Gotham Gazette Tue, 27 Jul 2021 19:30:56 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) New York Redistricting Commission Kicks Off State's New Map-Drawing Process Gotham Gazette:

NY State Senate Districts (image via Google Maps)

This year state officials will begin the once-a-decade process of redrawing congressional and state legislative district lines under a new system approved by voters back in 2014.

The lines will be drawn by a commission appointed by Democratic and Republican leaders in the state Legislature rather than by the Legislature itself. After a series of public hearings this summer and fall the commission will submit its proposed maps to the Legislature, which can either approve the lines or reject and ultimately redraw them. The latter possibility, which would take place if the Legislature rejects the commission's proposed maps twice, has increased concerns that the current Democratic supermajorities in the two houses may unilaterally draw district boundaries.

After delays in appointing members and allocating funding, the commission has a lofty task: carving out the proposed units of state and federal representation New Yorkers may know for the next decade.

The state and federal constitution and the Voting Rights Act prevent commissioners and lawmakers from drawing any lines they wish. Districts must be compact, contiguous, and have roughly the same number of residents "as practicable." They cannot be drawn to "discourage competition" or favor incumbents, among other limitations, according to the commission's website. The Voting Rights Act prohibits redistricting that limits the participation of racial groups and other protected classes.

The commission's task is complicated by a potential amendment to the state constitution that, if passed by voters in November, will change some of the redistricting rules and methodology.

The body is now at work, last week announcing eight of nine public hearings as part of an initial virtual "listening tour" to gather public testimony on the dynamics of communities across the state. The hearings are organized by region and commissioners are urging all residents to participate regardless of citizenship. The first hearing is Tuesday (July 20) for Nassau and Suffolk counties.

"Communities do not have to be geographic cities or towns. If your community centers around a local house of worship...that is worth telling the commission," said chair David Imamura, a Democratic district leader from the Village of Irvington, at a virtual press conference last week. "Anything that makes your community special or ties it together is information we want to know when we draw district lines."

New York has some notoriously gerrymandered state legislative districts like Senate District 22, which looks like a jigsaw puzzle piece spanning southern Brooklyn from east to west.

The commission, known officially as the New York Independent Redistricting Commission, has its work cut out for it. Born during the pandemic, it faced delays in confirming members and receiving state funding. A $1 million allocation in last year's state budget never materialized and commission staff worked on a voluntary basis for months, according to Imamura. State lawmakers allocated $4 million to redistricting in the current budget, passed in early April, and the body launched a website last week.

The commission's demographers must still rely on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which has been postponed because of pandemic-related changes to enumeration deadlines in 2020 and other factors. Originally expected in March, commission staff will not receive block-level population data until August 16.

A month later, on September 15, the commission will publish a preliminary set of district maps and hold another round of public hearings to solicit feedback. Unlike the virtual hearings held this summer, the hearings after preliminary maps are released are statutorily required.

Final proposed maps will go to the Legislature for enactment by the January 1 start of the legislative session. But the Legislature still has the power to send the maps back if it doesn't approve them and after the second time can amend them as lawmakers please (within the statutory restrictions). The maps will ultimately go to the governor's desk, though the Democratic conferences in both the Senate and Assembly have enough members to override a veto.

Good government groups were divided on redistricting reform in 2014. For proponents, the commission was an added layer of insulation from the ruling parties in the Legislature and, with its public hearings, could help increase transparency and reduce gerrymandering.

But critics have said that layer is too porous. The commission has a distinctly bi-partisan character given eight of its ten members are appointed by legislative leaders, two from each majority and minority leader in both chambers, with the final two selected by the other commissioners. The state constitution also requires the commission’s co-executive directors be enrolled one each in the two major political parties.

And legislators still have their veto power and the ability to draw their own lines. (In the last redistricting, with parties splitting control of the two legislative chambers, Democrats kept a dominant hold on the Assembly and Republicans were able to craft Senate lines to help them keep a slim majority there, at least temporarily.)

"They're just appointed by the legislative leaders...and they talk about [their work] in terms of looking at it from the perspective of the appointing authority," said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), in a recent interview. "A judge looked at this when it was on the ballot [in 2014] and said you can't use the word ‘independent’ because it's not."

Because Democrats hold majorities in both the Senate and Assembly, the state constitution requires district maps be approved with a two-thirds majority in both chambers. But given their supermajorities in both houses, Democratic legislators will still have ultimate say and could even potentially override a veto from Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo (who has been known to favor a split Legislature in the past).

An amendment before voters this November could add more specificity to some of the criteria, as well as changing deadlines and voting requirements. It too has divided good government groups.

The amendment, first introduced in 2020, would permanently set the number of State Senators at 63 (there are 150 seats in the Assembly). It would explicitly require incarcerated people to be counted in the district they last resided in, not where they are incarcerated, and for residents to be counted regardless of immigration status.

The amendment also advances some of the deadlines for submitting and voting on maps and changes some of the voting thresholds required to pass the new boundaries. Among the changes are a requirement that maps may be passed with 60% of the vote in both legislative chambers and eliminates the requirement that the executive directors be registered party-members.

The League of Women Voters of New York State and Citizens Union, two good government groups that supported the 2014 referendum, oppose the new amendment, in part for lowering the vote threshold. "It disincentivizes the commissioners who have been nominated by the different parties to work together. Why am I going to work together if I know that my party people are not really going to have a say at the end of the day in this process," said Jennifer Wilson, the League’s deputy director, referring to the smaller legislative majority needed to approve maps and the diminished need for bipartisan support.

Other groups like NYPIRG and Common Cause New York, who opposed the 2014 amendment, view the new proposed change as an improvement on the system. "It clarifies and simplifies redistricting in New York and provides a uniform set of voting rules for the commission no matter who is in political power: an important objective for any government entity," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause in a statement last July.

