Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1425 Fri, 14 Aug 2020 08:01:11 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) De Blasio Offers No Transit Plans as City Heads Toward 'Reopening' https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9456-de-blasio-no-transit-plans-as-new-york-city-heads-toward-reopening-coronavirus https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9456-de-blasio-no-transit-plans-as-new-york-city-heads-toward-reopening-coronavirus intervale ave bx

Mayor de Blasio rides the bus (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


New York City is set to begin a phased “reopening” on Monday, June 8, as indicators show significant progress in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. But as many New Yorkers start heading back to work, Mayor Bill de Blasio has offered no solutions to balance city residents’ need for transportation, maintaining public health by preventing new coronavirus infections, and preventing all-out gridlock if too many New Yorkers turn to cars.

About 5.4 million people rode the New York City subway on an average weekday in 2018 and another 1.8 million rode city buses, according to MTA data. But the pandemic led to a precipitous drop in ridership as the city went into lockdown, and the MTA -- a state authority that runs the subways and buses -- eventually instituted overnight system closures of the subways for thorough cleanings of trains and stations and the removal of homeless people from the system.

With the long-awaited first phase of “reopening” almost upon the city, transit advocates and commuters have been largely left in the dark about how government will ensure that people can safely use mass transit without the fear of contracting the coronavirus and what measures will be put in place to expand mass and other transit offerings. In order to maintain adequate social distancing, trains cannot be packed to the brim as they were during rush hour before the pandemic. Many people, including transit advocates and some elected officials, worry about a major increase in vehicle traffic, further clogging the city’s infamously congested streets and polluting its air. 

For weeks, de Blasio was largely dismissive of calls for a transit plan, insisting that the city was nowhere close to seeing a crush of people commuting and that it was up to the MTA to lead the subway process, which he said the city would participate in. The mayor appeared at ease with the idea of an increase in car use and to have thought little about creative solutions to offer additional or new options to people.

De Blasio estimated that the first phase of reopening – which will allow construction, manufacturing, wholesale, and commercial retail, by pickup only, to resume operation – will involve between 200,000-400,000 people going back to work.

“There’s not always a chance to help people all the time in terms of their transportation needs,” de Blasio said at his daily coronavirus briefing on May 29, when asked about transit plans. “People are going to have to improvise and I believe they will.”

In an interview on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show later that day, de Blasio defended his comments. “I think we're nowhere near the number of people on the road or the number of people in the subways that we normally would have,” he said, noting that more than a million people have lost their jobs while others are working remotely. “Even if everyone uses their car, it's not in the next few months going to create the kind of congestion we're used to by any stretch. So, I want people to feel comfortable with mass transit, but I know a certain number of people are going to use their car. For the next few months, we're going to get by with that. Going forward though, the future is mass transit. In fact, the future has to be a doubling down on mass transit once we get out of this crisis.”

The mayor’s words were further confirmation for his critics that he has never been particularly focused on the woes of commuters, and that his defense of car drivers can override transit policy. Advocates and experts note that though de Blasio does not control the MTA, which is in practice run by the governor, he has authority over the streets and can use his power to expand transit alternatives, expand and build new bike lanes and facilitate a broad expansion of the bus network to handle commuters returning to work while a pandemic is still significantly impacting behavior.

“I think it's fair enough to say that he's passing the buck,” said Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “The city should be doing a lot to reconfigure the streets to take pressure off of the subway system, including just putting out much better protected bike lanes so that as many people as possible can ride a bike to work.”

Gelinas said the city could rent out open air tour buses so that commuters can safely travel to work without worrying that they may get infected in a closed-air environment where virus transmission is more likely. “I don't think they’re being very creative at the city level,” she said.

Compounding the issue has been the apparent lack of coordination, at least on public messaging, between the mayor and the MTA. “Optimally...any type of major announcement, you would have the mayor and the MTA chiefs make it together so that everybody knows everyone is saying the same thing,” Gelinas said. But the mayor and interim MTA New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg have disagreed publicly, with the mayor saying on Friday that he has received little clarity from the MTA. Feinberg responded on Twitter, “With all due respect. We have no idea what the mayor is talking about. The MTA has briefed City Hall multiple times on reopening, including another productive meeting held just yesterday. If the Mayor has questions, he can pick up the phone and call us at any time.”

As Gelinas noted, “It's not a hallmark of a government that's functioning well during an emergency.”

On Tuesday the mayor called on the MTA to take seven specific steps to meet imminent increased ridership demand, including by increasing service during peak hours, limiting capacity on buses and trains to maintain social distancing, limiting crowding at subway stations, providing face masks, and installing hand sanitizing stations, among others. In his request, de Blasio said the city would provide 1 million masks and called on the MTA to do the same.

Barely two hours later, the MTA put out its own letter to the de Blasio administration outlining the steps it will take to ensure a smooth reopening. In a clear indicator that the two parties did not coordinate their releases, the MTA said the state would provide 1 million masks and called on the city to do the same, after the mayor had already said he would.

The MTA estimated it would need the city to provide it with 3,000 volunteers to help implement the reopening plan as well as to deploy additional NYPD officers in the transit system. And though the plan states that subways and buses will return to “full, regular service” by day one of phase one, an MTA spokesperson told Gotham Gazette that 24-hour subway service will not resume; the 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. nightly overnight cleaning shutdown will continue.

 On Wednesday, June 3, the mayor said he would release plans to expand bus service in the coming days. “We’ve got to get back to the process of creating faster bus service. I'll have more to say on that as we can get through these next days, obviously. But we do want to absolutely deepen that effort,” he said at his daily briefing in response to a reporter’s question. “I think people do feel more safety right now in health terms in the buses than they do in the subways. I want to see people feel healthy and safe about both. But we do need to double down on buses. And we'll certainly have more to say on the specifics of that soon.”

Transit advocates and urban experts believe the mayor is wasting precious time, and was doing so well before the incidents of the last few days with widespread protests against police brutality and significant looting in some pockets of the city. His delays now appear likely to be compounded given he’s now been dealing with a situation that led him to institute a curfew.

“The mayor is being very complacent and that complacency can end up being very dangerous,” said Ben Fried, communications director for TransitCenter, a think tank and advocacy group. “He really does have a lot of power to make transit work for people, even in challenging circumstances, because he controls the streets and if he doesn't act on the power he has, then most riders are going to get stuck in traffic and there will be cascading effects that are no good for anyone.”

Last week, TransitCenter and other transit advocacy groups including Riders Alliance, Tri-State Transportation Campaign, NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign, and Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition wrote to the mayor calling for a network of emergency bus lanes to ensure that essential workers can continue commuting to work smoothly and to prevent additional vehicular traffic on the streets. “Time is of the essence. To lead an equitable recovery for the New Yorkers who have been most affected by the pandemic, City Hall must get out in front of rising car congestion,” the letter reads.

The groups called for 20 miles of busways (where most car traffic is prohibited) and bus lanes for medical facilities and essential workplaces by the end of this month and 20 more miles over the summer, particularly in Queens and the Bronx where the Department of Transportation has already looked at bus priority projects.

“Today, implementing an emergency bus lane network is an urgent matter of racial justice, public health, and economic necessity,” the letter reads. “Nearly half of regular NYC bus commuters are classified as essential workers. The vast majority are black and brown New Yorkers. They are tending to the sick and vulnerable, ensuring the city doesn’t go hungry, and keeping the lights on.”

Fried gave the mayor some credit for ramping up the expansion of bus lanes and pledging to increase bus speeds by 25% by 2020, which he promised in his State of the City speech last year but has made slow progress on. “He risks squandering that progress if he doesn't act now,” Fried said. More bus lanes would mean buses can run more frequently leading to less crowding, Fried noted. “That is the path toward a more successful reopening,” he said.

During his most recent Friday morning Brian Lehrer Show appearance, a caller implored de Blasio to restore millions in planned cuts to his bus lane program. “I'm going to go back and look at this again because I think you're right,” de Blasio told the caller, Beth. The mayor said buses could be somewhat safer than trains and pledged to take a careful look.

“But I think what Beth is saying is ringing a real bell with me that if buses are where people are going to feel more comfortable, then we should lean into buses more and work with the MTA to figure out what's going to help us maximize usage of buses,” de Blasio continued.

Later in the appearance he reiterated he is working with the MTA but also awaiting a plan from the authority. “People have to know that there is a plan to limit the number of people on a subway car or a bus,” de Blasio said. “What that looks like, what that number should be, how it's going to be enforced, how we're going to educate people – and we're ready to partner with the MTA on it.”

As the experts noted, mass transit isn’t an end in itself. It is crucial to the very reopening that de Blasio is trying to undertake. For businesses to get back on their feet, they will need workers and customers, and short of creating safe ways for people to get around, only those within walking distance will be able to shop at stores or dine at restaurants, Gelinas said.

Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director at the Center for an Urban Future, a think tank, said, “I see this as a real test of our ability to be prepared to reopen. Without trust in public transit, we're literally going to grind to a standstill.”

“There is a long-term risk of a general breakdown of the transportation system that the city's economy relies on and that is causing people who have the option to leave the city to go somewhere else,” Fried said.

The contrast with other cities has been stark. Early on during the pandemic, de Blasio repeatedly claimed that New York City was uniquely unsuited to instituting widespread open streets, like Seattle had done, for instance. He eventually caved to demands from the City Council and the public and announced a plan to create 100 miles of open streets, where most car traffic is disallowed indefinitely.

“San Francisco and Boston are taking steps to ensure that people can get around without cars,” Fried said. “They're not waiting months to formulate a plan. They are getting stuff done in a matter of weeks and New York really has to be thinking on the same timetable.”

De Blasio has slowly announced more bike lanes, albeit temporary ones that are less effective than alternatives in keeping bicyclists safe, while also cutting funds for permanent bike lanes that were originally proposed in his budget for the next fiscal year.

