Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1093 Tue, 12 Dec 2017 06:44:50 +0000 en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) De Blasio Administration Backs Council Push for Increased Tampon Access http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6375:de-blasio-administration-backs-council-push-for-increased-tampon-access http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6375:de-blasio-administration-backs-council-push-for-increased-tampon-access julissa ferreras copeland

Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland (photo: William Alatriste)


Representatives from the de Blasio administration testified in “strong support” of a package of legislation to make feminine hygiene products readily available and free in New York City public schools, shelters, and correctional facilities on Thursday at the City Council’s first hearing on the bills since they were introduced in March.

Azadeh Khalili, executive director of the Commission on Gender Equity, testified on behalf of the administration, along with representatives from the Department of Education, the Department of Corrections, and the Department of Social Services, and said that the administration “strongly supports the Council’s effort to expand access to feminine hygiene products to all New Yorkers,” but “would like to work with the Council on some of the technical issues in the bills.”

The potential cost of the mandates, which will be in the millions of dollars annually, and the technical aspects of implementation were not heavily examined during the initial hearing. “We would like to agree to the language of the bills” before addressing the cost, Khalili said. “If we’re in full agreement with some of the technical changes, then we can move to the cost of the bills.”

The three bills are spearheaded by City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the lead sponsors, and the hearing comes just as New York State is set to eliminate the so-called “tampon tax” - the sales tax on feminine hygiene products.

The main “technical changes” the administration wants to see addressed have to do with the bill, introduced by Mark-Viverito, requiring the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to provide feminine hygiene products to all female residents in temporary shelters, here meaning Department of Homeless Services family shelters and single adult women shelters, Department of Youth and Community Development shelters, and Human Resources Administration domestic violence shelters.

“The Department of Social Services strongly encourages the Council to include all Department of Homeless Services and Human Resources Administration shelter facilities in the bill,” Khalili said. “This expansion will ensure maximum distribution of feminine hygiene products to all clients who require such products, including those in HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA) shelters and at single adult male shelters.”

The city is concerned that the current language of the bill would exclude transgender men or intersex individuals who still menstruate but reside in Department of Homeless Services single male shelters or HASA shelters from the expanded access to these products. Women also reside in HASA shelters, Khalili said, and the language of the bill should be altered in order to be fully inclusive.

Additionally, the administration would like to “work with the Council to limit the definition of feminine hygiene products to only include tampons and sanitary napkins,” Khalili said. Unlike the bills to improve access to tampons and pads in schools and prisons, the bill to improve access to feminine hygiene products in shelters designates a broader list of menstrual products, including “tampons, panty liners, menstrual cups, sanitary napkins,” and leaves it open to “ any other similar items” principally used for menstrual hygiene.

“Limiting the definition means that HRA and DHS would not be responsible for providing specific brands or products that are unavailable locally or domestically,” Khalili added. Members of the Council’s Committee on Women’s Issues, which held the hearing under the leadership of Chair Laurie Cumbo, were receptive to working on adapting the language of the bill.

The administration expressed support for Ferreras-Copeland’s bill requiring the city’s elementary, middle, and high schools to provide students with direct access to free feminine hygiene products in school bathrooms as is, though left the door open for further conversations on “technical amendments” to the bill, and was similarly supportive Mark-Viverito’s bill requiring the Department of Corrections to provide inmates with feminine hygiene products immediately upon request.

Ferreras-Copeland and the Department of Education have already worked to expand a pilot program of free tampons and pads by installing 380 free dispensers in the girls bathrooms in 25 middle and high schools in Queens and the Bronx since March, providing access to free tampons and pads to the 11,600 girls attending the schools in the program.The principal at Arts and Business attributes a 2.4 percent increase in attendance rates in the months after the dispenser was installed to tampons and pads being freely available.

The program has been very well received by both parents and students, and the products will continue to be made available through the 2016-2017 school year, said Aloysee Jarmoszuk, chief of staff for the division of operations at the DOE.

Jarmoszuk estimates that it would take eight to 14 weeks and cost somewhere between $2 and $5 million to expand the program to all public schools throughout the city, and “possibly about a million or two less than that to maintain it.”

Representatives from the Food Bank for NYC, Care for the Homeless, Planned Parenthood of NYC, National Institute for Reproductive Health, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, Brooklyn Defender Services, PowerPlay NYC, and the United Federation of Teachers all came to testify in support of the legislation, as did activist Jennifer Weiss-Wolf and Congressional Rep. Grace Meng of Queens, who has introduced a bill in Congress that would reclassify feminine hygiene products so that they can be purchased with flexible spending accounts.

