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Flooding and Its Aftermath

Late in May 2015, frequent Huffington Post contributor Arlene Nisson Lassin wrote about the Memorial Day flood in her area of Houston that affected about 4,000 houses, one of which belonged to her family. A series of posts described 99 varieties of pain — from the uncertainty of even being able to stay in the very community-oriented neighborhood, to leaving beloved objects by the curb to be hauled away.

For almost a year, the Lassins “flamped” (flood camped) in the bleak wreckage of their partially-deconstructed house, assessing the damage, studying the laws about rebuilding, filling out tons of paperwork, and not knowing the next step. Ultimately, word came down that the place would have to be bulldozed. They decided to keep the property and build a smaller, and more high-off-the-ground house.

During the construction, they rented a house elsewhere. In the midst of all this, the columnist gently suggested that sympathetic friends and readers might want to cool it with the bubbly consolation talk about a “blessing in disguise” and a “new adventure.”

It is an adventure through nightmarish expenses…
… red tape, documentation, and tireless sorting, packing, hauling and cleaning…
… living in a house that is broken down to studs, with some drywall dust, bleach, and musty odors thrown in…
… a weakened and compromised immune system due to multiple severe stressors coming all at once…
… only being able to sleep with the aid of sleeping pills…
… not having your brain fully attached and worrying you may get into a car accident because you are so zoned out with so many pressing details…
… the care taking and well being of my elderly parents…
… stepping out your front door and being hit in the face with piles and piles of remnants of all of your neighbors and friends homes, knowing that they are going through this same grief and trauma too.

By January of this year, the Lassins were settled in the newly built home. And then, only a few months later, at the end of August, came hurricane Harvey and water even more voluminous than last time. Thanks to the judiciously flood-conscious architecture, this particular family sustained little damage; but the neighborhood streets were again piled high with furniture and other material goods.

It sounds hellish, and bear in mind, these were wealthy people, with apparently fabulous insurance, who were never displaced all the way off the grid. They had the means to always be housed. They had copious amounts of possessions to start with, and were able to salvage some and replace others. For other Houston residents, the outcome was nowhere near so fortunate.

Renters, for instance. Many previous tenants will in future find it “virtually impossible” to rent, because they will have an eviction on their record. Red Painter wrote:

Sadly, under Texas law, rent must be paid on dwellings that are only deemed “damaged” and not completely uninhabitable. And you better believe landlords are going to fight tooth and nail to get a judge to agree that their units are just damaged, thereby ensuring that they can collect that rent… Some greedy landlords in the Houston area are demanding that their tenants pay September rent, even as most of them are homeless, living at shelters or with friends/family and after they have lost literally everything except what they could throw in a bag as they fled their homes.

In mid-September, reporter Grace White wrote:

There are 1,300 people in the George R. Brown Convention Center and 2,058 at NRG Center. However, there’s also a number you don’t see, the number of homeless who are blending in with flood evacuees.

In addition, the NRG center was preparing to receive 400 people who had been evacuated to Dallas and now needed to return to Houston. White interviewed Kristy Bell, mother of three children and already homeless before the flood, who said it was her impression that housed people who were flooded out were the top priority, while those who had previously been homeless were “being left hung out.”

A U.S. News headline summed up the situation: “Storm Pits Houston’s Homeless Against Newly Displaced.” Marilyn Brown of the Coalition for the Homeless described it as “People from above moving down into the apartments we were using to move up.” During the past five years, Houston had succeeded in finding housing for 11,000 people experiencing homelessness. Now, a huge number of them are back to square one.

What to do?

These words are from Richard R. Troxell, 20-year board member of the National Coalition for the Homeless, Director/Founder of House the Homeless, and CEO of the Universal Living Wage campaign:

In 1988, the U.S. Congress passed the McKinney Act (later known as the McKinney-Vento Act.) In that historic moment the U.S. Congress declared that homelessness was/is a crisis in this nation. It is estimated that at least three million people are experiencing homelessness every year. The federal/local government will not allow existing homeless folks (some who have been on the streets of America for up to two decades), to access the Harvey Hurricane shelters or get in line with them to get housing now. This is in spite of the fact that they have been homeless for years. This seems to be a case of the deserving vs the undeserving poor. This seems to be preferential treatment for the recently traumatized vs the long term, repeatedly traumatized. Look, even a third-grader knows you don’t line butt. Let our people in. House all God’s children!

