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Providers, Participants Scramble for Scaled Down Summer Youth Employment Program


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Mayor de Blasio with local activists (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Every morning, Joaquin Soto wakes up to participate in Summer Bridge, New York City government’s 2020 summer youth employment program. Instead of commuting to a work site, Soto turns on his computer, attends Zoom meetings, watches videos on professional development, and takes quizzes to show what he’s learned.

“The application was really straightforward and very accessible,” said Soto, a 17-year-old from Cypress Hills. “But I feel like there’s definitely been some kind of trouble for people that are navigating it now and understanding the hours that are required, and what exactly is expected from them.”

Soto is one of 35,000 participants working in remote job placements for young people this year. In April, Mayor de Blasio cancelled the summer youth employment program, or SYEP, citing the uncertainty of COVID-19 and tough economic straits -- its removal would save the city roughly $124 million, as outlined in his April savings plan. But after much criticism and intense lobbying by youth, advocates, and other elected officials, he agreed to partially reinstate it at the eleventh hour, on June 30, after a tumultuous budget negotiation with the City Council that centered on dealing with the coronavirus fallout, the city’s dire financial picture given billions in lost tax revenue, an increase in gun violence, and calls to “defund the NYPD” amid renewed Black Lives Matter protests.

The push to save some version of the summer youth employment program included ideas for remote programming. The timing and scope of the summer jobs have proved challenging for teens and providers, though those involved generally feel appreciative to have work for youth at all given that the entire program was almost wiped away.

Once the city partially restored the youth employment initiative, the newly-named SYEP Summer Bridge 2020 program was set up for just five weeks, with the number of slots for young people cut from about 75,000 in last year’s SYEP to 35,000. The cost came to about $51 million in a public-private partnership among the city, the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City (a city-led nonprofit), and philanthropies. Participants scrambled to apply while organizations rushed to arrange programming for the almost-exclusively remote, scaled-down SYEP offering.

Once onboarded, the youth that did attain spots tackle the challenges of remote work, including completing hours on Hats & Ladders, a web program for professional development learning. SYEP Summer Bridge 2020 differs from the traditional SYEP because of its focus on online programming instead of in-person work. A DYCD spokesperson said students are participating remotely and the traditional “worksites,” or where providers place youth for in-person work, do not exist this year, although providers are working with over 90 organizations and business partners to administer programming.

Providers designed jobs for youth with the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) that had to be safe yet meaningful, while also managing a significant reduction in these temporary employees. The program features civic engagement skill-building, career exploration, and project-based learning on topics such as community service, COVID-19 recovery, and careers in STEAM. Older participants also complete a “workplace challenge,” where providers team up with organizations and agencies that give youth real-world, on-the-job problems to solve.

To have their say in the new program, advocacy groups like Teens Take Charge said they worked with DYCD to launch an advisory council with Summer Bridge participants. Researchers have also pointed to the importance of summer youth employment programs in providing skill development, career knowledge, and financial opportunities, and have shown that they lead to improved long-term criminal justice, academic, and employment outcomes.

The widely-celebrated growth of New York City’s SYEP to last year’s 75,000 slots was many years in the making, and last year over 150,000 youth applied. This year, DYCD received over 135,000 applications for its 35,000 Summer Bridge slots, according to Cynthia Malave-Baez, the director of the SYEP program. The city retained 115,000 opportunities for young people this summer overall, the mayor and City Council said, but not all fall under the umbrella of SYEP programming. The other experiences included paid positions as social distancing and Test and Trace ambassadors, and at summer camps for kids through the COMPASS initiative and Beacon and Cornerstone programs, according to the mayor.

As for SYEP’s future, providers and advocates have said they see an online summer with a smaller headcount as a one-time occurrence because of the pandemic. Brian Chen, the chief strategy officer from the Chinese-American Planning Council, said his organization aims to employ as many youth as possible and, if health and safety conditions permit, he would want to push for a full restoration of programming and possibly an expansion next year.

“In an ideal world, and speaking personally, if there was an opportunity for us to really service and enroll and enrich and empower every single youth that actually applied to the program, that would be kind of the North Star,” said Chen. “Are we going to continue to push for funding? Yeah. Is it 75,000? I would say that would be the baseline because we’ve reached that number not too long ago.”

