Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/281 Fri, 24 Jan 2020 23:32:53 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) After Rally with De Blasio, City Council Hears Bills on Private Sector Retirement Security https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8809-de-blasio-city-council-hearing-bills-on-private-sector-retirement-security https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8809-de-blasio-city-council-hearing-bills-on-private-sector-retirement-security sep mon rotunda

De Blasio, Council members, AARP members & others rally (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Just days after he ended his presidential campaign that was focused on issues affecting working people, Mayor Bill de Blasio rallied with AARP volunteers and City Council Members at City Hall on Monday to push for a proposal that could help millions of New York workers save for their futures.

The Retirement Security for All proposal, which de Blasio first raised three years ago and then again in his State of the City speech this year, would establish a retirement savings program for private-sector employees whose employers do not currently provide those options, and a city government board to oversee its implementation.

There are two bills in the legislative package that would create the system and the board and sponsored by Council Members I. Daneek Miller and Ben Kallos, who led a hearing on the proposal shortly after the Monday morning rally.

“You should not have to work until you die,” de Blasio said at the rally. “You should be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor. You should be able to have some time in your life when you retire with dignity.”

The mayor said that 40% of New Yorkers aged 50-64 have less than $10,000 saved for when they retire.

At the hearing of the Council’s Committee on Civil Service and Labor, chaired by Miller, there was broad support for the legislation as well as opposition from some who raised concerns about the administrative burdens the program could place on employers and small businesses.

Kallos’ bill would mandate that businesses with ten or more employees automatically enroll their workers in individual retirement accounts, while giving them the option to opt out. The retirement plans would be funded only through employee payroll deductions, at a default rate of 3% of income, though employees would be allowed to choose a higher or lower rate.

Miller’s bill creates a board of mayoral appointees to oversee the implementation of the program, which would likely hire an outside firm to manage the retirement plans and charge low fees to make the programs affordable and attractive to employees.

The bills are a solution to a stark problem. Testifying on behalf of the de Blasio administration was John Adler, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Pensions and Investments, who reiterated the data point that 40% of New Yorkers aged 50-64 have less than $10,000 saved for when they retire. Out of the roughly 3.5 million private sector employees in the city, only about 41% have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan, down from 49% ten years ago, Adler said, citing a report from The New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis.

“This program has the potential to significantly reduce future poverty among retirees in New York City,” Adler said in his opening remarks at the Council hearing, “and take an important step towards helping over a million New Yorkers maintain or improve their standard of living when they stop working.”

The proposal is also similar to programs that have already launched in California, Illinois, and Oregon, and following their lead would allow New York City to avoid any hiccups in implementation, he said. De Blasio estimated earlier that the city’s management of the programs would cost between $1.5 to $3 million each year for the first three years, and that the program would eventually be self-funded through fees on the investments made by the retirement plans.

Though New York State passed a measure last year to allow employers to create voluntary retirement savings plan, there has been little movement on that front. Adler said that program, which is an opt-in rather than an opt-out plan, would likely fail to expand access like the city’s proposal.

“We don’t think that we should be waiting for the whims of Albany to possibly change or strengthen their plan,” he said. “We have a crisis now in New York City...and frankly every month that we wait is an opportunity that’s lost for workers to begin saving for their own retirement.”

Adler also recommended that Kallos’ bill be amended to establish a 5% default contribution rate, insisting that it does not discourage participation as is evident from other jurisdictions with similar programs.

The mayor’s push for the retirement security proposal in 2016 died soon after because of the Republican-led Congress, which struck down an Obama-era rule by the Department of Labor that explicitly allowed municipalities to create private sector retirement programs. But that Republican measure did not change the underlying federal retirement law, which Adler said still allows the city to move forward. That’s why other states have been able to legally create their own retirement savings programs, he said.

The two bills have limited support so far from other Council members, at least as far as co-sponsorship goes. Kallos’ bill has five other sponsors besides him and Miller, while Miller’s bill has four other co-sponsors. But Kallos seems confident that the bills will advance quickly, particularly with the mayor’s backing. At Monday’s hearing, Council Member Andy King also said he would sign on to the legislative package. The bills have no timeline for passage but the mayor’s office, in a release sent out Monday afternoon, estimated that the program would be launched by the end of 2021, when de Blasio and most of the City Council will be leaving their current posts due to term limits.

Experts and researchers who testified at Monday’s hearing recommended several measures to ensure that the city’s program is a success. Caroline Crawford, assistant director of state and local research at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, said “three criteria are essential to success” of the program – a mandate to ensure employer participation, minimizing opt-out behavior and an adequate default contribution rate.

Representatives of the Communication Workers of America and AFL-CIO also supported the bills at Monday’s hearing.

A crucial mover behind the proposal has been the AARP, which first rallied with the mayor for Retirement Security for All in 2016. Beth Finkel, state director of AARP New York, noted that employees were 15 times more likely to start saving money if offered a retirement program by their employer. Finkel also urged the Council members to strengthen the proposal, by expanding the mandate to employers with five or more employees and to establish a 5% default  contribution rate.

“New York City is the greatest city in the world but it is also an expensive city and we know Social Security alone is not enough to retire on alone,” she said.

There was some pushback against the bills. Aliya Robinson, senior vice president of Retirement & Compensation Policy at the ERISA Industry Committee, brought up concerns about how the legislation may affect existing retirement programs. Robinson urged changes to Kallos’ bill, including completely excluding all employers that provide a retirement plan under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, setting restrictions on eligibility based on age and number of hours worked as established by the ERISA law, and exemptions without reporting requirements for employers similar to programs in Oregon and Illinois.

Alison Wielobob, general counsel of the American Retirement Association, similarly echoed Robinson’s testimony. She said the bills would “would place undue complexity and burdens on employers by imposing a set of rules that parallel the extensive and effective set of federal rules that already apply to workplace retirement plans.”

Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, also warned that the bill could violate the ERISA law, despite other jurisdictions having faced no legal challenges yet, and cited anecdotal comments from the restaurant industry to insist that tipped workers with small paychecks will be hesitant to participate. He also raised the spectre of complications for businesses that employ undocumented workers.

But there was ample testimony that indicated those concerns were largely unfounded or insufficient to not act.

Rick McGahey, senior fellow at The New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, said a failure to act could mean that by 2026, about 825,000 middle class workers in the state could face poverty at retirement – half of those workers live in the city.

Michele Evermore, senior researcher and policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, spoke of the racial wealth gap that persists into retirement, and the need to address it through any means necessary, including a retirement security program.

And Angela Antonelli, research professor and executive director of the Center for Retirement Initiatives at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, laid out multiple benefits of New York City creating an automatic enrollment retirement savings program – it would help millions of workers save money and be more mobile, make small businesses more competitive, help gig economy workers, benefit underserved populations, reduce burdens on state and federal budgets, and create a model for other states, among other positive impacts.

Michael Parker, executive director at the Oregon Savings Network, which was the first-of-its-kind plan when it launched two years ago, touted the success of the state’s program in testimony via video conference. He said about 50,000 new retirement accounts had been established, worth about $30 million saved, with the rollout continuing. The program’s participation rate is holding steady at about 72%, he said, meeting projections. “By not having compliance at the beginning, we sort of set up a culture of noncompliance instead of the other way around,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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After Rally with De Blasio, City Council Hears Bills on Private Sector Retirement Security Mon, 23 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio, City Council Look to Move Ahead with Private Sector Retirement Savings Program https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8773-de-blasio-city-council-private-sector-retirement-savings-program https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8773-de-blasio-city-council-private-sector-retirement-savings-program retirement saving event

Feb. 2016 (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)


In his State of the City speech in January, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised that the city would create a system of retirement security for millions of New Yorkers who work in the private sector and may not have access to employer-provided savings plans. It was a revival of an effort the mayor had first pushed in 2016 but that bumped up against the change in presidential administrations and federal approvals apparently needed. But eight months after de Blasio’s speech at the start of this year, the New York City Council is ready to look at the idea through two bills that will be examined at a hearing later this month.   

“We'll create a universal retirement system in our city, because if you've worked for decades, then you've earned the right to retire in peace,” the mayor declared in January. There has been little public movement since, but as the mayor continues his presidential campaign, an initial Council hearing provides new promise.

De Blasio first put forward a “Retirement Security for All” proposal in 2016, but the legislative effort to achieve it was cut short in 2017 when President Donald Trump approved new federal regulations passed by a Republican-led Congress that undid an Obama era rule and limited municipalities from creating private-sector retirement programs. City officials believe they can still move ahead, however.