Experts say the vote threshold change will not have a big impact on the current process, given Democrats' veto-proof majority in the Senate and Assembly, but may be consequential in subsequent decades.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

New York Redistricting Commission Kicks Off State's New Map-Drawing Process Mon, 19 Jul 2021 04:00:00 +0000
Key Fixes for New York’s Broken Parole System Await the Governor’s Signature gov cuomo signs

The governor's signature (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

It wasn’t the eight months of military-style, intense shock incarceration that finally broke me; it was my parole officer.

After my incarceration at Lakeview Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility for non-violent offenders in Brocton, New York, I quickly realized I was living in constant fear of reincarceration. My parole officer had issued strict conditions such as travel limitations and unreasonable curfews, which prevented me from getting to work on time. There were incessant home visits, often at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. I was convinced my parole officer was scrutinizing my every move, just waiting for a reason to issue a technical parole violation.

As it was for me, the fear of reincarceration is an everyday lived reality for over 35,000 people under active parole supervision in New York; a fear that is crippling for those trying to reenter the workforce, rebuild their lives, and heal their families. New York’s parole system is broken. It destroys lives and communities. It costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. It needs to be reformed.

According to Columbia University Justice Lab, 40% of people sent to New York prisons in 2019 were not remanded for new crimes, rather they were reincarcerated for technical violations such as failure to report to a parole officer, living at an unapproved address, or missing a curfew. New York reincarcerates more people for technical parole violations than almost any other state in the country. 

The racial disparity in incarceration for technical parole violations is also undeniable. Black and Latino people are much more likely to be incarcerated for parole violations than white people. In New York City, for example, Black people are incarcerated for technical parole violations at 12 times the rate of whites.

Financially, New York taxpayers are paying for a broken parole system. Parole is administered by the state government; the state is fiscally responsible for supervising people on parole supervision. However, people in violation of parole are incarcerated in local city jails such as Rikers Island in New York City, thus local governments become responsible for footing the bill without reimbursement from the state.

In 2019, state and local governments together spent more than $680 million to incarcerate people for technical parole violations, even though there is no evidence that this led to a meaningful increase in public safety. 

Public safety is not created by putting more of the public back in prison. It begins by creating safe communities. And safe communities are not synonymous with increasing jail and prison populations. Safe, healthy, and prosperous communities arise from supporting and strengthening reentry processes. They result from humanizing people and giving them a fair and fighting chance at rebuilding their lives, and by creating access to opportunities and economic mobility.

Parole was worse than being incarcerated for me. The stress and anxiety that I experienced led to debilitating mental and physical health conditions. The constant policing and pressure by my parole officer and the fear of reincarceration were so overwhelming that I decided to serve out the remainder of my sentence in prison. 

While no longer in prison or on parole, I am still experiencing the long-lasting impacts of a technical parole violation from two years ago. I am therefore keenly aware of the harmful practices of over-policing people on parole, which is why I am advocating for parole reform in New York with the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice, A Little Piece of Light, Unchained, the Robin Hood Foundation, and the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO). 

New York’s broken parole system must be reformed. People already facing enormous barriers to reentry must be supported, not policed and over-paroled. Individuals, families, and communities must not be devastated in the name of public safety.  

Thankfully, the Legislature has taken a step in the right direction. Legislation (S.1144-A - Benjamin / A.5576-A - Souffrant-Forrest) known as the Less Is More Act, will reduce the number of people incarcerated statewide by restricting the use of incarceration for technical parole violations. But the process cannot begin until the bill is made active by the governor’s signature. I urge Governor Cuomo to sign this bill as soon as possible. Let’s make #LessisMoreNY reality and build safer communities.

Yamirca Vazquez is a resident of the Bronx, New York, and a member of CEO’s Participant Advocate Council (PAC) leadership program. She is pursuing a career in advocacy.

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Key Fixes for New York’s Broken Parole System Await the Governor’s Signature Thu, 01 Jul 2021 04:00:00 +0000
Max Politics Podcast: Senator Liz Krueger on Her Bill to Reform the Board of Elections

Seantor Liz Krueger, center (photo: New York State Senate)

June 30, 2021 - Max Politics Podcast: Senator Liz Krueger on Reforming the Board of Elections

State Senator Liz Krueger has a bill to professionalize the New York City Board of Elections and joined the show in the wake of another BOE debacle to discuss its provisions and its chances of passage.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think, on Twitter @TweetBenMax. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

Max Politics Podcast: Senator Liz Krueger on Her Bill to Reform the Board of Elections Wed, 30 Jun 2021 04:00:00 +0000
What's The [Data] Point? $209 Billion, Examining The New York State Budget whats the data point

What's The [Data] Point? Episode 108 -- $209 Billion, Examining The New York State Budget [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

$209 billion is the total amount to be spent this state fiscal year according to New York State's Enacted Budget for Fiscal Year 2022. That massive budget, adopted in early April, was bolstered by immense federal aid and higher than expected tax revenues as New York comes out of the devastation of the covid pandemic. The state also raised taxes and made a host of other important decisions that continue to play out as the fiscal year and recovery unfold. Three expert guests joined the podcast to discuss what is happening and what it all means for the state's fiscal future: State Senator Liz Krueger; E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center and Manhattan Institute; and CBC's Director of State Studies Patrick Orecki.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: @TweetBenMax (@TweetBenMax) & @CBCNY (@CBCNY). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

What's The [DATA] Point? · Episode 108: $209 billion, with NYS Senator Liz Krueger, E.J. McMahon, and Patrick Orecki

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

What's The [Data] Point? $209 Billion, Examining The New York State Budget Tue, 29 Jun 2021 04:00:00 +0000
It’s Time for a Full-Year Legislative Calendar in Albany State Senate empty

In the State Senate (photo: NY Senate Media Services)

While Joe Manchin and Mitch McConnell compete to see who can block the most policy down in Washington DC, here in New York State our Democratic majorities in the State Senate and Assembly are proving that the government can be good. And that governing can actually solve problems.

