Gotham Gazette Tue, 07 Jul 2020 19:33:33 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Life and Death at the Stroke of the Governor's Pen Cuomo signs bills

Governor Cuomo signs criminal justice reforms (photo: Governor's Office)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been trying in his daily press briefings to position himself as the national voice of reason, truth, and compassion regarding the coronavirus. To that end, he has liberally signed an array of executive orders ranging from shutting down businesses and closing schools to limiting the size of social gatherings.

When the evidence revealed that COVID-19 was especially ravaging communities of color, the governor then tried to assume the mantle of race truth-teller by referring to the persistence and pervasiveness of racism in vital areas like housing, education, health, and employment. He even began to use visual aids to show that specific zip codes -- communities of color -- were hardest hit by the virus.

George Floyd’s murder by the police and the resulting uprisings across the country pushed COVID-19 out of the headlines. Not to be outdone, and to maintain his newfound national relevance, the governor started trying to use his bully pulpit to project himself as the voice of anti-racist criminal justice reformers. He quickly seized upon the calls to repeal Civil Rights Law 50-a that shielded police disciplinary records from the public. He appeared to have heard the community activists and families of loved ones killed by police who had for many years labored relentlessly for the repeal of 50-a. Now, with the national spotlight on police violence, the governor gave full-throated support to their efforts as if he were a long-time ally of the movement. He proclaimed, “I would sign a bill today that reforms 50-a. I would sign it today. Pass the bill. I will sign it today.”

Soon thereafter, the Legislature did send him such a bill as part of a criminal justice reform package, and with great fanfare the governor signed it, calling it the “most aggressive” police reform legislation in the country. He also used the occasion to condemn “injustice against minorities in America by the criminal justice system" and emphatically added, “Today...enough is enough.”

The governor was not yet finished signing criminal law reforms. In his effort to be seen as a national progressive spokesperson regarding police violence against people of color, he announced that he had signed an executive order making state funding to police agencies contingent on their developing plans to “reinvent and modernize” their strategies. A few days later, he again put pen to paper and signed additional criminal law legislation asserting that the changes “take us one step closer to righting the many injustices minority communities have faced because of a broken and unfair system."

All well and good but if the governor truly believes that “enough is enough” then he must use his signature to redress the crisis of mass incarceration and the 40,000 people in his state prisons: the living embodiment of the “injustice against minorities in America by the criminal justice system."

The racism that defines the criminal legal system does not stop with racist policing. It runs through arrest, prosecution, adjudication, and sentencing. It results in more than 9,000 people, disproportionately people of color, serving life sentences in New York State. And many come from the very zip codes the governor highlights daily in his visual aid of the “hot spots” for coronavirus in New York.

There are thousands of clemency applications on the governor’s desk from people seeking sentence commutations. The majority are from people of color. In 2019, Cuomo did not sign a single one.

Many meritorious clemency applications pre-date COVID-19. Now, for those most at-risk from the virus, the specter of serious medical complications or death adds even more weight to their applications. The governor has repeatedly stressed the danger facing vulnerable people living in congregate spaces. While he specifically refers to nursing homes, even he has made the irrefutable connection to prisons: “It’s the same with the nursing home, it’s a prison, it’s any congregate facility. There’s no doubt, where you have a congregation of people, that is a place where the virus can transfer...So, the congregate facilities of people, that’s all it is. It’s just wherever you have a density, a gathering of people that is a problematic area...”

Yet to date, amid all his signing ceremonies, he has signed zero clemency applications from the many older and ill people pleading for relief.
Incarcerated people and their families live in fear that COVID-19 will ravage the prisons where already more than 1,800 prison staff and people inside have contracted the virus and 21 have died. For many, there is newfound hope that the governor’s talk about the racism and injustice in the criminal legal system will lead him to finally exercise his vast clemency power.

Countless number of clemency applicants have worked hard to improve and transform and have achieved dramatic success under the trying and unforgiving circumstances of prison. Most have already served decades behind bars. In the governor’s own words, “Enough is enough.” Now all that is needed to set them free is his signature.

Steven Zeidman is a professor of law at CUNY School of Law. On Twitter @SteveZeidman.

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Life and Death at the Stroke of the Governor's Pen Tue, 16 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
U.S. Census Bureau Resumes Limited Field Operations in New York and NYC Continues Outreach While State Remains MIA 2020 Census efforts in New York

2020 Census efforts continue, though NY State is MIA (photo: Governor's Office)

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York, it posed severe impediments to the 2020 Census process, forcing local, state, and federal officials to suspend plans for on-the-ground outreach to make sure all state residents are counted. But federal and city officials have continued remote operations to encourage a robust self-response to the decennial population count and, as regions across New York State begin to approach a sense of normalcy, the U.S. Census Bureau has resumed some of its field activities.

The 2020 Census officially launched on March 12, just days before New York State went into a form of shutdown under an executive order by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Plans made by officials for widespread grassroots campaigns had to be abandoned or adapted. But the first phase, the self-response period, was extended from July 31 to October 31, and New Yorkers have been responding at a greater rate than ten years ago. Because of the pandemic, the fate of the second phase, where Census enumerators go door-to-door to count those who do not initially respond, seemed to be in doubt.

An accurate Census count is essential since it determines the amount of federal aid that the state receives for infrastructure, and social and economic welfare programs. The Census also decides the number of seats states hold in the House of Representatives, and the population count is used to draw electoral districts.

Even before the pandemic, officials feared a repeat of 2010, when New York City saw a severe undercount and had a self-response rate of about 62%, compared to the national average of 76%. New York State’s overall response was close to 76% as well. New York has many large “hard-to-count” populations, which are less likely to respond on their own for various reasons, requiring a far more extensive push by local government and community groups as well as greater resources for in-person counting from the Census Bureau. 

There have been some promising signs. Even though New York is still behind the nation, the self-response rate seems well on its way to beating the final tally in 2010. As of Wednesday, May 27, the state’s self-response rate was 55.1%, the city’s rate was 50.5%, and the national rate was 60.3%, according to the CUNY Mapping Service’s Census project.

The U.S. Census Bureau is now watching public health and “reopening” metrics closely to determine where field operations can be relaunched, according to Jeff Behler, director of the Census Bureau's New York Regional Office.

Already, staff have returned to field offices in Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, and Buffalo, and are conducting an on-the-ground “update leave” operation, which involves hand-delivering packages with Census questionnaires to remote and rural households that only have a post office box number (all other households that have not responded have been mailed those Census packets). That operation covers about 5% of households across the country, and 3% in New York State (about 270,000 households). Census workers are not knocking on doors, however, and are using GPS coordinates to deliver the packets to doorsteps of homes. Officials and advocates at all levels are still hoping that more and more people will self-respond, either online or by mail. This year’s Census is the first to go digital-first.

Behler said there are two major operations that will follow what’s happening now. The “service-based enumeration,” which is meant to count people at homeless shelters, mobile food vans, and soup kitchens. The dates for that are yet to be determined. “There are discussions that our staff at headquarters are having with high-level stakeholders to get input, to try and figure out when we do that, between now and the end of October,” Behler said. 

The next major phase is the non-response follow up, which involves door-to-door outreach. The Census Bureau has proposed beginning that phase on August 11, pending congressional approval.

Behler said the Bureau also intends to hire more enumerators than originally planned – more than 32,000 for New York State (18,000 in New York City alone), up from the earlier proposal of between 25,000 and 29,000 in total and 15,000 for the city. “So assuming it's safe to do so, because we're following all state and local guidelines, we would begin that operation. We plan on hiring more people to get it done in eight weeks, rather than ten or eleven weeks,” he said. Hiring, which was also suspended because of the pandemic, will begin next week with jobs posted to the Census website.

The Bureau will begin to contact individuals who applied for these jobs months ago, to begin the fingerprinting and background check process that is required. The shift in timeline will likely affect who will opt in for these jobs, though it also comes at a time when the state is seeing near-record unemployment and people desperate for any form of income.

Behler is also encouraged by the self-response rate so far, though it has (as expected) been higher in suburban and rural areas while lagging in urban centers. 

“One of the greatest tools that we have on the Census is the ability to bring people together, especially in these urban areas, and that's what we find works the best,” he said. “And if you would have told me six months ago, ‘Hey, we're going to take that ability away. And you're going to get to over 50% in the City of New York,’ I would have been shocked.”

Part of that success stems from the fact that New York City was well-prepared for the Census with a $40-million strategy in place, including $19 million in grant funding for outreach awarded to community-based organizations in December. The city government, with a well-resourced census office, and its grantees quickly pivoted various aspects of their plans to respond to the pandemic and have since continued to use a wide variety of strategies to inform New York City residents about the Census.