Teens Have Their Say
Teens Take Charge led a significant part of SYEP advocacy, with a months-long campaign to reinstate the program and support from organizations and City Council members, and their involvement continued following passage of the city budget. The youth group, which is a program under nonprofit The Bell, provides programming for Summer Bridge participants for the first time this year.

Also, after what they called a “partial win” regarding the new youth employment program, Teens Take Charge proposed a youth advisory council to DYCD that would give recommendations and feedback on Summer Bridge, according to Jorge Morales, a 20-year-old alumni advisor and mentor for Teens Take Charge. He said the council has 13 young members, all current or former summer youth employment program participants. They had their first meeting on July 23 and will have two more, one in the middle of the program and another towards the end, according to Morales.

“We always told them, it’s very crucial you create programming that the youth are gonna want to do,” said Morales, who lives in Harlem. “Because if you’re creating programming that you think they’ll like, it doesn’t mean that they will like it.”

The youth council mostly works with the NYC Center for Youth Employment, which works as a private-public partnership to expand and improve opportunities for youth work experiences. The goal of each meeting, according to a CYE representative, is “for the city to understand young people's experience with the program to help inform planning for next year.”

“Teens Take Charge was instrumental both in organizing young people to advocate for this year's SYEP Summer Bridge and informing this new remote program model,” said David Fischer, the executive director of the Center for Youth Employment. “We're glad to be working with them to better understand how participants are experiencing Summer Bridge."

As for the program as a whole, Morales said the de Blasio administration should have expanded youth programming instead of cutting it. Some families rely on the stipend youth receive during the summer to pay for essentials, he stressed. On the timing, he described how the delay in a decision regarding SYEP led to uncertainty and insecurity, contributed to website crashes as students started applying, and sowed ambiguity around whether applicants had been accepted as DYCD held multiple lotteries.

“When this occurs, it’s truly affecting our most vulnerable communities and those that live in a lot of areas that are very dangerous,” said Morales. “When you take this source of revenue out, and there being very few jobs out in the city now because of covid, you don’t really give them many options here.”

Reflecting on the campaign Teens Take Charge ran since de Blasio’s announcement in April, Morales said the mayor never mentioned youth efforts to save the program, and members of the City Council, most notably Speaker Corey Johnson, declined to meet with them. A representative from the speaker’s office said Johnson receives hundreds of meeting requests during the budget process so he often has other members or staff attend meetings instead of or for him, and in this case Council Member Deborah Rose, the Staten Islander who chairs the Council’s youth services committee and was a leading voice for restoration of SYEP, met with members of Teens Take Charge. Johnson focused on saving summer youth employment because he and the Council knew SYEP was “a lifeline for many New York City youth,” according to Jennifer Fermino, the Council’s communications director.

“It was a hard fight, but ultimately the Council's painstaking advocacy restored $700 million in programs and services that had been cut from the Executive Budget - including SYEP,” Fermino said in a statement. “The Council was united on saving SYEP under the leadership of the Speaker and Council Member Debi Rose. The Council will continue advocating for New York City young people.”

The number of youth slots the Council restored were not enough, said Morales, and Teens Take Charge’s advocacy around employment for young people will continue in the next round of city funding.

“Regarding SYEP, we’re going to be fighting for it next year because we already see that fight starting, just because we know there’s still going to be discrepancies within budgets,” said Morales. “And people are still going to make excuses about not being able to afford a program that is so crucial for the youth.”

Participants Struggle Through Summer
Teens Take Charge is Soto’s placement for the summer. That means every day he signs on from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. to participate in Zoom meetings about advocacy work, an interest he said he  partially developed from working with IntegrateNYC, a student-led organization working towards equity and integration in schools.

Soto said he enjoys the daily meetings. He listed topics such as social media campaigns,  testimonies at hearings, and case studies throughout history as some of the focuses of these sessions, and also mentioned that the video calls are interactive so participants can share personal experiences related to their backgrounds, expanding learning beyond the planned lesson.

But when Soto finishes his video call, he faces hours of Hats & Ladders. The website provides short videos that explore career readiness and professional development. Soto said some subjects include dressing for a job, crafting a resume or managing a professional phone call. While he admits he likes that he can watch the videos on his own schedule throughout the week, Soto said building up to the 30-hour requirement of Hats & Ladders in the first three weeks, with videos running about five to ten minutes each, can become tiring.

“I just don’t think the website and watching videos that you’re getting kind of tested on is the best way,” said Soto. “It just kind of feels like school all over again. I’d rather have someone really talk about it on the Zoom call, live, where people can comment on it, et cetera.”

