment of its workers. Attorney General James is considering legal action for Chris Smalls firing.

Amazon has made significant efforts to use its resources as a positive force in the pandemic. The Amazon coronavirus blog tracks its charitable efforts, including donating laptops to Seattle students for remote learning and opening a Neighborhood Small Business Relief Fund in Seattle, among many other charitable moves. Though commendable, how a corporation treats its workers reveals a fundamental truth about its priorities.

According to Forbes, Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world with an estimated net worth of $145.1 billion. Amazon recorded $280.5 billion in revenues and a record $11.5 billion in net profit in 2019.

One New Jersey warehouse worker has been on unpaid leave since March 13. Rachel Belz told Yahoo! Finance that she elected to stay home when at least 12 workers at her warehouse tested positive for the coronavirus, fearing exposing her son and parents to the deadly virus. “Money is a renewable resource – they’re not.

Heather Buffo is a Cleveland native, a recovering Bostonian, and an Austin newbie. Heather has her Bachelor of Arts in Neurobiology from Harvard University, and is a City Year Boston AmeriCorps alum. When she's not writing for AG, you can find her pouring beers at the Brewtorium, but only one at a time.

Business News

DMCA and Twitch streaming, aka a mess of copyright

(BUSINESS NEWS) As live-streaming is booming in popularity, DMCA claims are becoming an existential problem for Twitch. And it’s streamers who bear the burden.

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Twitch streamer in front of gaming PC, likely to face DMCA claims.

Last month hundreds of content creators on the streaming platform Twitch received DMCA takedown notices from their host at the same time, telling them that content on their channel was potentially in violation of copyright law.

Twitch has since summed up the incident in their own words on their blog. Typically, DMCA notices are supposed to provide the recipient with information about their options for submitting a counter-claim or seeking retraction. But, as the post admits, “the only option provided [to streamers] was a mass deletion tool for [their] clips, [and] we only gave [them] three days notice to use this tool.”

If they didn’t, they would risk losing their channel (and in many cases, their full time income.)

The videos in question could span thousands of hours of content, which could not realistically be deleted in the time allowed.

 

No Title

So, what you’re saying is all potentially copywritten music clips/VODS on my channel have already been identified and deleted, so I don’t need to delete anything right now?I need clarification because I don’t have the time to go through 4 years of clips.

Twitch has pretty much looked the other way from the unlicensed use of music on its user channels throughout its history. That’s generated more than a little resentment from groups like the Recording Industry Association of America in the past, and as the site only continues to grow, a massive wave of pressure from the labels has forced the site’s hand

The music industry wants Twitch to arrange for their streamers to use audio under the terms that websites like YouTube use. That includes a diligent Content ID system.

But instead, Twitch has built an in-house solution to this whole mess: Soundtrack, which offers a “rights-cleared music” from “independent artists.”

A spokesperson from Twitch supplied this statement to The Verge: “The music from Soundtrack is put into live streams and does not end up in VODs, and therefore we and our partners agree that sync licenses are not needed for Soundtrack.”

(The music industry doesn’t see it that way though.)

Not only that, but streamers still have a lot of questions about the new expectations on the site. In one case, a streamer had to completely stop their feed because their video was picking up music from an unrelated source.

Someone can even be flagged for playing a game that uses copyrighted music on-stream. Even playing a Star Wars game that makes use of the movie’s copyrighted soundtrack is a risky move. (After all, nobody wants to take any chances with Disney’s infamously aggressive legal team.)

In their apology, they expressed a desire to explore “potential approaches to additional licenses,” but said that “the current constructs for licenses that the record labels have with other services […] make less sense for Twitch.”

Securing a given song’s licensing rights is a pretty implausible task for a young streamer, since major copyright holders don’t generally negotiate on small-scale terms. Twitch, on the other hand, has been owned by Amazon since 2014. Amazon just happens to already be one of the biggest copyright holders in the world, and obtaining the rights to the songs that are in high demand shouldn’t be a prohibitive issue for one of their companies.

But ultimately this debacle isn’t solely their fault. The DMCA is an old law— old enough to drink, even. The people who wrote it could not have possibly accounted for the rapidly expanding new media industry. Under pressures like these, something has to give.

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Business News

There, and back again? Working remotely now, and in a post-vaccine world

(BUSINESS NEWS) Working remotely is now a subject openly discussed in the business world, and is affecting every employee in organizations. Companies should adapt while remaining careful to avoid common pitfalls.

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Mother working remotely with a child jumping on the couch next to her working.

I’m not even sure it’s up for debate anymore – working remotely is not lowering productivity. Several employers (90%!) are saying this (perhaps surprised with the findings). There was a lot of concern and hand wringing about this in the first part of the 2020 decade, but the experiments have bore out data that largely suggests it’s a viable option.