Warden Michelle Clifford testified that she was not aware of any complaints from inmates regarding access to feminine hygiene products, though Andrea Nieves from Brooklyn Defender Services refuted that claim, saying that is not what she has heard from women she represents.

Nieves believes the current policy of “providing women with unusable quality hygiene products in insufficient quantities after repeated requests does not meet the spirit of the bill as proposed.” Though there is more to be done to improve access to these products for women in prison, Nieves says, the hearing and the bill do represent “important first steps in codifying a right for women incarcerated in city jails to access feminine hygiene products.”

Advocates had a few other suggestions for improving the bills, like Sola Stamm from New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, who recommended changing the language from “feminine hygiene products” to “menstrual hygiene products,” a more inclusive term which acknowledges the “spectrum of gender identities who experience menstruation.”

Stamm also suggested that the bill to make tampons and pads available immediately upon request in prisons ought to be extended to immigration detention facilities in New York as well in order to expand access to civil detainees held within those facilities.

The bills could also be improved, said Stephanie Gendell, associate executive director for policy and advocacy at Citizen’s Committee for Children of New York, by involving the Administration for Children’s Services to extend increased access to menstrual hygiene products to young women in the juvenile justice system.

“This is the first step,” Ferreras-Copeland said, “as I have mentioned before, I think we should have products in the libraries, I think we should have these products in recreation centers, so I now put this back on you to continue the fight and continue the advocacy.”

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by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

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De Blasio Administration Backs Council Push for Increased Tampon Access Fri, 03 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Time to Say and Do More for Women's Health http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6371:time-to-say-and-do-more-for-women-s-health http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6371:time-to-say-and-do-more-for-women-s-health Eric Adams Brooklyn women's health

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams


Tampons. Periods. Breastfeeding. Hot flashes.

These terms, and others relevant to women’s health, have traditionally been considered taboo — inappropriate for polite conversation and therefore left unmentioned. That silence has had serious consequences for women and girls, who are denied access to feminine hygiene products, charged more at the cash register for “women’s” versions of household items, and made to feel ashamed about their bodies.

This taboo extends to sexual health, with terrible costs for young adults who have been denied information about reproduction, contraception, and healthy relationships. As a result, the United States has disproportionately high rates of unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and domestic violence.

The lack of healthy dialogue on these matters has delivered unhealthy results. Thankfully, strong leaders are stepping up and speaking out, and we’re beginning to see the benefits. Through the leadership of elected officials such as State Senator Sue Serino and Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, with support from Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, the New York State Legislature recently voted to eliminate the sales tax on tampons, sanitary napkins, and other feminine hygiene products. (Governor Andrew Cuomo has pledged to sign the bill).

Just as we provide an exemption from the sales tax for necessities such as groceries and clothing, feminine hygiene products will be properly defined as necessities for women who menstruate, not luxuries. The exemption will particularly assist low-income New Yorkers who have had to choose between or ration such basic necessities due to their limited resources.

New York City now has an opportunity to build on the momentum from this achievement. The City Council is preparing to hold a hearing on a critical proposal by Council Member Ferreras-Copeland and Speaker Mark-Viverito to offer feminine hygiene products for free in public schools, homeless shelters, and correctional facilities.

This is a logical extension of our shared interest in promoting common-sense public health measures, both physical and psychological. Consider that a girl in school who has her period but is not carrying tampons or pads must visit a guidance counselor or the school nurse and explain her situation, often needing to negotiate hall passes and having to wait to be seen - the entire experience seems to have been intended to maximize embarrassment and class time missed. In jail, each woman receives a very limited supply of feminine hygiene products each month while additional supplies are sold for extortionate prices at the commissary; many must improvise with rolled-up toilet paper, a humiliating and unhealthy situation. Any woman or girl who is forced to use menstrual items for long stretches of time, due to issues of access or affordability, is put at higher risk for cervical cancer, toxic shock syndrome, and other concerns resulting from product overuse.