“He's never really put himself in the pedals of a bicyclist,” Gelinas said. “It's very striking that in Paris, in London, you have the mayors just building out a huge network of bike lanes almost overnight...In Paris, you have the mayor riding a bike and setting a good example.”

She also noted that in cities like Tokyo and Seoul, transit systems have been adapted to ensure that people can travel back and forth safely. “But we don't really have either of those things at the city level,” she said.

On WNYC, de Blasio appeared to acknowledge the need for the plans he has not presented. The subways and buses need to be handled well, the mayor said. “We also know, honestly, a lot of people are just going to refuse to take the bus and subway in the short-term and they're going to try and find other alternatives,” he continued. “We’ve got to navigate all of this. This is so unlike anything we're used to in New York City.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with the mayor's comments from his June 3 press briefing. 

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De Blasio Offers No Transit Plans as City Heads Toward 'Reopening' Tue, 02 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Infrastructure Investment Can Restart the Economy, But Prioritize Fixing What We Have https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9447-infrastructure-investment-can-restart-the-economy-but-prioritize-fixing-what-we-have https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9447-infrastructure-investment-can-restart-the-economy-but-prioritize-fixing-what-we-have si water hurricane

Existing infrastructure needs major investment (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


Governor Cuomo traveled to Washington on Wednesday to meet with President Trump, where he pitched the president on infrastructure investments like an expanded Second Avenue Subway and a new Penn Station. The governor is right to push for a national public works program, which would get thousands of newly unemployed Americans working again while tackling urgent infrastructure needs. 

The last time the nation embarked on a major public works program, it produced dozens of large-scale projects in New York that helped dig the city and the country out of the Great Depression—from the RFK Bridge, the Lincoln Tunnel, and LaGuardia Airport to post offices, hospitals, high schools, and swimming pools across every borough.

A bold public works program would give New York a similar boost during these devastating economic times. But New York’s infrastructure needs are different than they were during the 1930s. Today, what the city needs most is a massive campaign to upgrade and maintain the infrastructure it already has. 

For decades, New York City has fallen behind the mounting state-of-good-repair needs of its crumbling public infrastructure, with serious consequences for the city’s livability and long-term health.

For instance, while building new miles of subway is a worthy goal, the urgent need is to stabilize the current system. Fixing the city’s crumbling subways and modernizing the bus system will require at least $40 billion over the next five years, including $7 billion just to upgrade decades-old signals and cut down on delays. These investments can restore confidence in public transit in a moment of crisis—and with the system shut at night and the city on lockdown, now is the time to get to work.

New York City’s aging infrastructure needs extend far beyond public transit. The city’s beleaguered public housing—home to a disproportionate share of residents impacted by the current crisis—is waiting on more than $31 billion in urgent infrastructure repairs, including crucial fixes to moldering apartments and crumbling facades. 

The city’s average public hospital—essential to the pandemic response—is over 57 years old, and the system is staring down nearly $400 million in critical repair and maintenance costs.

The city’s public parks—especially vital now that New Yorkers have few other options for recreation and exercise—are more than 73 years old, on average, and face more than $634 million in needs, including decaying drainage systems, crumbling retaining walls, and disintegrating bulkheads. 

Parks are far from the city’s only green infrastructure challenges. Thousands of acres of concrete and asphalt need to be greened to reduce stormwater runoff. And meeting the city’s ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require fast-tracked upgrades to retrofit far more public buildings. 

Many of these assets receive little notice until they fail. Over the past decade, the city has averaged 459 water main breaks annually, more than one per day. The number of fracture-critical bridges jumped from 47 in 2012 to at least 67 in 2018. 

Add to the list the stunning repair needs affecting the city’s public schools, colleges, and libraries—institutions that provide a sense of community in neighborhoods citywide, while preparing New Yorkers to participate in the economic recovery.

The Department of Education has nearly $2.5 billion in urgent, short-term capital needs, with over $100 million more at CUNY’s community colleges. And the city’s three public library systems—where the average branch library is more than 65 years old—are facing nearly $900 million in capital expenses to overhaul aging branches, replace leaky roofs, fix broken boilers, and upgrade HVAC systems. In addition, these institutions and many others need major upgrades to expand broadband access and help close the city’s persistent digital divide.

As the city at the epicenter of a national catastrophe, New York will need a historic level of federal investment to restore livelihoods and restart the country’s largest local economy, with lasting benefits for the nation and the world. Investing in infrastructure is a vital place to start. 

But in a city as old as New York, the first priority should be repairing, restoring, and modernizing the aging infrastructure that we’ve already got. There’s no shortage of shovel-ready work to do.

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Jonathan Bowles is executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, a New York–based think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity. Eli Dvorkin is CUF’s editorial and policy director. On Twitter @jbowlesnyc, @wetwax, & @nycfuture.

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

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Infrastructure Investment Can Restart the Economy, But Prioritize Fixing What We Have Thu, 28 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Could a Public Works Program Save New York City's Economy? https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9371-could-public-works-program-save-new-york-city-economy-coronavirus-jobs https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9371-could-public-works-program-save-new-york-city-economy-coronavirus-jobs maybdb arrival

Could the reinvigoration of the New York economy come from public works? (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Somewhere around a million New Yorkers are out of jobs and billions in tax revenue has evaporated as New York City bears the brunt of possibly the worst disaster in its history. The coronavirus has been devastating the city’s people, their way of life, and their livelihoods. As elected officials and experts look to the future, when the pandemic eventually subsides, they must plot a path out of the crises that will remain.

New Yorkers will need jobs, and once the city is running again in some form, it will need its infrastructure to bear pace. As a growing number of experts and elected officials has suggested, large-scale public works and jobs projects could be the solution, marrying twin needs by putting people back to work while rebuilding and reimagining the post-pandemic urban landscape.

Public works are a tried and true method to inject adrenaline into the economy after a period of significant disruption. In the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1933 created the Public Works Administration, or PWA, which pumped $4 billion over nearly 6 years – the equivalent of about $79 billion today when adjusted for inflation – into the construction of public buildings, dams, sewage plants, hospitals, roads, highways, and more. In 1935, it was followed by the Works Progress Administration, which provided employment to more than 8.5 million people over eight years to work on infrastructure construction projects while also funding arts and culture and more. The WPA received nearly $5 billion to accomplish its goal, nearly $99 billion in today’s dollars.

New York City, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, has taken stabs at large infrastructure projects and creating jobs, with a four-year, $67.2 billion capital program and the “New York Works” jobs and workforce development plan to create through city intervention 100,000 “good-paying jobs” (at least $50,000 annually, according to the mayor) by 2027. But those efforts have in some ways lacked ambition and have now been hobbled by the budget crunch currently facing the city because of the coronavirus. The city has postponed many planned infrastructure investments, and was already struggling to get momentum behind the jobs program.

Federal intervention -- desperately being sought to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars by de Blasio and other elected officials in New York and across the country -- could help not only in keeping infrastructure plans on track but could also fund broad educational training programs, including some with social services components.

“New York has significant infrastructure needs, so a public works program could be a real boon to the city, not only to get New Yorkers back to work but to take care of some of our enormous challenges like climate change,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, an urban policy think tank.

Those needs are indeed dire, and were well before the city’s economy came to a grinding halt. New York City sorely lacks affordable housing, an issue de Blasio has sought to tackle with a much-criticized 300,000-unit, 12-year plan. The building stock of the New York City Housing Authority, the public housing agency home to more than 400,000 New Yorkers, has been crumbling from disinvestment over decades and needs roughly $40 billion, with its maintenance and repair costs projected to rise to about $68 billion over the next eight years. The state authority that runs the city’s subways and buses was finally on a more focused path to address much-needed upgrades and repairs, but that $50-plus billion vision has been derailed after the pandemic plunged the MTA into fiscal chaos.

Many neighborhoods in the city desperately need more school seats, park space can be at a premium, and as Bowles’ organization showed in a 2014 report, “Caution Ahead,” many of the city’s public buildings, roads, bridges, water and sewer mains, and subway signals were more than 50 years old. The report said the city would require $47.3 billion over five years to bring infrastructure to a good state of repair. Last year, CUF published an update to the report that noted progress made on water and sewer infrastructure and road surfaces by the de Blasio administration, but also found that other areas had worsened, with state-of-good repair funding gaps increasing for the Department of Education, Department of Parks and Recreation, and the New York City Housing Authority, among other agencies.

Though the question of funding underpins everything, several local elected officials have been raising the idea of a massive program to build infrastructure and create jobs to ameliorate the city’s unemployment crisis, while injecting money into the local economy and building, repairing, and improving city infrastructure.

City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat running for city comptroller in 2021, is calling for a program modelled on the WPA. Council Member Mark Levine, a Manhattan Democrat whose leadership of the Council’s health committee has propelled him toward the front of the current crisis, has called for a $1 billion investment in the creation of a 15,000-strong “public health corps” to directly fight the coronavirus and provide a raft of related services to its victims.

“My goal is to spur big thinking on this and help the public see the opportunity here by going big to make it safe to reopen,” Levine, who is running for borough president, told the New York Daily News.

“We are going to need to make the most intelligent [budget] cuts possible and look at the macroeconomic solutions, which involve more government spending,” Rosenthal said in a recent interview on the Max & Murphy podcast from Gotham Gazette and City Limits. “We have to build back in such a way to begin to address the economic disparities that have already existed.”

At the federal level, Congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx and Queens has been a prominent voice for a Green New Deal, a major green infrastructure program that she championed well before the coronavirus made the idea all the more appealling to those looking to the federal government to boost the economy. Almost all of the city’s congressional delegation has signed on as co-sponsors. 