Richard was asked to explore developing legislation on the very pressing issue of homelessness and disasters, and wrote down these ideas:

Whereas, in 1988, the U.S. Congress passed the McKinney Act to help people experiencing homelessness declaring that homelessness had reached a crisis level in this nation, and

Whereas, tens of thousands of people and families end up homeless on the streets of America every year, and

Whereas, due to the lack of affordable housing through traditional means, people continue to remain un-housed for many years, and

Whereas, periodic catastrophes and all forms of disasters render many families and individuals without housing, and

Whereas, the Federal Government through the Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA, already activates tremendous amounts of resources to help people during these declared disasters,

Therefore be it resolved, that anyone, or any family, that presents themselves to be homeless within the impacted area should be able to avail themselves to all resources offered in all forms, including housing.

Reactions?

Source: “Post-Flood And Homeless — An Adventure Through Hell,” HuffingtonPost.com, 06/27/2015
Source: “Heartless Landlords In Houston Demand Rent From Homeless Evacuees,” CrooksAndLiars.com, 09/05/17
Source: “Thousands of evacuees, including homeless, still in shelters,” KHOU.com, 09/11/17
Source: “Storm Pits Houston’s Homeless Against Newly Displaced,” USNews.com, 09/02/17
Photo credit: (top) Chabad Lubavitch/Chabad.org; (bottom) Chabad Lubavitch/Chabad.org via Visualhunt/CC BY

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The Livelihood of People with Disabilities

Let’s talk some more about the history and implications of the minimum wage and the sub-minimum wage. What we’re after here is to encourage people to sign the Petition to Support Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities.

The TIME Act (H.R. 1377, short for Transitioning to Integrated and Meaningful Employment Act), has been around for a while and has bipartisan backing. A factsheet packed with details can be found on the National Federation of the Blind website, along with a description of the kind of future we are looking for:

The EmploymentFirst Movement promotes new concepts such as “supported” or “customized” employment that are successful at producing competitive integrated employment outcomes for individuals with significant disabilities that were previously thought to be unemployable.

National philosophy

Hamilton Nolan suggests that we are all hypocrites, “enjoying the low consumer prices that come with ultra-low wages being paid to workers abroad.”

Our own purchasing habits reward companies for paying wages that are sure to keep their workers in poverty for life. We soothe ourselves by saying that these desperately poor workers are still better off than they would be without a job; yet we would reject that argument if an employer here tried to use it to pay us less than the minimum wage.

“Count your blessings! You are better off with any job at all, no matter how unsatisfactory, than with no job.” That does sound exactly like the attitude of the government and employers toward Americans who are expected to work for a sub-minimum wage because they fall under the specially tailored group of exceptions spelled out in Section 14(c) of the The Fair Labor Standards Act.

As Richard R. Troxell, cofounder and President of House the Homeless, and CEO of the Universal Living Wage campaign, says:

If that work is important enough to get done, then certainly the person doing it whether they are 16 or 60, or brown or green or tall or short or blind or sighted, etc., should be paid for the work they produce. If you, as an employer, are using the work of an individual to run your business then you, as a compassionate human being, should pay them for a 40-hour week an amount that affords them a roof (other then a bridge) over their head. If you, as a member of our compassionate capitalistic society, are unable to include a commensurate number of physically/mentally challenged individuals into your work force, then perhaps you should lose your business license.

At any given time, there may be several pieces of legislation floating around that all address the same problem with varying degrees of sincerity. The proposed Raise the Wage Act (June 2017) is more backed by Democrats and wants to increase the federal minimum wage for everyone to $15 by 2024. (The only way some things can become law is by assuring the moneyed class that nothing needs to change just yet. Also, a lot can happen in six years.)

A nice feature of this legislation, should it ever pass, is that it would also get rid of the sub-minimum wage provision. This would affect not only people with disabilities but workers in restaurants and other service industries, and the teenagers.