DYCD already had plans to include Hats & Ladders -- which the de Blasio administration called “a nationally recognized education software provider” -- as a supplement to youth programming even before the pivot to remote programming, according to Malave-Baez. She said DYCD decided to rely on the website’s videos more heavily to facilitate remote learning.

“But we realized SYEP has been around for many, many years and that we thought it was important to start leveraging the information that’s out there, and bring this aspect of career readiness and career exploration to the 21st century,” said Malave-Baez. “And that’s the opportunity that the Hats & Ladders platform gives us and gives young people.”

When Summer Bridge started, Soto said he felt confused about how to complete his hours. Participants engage in 60 to 90 hours of programming, with teens ages 14 to 15 completing 60 hours, and youth 16 to 24 completing 90 hours, according to DYCD documents.

Soto said he noticed a discrepancy. The program requires his age group to work 18 hours a week, but with two-hour daily meetings with Teens Take Charge and about 10 hours of Hats & Ladders videos, that adds up to 20 hours a week, said Soto. He also described not knowing at first if he needed to complete 10 hours every week, or if he could work up to the 30 hours as he wished, and that a 45-minute orientation call did not help define the details.

“I remember it was very unclear at first, but after that, it’s kind of just like they tell you the hours and you go about it yourself, and not much guidance, I would say,” said Soto. “I’ve been emailing a lot of people from SYEP and they’ve been saying they’re being more flexible with them. I mean, I have high hopes but in the beginning, honestly, it was difficult.”

Malave-Baez said DYCD tries to connect with youth through social media platforms and their hotline Youth Connect, which is a resource and referral service for all youth-related city programs, as well as instruct providers on how to support youth throughout the summer.

For Soto, who plans to attend Yale University this fall, the timing of the program proved tricky. When he participated in SYEP two years ago, he said it ended in mid-August, but now he finishes August 28. Soto must move to Connecticut during the last week of Summer Bridge, but said he’s unsure of how he will make up his hours.

Logistical issues aside, Soto still said he feels grateful the SYEP program can provide him with some pocket money as he heads to college. Teens who are 14 or 15 will receive a $700 stipend, while young people between the ages of 16 and 24 will collect a $1000 stipend, according to the DYCD website.

Providers Race to Create Programming
The Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC), usually relies on in-person summer work opportunities for youth, but this year pivoted to fully-online programming in just a few weeks. Chen said as the city shut down after the governor’s PAUSE order, the CPC reimagined SYEP without knowing if it would be reinstated.

“We wanted to ensure the youth and young adults, many of whom are from low-income backgrounds or from immigrant families that were hit very hard when the pandemic rolled around, at the time, initially, this was a safety net for them,” said Chen. “We didn’t want to discount the fact there wouldn’t be anything and for lack of a better term, that summer would be ‘cancelled’ for youth and young adults.”

The timing of Summer Bridge challenged CPC, Chen said. The organization mobilized with different providers to advocate for SYEP, pitch ideas, and hold meetings with DYCD, he said, between the mayor’s cancellation and budget deal reinstatement. He said his team learned the city saved part of the employment program the day the budget passed, and moved “really quickly from no offering to a virtual offering.” They brought back staff, got word out to community members, and briefed families and youth on Summer Bridge all while handling enrollment and attending workshops and training provided by DYCD.

“It was a lot to do in a very truncated period of time,” said Chen. “Just knowing that we had to adjust to the new deadlines but also trusting, that given our experience as an SYEP provider and just the capabilities of our team members and our staff to really get that done, we just powered through.”

Chen said CPC worked closely with DYCD to conceptualize a remote summer. Instead of working at an in-person location, he said youth receive work readiness training and career exploration activities online, and then providers will present them with real workplace challenges so they can think through solutions. The nature of the activities and challenges depends on the providers, but Chen said he appreciated DYCD’s flexibility on this summer’s work model. 

“As an organization and me personally speaking, I understand the challenges that the pandemic has brought in the decisions that had to be made on a macro and micro level,” said Chen. “If I had a magic wand, and if I had to change anything, it would just really be the city really coming up earlier on and committing to the restoration on the program to give providers and youth and young adults enough time to do the work that’s necessary. We’re here now, we move forward, right?”

