News Brief: Lockdown Orders Lift, Workers Strike, Biden Allegations

May 1, 2020
Originally published on May 1, 2020 8:10 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, in more than a dozen states, residents are free to go.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Governors allowed stay-at-home orders to expire last night in Alabama, in Maine, Idaho, Tennessee and Texas, among others. Many businesses can reopen. Though, they may face rules to enforce social distancing and restrict the number of customers. They also face a big unknown. At a moment when the pandemic has killed more than 60,000 Americans, will customers even think it's safe to shop?

INSKEEP: NPR's Jim Zarroli has been talking with people who run businesses across this country. And he's on the line. Jim, good morning.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How different is the world for a business owner than the world was when they shut their doors back in March, say?

ZARROLI: Yeah. Mid-March - seems like a long time ago right now.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

ZARROLI: I mean, it's enormously different. Millions of businesses have shut their doors. Or at least they've, you know, slowed down production. Tens of millions of workers have been laid off, you know? Nobody's driving. Nobody's flying. Energy prices are just plummeting. So a lot of companies have just kind of been frozen. So I wanted to find out what it would take to restart some of these companies. I mean, you know, there's this debate right now about when it's really safe to reopen the economy. A lot of states are beginning to do that. So are businesses ready for everything to just return to normal?

INSKEEP: And what are you hearing from companies?

ZARROLI: Well, I mean, one of them, for instance, I talked to was American Giant, which is a clothing company based in San Francisco. It has factories in the Carolinas. It makes hoodies and flannel shirts. And when the lockdown happened, it really came, you know, just as a bolt out of the blue. I mean, the CEO, whose name is Bayard Winthrop, called all his company's suppliers. These were people he'd been working with a long time. And he said, you know, we don't know what's going to happen. We need to put purchases on hold.

So right now, the company is using its factories to make face masks for the government at the government's request. But the holidays are coming up, which is the big season for the company - for retailers in general. And Winthrop says the company really has to get back to the business of making clothes no later than July. He sells mostly online. But it's hard to know, you know? Are his customers going to come back and in what numbers? And when will that happen?

BAYARD WINTHROP: What worries me, obviously, is that people haven't really, fully yet digested how bad this is going to be for the economy. And, you know, if wallets start to really close up, it's just a different scenario, right?

INSKEEP: Well, how eager are business owners to return to business in this particular environment?

ZARROLI: Well, I mean, my sense is they'd love to see things return to normal. But they are anxious. I talked to a truck company owner in California. His name is Harsimran Singh. His trucks transport lettuce and strawberries - things like that - from the Central Valley in California to the Midwest and the Northeast. And a lot of it goes to restaurants.

But as we know, most of the restaurants are closed right now. So in the meantime, his fleet of 150 trucks is just sitting idle. And he has drivers who are sitting at home and really want to work. He's keeping them on staff because he got a small business loan through the Paycheck Protection Program. But that's going to run out in a few weeks.

HARSIMRAN SINGH: If I do not get work back to normal in, like, next month or so, we'll have to shut it down.

ZARROLI: So Singh is really wondering, you know, when will the restaurants reopen? And even when they do, many people have lost their jobs. Will they even have any money to spend? And those are the kinds of questions no one can really answer right now.

INSKEEP: Yeah. A reminder that every business depends on other businesses not to mention their customers. Jim, thanks so much.

ZARROLI: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jim Zarroli.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Workers for some businesses intend to stop on this May 1.

MARTIN: Much of the world knows today as International Workers' Day, a day to celebrate labor. People at some big retail and delivery companies chose this day for a protest.

INSKEEP: Which NPR retail correspondent Alina Selyukh is covering. Good morning.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's the plan for this protest?

SELYUKH: Well, the workers who are organizing the event are calling it a general strike. They're urging workers to skip going to work. Now, we don't know how many people will actually participate in this. But the workers say they have folks coming from a long list of retail and delivery companies, as you pointed out. That includes Amazon, its grocery chain, Whole Foods, also Target and its delivery app, Shipt, and then Wal-Mart, Instacart and FedEx. We should note that most of these companies are among NPR's financial supporters. And broadly speaking, the participants are saying they did not sign up to be on the front lines of a deadly pandemic.

They signed up to ring you up at the cash register or pack your latest online order, maybe deliver your groceries, but not to deal with life and death, which is how many workers put it these days. And they're saying the companies are not doing enough to protect them. And they're also saying they're frustrated that the companies aren't really releasing information about how many workers have been sick, which is at least in dozens, and how many have even died.

INSKEEP: So they want transparency and, specifically, what else?

SELYUKH: Yeah. So my team has been talking to so many workers from all kinds of these essential jobs at supermarkets, food factories, warehouses. And they talk a lot about having more access to protective gear - gloves and masks - wanting to be able to take time off without losing pay whether or not they are sick and a lot of the time off if they do get sick.