We need action at all levels of government. In homeless shelters, many women and girls simply cannot afford to buy feminine hygiene products, as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and flexible spending accounts disallow such purchases. Legislation such as the Fund Essential Menstruation (FEM) Products Act of 2015 from Representative Grace Meng, which would reclassify feminine hygiene products to allow for purchase with flexible spending accounts, is essential to move forward and should be a bipartisan priority. For starters, we should ensure that every member of the New York State congressional delegation gets behind the bill.

These initiatives are critical to eliminating inequities that undermine the position of women in our civil society. A recent report from the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), for example, documented that products sold to women cost seven percent more on average than nearly identical products sold to men. This includes basic hygiene products such as shaving razors. We have a shared responsibility, men and women alike, to demand that these disparities end now. Companies that continue this behavior need to be called out in the public arena and pressured to answer for these discrepancies.

We must continue to drive the conversation about gender equity, especially around women’s health, to break the silence and remove the taboos. When I became Brooklyn borough president, I was deeply concerned that women who have recently had children are often ostracized for breastfeeding and pumping milk at work or in public areas, despite the fact that the law protects their right to this practice. I was proud to open our lactation lounge at Brooklyn Borough Hall last year, as part of the Breastfeeding Empowerment Zone initiative by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), so women in Downtown Brooklyn have a comfortable lounge in which to breastfeed or pump milk. And, we are able to raise awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding and to celebrate the practice.

I am now pressing forward with City Council Members Laurie Cumbo, Robert Cornegy, Jr., and Corey Johnson (the latter are two of the standout male leaders in the fight for advancing women’s health) on a proposal to require the City to create dedicated space for nursing moms in a range of municipal government offices that serve the public, such as New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) job centers and New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) borough offices.

This conversation should include the entirety of women’s lives. Our society has often avoided discussion of menopause, depriving many women of information about the symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes and an awareness of available treatments. In our celebration of Women’s History Month this past March, Council Member Cumbo and I organized a day of panel discussions and workshops to speak with women about every stage of life and to start a conversation surrounding the natural changes that occur in life, not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. For some, it was the first time anyone had engaged them on these topics. We ask businesses and other institutions to follow suit and to reasonably accommodate these life transitions.

The days of relegating women’s health to second-class status or worse are over, and our laws and policies must reflect that for every stage of a woman’s life. Men, who still write most of those laws and policies, have a responsibility to join in this conversation and to insist on fairness and equality.

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Eric Adams is the president of Brooklyn. On Twitter @BPEricAdams.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Time to Say and Do More for Women's Health Wed, 01 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Council to Hear Bills on Providing Tampons at Shelters, Prisons & Schools http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6362:council-to-hear-bills-on-providing-tampons-at-shelters-prisons-schools http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6362:council-to-hear-bills-on-providing-tampons-at-shelters-prisons-schools Gibson Ferreras-Copeland Mark-Viverito hearing

Council Members Gibson, Ferreras-Copeland, Mark-Viverito (l-r) (photo: William Alatriste)


The City Council is about to take the next step toward making feminine hygiene products readily available, and free, in New York City public schools, shelters, and correctional facilities. On Thursday, June 2, the Council’s Committee on Women’s Issues will hold its first hearing on a package of bills to improve access to tampons and pads after the legislation was introduced in March.

The three bills are being spearheaded by City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the lead sponsors, and the hearing will come as New York State is set to eliminate the so-called “tampon tax” - the sales tax on feminine hygiene products.

Representatives from the city agencies that would carry out the new mandates outlined in the bills and relevant advocacy groups have been asked to testify - leaders from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Department of Education, and the Department of Correction will attend the hearing, as will representatives from ZanaAfrica Foundation, UnTabooed, and PowerPlay NYC. Representatives from the Women’s Prison Association, Care for the Homeless, the YMCA, and other groups that participated in a roundtable discussion about access to menstrual products with Ferreras-Copeland last summer may be present as well.

Women who filed a class action lawsuit against the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance to end the tax on menstrual productsand Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a leading national and international voice calling for better access to menstrual products, have also been invited to testify.

During the hearing, questions about the logistics and costs of implementing the mandates will be addressed. According to her office, Ferreras-Copeland looks forward to hearing from the de Blasio administration about its views on the bills and the current policies of the relevant agencies in terms of access to menstrual products. Ferreras-Copeland, who is likely to lead the hearing with Mark-Viverito and Council Member Laurie Cumbo, chair of the women’s issues committee, is also looking to hear what barriers there may be in implementation of the requirements in the bills.