De Blasio has already announced several task forces and economic sector advisory councils to lead the city’s comeback from the coronavirus, including a “fair recovery” task force and one focused on racial inclusion and equity. Their suggestions are due to the mayor in a few weeks. Governor Andrew Cuomo has also convened his own reopening committees.

There are several underlying prerequisites to a massive public works program that experts say would be necessary for it to launch and succeed. Chiefly, they say any such program cannot begin without the federal government infusing billions of dollars into local projects. A successful strategy should also include job training and apprenticeship programs so that workers, particularly low-income workers who lack a college education, aren’t left in the cold once the infrastructure projects are completed, experts agreed.

Then there’s the question of which projects should be prioritized. Should the city build more mass transit infrastructure that can reduce people’s reliance on cars? Can New York City build new affordable housing while also bringing its public housing stock to a state of good repair? Resiliency projects to help withstand the ravages of climate change? Schools? Parks? Water infrastructure? Road and bridges? Community centers and libraries? And will public funding spur or in some cases even depend on private investment?

Will the federal government come through?
New York State and City both have massive capital infrastructure programs already underway. But the coronavirus has prompted recalculations. Mayor de Blasio’s latest budget proposal, created amid severe budget shortfalls, delays funding for several infrastructure projects, including his affordable housing program. The move will bring down immediate debt costs but could strain the city’s already overburdened and crumbling infrastructure, among other negative consequences. Without federal funding, the city will struggle to keep even current projects going, let alone launch new ones.

“It's in the interest of the federal government to see people back at work, but also to fortify the infrastructure, bridges, roads, school buildings and public housing,” said Bowles. “That's the job of the federal government. So it is their responsibility.”

Chris Jones, senior vice president and chief planner at the Regional Plan Association, noted in an interview that the New Deal programs were worth about 7% of the country’s GDP at the time, which would equal at least $1.5 trillion now. “They should be talking about something of that order of magnitude,” he said.

He pointed out that state and local governments are still in “survival mode” and that all efforts are focused on getting through the crisis as best as possible. “There’s certainly a lot the city and state can do but without a substantial amount of federal funding, it’s still going to be in the mode of trying to maintain a state of good repair, modernize where they can, and using every tool that’s available to do that,” he added.

But the wheels of government turn slowly and President Donald Trump has spent the last three years repeatedly expressing support for a major infrastructure plan, but never delivering one. In light of the pandemic, Democrats in Congress have been pushing for some infrastructure in the next round of federal stimulus funds, which has led to a degree of optimism that it could finally be achieved. But not everyone is convinced.

“Like in so many areas, Donald Trump has given lip service to ideas like infrastructure and never really shown the willingness to invest or to push the Republican Party to invest,” said Shaun Donovan, former Secretary for Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama, who worked on recovery efforts after the Great Recession prompted by the housing and banking crisis. “Unfortunately, I’m concerned that we may need to wait for Joe Biden to become president in order to get a significant investment in infrastructure,” said Donovan, who is considering a run for New York City mayor. 

“I don't trust Trump, or the Republican Party to craft a proper infrastructure plan,” said Vishaan Chakrabarti, an architect, former city planner, and associate professor of professional practice at Columbia GSAPP. 

The current crisis, however, may force the federal government’s hand. Trump has vacillated on statewide closures as he sees the economy hemorrhaging, and wants people back in the workforce as soon as possible. Infrastructure investment is also an issue of bipartisan consensus.

“The federal government will show up,” said Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild By Design, an organization in New York formed to propose solutions to recovery from Hurricane Sandy, “because they need to ensure that our entire economy is rolling again and a big piece of that is usually on the capital spending and construction side, because it employs a lot of people.”

Which projects should be prioritized?
Those who spoke with Gotham Gazette had largely similar ideas for where an infrastructure program should be focused, but one thing they all agreed on was that any and all projects should prepare for the impacts of climate change.

As Chester pointed out, there are steps the city and state could take in the coming months. The fall election ballot will give voters across the state the chance to approve a $3 billion ecological restoration and flood mitigation bond act championed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. And the city’s capital program is still in motion, and should actually increase spending, Chester said, particularly with interest rates remaining low.

Carlo Scissura, president of the New York Building Congress, said the federal funding could quickly jumpstart “shovel-ready projects” like the expansion of the Second Avenue Subway, the redesign of Penn Station, the renovation of LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark Airports, to name a few. “You have to really prioritize what is ready, what can happen in the next six months to a year, and those projects should be the ones that really continue to boom and move forward,” he said.

Others expressed a longer and more holistic view. 

“For me, an investment in infrastructure has to meet multiple tests,” said Donovan, who also worked on the federal response to Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, and the Ebola and Zika virus outbreaks. “While all of these disasters are different, they all share similarities in the sense that those who are most vulnerable before the crisis are hit hardest by the crisis. “We have to make sure that we're starting with infrastructure investments that are going to benefit the most disadvantaged, benefit people of color in New York City, and that has to be central to the way we're looking at the challenge because in many ways, the true measure of recovery will be how the most vulnerable are recovering.”

Donovan said the city needs to develop a “culture of resilience” so that every project, no matter how small, is planned with climate change in mind. And he spoke both of environmental and social resilience, noting that building infrastructure that promotes stronger social ties – parks, libraries, and the like – also helps bind communities during times of crisis like the present. Those communities can then respond faster and more cooperatively when the time calls for it.

“I don't think we should be prioritizing one over the other,” said Chakrabarti. “I look at these things like, ‘Where are places where we can simultaneously deliver great mass transit, housing that people can afford, schools that are great, and easily accessible health care.”

Chakrabarti noted that the 2009 federal stimulus after the Great Recession intended on a large infrastructure program but largely failed to realize long-term investments, instead choosing to favor shovel-ready projects. For instance, the push for a high-speed rail system was left by the wayside.

“High-speed rail didn't work out because it wasn't shovel ready,” he said, noting that the environmental review process and the strong lobby behind it meant that large projects like that could not be streamlined. “As a consequence, all of the stimulus money back in 2009-10 ended up being spent on things like filling potholes. We didn't get any lasting infrastructure out of it because of this shovel-ready problem triggered by this environmental review problem.”

An example of the kind of holistic projects that Chakrabarti envisions is the master plan for Sunnyside Yard, which he helped create for the city (his contract has ended). “That's a classic example where you're not prioritizing real infrastructure or housing. You're looking at it holistically, to do a bunch of things at once,” he said of the initial plan that would deck over a massive Queens railyard to build 12,000 permanently affordable homes, 60 acres of open space, a regional rail hub, new schools, libraries and other types of social infrastructure..

The priorities, according to Bowles, should be retrofitting city buildings to make them energy efficient and building more green infrastructure, fixing the “embarassing state” of New York City public housing developments, and building digital infrastructure for city schools.

New York State has already moved along this front. Last year, the Legislature and governor enacted the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which some called a version of a Green New Deal for New York. It mandates strict new limits to curb greenhouse gas emissions and requires a broad expansion of renewable energy sources to replace the state’s energy consumption, with the expectation that thousands of jobs will be created along the way.

What role will the private sector play?
Perhaps the one area where there seemed to be disagreement among the experts Gotham Gazette talked with was the degree of involvement for the private sector in the success of a public works program. 

Where government investment goes, private investment naturally follows. “Any dollar that the city spends is going to have a multiplier effect,” said Chester. “We just need our public investment to step up and do it in ways that are going to ensure that our communities are going to be enhanced for the future.”

Scissura said public projects should work in conjunction with private investment. “Even with the federal government, we should be doing public-private partnerships,” he said. “I don’t think it’s one or the other. You get federal investment. You do public-private partnerships. You get bonds. You do everything all at once.”

Chakrabarti scoffed at the idea. “The severity of the COVID crisis, especially in New York City, is 40 years of neoliberalism coming home to roost. It's 40 years of underinvestment or no investment in public goods,” he said. “For instance, why did it take so long to close our schools? Because our schools also act as homeless shelters.”

Public-private partnerships, he said, have failed to maintain the city’s infrastructure or meet the pressing needs of its population. “It’s not clear to me that the private sector actually delivers these things more efficiently.”

Will there be a pipeline for jobs and training?
Bowles argued that any infrastructure program should be supplemented with apprenticeships and job training, to create new skilled workers who can continue to be employed after projects are completed. But that’s something that New York City has struggled to do even in good times.

The city’s workforce development plan, produced in 2014, de Blasio’s first year as mayor, has mostly been shelved. It was meant to invest $60 million annually by 2020 to connect low-skill workers with entry-level jobs and workforce training, and $100 million annually by 2020 to help middle-skill workers. By November 2017, only $6.4 million had gone to the first program while the second had received only about half the announced funding.

De Blasio’s jobs plan, New York Works, was announced in 2017 and meant to create 100,000 “good-paying jobs” in ten years. By June 2019, it had only directly produced 3,725 new private sector jobs, raising questions about whether the city’s investment of hundreds of millions of dollars was an efficient use of its funds, though officials said they expected it to move slowly initially given its focus on developing useful space for jobs to flourish, like renovations at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the creation of a life sciences center.

The New York City Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit quasi-agency that leads the city’s main job creation programs, is focused, as is all of city government, on the response to the coronavirus. “Once we move past the worst of this public health crisis, job creation will be key to making up what we lost,” said Chris Singleton, an EDC spokesperson, in a statement. “Whether these jobs are in the public or private sector, we'll do everything we can to get New York back to work - and building a fairer and better city for every New Yorker.”

Experts who are already preparing for that fairer and better city agree that it can only be achieved if the economic recovery is focused in part on bolstering the workforce through training and investment in the city’s public university system, CUNY, by maintaining the city’s quality of life to prevent urban flight, by focusing on low-income communities of color that are hardest hit by the virus, and promoting small businesses, particularly those owned by women and people of color.