In May 2018, City Council Members Ben Kallos and I. Daneek Miller sponsored the pair of bills that would establish such retirement savings programs for roughly 2 million private sector employees working in New York City.

Kallos’ bill would create individual retirement accounts (IRAs) for workers at New York City businesses that employ 10 or more people and do not currently offer such programs. Employees would be automatically enrolled unless they choose to opt out and the IRAs would be funded through payroll deductions at a default rate. Though they would have to help administer the paperwork, employers would not have to contribute to the savings, nor would any public funds be directed to the individual accounts. The bill also sets up a complaint mechanism for employees in case businesses do not comply and creates varying civil penalties for violations of the law.

Miller’s bill creates an unpaid three-member retirement savings board appointed by the mayor to oversee the private IRAs. The board would be responsible for investing IRA funds and contracting with financial institutions to manage them; it would also be charged with ensuring that fees for the programs remain low and for informing employers and employees of their rights and responsibilities under the law.

“All New Yorkers deserve the opportunity to plan for the future and save for their retirement,” said Laura Feyer, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, in a statement. “The Mayor called for retirement security for all New Yorkers in his State of the City earlier this year, and we look forward to working with the City Council to make retirement security a reality for millions of New Yorkers.”

Despite what seem to be hurdles at the federal level, both bills will be considered on September 23 at a joint hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Civil Service and Labor, which Miller chairs, and Committee on Contracts.

Miller said the city’s involvement in the program, through the board his bill would create, will mitigate some of the administrative burdens that small businesses would otherwise face. “We want to try to fill a gap here,” he said in a phone interview. “I think there's a real opportunity for a win-win for everybody involved to provide sensible retirement opportunities.”

Miller said the need to pass retirement security legislation was much like the issue of climate change, something that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” he added, referring to the stark data around the many thousands of New Yorkers who have little to no retirement savings.

Kallos said in an interview that he is confident the proposals will pass and stand up to scrutiny under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, citing other jurisdictions that have advanced similar programs, including New York State.

“What has changed is that several jurisdictions have moved forward with the program with thousands of Americans gaining access to retirement accounts for the first time ever, and we're not seeing those plans being challenged,” he said. “And that seems to be putting forward a pathway for us.” 

At least ten states including New York have enacted legislation to allow private sector retirement programs. In last year’s state budget, the Legislature approved the creation of the New York State Secure Choice Savings Program, which, unlike the Council proposal, is a voluntary opt-in plan for private sector employers rather than an opt-out one. It is meant to be formulated over two years. 

“I think there's a national energy around this,” Kallos said. “The mayor, he's bringing universal pre-K around the country. And I think that in a nation that is growing more and more concerned about how and when they will be able to retire and whether social security will even be there for them, having ‘Retirement Security for All’ is something important for the mayor to interject into a national conversation.” 

Kallos expects an aggressive timeline, saying that the bills could pass as soon as October and be signed into law by the mayor by November. If so, and even as they simply get new consideration and attention, they could provide a headline issue that the mayor can tout if he continues to seek the Democratic nomination for president.

On the campaign trail, de Blasio has focused on issues he believes are of paramount importance to “working people,” including his signature universal pre-kindergarten program. That includes his boasts of a proposal to give paid personal leave to private sector employees, something the mayor has repeatedly said will happen this year even though the City Council does not appear close to approving it. 

“When the mayor’s chosen to champion issues, he’s made it happen,” Kallos said. 

Beth Finkel, state director of AARP New York, praised the Council’s and mayor’s efforts. “We're very interested in anything that helps people to be more prepared financially for their retirement,” she said, noting that individuals are 15 times more likely to save for retirement if they have access to a savings program that automatically makes payroll deductions. “That's our mission, that people can age with dignity and be prepared for their retirement. And you can't wake up when you're older and say, okay, now's the time. So having something like this in place where people can save throughout their career, that's exactly the type of policy that AARP is very, very supportive of.”

AARP members, Miller, and Kallos were among those who celebrated at the February 2016 City Hall rally de Blasio held to advance the retirement savings plan, which has stalled in the three-plus years since.

Both Kallos and Miller expect little opposition at the local level, but there is a possibility that the bills may come under fire from private groups such as the ERISA Industry Committee, which lobbies on behalf of the country’s largest private employers with regards to employee benefits policies, or companies that sell retirement investment products.

“Retirement Security for All is tantamount to what would be the equivalent of a public option for insurance companies,” Kallos said. “And ultimately, companies that sell 401(k), 403(b) and other investment products have traditionally opposed this because they would rather see people not saving for retirement than see competition. And I think the real competition is having the fees that they can charge undermined.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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De Blasio, City Council Look to Move Ahead with Private Sector Retirement Savings Program Wed, 04 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
On Presidential Campaign Trail, De Blasio Promises Paid Vacation Law ‘This Year,’ But City Council Has No Timeline https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8707-presidential-campaign-trail-de-blasio-promises-paid-vacation-city-council-no-timeline https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8707-presidential-campaign-trail-de-blasio-promises-paid-vacation-city-council-no-timeline proposes mybdbd become

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


As he campaigns for president, Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly said that “this year” the city will pass a mandate that most businesses provide employees with two weeks of paid personal time each year, but the City Council, which would have to pass such legislation, has not committed to the timeline the mayor is touting.

De Blasio first announced his support for paid personal leave and said it would get done “this year” in his January State of the City, and he’s doubled down on that timeframe a number of times since, including during remarks at a U.S. Conference of Mayors session in late January, despite the fact that he has no public commitment of that sort from the city’s legislative body.

In May, the mayor led a rally for paid personal time legislation just ahead of the City Council’s initial hearing on the bill, which was first introduced in 2014 by then-City Council Member Jumaane Williams, who is now the public advocate. De Blasio did not back the bill, which would expand the city’s paid sick leave law and is facing opposition from business owners, until five years later.

At the rally, both de Blasio and Williams said it would be passed this year.

The push has become a major talking point for de Blasio on the presidential campaign trail -- “we’re going to pass a law in New York this year, two weeks paid vacation for every working person,” he said this past Sunday on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos -- and he included the idea in his recently-unveiled “21st century workers’ bill of rights” campaign agenda.

But there has been no apparent movement on the bill since the May hearing, and it has just eight sponsors in the 51-seat City Council (including Williams, who as public advocate is a non-voting member of the Council but can sponsor bills).

Asked how the mayor could be so certain about it passing this year, a City Hall spokesperson for de Blasio, Laura Feyer, said in a statement, “Since the start of the year, we have been pushing hard and working nonstop with stakeholders and elected officials to get Paid Personal Time legislation passed this year. We look forward achieving this massive win so that New Yorkers get the time off they are owed.”

A spokesperson for City Council Speaker Corey Johnson told Gotham Gazette that the speaker continues to be supportive of the aims of the bill but has concerns about potential unintended consequences impacting small businesses. Unlike de Blasio, the Council has no set timetable in mind, the spokesperson said.

“The paid leave proposal is going through the legislative process,” a Council spokesperson wrote by email.

Williams remains optimistic, but he appears to have backed off any timeline. “As the bill goes through the legislative process, our office looks forward to continuing to work with the Council and Administration so that Paid Personal Time is no longer a privilege, but a right for all New Yorkers,” Williams said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. Despite being asked, Williams did not comment on the timeframe for passage of the bill.

At the May rally, Williams said, “In a couple weeks or a couple months we are going to have paid personal time.”

At a January press conference not long after de Blasio announced his support for paid personal time, Johnson said he was supportive of the bill conceptually, but “it will go through the legislative process.”

“We want to hear from all the stakeholders. We want to hear from workers and small business owners,” he said. The Council created that opportunity in May. Before the hearing, de Blasio and Williams led their rally in support of the bill, while business owners and other critics led a rally in opposition. Proponents and opponents of the bill then testified before the Council’s Civil Service and Labor Committee, chair by Council Member I. Daneek Miller. 

Miller’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation’s status and potential timeline for passage.

The legislation would require private employers with five or more employees to offer 10 days of paid personal leave annually, accrued based on employee service hours. For every 30 hours worked, an employee would earn one hour of paid personal time, with a maximum of 80 hours earned per year, according to the bill. De Blasio and other supporters of the legislation have pointed to similar programs in other countries, and lamented the United States as the only “industrialized” nation that does not mandate any paid personal leave.

New York City mandates paid sick leave for employers of the same size that would be affected by the proposed legislation, a law that was passed in late 2013 and then expanded multiple times by de Blasio and the City Council, beginning during the mayor’s first year in office in 2014.