Earlier this month, Albany’s 2021 legislative session came to a close and legislators should be proud for having made progress on a host of fundamental issues impacting millions of New Yorkers. The legislature raised $4.3 billion in new progressive revenue to fund major investments in public education and to fuel economic relief in the wake of COVID-19. We saw the historic passage of a first-in-the-nation excluded workers fund for New Yorkers who were denied federal relief. And we saw the long overdue legalization of marijuana, the passage of a host of new voting reforms to make it easier and more secure to vote, new regulations to rein in the gun crisis, and a halt to prolonged solitary confinement in our prisons. And this list is far from exhaustive.

Despite all this progress, Albany’s session coming to a close for the year on June 10 inevitably leads to a few fundamental questions. What didn’t get accomplished? And why does the session end at all? Especially with six months to go in the calendar year.

Let’s start with the second question given it clearly impacts the first. It’s true that in many states across the country, state elected officials work as a part time legislature. But here in New York, electeds are full-time employees. It’s also true that our state electeds do more than just legislate. They represent their communities and through constituent services, help solve locally relevant and deeply personal challenges for their constituents. But as seen in the list above, it’s the legislation that gives taxpayers the biggest bang for their bucks. In other words, we elect them to legislate.

And an arbitrary six-month session in New York is holding us back. Moving to a full-year legislative calendar with ample recesses to allow for critical in-district work would unlock massive productivity in Albany. While you certainly can’t look to Congress for great examples of productivity these days thanks to the Jim Crow filibuster and a GOP that’s primary goal is to prove government fundamentally doesn’t work, we should look to their calendar as the model for New York’s legislature. Or to California. California’s state legislature is paid a full-time salary just like New York’s and they work a full calendar year. Simply put, we need our full-time state elected officials to, well, work full-time.

And this isn’t just about creating more time to pass policy. It’s also about removing one of the most frustrating tools in our elected officials’ toolbox that puts a pause on progress. The June end of session deadline acts as an unnecessary and misused “cliff” year over year to block or to slow down important policies. “We just didn’t have the time to get it done” is a phrase we have become all too used to hearing from the middle of June through the end of the year. So this brings us to the first of the questions raised above. What didn’t pass this year?

Let’s take the climate crisis to start. There is no denying that every day we delay action on climate, the more likely it is our planet will be uninhabitable to our youngest generations. Back in 2019, the New York state legislature passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), a nation leading bill that set aggressive and necessary emission reduction targets for the state. But without further legislation to enact the guardrails, programs, and investments to achieve those targets, the CLCPA is just a promise. And promises won’t solve the climate crisis. This year, the Climate and Community Investment Act (CCIA) — which would raise $15 billion per year from corporate polluters and use it to create good, green jobs, invest in frontline communities, and build a renewable economy for New York State — was the legislature’s best opportunity to turn that promise into action. And yet it didn’t pass. In fact, it didn’t even get a vote.

So I guess it’s better luck next session? In the face of an existential crisis, our plan is to take a break for six months?

And make no mistake, this is just one of many examples where real issues go unresolved for months because of the legislative calendar.

For example: Despite being prioritized in the State Senate, five bills supported by the Sexual Harassment Working Group and the Adult Survivors Act, which would give victims a one-year look-back period to seek justice through civil cases, stalled in the Assembly. Assembly leadership used the clock-running-out excuse to justify the failure to pass these meaningful policies.

Last year, when in the face of a global pandemic that was wreaking havoc on our communities, and disproportionately so on Black and brown New Yorkers, the legislature was quiet from July through December. It’s true, many state legislators were working tirelessly in their communities supporting mutual aid and other constituent services, but their mighty power of policy was left totally unused.

To be clear, it’s not to say these issues are easy to solve. It would be crazy to suggest that legislators have an easy job or that massive legislation like the CCIA doesn’t take time to get right. But that’s exactly the point. There should be no “end of session rush.” Moving to a congressional style, full-year legislative session is better for all involved. Except for the bad actors who want the government to do less or fail more. But New Yorkers continue to show up at the polls to elect better officials each year. And better electeds with more time to legislate will surely bring us better outcomes.

It’s time for a full-year legislative calendar in Albany.

Ricky Silver is a co-lead organizer of Empire State Indivisible. On Twitter @es_indivisible.

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

It’s Time for a Full-Year Legislative Calendar in Albany Mon, 28 Jun 2021 04:00:00 +0000
After Cuomo Veto and Pledge to Revisit, No New York Movement on Wage Theft Bill 100 years lirrs

Gov. Cuomo with workers (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

*This story was published in partnership with New York Focus.*

Since 2014, Jin Gou Ke, an immigrant from China's Fujian Province, has worked as a delivery worker for Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Paid a pre-tip salary of just $3 per order, far short of the city’s minimum direct cash wage of $12.50 an hour for delivery workers, he worked long hours to earn enough to pay for the room he rented in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Typically, Ke said, he worked 11 hour days, 7 days a week, with just one day off each month.

Work conditions were unfriendly: during the height of the pandemic, he said, he was illegally barred from using the restaurant’s bathroom, forcing him to relieve himself in a nearby public park. He knew he was being paid and treated unfairly, he said, but was still happy to have work. 

“I’m just working, so I can earn a living and so I can eat,” he told New York Focus. “As long as I keep working, I’m fine.”