Council Member Rosenthal is optimistic that the federal government will provide the necessary infusion of funds that the city needs to leverage to bolster its economy. “I think we have to assume that the federal government is going to come through with aid to New York City and so we shouldn’t be holding back on spending money today...,” she said in the recent interview on the Max & Murphy podcast. “First, I’d ask the Economic Development Corporation to target the best industries, public-private partnerships, to invest in job training programs. Similarly, perhaps through the EDC public-private partnerships, to create a local WPA-style program to get people to work today and rebuild our infrastructure. We’ve got crumbling NYCHA buildings. We have to prepare our communities for the physical impact of climate change.”

Bowles said any program should include apprenticeships, training, and “ladders for people that get a chance to work on these projects to build skills for careers.”

Gary LaBarbera, the head of the Building & Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, said that “New York needs an economic stimulus – now more than ever – and large-scale public works projects are always a reliable economic driver for middle-class workers and for New York’s economy.” He said “large-scale infrastructure projects create thousands of good jobs and economic benefits” and that they will “no doubt...be a major component” of New York’s recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Could a Public Works Program Save New York City's Economy? Thu, 07 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Keys to 'Inclusive Economic Recovery' in New York City Include Investments in CUNY and Workforce Development, Experts Say https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9363-ensuring-inclusive-economic-recovery-in-new-york-city-coronavirus-job-opportunity https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9363-ensuring-inclusive-economic-recovery-in-new-york-city-coronavirus-job-opportunity reyna rob program

Considering an inclusive recovery in New York City (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


As the COVID-19 public health and economic crises continue, so does the conversation about recovery. This past week, the Center for an Urban Future (CUF), a nonprofit think tank focused on economic opportunity and equitable growth, hosted a digital discussion, “Ensuring an Inclusive Economic Recovery in NYC,” featuring several public policy experts.

Jonathon Bowles, the executive director of CUF, opened the discussion saying “the immediate priorities are clear: keep people safe, get people back to work, and help our small businesses survive.” He then posed the question to the panelists to kick start the conversation, asking if there is an opportunity in this crisis to build a more inclusive economy.

The panelists were Maria Torres-Springer, Vice President for US programs at the Ford Foundation and formerly Commissioner of three different New York City government agencies for housing, economic development, and small businesses; Maya Wiley, professor at the New School and former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio; Harry Holzer of the Brookings Institution and Georgetown University; David Jones, President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York; and Joey Ortiz, Jr., executive director of the New York City Employment and Training Coalition.

One of the broad themes in the panelists’ responses was that this situation offers an opportunity to do things differently and fundamentally change how New York thinks about economic recovery. On tangible ways to spur economic growth and improve equitable access for all New Yorkers going forward, two focus areas emerged: the roles of education and job training.

Torres-Springer said New Yorkers must first identify and be real about who has suffered the most and the fact that the community-level impacts of a disaster, like food insecurity, afflict marginalized populations on a daily basis.

She added that everyone must “resist the temptation to make false choices. False choices between equity and growth, between public health and individual civil liberties, between fiscal prudence and strengthening, for instance, the not-for-profit sector, and instead take this opportunity and turn this crisis into a time when we can identify the types of strategies that strike a better balance and bend towards better outcomes.”

Panelists agreed that economic growth should not be considered in a siloed way, but must be embedded into a conversation that encompasses public transportation, affordable housing, food security, workforce development, and how each impacts the economy. The pandemic disproportionately affects black and Hispanic communities and low-wage workers, Torres-Springer said. Holzer agreed, and said, “first we learn, do no harm. But there is a lot of harm out there, and Maria is right, it falls, and especially in New York City, very heavily on people of color, disadvantaged workers, low-wage workers.”

Jones, who is also on the MTA Board that oversees the city’s massive public transit system, pointed out that black and Hispanic populations are suffering a higher COVID-19 death rate and that the hospitals serving communities of color in the city lack resources.

“The pandemic has really exposed entrenched inequalities but it has laid bare the interdependence and interconnectedness,” Torres-Springer said. “And really shown us we are only as safe as the least protected among us.”

To do recovery the right way, Ortiz said the city needs to bring people in from the most impacted communities, and ensure that they are part of the planning.

“I think what often happens in any of these discussions is we bring incredible people together to talk about the challenges without the perspective of who may be living it on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “It’s important for us to be empathetic, it’s important for us to understand and care very deeply about the communities we serve, but we need to invite them into this discussion in a very active way.”

Jones described the interruption of education, especially for those who were only marginally involved in the system an “unmitigated disaster,” adding that “we already knew we were having trouble in terms of retaining kids of color from poor communities in K-12, but we’ve done reports that show that the community college system in the State of New York can’t be considered a great provider of job skills yet, and the assumptions that the community college system would be a feeder to the four-year system doesn't happen in New York.”

Wiley agreed, pointing to how essential educational opportunity is for people of color and low-income communities and saying that, historically, city investment has been lacking. Limited funding for education, along with public transportation, technology, and job training -- which impact an individual’s ability to access education -- are “historic failures we keep reinforcing,” Wiley said.

“It’s a combination of multiple pieces here,” Ortiz said. “The pieces that were raised before, in terms of K-12, and certainly the higher education CUNY system is essential here, but I think there is also meeting folks in between, the workforce development system, and smaller community-based organizations have done an incredible job of supporting people here in New York City.”

Jones likened the CUNY system to apartheid, saying New York has an overwhelming number of black and Latino students concentrated in two-year schools. “It’s resource allocation, we’re not really adequately resourcing our community college system. I do think it’s a potential springboard.” But we have to be serious, he said. “We have to think more holistically and make community college perhaps a centrepiece.”

Holzer agreed that community colleges are a key piece. “I do think there is lots of good training at the community college level that does lead to good-paying jobs, some of them involve associate’s degrees, especially associate’s in science,” he said. “Some of them are good certificate programs and people have a greater likelihood of completing, but again it’s hard to build up capacity in these programs without money.”

Education is directly related to access to the job market, of course, and over the last decade, there was huge growth in both low-wage industries and jobs for college educated individuals. Holzer said that jobs that used to only require a high school diploma now often require some kind of post-secondary education, and employers have a harder time filling certain gaps. To address this problem and increase access to the labor market, all the panelists agreed there are two main strategies: building the skill-building sector, and working with employers to create better quality jobs that can lead to a career.

Wiley cited “three legs of a stool,” with the need for a stronger education pipeline, better quality jobs, and especially more affordable housing, saying “unless we’re addressing the affordability problem then we are not going to be doing enough just to be doing jobs or just to be doing education, we need the three legs of that stool.”

“It requires a vision that says a New York that we all want to live in, a diverse New York that has all of us in it. We can become San Francisco and watch people of color get pushed out and still be unaffordable for a white middle class, that doesn't help any of us,” Wiley said.

The city’s plan for addressing recovery is also dependent on the level of funding support that might be offered from the federal government. “The point of this particular crisis is, is the federal government going to step in and provide more resources or not those two scenarios create different opportunities,” Wiley said.

New York State and City face many billions in lower-than-expected tax revenue given the economic shutdown and recession brought on by the coronavirus outbreak, and are seeking bailouts from the federal level.

“The services they end up cutting back on most severely are those that are trying to help those at the bottom who don’t have political clout, who aren’t considered economically viable,” Jones said of likely city budget cuts, some of which the mayor has already outlined for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. “And if we persist in that kind of behavior we are going to have the inequality system that we have now just explode.”

One program that the mayor has put on the chopping block is the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), which seeks to connect “NYC youth between the ages of 14 and 24 with career exploration opportunities and paid work experience each summer,” according to the SYEP website.

“Summer youth is a good example of when something is hard, let’s just scrap it rather than say let’s try to find the best possible plan to keep our young people safe,” Ortiz argued. “This was an incredible opportunity for them to develop the technological infrastructure that was required to learning or investing in the system from a distance. And now we have a situation where, during a health crisis, 100,000 young people won’t have anything to do. These types of moments are when we need to take our big ideas and apply them so we can move forward in a really positive way.”

“We can’t have young people who are already marginally connected to the economy with no summer plan, no school,” Jones said. “You can’t do that. You can reconfigure it to have social distancing but we’ve got to get young people in these communities engaged and some income coming in for them and their family and some hope they can participate in the economy going forward.”

Holzer added that a program like SYEP “has strong evidence it actually helps students graduate from high school, it reduces engagement in crime, it reduces incarceration, violence and homicides and things of that nature, as an example. It’s such a short-term mistake to not fund those types of things.”

Torres-Springer pointed out that how New York recovers is uncertain because the city is still very much in the midst of the crisis. She added that there are a number of policies that are emergency measures, such as direct cash and paid sick leave, that months ago would have been unthinkable, but a key question is the transition from the short-term triage to the long-term policies.

“We need to make sure people’s lives are secure and people have good wages, have a dignified and rising standards of living,” Torres-Springer said. “We can’t fool ourselves that this is the job only of local and state policy-makers. We cannot let Washington walk away from their obligations.”

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by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

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Keys to 'Inclusive Economic Recovery' in New York City Include Investments in CUNY and Workforce Development, Experts Say Sun, 03 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Experts Look Ahead to Post-Virus Restart of City Economy Amid Fear of Urban Flight https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9322-experts-post-coronavirus-restart-new-york-city-economy-jobs-fear-of-urban-flight https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9322-experts-post-coronavirus-restart-new-york-city-economy-jobs-fear-of-urban-flight economy rendering jobs

When will the city economy re-open, and how? (image: Mayor's Office)


Billions of dollars in typical commerce isn’t happening as the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has brought the local economy to a near-standstill, and with the shutdown hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions in expected tax revenue lost from city coffers. The unparalleled scale of the crisis, with no clear end in sight, has made forecasts unpredictable. What’s not in doubt is that the city will eventually have to revive and rebuild its communities, its industries and job market, and its tax base.