It is not yet clear how tampons and pads will be provided to women and girls in city shelters, jails, and schools, though no-charge dispensers have already been installed in the girls’ bathrooms of 25 middle schools and high schools in the city through a pilot program, and Ferreras-Copeland has previously mentioned the possibility of installing dispensers in shelters.

The three bills in the package are accompanied by a resolution, sponsored by Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, calling on the state to exempt feminine hygiene products from all state and local sales taxes, which the state is poised to do - on Wednesday, state lawmakers passed a bill to exempt feminine hygiene products from the tax on retail sales, prompting Governor Andrew Cuomo to release a statement saying, “I look forward to signing it into law.”

The Council bills and the elimination of New York’s “tampon tax” contribute to a growing movement to de-stigmatize menstruation and improve gender equity, as women end up paying hundreds of dollars in taxes buying tampons and pads throughout their lifetime, despite the fact that women cannot avoid buying the products. Fourteen states and three major cities have introduced legislation to eliminate the tax on feminine hygiene products since January, though few cities or states have taken action to make the products more freely available.

The city push to make feminine hygiene products freely available to the city’s most vulnerable women - students and those in prisons and shelters - is meant to correct the disparity that when men walk into a bathroom, they are provided with everything they need to take care of their normal bodily functions while women are not. While some have questioned the price tag involved, Ferreras-Copeland has said time and again, “I’ve never heard anybody complaining about how much it costs to buy toilet paper.”

One bill, introduced by Ferreras-Copeland, would require all schools to make feminine hygiene products readily available to students and would require DOHMH to provide schools with a supply of tampons and pads that is adequate to meet the needs of the student body.

In September 2015, Ferreras-Copeland and the High School for Arts and Business in Queens launched a pilot program of free tampons and pads by installing a free dispenser in the girls’ bathroom. In March, Ferreras-Copeland and the DOE expanded that program to 25 middle and high schools in Queens and the Bronx, providing access to free tampons and pads to the 11,600 girls attending the schools in the program.The principal at Arts and Business attributes a 2.4 percent increase in attendance rates in the months after the dispenser was installed to tampons and pads being freely available. Previously, when girls got their period and weren’t carrying tampons or pads, they often had to miss class time and go to the nurse’s office in order to get what they need.

Ferreras-Copeland says the DOE has been receptive and that conversations with schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have been productive, although the cost of freely providing menstrual products was initially raised as a concern.

Another bill, introduced by Speaker Mark-Viverito, would require DOHMH to provide feminine hygiene products to all female residents in temporary shelters (here meaning Department of Homeless Services family shelters and single adult women shelters, Department of Youth and Community Development shelters, and Human Resources Administration domestic violence shelters).

Tampons and pads are often in short supply in the city’s shelters, where women are already often unable to purchase the products. SNAP, WIC, and flexible spending accounts cannot be used to buy tampons or pads. Congressional Rep. Grace Meng of Queens has introduced a bill that would reclassify feminine hygiene products so that they can be purchased with flexible spending accounts.

The third bill, also introduced by Mark-Viverito, would require the Department of Correction to provide inmates with feminine hygiene products immediately upon request, “unless so providing would be unsafe, in which case products would be required as soon as possible.” This would be a slight, but potentially significant change to the current DOC policy, as it would allow women a form of recourse if their requests are denied. Currently, additional supplies are available upon request, but inmates allege that their requests are sometimes denied by correction officers for no legitimate reason or because those products are understocked in jails, forcing women to ration pads.

Under DOC’s current policy, each housing unit of female inmates in Rikers’ Rose M. Singer Center is given a box of 144 sanitary napkins each week (housing units hold up to fifty women, meaning each woman may get two to three pads a week - pads that are small and thin), according to an August, 2015 letter from DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte to Mark-Viverito and Ferreas-Copeland and shared with Gotham Gazette. Ponte said in the letter that he had “not heard of any issues or complaints regarding access to these items.”

Others say that’s not the case. During a roundtable discussion on access to feminine hygiene products last summer, Ferreras-Copeland said she heard from representatives of the Women’s Prison Association that “some women were reduced to using one pad for their whole cycle” and stories from women who have had “to show soiled pads before they get the new ones,” both of which are harmful to a woman’s menstrual health and dignity.