“Working people have been working longer and harder with very little to show for it,” de Blasio said at the May rally. “Too many people in this city aren’t guaranteed any time off – not a single day. That’s not what New York City is about,” he said.

During Sunday’s interview on ABC, de Blasio said, “We need to do things like ensure a $15 minimum wage and paid vacation days....every country on Earth, every major country on Earth provides paid vacation days as a matter of law. Doesn’t happen in this country, we’re going to pass a law in New York this year, two weeks paid vacation for every working person.”

Later in the interview he said it again: “Look, in New York City, we've done pre-k for every child for free. We have done $15 minimum wage. We've done paid sick days. We're giving those two weeks paid vacation to every working person. We're literally guaranteeing health care for anyone who does not have health insurance. These things are happening in the nation's largest city.”

Small business owners and advocates have made their opposition to the paid personal time bill known over the last few months, saying that while they want to be able to give paid personal leave, they cannot afford to do so and would be on board if the city funded it. Up to 80 percent of small business owners are concerned that mandated paid personal leave would require “significant operational changes,” which could include letting workers go, according to a June survey of 1,471 small business owners.

Supporters for paid personal leave have found a rallying cry in 2014’s Earned Safe and Sick Time Law, citing similar pushback from small business owners at the time.

“Yeah, we heard that when we all did paid sick leave together, we heard that when we did the fair work week together, every time we heard the same refrain, it would hurt our economy and we would lose jobs. Well, guess what? We have more jobs in New York City than we've ever had in our history,” de Blasio said of opposition at the May rally.

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

Note: this story has been updated with comment from the mayor's office.

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On Presidential Campaign Trail, De Blasio Promises Paid Vacation Law ‘This Year,’ But City Council Has No Timeline Tue, 30 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council, Outside Experts Push De Blasio Administration on 'Career Pathways' https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7339-city-council-outside-experts-push-de-blasio-administration-on-career-pathways https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7339-city-council-outside-experts-push-de-blasio-administration-on-career-pathways daneek miller via john mccarten

Council Member Daneek Miller (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


In June, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to create 100,000 new jobs in New York City over ten years by investing in high-wage industries where there is potential to grow with a boost from city government. The jobs will all pay at least $50,000 per year, he promised.

The jobs plan, first outlined as the signature proposal of de Blasio’s 2017 State of the City speech, builds on other jobs programs, such Career Pathways, a workforce development initiative announced in 2014 intended to fill gaps in areas like training that were keeping people from attaining positions or entering higher wage roles. But when the jobs program was announced, advocates and service providers quickly pointed out that Career Pathways has not been funded at recommended levels.

According to the administration, the desired result of Career Pathways was for agencies overseeing workforce development to “reorient their services toward career progression instead of stopping at job placement.”

The Career Pathways Task Force, which came up with recommendations for filling the gaps, recommended large investments in new workforce development, including $60 million annually by 2020 in “bridge programs that prepare low-skill jobseekers for entry-level work and middle-skill job training,” and $100 million annually by 2020 in “career-track, middle-skill occupations, including greater support for incumbent workers who are not getting ahead.”

But with 2017 nearing an end, the city appears to be significantly behind schedule on the program. And on Monday, the City Council’s Committees on Small Business and Civil Service & Labor held a joint oversight hearing on Career Pathways and its progress.

A glaring question for Career Pathways is funding. Of the projected $100 million annually by 2020 in career training for middle-skill jobs, about half of the proposed amount has been allocated in the city budget, now about halfway between the 2014 introduction and 2020.

Significantly, of the $60 million projected annual investment in bridge programs for low-skill workers, only $6.4 million has been allocated, according to the Center for an Urban Future, a think tank focused on the city’s economy.

Barbara Chang, the executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development, testified Monday on behalf of the administration. When Council Member Daneek Miller, chair of the labor committee, questioned Chang on the funding deficiency in bridge programs, which combine industry-specific training with more basic educational training, she offered a slightly more optimistic number: $7.5 million out of the $60 million. Citing the success of Seattle’s bridge program, Chang noted that New York presents numerous challenges not present in other cities, making efficient use of funds more difficult to ascertain.

“What we’re doing is we’re beginning to pilot bridge programs in the setting of New York City,” Chang said, “where we have a much more diverse population [than Seattle]. And we’re looking to see what works in New York City as it relates to bridge programming, and so as those pilots come out with data, then I think we’ll be in a better position to make strategic investments.”

For some advocates, the administration’s process is not nearly fast enough. Kevin Stump, vice president of policy at JobsFirstNYC, called for an immediate new investment of $20 million in bridge programming in the city’s next budget, and for another $33.6 million the year after to bring the total annual investment to target levels.

“We appreciate the City’s careful approach to systems-building and recognize this can take time and applaud the City for taking steps in the right direction,” Stump said. “However, after nearly three years of building, the time to make a significant investment in the system is now.”

Previous workforce development initiatives had been criticized for attempting to simply shoehorn people into jobs without care for fit; the de Blasio administration’s aim for its program was to prepare workers for and place them in high demand sectors that, combined with the education and training programs contained within Career Pathways, would topple barriers to employment and focus on the human capital aspect of economic development.

The task force identified six high demand sectors: healthcare, technology, industrial/ manufacturing, and construction, retail, and food service. The first four are the focus of investment in training, while the latter two are the focus of investment in improving the quality of low-wage sectors.

The intention is to advance career progress for workers rather than simply place them into a job. But an unintended consequence of this focus has been neglect of small businesses.

“Despite the laudable goal of career-track skills building articulated in the Career Pathways plan, workforce development providers are evaluated and reimbursed largely based on how many people they can place into jobs,” said Christian Gonzalez-Rivera, a senior researcher at the Center for an Urban Future. “This economic reality means providers have an overwhelming incentive to work almost exclusively with large businesses that can hire big batches of workers at once, rather than with small businesses that might add only one or two employees at a time.”

Gonzalez-Rivera’s testimony further noted that small business job growth has, since 2001, outpaced corporate (500 employees or more) job growth nearly 3-to-1; but small businesses often “report that they are encountering challenges in recruiting and retaining workers,” which can be a death knell for a business aiming to stay in New York.

CUF also notes that the program is not sufficiently helping immigrants, a group that comprises nearly half of the city’s workforce but have disproportionately low education levels.

“This makes immigrants the prime clients for the city’s workforce development system, yet our research found that publicly funded workforce programs are just not producing results for them,” said Gonzalez-Rivera. “As a result, many turn to predatory for-profit employment agencies that charge high fees to place them into jobs or take a cut of their wages.”

The city, on the other hand, said that the bridge program has been designed with immigrants in mind.

“These programs allow job-seekers with limited educational attainment and low English proficiency to make progress toward occupational goals as they build their basic skills,” Chang said.

The Career Pathways program is included in the mayor’s jobs plan, New York Works. While it is not touted as part of the administration’s newer initiatives to provoke job creation, Career Pathways is named as a program already expanding employment on the way to de Blasio’s 100,000 marker.

Council Member Robert Cornegy Jr., chair of the small business committee and a candidate to be the next Council speaker, was scheduled to be at the hearing, but couldn’t attend due to a family medical emergency. In a statement, Cornegy emphasized the need for the program to focus on small business growth rather than just job placement.

“The Career Pathways report released in 2014 identified key areas we as a City need to improve in order to ensure we are developing our human capital in the most efficient and effective way possible,” Cornegy told Gotham Gazette. “Today’s hearing was meant to measure our progress against the strategy outlined in the report and renew our commitment to ensuring the City’s commitment to workforce development strategy functions accordingly. As Chair of the Council’s Committee on Small Business, it is clear there is more we can do to ensure our workforce is capable of helping the City’s small businesses build capacity. Toward that end, I introduced and the Council recently passed two bills (Int. 1510 & 1511) that will survey small business owners’ workforce needs, and develop and implement a comprehensive workforce development plan that addresses them. I look forward to working with my Council colleagues and the administration moving forward to further fund and scale workforce development initiatives, like bridge programs, and find ways to better serve our small businesses, the true drivers of this City’s economy.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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City Council, Outside Experts Push De Blasio Administration on 'Career Pathways' Mon, 27 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Vigilance in the Fight Against Islamophobia https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/6517-vigilance-in-the-fight-against-islamophobia https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/6517-vigilance-in-the-fight-against-islamophobia MMV Daneek Miller

Daneek Miller, left, & Melissa Mark-Viverito, the authors (photo: William Alatriste)


In New York, we have always embraced diversity. We strive to make sure that everyone feels welcome—no matter their race, faith, or background. This has never been more important for Muslim Americans, who have been the target of vicious political attacks during this election cycle.