DYCD holds weekly online meetings and one-on-one calls with providers as necessary, and has partners like representatives from Hats & Ladders available for questions, according to Malave-Baez.

Last year, CPC worked with 2,200 youth for SYEP, while this summer they employ about half, 1,100 young people.

The reduction of youth slots and shift to online learning has left providers and their advocates wondering how future summers will look. Nora Moran, United Neighborhood Houses Director of Policy and Advocacy, said the best way to run SYEP is through in-person work and she wants to ensure this summer is a one-time experience because of COVID-19.

“We’re obviously relieved and grateful that there was something back in place for young people this summer. It’s very distressing that we’re only serving half of SYEP this year as opposed to last summer, and it just makes you wonder what all of those 40,000 young people who don’t have a job this summer, what they’re doing,” said Moran. “We don’t want this to be an opportunity for the city to cut corners in the future and have a smaller and cheaper program.”

UNH represents over 40 settlement houses around the city, many of whom help run SYEP. Moran said UNH advocated for their constituents when the city cancelled summer youth jobs, and while it received strong support from City Council members, it also confronted mixed messaging from the mayor’s office and DYCD.

“Throughout the budget, the response from the mayor’s office and from DYCD went back and forth between we don’t have the funding to run this program and it’s unsafe to run this program given covid and given the need for social distancing,” said Moran. “So that was a challenge because it was hard to know what’s the problem that we’re trying to solve, is it funding or is it, you know, program design.”

At the height of renewed Black Lives Matter protests, and calls to “defund the police,” the mayor promised to move NYPD funding to youth and social services. Moran said it’s difficult to say with certainty that “there was a one-to-one move from one area of the city’s budget to another.”

“Something I will say is that we don’t have full funding for the summer youth employment program in FY 2021, the program is running at half capacity as it did the previous summer, young people are receiving stipends as opposed to an hourly wage so they technically took a pay cut,” said Moran. “Though the statement was made that the funding is going to be moved from the NYPD to support social services, the budget still came up short in a lot of key social service areas.”

Last year, SYEP collaborated with 67 providers, and this year works with 57 organizations on providing Summer Bridge programming, according to DYCD. In 2019, providers also  worked with over 13,000 worksites. This year, because of the nature of remote projects and career exploration activities, there are no traditional worksites, according to the DYCD.

The scope of the program this year, especially with the drop in funding and youth slots, tightened providers’ pockets. Michelle Jackson, the executive director of the Human Services Council, which represents a number of SYEP providers, explained how the city budget affects these organizations’ operating budgets for the whole year because providers run youth programs all the time, just with a summer component.

“So when you cut out two months of someone’s budget, you don’t cut out two months of expenses,” said Jackson. “You know, insurance is year-round, utilities are year-round, rent is year-round. So providers really scrambled to figure out how to cut two months out of their budgets, some by laying off staff, some by figuring out how to move people around, et cetera.”

Providers previously collaborated with worksites during SYEP to place youth in job environments such as offices or camps, but with a remote program, many worksites have grappled with fewer employees for their summer offerings. Some have none. City Growers, a nonprofit that teaches children about nature and urban agriculture and a former SYEP worksite, employed 20 participants last year but this summer had none.

With the absence of city-funded youth workers, Executive Director Becca Di Meo said City Growers used its own budget to hire former SYEP participants to help run a shortened, virtual camp this year. She said they are waiting for discretionary funding from City Council members to help with the rest of their programming, but filling the learning gap is a top priority of theirs while children remain stuck at home.

“Our summer camp supervisor has been sending me messages saying the turnout is great, the kids are having a lot of fun,” said Di Meo. “So I think a little goes a long way now in maybe ways that it hadn’t before.”

Research Support for SYEP
Boston’s development of its SYEP program this year contrasts to New York City in terms of its timing and preparation. Alicia Sasser Modestino, an associate professor at Northeastern University and an associate director of the college’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, described how she and her colleagues presented a plan to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and showed him the benefits for youth, especially in terms of reducing violence, based on their studies.

“We went to the mayor’s cabinet and presented not only our research on how impactful the summer jobs program is, but then also these four [program] tracks,” said Modestino, who teaches in Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and its economics department. “And basically the mayor’s cabinet was like, ‘You had me at crime.’”

