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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."

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

Council to Examine City Support for Ethnic Media


menchaca idnyc staff

Council Member Menchaca (photo: William Alatriste) 


When City Council member Carlos Menchaca heard the recent news of layoffs at El Diario, the country’s oldest Spanish-language daily newspaper, he was troubled to say the least. Menchaca, who represents Sunset Park and Red Hook, penned an editorial (reproduced here in English) for the newspaper in which he pledged his support for ethnic media outlets that serve local communities and announced an upcoming hearing of the Council’s immigration committee, which he chairs, to look at ways the city can provide support.

Menchaca hopes the oversight hearing, scheduled for Wednesday morning, will explore an oft-overlooked but large section of the city’s news industry. New York City is home to 95 ethnic newspapers with a circulation of nearly 3 million people, more than a third of the city’s population. (According to a report by New York Magazine in 2014, that surpasses the combined print audience of the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Daily News, and the New York Post.)

“We’re at a pivotal point in the history of our city and we need to have this discussion,” Menchaca told Gotham Gazette. The hearing will feature testimony from community newspapers, non-profit groups, academics, and Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Nisha Agarwal. This testimony, Menchaca hopes, will lay the foundation for the city’s “fact finding mission.”

“We need the press,” he said, “to be able to talk about how we’re opening the doors of government to different communities.” He stressed that the hearing is about the city’s relationship with ethnic media and about ensuring the outlets are well represented by city government. “I don’t believe in silos. I believe in symbiotic relationships. It’s not about telling the media what to do and how to do it,” he said.

An important stakeholder at the hearing will be the the NewsGuild of New York, a union which represents around 3,000 employees of New York-based organizations including the New York Times, The Daily Beast, Amsterdam News, and El Diario. The guild will also host a rally on the steps of City Hall shortly before the hearing. “We’re very glad the Council is taking an interest in how immigrant communities are being served by the press,” said NewsGuild president Peter Szekely.

Although they have a horse in this particular race -- the recently laid off El Diario reporters -- they also believe it’s a matter of public interest. “This is about journalism,” said NewsGuild staffer Jesus Sanchez. “This is about making sure that the news gets to the community.” Voice of NY, a publication of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism published a closer look at El Diario's struggles on Monday, noting its shrinking staff and bleak outlook.

Other local journalists also welcome the City Council hearing, which they feel will bring attention to their woes as an industry.

For Milton Allimadi, publisher and CEO of Black Star News, the hearing is about more than just ethnic media. “The city of New York doesn't support any businesses when it comes to people of color, period. It's not just ethnic media,” he said in an email, citing Comptroller Scott Stringer’s 'Making The Grade' report on the city’s investment in Minority/Women-Owned Business Enterprises. Stringer’s annual reports have indicated what he has called less than satisfactory contracting by the city with MWBEs.

“We are really overlooked by the city,” said Elinor Tatum, publisher and editor-in-chief of New York Amsterdam News, the city’s oldest and largest black newspaper. “Ethnic media plays a huge role in New York. We’ve got people who speak directly to these communities and the mainstream press is not able to do that.” She said the city should increase its advertising with ethnic media, pointing out that many city initiatives are specifically geared towards immigrant communities and communities of color.

“It’s a business decision and it’s a good decision, if they’re trying to reach ethnic communities, to use ethnic media,” she said.

A 2013 report by the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at CUNY J-School found that the city spent nearly $18 million in fiscal year 2012 on public messaging and that 82 percent of the city’s advertising budget went to mainstream publications through two contracted advertising agencies. This was before Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure, of course, and under the new administration, outreach for large city initiatives has been geared for multiple languages and platforms. The City Council, under the leadership of its first Latino Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, has also pushed for increased reliance on ethnic media.

“The de Blasio administration is committed to reaching communities across the city through ethnic and community media,” said a city official in a statement to Gotham Gazette. The official cited the city’s 2014 multilingual campaign for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, calling it “the first time the City has had a mass marketing campaign targeted to immigrant communities.”

The campaigns for several city initiatives, including the new municipal identification card program (IDNYC), paid sick leave, and universal pre-K, “made significant and deliberate investments in community and ethnic media, and in multilingual outreach, to ensure that immigrant New Yorkers can connect to crucial city programs,” the official added.