The city has also been working on some limited groundwork while maintaining strict social distancing guidelines – for instance, handing out face masks in the park and urging people to fill out the Census – and is preparing for a broader phase of outreach once it is safe to do so. Unlike most parts of New York, the city is not expected to meet a set of criteria set by the state to begin a phased reopening of its economy until the middle of next month. But New York City Census Director Julie Menin is not resting on the relative success so far. The city intends to set up 300 pop-up centers to help New Yorkers fill out the demographic questionnaire. The centers are slated to be set up at public library branches, houses of worship, and at the various nonprofits that received city funding. 

The self-response rate is “absolutely a bright spot,” Menin said in a phone interview, “because it really means that we're starting to close this gap between New York City and the nation, which is something that I think is very important because it's a national competition.”

She noted that more than one-third of New Yorkers don’t have access to the internet at home, and said the city will only be able to reach them once in-person outreach is feasible. “Those numbers we cannot and will not be able to get to until the point that we can reopen,” she said.

Since the pandemic hit the city, Menin’s office has organized text-banking and phone-banking efforts, along with a hyper-targeted mass media campaign in 24 languages. Volunteers have sent 5.6 million texts reaching 1.4 million New Yorkers; they have made 488,000 calls, reaching 92,000 individual New Yorkers in 13 languages. More than 271,000 pieces of multilingual census literature has been handed out at the Department of Education’s 490 food distribution sites around the city.

Local elected officials and nonprofits have also stepped in to help hundreds of New Yorkers complete the Census in several languages. The Census office has even created 15 separate language groups on messaging apps like WhatsApp, KakaoTalk and WeChat to target the immigrant communities that are particularly hard to reach in the city, while community groups were also adjusting to more digital efforts through localized and culturally-competent approaches.

There have been public service announcements featuring rapper Cardi B, singer Alicia Keys, television host Seth Meyers, playwright and actor Lin Manuel-Miranda, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. On Tuesday, the city even launched a contest in partnership with the food delivery service Seamless, which is giving out ten $1,000 food vouchers, one each week for ten weeks, to people who fill out the Census. (You can enter the contest here.)

Access to real-time data has also allowed the city to home in on the neighborhoods where on-the-ground outreach will be necessary. In particular, those communities that have been ravaged by the coronavirus – which have been overwhelmingly low-income communities of color – have shown lower rates of response to the Census, which could further exacerbate the inequities that already exist there. “COVID is a stark and unfortunate reminder of why the Census is so vitally important,” Menin said. “In the very difficult fiscal situation that our city is in, we cannot leave even a single dollar on the table, not to mention billions of dollars.”

New York state government, however, was already late to the census game and still hasn’t seemed to adapt to the current circumstances. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s pledge to allocate as much as $70 million in resources towards census operations has not materialized, even though $10 million of that was added in the state budget that passed in April. Included in the total was a $20 million pot of grant funding that was appropriated last year to fund outreach by community-based organizations. The grants were never awarded.

The state census effort is now being overseen by Empire State Development, which has repeatedly failed to provide Gotham Gazette with the state’s census plans (if any exist) that show any progress at all or take into account the conditions imposed by the COVID-19 crisis.

In an emailed statement, ESD spokesperson Kristin Devoe indicated that the census effort may fall victim to severe budget cuts that the governor has proposed because of the loss of state revenue amid the pandemic.

“We remain fully committed to ensuring a complete and accurate count of New Yorkers in the 2020 Census and are thankful the Census Bureau recognized the complications caused by the pandemic and delayed the filing deadline to October 31,” Devoe said. “While we are actively contemplating options to achieve this vital objective, the reality is, New York State is facing a 14% drop in revenue – $61 billion over four years – and in the absence of federal funding to offset this loss, the state is developing a plan to reduce spending by over $10 billion. About 90% of State funding supports schools, healthcare, local grants and services for the most vulnerable populations, and any category where the state doesn’t cut state spending will simply mean deeper cuts in another.”

[You can fill out the census online here. A digital code is not required though one might have been/be sent to you in the mail. You can also fill it out by phone by calling 844-330-2020. The Bureau also offers assistance and different phone lines for various languages. You can find those here.]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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U.S. Census Bureau Resumes Limited Field Operations in New York and NYC Continues Outreach While State Remains MIA Thu, 28 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
With No Relief from Washington in Sight and Billions in Budget Cuts Looming, What Can New York State Do? gov cuomo outlinesfy

Gov. Cuomo delivers a budget address (photo: Darren McGee/Governor's Office)

Despite pleas from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and state and local government leaders across the nation for major new federal help for budgets devastated by the COVID-19 recession, there is still no clear path to Washington acting quickly to provide financial relief. 

Although on May 15 the House of Representatives, with its Democratic majority, passed a $3 trillion aid bill for the country that included $1 trillion for state and local governments, President Trump announced he would veto the bill if passed in both houses of Congress and many Republican senators, who hold the majority in that chamber, were quick to announce the House bill dead on arrival. When serious negotiations on a new relief package will occur, or when an aid package might ultimately get passed, is not clear.

State Cutbacks are Coming, No Doubt
It’s been seven weeks since New York leaders adopted the state budget on April 2. That budget anticipated implementing $10 billion in spending cutbacks from what had been the original $105 billion budget submitted by the governor in January for the 2020-21 fiscal year. 

The state has yet to act on those massive cuts despite reaching a benchmark set in the budget that would trigger them, holding out hope for federal action.

Where New York is Now: Tax Receipts Plunge by 70%, 2 Million File for Unemployment
The state’s first benchmark was made public on May 15 by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and it is ugly.


STATE FUNDS Executive Budget
April Estimate
Drop from 
% Drop from 
$11,746.0  $3,583.9  -8,162.10 30.5%
DISBURSEMENTS $7,479.0  $4,373.0  -3,106.00 58.5%

This benchmark, presented in the table above, involved comparing New York’s actual tax receipts in April 2020 to an estimate constructed in the governor's Executive Budget for that month. The table shows the Comptroller’s cash report for April 2020 compared to the Executive Budget estimates. The Division of the Budget was authorized to begin implementing spending reductions if receipts were less than 99% of estimates. The receipts were 30% of estimates, according to the Comptroller’s May 15 report.

Tax receipts plunged about 70%, more than $8 billion, compared to the adopted budget projection, which used April 2019 as a normal baseline. 

The problem is two-fold. The economic downturn in New York is massive; more than 2 million New Yorkers have filed for unemployment in the last 8-eight weeks, about 20% of the state’s workforce. And the ordinary April 15 deadline for filing returns for both federal and state income taxes was extended to July 15, leaving New York bereft of normal tax revenues for months. The state is borrowing money for the short-term, but that won’t offset the overall plunge in revenue associated with the economic downturn.

New York State Faces Unprecedented Financial Challenges
New York state government now faces unprecedented challenges in attempting to manage a risky, uncertain set of dynamics that include:

1. Not knowing how much federal aid may come to the rescue, or when, or how deep New York’s own problems may be.

2.Not knowing how to use much of the federal aid already provided by Congress in the initial rescue packages because the U.S. Treasury’s guidelines for use of the funds has been unclear.

An analysis by the State Comptroller indicated that although New York State can utilize some funds provided by Congress for education and Medicaid, $5 billion allocated to New York in the first plan sits in limbo while New York awaits use guidelines. But with so many new expenses associated with the virus in health care and emergency response, much of that money could be unavailable for general budget relief.

3. The possibility that the job losses will drive up enrollment in the Medicaid program, increasing health care costs far more than currently anticipated and increasing the size of the state budget deficit.

The governor and Division of the Budget are undoubtedly still holding off because they know immediate implementation of cuts would be devastating. The governor’s daily press briefings display warnings of cuts to schools, hospitals, and local governments in the 20% range, meaning very large job losses for teachers, health care workers, transit workers, cops, firefighters, and other front-line government personnel. They are holding off despite realizing that too long a delay in making the cuts could make the situation worse for the providers of services that might be affected if little federal aid is forthcoming. Anyone getting a cut in their budget is better off knowing sooner rather than later so they can make plans to cope.

New York’s Current Plan to Mitigate Budget Cuts (short-term)
The state’s Financial Plan, issued April 25, showed that the state had backloaded about 40% of its $10 billion in spending cuts to next year, the final quarter of the state’s fiscal year, from January 2021 to the end of March 2021. 

Congress also permitted the state to defer payment of Social Security and other payroll taxes for its own workforce to save $1 billion or more, providing additional cash flow relief. 

The state’s Financial Plan indicates an effort to borrow $4.5 billion in May and June to cover initial revenue losses due to the tax filing extension and the recession. However, the adopted budget permits the state to borrow up to $11 billion short-term during the fiscal year (ending March 2021), and even permits the state to convert the short-term borrowing to long-term bonding. That means the state is permitted to borrow to cover operating deficits.