After receiving full support from the mayor on their plan, and an additional $4 million, Modestino and other key SYEP players worked as quickly as possible to start programming in early July. Youth participate in four tracks: Boston’s Blue Shirt program, which employs 500 youth for the beautification of outdoor areas; Earn and Learn, which allows students to take college-level courses for free while also receiving money; Peer-to-Peer COVID-19 Campaign, which engages youth in developing marketing materials around public health messages; and virtual internships, which facilitate a remote work opportunity for young people. Boston managed to expand its SYEP funding during COVID-19, totaling about 8,000 jobs.

Modestino’s team at Northeastern University researched the effects of SYEPs on youth for about five years. In the short-term, they survey what young people learn during a summer job, like writing resumes, interviewing, managing emotions, resolving conflict with peers, and imagining future plans and aspirations. In the long-term they track trajectories in terms of criminal justice, academic, and employment outcomes.

She said they found SYEPs reduce violent crime by 40 percent and property crime by 30 percent after young people participated in a summer youth employment program, which is linked to youth improving soft skills like conflict and emotional management as well as other effects of being employed such as job readiness skills, work habits and college aspirations . They also increase high school graduation rates by six percent, which they correlated with increased attendance after working a summer youth job that requires punctuality. Finally, they found a higher likelihood of employment and increased wages among Black and brown young adults from the ages of 18-24 who participated in SYEP.

Modestino said she and other stakeholders in SYEP will continue to study Boston’s summer youth employment program this year to see if the tracks they put in place replicated the outcomes of traditional summer employment opportunities. She stressed that, especially now during COVID-19, youth, particularly poorer or Black and brown youth, need SYEP to keep them engaged and provide gateways to opportunities.

“Even in good times this is a really good program to employ youth, especially low-income youth,” said Modestino. “So it’s been an important way for low-income youth to be able to get job experience that other wealthier, whiter kids living in the suburbs get on a routine basis because their parents brokered them a job."

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by Melissa Lent, Gotham Gazette
  

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How the De Blasio Administration is Preparing to Lay Off Thousands of City Government Workers


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Mayor de Blasio during a budget presentation (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)


As the New York City economy continues to struggle from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and additional fiscal aid from the federal government is nowhere in sight, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has begun formulating plans for taking the last resort step of laying off thousands of municipal workers.

The coronavirus fallout drained the city’s coffers, forcing the passage of an $88.2 billion budget for the 2021 fiscal year, a massive $6 billion reduction in planned spending that included using billions of reserves. But the city’s budget gap of more than $9 billion far eclipsed that spending cut and despite measures to find savings in city operations, the administration has yet to cover a $1 billion gap it pegged to labor savings.

As he continues to lobby for federal aid and, short of that, state authority for the city to borrow to cover expenses, the mayor promised that if neither of those sources come through soon, the final $1 billion to balance this fiscal year’s budget would come from labor costs. This could possibly happen through negotiations with unions that are ongoing, but failing that the city will move to layoffs. De Blasio has repeatedly said it could be as many as 22,000 municipal workers, about 6.7% of the city’s 325,614 full time and full-time equivalent employees.

The mayor has till October 1 to present a plan for that $1 billion to the State Financial Control Board, which oversees the city’s fiscal management. But citywide labor agreements require the city to provide municipal unions with 30 days notice about possible layoffs, meaning the administration effectively has till the end of this month -- just two weeks -- to announce which agencies will be terminating workers and how many.

This past week, the de Blasio administration gave city agencies specific targets to meet to find more savings, including through layoffs, and to provide those plans by the end of this week; Friday, August 21. A mayoral spokesperson said workers would be notified by August 31 if they are being considered for layoffs beginning October 1.

Those plans may not necessarily be put into effect, as the city continues to await federal aid and is also continuing to seek long-term borrowing authority from the state Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has expressed skepticism about such borrowing and sits atop the Financial Control Board. Negotiations over the latest federal stimulus package have stalled, though, and legislators in Albany have expressed reluctance to allow the city to borrow billions of dollars to cover expenses that would increase the city’s debt and take decades to repay.

De Blasio bemoaned the “painfully real” layoffs that the city may have to undertake, as he explained at his daily news briefing on Wednesday. “We all hoped and prayed there'd be a stimulus – that appears to be dead now. We're going to Albany to ask for appropriate long-term borrowing capacity that would stave off the layoffs. If we don't have that, we're going to keep working with labor, looking for every solution, every kind of savings. But if we don't have something else that stops it, we do plan 22,000 layoffs on October 1st. It's a massive, painful number. It resembles the kind of things we had to do decades ago, but the job here is to try and avert it if we can.”

