Gotham Gazette

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The Covid Crisis Has Made It Additionally Clear: It’s Time to End School Admissions Screens in New York City

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Brandon St. Luce, the author (photo: Dulce Michelle)

Sunday, May 17 of this year, marked 66 years since the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate is inherently unequal.” Yet today, many of our nation’s public school systems remain both separate and unequal. Nowhere is this clearer than in New York City, where I attend high school. 

For five years, Mayor Bill de Blasio has touted an “Equity and Excellence” agenda while maintaining discriminatory admissions requirements at hundreds of middle and high schools that exacerbate segregation and inequity.

While these admissions requirements, known as “screens,” are not new, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has confirmed their unfairness, with nearly a third of public school students not having access to a laptop or reliable internet access, both essential during remote learning and for any student who wants to do the out of school preparation necessary for getting into the most competitive screened programs in the city. It has also given us a chance to hit the reset button. Many of the metrics that selective schools have traditionally used to sort applicants will not exist for the cohort of students applying to middle and high schools in December.

Screens vary from school to school, but screened schools have a long menu of options to choose from. They can restrict admission based on a host of factors, including, but not limited to: grades, attendance, punctuality, state test scores, zip codes, portfolio assessments, interviews, auditions, and school-administered specialty exams.

No, I’m not just referring to the city’s eight specialized high schools, for which the state legislature controls admission to the largest three. I’m talking about hundreds of screened schools squarely under the jurisdiction of Mayor de Blasio and the New York City Department of Education.

Admissions screens, which use flawed measures of “merit” to sort students, wind up segregating us by race and class. System-wide, two-thirds of students are Black or Latino and about 75% are poor. But at 30 of the most intensely screened public high schools, only one-third of students are Black or Latino and just 40% are poor. The effect is undeniable.

For more than two years, my peers and I at Teens Take Charge have been calling for integration through the removal of these admissions screens. We have proposed alternative policies in meetings with city DOE leaders, including Chancellor Richard Carranza and his cabinet of deputies. 

Throughout the last two years, we have run two campaigns, both centered around the idea of abolishing admissions screens. Starting with the Enrollment Equity Plan, we proposed creating thresholds in all schools to make sure that at least 25% and no more than 75% of each high school's incoming freshman class has passed middle school state tests. This year we began to advocate for an “educational option” (ed-opt) model of admitting students in every school. This is not a new model, and it has been proven to help schools accept a diverse pool of applicants, including in my school, Edward R. Murrow High School, which is the most diverse school in the city. We have research that shows how much this would help with the demographic disparities in schools, backed up by the DOE’s own data. 

We have led rallies, sit-ins, and, most recently, weekly “strikes for integration” at school campuses across the city. These strikes got major news coverage and turned out nearly 2,000 students from more than a dozen schools, including Beacon, NYC Lab School, and Millennium Brooklyn, three of the most heavily screened high schools in the city.

Every city and school official we have spoken to has acknowledged that screens contribute to segregation in our schools. They thank us for our advocacy. They tell us they are working on a solution. But nothing changes. The only high-ranking official who has not met with us or responded to our proposals directly is Mayor de Blasio, who we believe has been the primary obstacle to removing screens.

He didn’t even respond to his own School Diversity Advisory Group’s recommendations last year to end all middle school screens, some high school screens, and the ridiculous Gifted-and-Talented exam for four-year-olds. In September, he claimed that he would spend this school year doing public engagement on the recommendations, but there has yet to be a single public engagement opportunity.

This school year has come to an end, with the latter part being spent online with varying degrees of success, and it is irrational and illogical why screens should exist for students applying to schools next year. The only reasonable solution for next year is to forgo screens altogether and allow student choice to be the number one factor that guides where students are matched.

When demand for a school is greater than the number of seats, applicants could be matched using an equitable method called educational option (“ed-opt”) that is already in use at hundreds of city high schools. This system admits a proportional number of students who are below, at, and above grade level, producing academic diversity — which often translates to racial and socioeconomic diversity as well.   

Proponents of screens and competition, namely, the Parent Leaders for Accelerated Curriculum and Education (PLACE), argue that screens are fair, bias-free assessments of hard work. As a student who recently took the Advanced Placement exam for U.S. History, I see a correlation in the way PLACE leaders talk about admissions screens and the way white folks in the Jim Crow South talked about literacy tests and poll taxes.

Low-income students and other vulnerable student populations are inherently punished by screens. Up until the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of New York City students did not have laptops or home WiFi, yet the high school admissions process has shifted entirely online and many screened schools require students to submit information or assignments online.  

Then there are students like Jude, a 13-year-old at “one of the most competitive middle schools in the city” who recently started a petition to preserve the use of screens. Featured in a New York Post article, he is described as a “longtime Kweller Prep student.” Kweller Prep is a private tutoring company that charges thousands of dollars for its services, which include helping middle schoolers get into screened and specialized high schools. I’m sure Jude is a hard worker, but so are the thousands of other students across the city who cannot afford private tutoring.

To be sure, students like Jude and the parent leaders of PLACE are not our opponents. They are simply playing by the rules that Mayor de Blasio sets. And for far too long, those rules have allowed privileged students to cluster in a relatively small number of schools, bringing their social capital, PTA donations, and political savvy with them.