The State Comptroller’s analysis of the adopted state budget indicated the state could also re-evaluate its capital budget to defer nonessential projects to save cash and re-allocate financial settlement funds not yet spent for economic development projects. This could hurt recovery efforts in the future, however.

New York Can’t Count on Federal Help
A May 19 hearing in the United States Senate featured competing views on rescuing the economy. Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome Powell said failing to help state and local governments could result in hundreds of thousands of layoffs and further damage to the economy. Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, claimed the best way to help the economy was for the states to ‘reopen’ by easing social distancing restrictions and let people go back to work. It was also reported that President Trump met with Senate Republicans to strategize about new federal legislation, but remained circumspect about what he would support. The House returns to work after Memorial Day, from May 27-29, but many Senate Republicans want to wait longer than that.

Many states dominated by the Republican Party are already reeling from state and local government financial problems. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities is tracking state fiscal problems and has produced an analysis showing major problems in Louisiana, Kansas, Arizona, Missouri, Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma. An update to the Center’s report says Georgia has just announced across-the-board state budget cuts of 14%, and Texas announced state agency budget cuts of 5%.

One hopes additional federal aid will arrive soon, but it seems unlikely to be anywhere near as generous as the House bill provides.

Should New York State Borrow Money to Cover Operating Expenses? Yes
The state budget permits New York to convert up to $11 billion in short-term borrowing, envisioned to deal with the extension of filing tax returns to July 15, or possibly longer if the Federal government grants another extension, to long-term bonding. In other words, the state could sell bonds for 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, or 30 years, to pay for its operating deficits this year. This, of course, would avoid some or even a large part of the spending cuts.

Bond raters, budget watchdogs, fiscal experts, ordinary people, and even I agree that borrowing long-term to cover your operating expenses is ordinarily a mistake. However, the alternative — eliminating tens of thousands of jobs including hospital workers, teachers, cops, transit workers, and emergency responders as the pandemic continues, has severe consequences for both those workers and the tens of millions of New Yorkers who depend on them.

New York should make a firm decision it will borrow some of the money it needs to sustain public services in a pandemic-induced near-depression if it can’t get covered by the federal government.

Governor Cuomo, at one of his press conferences, said if the state had to make cuts and later received federal aid, he would restore the cuts. New York could still make modest cutbacks and hope ultimately the Democrats in Washington will be successful with a new round of assistance for the American people, in part through state and local governments. But if needed New York should borrow a large portion of the money to cover its operating expenses this year while addressing the long-term problems created by COVID-19.

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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With No Relief from Washington in Sight and Billions in Budget Cuts Looming, What Can New York State Do? Tue, 26 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Front-Line Workers Must Prove They Contracted Coronavirus on the Job to Receive Workers' Comp nurses hospital

Nurses at the frontlines of the coronavirus battle (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Nine weeks after Governor Andrew Cuomo closed all but essential businesses and services, many of the state’s essential workers are now finding themselves struggling with their employers and insurance companies for injury benefits related to COVID-19, and for those who die, their survivors are left to pick up the mantle.

Infected front-line staff, from health-care workers to grocery store clerks, are being asked to prove they contracted the virus on the job in order to receive workers' compensation and death benefits, union leaders and elected officials say. In some cases, insurance companies are asking nurses to identify which patient may have exposed them to the virus or when they had a breach of personal protective equipment, the officials said.

"There was an assumption that the employers were doing the right thing, that they were considering this a workplace illness because it was pretty obvious that all essential workers, to have to be out there while we were all sheltered in place, of course were exposed," Pat Kane, executive director of the New York State Nurses Association, said in an interview. "Certainly in the nurses' case, there is a sign on the door that says, 'This patient has COVID,' and you know you are going to be doing procedures that put you at risk. That's your job."

According to labor and elected officials, under the state's workers' compensation law, the burden falls on the employee to show they contracted the virus at work and not elsewhere, leaving first responders to pinpoint the specific circumstances in which they might have been exposed -- a monumental task in a pandemic, they say, and harder still for survivors of the deceased.

Labor unions, including NYSNA and the New York State AFL-CIO, have called unsuccessfully on the New York State Workers' Compensation Board to acknowledge COVID-19 as an "occupational disease" for front-line workers, which they say would create the presumption that they contracted it as part of the hazards of the workplace. The unions are now eying a bill in the State Legislature that would add the virus directly to the law, removing a significant administrative hurdle to workers receiving benefits.

The provision would mean employees in workplaces with a documented outbreak would be eligible to receive salary, healthcare, and survivors' benefits for COVID-related illness unless it could be proven that they contracted the virus in the community.

"Insurance companies have been denying claims from workers who have gotten sick with COVID-19,” said Assemblymember Aravella Simotas, who sponsors the bill with State Senator Jessica Ramos, both Queens Democrats. “They are requiring the worker to establish that they contracted COVID-19 on the job. What Senator Ramos and I want to do is we want to eliminate the administrative and legal burden of having to prove that they contracted COVID-19 at work."

"This is the number one issue for essential workers right now, aside from of course needing regular PPE," said Ramos, who chairs the Senate’s labor committee and represents some of the hardest hit zip codes in the country, in an interview.

The State Legislature will be in session Tuesday and Wednesday this week for the first time since the state budget was passed in April, but it is unclear whether the bill will be taken up. Simotas and Ramos say they have not been notified about what bills will be voted on as of Saturday, but are hopeful theirs will be included.

"We are discussing the session agenda with our members," wrote Mike Whyland, spokesperson for the Assembly Democratic majority and Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx, in an email Monday. The Senate Democratic Majority did not respond to requests for comment.

The price-tag of insuring over a million workers who may have been exposed to the virus leaves the legislation's future uncertain as the state forecasts a $10 to $15 billion budget gap this year alone due to the coronavirus-induced economic crisis.

At his daily coronavirus briefing on Monday, Cuomo announced the state would work with localities to provide death benefits to "public heroes" who died during the emergency. The governor did not yet provide a full list of who he intends to cover, but mentioned nurses and doctors, police officers, firefighters, EMS, and grocery store workers. The governor was later asked about the Legislature returning to session and said it should only be advancing “revenue-neutral” bills given the state’s severe financial distress.

The New York Workers' Compensation Insurance Rating Board, an association of insurance carriers that sets workers' comp rates in the state, estimated the price of the legislation to be a total of $31 billion, more than triple the $8.7 billion paid annually through the system. The estimate assumes that "much, if not all" of the state's workforce as of 2019, both public and private, would be eligible for benefits, and that every one who is eligible will apply for benefits.

"The cost estimates are just inaccurate," Simotas said. "They are overestimating how many people they think this is going to affect. Every time I've gone against the insurance companies that is always the issue: 'we can't cover, there will be too many claims.'"

According to an analysis from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer in March, there are just over 1 million front-line workers citywide, staffing emergency rooms, driving buses, cleaning buildings, providing childcare, and running shelters and soup kitchens. Guidance issued by Cuomo along with his “pause” order listed a huge litany of workers considered essential, including dozens of positions that interact directly with the public.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, with backing from the City Council and a smattering of state legislators from New York City, had called for the state to provide line-of-duty death benefits for municipal employees who have died of the novel coronavirus, but he has not pushed for broader workers' compensation. As of de Blasio’s May 19 call, there had been 270 city employees who had died from COVID-19. On May 10, the city extended health insurance coverage to surviving family members of city employees for 45 days.

In March, the state passed legislation making employees eligible for up to two weeks of paid sick leave for isolation due to the coronavirus. The law provides between five days of unpaid leave for employees of small businesses and 14 days of paid leave for workers at large employers. The law also made workers eligible for paid family leave and temporary disability insurance due to COVID-19.

The nurses union says that measure is just a start, because many front-line workers, especially nurses who see infected patients, have high viral loads and are often out sick for much longer than 14 days.

"A thing to emphasize here is they weren't looking for a new benefit," said Kane of NYSNA. Nearly 3,600 nurses in downstate New York (9.2 percent of NYSNA membership south of Kingston) notified their employers of COVID-19 exposure, according to the union. "They are looking for something that everyone should be entitled to in this situation and there was a lot of pushback."

"We are not creating a new benefit,” Simotas said, “we are just ensuring that essential workers who become ill or disabled from COVID-19 can receive the benefits that they are entitled to."

"We are reviewing the legislation, although the workers compensation system already provides that employees who contract COVID-19 from their work will already receive the full benefits available under the Workers’ Compensation Law," wrote Caitlin Giourard, a spokesperson for Cuomo.

But where the burden of proof lies is the crux of the matter for workers struggling with the pressures of a job on the front lines while getting sick or dying of COVID-19.