After the pandemic hit, the restaurant closed and Ke found himself temporarily out of a job. When it reopened in July, he was grateful to be back to work. But the relief was short-lived: by December, Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles was increasingly relying on food delivery apps, and told Ke they no longer needed his services. Ke was fired—and never received the total wages owed to him, he said.

“I worked so hard for so many years and they treated me so bad,” Ke said. “ I exposed myself to the virus so many times going out every day and I did so much for them. It’s not right.”

Rampant wage theft was already supposed to have been dealt with. Last year, a coalition of workers’ centers, elected officials, and activists rallied around the Securing Wages Earned Against Theft Bill (SWEAT), which proponents say would give workers more power to fight back against exploitative employers.

Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed that legislation in 2020, citing “technical aspects” that made it constitutionally fraught. In his veto message, the governor pledged to enact provisions achieving the same goals in this year’s budget. “I am constrained to veto this bill but I look forward to enacting the necessary protections for workers very soon,” he wrote.

Yet, flouting that commitment, the governor omitted wage theft entirely from his 2021 executive budget. Freeman Klopott, the governor’s budget spokesperson, declined to comment for this story. Klopott directed New York Focus to the state Department of Labor. A spokesperson there did not respond to questions about Cuomo’s inaction on wage theft, but said in a statement, “the DOL continues to aggressively crack down on bad actors who have wage and unemployment insurance violations.”

“It's been almost a year and a half, and he has done nothing,”said Sarah Ahn, an organizer with the Flushing Workers Center, which serves predominantly Chinese and Korean workers. “Meanwhile, workers are suffering more than ever.”

Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat who co-introduced the bill along with State Senator Jessica Ramos, a Queens Democrat, agreed. “Without action to address wage theft, hardworking New Yorkers have become even more vulnerable to wage theft during this pandemic,” she said. “That's why it's vital that we pass the SWEAT bill again this session.”

Wage theft was not included in the adopted state budget, either—despite many prominent wins for progressives.

“Stuck waiting to be paid”
Even before the pandemic, as much as $1 billion in wages were stolen from New Yorkers annually, according to a 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Labor. A disproportionate number of the victims are undocumented workers, whose precarious legal status can make them especially vulnerable to wage theft and other workplace abuses.

Four workers centers across the state told New York Focus that they have seen a significant increase in wage theft cases since the start of the pandemic last March, corroborating recent research finding that low-wage workers face an elevated risk of wage theft during periods of high unemployment.

“Employers were using the pandemic as an excuse to not pay workers,” said Glendy Tsitouras, an organizer with the Workers Justice Project, a Brooklyn-based worker center that serves day laborers and domestic workers. “They would tell workers that something happened and that they will pay next week—but that never happened.”

In April of 2020 alone, Tsitouras said, her organization was flooded with between 30 and 35 cases. Pre-pandemic, they typically received around 15 cases a month.

Sarah Ahn described wage theft as a systematic way to maintain a permanent and insecure low-wage labor force.

“When we talk about minimum wage increases, a lot of workers think, ‘it doesn’t matter, my bosses don’t care what it is, they won’t pay me,’” she said. “Undocumented workers don’t have a right to work. They are literally an underclass that is criminalized for working. If workers speak out, they are threatened with ICE.”

Osmar Figueroa, a client of Tsitouras, said he was fired from his construction job with Cassway Contracting in December after he demanded nearly $4,000 in unpaid wages. 

A day laborer from Guatemala, he and 14 other construction workers labored nine hours a day, six days a week at a construction site in Manhattan, Tsitouras said. They were paid the first and third week, he said, but Cassway, a construction company, claimed there was no more money to pay them at the end of December, she said. When they refused to continue working without being paid, Figueroa said, all 15 men were fired and replaced with a new batch of workers. 

Out of a job and without cash, Figueroa struggled to make rent, buy food, or send money back to Guatemala.

“It was harder because it was the holidays and we didn’t have money,” he said. “My co-workers have kids, they have families and they weren’t able to buy gifts for them. They couldn’t celebrate Christmas because they didn’t have money.”

Guillermo Cruz, a Nicaraguan day laborer with KML Restoration Corp, a construction company, described a similar experience. After one of the owners of the company died of Covid-19 in May, the company claimed it was unable to pay its 10 employees, he said. 

Collectively, KML Restoration owed the workers $20,000 in wages, Cruz said. Although Cruz worked through the pandemic, risking his health, he was left with little to show for it. 

“It was terrible because we were exposed to the virus, but we did the work for the company and they used us to finish the work and not pay us,” he said. “I feel frustrated because I need to feed my family and pay my rent. I’m just stuck waiting to be paid.” 

In Buffalo, Mary Lister, an organizer with the Queen City Workers Center, is working with the former staff of the Hotel Henry Urban Resort and Conference Center, who are suing to reclaim nearly $800,000 in unpaid wages. In February, the hotel abruptly closed without settling up with its staff. 

“We have definitely seen a huge increase in the number of workers who are contacting us during the pandemic,” said Lister. “Many of them, like the workers at Hotel Henry, had first contacted a lawyer before contacting the workers center, but after seeing the limitations of the messed up legal system where even if they win, employers will be able to hide their assets, [initially decided not to file lawsuits].”

Cassway Contracting did not respond to New York Focus’ repeated inquiries. KML Restoration Corp could not be reached for comment. Hotel Henry declined New York’s Focus request for comment.  

Amy Liu, manager and daughter of the owners of Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles, denied the allegations and said that the establishment has never employed Ke or any independent delivery worker.

“I never know this guy. I don’t know who you are talking about,” she said over the phone. “I never hired a delivery guy.”

Told that New York Focus reviewed checks made out to Ke from Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles, Ke declined to comment. When reached again and offered another opportunity to comment on Ke’s allegations, Liu said, “I just know that he is a liar. That’s it.”