At a recent briefing, Chancellor Carranza gave us reason for optimism when he stated, in response to a question about next year’s admissions, that he and the mayor “will not penalize students in any way, shape, or form because of circumstances out of their control.” That’s exactly what screens do: penalize students for things outside of their control.

On April 16 of this year, Caranza also stated he would not allow “anyone to say ‘when we go back to the normal,' because the normal was never good enough for our kids. The normal meant some were privileged some were not.” The problems with screens have been identified by those who can create monumental change, yet their policies continue to benefit the most privileged in the city. 

In the wake of this pandemic, Mayor de Blasio, Chancellor Carranza, and the Department of Education have an opportunity to shed New York City’s distinction as one of the nation’s most segregated school systems. This is the moment to start building the fair, integrated school system that was promised to us 66 years ago -- a system that gives every student the opportunity to thrive.

Brandon St. Luce is a junior at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn and co-leader of the policy team at Teens Take Charge, a student-led organization that advocates for educational equity in New York City schools. On Twitter @TeensTakeCharge.

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How E-Scooters Will Keep New York City Running During the Pandemic and Beyond

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E-scooters in use (photo: Marat Mazitov)

In June, the New York City Council signaled a major shift in policy when it voted to allow people to use e-scooters on city streets. The Council legalized the private use of e-scooters and e-bicycles across the city and announced plans for a shared e-scooter pilot program that will allow e-scooter companies to operate in all boroughs besides Manhattan.

The timing could not be better. Workers, including health-care and delivery workers, require sustainable, flexible options for navigating around the city. As the recent surge in bicycle sales suggests, people are feeling safer using individual vehicles that allow for social distancing. E-scooters and e-bikes can help us ease back into public life without adding to citywide gridlock.

Before the pandemic began, traffic congestion in New York City was at an all-time high. According to the New York City Department of Transportation, vehicle registrations were increasing citywide while freight traffic and home deliveries also continued to rise. The only way to avoid the looming “carpocalypse” is to support transportation options that get people out of their cars.

E-scooters and other forms of micromobility offer cities like New York a natural complement to the transit services they already provide. And during a time when confidence in transit has tanked, these new transportation options have become even more important. To rely on shared e-scooters, New Yorkers will need access to a well-maintained fleet of vehicles that are waiting curbside.

Over the past three years, cities across the country have been working out the kinks of shared e-scooters and establishing programs that improve safety, equity, and sustainability. While local conditions vary, all successful programs have one thing in common: a requirement for accurate and complete data. It’s critical that the city first define its key use cases and success metrics so they can be measured against real-world outcomes. These goals should be shared with New Yorkers so they can see the impacts of e-scooters for themselves.

There’s no question that safety should be the top priority. While early data indicates that scooters are much safer for our streets than cars, there are still things cities can do to prevent injuries. First, city officials should take a look at streets where riders are more likely to ride on sidewalks because of narrow streets or other impediments. They can address those concerns by building out protected micromobility infrastructure, like bike lanes. 

In addition, parking corrals reduce sidewalk clutter and help eliminate trip hazards for walkers. No-parking zones at the end of a block that accommodate clear sightlines or fire hydrants are great locations for e-scooter corrals since they do not require the removal of any street parking.

One aspect of new transportation services often overlooked is data privacy and security. Imagine, for example, if government could trace trips to a protest back to the house or apartment building where they began. The unsettling truth is that in many cities, they can. In California, the use of e-scooter data has even led to a Fourth Amendment lawsuit from the ACLU. 

New York City must make a commitment to approach data privacy differently, by collecting the minimum data required to ensure the city is able to measure the efficacy of the program against goals. In particular, city officials should commit to never collect data that contains the precise location data of individual riders’ trips. Without a guarantee of data privacy, many would-be riders may think twice before hopping on a scooter.

The decision to welcome e-scooters to the streets of New York has huge potential to change the way New York City residents get around the city during the pandemic — and for years to come. If implemented properly, e-scooters and e-bikes are likely to become as embedded in the city’s character as the yellow cab. If implemented poorly, they may just end up in the bottom of the East River.

William Henderson is CEO of Ride Report. On Twitter @RideReport.

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It’s Time for New York City to Build More Beaches, Including in Manhattan

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New York City beaches are often quite popular (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

If you ask Amanda Sisk how she feels about the beach, her answer is straightforward: “I love the beach! Even Coney Island. The beach is my favorite place. Water, any kind of natural water, it makes me feel good!” But having lived in Washington Heights for nearly a decade, getting to the beach is no easy task. It normally takes Sisk close to an hour-and-a-half to get out to Rockaway Beach via the A train. She prefers Rockaway Beach because there are separate sections for swimmers and surfers.

This year, as the city continues to battle coronavirus, officials have had to drastically reevaluate our city's beaches. While swimming will soon be allowed at all city-run beaches, activities like sunbathing are limited to crowds of 50% normal activity. Additionally, all of the city's public pools, which have historically provided a much needed respite from the sweltering heat, are currently closed due to COVID-19, with only 15 pools due to open on August 1. 

As we continue to grapple with this crisis, one thing seems abundantly clear: it’s time to build more beaches — including in Manhattan.