The Greater New York Hospital Association, a network of over 160 hospitals in the region, did not respond to inquiries about claims that nurses are being asked to prove they contracted the virus at work in order to receive benefits.

"Workers Compensation claims are not evaluated by the employer but by state regulated insurance companies and the state worker’s compensation board," wrote a spokesperson for Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, in an email to Gotham Gazette. But NYSNA leaders say many hospitals have a culture that discourages workers from filing claims.

Melissa Stewart, a spokesperson for the Workers' Compensation Board, which is appointed by the governor, wrote in an emailed statement: "The law will protect these essential workers impacted by COVID in the workplace and provides for medical care, wage replacement or even death and funeral benefits regardless of the occupational disease designation."

She continued: "A worker who develops COVID-19 should provide details about where he or she works, how often they work, and the type of job duties they perform, especially those involving contact with the public. A claimant needs to have a medical report from an authorized workers’ compensation medical provider stating that work caused the illness."

According to the New York Compensation Insurance Rating Board (NYCIRB), the average temporary disability claim in New York is $600 per week, and the average indemnity for death is $575,000.

"It's kind of a joke to put the additional burden on a nurse to have to prove that she contracted COVID at a hospital,” Simotas said. “It defies logic. It's unfair."

Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, an emergency room nurse at Montefiore Hospital and president of NYSNA, said that workers' comp is "a bigger thing than us because it involves all the essential workers. The heroes...The heroes that they don't want to give workers' comp to. Why are we heroes? What did we do that's heroic? We took care of people and risked our lives. So can you give us workers' comp when we get sick?"

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Front-Line Workers Must Prove They Contracted Coronavirus on the Job to Receive Workers' Comp Mon, 25 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Muddled, Shifting Messages from De Blasio on Essential Metrics as City Nears 'Reopening' de Blasio coronavirus briefing

Mayor de Blasio during a recent coronavirus briefing (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

New York City’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has been a battle on shifting sands. As information about the disease and officials’ recognition of its threat evolved over time, so did the government approach, from initially continuing business as usual well after the first cases in the city were confirmed to a statewide shutdown of sorts and strict social distancing guidelines that have now been in place in New York City for over two months.

But adding to the uncertainty that has gripped the city during this crisis has been a lack of clear messaging from Mayor Bill de Blasio about how the city is doing on key coronavirus-related public health and recovery metrics set by the mayor himself, as well as those set by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who holds ultimate say over the city’s “reopening.”

On April 9, de Blasio announced three key infection and hospitalization “indicators” the city would be tracking to evaluate its progress on the downside of the COVID-19 curve, with goals he said the city would have to meet in order to begin reopening the economy and get people back to their daily lives.

“Now, what do we need to start to discuss moving to the next phase, that better phase and to start to discuss any change, any relaxing of restrictions?,” de Blasio said at the time. “We need to see all three of those indicators move in unison in the same direction. We cannot see two of them get better and one of them get worse. That doesn't work. All three have to move together down; all three have to move in a better direction together. They have to do that for at least 10 days to two weeks -- sustained, consistent. If one day gets good and the next day goes bad, that doesn't count. We need to see a clean, clear pattern that sustains itself for several weeks to then say it's time to even discuss some of the positive changes we'd all like to experience.”

To begin to even attempt to resume some normalcy, de Blasio said, there would have to be 10-14 days of consecutive reductions in hospital admissions for suspected COVID-19, number of people with coronavirus in the ICU in the municipal hospital system, and the percentage of people testing positive for the virus. 

But those metrics did not account for the possibility of slight day-to-day upticks amid overall positive trendlines, and other than on Fridays the mayor was not showing any larger picture at his daily public briefings, where he focused only on the day-to-day change. De Blasio presented updates on whether the daily numbers on coronavirus hospitalizations, public hospital coronavirus ICU patients, and positive COVID-19 tests were up or down from the day before, talking about progress or regress and showing red or green arrows for each of the three metrics based on that day-to-day change, not presenting New Yorkers with the fuller picture.

Meanwhile, his health department posted its own version of the mayor’s metrics on its website, with thresholds shown relative to the three “milestones,” as the department calls them but the mayor doesn’t, and graphs with easy-to-understand labels like “We want to be below this line” and notes about “consecutive days” below such thresholds but not of consecutive day-to-day decline.

Adding to the confusion, de Blasio was using hospitalizations across all of the city’s roughly 66 hospitals, but ICU patients only in the city’s 11 public hospitals. And on the percentage of tests coming back positive, his indicators did not account for the fact that for some time the city was encouraging tests for only highly-symptomatic individuals or those who had been exposed to known coronavirus-positive people, then significantly widened the pool as testing capacity ramped up.

Well before Friday, when the mayor announced a shift in how he’d be presenting the metrics that will align him much more with his health department’s website, the city had been showing strong progress on two of the three metrics relative to the thresholds shown by the health department under its “milestones” tab on its widely-used coronavirus data page.

But even as he centered his daily briefings around his three indicators, only to shift them as the city got closer to beginning to “reopen,” de Blasio’s tallies matter less to the city’s future than seven metrics Governor Cuomo released in early May, which de Blasio has only discussed when asked by reporters.

Cuomo’s March 20 “New York on PAUSE” executive order was what placed New Yorkers under a semblance of stay-at-home restrictions and shut down or significantly limited many “non-essential” businesses, starting March 22. On May 4, Cuomo announced the state’s seven metrics that regions would have to meet to begin reopening, a process set to occur in four phases. Seven of 10 regions have already hit the metrics to enter phase one, with two more expected early this coming week, leaving only New York City remaining. The metrics to enter phase one include:

-Consistent decrease in the three-day rolling average of hospitalizations over 14 days, or keep the daily increase in hospitalizations under 15 over a three-day average.

-Consistent decline in daily deaths over 14 days, or keep the daily increase under five deaths over a three-day average.

-Fewer than 2 new hospitalizations per 100,000 residents over a three-day rolling average.

-A minimum of 30% availability of hospital beds.

-A minimum of 30% availability of ICU beds.

-A daily testing capacity of 30 tests per 1,000 residents per month.

-Hiring a minimum 30 contact tracers per 100,000 residents.

The first phase of reopening, as determined by the state, will allow manufacturing, construction, and wholesale and curbside-pickup retail to resume operation.

So far at his daily briefings, the mayor has not addressed each of the state’s metrics individually, even as the city approaches meeting them all. The city has met four metrics – on hospitalizations, deaths, and testing – and is close to meeting the rest. As of Friday, the city hospital bed availability was at 27% and ICU bed availability was at 28%, and it was on track to soon hire the requisite number of contact tracers, who will help execute the testing, tracing, and isolation program deemed necessary to reopening.

nys regions metrics reopening may 22

The mayor has expressed familiarity with the state’s metrics when asked about them by reporters, and indicated on Friday that he agrees with them and the reopening stages they allow regions to begin. “I think the state standards make a lot of sense,” de Blasio said. “They're careful. They go through stages. You have to prove each stage before you move to the next one.”

On Friday, the mayor announced the city’s shift to “thresholds” for its first phase of reopening, which he said is expected to happen by mid-June. The thresholds are a different way of looking at the mayor’s three indicators, he explained, saying that given the city’s progress it was time to take the longer view.

De Blasio said the daily hospital admissions for suspected COVID-19 will have to remain below 200; the daily number of people in municipal ICUs (now counting non-COVID-19 patients as well) will have to be under 375; and the city will have to stay under 15% of people testing positive for coronavirus each day. 

“We want to move forward,” de Blasio said. “We want to get to that first phase of restart....What is clear is, for the first time I've seen these indicators stay consistently low and so it's time to talk about the indicators differently as we prepare for phase one,” the mayor said, apparently unaware that his health department had been showing such progress and thresholds for days. “The day-to-day changes, the small up-and-downs matter less. What matters more now is staying at a low level and keeping that way. And so, we're going to be about thresholds now. So, our indicators that we talked about before were trend lines, now we're going to talk about thresholds and that's going to be the focus going forward.”

On Friday, de Blasio showed that on Wednesday, May 20, there were 76 new hospital admissions of coronavirus patients, 451 patients in ICU, and 11% of positive COVID-19 tests. On Sunday, de Blasio did not hold a briefing but tweeted the latest data on his three metrics, attaching graphs and saying, “Hospital admissions and positive tests for COVID-19 are looking good — and the number of patients in @NYCHealthSystem ICUs continues to drop.” Data for Friday, May 22, showed just 53 new hospital admissions, 415 ICU patients, and a 7% positive test rate.

He continued, “The strategies are working. Social distancing is working. What you’re doing is working, New York City. Keep it up.”

Even between his Friday presentation and his Sunday tweet, de Blasio’s graphs had different labeling: whereas on Friday the three threshold graphs were labeled “indicator threshold,” on Sunday the graphs had the health department language of “we want to be below this line.”