“Don’t have a shot at winning”
Even when workers file and win lawsuits against employers and are awarded stolen wages, they are often left unable to collect the money they are owed. As cases make their way through the courts, employers can take complicated measures to hide assets, for example closing their business and then reopening under a different name, to avoid having to pay up.

SWEAT, which was reintroduced by Assemblymember Rosenthal in January after Cuomo vetoed the original bill, would make it harder to evade court judgements by allowing a lien to be placed on an employer’s business or assets while a case is being heard, preventing fraudulent transfers and closures. To file for a lien, workers would have to show evidence in court that they are likely to win a wage-theft case.

The strategy is modeled on New York’s existing mechanic’s lien law, which allows contractors and suppliers who have gone unpaid on a construction project to file a lien to secure payment. Laws similar to SWEAT have been passed in states including Washington, New Jersey, and Virginia.

The difficulty of collecting owed wages leads many workers not to challenge wage theft, proponents of the bill said.

“Working-class people don’t have a lot of extra time or money to be throwing lawsuits around,” Lister said. “People really don’t want to come together if they don’t have a shot at winning. Without the SWEAT bill, it will be really hard for the workers to get the justice they deserve [even] if they do every single step they are supposed to do.”

When workers do file lawsuits, the difficulty of collecting owed wages often leads them to settle rather than taking their cases to court. A 2015 report on wage collection in New York found that “the majority of cases are resolved for far less than is actually owed due to the fear that a judgment for the full amount owed will never be paid.”

SWEAT has met forceful opposition from the business community. Many New York trade groups representing industries in which wage theft is rampant, such as the Business Council of New York State, the Manufacturers Association of New York, and the New York City Hospitality Alliance, say the bill would have a detrimental effect on small businesses and employment in New York State. Instead, they advocate for judicial review on all lien requests.

Ken Pokalsky, vice president of the Business Council of New York State, told New York Focus the bill would deprive business owners of due process. “It allows this lien on the personal property based on allegations before any actual facts are found,” he said.

He also took issue with the multiple definitions of employer in the bill that would force liens on employers who aren't actually paying the workers and therefore are not responsible for the theft. The bill would extend  personal liability to the 10 largest shareholders of non-public companies by making them liable for wages as well as for interest, penalties, damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs incurred by the employee.

“They don’t approve payroll, they don’t withhold payroll, but they happen to be in supervisory positions relative to the employee, and to us that makes absolutely no sense,” Pokalsky said.

Andrew Rigie, Executive Director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, expressed a similar view. “We understand the positive intent of this legislation, but it removes due process for small business owners, mid-level managers and the investors in these businesses, by allowing a lien to be placed on their personal assets based on accusations, not legal findings,” he told New York Focus.

In his veto last year, the governor echoed these arguments, suggesting that the bill would provide “inadequate due process” for employers and that the bill “creates a broad definition of ‘employer’ that includes business entities, owners, and lower-level managers and subordinates.”

The Associated General Contractors of New York State, a leading opponent of SWEAT, has been a contributor to the governor, donating $137,675 to Cuomo campaigns. The governor's office has repeatedly stated over the years that campaign donations do not influence his government actions.

Refuting industry opposition, Sarah Ahn argued that the only party that is being denied due process is the worker. 

“What we have been fighting for is that there are no due processes for workers. What we do know is that it’s near impossible to collect on [wage theft] judgments.”

Rosenthal, the primary sponsor of the bill in the Assembly, agrees. “It [SWEAT] doesn’t increase the cost of doing business. The only employers who would be affected by this act are those who have committed wage theft.”

In the meantime, workers like Osmar Figueroa are hoping the law will eventually change in his favor. “I would like to see more support from the government and see laws passed like SWEAT that gives us real rights,” he said.

As for Jin Gou Ke, he has reached out to the Chinese Staff and Workers Center, a workers center in Chinatown, hoping he can launch a lawsuit against his former employer.

“As long as I have the energy, I will fight.”

*This story was published in partnership with New York Focus.*

Amir Khafagy is a New York City–based journalist. He has written for publications including The New Republic, Vice, The Appeal, The Guardian, Curbed, The American Prospect, Bloomberg, and In These Times. Follow him on Twitter at @AmirKhafagy91.

Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Building Contractors Association (BCA) opposes SWEAT. BCA opposed somewhat related legislation specific to the construction industry, but did not take a position on SWEAT.

After Cuomo Veto and Pledge to Revisit, No New York Movement on Wage Theft Bill Thu, 10 Jun 2021 04:00:00 +0000
For CUNY Students to Thrive, Mental Health Services Must Be Expanded 48465154072 cb7ae806d0 c

The CUNY Chancellor and students (photo: @CUNY)

Graduating when the pandemic first hit New York City was hard for many students. To say that having access to a counselor during a time of increasing uncertainty and hopelessness was beneficial is an understatement - it was many students' lifeline. However, for countless students and peers, they are not so fortunate.

The effect of the last year on CUNY students can not be overstated. In a recent study that took place during the COVID-19 crisis, 40% of students said they felt depressed, anxious or “on edge,” roughly a 100% spike. Going through college while living through a pandemic is hard enough - now, more than ever, students deserve accessible and affordable mental health counseling, especially as we work to heal from the trauma caused by the covid crisis.

We can’t afford to wait any longer to remedy this glaring problem for our CUNY and SUNY students. A lack of these services has a negative effect on student’s academics, as mental health problems, especially depression and anxiety, are a leading health cause of college failure and dropout at CUNY. In fact, according to a survey conducted by CUNY, 55% of students with depression, 52% of those with anxiety disorders, and 58% of those with moderate or severe psychological distress report that their mental health symptoms interfere with their school work somewhat, moderately, or a lot. These staggering numbers demonstrate how crucial it is that these students have reliable access to support networks for the benefit of their health and their studies.  