While they respond to the public health crisis, leaders at all levels of government are also starting to plan for the economic revival, a task made especially hard by the many unknowns of the disease and efforts to mitigate it, from mass testing to a vaccine.

On Friday morning, the Center for an Urban Future, a nonprofit think-tank focused on economic opportunity, convened a virtual forum of urban experts and leaders in business, nonprofits, government, and economic development to discuss the strategies the city needs to employ to get New Yorkers and their city back on their feet once the outbreak has passed.

The panel included Shaun Donovan, a former high-level aide to President Barack Obama and Mayor Michael Bloomberg who is also a 2021 mayoral candidate; Winston Fisher, co-chair of the New York City Regional Economic Development Council; Joyce Moy, executive director of CUNY’s Asian American and Asian Research Institute; Seth Pinsky, CEO of 92nd Street Y and former president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation; and Kathy Wylde, President & CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a business group. CUF executive director Jonathan Bowles moderated the discussion.

Estimates vary but the coronavirus fallout could end up costing the city between $7.4 billion, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new executive budget, and $9.7 billion, per a new Independent Budget Office report, if not more, though the role the federal government might play in bailing out the city remains as open question and source of lobbying by de Blasio and others.

As of April 11, more than 520,000 New York City residents had filed unemployment insurance claims with the state Department of Labor, accounting for 43% of the total claims filed this year. The Independent Budget Office also projects that the city will lose another 475,000 jobs from now through March 2021.

Considering those dire numbers, there were no easy or singular solutions proposed in the forum, though the panellists drew ideas from the city’s past recoveries after the Great Recession, the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, and the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. But the coronavirus pandemic is unlike those events and the response from the city, they all agreed, must be just as unprecedented.

“It's important to think this is not a restart of the economy we had in 2019. I think it's a rethinking, and a reinvention of our economy in ways that it's just not going to be bringing back the same,” said Wylde, noting that the pandemic has not only caused problems but revealed many that existed in the way the government functions. “One of the things we found out in this crisis is that the technology that supports our local and state government is not smart, that it has failed on a number of fronts. That's not a people problem. It's not a leadership problem. That's a technology investment problem,” she said.

The panellists agreed that local recovery will be near impossible without direct federal aid. But they insisted that the state and city governments need to lead the way, paying little heed to the flawed decisions coming out of the Trump administration that contributed to the scope of the crisis.

“It's absolutely critical that we not pit the economic crisis against the health crisis, but rather think of them as moving together,” said Donovan, warning against easing social distancing restrictions too soon as President Donald Trump and Republican elected officials have suggested.

Pinsky said the city needs to restore confidence that New York remains a good place to do business, and he agreed with Fisher in suggesting that one key way to do that is to ease regulations. “I don't think anyone would look at the system that we have today and say that the way we spend the money that we collect in taxes is efficient, or the way that we regulate businesses and protect people is efficient,” Pinsky said.

Fisher said the city should work to improve access to credit for small and medium-size businesses and “help businesses cut through bureaucracy and red tape.”

A lot of the damage to small businesses, particularly minority and immigrant-owned businesses, may be irreparable, said Moy. She said family-owned small businesses have been wiped out, and are unlikely to be able to recover what wealth they may have built up over generations. “The next thing that's really going to be needed is to restart capital because these businesses, in many ways, have expended whatever funds they have,” she said.

A major roadblock to recovery, as Bowles noted, is that most New Yorkers who have lost their jobs are unlikely to have enough disposable income to survive mounting bills during the crisis, let alone to put back into the economy once the outbreak subsides.

Donovan said the city and state need to focus on two areas – ensuring that direct assistance reaches all those who need it, particularly the most vulnerable, such as low-income communities, communities of color, and particularly undocumented immigrants, and then tackling the larger structural impacts. In New York City, with its large renter population, he said housing and rental assistance is crucial. “We should never let a crisis go to waste,” he said, also suggesting that as the city begins to house more homeless people in hotel rooms, it should take the opportunity to think about long-term solutions such as new permanent affordable housing and supportive housing.

He also suggested that nonprofits and the city government take advantage of dropping real estate prices to purchase land and buildings and lock them into permanent affordability. Donovan was secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Obama and led the budget offices for both Obama and Bloomberg.

The panellists all worried that the outbreak could cause mass urban flight as New Yorkers hurt by the crisis follow others who have exited to other locales with lower costs of living. “I do think that that is an existential problem for New York City right now,” said Fisher, noting how that could shrink the tax base that the city will require to recover revenue.

“This issue...is what we need to be most focused on. Because what oil is to Saudi Arabia, our workforce is to New York. It is our most valuable natural resource. And it is the fuel that has driven our economic expansion,” Fisher said.

One solution he suggested was to improve the city’s zoning laws that he said have held back the type of affordable housing development that is direly needed. “Don't waste the crisis. Figure out how you can build to the needs of the community in greater scale, and at the same time recognize that we're possibly having urban flight,” he said.

Wylde also drew a contrast with past trends of outmigration, stressing that one of the issues the city needs to work on is improving its crowded and inefficient transportation system. “I think we've got a different set of issues today where people aren’t fleeing the city because it's full of crime, that they're not fleeing it because the schools are horrible,” she said. “They're going to stay home or leave if we don't get the infrastructure right.”

Moy said the city needs to invest in workforce training so that once the outbreak is over, the people without jobs and lower levels of education who will struggle the most are able to pull themselves up. “What I'm worried about is this new economy that we create is going to further create this gap between the well-off and the not-so-well-off,” she said.

More than just saving small businesses, Pinsky said the city should encourage the creation of new ones, especially in low-income neighborhoods, to spur economic activity. Moy had several recommendations for how the city could achieve that goal: create an inventory of retail spaces with existing infrastructure, provide grants for start-up costs, encourage and aide worker coops.

In order to give people more flexibility to work, Donovan said the city should create an infrastructure for flexible benefits, similar to the Affordable Care Act. That’s an issue that elected officials in New York have often talked about with regards to freelance and gig workers who lack the same protections as salaried workers. But the coronavirus has shown that even salaried workers face the perils of losing their benefits when their healthcare is tied to their jobs and entire industries are shut down while others are seeing mass layoff and furloughs.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Experts Look Ahead to Post-Virus Restart of City Economy Amid Fear of Urban Flight Sun, 19 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
40 Suggestions to Help Especially Vulnerable Seniors During Coronavirus Crisis: Report https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9320-suggestions-to-help-especially-vulnerable-seniors-during-coronavirus-crisis-new-york https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9320-suggestions-to-help-especially-vulnerable-seniors-during-coronavirus-crisis-new-york seniors amid coronavirus

Seniors are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 & its social effects (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


The outbreak of the deadly new coronavirus, COVID-19, throughout New York City has led to over 11,400 fatalities. One group particularly hard-hit by both the virus and its cumulative social effects has been senior citizens, older adults who often have underlying health conditions and less ability to fight off a serious infection.

Data provided by the New York City Health Department shows that more than 70% of the coronavirus-related fatalities in New York City through April 15 are among those 65 years old and older. (More than 90% of the deaths have been among people 45 years old and older.)

Seniors are also the largest growing demographic in the city: “from 2005 to 2015, the number of New Yorkers over 65 grew by 19.2 percent, which was more than double the rate of the total population,” according to a report from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer. The city, the report says, is home to “more than 1.1 million adults over 65, about 13 percent of the city’s total population.”

This older demographic is now additionally vulnerable given the coronavirus pandemic and the fact that it preys upon those with underlying conditions like cancer, chronic lung disease, and heart conditions; has led to the closure of senior centers; shown to spread quickly in nursing homes; and put intergenerational family visits on hold while increasing social isolation, food insecurity, and access to care.

With these impacts, dangers, and constraints in mind, The Center For an Urban Future (CUF), a think tank focused on equity, economic opportunity, and the social fabric, recently put out a report with 40 policy ideas that CUF and the other experts it consulted say city and state lawmakers should immediately consider.

“Supporting Older Adults Through Coronavirus: Ideas From Experts and Leaders Across NYC” offers ideas for combating social isolation, developing relevant technology, “bolstering telehealth services, mobilizing laid-off workers to increase the output and delivery of take-home meals, and developing a central information portal to communicate important updates and resources to seniors and providers.”

CUF consulted a variety of leaders from organizations that provide services to seniors, and noted that there was widespread agreement “that the city needs to provide more support to the nonprofit organizations serving older adults, by increasing flexibility and funding contracts at levels that accurately reflect the full cost of service delivery.”

To indicate the importance of addressing the needs of seniors, especially during this crisis, CUF writes that there are more than 1.7 million people in New York City who are age 60 and over, including 141,000 city residents over 85, “more than 136,000 who are homebound, and one in five who are living below the federal poverty line.”

Social Isolation
To combat social isolation exacerbated by social distancing requirements and closure of the city’s senior centers, CUF recommendations that government officials “draft volunteers to phonebanks for older adults to reduce isolation.”

The idea, submitted by Ed Friedman, the executive director and co-founder of Lifetime Arts, Inc., says each senior center or organization that serves older adults should be helped to “enlist a group of volunteers and staff to help make phone calls to every registrant, three times a week.”

The immediate goal of the proposal is to help those who live alone to feel less isolated, but if there is a more severe problem, the volunteer may be able to identify it and help.

A similar proposal submitted by Darrean Bloch, CEO of Greenwich House, suggests redeploying senior center staff and volunteers, whose facilities are now closed to congregating, socializing, and meals, to outreach.

“Groups with contracts to do this work should be formally authorized, and everyone should be provided with contact lists and other resources, and linked into a centralized database to track and facilitate outreach,” the proposal reads.

Another idea presented by Friedman is holding online classes where older adults can participate in the arts. 