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Asked to further explain his decision to focus on new metrics, de Blasio told reporters on Friday, “The trend lines were a great measure, because they said to us, we couldn't just, you know, make a little bit of progress. We have to make a lot of progress. We have to keep moving in the right direction...But we then realized in recent days that with two of the three indicators, we are below the threshold we would need to be at on a long-term basis…So, it got to the point of saying, hey, we need to look at our definition and see if it makes sense at this moment. We're going to always, always vary our approach according to new information and new realities. We're all learning together about this. So, it's this simple. The thresholds now make sense. This is a standard.”

De Blasio’s realization had already been apparent to his health department and anyone using its data web-page.

With de Blasio's new "thresholds" and as of the latest city and state numbers, the gaps for the city to hit both de Blasio's and Cuomo's metrics to begin "reopening" boiled down to: 40 fewer people in city's public hospital system ICUs (city metric); 4% more ICU beds available (state metric); 2% more of total hospital beds available (state metric); and hiring requisite contact-tracers (state metric the city is "expected" to meet soon). 

But in the bigger picture part of any confusion around metrics and a possible reopening of New York City also stems from different messages being put out by the mayor and the governor, including where de Blasio has focused on his three indicators while Cuomo has presented his seven metrics.

At times during the crisis, the two Democrats seem to have continued their long-running feud, with the governor repeatedly making moves that appear to undermine or show up the mayor, and the mayor taking apparent steps to get ahead of the governor or establish his own authority.

When de Blasio said a stay-at-home order may need to be issued and told New Yorkers to prepare for it, Cuomo repeatedly shot down the idea just days before putting an order in place to effectively achieve the policy the mayor had said should be considered. After the mayor said schools will need to stay closed for the rest of the school year, Cuomo insisted that the mayor did not have the authority to make such a declaration, before declaring it himself a few days later. The two held separate events on the same morning to welcome the USS Comfort hospital ship to Manhattan’s west side.

Even now, the state and city have not come to an agreement on counting the number of deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. As of May 22, the city reported 16,333 confirmed deaths and 4,753 probable deaths, for a total of 21,086 deaths. The state, on the other hand, reported a total of 15,520 confirmed deaths in New York City as of May 22.

Yet Cuomo and de Blasio have both insisted that there is little to no daylight between the state and city. De Blasio said on Thursday, “The big story here now over three months is that the city and state have been very, very much on the same page. There's been a couple of times where there's been different perspectives. We've worked them through. But overwhelmingly...not only did everyone communicate all the time, but there's overwhelmingly a sense of common purpose, common strategic understanding.”

On May 15, de Blasio even indicated the city and state may work together to further shift the requirements for the city to begin reopening, saying, “Anything we do would be in close coordination with the state. And look, if conditions suddenly became more favorable, we'd have that conversation with the state and obviously we and they could make adjustments. But, right now, I think we're all aligned that the first half of June is the earliest opportunity for even some lessening of restrictions and we'll work together on that.”

At his own daily briefing on Friday, when asked about the different communications from the mayor on reopening, particularly on schools, Cuomo said, “I don't think we're on a different page at all on schools and reopening. My position is I don't have a position. I don't know whether or not they should reopen yet. We're getting more information. We're getting more data. And we'll make the decision on the fall reopening in a timely way. We're telling them, go ahead, do your plans. Tell me how you would take a classroom, reduce the density. Tell me how you would reduce density on a school bus. Tell me how you would reduce density in the cafeteria setting, etc. Give us those plans by July and then we have to make a decision about September. But I don't think there's a difference of opinion or position between the state in the city.”

Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa added that there’s been close coordination with the mayor on key decisions, including on allowing small religious gatherings and on reopening beaches over the Memorial Day weekend with strict social distancing restrictions -- though while state beaches are open to swimming, city beaches are not.

“We speak to the city 17 times a day,” DeRosa said. “We've been in lockstep on everything. The indicators that they laid out initially line up almost identically with our indicators. And, you know, we did the religious ceremonies decision, which is something that they agreed with. On beaches, we wanted to take into account the local situations and that was something that I know Mayor de Blasio supported. And so we've been operating in lockstep with the city.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

Muddled, Shifting Messages from De Blasio on Essential Metrics as City Nears 'Reopening' Sun, 24 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
City Budget Crisis, State Bail Reform Could Delay Closure of Rikers Island Jails dcc jponte rikers

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

The Rikers Island jail complex, a notorious and decrepit institution sitting on 413 acres in the East River, was slated for closure well before New York City became the country’s epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, during which the complex has emerged as a hotspot for infections that have led to the deaths of several detainees and corrections officers.

But the timeline for shutting down the jail complex and building local jails in four boroughs has been thrust into uncertainty by countervailing forces: state bail reforms were recently rolled back and could reverse a downward trajectory of New Yorkers detained on the island pre-trial, but there are also fewer detainees than ever before as the city has released hundreds in the interest of their health and safety during the pandemic. Meanwhile, due to the economic shutdown, the city’s financial picture has become dire, quickly shifting planned investment in the construction of the new jails necessary to the closure of those on Rikers.

The $8.7 billion plan to close the Rikers jails by 2026 and replace them with four smaller, safer, and more humane borough-based jails, in each borough except Staten Island, was approved by the New York City Council last year after years of pressure from criminal justice reform advocates and elected officials who decried the horrid conditions and crumbling infrastructure of the island’s jails. 

[A Closer Look at the Costs, and Savings, of Closing Rikers and Building Four New Jails]

The plan was put into motion in 2017 by former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who convened the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, chaired by former New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippmann. The commission crafted the foundation of the city’s plan for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who reluctantly embraced it but then ensured a path to its fruition.

The closure of Rikers was contingent on reducing the average daily jail population to below 5,000. In October, when the Council voted on the plan, the daily average was about 7,200 and dropping, with major state-level bail reforms set to take effect in January; there are 14,000 beds across the city jail system. The initial design of the borough-based jails calls for a total of 3,795 beds, and the city intends to house only 3,300 detainees across all four.

As this year began, the bail reforms were implemented, arrests continued their multi-year drop, and the city jail population shrunk significantly, to 5,557 by March 16. But facing a growing campaign of criticism, including some disinformation and fearmongering, state lawmakers decided in April of this year to alter the still-new bail reforms, ensuring more defendants jailed pre-trial. By the time that decision was finalized, the state was already in lockdown due to the coronavirus, concerns about the health of detainees were growing and tax revenues were plummeting. As he ordered the release of some Rikers detainees, de Blasio redesigned his capital budget plan to postpone spending on the new jails.

“In October 2019, the City Council, backed by the Mayor and numerous justice reform advocates, passed a historic measure that will allow the City to replace Rikers Island with four new community-based facilities by 2026. That remains the plan,” said Colby Hamilton, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, in an email.

Initially expected to be completed over a decade, the closure plan timeline was shortened to nine years after a spate of reforms passed last year by the Democrat-led state Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo that eliminated cash bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felony offenses. Those reforms quickly led to a 40% decrease in the city’s pretrial jail population over the previous year, according to an analysis by the Center for Court Innovation.

But, just three months after those reforms went into effect, Cuomo and the Legislature rolled them back, reinstating cash bail for dozens of offenses and giving judges discretion in setting bail for offenses currently ineligible for pretrial detention. The new rules go into effect July 1 and the Center for Court Innovation estimates that they will lead to a 16% increase in the use of bail and detention over one year, based on the number of people ordered to bail and remand in 2019, adding about 450 more people to the average daily jail population.

After the rollback, activists worried that the Rikers plan was in jeopardy, though the de Blasio administration has not expressed the same level of anxiety. “We also do not believe the recently passed changes to the State bail laws will have a significant impact on the jail population -- we remain on-track for 3,300 by 2026,” Hamilton told Gotham Gazette, referencing a new projection released by the city just before the City Council voted through the jails plan.

The Council also remains committed. “The goal of closing Rikers has not changed,” said a spokesperson for Speaker Corey Johnson, in a statement. “We will work to build on our criminal justice reform efforts as we negotiate a budget during an unprecedented economic downturn.”

The pandemic has proved both a curse and a blessing to those who want to see Rikers shuttered for good. Already reviled for its inhumane conditions, Rikers was at risk of becoming a petri dish for the coronavirus. Data released last week by the Department of Correction showed 362 confirmed cases of coronavirus among the jail population, and another 1,319 among DOC staff. Three detainees and ten corrections officers have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

But, because of the concern for safety of detainees, since the city went into lockdown, de Blasio has ordered the release of hundreds of people detained for nonviolent offenses or those who are particularly vulnerable because of age or preexisting medical health conditions. Cuomo has also taken measures to reduce jail and prison censuses across the state, including by releasing some people incarcerated for technical parole violations.