New York City currently maintains 14 miles of beaches, traditionally from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. In 2018, more than 16 million people flocked to the city's beaches, with Coney Island and Rockaway Beach seeing the most visitors. That's an awful lot of people crowding on subways and buses to get to only a handful of places where you can really enjoy the sun and surf. 

Luckily, we can look to other cities, such as Paris, for inspiration. Every year, the Paris-Plages turns the Bassin de la Villette into a beach resort, complete with sand and deckchairs. For people in the mood for a swim there are three pools right along the water, which are fed directly by the canals. Similar projects are being proposed in cities like Boston, Montreal, London, and right here in New York. 

Kara Meyer is the Managing Director of Friends of + POOL, which is working to create a floating pool that would allow New Yorkers to swim in filtered river water right here in Manhattan. “We had this realization that we live on an island, surrounded by water, and none of us can access it for swimming.” Meyer notes that since the pandemic, there has been a renewed interest in opening up more public spaces in our city to residents. “No one has appreciated public space in New York as much as they do right now. We have this amazing resource at our fingertips, all around us.”

Creating more public space for recreation and relief from the summer heat is one step we can take toward the much larger goal of eliminating inequality in our city. While New Yorkers with means can escape to places like the Hamptons for a weekend, or even the entire summer, most don't have that option.

As we face the climate crisis, rethinking our waterfronts would also allow us to incorporate resiliency into the equation, building natural storm barriers, and reducing the urban heat island effect. The Hudson River Park Trust recently released new plans for a new 5.5 acre park, including a resilient beachfront, along the Hudson River. The area would be open to kayaking and canoeing, but not swimming, according to reports. There are similar plans underway along the Williamsburg waterfront.

Building a new beach will be no small task, but there are positive signs. Late last year, the city posted a request for expressions of interest on a project to build a “swimming facility capable of filtering the waters of the East River to enable safe recreational access to clean water.” Developing a workable system for swimming in the East River could be the first step in realizing this vision and in determining a feasible location for a potential beach.

New York City has done big things before, and as we’ve seen, where there is political will, there is often a way. Now is the time to be bold, and to reimagine our city’s waterfront, for ourselves and future generations.

Kim Moscaritolo is a candidate for City Council in Manhattan's 5th District. On Twitter @kimmosc.

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Prioritize Schools - New Yorkers Demand a Real Plan for Our Students and Our City

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students and schools in focus (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

It can't be easy to be in charge of New York City schools right now, facing a triple threat of crises: health, financial, and educational. However, our city as a whole can't function without our schools open—until that happens, parents, guardians, and caregivers can't get back to work; businesses across our city can't rely on their employees; and many children can't get the educational, social-emotional, and nutritional support they need.

We know there are increasing numbers of unknown variables—the resilience of the virus across seasons, the emerging science around how it spreads in school communities, its specific effects on children, and the efficacy of our city's testing and tracing programs (just to name a few). And of course, it's paramount to ensure the safety of our children, teachers, staff, and families before we open school. Yet, beyond filling out standardized surveys from the New York City Department of Education and conflicting and vague announcements, the detailed discussion of whether, when, and how to open schools is invisible to most parents and families.

We need hope. We need leadership. We need the Governor, the Mayor, and the City Council to prioritize schools.

We demand a plan—one that’s ambitious, that’s given the resources to meet this moment, and that channels the innovation, creativity, and tenacity of our city to open schools safely and effectively for the benefit of New York City and its people. 

1. The plan must show real leadership and transparency. Right now, families are kept guessing, and principals and school leaders are asked to make plans beyond their level of authority. The Governor, the Mayor, and the City Council need to offer real leadership to give direction to the Schools Chancellor and work proactively with the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), parent leadership, and every government agency to move this plan into action.

2. The plan must center on equity by respecting that all families are different. Some families can't send children to school due to health risks, some need to send children so they can go to their jobs or meet their family’s nutritional needs, many have IEPs, siblings, varying rigors with commuting, and differing relationships with or accessibility to technology. Every decision about how we school our kids needs to ask how we are offering agency and partnership to the families that are most vulnerable or have the highest potential to be marginalized. We need to make decisions that proactively counteract that marginalization. Any plan for the fall must ditch a one-size-fits-all approach to education.

3. The plan must lean in to small-group learning. For health reasons, we'll need lower student-teacher ratios. This is something every educator, parent, and caregiver has wanted for decades. To meet this need will require more space, more educators, and more flexibility and creativity with when and where instruction is occurring.

4. The plan must value education more than test scores. In a crisis, there can be a default instinct to go to what's measurable, such as standardized testing. We need to resist that impulse and invest in the social-emotional wellbeing of a student population that is facing real fears and, for many, traumas. The arts, guidance counselors, and mental and physical health are all more, not less, essential.

5. The plan must protect our privacy. Even as we push digital learning as a part of a blended model, our city must only enter into agreements with vendors that keep student data secure, refuse to allow companies to share or monetize data, and allow the right to be forgotten—so that students and families ultimately control how their data follows them.

6. The plan for our children must also be a plan for parents and guardians. It needs to support adults being part-time teachers at home by giving them extended family leave from work, protections around work schedules that flex to accommodate uneven structures of in-person and remote schooling, subsidies for supplemental childcare and enrichment, or other policy measures that allow parents and guardians to support their families without losing their jobs, job security, or financial wellbeing. The plan needs to account for staff, hourly, and independent contractor jobs alike.   