It’s unclear yet how the layoffs may affect how the city provides services, though there would undoubtedly be a major impact considering the scope. Some services like garbage pick-up have already seen cuts from the new city budget that went into effect July 1. The city workforce is the largest it has ever been, having increased by about 31,200 workers since de Blasio took office, owing to a booming economy, ample revenues, and a Democratic mayor and City Council who believe in readily expanding the size and scope of government.

If the mayor were to follow a similar logic as former Mayor Michael Bloomberg did after the 2008-09 recession, public safety and revenue-generating functions of city government would be less affected, if not immune from layoffs. Public health services are also unlikely to be targeted for major cuts, considering the pandemic is far from over.

Politico New York reported last week that the NYPD had not been asked to lay off any workers, though the mayor denied then appeared to confirm that on Thursday. “Every agency will have to come up with savings,” he said when asked whether he was indeed keeping NYPD personnel held harmless. After saying “no” he then backed up and zoomed out.  “Now, look, savings can take more forms than just layoffs,” he continued. “That is a true statement, but to get to the kinds of savings we're talking about here, layoffs, unfortunately have to be part of the package in some form or another.”

On August 10, city agencies were provided with detailed layoff guidelines that will determine how they go about letting go of their workers. If layoffs do occur, the first to go will have to be provisional workers, those city employees who are waiting to take civil service exams that would give them permanent positions. Unlike permanent workers, provisionals can be fired regardless of seniority since their termination is not determined by Civil Service Law or by contractual agreements.

There were 14,841 provisional workers in city government as of July 31, making up about 4.5% of the city’s full time and full time equivalent workforce, according to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services.

The Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit fiscal watchdog, has emphasized that the city could bring its budget into balance without resorting to layoffs or long-term borrowing. But the group’s aptly named “Hard Choices Framework” would require making difficult decisions that would significantly reduce spending, reduce the worker headcount through attrition, require temporary tax increases (for instance, a temporary property tax increase, though CBC warns of the risks of increased taxes on the city’s competitiveness) and, notably, necessitate collaborating with labor unions to identify significant savings – through, for example, workers beginning to pay a small premium for their health insurance.

“Layoffs aren't necessary,” said Ana Champeny, CBC’s director of city studies. “There are other reductions that could be made, and the city should be more aggressively reducing headcount through attrition.”

As the city’s own guidelines acknowledge, the layoff process will be complex. According to a copy of the guidelines obtained by Gotham Gazette, the city will create a Layoff Task Force once it determines that layoffs will be necessary. The Office of Labor Relations will then give the 30-days notice to unions, listing the titles, number of people, and names of those identified for layoffs.

The guidelines also stress that agencies should “analyze the impact of layoffs on members of protected groups,” and consider whether eliminating or reducing certain positions in competitive jobs could negatively affect older workers and racial, ethnic, or gender diversity of the workforce.

Senior employees with certain civil service titles slated to be laid off could choose to “bump” a junior employee, taking a step down the ladder but retaining employment. A higher level worker could take over the duties of a lower level worker who is laid off, but “the reverse situation can be problematic,” the guidelines say. Firing entry-level workers would help avoid those situations, but wouldn’t create the same level of savings as firing someone higher up with a larger salary.

The administration has also instructed agencies to bear in mind how layoffs will affect the work they do. “Part of what they're asking agencies to do is not just identify people, but identify or evaluate how that will affect service provision,” said Doug Turetsky, chief of staff at the New York City Independent Budget Office, a nonpartisan city agency.

Though Turetsky said the impact of layoffs is hard to gauge without knowing the specific targets that city agencies have been given, he did cite the Department of Parks and Recreation as an example of how those effects could play out. “We already know from reductions in the 2021 budget that it seems, at least anecdotally, to be having some effect on park maintenance and upkeep,” he said. “So it’s only likely to be some more.”

As Turetsky noted, “We have this moment...more city workers than ever before. But at the same time, there's no shortage of requests from New Yorkers for even more services.”