Not all employers continue to get away with chicanery. Michelle Chen reported from West Virginia last year:

This summer, federal regulators revoked the wage exemption of a West Virginia–based nonprofit “Work Adjustment Center” purporting to provide rehabilitation services, which owed about $48,000 in back wages to 12 workers doing assembly production jobs, after falsifying prevailing wage assessments.

While there has been limited action at the federal level, three states — Vermont, New Hampshire and Maryland — have passed legislation that phase out use of the sub-minimum wage in their respective states. In several states, sheltered workshops are being shut down.

In her extensive and very accessible article, Chen quotes David Hutt of the National Disability Rights Network:

The payment of sub-minimum wages is often the result of a failure to recognize the tremendous advances in services and supports created since the 1930’s that allow individuals with disabilities to be fully inclusive members of the workforce, as well as the unique abilities of each individual.

Reactions?

Source: “Transitioning to Integrated and Meaningful Employment Act, (TIME Act) (HR1377),” NFB.org, undated
Source: “We Need an International Minimum Wage,” Gawker.com, 05/22/13
Source: “A new bill could boost pay for the disabled–to at least the minimum wage,” WashingtonPost.com, 06/06/17
Source: “People With Disabilities Aren’t Entitled to the Minimum Wage,” TheNation.com, 09/07/16
Photo credit: Kheel Center, Cornell University Library via Visualhunt/CC BY

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How Toxic is the Sub-Minimum?

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), enacted in 1938, allowed for the granting of Special Wage Certificates, so that both companies and nonprofits could pay disabled people less, because of being less productive. Recently, House the Homeless urged readers to consider signing the Petition to Support Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities, which aims to repeal Section 14(c) of the FLSA.

Compensation is definitely an issue. 14(c) provides for no floor, no bottom level of pay. People were found to be working for 2 cents per hour, and similar absurd amounts. Several persuasive arguments are contained within the petition. They boil down to, in the words of Kimie Beverly, Government Affairs Specialist at the National Federation for the Blind (NFB), “If there is going to be a minimum, it should be for everyone.”

Employers who favor retaining the sub-minimum will point out that some folks truly are so disabled, it just doesn’t make any sense to pay them more than a pittance. But… the individuals derive from the earning experience a self-esteem that is priceless. Or so the spin goes.

In a substantive overview of the various pro and con arguments, Sarah Blahovec, the author of The Huffington Post article and an advocate for people with disabilities, has this to say about that:

However, is that satisfaction considered more important than the fair treatment of hundreds of thousands of workers who could be fully productive with the right training, and who need their jobs for meeting living expenses, as opposed to just providing a sense of pride?

Companies can get individual certificates, and overall, they employ far fewer people on the sub-minimum level than the nonprofits do. If they didn’t hire people with disabilities they would not have acquired their juicy government contracts in the first place, and big companies can certainly afford to pay minimum wage at least.

But despite rules about productivity testing and other aspects of the relationship, the amount that a person can be paid is pretty much arbitrary. The chance for advancement is slim, on account of an interesting wrinkle in the law, which excludes supervisory and managerial positions. If a sub-minimum wage employee were to be promoted, they would have to be paid the going rate, and the company obviously would not gain as much profit.

It doesn’t get any easier

Even in the circumscribed world of sheltered workplaces, it is difficult to rise. Non Profit Associates, or NPAs, also get an exemption under the requirement that “75% of total direct labor hours must be performed by people who are blind or have other significant disabilities.” (This does not mean that three-fourths of the employees have to be disabled, but that three-fourths of the billable hours of work is done by them.) Problem is, if people were promoted in rank, it would take them out of that pool, which would affect the bottom line, and less money would be available for the top executives.

Unintended consequence or not, the law does the opposite of what it set out to do. Rather than bring the perceived outsiders into the society’s mainstream, it cordons them off in segregated employment ghettos. The original goal was to achieve the “most integrated setting” that would promote the mingling of non-disabled people and those with disabilities. As things stand, the instances of anyone transitioning from sheltered employment into the larger world, are few and far between.