We must take action now to expand the mental health services that these students require to ensure that our schools are safe spaces for young people to get the support they need. That’s why, as part of the CUNY New Deal, Senator Gounardes introduced a bill to ensure that CUNY campuses are required to staff an adequate number of licensed, mental health professionals in order to meet the specific needs of their unique student populations.

With this bill, each CUNY campus will be required to establish a board of experts and advisors within two years to study and make updates to the clinician-to-student ratio. Additionally, recommendations will be made every five years to update the ratio, which won’t be allowed to fall below a minimum of a 1-to-1,000 clinician-to-student ratio. This bill reflects our commitment to the services that bolster student’s well-being, and provides a foundation for our teachers and the school community to value their experiences, as well as their dreams for the future. Finally, we are one step closer to giving students the support services they deserve.

But the timing here is crucial. As this year’s legislative session draws to a close, this bill must get passed if we are to expedite the support and care our students need for their mental health and academic success.

In fact, in the state budget passed in April, CUNY and SUNY received a budget allocation of over $1 billion in new capital funding. If we’re unable to pass this bill with the remaining time left in the session, it’s imperative that these institutions take affirmative steps to address this pervasive problem on their campuses. We can’t afford inaction on this issue, no matter what the avenue for recourse is.

There needs to be an understanding that college success is not dependent solely on academic outcome, but on addressing students holistically, ensuring necessary supports are widely accessible and high-quality so students can be successful. Students are not cogs in a machine - they have basic needs. College can be the most social time of your life, but it can also be very stressful and challenging in many ways, even without a pandemic.

And when you’re isolated during a pandemic and learning solely remotely, it’s very, very difficult to navigate a time of pressure and stress, and a myriad of mental health consequences can ensue. 

The pandemic has exacerbated the mental health needs of students, with many reporting anxiety, depression, and an increased need for mental health services. Even if it feels like we’re starting to move back into a normal phase, many are still suffering and learning to deal with the trauma of the last year. Every day can be a struggle for students facing stress, anxiety, and depression, which is only made worse when it goes untreated or unrecognized. For the safety and well-being of our students, it’s imperative that the state legislature take action to pass this bill so that we can alleviate the anguish these students face.

We know that increasing mental health counselors and making them more accessible will help ease those struggles by ensuring adequate resources for those taking on the normal stress of college life compounded by the pandemic. Many students have made it through the beginning stages of a pandemic and graduated because they were able to get the help and support they needed, yet there are so many others who were not, and that is unacceptable.

Mental health issues can have dire impacts for college student’s academic successes, and in more serious cases can lead to physical harm from suicide and depression. For many of these students, mental health services on campus are the only affordable and available option. The passage of this bill would be a lifeline for students with limited options who are at significant risk.

Students enrolled on CUNY campuses pay a fee for mental health services, but the reported staffing ratios are in excess of one mental health clinician to over 2,000 students. For reference, the national average across college campuses is 1-to-1,250. Research also shows that low-income students are more likely to suffer from mental health illnesses, and CUNY campuses have a higher share of low-income, urban students than at other colleges and universities. 

To add stressors to this crisis, over the last year, approximately one in four adults have been food insecure citywide, and one in five renters are behind on their housing payments. For many during the final semester of college, all of these mental health issues were heightened because of unemployment due to massive layoffs and hiring freezes, housing and food insecurity, and to add on, the rise in anti-Asian sentiments and violence. These added burdens place an even higher strain on students who may not be able to focus on receiving their degree due to these worries they face in their personal lives. For these reasons and more, we have a collective responsibility to support the mental well-being of all students by passing this bill and getting more counselors on campus. 

Trauma is more than just a mental health issue - it’s an education issue. That’s why referring students with trauma to a school counselor or other mental health resources is a vitally important practice. When students are supported, their work is exponentially better. They can thrive. By strengthening counseling services, we’re letting students know it’s okay to ask for help, to reach out to someone who they can talk to and to make sure they know that they don’t have to go at it alone. 

We’ve heard from students that, previously, nine CUNY campuses had waitlists for mental health services, one of which was nine months long, and 12 campuses had a limit on visits, with some visitations being capped at as few as just six. It should never take such an extended time of a personal, life-threatening crisis to finally get a counselor to connect with. That shouldn’t be the case for anyone reaching out for mental health support.

College students are already an increasingly vulnerable population when it comes to mental health, and they now face even greater risk due to this unprecedented year of grief and quarantine. As we reflect on the isolation, anxiety and trauma of the last year, it’s clear that we must make the investment of support, commitment, and care for our students right now, so that we can build the foundation for a hopeful future. I urge our legislators to pass this bill, because academics can wait, but mental health cannot.

Andrew Gounardes is a State Senator representing parts of southern Brooklyn. Lisa Nishimura is a Policy Fellow with Young Invincibles and a recent graduate of John Jay College, a senior college of CUNY. Juvanie Piquant is the CUNY Student Trustee/USS Chair. On Twitter @Sen_Gounardes & @juvaniepiquant.

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For CUNY Students to Thrive, Mental Health Services Must Be Expanded Wed, 09 Jun 2021 04:00:00 +0000
New York’s Chance to Take on the Crisis of Child Poverty st aug terr

Time to focus on children (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Children live in poverty at higher rates than any other age group in the United States. Children make up 22% of the United States population and 31% of those living in poverty. Racial inequities are deep and persistent: 71% of America’s children in poverty are children of color.

New York State entered the pandemic with more than 700,000 children living in poverty, 18% of all New York children. Black New York children live in poverty at twice the rate of white peers. Compared to the rest of the nation, New York children are more likely to live in poverty than children in 32 other states. More than 50% of Rochester’s children and just under 50% of Buffalo’s children live in poverty. In New York City, 22.2% of children live in poverty, with Bronx child poverty at 37.1%. By July 2020, the pandemic had pushed an additional 325,000 New York children into poverty or near poverty.