There are physical structures, unemployed labor, sources of innovation, and willing and able volunteers all across our city that can be harnessed into a massive and ambitious mobilization to reopen and recreate our schools—if there's the leadership to mobilize them. Our city must tap every public and private partner it can reach to unleash our creativity, ferocity, and determination to make the 2020-2021 school year one where our students and families can safely thrive.

Justin Krebs, District 15 Presidents Council / PS 39
Cateia Rembert, President Emerita, District 15 Presidents Council
Megan Butler, President of PS 39 Parents Association
Sara Thompson, President of PS 39 Parents Association
PS 39 Parents Association
Lisa Jackson Zelznick, former President - PS 130 PTA
Mel Boller, PS130 Parkside PTA Co-President
PS 146 Brooklyn New School SLT
PS 146 Brooklyn New School PTA
Amy Tate and Anna Catherine Rutledge, Brooklyn New School PTA Co-Presidents
Maria Fusilero, acting PTA co-president, PS 295
Julie Baron, Member of the PS 39 Executive Board
Laura Limonic, Parent at Community Roots Charter School D-13
Heather Volik, PTA President PS10
Miriam Nunberg, D15 
Parents for Middle School Equity
Jackie Cazar, NYC Parent
Melissa Noonan, NYC Parent

Parent Leaders and Parent and Community Organizations can sign on here.
Any member of the public can demand the city and state prioritize a plan by signing on here.

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My Dream was to Become a Cop; Then Things Changed

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Police recruits (photo: mayor's office)

Almost a month ago I graduated from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the premier college in the country for leaders in law enforcement. Today, I am taking the first steps to find a job in social work, convinced, like many people my age, that keeping my community safe has to start with compassion and respect, not violence.

I started like many other students at the college, ready to become a cop. My cousin is a state trooper, and my grandfather served in the military in the Dominican Republic. I love my family's history, and I wanted to protect the neighborhood in the Bronx that we emigrated to in 2006 when I was a kid. I was going to be an officer that came from the same community I was going to serve. The type of officer who understood the hard life of Latino people in the Bronx, and was willing to put his life on the line. My parents were scared for me but supported my passion.

One of the first professors I had in the department of police science at the college was a retired NYPD captain, a role model for who I wanted to become. He would always tell us the struggles he faced trying to change the department's culture to emphasize community policing and end racism and brutality. He told everyone in his command that if they didn't like how he went about business, then he would get officers who would. He was an inspiration and cared about the community, but it never seemed like he won those arguments or changed the minds of many officers. He seemed to be an outlier in policing that was hard to find.

The more classes I took in policing and correction, the more I realized how bleak it is to try to reform policing from the inside. I wanted to be in a profession that did not make me question my values. I wanted to be there for the people without continually questioning my actions or the actions of those around me. I had a change of heart and decided to pursue a career in social work because it focuses so directly on helping individuals, families, and communities.

Growing up with immigrant parents and as a first-generation immigrant I learned the importance of support services. When I interned at the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, one of my duties was to conduct mock interviews with people preparing to take their citizenship exam. This is where I realized the impact I could have. Seeing the joy of those who passed their interview and became a United States citizen inspired me as much as taking a class from a retired police captain. Their reactions give me the motivation to keep moving forward to impact as many lives as possible in a positive direction.

My decision to pursue a career in social work was not connected to the protests to defund the police -- I made my choice long before this year and the events of the past weeks. I believe that the police need to be held accountable. There are many avenues that need to be explored, among them possibilities around defunding and adjusting the police budget in New York City.

Precious funding can be better allocated towards social services and the needs of underrepresented communities. As the conversation has picked up steam, I know firsthand that if our city supported groups like the ones I interned with or the hundreds of other under-funded social service organizations across the city, my community would be healthier, better educated, and happier.

When I was struggling over my career change, I remember a professor reassuring me that there are many paths where I could make an impact. "You could help so many people without having to be a police officer," she told me. It is with that mindset that I keep moving forward to the next chapter of my life. I am eager to do just that and support every one of my fellow graduates from John Jay and other institutions who are planning to do the same to help our city make much-needed progress.

Jerel Pena Duran is part of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice class of 2020.

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‘Real’ Unemployment in New York City is as High as 25%, with 1 Million Out of Labor Force Due to Pandemic

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Construction workers (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

Labor statistics can be very confusing, especially for the general public.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) just released its June 2020 report, and while it does show an uptick in employment across the nation, economic pain remains widespread. The numbers for New York City and New York State, while they lag behind the national report, show more severe difficulties. A New York Times article described the stunning local catastrophe.

Unemployment Stats - Who's In, Who's Out
Writing about the Bureau of Labor Statistics May 2020 employment report, I discussed the fact that more than 6 million persons had dropped out of the labor force between February and May 2020 and were no longer counted in the unemployment rate released that month.

Believe it or not, these labor force dropouts are not counted as unemployed.

It is the "civilian noninstitutional population 16 and over" who are working or looking for work who are counted as the labor force, and the percentage of those working or looking for work are calculated as the "labor force participation rate" out of the total civilian noninstitutional population over 16.

But those who have just dropped out of the labor force are human beings, not statistics, and are part of the overall human damage of the current covid recession and labor market concerns in general.