In an April interview, Ferreras-Copeland said her original idea was to have coin-free dispensers installed in women’s prisons as well, but “there was fear that the actual vending machine could be used as a weapon,” and so that option was scrapped.One county in Wisconsin approved a resolution last year authorizing Dane County to begin a pilot program to provide tampons and pads for free via coin-free dispensers in the restrooms of eight county buildings, including a correctional facility. Ferreras-Copeland added that she did not want to legislate the number of pads the DOC must provide to women because “who am I to say how many they need, I just want to make sure that they have enough.”

On Wednesday, Ferreras-Copeland expressed excitement about the upcoming hearing to Gotham Gazette, but was not available for a follow-up interview.

Weiss-Wolf said in a statement that she is looking forward to testifying next week. “The bills’ sponsors...and others,” she wrote, “have taken an important step by acknowledging that the ability to access and afford menstrual products is a necessity for half the population, and that it is impossible to be an engaged student or productive citizen without these products.”

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by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Council to Hear Bills on Providing Tampons at Shelters, Prisons & Schools Thu, 26 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Sponsor Says Deal Reached to Eliminate 'Tampon Tax' http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6330:sponsor-says-deal-reached-to-eliminate-tampon-tax http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6330:sponsor-says-deal-reached-to-eliminate-tampon-tax linda rosenthal julissa ferreras copeland

Assembly Member Rosenthal, right, and Council Member Ferreras-Copeland (photo)


A difference of a few words is all that stands in the way of New York State becoming the sixth in the nation to exempt feminine hygiene products from state sales tax, though that could soon change. The Assembly sponsor of the bill, Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, told Gotham Gazette on Thursday that she and state Senator Sue Serino, the Senate sponsor of the bill that has slightly different language, have agreed on new amendments that will make their bills identical.

However, Serino’s office declined to comment as to whether or not the two had actually reached an agreement, raising doubts about whether a compromise had truly been reached on an issue that is so strongly supported that both houses unanimously passed the bills to eliminate the so-called ‘tampon tax.’

Rosenthal said that, having agreed upon a few amendments to the legislation, the bill will head to the Governor “probably next week” after moving through both houses. Rosenthal is in the Assembly’s Democratic majority, Serino in the Senate Republican majority. Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has already expressed his support for the legislation and will sign a bill to exempt feminine hygiene products from the tampon tax if and when it does reach his desk. The Legislature has just 15 days of legislative session left before its June end.

In March, the Assembly passed Rosenthal’s bill to exempt “feminine hygiene products, including, but not limited to, sanitary napkins, tampons, and panty liners,” from the state sales tax. In February, Serino introduced the same bill as Rosenthal, yet amended it some time after “to specifically exempt sanitary napkins and tampons from the tax,” according to a press release from Serino’s office. The Senate then passed that more limited version of Serino’s bill in April.

News of the bill’s passage in the Senate was met with celebration, and many outlets incorrectly reporting that the same bill had passed both houses and was heading to Cuomo’s desk.

Yet, the slight but significant difference between the two bills means legislation to eliminate the tax on feminine hygiene products can’t be signed into law by Cuomo - not until the language is identical.

According to Rosenthal, after speaking with Serino last week, the two agreed upon a few amendments to the bills that would make the two identical. “We put back other feminine hygiene products and added panty liners,” Rosenthal said on Thursday. The tax exemption “will include feminine hygiene products, including, but not limited to, tampons, sanitary napkins, and panty liners, because the world of products to meet the needs of women menstruating is actually expanding right now, so we didn’t want to have to revisit this at some point. It will be done,” Rosenthal said.

Organizations like NOW-NYC and the Campaign for a Pro-Choice New York (both of which either supported Rosenthal’s bill or lobbied for its passage) would prefer the more inclusive language of Rosenthal’s bill become the law.

“Obviously it’s always better if it’s more inclusive, but I don’t know what the mechanics of putting it into place are,” Jean Bucaria, deputy director of NOW-NYC, told Gotham Gazette.

“In instances like this, we of course support the broadest possible version of this legislation that helps the most people,” said Danielle Castaldi-Micca, director of political and governmental affairs for the Campaign for a Pro-Choice New York.

It may be the case that Serino and other lawmakers prefer the more specific language of the Senate bill because the fiscal impact of exempting only those two products (pads and tampons) from the state sales tax is easier to predict and account for.

However, both Bucaria and Castaldi-Micca believe a compromise is likely to happen. “I have confidence that they’re going to get to a point of agreement and a single bill that the governor can sign,” Castaldi-Micca said. In Albany, deals are often elusive until the very end of session, when a bill package known as a “big ugly” gets passed at the last minute before lawmakers leave town for the rest of the year.