This month, Muslim Americans across the country and in New York City will be celebrating Eid al-Adha. As our fellow community members observe this important religious holiday amidst a rising trend of Islamophobia, we must be mindful of their safety. Let us continue to set an example for strengthening our community and promoting open-mindedness.

Recently, Muslims have been the target of hate speech and violence in their homes, schools, neighborhoods, and places of worship. These verbal and physical attacks represent a broader trend of discrimination against Muslims.

According to the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University, anti-Islam rhetoric in the United States has increased significantly during the current presidential election cycle. In fact, anti-Muslim attacks surged in the days and weeks after Donald Trump made anti-Muslim statements, suggested instituting a database to track Muslim Americans, and called for shutting down mosques. In recent months, organized, sometimes armed, protests against mosques have increased, as well as the targeting of Muslims for bullying or hate crimes.

This year’s presidential election has seen the candidate of a major political party not only endorse bigoted views, but also encourage the spread of these attitudes among his followers. Donald Trump’s message of bigotry has created a hostile climate against Muslims, immigrants, African Americans, Latinos, and women, dividing and weakening our communities. This marked increase in Islamophobia in the United States means that every day Muslims are unable to go about their daily lives without worrying about their personal safety. As we have seen with Imam Alauddin Akonjee and most recently with Nazma Khanam, Muslims are frequent targets of hate and violence. As a Latina legislator, as an African-American Muslim, we will not let any hateful rhetoric go unchecked and unchallenged. We have and will continue to stand up and speak out.

When an individual’s ability to publicly practice his or her faith is threatened, all of our liberties are at stake. We need to protect the freedom to practice faiths of all kinds and to educate others about diversity. That’s why the City added two Muslim holy days to the public school calendar in 2015, to ensure that all Muslim-American students can celebrate holidays together with friends and family.

Our fellow City Council members have also been very vocal about protecting the rights of Muslims in New York to practice their faith in peace and safety. Just last December, we helped organize a large interfaith rally on the steps of City Hall in coordination with other elected officials and faith leaders to denounce Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant remarks.

Despite challenges, our city will stand strong against these messages meant to divide us. Muslims continue to play important roles in our communities, contributing to the multicultural fabric of our city and our nation. Muslims are important figures in New York City arts, sciences, and businesses, as well as in public service – like Congressmen Keith Ellison and Andre Carson. Muslims are artists, teachers, doctors; mothers, fathers, and cherished members of their neighborhoods.

Institutionalizing Islamophobia only causes our communities to live in fear. This month, in the spirit of Eid, we must reject bigotry and collectively work together to spread awareness and hope. We have a responsibility to denounce discrimination and violence and to ensure that all communities can feel safe and respected in New York City. That is why, this Eid, we ask everyone in our broader community to do what they can to spread kindness instead of hatred, understanding instead of suspicion, and acceptance instead of close-mindedness.

Traveling across this city, whether to Bay Ridge or Midland Beach or Astoria, to connect with New Yorkers of all backgrounds and faiths has always been a highlight of serving in elected office. All of us are part of the New York City community, and we look forward to celebrating Eid together.

New York City is home to one of the most vibrant Muslim communities in the country. In order to continue preserving the values that make this city so special, we need to make sure that we are listening to the needs of Muslim-American New Yorkers.

Islamophobia has no place in New York City. Instead of embracing hateful rhetoric, we should be lifting up Muslim voices and sharing the stories of Muslim-Americans.

New Yorkers have always been stronger together. Together, we can work to protect and promote diversity and defeat Islamophobia.

***
Melissa Mark-Viverito is the Speaker of the City Council and Daneek Miller represents parts of Queens and is the only African-American Muslim City Council Member. On Twitter @MMViverito and @IDaneekMiller.

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

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Vigilance in the Fight Against Islamophobia Thu, 08 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Skips Executive Budget Hearings for Several Committees https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6379-city-council-skips-executive-budget-hearings-for-several-committees-2016 https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6379-city-council-skips-executive-budget-hearings-for-several-committees-2016 city council budget hearing

A City Council hearing (photo: William Alatriste)


Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council appear to be on the verge of a budget agreement, establishing the city’s spending plan for fiscal year 2017, which begins July 1.

On May 24, the City Council held its final hearing on de Blasio’s $82.2 billion executive budget for fiscal 2017. The series of executive budget hearings was another step in the lengthy and detailed budget process that includes the mayor’s preliminary budget, a month of preliminary budget hearings, and the Council’s preliminary budget response. After executive budget hearings, final negotiations have been taking place between the de Blasio administration and Council leadership while Council members and advocates make their final public and private pitches for more funding.

During the budget process, though, there was one City Council committee with oversight of a city agency that did not hold either an executive budget hearing or a preliminary budget hearing, and six other Council committees held preliminary budget hearings, but did not have executive budget hearings. Declining to hold a hearing signals that there are no related budget issues to address.

The decision whether to hold an executive budget hearing is at the discretion of the City Council Speaker’s office and the Council Finance Division, which typically decide not to bring mayoral agencies back for an executive budget hearing if there were no major changes from the preliminary to the executive budget for those agencies. All agencies have preliminary budget hearings, a spokesperson for Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said.

Of the six committees that held a preliminary budget hearing but not an executive budget hearing, a few have oversight of agencies with budget issues. The Committee on Standards and Ethics, for example, has oversight of the Conflicts of Interest Board, which had three 2015 requests for additional funding denied by the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget (the requests were for about $200,000 in additional funding to hire more ethics trainers and give raises aimed at employee retention).

The unfulfilled requests were discussed at the March 8 preliminary budget hearing for COIB. After that hearing held by the Committee on Standards and Ethics, COIB sent a letter on March 10 to the city budget office requesting about $26,000 in additional funds for its most “critical budgetary needs,” which was met. However, COIB made it clear at the preliminary budget hearing that it was struggling to retain staff and to meet its charter-mandated role due to a lack of funding, and that senior management staff had even taken pay cuts in order to hire new staff. COIB settled for requesting what it saw as a minimum in additional funding after having several requests denied, something which could have been readdressed at an executive budget hearing.

When asked why the Committee on Standards and Ethics did not have an executive budget hearing, chair of the committee, Council Member Alan Maisel, told Gotham Gazette, “I can’t answer that…I have no idea, call the budget office.”

The City Council Committee on Contracts also did not hold an executive budget hearing. On May 26, after executive budget hearings had ended, 47 Council members signed a letter to the mayor asking the administration to fund a 2.5 percent increase for the administrative costs of nonprofits that contract with the city. Dozens of nonprofit workers and several Council members rallied on the steps of City Hall, raising the same issues that these nonprofits, like the Human Services Council and the New York Immigration Coalition, had brought up during the relevant preliminary budget hearing. The letter from nearly the entire City Council made it clear that the funding needs of nonprofits that contract with the city remained unaddressed.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal, chair of the contracts committee, said she believes that no executive budget hearing was held because “It’s not really for the director of the Office of Contracts to respond to this. It’s the OMB who is responsible for allocating these funds to the agencies. But I was asking and other Council members were asking at each of the agency hearings as well, what are we doing to cover these costs?”

Rosenthal did indeed raise the issue with OMB during the first executive budget hearing on May 6.

The Committee on Consumer Affairs, which oversees the Department of Consumer Affairs, also did not hold an executive budget hearing, despite the agency’s growth under the de Blasio administration. Chair of the committee, Council Member Rafael Espinal, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette that his committee did not have an executive budget hearing “because there was a very minimal change in the agency’s executive budget from the preliminary budget,” as “the agency’s only new need was for $180,000 in personnel services costs and other adjustments totaled less than $500,000.”

The mayor’s office did not respond for comment regarding those agencies not asked back to the Council for executive budget hearings.

The Committee on Oversight and Investigations, chaired by Council Member Vincent Gentile with oversight of the Department of Investigation, also did not hold an executive budget hearing, “because the DOI agency requests were unchanged from the Mayor’s preliminary budget and were fully met in the FY’17 executive budget,” said Travis Lamprecht, communications director for Gentile.

Neither the Committee on Civil Rights nor the Committee on Courts and Legal Services have direct oversight of specific city agencies, and neither held an executive budget hearing. Chair of the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, Council Member Rory Lancman, told Gotham Gazette, "There were no substantial changes in our area of jurisdiction between the preliminary and executive budget, so the Committee instead held an oversight hearing on court record accuracy."