The U.S. June Employment Report
In the just released BLS June 2020 report the updated number for those who have dropped out of the labor force since February is 4.6 million. About 1.7 million persons re-entered the labor force in June, with presumably most regaining employment. Here is the table showing the data from the BLS June employment report for the size of the labor force and the participation rate:

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Overall, the BLS reported for June that payroll employment rose by 4.8 million from May and the unemployment rate dropped to 11.1% from 13.3%. It showed a partial resumption of economic activity since the pandemic-induced major job shutdown in March and April that cut 22.2 million American jobs; 2.7 million jobs had been regained in May. The table shows the labor force was 164.5 million in February 2020 and 159.9 million in June 2020.

But now, Coronavirus Surges in Parts of the U.S.
While the gain was good news, the data were collected in mid-June and since then the explosion in coronavirus cases in the South and West has led to curtailment of economic activity in some states, including the three largest states: California, Texas, and Florida, and seems likely to limit near-term recovery of the economy. And, of course, nearly 15 million of the 22 million Americans who have lost their jobs since February are still unemployed.

New York City and State
Comparable data on labor force dropouts are available for New York City and State along with the general employment reports. The overall unemployment rates for New York City and New York State for May (state-by-state reports lag behind the national report) taken from the New York State Labor Department (whose data come from BLS) were as follows:

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NYS and NYC Lost Jobs
New York State lost nearly 1.7 million jobs, and New York City about 890,000 jobs, respectively, between February and May 2020, according to data from State Labor Department releases that use the BLS reports (these data are not seasonally adjusted). These are payroll jobs, which include out-of-state residents, and represent different numbers than household employment data, which also include the self-employed. Here are the New York payroll reports:

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Unemployment rates are calculated from the Household data, which also show the size of the labor force on a monthly basis and the dropouts can be calculated from this data -- they move over to the category of not in the labor force and are not included in the unemployment rates.

Adding Labor "Dropouts" to New York City Stats Reveals a Real Unemployment Rate That Could be as High as 25%
Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that 462,000 persons dropped out of the labor force in New York State between February and May 2020, from 9.551 million to 9.089 million. In New York City, 381,000 persons dropped out of the labor force during this period, with the force dropping from 4.051 million to 3.670 million persons. Here are the data, taken from BLS state employment situation reports:

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If the size of the labor force in New York City was still the same number of people as in February, 4.05 million, but the number of persons who have dropped out since that time (381,000) were added to the number unemployed in May, 671,000, the number unemployed would be 1.05 million out of what would be 4.05 million people in the labor force. That would bring the unemployment rate to just over 25% in New York City.

No Matter How You Calculate It, the Pandemic's Effect on the City's Employment is Staggering
Of course the real number wouldn't be that high because some of the dropouts might have decided to retire, or no longer be seeking work for some noneconomic reason like taking care of family. But the point is that the number of New York City residents who are out of the labor force since February, related to the pandemic, is immense.

In May 2020 the number of persons who dropped out of the labor force from February at the national level was 6.3 million; in New York City, the number was 381,000, or about 6% of the total number of labor force dropouts across the country, more than double the city's share of the nation's population, which is 2.5%.

Don't Expect a Quick Recovery in the City
The next state-by-state employment situation from the Bureau of Labor Statistics will be released on July 17. At the national level, about one-third of the persons who had dropped out of the labor force through May returned to the labor force by mid-June. New York State permitted all the regions of the state except New York City to expand their economic activity to a Phase III level pursuant to state guidelines, while New York City was allowed to reach Phase II level. The BLS is likely to have recorded some of this increase in economic activity in New York and our hard-hit state may show some meaningful improvement. But it's within the context of the severe damage to the economy, and predictions of economic recovery are far in the future.

Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

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We Were Proud to Vote for Police Reforms, Now It’s Time for Prison Reform

New York State government capitol building Albany legislators

The State Capitol Building (photo: Governor's Office)

The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people at the hands of police sparked righteous calls for change across New York State and led to meaningful action in Albany. We were proud to vote for police reforms that promote more transparency, accountability, and justice for those we represent. These were important steps, but they fall short of addressing the harm that happens to our constituents behind bars.

For years, we’ve spoken with mothers, children, and other people in our communities whose loved ones have suffered while incarcerated in our state prisons. This harm is often fatal and happens out of the view of cellphone cameras. Unsurprisingly, people of color disproportionately experience this harm.

Black and Latino people make up 34% of all New York State residents but represent 72% of the state’s incarcerated population. Amidst COVID-19, 80% of people who died in the custody of our state prisons were people of color -- 60% were Black people. Many of these people were older and posed no risk to public safety.

Black people and other people of color are disproportionately serving longer prison sentences and given fewer opportunities for release than their white counterparts. In New York State in particular, years of investigations have exposed that the State Parole Board disproportionately denies parole release to Black people, even when compared to their white counterparts with similar convictions and institutional records.

There are also roughly 1,000 New Yorkers serving prison sentences that don’t even allow a chance at release or public safety assessment. These cruel and unusual punishments amount to New York’s new form of capital punishment: death by incarceration. Curbing state violence on the streets does not address the full spectrum of harm if we continue systematically sentencing mostly Black and Latino people to die in prison without any meaningful second chance, exemplified by the tragic cases of Valerie Gaiter, Benjamin Smalls, and so many others.