Besides amending the language of the bill to leave room for less-common, reusable menstrual products like sponges, cloth pads, and menstrual cups, Rosenthal says she and Serino have also agreed on an amendment to change the time when the exemption will go into effect, and an amendment to make the exemption exist in it’s own section of the tax code, rather than lump the exemption for feminine hygiene products in with exemptions for medical products.

Initially, the bill was to go into effect immediately, but “we changed that because there are four state tax reporting periods, so it will go into effect during one of those, it’s just easier to align it,” Rosenthal said.

In tax law, the coming exemption for feminine hygiene products, Rosenthal says, “stands on it’s own, it’s its own little section, it’s not connected with the other tax exemptions. It was a regressive tax on women and their bodies and it’s related to a natural biological function, so it shouldn’t be viewed as a medical problem or anything else, so it has it’s own line - section 3A.”

It seems some movement has indeed been made on Rosenthal’s version of the bill - according to the Senate website, on May 11, the bill was recalled from the Senate, returned to the Assembly, and amended on third reading. The latest version of the bill in the Assembly does indeed include all of the amendments Rosenthal mentioned above: it would take effect on the first day of a sales tax quarterly period; it would add a new section to the tax code, rather than lumping it in with drugs and medicine; and it maintains the more inclusive language.

These amendments have not yet been included in the Senate version of the bill, according to the Senate’s website, and no changes have been made to the bill since it passed in the Senate last month.

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by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Sponsor Says Deal Reached to Eliminate 'Tampon Tax' Fri, 13 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Members Move to Improve Tampon Access http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6119:city-council-members-move-to-improve-tampon-access http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6119:city-council-members-move-to-improve-tampon-access ferreras alastriste hearing applause

City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland (photo: William Alatriste) 


Members of the New York City Council are poised to introduce a package of legislation to make tampons and other feminine hygiene products more accessible. The legislation, being spearheaded by Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, includes a resolution calling on the state to eliminate the tax on feminine hygiene products, and three bills to make such products readily available for free in public schools, shelters, and correctional facilities across New York City.

“We have legislation being drafted as we speak…we’re going to be introducing it as a package in the next weeks or months,” Ferreras-Copeland, who represents parts of Queens and chairs the Committee on Finance, told Gotham Gazette on Tuesday.

“We are going to be rolling out a package of solutions that will address the Department of Education, Homeless Services, and the Department of Correction,” she explained, as well as a resolution “currently being drafted” calling on the state to pass the bill introduced by Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal to make feminine hygiene products “not taxed by New York State or the City.”

Ferreras-Copeland has been working on the issue for months, having conversations with city officials at the relevant departments, talking with young people, and offering free feminine hygiene products at her offices. Speaking with Gotham Gazette, she noted that she had been offering free condoms for quite some time and that it only made sense to also offer tampons and pads.

With some incredulity, Ferreras-Copeland discusses how challenging it can be for young women and poor women of all ages to have easy access to feminine hygiene products.

Currently, there is no citywide policy on access to feminine hygiene products in New York City schools. When girls get their period and aren’t carrying tampons or pads, they often must miss class time and go to the nurse’s office in order to get what they need.

So, Ferreras-Copeland said, in one school a “young girl could ask the nurse and she would get the pad and in another school, the girl would have to go to the counselor who then would give her a pass to the nurse, and then, at the nurse’s office, she has to sign and put her student ID and [explain] why she didn’t have a pad before she got a pad.”

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has agreed that there should be a citywide policy, Ferreras-Copeland said, but the DOE did raise questions regarding the cost of providing free tampons and pads in schools.

“As finance chair, obviously I’m always thinking about the cost,” Ferreras-Copeland said. “But I’ve never heard anybody complaining about how much it costs to buy toilet paper at the DOE.”

When men walk into a bathroom, they are provided with everything they need to take care of their normal bodily functions - women are not. No student has to ask several people to get toilet paper.

“It’s a matter of basic human dignity,” said Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a leading national voice calling for better access to feminine hygiene products and vice president of development at the Brennan Center for Justice.

According to Ferreras-Copeland, conversations with Fariña and the DOE were productive, and an announcement with the DOE will be made “in the coming weeks,” probably before the Council legislation is introduced.