Working remotely has not been without its issues. Communication remains a concern and always will be, whether that is with coworkers or management, parents have more to deal with, and virtual meetings carry their own set of logistics that we’re all still navigating. But productivity has – surprisingly – been upheld despite the massive shift.

So this brings us to the next problem on the horizon – what happens once the pandemic is over, specifically with regard to remote work? Will workers want to return to their offices (assuming they are still available)? Will it affect a company’s entire workforce, or will it be left up to individual employees to decide? Could a hybrid system work?

Hybrid can be horrible,” says Gitlab CEO and co-founder Sid Sijbrandij. Gitlab has functioned as a fully remote company since its inception, and now has over 1,300 employees across 66 countries. They have written an extensive book that covers their processes for maintaining this setup, which has seen an increase in downloads since the beginning of the pandemic.

Sujbrandij explains that, “If you try to do hybrid you will have an A team and a B team, those in the office and those deprived of information and career opportunities.” This will create a disconnection between both groups, and will ultimately result in a breakdown in communication between those who work remotely versus those reporting into the office. This can lead to a number of potentially damaging scenarios – favoritism, knowledge being hidden away and siloed, and creating unfounded myths about productivity and commitment.

In other words, companies – once given the opportunity to return to a centralized workspace – may fall into the incorrect assumption that there can be flexible rules that apply to everyone under the guise of personal preference. This is a great idea in theory, but sounds a lot like the time Jim tried to celebrate everyone’s birthday on the same day. The ultimate joke of the episode is that the plan fails spectacularly – there’s so much unforeseen logistics and opinions and requests that everyone ends up disappointed; Michael comes back and consoles a broken Jim, stating that he’d tried that before.

Prithwiraj Choudhury – a professor at Harvard Business School – weighs in with similar advice, stating that companies need to take this transition seriously, with the potential for several months or years to fully complete the process. A recent article he authored explores this idea, with a huge emphasis on the idea that we will not simply work from home, but from anywhere, embracing a future where employees will be able to choose to live in other cities, states, or countries.

He further elaborates that this will be a necessity to help attract and keep key talent, and that this should be one of the primary motivations. “You really need to be convinced of why you are embracing this model. … This is the way to attract and retain the best talent. There are real estate costs and other benefits, but those are secondary.”

One way to help this is to ensure that everyone is on board – that even the C suite executives need to work remotely, functioning as a “shining example” that emphatically and enthusiastically embrace knowledge sharing. They can utilize Slack channels (or other communication avenues), and pursuing all necessary methods to ensure access is evenly applied across the board and given to all employees.

As we turn into a new year where a vaccine might be available, there will come a time when companies must re-evaluate their approach to working remotely again, making sure to have protocol and process that is definitive.

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Business News

End of unemployment benefits spell disaster without plans to replace them

(BUSINESS NEWS) If Congress doesn’t agree on a stimulus extension, December 31st could be a massive “cliff” for millions of unemployed Americans

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Unemployment documents being handed to employer.

If you’re still employed, chances are you know someone who has been furloughed or laid off as a result of COVID-19. Unemployment benefits from the CARES Act have cushioned the economic fallout from the pandemic for millions of Americans who are currently jobless. As someone who was furloughed from my 9-5 at the beginning of quarantine, I was extremely relieved to discover that the government had a plan for myself and others in my shoes.

However, without an agreed upon plan from Congress, these benefits are set to expire at the end of the year. This inaction would make unemployed Americans exceedingly more vulnerable to poverty and eviction. So, what’s the deal Congress? Why are y’all dragging your feet?

Here’s what you have to know about the current state of things:

  • Since the end of July, when extra unemployment benefits (aka the “extra $600) expired, most unemployed people are only making about half of their wage
  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about two unemployed workers for every open job (yikes!)
  • Over 10 million people are collecting pandemic-related unemployment benefits in America – and another 345,000 filed new applications last week – this isn’t “getting better”
  • After December the federal ban on evictions will be lifted, meaning we will most likely see a massive spike in unhoused individuals and families

All of this is happening as the holiday season approaches and a third wave of COVID spikes across America. As it gets colder in many places, many businesses that made it through the first waves are expected to close and, subsequently, their workers are expected to be laid off.

Everything is coming to a head on December 31st. If Congress doesn’t get its act together and agree on what a pandemic relief extension needs to look like, the American people will undoubtedly experience a very dark and depressing winter and spring.

Jean Kimmel, an economics professor at Western Michigan University, states that: “A society that already was becoming increasingly unequal will just become even more unequal [without benefit extensions].” Because COVID-related unemployment disproportionately affected America’s gig and low-wage workers, as well as women and People of Color, the failure to extend benefits would only further exacerbate the economic inequality in our country, which isn’t good for anyone.

Let’s hope our politicians can put aside their differences for the sake of the general public. Fingers crossed.

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