“This will provide meaningful social engagement among participants as well as a meaningful activity that doesn’t have to focus on the epidemic. In addition, it’s a jumping off point for participants to expand their social network beyond these classes,” the proposal reads. “Cultural and arts education organizations can partner with organizations that serve older adults for purposes of outreach.”

Terry Kaelber, director for the Institute for Empowered Aging, United Neighborhood Houses of NY, suggests including seniors in the emergency response itself.

The policy recommendation suggests the government provide technology to engage seniors by “create[ing] virtual support groups, and send informational updates on neighborhood resources” to city seniors. To implement this idea, the proposal suggests providing resources to community organized to access video and conferencing calling services, developing phone trees where staff can complete daily check-in calls, engaging older adults in the planning of community responses to the virus, and providing valuable information to seniors about the spread of the city’s and who to contact if you are ill.

Meal Delivery 
New York City’s Department for the Aging (DFTA) oversees “230 neighborhood senior centers, 16 innovative senior centers, and 39 sites affiliated with senior centers” across the city and has 1,393 contracts with agency providers to deliver services, often meals, according to budget documents.

With those senior centers closed as part of the city’s response to the spread of COVID-19, and in combination with social distancing measures that limit visitors for seniors, meal delivery to older adults has been a key concern for many.

Several proposals presented in the CUF report suggest ways to increase and improve meal delivery in the city.

“It is critical that the city create a centralized intake process (an online portal and clear system through 3-1-1 or Aging Connect) to expedite new senior home-delivered meal requests during this time,” reads a proposal from Katelyn Andrews, director of public policy at LiveOn NY. “The system should partner with local restaurants that may be struggling under current circumstances but may have capacity to churn out hundreds of meals for at-risk neighbors (and may even have experience in delivery, too). Taxi drivers, hard-hit even before the pandemic, can also be recruited to deliver the meals, as is currently and admirably being explored by the city.”

A few recommendations suggest hiring laid-off food-service professionals to boost staffing of community kitchens or to deliver resources. The city has closed restaurants and bars for all but takeout and delivery, leaving many without work. Wayne Ho, president and CEO of the Chinese-American Planning Council, Inc, said that “there is an opportunity to support these workers while meeting the immediate needs of older adults,” such as delivering food, medicine, and personal protective equipment.

“The benefits of having senior centers serve as the focal points of meal production are two-fold: 1) Senior centers are trusted and reliable service hubs physically embedded with vulnerable neighborhoods including public housing developments. 2) Directing economic resources to communities-in-need during a time of crisis supports the immediate welfare of residents, businesses, and service providers, and creates the opportunity for longer-term interest and investment in historically underserved and under resourced neighborhoods,” the recommendation submitted by Gregory J. Morris, president and executive director of the Stanley M. Isaacs Neighborhood Center, says.

One proposal presented in the report to improve meal delivery suggests giving free meal distribution to buildings (for example, NYCHA or naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs)) that house older adults with disabilities but lack built-in senior centers. The recommendation, submitted by Nancy D. Miller, the executive director and CEO of VISIONS/Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, suggests that it could be done in coordination with the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities and Department for the Aging.

Another suggestion is to ensure that home-delivered meals are provided in multiple languages. “The city should ensure that instructions on how to properly prepare and store these meals are provided in the most common languages spoken by older people in New York City (Spanish, Chinese, Russian) and in legible font (at least 14 pt.) to ensure safe consumption,” reads the suggestion from Lindsay Goldman, director of healthy aging at the New York Academy of Medicine.

More
Other topics covered by the proposals include providing non-profit organizations with no-interest loans so they can keep up service, guaranteeing protections to human services case workers as first responders and designate shelters in each borough for homeless older adults. Read the full report here.

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by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

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40 Suggestions to Help Especially Vulnerable Seniors During Coronavirus Crisis: Report Thu, 16 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
With Cuomo Promising Gig Economy Regulations, New York Leaders Consider Pros and Cons of California Model https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9065-cuomo-promising-gig-economy-regulations-new-york-leaders-consider-california-model https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9065-cuomo-promising-gig-economy-regulations-new-york-leaders-consider-california-model gocvuomo center

(photo: Don Pollard/Office of the Governor)


This year, more than 40% of New Yorkers will be employed in the so-called gig economy, Governor Andrew Cuomo said in his State of the State speech earlier this month. It was an acknowledgement that the nature of work is changing, or rather has changed, and also a concession that labor rules have not evolved to keep up. Gig economy workers lack the same benefits that full-time workers enjoy, which has helped billion-dollar companies make substantial profit on the backs of unprotected and often underpaid workers. And Cuomo said New York would no longer allow that to happen. 

“Large corporations have dominated and taken advantage of workers for too long,” said the governor, a third-term Democrat. “Today's economy works brilliantly for innovators, shareholders and billionaires, but it too often abuses workers. As FDR, Al Smith and Francis Perkins protected workers after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, we too must protect workers from today's threat, which is economic exploitation.”

He went on, getting at the heart of what he appears to be eyeing for new regulations: “Too many corporations are increasing their profits at the expense of the employee and the taxpayer, and that must end. A driver is not an independent contractor simply because she drives her own car on the job. A newspaper carrier is not an independent contractor because they ride their own bicycle. A domestic worker is not an independent contractor because she brings her own broom and mop to the job. It is exploitive, abusive, it's a scam, it's fraud. It must stop and it has to stop here and now!”

On Tuesday, January 21, Cuomo released his executive budget proposal for the 2021 fiscal year, which included proposed legislation to create the Digital Marketplace Worker Classification Task Force, charged with recommending measures to regulate the gig economy. It would cover everything regarding “wages, classification, employment criteria, safety and health regulations, collective bargaining, and anti-discrimination protections for on-demand workers.” The task force would be comprised of nine members, seven appointed by the governor and one each by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

The governor’s words were encouraging news for state legislators, activists, and labor groups who have long sought to regulate the freelance and gig economy to protect workers. After California passed first-in-the-nation legislation that established a framework for doing that, New York may soon follow suite.

California’s Assembly Bill 5, or AB5 measure, uses an ABC Test to establish how a worker is classified, limiting the ability of companies to avoid paying benefits by claiming someone is an independent contractor rather than an employee. While Cuomo has not released the specifics of his proposals, some New York lawmakers intend to enact a similar measure having learned lessons from the successes, and failures, of the California model. 

There is of course opposition to these efforts from business groups and the companies that any potential bill would seek to regulate, and they have employed armies of lobbyists to represent their interests before the state. 

California isn’t the only model for gig economy legislation. New York City has already forged several other measures affecting the gig economy that could serve to inform the state’s efforts. The City Council passed the Freelance Isn’t Free Act in 2017, to ensure that freelance workers are paid on time and to protect them from wage theft. In late 2018, the Council established the first-ever minimum wage for drivers that work for ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. Just last week, a law went into effect that extends protections against workplace harassment and discrimination to freelancers and independent contractors. 

Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander was the sponsor of all three city laws – he’s working on more legislation currently – and he welcomed the governor’s words on the need for new regulation. “Obviously, in the past, the governor embraced Uber and the gig economy and he has come to understand that it can be a site of real exploitation, and that new rules are needed,” Lander said in a phone interview. In 2017, Cuomo pushed through legislation that authorized ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft to operate across the state.

The classification of workers, as Cuomo outlined in his State of the State, remains a state question. Lander and others are hoping New York creates its own ABC test for workers, which would have a broad effect across different gig economy segments.

“What I hope will be at the heart of New York state legislation is that there are a set of people for whom the terms and conditions of their employment are set by the platform or by the hiring party, and they really should have been treated as employees all along,” he said. “[California’s] law helps clarify that requirement and close the loop.”

Though Cuomo has not yet introduced any legislative proposals (he mentioned the need for gig economy regulation in his 2019 agenda but did not follow through), he appears more committed this year. And, there have already been attempts by Democratic state legislators.

State Senator Diane Savino, a Democrat from Staten Island, has been working on gig economy regulation for years and has been leading public hearings on the issue in recent months as chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Internet and Technology. Along with Bronx Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, she introduced a bill last year, the Dependent Worker Act, to reclassify certain gig economy workers and provide them with labor protections, including the ability to unionize and collectively bargain for benefits. But the bill was unpopular, both to business and labor groups. 

A subsequent bill introduced by Assemblymember Deborah Glick and State Senator Robert Jackson, both Manhattan Democrats, heeds more closely to California’s law, and would have established an ABC test for workers in New York. That too was unsuccessful, but Glick says she’ll pursue the bill again this year. She was encouraged by the governor’s speech.

“I'm glad that he made reference to the fact that there are companies that should live up to their responsibilities to treat the people working for them as employees and provide them with the appropriate benefits that reflect the dignity of their work,” Glick said in an interview. “And it certainly should not fall to government to pick up the slack while these companies are generating very large profits.”

Glick is aware of the challenges and has conceded that the bill may require exemptions. California’s law is currently going before the courts and major companies have promised to spend millions of dollars to defeat it in through a ballot referendum this year. There’s also been criticism from those the bill was supposed to benefit. It mandates that companies would need to hire a freelance writer who publishes more than 35 pieces of writing in their publication. Freelancers say that would effectively harm, rather than help them, by requiring them to work for more companies and publish more broadly. 

“I think Senator Jackson and I are confident that we will be able to make technical changes that will address concerns from specific industries and at the same time cover most employees who have, up until now, been very disadvantaged by being considered independent contractors,” Glick said. 

Since last year, Savino has similarly recalculated her effort and is hoping to recraft legislation and avoid the pitfalls of California’s law. “We have the benefit of having watched California go first,” she said. “What we have to figure out is how do we write a piece of legislation that creates clear rules for everybody, everyone understands it, maintains the flexibility that people seem to like, and doesn't ensnare people unnecessarily the way the California law did. So you don't wind up with 30 exemptions and multiple court cases.”