There are now 3,906 people in New York City jails, down 1,651 from March 16. Of those still in jail, 3,421, or 87.5%, are pretrial detainees, including 595 there on open cases and parole violations. Another 214 are being held only on technical parole violations with no open cases, such as missing curfew or an appointment with a parole officer, for instance.

For those who have long criticized New York’s punitive carceral system, the drastic reduction in the jail population through administrative measures has been vindicating, though there have been a number of detainees who have been rearrested after being released. And the pandemic has added to their fervor to push for a quicker closure of Rikers.

“The COVID-19 crisis has only created more urgency to shut down the Rikers jails, and we are closer than ever to actually doing so,” said former Chief Judge Lippman, in a statement, noting that the jail population was lowered below 4,000 through “smart decisions” while prioritizing public safety. He said the city could still move forward with the borough-based jail plan despite its fiscal woes and “put a permanent end to the miserable legacy of Rikers and save billions in operating costs over the long term. This is a time of great difficulty and pain across the city, but it is not the time to turn back on our commitment to a better future.”

Tyler Nims, executive director of the Lippman Commission, echoed Lippman in a phone interview. “We have fewer people in jail than in any time in recent memory,” he said. “This crisis has just heightened the need to shut Rikers down and placed even more attention on the harms that incarceration can have and the need to use it as sparingly as possible.”

A new report from the commission that looks at the impact of the recent changes to state bail laws recommends several measures that will ensure that the jail population continues to fall after the pandemic. The commission is pushing for the passage of the Less is More Act, sponsored by Manhattan state Senator Brian Benjamin and Brooklyn Assemblymember Walter Mosley, which would limit reincarceration for technical parole violations. That would enshrine into law the administrative changes that the mayor and governor have enacted in the last two months.

The commission also urges district attorneys and judges to employ the additional discretion they will have after July 1 and request bail only when absolutely necessary, expand the use of supervised release, and provide greater pretrial services like housing to those who need them. “There are also a lot of things that can be done by the courts, by the district attorneys, by the city to make sure that that additional judicial not used in a way that results in a return to the pre-bail reform practices,” Nims said.

The commission also recommends implementing an “ability-to-pay assessment” for cases where cash bail may be imposed and calls on the state Legislature to give charitable bail organizations greater ability to post bail.

“I do have faith that, with the right political pressure, the right smart policies and laws can be put in place to continue the progress that has already been made,” Nims said.

However, the mayor’s latest budget proposal released last month would delay capital spending meant to build the new borough-based jail system. The administration cut the entire $140 million it planned to spend on the effort in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, and reduced planned capital spending in the next fiscal year from $392 million to $196 million. Even in the best of times, the city has struggled to complete large capital projects on time and within budget. The design process for the jails has barely begun – the city released a Requests for Qualifications for construction vendors for the project in November. While reiterating that the city plans to meet its larger timeline, MOCJ’s Hamilton did not address the delay in capital spending or say whether the planning process for the borough-based jails is still on track.

[Jails, Affordable Housing and Other Capital Projects Delayed as City Grapples with Cash Crunch]

The city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure was suspended on March 16, which means that a land use measure initiated by the City Council that would officially prohibit future jails on Rikers Island by designating it a public space was also put on hold.

City Council Member Costa Constantinides, whose district includes Rikers, has called on the City Planning Commission to resume hearings virtually to ensure the process is completed. “Every day we let this application stall is another life put at risk on Rikers. Nothing should stop the decision to close Rikers Island, when we have proven everything from City Council meetings to weddings can be conducted remotely,” he said in a statement last week. “What this virus has done to the detainees, employees, and guards there only underscores why we cannot wait any longer. If there is one application the City hears virtually, in a way that keeps everyone safe, it should be the one that guarantees Rikers is no longer used as a jail.”

Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank, has suggested that, with the financial uncertainty the city currently faces, the administration would be better off abandoning the borough-based jails plan and instead rebuilding Rikers. “With the pandemic, the city must inevitably rethink its capital-budget priorities so that one experimental project does not overwhelm the rest of the scarcer money available for critical infrastructure,” she wrote in a report last week that cited the city’s poor performance on capital projects in the past, among other issues with the plan.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Budget Crisis, State Bail Reform Could Delay Closure of Rikers Island Jails Tue, 19 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Governor Cuomo Owes Subway Riders and Homeless New Yorkers A Housing Plan flushing amid pandemic

Governor Cuomo disinfects a subway car (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

The subway is New York’s circulatory system. If it doesn’t recover, New York won’t. But reopening the subway and the city means more than running more trains: It also means helping homeless New Yorkers who today have nowhere else safe to go.  

That is because, as Governor Cuomo demonstrated, the city’s transit crisis is too entwined with its housing crisis for the MTA alone to bring the subway back. In response to the rising number of New Yorkers with no choice but to seek shelter underground, the governor took the most dramatic step he’s taken since putting the state on pause: closing the subway system between 1 and 5 a.m. each night.

The end of 24-hour-a-day subway service made international headlines. In a cruel twist of irony, New York may no longer be the city that never sleeps and at the same time has one less place for unhoused people here to bed down. But closing the subway will not prevent people from sleeping in the transit system, so long as no other safe options are available. To date, the governor and Mayor de Blasio have refused to offer hotel rooms for homeless individuals on the streets or subways who need safe spaces to socially distance and take care of their basic human needs. Although the Mayor has touted that 1,000 people are being moved from congregate shelters to hotel rooms each week, thousands of homeless New Yorkers still face a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 in congregate shelters -- and those on the streets and subways are not offered these hotel placements directly. 

For several decades, as rents have risen, wages have not kept pace. In the past 15 years, New York City has lost more than a million low-rent units, and housing construction for extremely low-income and homeless households has not kept pace with that loss. That inequitable mismatch has increased the number of people who can’t afford a place to live, whether or not they work. Moreover, the shocking economic and health effects of the coronavirus pandemic have forced newly homeless people onto our streets and into the subways.

While New York City maintains a legal right to shelter, the congregate nature of many shelters is simply not safe, as evidenced by the spread of COVID-19 throughout approximately 171 shelters so far. Homeless New Yorkers on the subways know this and are consciously and reasonably refusing to enter shelters and risk their health.

At the same time, New York City needs 24-hour subway service. A significant number of riders -- many of them essential workers -- depend on the subway for travel between 1 and 5 a.m. and have no other option. Essential workers in health care, food service, building services, and more ride transit overnight while the rest of us sleep. Overnight subway service is essential to restore our 24-hour economy as soon as is safely possible. A full recovery is unimaginable without it.

Meanwhile, daytime service, which moved several million people daily for more than a century until March, will falter if crowding is unmanageable as New York reopens. As more New Yorkers return to work, the ability to maintain social distance on the commute is key. Governor Cuomo must ensure subway riders have more space than before. But to reliably limit crowding and keep both homeless and housed New Yorkers safe, he will also need to safely house people who have had to resort to sheltering inside subway cars.

The answer to homelessness in our transit system is not to drive people off the subway and further into the shadows, further from the help they so desperately need. The answer is to offer them safe temporary shelter and permanent housing. Right now, the city and state are deploying NYPD, MTA Police, and outreach workers to clear trains at night and offer “services.” These services are in the vast majority of cases a transport to an unsafe congregate shelter. Many individuals on the trains are aware of the risks of COVID-19 in shelters and take their chances on the streets instead.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Member Stephen Levin recently proposed opening the city’s more than 100,000 empty hotel rooms to homeless people. This sensible option can provide the safe, private accommodations everyone needs to ride out the pandemic. With no indication when tourism will return, allowing homeless individuals on the streets and in the transit system to immediately access hotels is a creative, humane, and efficient way to match surplus with need. It is the right thing to do.

Similarly, state legislators led by Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi and Senator Liz Krueger have long advocated for state-funded housing vouchers to move people off streets, out of shelters and other public spaces, and into homes of their own. The Home Stability Support program and more permanent supportive housing would put state resources behind ending one of the harshest manifestations of life in the most unequal state in the nation.

In the coming weeks, these worthy proposals should form the basis of a housing plan fit for the subway that will keep riders safe. To reopen New York to everyone, around the clock, Governor Cuomo must seize the moment to meet New Yorkers’ housing needs.

Danny Pearlstein is Policy Director at the Riders Alliance. Giselle Routhier is Policy Director at Coalition for the Homeless. On Twitter @dannypearlstein & @RidersAlliance & @giselle_ashley & @nyhomeless.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Governor Cuomo Owes Subway Riders and Homeless New Yorkers A Housing Plan Tue, 12 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
As 2020 Count Proceeds, New York State Census Plans Haven't Launched gov cuomo census

Gov. Cuomo at the NY Census Conference (photo: governor's office)

According to plans, New York state government would have spent the equivalent of $70 million this year on its effort to ensure that all New Yorkers are counted in the 2020 Census. But as the state has experienced a devastating coronavirus outbreak, that effort has, for all appearances, never gotten off the ground, and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration has done little to inform residents that it is in their best interest and that of the entire state to fill out the Census.