People can be held accountable without being sentenced to die in prison. Victims and survivors can find healing without the person or people who harmed them facing a lifetime of punishment and torture. New York can promote safety and decarceration at the same time. We are ready to address these forms of state violence by passing two bills this state legislative session: our Elder Parole Act and the Fair and Timely Parole Act. 

Elder Parole would allow the Parole Board to individually assess incarcerated people for a chance at release once they’ve served 15 more or years and are aged 55 or older. The bill would effectively end prison death sentences in New York State and help us move beyond our shameful distinction of having one of the highest prison populations of people serving life sentences in the country. 

Fair and Timely Parole is just as important. It would change the Parole Board’s culture of punishment and vengeful practice of blanket parole denials by ensuring that parole release decisions are based on who people are today, instead of just on the nature of their crime. If at least part of the purported purpose of incarceration is rehabilitation, then the Parole Board’s decisions must be guided by people’s change over time. 

These two bills, which align with decades of criminal justice research and public safety data, would allow us to reinvest resources, and would bring families back together. In this particular moment, they would also bring us steps forward in our lifelong battle to end structural racism and state violence.

Carmen De La Rosa is a New York State Assembly Member representing parts of Manhattan and the lead sponsor of Elder Parole (A.9040). Gustavo Rivera is a New York State Senator representing parts of the Bronx and is the lead sponsor of the Fair and Timely Parole Act (S.497A). On Twitter @CnDelarosa & @NYSenatorRivera.

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New York City Needs a Chief Diversity Officer Now


Comptroller Scott Stringer, the author, calling for a CDO (photo: Comptroller's Office)

The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery catalyzed one of the largest social justice movements in United States history, rightfully forcing both the public and private sectors to finally listen to Black lives who have sounded the alarm for decades. Under heightened scrutiny, many corporations have taken preliminary steps to acknowledge and confront the systemic racism ingrained within their organizations – cognizant that to ignore the deafening cries for justice is a tacit admission of complicity that can have major consequences for bottom lines.

Whatever their motives, major players like Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley, Korn Ferry, and Zoom have made the decision to hire Chief Diversity Officers (CDOs) who can serve as bridges between stated good intentions and reality. When utilized effectively, CDOs identify both overt and covert racism across the spectrum of workplace policy – hiring, retention, culture, management, and more – and implement strategies to course-correct.

It’s time for the public sector to do the same. I created a CDO position within the office of the New York City Comptroller when I took office in 2014, and the role has become an essential function of our office. Our CDO serves as an invaluable resource to New York City’s minority- and women-owned business enterprises (M/WBEs) navigating the labyrinth of city contracting and, most recently, the ongoing economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With a CDO in place, we’ve increased diversity among the firms managing more than $205 billion in city pension assets, and we’ve launched successful initiatives to increase transparency and accountability in corporate America’s hiring practices. In recent weeks, our CDO has guided important officewide conversations as we work toward inclusivity, equity, and representation in all areas of our work. As a white, cis-gender male elected official, it’s my responsibility to create space, listen, and make sure that we’re walking the walk – and to commit to doing better when we fall short. We could not do this without our CDO keeping us on track.

Seeing firsthand the impact this position can create in a public office, I’ve urged New York City to embrace the role of a CDO to address the systemic racism that we know exists in all government institutions at every level. Last year, I joined a broad coalition of civic and faith leaders and owners of M/WBEs calling on the City Charter Revision Commission to install a CDO in City Hall, reporting directly to the Mayor, and one within every city agency.

A CDO for New York City would function as city government’s executive level diversity and inclusion strategist, driving the representation of people of color and women across government, tracking and overseeing the city’s M/WBE programs, and determining whether agencies’ daily practices are equitable. A citywide CDO could begin to tackle long-standing disparities that are now coming into stark relief -- from analyzing how taxpayer dollars are spent through an intersectional lens to removing barriers to doing business with the city to making sure public service is a viable option for people from diverse backgrounds and experiences.

That charter revision proposal did not make it onto the ballot – but the need for CDOs in government is now more apparent than ever and it’s not too late to act.

New York City agencies spend almost $20 billion a year on everything from pens and paper to consulting services and construction, yet less than 5 percent of those contracts are awarded to M/WBEs. In my most recent Making the Grade report, which grades city agencies on their spending with M/WBEs, the city earned a “C” grade with Hispanic-American-owned businesses, a “D” grade with women-owned businesses, and a dismal “F” grade with African-American-owned businesses.

Eighty percent of New Yorkers are either women or people of color and more than 600 languages are spoken on our streets; we cannot settle for an exclusionary status quo. A CDO could help break down the biases baked into our contracting processes, and make sure our spending represents the diversity of our city, its economy and its people.

We don’t need to wait for another Charter Revision Commission – the mayor can take administrative action right now to create Chief Diversity Officer roles within City Hall and across agencies. While the private sector has recognized the value empowered CDOs bring to institutions, local government continues to be years late and many billions of dollars short. We should not fall further behind. As we work toward a more just New York City, we need Chief Diversity Officers to help lead the way.

Scott Stringer is New York City Comptroller. On Twitter @NYCComptroller.