The legislators are speaking with stakeholders on all sides of the issue, including the companies that will be most affected by legislation and have been fighting against it. The Flexible Work for New York coalition, comprised of business groups, trade associations and several app-based services including Uber, Lyft, and Postmates, has pushed back against efforts to regulate the gig economy, arguing that it would reduce workers capacities to supplement their income and would also increase costs for consumers.

“Flexibility has allowed tens of thousands of New Yorkers to earn income around their own lives,” said Christina Fisher, spokesperson for Flexible Work for New York (FWNY), in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “These are single parents trying to juggle childcare, retirees trying to supplement their retirement income, and college students who need a way to earn money around their class schedules. As lawmakers explore ways to better protect workers, it’s vital they do so in a way that balances those protections with the flexibility that workers overwhelmingly value and need. Already, multiple industries in California – from freelance writers to truck drivers and more – have suffered the negative impacts of overly broad legislation that ignored the voices of workers, and we can’t let that happen here in New. York.”

An FWNY spokesperson put Gotham Gazette in touch with Mastro Young, 65, who has been driving for Uber in Albany for about two years. Young said he was concerned about how any new laws may affect his ability to earn extra income. The flexibility he has from working with Uber allows him more time with his family, he said, and as a veteran, the time to go to the doctor without having to request time off from an employer. “Financially, Uber helps me a whole lot, paying my bills and having a little extra money,” he said in a phone interview. “Without Uber, it  can be tiring, you know, trying to make ends meet.”

Young isn’t opposed entirely to new regulations that could potentially increase benefits for those who don’t work the equivalent of full-time hours, but he was adamant that the governor and Legislature shouldn’t take away the flexibility that drivers like him enjoy. “If I need money, if I know my bills are coming, I drive more at the end of the month so I can pay my bills,” he said. “If I want to take my wife on a vacation, I can up my hours, so I can do these things. So I'm just hoping that is not taken away from us.”

Overall, it’s not clear how gig economy workers are thinking about possible regulations that would drastically impact their lives.

Legislators seeking new regulations have powerful labor allies on their side. The New York Do It Right Employment Classification Test (DIRECT) coalition has been advocating for an ABC Test in state labor law, taking direct aim at app-based ride-hailing services, which currently help provide work to somewhere around 100,000 drivers, if not more, across the state on a somewhat consistent basis. The coalition’s members include the likes of labor heavyweight 32BJSEIU, immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New York, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, The Legal Aid Society and the New York Nail Salon Workers Association, among others. 

“I think It's important to recognize as we're talking about the issue of misclassification that this is not strictly an Uber problem,” said Brian Chen, staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, another coalition member. “It's not strictly a gig economy problem. This is a misclassification problem and misclassification extends to virtually every industry in New York, particularly those industries that are very low wage, often immigrant dominated where there is typically a lot of exploitation.”

Chen said his coalition is working with the National Writers Union and other writers groups to craft a carveout that would prevent what happened in California. 

“The ABC test is the gold standard that reaffirms the rights and protections of misclassified workers,” he added. “It holds employers accountable to their workers. And most importantly, it does not jettison any rights or protections that that people are entitled to under the law.”

While classification is a central issue, it’s by far not the only one that some advocates and experts want to see addressed this year.

Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director at the Center for An Urban Future, a nonprofit thinktank, said the missing piece of the puzzle is a comprehensive system of universal, portable benefits for those workers who truly do count as independent contractors. “I think the opportunity for New York is to tackle an even greater challenge, which is how to provide financial security and other benefits to independent workers,” Dvorkin said. 

He pointed to the Black Car Fund as an existing model that could be emulated, or mandated, in other industries, emphasizing that any new legislation should “thread that needle” between protecting workers that are closer to employees as well as benefiting those who continue to want to work as truly independent contractors. “That's a two-pronged approach that would be much more powerful in total, and I think we've yet to see what that second prong would look like at the state level,” he said. 

In the absence of the universal provision of benefits like healthcare, Dvorkin said companies should be setting up benefits funds for independent contractors to give them access to affordable health care, workers compensation insurance and unemployment insurance. “I think there's a huge opportunity to set up a system where companies pay into a set of flexible benefits, portable benefits that's prorated to the amount of work that that any one person has performed for that company or on their platform. and the technology already exists to be able to do that,” he said. 

Savino admitted that portable benefits are  “not a foreign concept” for New York, pointing to other models including ones created by the Freelancers Union and Domestic Workers United for their members. But she said the focus first needs to be on creating a standardized classification system for those denied basic statutory rights such as workers compensation, unemployment insurance, human rights law protections, and the right to organize and collectively bargain.

NELP’s Chen echoed the sentiment. “I think our position is, let's start with the benefits that people are due under the labor laws already and that's minimum wage, anti discrimination, workers compensation, unemployment insurance.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with details from Governor Cuomo's executive budget proposal, which includes a task force on gig economy regulations. 

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With Cuomo Promising Gig Economy Regulations, New York Leaders Consider Pros and Cons of California Model Mon, 20 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
First Mandated Survey of Small Businesses Identifies Problems But City Points to Existing Services https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8836-first-mandated-city-survey-of-small-businesses-identifies-problems https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8836-first-mandated-city-survey-of-small-businesses-identifies-problems bdb rec business

Mayor de Blasio & Council Member Cornegy stop at a small business (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


New York City’s small businesses need more employees but struggle with hiring, and lack the time and resources they need to find and train talent. Their operational costs continue to be a challenge, including the cost of rent, insurance, and utilities. They need more financial support for growth and more assistance to comply with government rules and regulations.

Those are just a few of the findings of a limited and first-of-its-kind survey conducted by the New York City Department of Small Business Services under new laws passed by the City Council in 2017.

As mandated by the law, the survey began in August 2018 and was ongoing when the initial results were published in June of this year (it has since concluded). It was required by a pair of bills, sponsored by City Council Member Robert Cornegy, which also require the city to create a “workforce development plan” based on the survey results.

A total of 543 business owners – out of more than 220,000 in the city – responded to the online survey, according to the 35-page report, outlining the issues they face in running and growing their enterprises. The responses came from across a range of businesses including food service establishments, professional and scientific businesses, construction trades, arts and entertainment, retail, and education, to name a few. About half the respondents were white, while African-American and Hispanic owners accounted for 20% and 15%, respectively.

The report comes as city government officials wrestle with how to help local small businesses amid a changing economy, sky-high costs, especially for rent, an increasing focus on vacant storefronts in the five boroughs, and debate over new mandates that some owners are opposing.

The report acknowledges early on that the sample “is not representative of the city’s business population” because of the relatively small number of responses – on key questions, there were fewer than 200 responses. Nonetheless, the report gets at some of the issues that businesses face in the city. About 42% of respondents said they did not have enough employees to run their business, and more than 60% said they suffered from a lack of tools to recruit employees and meet other pressing needs.

“There's no question that small businesses are facing growing challenges and this survey certainly echoes that,” said Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director at the Center for an Urban Future, a nonpartisan policy group focused on economic opportunity, in a phone interview. Dvorkin said he was disappointed that the study did not contain more holistic data about the city’s small business landscape but did say it generally tracks with CUF’s research on the challenges faced by small businesses.

And he underscored the importance of understanding the problem. Small businesses, he said, “have consistently added jobs every single year since 2000. And as a result...very small businesses with fewer than 20 employees have added more net jobs every year than businesses with more than 500 employees have in New York City.”

About 40% of respondents to the survey said their top need was help in training new employees, while 33% said recruitment was their biggest challenge, and 27% pointed to general human resources management. The respondents said their key qualifications for employees include work ethic (the most-given response), customer service skills, relevant work experience and subject matter familiarity, and punctuality, among others.

But the “plan” accompanying the survey results is sparse on new offerings. The report notes that most of the issues that small businesses face are covered by free services provided by SBS, but points out that about half of the respondents had not availed themselves of those services, requiring more outreach about SBS programs.

The report lists those various services including training and free recruitment services through 18 of the city’s Workforce1 Career Centers, human resources support, financial and free legal assistance, and more. But it focuses more on the need to more broadly educate small businesses about these services rather than providing new ones.

“SBS is always looking to expand the offerings we provide to small businesses and as their needs continue to adapt, our programming teams are working to address each demand,” an SBS spokesperson said in a statement, when asked if the report had prompted any additional services.

Council Member Cornegy was not made available for comment on the initial results of his bills that became law.

Dvorkin said the city needs to do more. He pointed out, as the report notes, that SBS runs a Customized Training program intended to help businesses invest in employee training with grants up to $400,000, which can address the most dire need expressed by business owners in the survey. But that program is only available for businesses that train batches of at least 10 or more employees at once, effectively being out of reach for the 90% of small businesses that have fewer than 10 employees.

“It fundamentally presents a disconnect,” Dvorkin said, insisting that the city should try to expand these services for smaller workforces. “Most small businesses are not ever going to be able to actually access this really effective and really important service that the city provides.”

He did note that there would be considerable costs associated with added services. “You may not be able to scale it up to meet the needs across the entire city without a significant new influx of dollars,” he said. “But I think, to be able to test out the model to see, can this work for companies that are only training five employees or three employees? We won't know until we try.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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First Mandated Survey of Small Businesses Identifies Problems But City Points to Existing Services Mon, 07 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Solving New York City’s Next Big Census Problem https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8676-solving-new-york-city-s-new-census-problem https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8676-solving-new-york-city-s-new-census-problem resource cm carlos menchaca attends sbs

(photo: John McCarten/City Council)


New Yorkers got some great news last week when President Trump abandoned plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. Adding the question to the Census would have resulted in a massive undercount of the city’s population, causing New York to lose its share of billions in federal funding for vital programs and services.