The decennial population count, mandated by the United States Constitution, determines the amount of federal funding states receive for all manner of programs from children’s insurance and food stamps to transit infrastructure and public housing. It also forms the basis for drawing electoral districts at the local, state, and federal levels, dictating how many seats each state will hold in the House of Representatives for the next decade.

Owing to the pandemic, city, state, and federal officials have been forced to cancel on-the-ground efforts to conduct outreach and to physically count households. Instead, they are focused on ensuring a greater self-response rate, particularly since the Census can be filled out online, making it easier to be counted than in previous censuses. (It can also be filled out by phone and through a paper questionnaire that the U.S. Census Bureau mailed to every household that did not respond online or by phone by April 8). The self-response deadline was also extended from July 31 to October 31.

But, among New York’s population are many “hard-to-count” communities, which tend not to respond to the census on their own in large numbers, either because of a general mistrust of government, apathy, or unfamiliarity with the process. They include seniors, African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants (particularly the undocumented), people experiencing homelessness, public housing residents, and others. Those segments of the population all tend to be undercounted, which also means they lose funding for valuable services and their voices in the political process. Already, because of a loss of population over the last ten years, New York could lose one Congressional seat, and two in the case of a severe undercount.

New York is already lagging behind. As of May 9, the state’s self-response rate was 52.7%, compared to a national rate of 58.3%, according to the CUNY Mapping Service’s Census data project.

Now more than ever, because of the coronavirus, activists have stressed the need for a broad campaign to make New Yorkers aware of the importance of filling out the Census. Federal funding for health care programs and social services will be vital after the pandemic passes. For future outbreaks and other crises, census data will be indispensable. For instance, during last year’s measles outbreak in New York City, health officials relied on census information to decide where vaccinations were needed.

New York City took heed of this urgency well before the pandemic. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and the City Council together committed $40 million to outreach, with $19 million awarded to community-based organizations that could reach hard-to-count populations on the ground and millions more in advertising and other efforts. After the pandemic hit, they quickly suspended all in-person outreach and shifted strategies, launching phone-banking and text-banking efforts, and altered an ad campaign that was already in the works.

New York State has shown none of the same commitment, even though Governor Cuomo and the Legislature added another $10 million in census outreach funding in the state budget that was passed in April. The state had intended on providing $20 million in grants to nonprofits around the state, money that had been appropriated a year prior, in April 2019, but delayed the grant process till even after the 2020 Census count had already begun. When the coronavirus outbreak began, not a single dollar had gone out.

Cuomo also announced in November that state agencies would be committing $40 million worth of their time and other resources to ensuring a full count, but those agency-by-agency plans, which the governor said would be formed and pledged to release publicly, do not appear to exist -- recent Gotham Gazette requests for them have been ignored.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in order to protect the health and safety of all New Yorkers, the federal government and New York State have suspended in person census outreach at this time,” said Kristin Devoe, a spokesperson for Empire State Development, the state quasi-agency that is now overseeing the grant process. “The State remains committed to ensuring a complete and accurate count and will be advancing media outreach targeted at our hard to count populations. Every New Yorker counts and ESD hopes to safely restart the NYS 2020 Census Complete Count Outreach Grant funding as soon as possible.”

Devoe said the grants had not been awarded because they were meant for in-person outreach, which is effectively impossible at this point during the pandemic. “Until we can safely have face to face interactions, this grant is on hold for public health reasons,” she said.

The state census effort had earlier been under the auspices of the Department of State and Division of Budget. There is also meant to be a work group coordinating agency plans. But, despite repeated requests, state officials have not provided any details of how those plans have evolved after the outbreak. Devoe also did not say why ESD is now in charge of the process or respond when asked about who sits on the workgroup and who leads it. There is no public information to suggest the workgroup exists. The governor’s office did not respond to a separate request for comment. 

Activists who have spent the last two years preparing for the Census, and are still doing all they can to spread awareness of it and encourage New Yorkers to fill it out, have been disappointed by the state’s lack of commitment.

“It's unfortunate. Obviously, the funds would be necessary at this point and certain areas of the state, we know they are not doing the work just because they don't have the money to do the work,” said Meeta Anand, Census 2020 Senior Fellow at the New York Immigration Coalition, a statewide organization that advocates for immigrants. NYIC is a member of NY Counts 2020, a statewide coalition formed to ensure an accurate census count.

Anand noted that with the self-response deadline extended, the state could dole out the $20 million in grants to help community-based organizations conduct the types of outreach that New York City and its grantees have turned to, including phone-banking and text-banking. “There's still a lot of time to turn this around and get New York out of the basement,” she said.

As Anand noted, Cuomo has spent weeks criticizing the federal government and Republicans in Congress for their recalcitrance in bailing out New York from the fiscal devastation of the coronavirus. He has repeatedly pointed out that New York sends billions of dollars more in tax revenue to the federal government than the federal funding it receives every year. An accurate census would help mend that imbalance. “He's the governor of New York and he wants us to have our fair share of resources. I'd like to believe that he cares, but I would need to see some words and action to give me that belief,” Anand said.

In January, Cuomo kicked off state census operations and created a Census Council -- headed by Martin Luther King III, Lucy Liu, and Lin-Manuel Miranda -- to convene conferences and direct census outreach. “As this federal administration continues to disenfranchise immigrant communities and use every means possible to stop them from filling out this year’s Census questionnaire, we are taking aggressive actions to ensure every single New Yorker is counted,” Cuomo said at the time. He has since fallen silent on the issue and it’s not clear the council has done anything.

Rachel Bloom, director of public policy at Citizens Union, a government reform group, and a member of the steering committee of NY Counts 2020, reiterated the governor’s relative indifference to the Census. “He's never been that invested in the Census,” she said. “I think that’s evidenced by the fact that he has these press conferences every day where he talks for an extended period, he has an enormous platform, and he hasn't yet discussed the Census.”

Besides a simple “fill out the census” message at his daily briefings, Bloom said the state could be doing much more even in the current circumstances. “People are interacting with the government more than ever,” she said, citing the millions of people filing for unemployment insurance and the many thousands lining up at food pantries. “They're getting government services more than ever,” Bloom said, “so it’s a ripe opportunity in those interactions to remind people to fill out the Census.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
As 2020 Count Proceeds, New York State Census Plans Haven't Launched Sun, 10 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Coronavirus Crash Prompts Renewed Calls for New York Divestment from Fossil Fuels, But Comptroller Stands Pat divest ny fos

A protest to push for New York pension system divestment from fossil fuel stocks (photo: @350)

The oil and gas industries are experiencing significant upheaval as the coronavirus pandemic decimates economies across the globe. The price of crude oil in the United States temporarily fell below $0 per barrel for the first time ever last month, prompting renewed energy among activists and elected officials in New York who want to rid the state pension fund of all investments in the fossil fuel industry.

But the one person they must convince, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, has remained steadfast that the stocks remain good investments, though he's made a number of concessions, investing in more renewable energy companies and studying options around divestment.

In recent years, as the threat of climate change becomes evermore urgent and parts of the world have made moves away from fossil fuels, New York State has passed sweeping energy sector reforms and set goals and regulations to transition towards renewable sources of energy. 

But the New York State Common Retirement Fund, the public pension fund for over a million current and retired New York employees, continues to invest heavily in fossil fuel company stocks. Currently worth $210.5 billion, the fund had more than $13 billion invested in fossil fuel companies at the end of March last year, according to an analysis by, an international climate change advocacy movement that has been at the forefront of the push to get public entities to divest from fossil fuels. The group’s report found that, in the last year, the pension fund has lost more than $1.5 billion in value in its investments in 16 oil and gas companies, a trend that they said is unlikely to be reversed even after the coronavirus pandemic passes. 

As the sole custodian of the pension fund, Comptroller DiNapoli, a Democrat who has held the seat since 2007, has taken steps towards investments in fighting climate change through the pension fund. In June of last year, he released his Climate Action Plan, which aimed to double the pension fund’s investment in sustainable climate solutions from $10 billion to $20 billion over ten years, and to promote climate risk management and assessments in the companies under the pension portfolio, among other steps.

DiNapoli has resisted calls for divesting the fund from the fossil fuel industry, even as some New York City public pension officials have moved aggressively toward divestment. DiNapoli has consistently argued that fossil fuel industry investments continue to produce sound returns, satisfying his number one obligation to retirees, and that he can be an activist investor and push companies to adopt more environmentally beneficial policies.