But it's also clear that their COVID-related concerns are kind of stacking up on top of years of other frustrations, mainly about low pay and limited benefits, in some cases, changing pay formulas - in the case of gig apps - or unpredictable scheduling in retail and fast food. Here's one of the organizers, Shipt delivery worker Willy Solis, who says today's strike is about showing how much these different workers have in common.

WILLY SOLIS: It seems to be profit over people, for the most part. And that is where the disconnect is because, at the end of the day, the workforce and the work laborers are the ones that are helping these companies become who they are.

INSKEEP: How do the companies respond to workers like that?

SELYUKH: Yeah. So we reached out to all of them. And they had a lot to say. But just to summarize, they say they welcome input from workers. They say they have added bonuses or temporary pay bumps, that they have stepped up health and safety measures. Amazon, for its part, stood out in its response because it accused Labor groups of being irresponsible in this moment. They're saying that these groups are spreading criticisms and accusations that are false. They don't represent the majority of its workers.

And it's true. Labor and community organizers have been springing to actions. Strikes and protests have really escalated in the last few weeks. And just as an observation - in retail, gig economy, warehousing, fast food, all these labor battles have been playing out for years sort of in their own silos. And the coronavirus pandemic has many low-wage workers declared essential. And so they're being shown - sort of there's a broad, wide spotlight on their so-called unskilled labor.

INSKEEP: Alina, thanks so much.

SELYUKH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR retail correspondent Alina Selyukh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Some other news now. Today, for the first time, Joe Biden directly responds to an accusation of sexual assault.

MARTIN: The presumptive Democratic nominee for president takes questions on MSNBC. His accuser is Tara Reade. She worked as a junior staffer in Biden's Senate office in 1993, when she says the assault occurred. Biden's campaign has dismissed the accusation as false.

INSKEEP: NPR's Asma Khalid has been reporting on this story and is on the line. And we should note, we're about to discuss allegations that many listeners will find disturbing. Asma, good morning.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What have you heard in your conversations with Tara Reade?

KHALID: Well, I've spoken to her multiple times. And she told me that, at some point in the spring of 1993, she delivered a duffel bag to Joe Biden in a hallway on Capitol Hill. This is what Reade told me happened when she met up with Biden.

TARA READE: He put me up against the wall. And his hands went underneath my clothing. And he was touching me in my private areas and without my consent.

KHALID: Reade said Biden penetrated her vagina with his fingers. She could not recall the exact date or location of the alleged assault. Reade told me that she told her late mother, her brother and a friend about the incident at the time. Her brother was able to recall part of the story in a text message with me.

I spoke to the friend, who did not want to be named. And she told me that she recalls retelling her the story in 1993 as she is now detailing it. I've also since spoken to an old neighbor of Reade's who said that she remembers her sharing this story in the mid-'90s. It is important to note, Steve, these are all people that Reade has connected us with.

INSKEEP: How has Biden's campaign responded?

KHALID: His deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfield, put out a statement that was disputing the allegation. She pointed out that Biden fought for the passage of the Violence Against Women Act. And she said that women do have a right to be heard, but such claims should also be diligently reviewed by the press. What's clear about this claim, she says, is that it is, quote, "untrue." This absolutely did not happen. And, Steve, in reporting out this story, I interviewed multiple staffers in Biden's office from the time period. They all cast doubt on Reade's story. You know, they told me that the type of behavior she is describing is just so counter to the culture they personally experienced.

And Reade told me that, at the time, she reported her concerns about harassment, not about assault, to three people in Biden's Senate office at the time. All three of them say she did not. The thing is, you know, some of the details in Reade's stories that she's told have changed. And that is why some Biden supporters suggest that, possibly, she has a political motive. They also question her past praise for the Russian leader Vladimir Putin, which she has now walked back. But still, you know, Biden supporters question her credibility. And they ask why, as recently as 2017, she had taken to the Internet to praise Joe Biden.

INSKEEP: OK. So Biden supporters have raised questions about her story. But Biden has not addressed these allegations until now. Why is he going on television today?

KHALID: Well, Republicans have been amplifying Reade's story and pressuring Democrats to respond, which, you know, Steve, is tricky because, of course, President Trump has been accused of multiple incidents of sexual assault, which he denies. But still, Reade's allegations have put Democrats in this really tricky position. They are torn between defending the presumptive Democratic nominee and believing all women who make allegations against any powerful man.

Yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked about the allegation. And she began by saying that she has a lot of respect for the #MeToo movement, but that she's also proud to support Biden. And she thinks that due process is important. You know, but still, some women's rights advocates have been more directly putting pressure on Biden to personally respond, which he will do later this morning on MSNBC.

INSKEEP: OK. And we'll listen for the results of that. Asma, thanks so much.

KHALID: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Asma Khalid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.