Unions have also warned against the effects of firing those very workers who have kept the city going during this crisis. “Throughout this pandemic city employees, our frontline heroes, have put their lives on the line to provide essential services,” said Henry Garrido, executive director of DC 37, the city’s largest union of public employees, in a public statement on Wednesday. “The threat of 22,000 layoffs is not a way to repay them for their heroic acts. Layoffs should be an absolute last resort. We need the Federal government to step up and fund the frontlines, we need the State to step up and allow the City to borrow, and we need the City to protect essential workers.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Shaun Donovan Makes Federal Experience Focus of 2021 Mayoral Message


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Then HUD-Secretary Shaun Donovan, center, with Mayor Bloomberg and Senator Schumer (photo: Spencer T Tucker/mayor's office)


While he has not officially announced a campaign for New York City Mayor, Shaun Donovan is certainly talking like a candidate, explaining his rationale for running, comparing himself to the rest of the Democratic field, and outlining some of his vision for the city. With just ten months until the all-important June 2021 primary, Donovan recently showed a large initial fundraising haul and is beginning to make public appearances, including as a recent guest on the Max & Murphy podcast from Gotham Gazette and City Limits, where he touted his experience in the Obama administration.

“I believe what I bring to this race is both a broad progressive vision that is more comprehensive, more far-reaching than any of the other candidates, but I also bring a track record that says I can actually get those progressive things done,” Donovan told Max & Murphy. “I believe that I will be the candidate that can make the city work for everyone.”

Donovan was the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for over five years and then Director of the Office of Management and Budget in President Barack Obama’s. Prior to that, Donovan served as Commissioner of Housing Preservation and Development in New York City for five years during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration. Given he’s planning to run for mayor in a Demcratic primary with an increasing energy on the left, it is no surprise that Donovan is much quicker to discuss his work for Obama than for Bloomberg.

Donovan highlights his work as federal housing secretary, a job he was appointed to in 2009, when Obama took office and in which he oversaw the recovery from the national housing crisis and the federal response to 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. As budget director, Donovan oversaw the $4 trillion federal budget and, during his tenure in that office, he was involved in the federal response to the 2014 Ebola scare. He told Max & Murphy that these experiences in particular would help in dealing with the “twin crises” currently facing New York City, the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis.

“In so many different ways, in so many different types of crises that are similar to what we’re facing now, President Obama asked me to lead those responses for the country, and for New York City, as with Sandy, and that really is unique,” Donovan said. “There’s no one else in the race that has that depth of experience and vision that I do, to help lead the city back from this moment of peril.”

In the most recent campaign finance filing period, which ended mid-July and was his first as someone officially exploring a campaign, Donovan raised more money than any other candidate in the 2021 mayoral race. He raised $662,003 during the January-July period and has $454,021 currently in his campaign account. Donovan still trails the three current elected officials in the race -- City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson -- in cash-on-hand. The average contribution to Donovan’s campaign was $1,171 and $314,312 (47.5%) came from outside New York City.

Also in the Democratic primary running are former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, former city Veterans Affairs Commissioner Loree Sutton, and Maya Wiley, a former top aide to Mayor Bill de Blaiso and civil rights attorney, who recently announced she is exploring a campaign and is beginning to raise funds. Other candidates may also join the field.

Donovan has put together a campaign team that includes veterans of Bill de Blasio’s two winning mayoral campaigns, among others, and is pitching potential supporters on his experience and chances of success based on the campaign team’s analysis of the issues and other candidates.

When touting his record on Max & Murphy, Donovan said, “Barack Obama asked me in the moment of the worst housing crisis in our lifetimes to become his Housing Secretary. I worked aggressively with people in New York City and across the country to try to undo that damage and rebuild communities. But, he also asked me because of my work on Katrina and so many other natural disasters around the country to lead the federal rebuilding process after Sandy hit New York and the region.”

While Donovan provided limited specifics for what exactly he would do as mayor of New York City, he repeatedly stressed the value of his experience. “[J]ust three weeks into the president asking me to lead the work on the federal budget, Ebola hit and I had to get deeply involved in everything from contract tracing to all those words that have become all too familiar to us now as well as thinking more broadly about how we build an infrastructure for global health security.”

Donovan recalled training incoming Trump administration officials about the federal government’s preparedness for a global health emergency during the transition period after the 2016 election but before the inauguration. “It’s very clear [the Trump administration] hasn’t learned those lessons,” he said.

Asked about his work under Bloomberg and whether that could hurt him in the eyes of 2021 Democratic primary voters, Donovan was quick to note that “[Michael Bloomberg] and I didn’t agree on everything, but I will say Mike was a very strong leader and a great manager.” Donovan pointed in particular to Bloomberg’s track record on public health, gun control, and climate change. “There were some very, very strong aspects of what Mike did as mayor.”