Seemingly in line with the city’s commitment, Department of Education Chancellor Carmen Fariña is hosting a roundtable on Tuesday morning specifically with members of ethnic and community media.

Allimadi, of Black Star News, recommends the city establish a "Deputy Mayor of Diversity," whom he said should oversee city spending with ethnic media, among other responsibilities.

Wednesday’s City Council hearing will likely shed new light on how far the city has come in the last couple of years on this front and help Council Member Menchaca and his colleagues begin to build policy recommendations for how the city can support these outlets. “You can’t have solutions,” Menchaca said, “without first having a discussion.”

[Related: New Data Indicates IDNYC Popularity Among Immigrants]

***
by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid

De Blasio Heads to Albany to Fund Agenda, Fight Cuts


de blasio car snow

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Thirteen days after his most recent visit, Mayor Bill de Blasio heads back to Albany Tuesday morning to testify about the city's needs and progress, and to evaluate Governor Andrew Cuomo's Executive Budget.

In front of members of the state Senate and Assembly at a joint legislative budget hearing, de Blasio is expected to push for increased state funding for key aspects of his inequality-fighting agenda and an extension of mayoral control of city schools, while also insisting that the state not go through with potential cuts to city aid outlined by the governor.

De Blasio's testimony, including question-and-answer with lawmakers, is likely to touch upon the recently expired 421-a real estate tax abatement program, which is meant to spur affordable housing and is seen as essential to the mayor's goals. The program, in existence for decades, expired on Jan. 15. Three days later de Blasio told reporters, "I'm deeply disappointed that the way it was pursued has failed, in terms of the Albany process. And Albany has a chance to make it right and fix it because this is crucial to continuing the work we need to do to create affordable housing."

Other key topics the mayor is likely to address include his management of homelessness and schools, the city-state share of the MTA capital plan, overall education funding the city receives, and the mayor's Vision Zero traffic safety program. At a recent press conference outlining progress in reducing pedestrian fatalities, de Blasio indicated that he'll be asking the state for further investments in Vision Zero, including to allow the city to run its school zone speed cameras 24-hours-a-day as opposed to only during school hours, as is the case now.

When de Blasio was last in Albany on Jan. 13, he met with Cuomo for about thirty minutes and then watched from the third row as Cuomo delivered his State of the State and budget address. Immediately after, de Blasio found much to praise in the governor's 2016 platform, including planned investments in supportive housing and calls for increasing the minimum wage and passing paid family leave. However, de Blasio also learned that day that Cuomo's Fiscal Year 2017 budget plan includes significant cuts to state aid to the city for CUNY and Medicaid.

De Blasio reacted cautiously that day, but had harsher words the next, after he and his budget team had had more time to review Cuomo's plan. De Blasio pledged to "fight them by any means necessary."

The mayor helped stir a bit of a groundswell from budget watchdogs and like-minded legislators. The governor quickly said that the cuts were the start of a negotiation, that he was outlining plans for finding "efficiencies" in cooperation with the city for the two jointly-run programs. He promised that his plan "won't cost New York City a penny."

De Blasio quickly praised the governor's promise and has said repeatedly since that he will hold him to it.

When outlining his own preliminary fiscal 2017 budget on Jan. 21, de Blasio did not account for potential cuts to CUNY and Medicaid, which could cost $1 billion annually. Instead, he said of the governor, "He said he wants to find collaborative process to find reforms and savings. That's something we would always be happy to engage in, but we cannot accept a cut that would undermine the education of our young people or the healthcare of our people. So, you know, we'll work in good faith, and we'll work from the assumption – given what he said – that we do not have to lay out what almost a billion dollars in cuts would mean for the people of New York City. If anything changes, we'll certainly speak to it."

On Monday's Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, de Blasio sounded a similar tune, saying, "We want to make sure New York City is treated fairly throughout and we're pleased that the governor is saying that CUNY and Medicaid cuts they originally proposed would not cost us – the city – "a penny," and we respect that, but we will also hold them to that."