In her Queens district, Ferreras-Copeland and the DOE are already running a pilot program in one public high school, which installed a dispenser with free tampons and pads in the girls’ bathrooms. The program, Ferreras-Copeland said, “was very well-received by the young people and the parents in the schools.”

Even with cooperation from the DOE, Ferreras-Copeland said she was determined to move legislation so that the policy would remain in place regardless of the schools chancellor or other future elected or appointed officials.

Tampons and pads are also in short supply in homeless shelters, where women are already often unable to purchase such products. SNAP, WIC, and flexible spending accounts cannot be used to buy tampons or pads. Congressional Rep. Grace Meng from Queens has introduced a bill that would reclassify feminine hygiene products so that they can be purchased with flexible spending accounts.

Last summer, Ferreras-Copeland held a roundtable with students, representatives from the Women’s Prison Association, Care for the Homeless, and Food Bank for New York, among others, during which, Ferreras-Copeland said, “I learned that [tampons and pads] are the number one product to fly off the shelves when they have them available at food pantries, because there’s such a need.”

The situation in prisons is even more humiliating, where women ration pads just to make it through their cycle because they are only given a small supply and cannot afford to buy more from the (often understocked) commissaries.

During that roundtable discussion last summer, Ferreras-Copeland said she heard from representatives of the Women’s Prison Association that “some women were reduced to using one pad for their whole cycle.” City Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte was not particularly receptive to her interest in improving access in prisons, Ferreras-Copeland said, again incentivizing her approach to legislating the issue.

Ferreras-Copeland is developing the package of legislation in conjunction with City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Member Elizabeth Crowley. There are certain to be a number of other co-sponsors once the bills are written and introduced to the Council.

A press secretary for Mark-Viverito, Robin Levine, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, "These are very important issues and the Council is proud to be taking them up.”

“For New York City to make a demonstration of support like this for menstrual health - the world watches New York City, so I think leading by example in this way is incredibly important,” said Weiss-Wolf, who has written about “fair and equitable menstrual policy” for The New York Times and other publications, and started a petition with Cosmopolitan Magazine calling on state legislators to exempt feminine hygiene products from sales taxes.

In New York City, the total sales tax is 8.875 percent, meaning women pay an extra 89 cents to buy a $9.99 box of 36 tampons. Women will spend an average of $70 per year on menstrual products. On average, women have their first period around age 12, and continue to get their period until age 50.

While the tax may be a matter of cents, for those living paycheck to paycheck, every penny counts. Taxing an item only women need is a matter of gender equity, advocates say, and places an unfair added burden on women who already make 78 cents to every dollar that a man makes. African-American and Latina women are hit even harder, earning 64 cents and 56 cents, respectively, for every dollar earned by a white man, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Five states have already scrapped the tampon tax: New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota. Five others do not have a sales tax, leaving 40 states taxing tampons and pads, but not products that are considered necessities, like food and medicine.

Two California lawmakers have introduced a bill that would classify feminine hygiene products as medical necessities, thus making them exempt from the state sales tax. A bill has also been introduced in Ohio to make feminine hygiene products exempt from sales tax. Last July, Canada repealed its Goods and Services Tax on feminine hygiene products.

Yet in New York State, tampons and other feminine hygiene products are classified under the “cosmetics and toiletries” section of the tax law. According to the State Department of Taxation and Finance, “Feminine hygiene products are generally used to control a normal bodily function and to maintain personal cleanliness. Sales of these products are, therefore, generally subject to sales tax” (except in the case of using such products as “treatment for a specific medical condition”).

Last week, Ingrid Nilsen of USA News Today asked President Barack Obama why states tax tampons, he said, “I have no idea why states would tax tampons as luxury items. I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed.”

“I think it’s pretty sensible for women...to work to get those taxes removed,” the president continued, “...it’d be governors and state legislatures who would have to reverse those.”

To Weiss-Wolf and others, the so-called tampon tax isn’t some misogynistic plot against women, it’s “just what happens when you don’t have women at the decision-making table. Our needs are not recognized or considered.”

“It’s not because they’re patently ignored,” Weiss-Wolf said of women's needs, “it's just not even on their radar screen - but this [New York City Council] legislation goes a long way to eliminating one obstacle."

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by Meg O'Connor and Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette   @MegOConnor13   @tweetBenMax

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City Council Members Move to Improve Tampon Access Wed, 27 Jan 2016 05:21:44 +0000