The impacts of child poverty can be severe and lasting and especially devastating for our youngest children who are most likely to live in poverty and most severely affected by it as their developing young brains and bodies are especially sensitive. Young children have the highest poverty rates of any age group in the country and poverty is a strong predictor of negative child outcomes. 

While poverty is difficult for anyone, the impact on children can be permanently damaging.  Children, especially those under the age of five, whose brains are just developing, need good nutrition, strong and stable parent/caregiver connections, and high-quality early learning experiences to grow and develop, but the odds are against them if they are poor.

This should concern all of us.

For our children experiencing poverty, every day New York fails to prioritize ending child poverty matters. The experience of poverty and trauma in childhood can have long-lasting impacts on development. The stress of poverty can alter the brain development of young children – causing permanent changes in the structure and functioning of the brain. As a result, many children who experience poverty face significant challenges – in the form of poor health, academic obstacles, lower earnings – for the rest of their lives.

This has a detrimental impact on children, and on the future viability of communities. Reactive interventions in the out-years through the provision of public benefits or interaction with the criminal justice system are far more costly than meeting the needs of disadvantaged children and families from the beginning. With the stakes so high, there should be no delay in tackling child poverty. 

The federal American Rescue Plan Act is expected to significantly reduce child poverty in New York, and across the nation, in the coming year. However, the plan’s enhanced Child Tax Credit leaves out children without a Social Security number and as a result leaves behind an estimated 72,000 of New York’s children. These same children and families were cut out of the first round of stimulus checks, and the current one, along with many other family supports. The future of the child tax credit enhancement is also unclear.

Without thoughtful, intentional, and additional investments to address child poverty, hundreds of thousands of children will continue to live in poverty. And the income and economic effects of the covid recession will linger for years. But New York’s children can’t put their development on hold. 

We know our fellow New Yorkers care about boosting families living in poverty. We know our legislative colleagues are pained to know their residents live in poverty. But child poverty is not going to go away without unified focus and effort.

We won’t get returns on investments we don’t make. As an investment in New York’s long-term future, we must aim to eliminate poverty and mitigate its effects. 

Our bill (S.2755/A.1160) will do just that. The Child Poverty Reduction Act -- which just passed the State Senate -- provides New York the tools needed to reduce child poverty. It makes a public commitment to cutting child poverty in half in ten years; requires an annual public report of the effects that any adjustment or reduction by the director of the budget will have on child poverty; establishes the Child Poverty Reduction Advisory Council to develop a plan to achieve this goal with attention to racial equity; requires regular reporting to hold government to account; and directs the Advisory Council to evaluate policies proven to cut child poverty.

Let’s pass this bill in the Assembly and take on child poverty like the crisis it is.

New York State Senator Jessica Ramos represents parts of Queens and Assemblymember Harry B. Bronson represents upstate areas including Rochester, Henrietta and Chili. On Twitter @JessicaRamos & @HarryBBronson.

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New York’s Chance to Take on the Crisis of Child Poverty Mon, 07 Jun 2021 04:00:00 +0000
The State Should Restart the City’s Clock on Shrinking Class Sizes mayor along chancellor

School in session (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

In 1980, Robert Jackson enrolled his daughter in Kindergarten at P.S./I.S. 187 on Cabrini Boulevard in Washington Heights. He soon noticed that her class sizes were huge, sometimes more than 30 or 35 children. There were no science or art rooms left because the school had been forced to convert them to classrooms. He decided to run for president of the school’s parents association, was elected, and soon thereafter became the head of the Community School Board in District 6.

As School Board President, Jackson decided to do something about the deplorable and overcrowded conditions in his district’s schools and citywide, and in 1993, he formed a coalition of parents, community members, and education advocates to sue the state for more education funding.  

This lawsuit, filed in 1995, became known as the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) case, and in a landmark 2003 decision, New York’s highest court ruled that the city’s schools had severe and chronic deficiencies due to underfunding by the State of New York.  

One of these core deficits was class size, which the justices concluded were far too large to provide children with their right to a sound basic education under the State Constitution.

In their ruling, the Justices noted that “evidence of the advantages of smaller class sizes supports the inference sufficiently to show a meaningful correlation between the large classes in City schools and …poor academic achievement and high dropout rates.” They also found that “tens of thousands of students are placed in overcrowded classrooms...The number of children in these straits is large enough to represent a systemic failure.” 

Smaller classes in grades K-3 are a proven, cost-effective method of improving student success. They lead to better grades and test scores and reduce disciplinary problems and teacher attrition. Children assigned to small classes in the early grades are more likely to graduate high school, go on to college, receive a STEM degree, and own their own home. And studies show that smaller classes in the middle and upper grades are correlated with greater student engagement, persistence, and other attributes critical to better outcomes.

Students who reap the most benefit from smaller classes are those from low-income households, along with students of color, those with disabilities, and English language learners. Yet nearly two decades after the CFE ruling, class sizes in New York City public schools have actually increased rather than decreased – especially in the early grades.  

Why no progress? In 2007, in response to the CFE ruling, the State Legislature overhauled New York’s school finance system. It enacted a new funding formula, Foundation Aid, promising a massive infusion of new state aid, and a new law, the Contracts for Excellence (C4E) Law, to ensure that the additional funds districts received were spent on programs proven to improve student learning. The law also specifically required the city to develop and implement a plan to phase-in smaller classes over five years. 