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Governor Cuomo: Stop Scapegoating Nursing Home Workers and Making Excuses for Your Deadly Decisions

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Governor Cuomo outside a nursing home (photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)

After Governor Cuomo forced nursing homes to admit COVID-positive patients, more than 6,300 aging New Yorkers died in those homes throughout the state. The state’s order required nursing home workers to care for patients in dangerous, inhumane, and sometimes deadly conditions, without adequate protections, including personal protective equipment.

Yet this week the governor again blamed nursing home workers for the state’s nursing home deaths — pointing the finger at staff who were working in life-threatening conditions. Instead of scapegoating staff, the governor should take responsibility for his deadly nursing home mandate, and start putting New York’s elderly population and care workers first.

On March 28, as coronavirus cases were spiking across the state, Governor Cuomo’s health department issued a mandate requiring nursing homes to accept patients with the novel coronavirus. The results were inevitably deadly: well over six thousand deaths from the virus. And this wasn’t the first time the governor put elderly New Yorkers and their families in harm’s way during the pandemic.

During this year’s budget negotiations, Governor Cuomo also slipped language into a bill providing immunity to nursing home executives. The Greater New York Hospital Association, which donated $2.3 million to Cuomo’s re-election campaign, literally wrote the  budget language.

Cuomo has served as governor for more than nine years. During that time, he has allowed the nursing home industry to flout regulations. This failure during his long tenure turned nursing homes into unregulated pandemic graveyards waiting to happen. Yet when asked who holds blame for nursing home deaths, the governor pointed the finger at overworked and unprotected nursing home workers.

The majority of nursing home staff are people of color. During COVID-19, they’ve often not been provided with PPE. Poverty wages regularly force nursing home workers to work in more than one nursing home, without the ability to take sick leave. Blaming nursing home workers for the spread of the coronavirus, instead of blaming the state’s dangerous policies, threadbare regulations, and inadequate PPE, is cruel and irresponsible. 

New York also has the highest racial disparity of COVID-19 cases in nursing homes of any state in the country. Eighty-four percent of New York nursing homes where at least a quarter of the residents were Black or Latino had COVID-19 cases. By comparison, just 33% of homes where the population was less than 5% Black and Latino had COVID-19 cases. Simply put, residents of color have been far more likely to live in a nursing home with COVID-19. 

It’s clear the state has failed to prioritize nursing home workers and New York’s seniors — and particularly workers and seniors of color. Rather than continue to deflect blame, the governor should invest deeply in universal, dignified long-term care for all New Yorkers. The state needs to invest more funding into home-care services for better conditions for workers and to allow elders to remain home where possible with supporting family caregivers.

New York’s aging adults and people of color are not disposable. And nine-and-a-half years into his tenure, Governor Cuomo knows what he’s doing. When the governor lets thousands of nursing home workers and residents die, then blames them for their own deaths instead of taking responsibility, he knows he’s deflecting blame. It’s time for the governor to accept responsibility — both for his deadly nursing home mandate, and for the well-being of New York’s vulnerable seniors and nursing home workers. 

Bobbie Sackman is a steering committee member of the New York Caring Majority, a statewide coalition of New York seniors, people with disabilities, and care workers.

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Getting New York City's Events Industry Up and Running Again

versa nyc outdoor

When can event spaces come back in New York City? (photo: VERSA)

The future is coming into focus. New York City is starting to reopen, and officials are releasing specific guidelines on how different industries can get back up and running, such as regulations for outdoor dining. Empty middle seats and temperature checks are clearly in the future for airlines. 

But what about the events industry, which brings in $10 billion and employs approximately 500,000 in the State of New York? As CEO of the Backal Hospitality Group, I’ve seen first-hand how the events industry in New York City has been utterly flattened by the coronavirus. While restaurants have been able to pivot to offer takeout, curbside pickup, or delivery when New York first went on “pause,” and airlines are still able to fly throughout the past few months, the events industry has come to a complete halt, the hardest hit among businesses based on the idea of bringing groups of people together. 

With all the daily announcements from Albany, it is still unclear which of the four reopening phases will allow events to restart. 

Backal Hospitality Group employs up to 200 individuals and creates corporate events, fundraising galas for not-for-profits, and social gatherings. We cannot fall between the cracks (or phases). The many thousands who count on the events industry for their incomes are eager to get back to work and want to do so safely. How do we rebuild?

Following the recommended guidelines for health and safety protocols from officials, those of us in the industry need to be proactive, creative, and aggressive in coming up with solutions ourselves; ideas that will preserve the appeal of what we offer while making customers feel safe because they are safe. It might seem like an impossible task, but it’s not. 

First, we will have to accept that our events may look different in the beginning. We must adapt, even if it brings some temporary financial pain. For a time, our profit margins will be stretched if not eliminated, but at least we will be doing any business at all. We must recognize we are in this for the long run, and we will have to rebuild step by step slowly and steadily to get where we need to go and preserve our industry that employs everyone from independent florists to caterers to local entertainment to photographers and many more. 

If we smartly implement health and safety protocols for all events, which go hand-in-hand with the goals of elected officials, then we may avoid having our industry on hold for months longer, which would be devastating to the livelihood of thousands of New Yorkers. 