But there’s another wrinkle in this upcoming Census that could significantly depress participation across the city: the move to a digital Census. This will be the first-ever Census to be completed largely online. Though this change will be welcome news for many tech-savvy New Yorkers, it will bring new challenges in a city where 14 percent of residents live in households without a computer, 23 percent lack a broadband connection at home, and many more aren’t digitally proficient.

Just as city leaders stood up and fought the proposed inclusion of the citizenship question, New York City needs a wide-scale effort to make sure the move to a digital Census does not deter large numbers of New Yorkers from completing their forms. One way they can do this is by partnering in a big way with New York City’s branch libraries.

In recent years, libraries have extended far beyond their historical book-lending role to become the city’s most accessible technology hub for New Yorkers on the wrong side of the digital divide. In addition to providing computer stations, laptop loans, and free internet, they are also a place where those with limited tech literacy can get a helping hand from librarians.

Tens of thousands of New Yorkers already turn to branch libraries for tech help, whether it is applying to a job online, filling out Medicare applications, or simply staying in touch with family via email or Facebook. 

Beyond having a substantial technology infrastructure, libraries have unparalleled reach: the city’s 216 branch libraries are on the ground in nearly every community across the five boroughs. Importantly, libraries are also one of the city’s most trusted institutions, providing a range of services in multiple languages but never asking for personal information.

All this makes libraries a natural fit to extend their services to help New Yorkers fill out the digital Census.

Right now, however, it’s not clear that the city’s libraries have the capacity to do this effectively. Many branches across the five boroughs don’t have laptops to loan, and most libraries have at most six or twelve computer terminals, barely enough to serve existing demand.

Beyond the need for more dedicated computers, laptops, and tablets, libraries will need additional staff to help the many patrons who require significant assistance completing the digital Census. At most branches today, librarians are already overextended.

To his great credit, Mayor de Blasio has already launched an outreach campaign to ensure an accurate Census count, and the recently passed city budget includes $40 million to support this effort. The de Blasio administration should devote a portion of those funds to the city’s libraries. Doing so would empower branches across the city to ramp up their capacity and harness their considerable potential to boost participation in the online Census. 

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Jonathan Bowles is executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, a think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity in New York. On Twitter @jbowlesnyc & @nycfuture.

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

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Solving New York City’s Next Big Census Problem Tue, 16 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Two Years After New York City Expanded Protections for Freelancers, State Yet to Act https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8499-two-years-after-new-york-city-expanded-protections-for-freelancers-state-yet-to-act https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8499-two-years-after-new-york-city-expanded-protections-for-freelancers-state-yet-to-act freelancers rally

Council Members Rafael Espinal, left, & Brad Lander (photo: City Council)


Two years ago, the New York City Council’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act went into effect, giving freelance workers legal protections against wage theft, delayed payments, employer retaliation, and lack of contracts for their work. The first-of-its-kind law has since allowed the city to recoup thousands of dollars in wages for hundreds of freelancers and was broadly praised as a laudable and necessary step in a changed and still-changing economy.

But as the City Council, with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s support, has taken additional steps to help independent contractors and freelance workers in the booming ‘gig economy,’ similar action has been glaringly lacking at the state level.

In December, when Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled his “first 100 days agenda” for the start of his third term in 2019, with a speech at the Roosevelt Institute in Manhattan, he spoke of New York’s changing economy and the challenges that freelance workers face, seemingly putting down a marker that the state would pursue action on the topic.

“The so-called gig economy is a growing economic engine. Freelancers, independent contractors, consultants are replacing traditional employees,” he said. “And while many welcome the freedom and the flexibility of these arrangements, there are also pitfalls that go along with the positive. Gig jobs do not come with paid sick leave, they do not come with vacation days, or parental rights, or workers' compensation, or protection against work related discrimination, or protections against wage and hour violations. We want an economy that moves forward. We want an economy of tomorrow. But we want an economy that moves everyone forward, not just some forward.”

But Cuomo did not follow suit with any proposals either in his January State of the State speech or executive budget presentation. The final budget agreement reached with the Legislature at the end of March did not include new protections for gig economy workers. It appears to be the only issue Cuomo mentioned in his December speech where he did not then follow up with concrete proposals.

In January, Hazel Crampton-Hays, then a spokesperson for the governor, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette that the administration was “exploring whether we need new rules to help protect impacted workers or whether the Department of Labor can issue regulations.”

In a statement on Thursday, Cuomo spokesperson Caitlin Girouard said, “We are engaging with the legislature, interested stakeholders and relevant state agencies on ways to address this issue and come up with meaningful solutions.”

New York City, meanwhile, has been attempting to bring a semblance of order and accountability to the gig economy through local laws. Last year, the City Council passed a living wage requirement for drivers who work for app-based ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. The bill was challenged in court by Lyft and upheld by a state Supreme Court judge just this Wednesday.

Council Member Brad Lander, who spearheaded the Freelance Isn’t Free Act, says his legislation should be enacted statewide, rather than through regulation by the Labor Department, as just the first step in addressing the woes of a growing sector of workers.

“The vote was 51 to nothing here, the Republicans voted for it. Everyone agrees you should not be cheated out of getting paid for work you did and I would think it would be a no-brainer to pass it,” he said in an interview outside City Hall earlier this year.

The law has clearly been working. According to data from the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs, the agency tasked with enforcing the law, to date, the department has received 561 inquiries about the law and fielded 764 complaints from freelancers, and has helped them recover just under $1 million ($978,928.66) in lost wages.

The department is also set to hold a Freelance Isn’t Free Day on May 15, exactly two years since the law took effect, at the Freelancers Hub in Brooklyn.

“New York City knows the value of its many freelancer workers and the challenges they face, and we are proud to have implemented the Freelance Isn’t Free Act—the first and only law of its kind in the country,” DCA spokesperson Abigail Lootens said in a statement.

“Albany has just not gotten started yet,” said Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat. “I’m glad the governor spoke to it in his 100 day agenda, I’m sorry they haven’t yet moved forward with proposals. The Freelance Isn’t Free Act, taking it statewide, that’s a great place to start.”

Among the major challenges of creating new legislation, Lander said, is the lack of uniformity in who is considered a freelancer or independent contractor, and the myriad sectors where lax enforcement means workers are exploited. Day laborers and domestic workers, for instance, are viewed as independent workers but not officially considered so. (As an aside, Lander even said recently-passed laws to provide predictable schedules to fast food workers were necessary since they were increasingly being treated like independent workers.)

“As freelance and independent work have grown, a set of problems have grown in the economy because it wasn’t designed to provide protections and supports for those workers and there’s really some gaping holes,” Lander said. “Some of them are hard to fix. It’s not easy to figure out how to do portable benefits and retirement security. We should solve those problems and we’re gonna keep pushing forward here at the Council.”

At the state level, Assemblymember Harry Bronson, a Monroe County Democrat, has introduced a bill to ensure independent contractors are paid on time. In a statement, Bronson emphasized that the state’s workforce has dramatically changed but labor laws have not kept pace. “The modern economy has led to the rise of individual workers being classified - or intentionally misclassified - as “independent contractors” or “freelancers.” Many of these independent contractors do the same work as traditional employees, and in some cases participate in work alongside traditional employees, yet they are not afforded the same wage, hour, and benefit protections under the law as their traditionally employed counterparts,” he said. “This increases their vulnerability to wage theft and creates barriers to health, retirement and other benefits traditional employees receive.” Bronson also said he is working on similar legislation to protect workers in the gig economy.

New York City had more than half a million independent workers last year, according to a May 2018 report by freelance online platform Fiverr, which partnered with Rockbridge Associates to analyze Census Bureau statistics. The report found that independent workers brought in $103 billion in revenue for the state between 2011-2015.

“Governor Cuomo was absolutely right to mention the issues facing freelance and independent workers in his 2019 agenda but it’s really disappointing that the issues seem to have fallen off the radar since then,” said Eli Dvorkin, policy director of the Center for an Urban Future, a nonprofit think tank.

Dvorkin said the state’s social security net hasn’t kept up with the changing economy and that the state can’t “regulate our way out of this challenge” by solely focusing on issues such as protections against worker discrimination or how to classify an independent contractor. The state needs to take a proactive approach, he said, and could become “the leading state pioneering portable benefits, which would be a system of flexible benefits that are accessible to independent workers and that travel with workers as they move from job to job.”

No state across the country has passed legislation to establish portable benefits for independent workers, though a bill has twice been introduced in the Washington State legislature and Dvorkin speculated that it could soon pass. In New York, former Assemblymember Joe Morelle, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives last year, floated the idea of legislation on portable benefits but it seemed to fizzle away.

For legislators looking for inspiration, Dvorkin said a portable benefits program could feasibly be modelled after the Black Car Fund, which was created by the state Legislature in 1999 to provide workers compensation to livery car drivers.

“We developed this system 20 years ago. We just haven’t really updated it or done anything really focused on these issues since then,” Dvorkin said. The fund’s recently-exposed fiscal management issues notwithstanding, he said it provides the basic framework for mandating a surcharge, either in one sector or across different sectors, that would feed a fund for workers, giving them access to health insurance and workers compensation, among other benefits.

“Without being able to pool your needs with others in your situation, your costs are much higher,” Dvorkin said. “On a pretty basic level, we think the right approach would be one in which the clients, customers, are paying at least part of the cost of the benefits. That would make the system fair.”

He also urged the state to push the burgeoning tech sector to innovate solutions to providing benefits. He cited, for example, startups like Propel, which created an app to provide access to SNAP benefits, and Alia, designed by NDWA Labs, an arm of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, to give house cleaners access to benefits.

“Building out an architecture for the evolving economy that provides better worker supports and protection is a big task,” Council Member Lander said. “We’ve gotten started on it at the city level but we have a long way to go.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Two Years After New York City Expanded Protections for Freelancers, State Yet to Act Thu, 02 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000