One committee, the Committee on Civil Service and Labor, chaired by Council Member I. Daneek Miller, did not hold a preliminary or executive budget hearing, and has no hearings scheduled before a budget deal is due. A spokesperson for Miller said that his committee “does not have a preliminary budget hearing because it does not oversee a City Department or Agency. The closest one it oversees is the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, but that is only over City employees.”

DCAS is the principal administrative support agency for the city of New York and has been allocated $1.1 billion in this year’s executive budget. According to its website, DCAS “supports City agencies' workforce needs in recruiting, hiring and training City employees; provides overall facilities management for 55 public buildings; and purchases, sells and leases real property,” among other functions.

Four other committees (of the City Council’s 37) did not hold preliminary or executive budget hearings - those committees do not have direct oversight of any specific city agency.

The Committee on Recovery and Resiliency, chaired by Council Member Mark Treyger, has oversight of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, the Build it Back Program, and the Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability. All within the Mayor’s Office, none is an official city department.

Strangely, the recovery and resiliency committee twice had an executive budget hearing scheduled in May, but both were deferred, and no preliminary budget hearing took place. Instead, Treyger, told Gotham Gazette, the Committee on Recovery and Resiliency held an oversight hearing on June 6 on “budget items with regard to the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, Build it Back, and all of the Sandy recovery applications, and whether there's equity on resiliency spending.”

“I was very insistent in making sure that my committee holds an oversight hearing with regard to budget matters before budget adoption,” Treyger added.

Another of those four is the Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections, which has oversight of Council structure and organization as well as appointments to city boards. The rules committee deleted a committee that the Council had deemed unnecessary during a March hearing, in part citing that it did not have oversight of a city agency. The Committee on State and Federal Legislation, which rarely meets and mainly does so to pass resolutions, also did not hold a budget hearing. And, the Committee on Waterfronts has met just once this year.

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by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Skips Executive Budget Hearings for Several Committees Mon, 06 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Grocery Worker Bill Provokes Rare Level of Council Dissent https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6103-grocery-worker-bill-provokes-rare-level-of-council-dissent https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6103-grocery-worker-bill-provokes-rare-level-of-council-dissent MMV pathmark

Speaker Mark-Viverito on 125th Street (photo: William Alatriste) 


When a bill comes to the floor of the New York City Council, it is guaranteed to pass. And so it was on Tuesday, when the Council voted through the Grocery Worker Retention Act, which mandates that new owners of large grocery stores maintain employment of the store workforce for 90 days. But while most bills pass unanimously and some garner only two or three dissenting votes from the Council's three-member Republican caucus, the GWRA garnered seven "no" votes.

Five of the Council's 47 Democrats and two of the three Republicans voted against the bill, which passed 40-7 as three members were absent and there is one vacant Council seat after a recent resignation. (A Gotham Gazette report previously found that in 2014, six was the most "no" votes received by any bill passing through the Council.)

The fact that several Council members took time to explain opposition to the bill during the vote gave a rare semblance of debate to what is typically an atmosphere of near or full unanimity. Even among the dissenters, reasons varied, though most called the bill government overreach into the private sector. For the overwhelming majority who voted in favor of the bill, the rationale is that the grocery industry is in the midst of an especially volatile period that has had severe consequences for many working class New Yorkers and their families.

"I believe this is a well-intentioned effort and I have great respect for the bill's sponsor," Council Member Dan Garodnick said Wednesday, leading to his "no" vote, and referring to Council Member Daneek Miller. "But with this bill we are interjecting local government into private enterprise in a way that we should not be doing. We are going too far."

Council members supporting the bill, led by Miller, explained and defended the bill as necessary and pointed to the fact that the city has taken such measures before, namely to protect building service workers.

After defending the bill on the Council floor Tuesday, Council Member Brad Lander took to Twitter Wednesday morning to respond to criticism of the GWRA by grocery store owners in a Crain's New York Business article. Lander wrote, "We have the same modest "worker retention" law in place for building service workers, and no business collapses have been reported."

During a press conference before the vote, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito pointed to that precedent and said that the Council may be looking at other industries as well. "There is a similar bill that we passed several years ago when it comes to service workers," she said. "And we wanted to move this very quickly and that doesn't mean we're not looking at other industries as well."

"We needed to move this very quickly because of the recent closures and bankruptcy and what some of these workers were going through," Mark-Viverito continued, pointing to examples in her northern Manhattan district. She added that just because this grocery store bill was being passed, "doesn't mean that we're not looking at other industries, 'cause we are."

On the Council floor, Garodnick said that all workers should have rights, including the right to unionize, and that the Council should support efforts to unionize and fight for fair wages and benefits. He went on, though, to analyze the bill's provisions, asking rhetorically, "Why...would we protect workers only for 90 days? Why not six months? Or a year? Or more? Why are we limiting ourselves to this industry? Why not protect the workers in our local pizza shop? Or even the financial services industry? If you buy a supermarket with 100 workers and you believe that you can make it survive and make a profit, and you only need 90 workers, we should let you do that, without interference."

Joining Garodnick in casting "no" votes were fellow Democratic Council Members David Greenfield, Rafael Espinal, James Vacca, and Antonio Reynoso; as well as Republicans Joseph Borelli and Steven Matteo. The Council's other Republican member, Eric Ulrich, was a co-sponsor of the bill and voted in favor. Reynoso said that the bill did little for people in his district, where the "supermarkets" are local bodegas, often owned by immigrants struggling to get by.

While Garodnick's 'overreach' critiques were echoed by others who voted against the bill - and even acknowledged by some who voted for it - 40 Council members supported the bill. Council members from Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx spoke of the negative consequences of losing supermarkets in their districts or from the mass layoffs that disrupted communities after a supermarket sale.

Council Member Danny Dromm, of Queens, said, "I have seen what happens when these small supermarkets are closed...we had this situation in Jackson Heights about two years ago when one day, two weeks before Christmas, employees arrived to find out they had been locked out of the door, and when the new owner came in and took over the supermarket, he would not rehire the workers, even though they had not done anything wrong. I totally agree with this legislation, nothing in this law says that the workers have to stay on beyond the 90 days."

At the press conference before the full Council meeting, Mark-Viverito and Miller positioned the bill as an important step in the Council's ongoing work to protect workers. "This City Council is committed to protecting the rights and dignity of all workers in our city," Mark-Viverito said, "and with this legislation, we're taking another step toward that goal. Grocery store employees provide a valuable service to their community - we still have too many food deserts across the city of New York, my community is one of them. And at a minimum, these workers should have an opportunity to prove their worth before losing their jobs to changes in ownership."

The Council has taken an aggressive stance in regulating workplace and workforce issues, including expanding paid sick leave and moving through legislation to protect freelancers.

In outlining the GWRA, Council Member Miller said, "Now keep in mind these are not small bodegas or smaller stores, these are at least 10,000 feet of sales, not storage, not parking. So this is significant space and we need to protect workers, but more importantly, protect communities."

The language of the bill defines which employees and what stores are covered:

"The term "eligible grocery employee" means any person employed by a grocery establishment subject to a change in control, and who has been employed by such establishment on a full-time or a part-time basis for a period of at least six months prior to the effective date of the change in control; provided that such term shall not include persons who are managerial, supervisory or confidential employees or persons who on average regularly worked fewer than eight hours per week during such period."

"The term "grocery establishment" means any retail store in the city of New York in which the sale of food for off-site consumption comprises fifty percent or more of store sales and that exceeds 10,000 square feet in size, exclusive of any storage space, loading dock, food preparation space or eating area designated for the consumption of prepared food."

Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign the bill at an upcoming ceremony.

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@tweetBenMax

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Grocery Worker Bill Provokes Rare Level of Council Dissent Wed, 20 Jan 2016 20:05:18 +0000
All Aboard the BRT Express? https://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5991-all-aboard-the-brt-express https://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5991-all-aboard-the-brt-express bus mta photo m86

(photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)


Google Maps estimated an hour-and-a-half for a trip from near City Hall to a location in Southeast Queens, leaving at 5:30 p.m. on a recent Tuesday. On the E train to its final stop and a bus crawling along jam-packed Merrick Boulevard, the trip took about an hour longer, two-and-a-half hours from door to door.

“Now you know what we go through every day,“ City Council Member I. Daneek Miller told Gotham Gazette following that night’s event, which he co-hosted with Council Member Donovan Richards and focused on, what else, transportation.