Here are some ideas:

Governor Cuomo has allowed groups of 25 to gather. It’s more than the original groups of 10 he authorized, but, since this still isn’t much of an event in terms of our industry, why not several groups of 25 in smaller, separated rooms? Would that be the basis for a socially-distanced evening or lunch?

In New Jersey and Connecticut, both governors are allowing larger groups, including Gov. Ned Lamont of Connecticut who may permit groups up to 250 by mid-July with social distancing protocols still in place. As Governor Cuomo has said before, I think the region should be unified on such regulations.

Could guests be brought into an event on a staggered and reserved timeline, cycling through and with thorough cleanings in between each group, so that the overall group never gets too large?

What is safer – sit-down dining or pass-around appetizers? And why not use one of the more elegant and simple dining systems ever conceived: the Bento box? These could contain multiple items for a single guest, and no passing them around. And they can be made quite beautifully. 

All servers will of course wear masks and gloves. A few months ago, this might have seemed strange, even alarming, but this is our new normal for the health and safety of all of us.

Then there is the great outdoors. Let’s take a cue from the restaurant industry.

Perhaps, before the pandemic, you had an opportunity to gaze down at the rooftops of Manhattan from a skyscraper. That landscape has changed incredibly in recent years. What was once a sea of black tar and AC units is now filled with gardens and decks and cabanas. Rooftop bars and restaurants abound, and there is a great deal of opportunity. 

A few years ago I became a managing partner and operator at VERSA Restaurant and Rooftop, which has an 8,000 square-foot outdoor area located in the Renaissance New York Midtown Hotel. It’s been closed for over three months. Summer is upon us. If the city and state have approved outdoor dining rules, they should apply to outdoor event spaces, too. We have the room to socially-distance our tables, and then some. 

And we have a far better view than you do from the street.

Arthur Backal is CEO of Backal Hospitality Group.

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Cash Homebuyers Threaten Covid Recovery and Deepen Racial Wealth Gap

homes apartments buildings mortgages


An astonishing 11.3% of New York mortgage borrowers are behind on their mortgage, a 121% increase over the same time last year. That figure only hints at the economic pain being felt in New York and across the country, and pain that is being temporarily moderated by stopgap measures like forbearance plans and unemployment insurance, but threatens to bubble over into a full-blown housing crisis.

In just two months, the federal foreclosure moratorium will expire and the government still has not adopted measures for a post-COVID housing market, especially not for low-income and Black and brown communities. If we’ve learned anything from the Great Recession, cash wielding, predatory investors thrive amidst a disrupted housing market, taking advantage of dropping prices and foreclosure sales, which will further disadvantage aspiring homeowners.

In a recently released analysis, “The Outsized Power of Cash Buyers in New York City’s Housing Market,” the Center for NYC Neighborhoods found that over 40% of small home, co-op, and condo sales in the Big Apple have been to cash buyers over the past ten years, even though 80% of homebuyers take out a mortgage nationally. Investors are targeting the modestly priced co-ops and single-family homes in neighborhoods where working class families have traditionally been able to buy.

Competition from cash buyers was already a leading obstacle to homeownership in New York City and COVID-19 threatens to compound the problem. Even with interest rates low, widespread loss of income will make it difficult for renters to qualify for mortgages at the city’s high price points. Meanwhile, lenders are tightening access to mortgages by increasing down payment requirements and minimum credit scores, leading the Mortgage Bankers Association to drop its Credit Availability Index to its lowest point since 2014.

By definition, cash buyers don’t need mortgages, leaving them in prime position to take advantage of the post-COVID economy. When forbearance periods end, we anticipate a surge of homeowner distress that will yield thousands of foreclosures. Cash buyers will be ready to target these properties with expertise built after the Great Recession and pockets full from investors looking to move their money out of COVID-gutted industries like restaurants and airlines and into the relative safety of New York City real estate.

A replay of the Great Recession would not only shrink the city’s already small homeownership landscape but deepen the racial wealth gap that is driven by uneven access to homeownership for Black and Latino households. In an early June survey, the Census Bureau found that while 11% of white homeowners had not been able to make their previous month’s mortgage payment, that was true for 17% of Latino homeowners and 35% of Black homeowners in New York. Factoring in racial disparities in access to mortgage refinancing, it’s hard not to conclude that COVID threatens to devastate the assets of families of color at a time when the need for racial justice has never been more glaring.

Local governments can take important steps to ensure that speculative cash buyers aren't the only player in the post-COVID housing market. A tenant opportunity to purchase, like the laws in Washington DC and San Francisco, would empower renters to buy their buildings off of bankrupt landlords, creating new ownership where it would otherwise be neglected. A reform of the inequitable Mortgage Recording Tax and a boost to City and State down-payment assistance – a key plank of many reparations proposals – would help elevate first-time homebuyers over the competition coming from predatory investors.  And the State can go further by preventing distress in the first place: funding foreclosure prevention services and rent relief – absolute necessities given the coming demand.

The cost of inaction is, to put it simply, devastating to our neighborhoods and to the New York state economy.  We have been here before so we have no excuse to be caught off-guard by cash buyers and distressed property investors. State government must stop stalling on addressing homeownership protections post-COVID and press forward with bold measures to keep families in their homes as they try to get back on their feet during what looks like a long recovery ahead.

Leo Goldberg is Policy Manager at Center for NYC Neighborhoods. On Twitter @CNYCN.

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