Although New York City developed such a plan, it didn’t follow through. The result? Class sizes remain excessive, and, in the early grades, have actually increased by about 10%. Large disparities persist across the city, with especially huge classes in schools where the population has grown most quickly – often schools with high concentrations of immigrant and Latino students. Last year, more than a third of all students were in classes of 30 or more.

New York City teachers agree that reducing class size would be the best reform to improve student outcomes, and parents put smaller classes among their top priorities every year on Department of Education surveys. Most principals concur.

In 2018, nine public school parents, along with the Alliance for Quality Education and Class Size Matters, sued the city for not reducing class size according to the C4E law. Yet our lawsuit lost in court, primarily because the years cited in the law to implement a class size reduction plan had lapsed.

The federal government is providing the city’s public schools with $7 billion in additional aid to help them reopen safely and well. In addition, due to the efforts of advocates and a progressive State Legislature, including Robert Jackson, now a State Senator, our schools will receive the additional funding promised by the Legislature in 2007, with $530 million next year, rising to $1.3 billion annually over the next three years.  

In recognition of the importance of smaller classes, Senator Jackson and Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon have introduced bills in their respective houses that would restart the clock on New York City’s obligation to lower class size. At the same time, the City Council, led by Council Member Daniel Dromm, Finance Committee chair and former middle school teacher, is calling for $250 million to be dedicated towards class size reduction next year.

The past year-and-a-half have been extremely difficult and disruptive for most students, who have spent months trying to learn remotely, staring into screens with only intermittent engagement with their teachers, fellow classmates, and the curriculum at hand. Isolated, bored, disconnected and at times even despondent, they will need the close, in-person support of their teachers more than ever before. It is even more evident now that human relationships are central to children’s emotional and intellectual development, and the strength of those relationships are immensely enhanced in a smaller class. It is past time that our city’s students are provided with the class sizes that have long been promised but never delivered by our elected leaders.

Leonie Haimson is Executive Director of Class Size Matters. Wendy Lecker is Senior Attorney at the Education Law Center. On Twitter @LeonieHaimson & @Wlecker.

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The State Should Restart the City’s Clock on Shrinking Class Sizes Sun, 06 Jun 2021 04:00:00 +0000
Getting Back to Our Roots: End the Influence of Multinational Corporations in New York Elections 40237418784 d531347746 c

Wall Street (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

For the framers of our Constitution, the desire to free themselves from corruption by foreign powers was central to their debates at the hot summer in Philadelphia that gave structure to what became the oldest surviving democracy. But the threat of foreign influence, and corruption--the struggle for self-determination, self-representation, and freedom from outside influence--continues. 

That struggle is epitomized by unlimited campaign spending by corporations and wealthy individuals through super PACs and dark money groups. Since 1976, the Supreme Court has approached campaign finance reform with growing skepticism, slowly loosening restrictions on political spending to the point that just about anything goes.

New York now has the chance to turn this tide, and usher in a new era of freedom nationwide, with a bill that could blast a hole in Citizens United v. FEC. 

The New York Democracy Preservation Act, championed by State Senator Michael Gianaris and Assemblymember Latrice Walker, is making its way through the New York Legislature. The bill, which just passed the State Senate, takes aim at one of campaign finance’s heaviest hitters: the multinational corporation. Corporations with partial foreign ownership have thrown millions of dollars into races on the federal, state, and local levels to lift restrictions on their activities and grow their bottom line, always at the expense of everyday Americans denied the ability to impact our democracy.

The 2016 election gave us a perfect example of this attempted bribery in New York. Airbnb, partially owned by a Russian oligarch’s venture fund, spent at least $1.2 million in New York’s 2016 legislative races while fighting a bill to end the advertising of illegal units on home-sharing sites.

The Democracy Preservation Act isn’t just a landmark bill in the fight for campaign finance reform — it’s also common sense. Federal law explicitly prohibits all election-related contributions, expenditures, donations, and disbursements made directly or indirectly by foreign nationals. Such restrictions are enshrined in the Constitution in the form of the Foreign Emoluments Clause. Unless, of course, the foreign national owns stock in a major corporation.

How does this work with the Supreme Court’s disastrous decision in Citizens United v. FEC? In the decision, the majority held that big corporations spending unlimited sums of money in our elections deserved First Amendment protection. The logic of Citizens United might seem to apply to foreign money, too. However, a case just two years later in 2012 made clear that Citizens United doesn’t preclude limits on foreign spending, making this legislation possible. It would make a big dent — over 98% of S&P 500 companies would fall in its ambit. In fact, it points to a fatal logical flaw in Citizens United, which simply failed to address the inevitable role of corporations with foreign owners spending in elections. 

The measures laid out in the bill aren’t entirely unique. Similar legislation, pioneered by the nonprofit advocacy group Free Speech For People, is on the books for municipal elections in Seattle, Washington. In the lead-up to Seattle’s 2019 City Council elections, omnipresent tech giant Amazon spent $1.5 million to elect business-friendly candidates. Their efforts were mostly unsuccessful, and in January 2020, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to bar multinational corporations like Amazon from spending money to influence city elections.

Countering the corrupting influence of corporations and billionaires, both foreign and domestic, on our elections is no easy task, but it is vital to the future of our democracy. By passing the Democracy Preservation Act, New York can embody the best parts of our framing generation — the anticorruption spirit — and put an end to the fundamental threat of money from foreign-influenced corporations in our elections. Because democracy should be by and for the people it represents, and no one else.

Zephyr Teachout is an Associate Law Professor at Fordham Law School. On Twitter @ZephyrTeachout.

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Note: this article has been updated to reflect Airbnb disputed the $11 million figure reported by the Daily News - that number has been adjusted to "at least $1.2 million" to reflect one Airbnb PAC's spending.

Getting Back to Our Roots: End the Influence of Multinational Corporations in New York Elections Sat, 05 Jun 2021 04:00:00 +0000