The commute to and from downtown Manhattan that the Council members and some of their constituents face was part of the motivation behind the town hall, set in the outer reaches of the city and called to examine the challenging state of public transit in St. Albans, Laurelton, and surrounding neighborhoods - often referred to as a “transportation desert.”

In a recent op-ed for Crain’s New York Business, Miller laid out the extent of the problem: people from Southeast Queens spend roughly 15 hours a week commuting, 238 percent more time than the average New Yorker.

The residents of the area share this plight with several other neighborhoods considered transportation deserts because of their lack of public transit options - places including the Rockaways, the North Bronx, and the South Shore of Staten Island.

With the subway map sure to stay mostly as it is, communities in greatest need of good transportation options that can get residents to the city’s main jobs centers are reliant on a bus system lacking in capacity and dependability. Even though 97 percent of the city‘s population lives within a quarter mile of a bus stop, the collective problems with the service--it is one of the slowest systems in the nation and the slowest among big cities--render residents far removed from subway lines and feeling helpless.

With increased scrutiny of transportation deserts and lengthy New York City commutes come increasing calls for creative bus solutions: with more selective bus service (SBS) and bus rapid transit (BRT) at the forefront.

transpo deserts[NYC "subway deserts" - map by Chris Whong)

According to an audit released by Comptroller Scott Stringer in April, buses are not just slow, they are also often late: Stringer‘s study revealed that more than 30 percent of the city’s express buses do not run on schedule. Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island are hit the hardest, the comptroller said. The report also found that the MTA had inconsistent inspection standards for wheelchair lifts across their bus fleet, which, in addition to failing disabled riders, also slows bus time.

“This is more than just a statistic,“ Stringer said at the press conference unveiling his audit, “a late bus could mean a missed job opportunity, missed wages, or missed time with children.“

One possible antidote for lagging buses and transit hungry commuters is Bus Rapid Transit, and the idea is gaining momentum, as the Miller-Richards town hall showed. The questions ahead are about political will and community buy-in toward expanding BRT in New York City. BRT was a piece of a recent City Council hearing on transportation deserts, but the city’s Department of Transportation has already been made to study BRT through a law passed in the Council and signed by Mayor de Blasio that will lead to a report on areas where BRT should be implemented.

Started in Curitiba, Brazil in 1974, BRT was originally formulated as a cheaper alternative for a city that didn‘t have the money to build a subway. In its fullest form BRT combines a variety of features to make it operate at a speed comparable to light rail (an option also talked about for Queens and Staten Island). Long accordion style buses--in Curitiba they hold up to 250 people--shoot up and down bus-only lanes of large streets, stopping at intervals akin to a subway line (rather than the shorter ones of typical bus service).

Traffic signals have sensors in order to hold green lights for buses approaching intersections. People pay their fare before they board the bus and stations often feature elevated platforms or curbsides that coincide with the floor of the bus, making it quick and easy for elderly or disabled people to board. All this amounts to more on time, reliable, and efficient bus service.

Since the turn of the century cities across the globe including Paris, Istanbul, Bogata, and Los Angeles have all adopted BRT to curb car use and improve public transit overall.

Now, Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to bring BRT to New York as part of his efforts to help the city’s lower and middle classes. The argument also goes, of course, that if workers have shorter and easier commutes they are more productive when they’re at work.

”Bus riders are the most neglected part of our transportation system,” de Blasio’s policy book from his 2013 mayoral campaign reads. “Bus Rapid Transit has the potential to save outer-borough commuters hours off their commute times every week and stimulate economic activity in neighborhoods the subway system doesn’t reach.”

While it’s been somewhat slow to materialize, de Blasio’s pledge to bring New York City a “world-class bus rapid transit system” has been gaining steam. When signing the BRT study bill in May, de Blasio reminded that, “We all know that mass transit is particularly critical for those New Yorkers for whom resources are very tight, whose incomes are very tight - mass transit is their lifeline. It connects them to jobs, schools, everything.”

In March the state-run MTA and the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) announced the official plan for the city‘s first full-scale BRT route on Woodhaven Boulevard, in Queens. The project will stretch 14.4 miles, cost around $200 million, and be fully operational by 2017. (By contrast, the Second Avenue subway is supposed to cover 8.5 miles, cost upwards of $17 billion, and be done at a to-be-determined date.)

Previously the two organizations’ efforts to speed up bus time came in the form of Select Bus Service, a paired down version of BRT that also utilizes off-board fare collection, along with traffic signal priority, semi-exclusive bus lanes, and longer distances between stations. The first SBS route was launched in 2008 on the Bx12 on Fordham Road in the Bronx, and has enjoyed relative success. According to statistics collected by the MTA one year after the launch, running times increased up to 19 percent, ridership by 8 percent.

Over the past seven years the MTA and the DOT have added seven other SBS routes, including ones going up First Avenue and down Second Avenue in Manhattan. All routes have enjoyed faster service and a 2013 DOT report claimed that SBS had saved eight million hours of travel time.

Still, SBS is not BRT. The former appears more suited for the busier sections for the city, the latter for moving people from the city’s outer reaches to its transit and business hubs.

With the Woodhaven route, which will have exclusive lanes and robust, fully-outfitted stations with shelters, seats, and real-time information on bus arrivals (along with off-board fare collection and transit signal priority) the city is setting a new standard for its above-ground transportation. The fully exclusive bus lanes, which will also allow traffic signal priority to be more effective, are particularly exciting given that Kevin Ortiz, spokesperson for the MTA, told Gotham Gazette that traffic congestion and red lights are the top two causes for bus delays.

woodhaven2 int[Woodhaven BRT rendering, via NYC DOT]

The line, which will run north-south, perpendicular to the A, E, F, J, M, R, and 7 trains, is indicative of the type of improvements BRT could offer in the so-called “outer boroughs.” Joan Byron, Director of Policy at the Pratt Center for Community Development and a member of the advocacy group BRT for NYC, sees this improvement as imperative to the economic empowerment of New York’s outer-borough residents.

“We have a problem right now of people not being able to get to their jobs and employers not being able to get to their workforce. Work locations are shifting. Job growth is much faster in the boroughs than it is in Manhattan…and the subway system isn‘t set up to serve them. You can do things with BRT that would take decades to do with rail,“ Byron told Gotham Gazette.

As it stands, she explains, “if you live some place like Far Rockaway…the number of jobs that are within a reasonable commute range for you are much smaller than if you live someplace like Park Slope.”

The Woodhaven line plans to change that for its service area. BRT lines along the North Shore of Staten Island (something City Council Member Debbie Rose called “a necessity, not an amenity”) and Southern Brooklyn—two possible routes the MTA and DOT are investigating—would also serve similar purposes.

Council Member Donovan Richards, who represents part of the area the new BRT route will serve, sees this project as only the beginning. Ultimately, he wants a full-scale BRT network throughout the city, viewing the issue as one that is also key to environmental justice.

“[BRT] needs to become as natural as breathing air,“ he said to Gotham Gazette after the town hall. “We have got to remember that if we don’t get cars off the road, climate change is going to wipe out communities in New York City. Overall the city needs to adopt it,” he said, referring to BRT.

Car Ownership blog[Rates of car ownership, via NYC EDC]

Richards, along with city DOT officials, recently had lunch with and gave a tour of the planned Woodhaven route to a federal transportation secretary. U.S. Senator Charles Schumer has promised to push for federal funding.

The excitement continued into May when the mayor signed into law the new BRT-related bill.

According to the City Council website, “Under the bill, DOT would work with the MTA and gather input with the public to develop a citywide BRT plan, due to the Council no later than September 1, 2017. The plan would consider areas of the City in need of additional rapid transit options, strategies for serving growing neighborhoods, potential intra-borough and inter-borough BRT corridors DOT plans to establish by 2027, strategies for integrating BRT with other transit routes, and the anticipated operating costs of additional BRT lines.”

SBS may continue to expand, and many note that it is a version of BRT, but the extent to which a strong BRT system will be implemented is unclear. In several other cities where the system has achieved success, says Joan Byron of Pratt, the build of these cities naturally accommodated the necessary BRT infrastructure.

“The places where that has been done, places like Bogota, Columbia, that model was implemented exactly in the parts of the city that have kind of a post-World War II physical fabric and development pattern. The street there for the main bus line, the Transmillenial, is twelve lanes wide. Pedestrians cross that street on over-passes. It wasn’t a big jump to put dedicated lanes in the center region and to have physical stations that are actually enclosed.”

Woodhaven Boulevard, eight lanes wide and notoriously hazardous for pedestrians (the station islands to be installed in the middle of the avenue also act as a safety measure), is at least somewhat similar.