The issue will be a key aspect of the mayor's testimony on Tuesday. He's also likely to touch on a couple of other ways in which it appears Cuomo is trying to pad state funds at the expense of the city, including the governor's seeking city debt savings that he thinks the state is entitled to, as reported by Politico New York.

Still, the mayor is sure to have a lot of praise for Cuomo's budget Tuesday - not only are the two experiencing a calm patch in their largely antagonistic relationship, but de Blasio appears genuinely appreciative of much of what Cuomo is putting forward.

As Cuomo has shifted left over the past six months, de Blasio has liked what he's seen from the governor on the minimum wage and other more progressive policies. He seems especially pleased with Cuomo's $20 billion commitment to housing and homelessness over the next five years, though it is not clear how much of that is going to New York City-based efforts (the governor's State of the State policy book says more specific housing plans will be unveiled in the next few weeks).

To combat homelessness Cuomo has pledged a major investment in supportive housing, which matches an announcement de Blasio made late last year, and affordable housing. After rolling out his pre-kindergarten program, de Blasio has turned to affordable housing as the top priority of his tenure.

Education is never far from the top of any mayor's agenda, of course. While de Blasio is pleased that Cuomo is calling for a three-year extension of mayoral control of city schools - the same that Cuomo proposed last year, before agreeing to just one year - the mayor is again asking that the state make the system permanent. "I want to be clear about what's working for the children of New York City and mayoral control clearly works," de Blasio said Monday at an unrelated press conference. He called the old school board system rife with "chaos and corruption," and said, "mayoral control works, it makes things happen, it's the reason we got pre-K done in two years."

De Blasio's frustrations over last year's Albany deals on mayoral control, as well as the governor's handling of 421-a and rent regulations, led to de Blasio's infamous June 30, 2015 tirade against the governor.

Since they met on Jan. 13, de Blasio and Cuomo have been on solid, fairly positive terms - each has gone out of his way to praise the other, they report to be speaking more regularly by phone, in part provoked by the major weekend snowstorm, and they have avoided direct criticism of one another.

How the mayor speaks Tuesday about the governor and Cuomo's budget will have the ear of many. If de Blasio says anything the governor feels is out of turn, Cuomo is all but sure to address it through the media almost immediately.

"We're never going to say to a governor, 'everything you do is right' or 'everything you do is wrong' when it comes to New York City," de Blasio said Monday. He added that he will maintain his ongoing standard to call it like he sees it, mixing praise with criticism as needed.

De Blasio is set to meet with Cuomo in person on Tuesday, as well as Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, according to the Daily News. If de Blasio is able to stay on good terms with Cuomo, which is no given, it may be Flanagan who is the largest impediment to de Blasio's agenda. Flanagan has expressed concerns about de Blasio's handling of city schools, including the mayor's opposition to charter schools.

In meeting with Flanagan and in front of other legislators at the budget hearing, de Blasio is likely to defend mayoral control by citing progress under his leadership in terms of increasing graduation rates and student scores on state standardized tests (which are still far too low according to critics). De Blasio has also outlined new education programs under an "Equity and Excellence" banner, which cost millions and may feature in his requests for additional funding. The mayor is among those who continue to call on the state to fully fund the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court ruling, by which the city is still owed billions in state education money.

During his testimony in front of lawmakers, de Blasio may harken back to much of what he said last year in the same position - including his defense of mayoral control, requests for additional education funding, and state investment in affordable housing.

"New York City has 43% of the State's population," de Blasio told legislators during his testimony on Feb. 25, 2015, "and a New York City Department of Finance analysis shows that 50% of New York State tax revenues are attributable to New York City." But, he said, according to a report by city Comptroller Scott Stringer, who will also testify Tuesday, state revenue has dipped to about 15% of the city budget, down from an average of about 19% between 1985 and 2009. This change, the mayor said, amounted to what would have been an additional $2.8 billion in fiscal year 2014.

With the city on strong financial footing, it is unclear how receptive state lawmakers will be to any requests de Blasio makes for additional funding, but there is always a large contingent of New York City-based legislators in Albany, including Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx.

De Blasio recently called his first two Albany budget testimonies as mayor "very productive conversations."

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@tweetBenMax



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