“Climate’s a big issue and just selling stock in fossil fuel companies is not gonna solve it,” he said in a general election debate in 2018 when he was running for reelection. “[W]e have to go through a societal change and for now, in the short run, we still are making money from the oil and gas stocks.” 

Even after the value of oil went negative in April, DiNapoli indicated no change in his approach. “Our position remains the same on divestment,” said Jennifer Freeman, a DiNapoli spokesperson, in an email. “Across the board, industries have been hurt by COVID-19. We continue to move forward on our Climate Action Plan. No developments that we'd comment on.”

DiNapoli’s arguments don’t hold water for activists, who point out that fossil fuels have been a bad financial investment for years overall. The fund’s investments in companies that use fracking to extract fossil fuels are also seen as particularly hypocritical in a state where the governor banned the practice five years ago and with the Legislature codified it into law in this year’s budget. 

“Yes, divest for moral reasons, but my goodness, you really should be divesting for financial reasons,” said Mark Dunlea, co-founder of New York’s Green Party, who ran against DiNapoli in 2018 on the single issue of fossil fuel divestment. 

“When you have world leaders saying, ‘We have to stop using fossil fuels, whether it's five years from now or 15 years from now’...That's not a viable business model moving forward,” he said about maintaining those investments.

In recent weeks, activists and elected officials have escalated their push for the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act, sponsored by Manhattan State Senator Liz Krueger and Brooklyn Assemblymember Felix Ortiz, both Democrats, that would require the comptroller to divest the pension fund from major oil, gas, and coal production companies over five years.

The New York Youth Climate Leaders, a statewide youth coalition, held a virtual lobby day on April 21 ahead of Earth Day, speaking with nearly 40 members of the Legislature in virtual and phone conferences. They blasted out to lawmakers and on social media a video that features pensioners and high school students supporting the divestment call.   

Both Ortiz and Krueger have pledged to push for the bill’s passage in the limited time remaining in the Legislative session this year, though most legislation has been put on the backburner because of the pressing conditions imposed by the coronavirus outbreak. 

“I think the timing cannot be better in these horrible circumstances,” said Assemblymember Ortiz, in a phone interview, noting that the adverse impacts of climate disproportionately harm communities of color. “A tough time can give us the opportunity to bring vision solutions...I think we need to make sure that we continue to move the ball forward and continue to embrace this conversation.”

The Senate version of the bill recently gained majority support in the chamber, with 33 sponsors; the Assembly version has 52 sponsors and would need 76 in total for a majority. Even Governor Andrew Cuomo has supported divestment since 2017, though Cuomo has not been especially vocal about divestment nor taken up the Divestment Act in his lengthy annual agendas. The governor has taken his own efforts to pursue similar measures by the parts of state government he controls, made the aforementioned fracking moves, and worked with the Legislature to pass the sweeping Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.

Krueger said though the bill has not passed, there have been similar models followed in other jurisdictions. “So we are moving the world while we're perhaps not speeding ahead of the rest of the world,” she said in a phone interview. Just the discussions around the bill and the pension fund’s investment in “stranded assets” like oil and gas that are slowly losing value have been effective in pushing DiNapoli towards their goal, she said. 

As Krueger noted, DiNapoli hasn’t completely ignored the advocacy efforts. In January of this year, DiNapoli announced that he would review whether 27 coal companies that the fund has invested in are moving towards more sustainable business models. “Investors who fail to face the risks and seize the opportunities presented by climate change put their portfolios in jeopardy,” DiNapoli said. “We are assessing minimum standards for transition readiness at coal mining companies first, because they face the greatest risk as the world turns to cleaner and renewable energies. If a particular company is not ready to move away from its reliance on thermal coal mining for profits, we may divest our holdings in that company.” The review was expected to last several months. 

“I would say it's probably five years too late for the coal industry,” said Richard Brooks, campaign coordinator with, who otherwise praised the move. “But if he's going to continue to do these reviews, he needs to accelerate these reviews and do it across all of the energy sector.”

Krueger echoed Brooks’ urgency. “If you look at [DiNapoli’s] handling of our pension funds, you can't really say he's not paying attention to the issue. He just doesn't want the Legislature to be able to insert itself into what he defines as his authority,” she said. “And he thinks that he is moving us in exactly what direction we should be going. I don't disagree with him on the direction, I disagree with him on the speed at which we are getting there.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Coronavirus Crash Prompts Renewed Calls for New York Divestment from Fossil Fuels, But Comptroller Stands Pat Mon, 04 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo v. De Blasio: Who Has the Last Word on Reopening New York City? Cuomo de Blasio coronavirus

Cuomo and de Blasio at a March briefing (photo: Don Pollard/Governor's Office)

This guest column is part of Citizens Union Speakers, a regular series of op-eds written by members of the Citizens Union Foundation community in Gotham Gazette, CUF's flagship public education program. The opinions expressed in these Citizens Union Speakers columns are those of the authors alone, not Citizens Union Foundation, Gotham Gazette, or any other entity.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Turf battles between government executives occur all the time. But when it comes to a public health crisis like this pandemic, ultimate decision-making really matters, and lives are literally at stake.

In the early days of this COVID-19 crisis and since, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have at times clashed over the timing of business shutdown orders and school closings, so the question arises, "Who has the final say over when and how New York City reopens?"

Sorry, Mr. Mayor: It isn't you. Under well-established New York law, it's the Governor.

That is not to say that the Mayor is without authority to act in such an emergency. New York State Executive Law Section 24 provides that a local "chief executive may promulgate local emergency orders to protect life and property or to bring [an] emergency situation under control," and the New York City Charter itself incorporates that same language.

But the New York Court of Appeals has severely circumscribed municipal home rule, holding as recently as 2013 that the State's authority was paramount even over the City's local taxi medallion industry, reasoning that "the public health, safety and welfare of residents of the State of New York traveling to, from or within the City of New York" is "a matter of substantial State concern."

So if the Governor wants to overrule the Mayor in this situation, he clearly can do so.

Leaving no doubt about it, the State Legislature just two months ago amended New York State Executive Law 29-a to expand the Governor's power to respond to such an emergency. That statute now authorizes the Governor, "by executive order," to "temporarily suspend any state, local law, ordinance, or orders, rules or regulations, or parts thereof, of any agency, during a state disaster emergency, if compliance with such provisions would prevent, hinder, or delay action necessary to cope with the disaster or if necessary to assist or aid in coping with such disaster."

The State Legislature explained that it intended by this amendment to allow "the governor" to issue "any directive necessary to respond to a state disaster emergency." That statute further provides that the Governor "may issue any directive during a state of disaster emergency declared" in an "epidemic," now defined to include a "disease outbreak."

Thus, when Mayor de Blasio suggested in mid-March that he was considering a "shelter-in-place" order for New York City, Governor Cuomo sought to pre-empt the field by issuing an executive order that "no locality or political subdivision shall issue any local emergency order" regarding COVID-19 "without the approval of the State Department of Health."

As a result, it seems crystal clear that Governor Cuomo has the emergency authority to issue executive orders intended to address the COVID-19 pandemic, including overriding the requirements of existing laws and the directives of local officials like Mayor de Blasio for the duration of the crisis. And court decisions support that conclusion.

For example, just last month, a state court judge ruled that "it is within the Governor's power to suspend th[e] statutory right" to a preliminary hearing "during a state emergency disaster." And nearly 20 years ago, another state court judge found that Governor Pataki had the power to suspend the Speedy Trial Act in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center.

Of course, the State Legislature remains free to check the Governor by taking back the power it gave him. Indeed, it expressly provided in Executive Law 29-a that it "may terminate by concurrent resolution executive orders issued under [that statute] at any time." In reality, though, the State Legislature gave the Governor that power and even expanded it in the early days of this COVID-19 crisis, so that is not going to happen anytime soon.

In other words, within New York State, Governor Cuomo really does have the "total authority" that President Trump claimed over all 50 states to direct emergency response during this pandemic. And there's nothing Mayor de Blasio can do to cross him because the Governor can override any of the Mayor's moves to address this emergency disaster. So in this chess match between political heavyweights, it's checkmate for Cuomo.

Randy Mastro is the Chair of Citizens Union and Citizens Union Foundation, a former New York City Deputy Mayor, and a current partner at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

This guest column is part of Citizens Union Speakers, a regular series of op-eds written by members of the Citizens Union Foundation community in Gotham Gazette, CUF's flagship public education program. The opinions expressed in these Citizens Union Speakers columns are those of the authors alone, not Citizens Union Foundation, Gotham Gazette, or any other entity. The authors all have extensive experience in New York City government and/or civic affairs.

Cuomo v. De Blasio: Who Has the Last Word on Reopening New York City? Mon, 04 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000