Council Member Brad Lander, the lead sponsor of the BRT bill, sees Manhattan’s First and Second Avenues as streets also appropriate for the full BRT service, especially given the MTA‘s recent announcement to forgo $1 billion in funding for the Second Avenue Subway project.

Most buses, though, don‘t operate on streets the width of a small highway (even dedicating a full lane of First or Second Avenue could prove quite contentious). For these routes Lander and Byron see smaller BRT-like features being incorporated into bus operation citywide on a case-by-case basis.

“The simple idea of off-board fare payment, that’s something we want to get to on every city bus,” Lander told Gotham Gazette. After that, he said, what is doable will depend on infrastructure features and funding.

Lander cited the SBS M86 route, the MTA‘s latest SBS addition, as a prime example. Even though there is not enough room for a dedicated bus lane (the bus runs crosstown on 86th Street in Manhattan), the MTA has already installed off-board fare collection and plans to add bus bulbs - protruding, bulges of sidewalk in front of bus stops, constructed so that the bus doesn‘t have to pull over when it picks up passengers. Stations are also equipped with real-time bus arrival information. A similar approach could be effective on smaller streets in the outer boroughs as well.

imgres[A bus bulb, via Streetsblog.org]

Council Member Daneek Miller is impatient, saying that his transit-starved constituents can’t wait a decade for BRT lines.

“There are 300,000 people in Southeast Queens who it’s talking an hour-and-a-half, an hour-and-forty-five minutes to get to their job in the city, who can’t wait 20 years for a change,” Miller said after his town hall.

Miller, who ran a transportation workers union before joining the Council, takes a slightly more cynical view of SBS. He says the recent buzz around BRT has led the city to overlook basic adaptations that could yield considerable results, like those he outlined in his op-ed, such as fare reform on the LIRR. For his constituents, Miller said, “BRT might be the second best answer. I can get to City Hall in 50 [minutes] on the LIRR; it takes me an hour-and-40-minutes using public transportation.”

Still, Miller certainly wants to see extended express bus service to Downtown Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn. He acknowledges infrastructure challenges of implementing BRT in some places, saying “We don‘t want to put square pegs in a round hole,” and that it is essential to have all the components, otherwise it won’t be BRT, but a “glorified express bus service.”

With an eye toward communities like those represented by his colleagues Miller and Richards, Lander points to the need for more options for commuters. Citing “low-income New Yorkers and communities of color” that “have disproportionately long commute times,” Lander said at the May bill-signing that “New Yorkers across the city – especially in transit-starved, outer-borough neighborhoods – need more mass-transit options. This law, and subsequent exploration of a Bus Rapid Transit network, will significantly improve public transportation access in the parts of NYC that need it most, at a cost we can afford, and help insure a more sustainable future.”

BRT and SBS advocates, like Lander, stand confident that their plan will deliver, and sooner than projected.

“I think it’s going to accelerate,“ said Byron. “For every elected official that will stand up and say ‘I want BRT in my district now,’ which all the Council members along the Q52, Q53 routes have said, you’ll get others that say, ‘Forget it, my constituents ride the bus,‘” Byron said, referring to hesitant Council members who she thinks will acquiesce.

When asked about the twelve year timeline in his BRT bill, a charged Lander replied, “the city - the DOT with the MTA - is already rolling out BRT at a pretty rapid rate...we are not waiting.“

****
by Colin O’Connor
@GothamGazette
@colinqoconnor93

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All Aboard the BRT Express? Mon, 16 Nov 2015 19:06:12 +0000
City Council Developing New Protections for Workers in ‘Gig’ Economy https://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5971-city-council-developing-new-protections-for-workers-in-gig-economy https://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5971-city-council-developing-new-protections-for-workers-in-gig-economy lander car wash workers

Council Member Lander with carwash workers (photo: William Alatriste)


There are more than 1.3 million freelancers working in New York City and with the help of the City Council, these workers may soon be afforded certain protections on par with full-time workers.

Initially focused on wage protection and health benefits, Council members and advocates are also looking at legislation to expand collective bargaining rights to certain groups of workers in the “gig” economy.

The on-demand economy of such workers has mushroomed in the city with Uber and Lyft drivers, Handy.com cleaners, and the more traditional writers, graphic designers, and other artists. These temporary, “for-hire” workers largely perform their various efforts without the benefits of job security, health insurance, pension buy-in, or paid sick leave. Even their wages are regularly not guaranteed. Eight out of ten freelancers have complained of being victims of late payment or non-payment of wages according to reports compiled by the Freelancers Union.

With the City Council aggressively tackling workforce issues, Council Member Brad Lander, a Democrat who represents part of Brooklyn, has taken the lead in developing legislation to help people in the gig economy.

Lander is working with the New York City-based Freelancers Union to create a legislative framework for wage protection for freelance employees. In September, He appeared at a Brooklyn town hall hosted by the Freelancers Union to launch the #FreelanceIsntFree campaign, seeking to raise awareness and push for legislation.

“It has very real dark sides to it,” Lander said in a recent phone interview with Gotham Gazette, referring to freelancing and the company payment cycles that cause hardships for freelancers. “The rent is due and you still gotta put groceries on the table,” he said.

Lander believes that the best possible scenario would be a “cutting edge,” enforceable administrative solution, similar to protections guaranteed by the state Department of Labor and the Attorney General. Currently, the only legal recourse freelancers have is civil court, an expensive and time-consuming option. Lander wants to introduce a bill within the next two months.

But worker protections go beyond simply wages and Lander has found support from his colleagues for other ideas. Lander and Council Member Corey Johnson are working closely with the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance on a “drivers benefit fund” that would use a small fare surcharge to provide health benefits to for-hire drivers. After wage protections for freelancers, drafting this legislation is Lander’s next priority; and with the city looking at rules reform for the Taxi and Limousine Commission, he said this “is a good time to move it forward.”

Inevitably, workforce issues revolve in some important way around organized labor. On-demand gig workers are by their very nature unorganized. That’s where the Freelancers Union stepped in and now the City Council is moving toward creating new worker protections.

Eyeing Seattle, where a City Council member is pushing a bill to allow taxi drivers, for-hire drivers, and those from ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft to unionize and exercise collective bargaining, Lander is considering a similar path in New York.

Uber’s success in the city, and its disruption of the long-standing taxi/black car marketplace, has garnered the for-hire industry new attention. The ability for drivers, who are seen as independent contractors, to unionize would change the game for thousands, and the company, of course.

Uber has added more than 20,000 cars to their service in the last three years and also handled more than 100,000 rides each day in July, four times its record from last year.  During a summer face-off between city lawmakers and Uber, the Mayor de Blasio and the City Council brought about a temporary detente by landing on a four-month study of the effects of ride-sharing companies like Uber (and no cap on the growth of the industry). The results of that study are due soon and will likely play an important role in the future of ride-sharing in the city.

An Uber representative declined to comment for this story.

The city’s efforts to create space for independent contractors to unionize may run up against federal law. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 protects the right of employees to collectively bargain with their employers. It lays down specific definitions for employees and employers which could preempt local jurisdictions from taking action since independent contractors do not qualify under the law’s criteria.

A class-action lawsuit brought by three drivers in California against Uber highlights this basic issue. The drivers are arguing for benefits as employees of the company while Uber maintains they are independent contractors who are not eligible for these benefits, and therefore should not have received class-action status. 

“Seattle’s leading the way,” said Council Member Lander. The proposed legislation in Seattle would create a precedent and likely face numerous legal challenges. Lander recognizes this fact. Even though the NLRA preempts the City Council from legislating, he believes there is room for cities to take action for workers not covered under the federal legislation. Currently there is no draft legislation but Lander said any proposal would attempt to protect workers across the on-demand economy and not just specific companies.

(He also talked of changes to the city’s human rights laws to clarify the workers covered. He said this could happen in the next few months after these initial bills.)

The Council recently took controversial action to help car wash workers unionize, but that is being challenged in court.

Council Member I. Daneek Miller is firmly in support of any proposal that would help on-demand drivers organize. As a former labor union leader, Miller’s perspective on the issue is decidedly pro-labor, and his position as chair of the Council's civil service and labor committee puts him at the front lines in addressing it. 

“The whole concept of the shared economy has to be put into perspective,” Miller told Gotham Gazette. “I don’t think it’s a sustainable model.”