Donovan did not say specifically where he disagreed with Bloomberg’s approach or track record.

Throughout the interview, Donovan criticized Mayor de Blasio, a term-limited Democrat, and several of the city’s current policies, in regards to gentrification, the city’s preparedness for the pandemic, and school reopening plans, among other issues.

“I’m a progressive who has actually gotten progressive things done,” Donovan said, pointing to his record on reducing homelessness across the country, particularly among military veterans, and being the first-ever cabinet secretary to endorse marriage equality. Additionally, he said “I put real teeth into the 1968 Fair Housing Act in a way no prior HUD Secretary had ever done and President Trump is attacking me for that work now.”

“Housing is the central issue that decides so many other things about your life,” Donovan stressed. “Unfortunately in this country, you can predict a child’s life chances, even their life expectancy, by the zip code they grew up in. And, it really gets to this history of red-lining and government-sponosored segregation and discrimination.”

Donovan said he wants to “make sure we’re building more integrated neighborhoods where we can make sure Black and brown people can stay in New York. Gentrification has been a huge challenge over the last ten years under this mayor.” (De Blasio has been mayor since 2014.)

Pushed on what changed during the Bloomberg administration and what he would do as mayor to address housing segregation in New York City, Donovan said, “We did make progress under Mayor Bloomberg. We had the most aggressive housing plan in the country, but I think we need to go significantly farther than that.”

“We simply don’t put enough resources into housing and homelessness. It’s why we see record levels of homelessness in this city,” said Donovan. Homelessness in the city began to skyrocket under Bloomberg, after Donovan had left the city for Washington, D.C.

“We need to rethink and reimagine land use,” Donovan went on to say, “we have to make sure that affordable housing comes first and that comes with a much more specific, more aggressive way of using zoning in the city for affordability.”

He did not specify what kind of land use and zoning changes he has in mind.

“There’s a lot more we can be doing in this city to make sure that folks aren’t being displaced and that we enforce the laws that we have,” Donovan said. “We can be much more creative about how we preserve existing affordable housing.”

Citing that one in 14 New Yorkers live in public housing, he said “it’s a permanently affordable resource that we can never replace in this city and yet city leaders have done far too little to make sure that that precious resource is preserved.”

When asked about his own record on public housing, particularly the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), Donovan cited the passage of the Recovery Act in 2009, which had a large investment in public housing. “The issue is that HUD can provide resources, [but] fixing NYCHA really has to be led by the mayor,” he said. “This is the problem, really fixing NYCHA has to be led by the mayor, and for too long, New York’s mayors have seen NYCHA as a federal problem and it’s never been included in the city’s housing plan. It’s never been led in a way that is seen as integral.”

On the COVID-19 pandemic, Donovan said “in the moment of crisis, if you’re starting to design your plan, you’re going to be too late. One fundamental problem we’re seeing is that the city just wasn’t prepared.” He cited his experience with the Ebola epidemic as evidence that he would be prepared for such a crisis.

“As mayor, I would be making sure we’re preparing while fighting the immediate crisis,” he said. “The idea that we haven’t been able to get ahead of the testing problem is a huge problem.”

“Before we fully open the economy and reopen schools, we need to make sure that we have real safety, real plans, whether it be on the subways, which I’m on almost every day, and making sure that we’re implementing all of the plans that will allow people, both native New Yorkers and those who come to New York, feel confident and comfortable going back to work and back to school,” Donovan said.

Reflecting on the recent Democratic primaries, the changes in the party, and where he may fit, Donovan said, “I think there is a progressive surge in this country and we’re seeing enormously exciting young talent rise to the surface, to win races nobody expected them to win and I think that’s great. We need new voices in New York City, we need new voices in Congress.”

“At the same time, we see deep frustration with the Mayor and with frankly, too many elected officials who put politics before people,” Donovan said.

“I have the track record to show I’ve actually gotten those [progressive] things done in a way that nobody else will and I think what you’ll see is that New Yorkers want a progressive mayor, but they’re also tired of politics coming before people,” Donovan said. “I’m going to show New Yorkers that I’m a public servant not a politician.”

[Listen to the full conversation: Max & Murphy Podcast: Shaun Donovan Explores a Run for Mayor]

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette
   

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