He said the “irony” of the situation is that the shared, gig economy is contributing to its own demise and disempowerment -- a younger generation with few responsibilities finds flexibility and mobility attractive and then later on when people want security, they find themselves left out in the cold.

For the system to work, he said, there need to be checks and balances in the form of collective bargaining and the right to organize.

“I’m less inclined to create public policy legislation around this,” he said about the issue of unionization, perhaps recognizing the challenges involved. “We’ll let them do their job and give them the tools to support them. We’ve got our finger on the pulse of organized labor.”

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by Samark Khurshid
@GothamGazette

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City Council Developing New Protections for Workers in ‘Gig’ Economy Wed, 04 Nov 2015 23:08:43 +0000
City Council Takes Aggressive Role in Workplace Issues https://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5927-city-council-takes-aggressive-role-in-workplace-issues https://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5927-city-council-takes-aggressive-role-in-workplace-issues Miller UFCW

Council Member Miller & union workers (photo: @IDaneekMiller)


A slate of recent bills introduced in the New York City Council have a lofty objective indicative of the progressive streak running through city government and raising eyebrows in the business community. Through legislation, the Council is addressing the city's widespread economic disparities by incrementally tackling workforce issues such as wages, workers rights, and access to employment.

Since Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito both came to power, there has been one big picture aim: to address income and other forms of inequality. Headline-making moves such as an expansion of paid sick leave came within a few months. Less flashy yet crucial bills followed. In August 2014, the Council passed the mayor's proposal to supplement the wages of school bus drivers employed by private contractors.

De Blasio and Mark-Viverito have both been called anti-business, and there have been claims of overreach by the mayor and the Council. Business leaders are often loathe to see the hand of government reach further into industry.

In recent months, the Council's formidable progressive caucus has done just that, pushing bills that address large-scale and nitty gritty workplace issues, including others in specific industries. The Council recently heard a bill aimed at regulating personnel decision in the grocery industry.

Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, has been closely involved. He is currently working with the Freelancers Union to develop legislation that would protect freelancers, and by extension other workers in the on-demand "gig" economy, from wage theft. Modelled on similar protections provided by the state Department of Labor and the Attorney General, this "administrative solution with an enforcement option" would protect the likes of writers, graphic designers, Uber drivers, and Handy.com cleaners from being denied their wages and having to go to court to redress grievances.

"The economy is constantly evolving," Lander told Gotham Gazette. "Unfortunately it's doing so in the direction of inequality. And it's not only the Council but also the State which is fighting to level the playing field and lift up the floor in terms of wages for workers." (Governor Andrew Cuomo recently came out with a plan for an eventual $15 per hour minimum wage.)

At the city level, Lander called the Council's efforts a "thumb on the scale" to help workers have paying jobs. Of course, Lander expects this rebalancing of the relationship between employers and workers to be debated and contested. But he insists that the Council wants to be responsible in implementing changes rather than run roughshod over industry and business interests.

For instance, in April this year, the Council passed a bill co-sponsored by Lander that bans employers from discriminating in hiring decisions on the basis of credit checks. But the Council did make accommodations, Lander said, after consulting with business owners and advocates.

From a business perspective, however, the Council's efforts have uncomfortable connotations of government intervention in private enterprise.

Late last month, two bills were discussed at a hearing of the Council's Committee on Civil Rights but received little attention. The bills aim at prohibiting employment discrimination based on a person's status as a caregiver and at clarifying reasonable accommodations that businesses could make for applicants with disabilities.

At the hearing, President and CEO of Partnership for New York City Kathryn Wylde provided written testimony opposing the bills. She stated that the Council was proposing more mandates on employers, driven by special interest advocacy groups that argue based on anecdotal evidence that discrimination and mistreatment of employees and applicants is widespread.

"There is no data that justifies new and costly laws and regulations that make it even more difficult to create jobs and grow a business in New York City," Wylde wrote. She also asserted that the bills would drain resources from businesses and make the city less competitive, and that additional Council mandates would accelerate the loss of middle class jobs (she said the city lost 100,000 middle class jobs in the last five years).

Data consistently shows that inequality has only risen in the city over the last many years. A report last year by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York showed that there was a significant uptick in the concentration of wealth among the richest 20 percent of New Yorkers between 1990 and 2010. According to the study, the median income of the upper one percent of all household income earned in New York City jumped from $452,000 in 1990 to $717,000 in 2010 while the lower 20 percent of New York City households' earned median income rose from $13,000 in 1990 to $14,000 in 2010.

James Parrott, deputy director and chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute, approaches any analysis of labor markets from a historical perspective. He said changes in the labor market in recent years have been unproductive and harmful to workers and to the economy. So there is definitely a need for regulation, he believes.

Ideally, he said, regulation would be at the national level and enforced by federal compliance officials. But, with federal action being hampered by an inactive Congress, it has fallen to state and local governments. He called the Council's bent in addressing these issues "reasonable and appropriate."

"Businesses tend to oppose any regulation at all. But a lot of history and analysis shows us that informed regulation is good for businesses," Parrott said, insisting that it keeps the competition honest as well.

In particular, he referenced the Grocery Worker Retention Act (GWRA), introduced by Council Member I. Daneek Miller. Miller, a former labor union leader, is now chair of the Council's civil service and labor committee. The bill would require large grocery chains to at least temporarily retain the workforce when an ownership change occurs, and then handle any personnel moves on an individual basis after three months.

Parrott testified years ago when a similar bill (Local Law 39 from 2002) dealing with building service workers was passed. "I don't see how one could oppose doing that in concept," he said, referring to the opposition from industry representatives who argued feverishly against the GWRA at a hearing two weeks ago.

For Council Member Miller, a Queens Democrat, the bill is just another of many measures to remedy an economic imbalance created by three successive Bloomberg terms.
"To a certain degree, we have come through 12 years of an administration that for all intents and purposes undermined the value of workers," Miller told Gotham Gazette.

His bill mandates personnel practice and grants workers legal remedies against unfair termination. It would help both union and non-union workers, he says, and create transparency and protect employees in an industry with a history of exploitation.

"Organized or unorganized, in order for the middle class to thrive, we need for people to have a voice," Miller said. "Without that, we see the wage disparity and wage suppression that we've seen in the last decade or two."

As expected, industry officials criticized the proposed bill for what they see as an overreaching mandate and even questioned the legal implications of the Council's intervention. But Miller said these objections are not supported by certifiable data and that he is confident the bill will be voted out of the labor committee and brought to a full Council vote.

(On a related note, Miller also sponsored a resolution that was approved by the Council in June calling on the state legislature to extend labor protections to farm workers statewide.)

"My personal preference is that we can educate and we don't have to legislate," he said.

Most of the workforce measures have received wide support from Council members and the mayor. Some have even come from de Blasio or Mark-Viverito themselves.

Last year, de Blasio issued an executive order that expanded the city's living wage law to thousands of individuals. Mark-Viverito successfully sponsored a bill that passed in June this year requiring car wash businesses to operate under licenses and enforcing stronger safeguards for employees. Another employment bill goes into effect by the end of October: the Fair Chance Act prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants based on their arrest record or criminal convictions.

But wide support does not mean unanimous. There are concerns even within the Council about the scope of legislation. Council minority leader Steve Matteo, a Republican from Staten Island, shares his colleagues' interest in improving working conditions but worries about possible harmful unintended consequences.

Matteo said he is a "firm believer" in the free market's ability to self-correct and adapt whether in response to consumer demands for healthier food or safer products, or to compete for better employees with higher pay, more benefits, and a better work environment. "Over-reaching government mandates, on the other hand, as many economic studies have shown, can be financially devastating to small businesses and lead to job cuts and fewer new hires," he said.

On the other hand, some question how easily workers can adapt to the free market.

"Businesses have a better ability to shift their economic resources to adapt to changing economic conditions, more so than workers, especially low-income workers who lack access to education, child care, the basic necessities of life," said Christian Gonzalez-Rivera, research associate at the Center for an Urban Future, who believes that the balance of resources has tilted towards businesses.

Gonzalez-Rivera said more people than ever before are working low-wage jobs in the city; even those working full-time are not able to make ends meet and are being treated as if they are expendable.

Gonzalez-Rivera praised the City's increased support for worker cooperatives. The Council announced in its budget this year that it will invest an additional $2.1 million in its Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative and create 22 new worker cooperatives.

"Government does need to step in and provide protection," he said. It's a sentiment that Council Member Lander echoes: "Looking to give people a fair shot is part of our job," he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid

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City Council Takes Aggressive Role in Workplace Issues Thu, 08 Oct 2015 01:14:52 +0000