How it evolved

In 1971, the Javits-Wagner-O’Day Act required that all federal agencies should buy various supplies and services from nonprofit agencies that employed people with disabilities. It defined who could do what, and under what circumstances.

After many years, in 2006, the program that potentiates the law was renamed AbilityOne. It’s administered by the Committee for Purchase from People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled, which decides what commodities and services the government should purchase.

Interestingly, its biggest customer is the Department of Defense, and it is under the authority of Homeland Security. AbilityOne coordinates the activities of 550 NPAs in more than 1,000 locations, and helps to employ 46,000 people including wounded veterans.

Still, critics, believe that AbilityOne abets in the maintenance of barriers to integration in the workforce. Because the pay scale is based on performance, there has been litigation over how performance is measured. The feeling in many sectors is that AbilityOne basically does not do what Congress intended, and that it needs to be retooled to reach consistency with the intentions of the Rehabilitation Act.

Not the first try

Many attempts have been made to relegislate the provisions of 14(c), but so far without success. In 2014, President Obama issued an executive order setting the hourly minimum at $10.10, which is a big improvement over 2 cents. But as long as that minimum was met, it still allowed workers with disabilities to be paid less than others. And it only applied to companies with federal contracts, which are not that many. According to Kimie Beverly, only 7,000 people are in that category, out of 194,000 currently affected by the sub-minimum wage.

In 2014 the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) tried to beef up the provisions for paying disabled youth in particular. A letter sent last month by the NFB to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education said:

This 75 percent direct labor requirement, as stated in the current statute and in the letter, is inherently incompatible with WIOA because the work settings are disproportionately filled with employees with disabilities. These settings cannot be considered integrated. Rather than incentivize work in the community, the direct labor ratio requires large-scale retention of employees with disabilities in majority-disability workplaces.

Under Congress’s new definition of “supported employment,” people with disabilities cannot be paid subminimum wages unless the employer is integrated.

But if the workplace is thoroughly integrated, how can it fulfill the rule that 75% of the hours will be worked by people with disabilities? It seems to be an instance of dueling, mutually incompatible laws.

(To be continued… but meanwhile, please sign the Petition to Support Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities.)

Reactions?

Source: “It’s About TIME: Ending Subminimum Wages for Workers with Disabilities,” HuffingtonPost.com, 06/10/15
Source: “U.S. AbilityOne Commission,” undated
Photo credit: Commercial Cleaning Maryland via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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Work, the Minimum Wage, and the Young

The minimum wage was created in 1938 immediately following the Great Depression. It is set by the federal government, although a state or city can adjust it upward, but not downward. The whole point of the minimum wage was to ensure that if a person put in 40 units (hours) of work, they’d be able to afford the basics: food, clothing and shelter.

It was also seen as a way to alleviate the financial harm suffered by employers having to put up with workers who didn’t know jack. It was intended to be an entry-level amount paid to brand-new employees, until they learned the necessary skills and gained enough experience to be worth holding on to. It was meant to be a status or stage of development that a person might occupy for a limited time.

Yet somehow minimum wage transmogrified into a category of job; and rather than being a temporary circumstance, it became type of person, expected to exist on the same low pay no matter how long they stayed. Meanwhile, so the newbies would still make less than the longer-term workers, a new class was created — the sub-minimum wage.

As we have seen, employers come up with all kinds of reasons to avoid paying a higher minimum. There is the “wage compression” problem, which means “Then everybody else in the company will want a raise too.” Regarding the youth, there are two schools of thought. One is expressed by Erin Shannon:

The overwhelming majority of economic studies shows that a high minimum wage has the greatest negative impact on people with low-skills, such as teen workers entering the workforce.

Those who favor a low minimum, and even a sub-minimum wage, claim that the teenagers who are affected don’t really need the money, and just want to buy fancy sneakers. (They ignore the fact that only about a quarter of minimum wage earners are teens — the rest are adults with adult responsibilities.) The scrooges say that a higher minimum — or any minimum at all — is harmful to the very people it purports to care about most, because it will cause jobs for kids, and especially for dark-skinned kids, to disappear, period.

Last year, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) announced that “the research does not back up those claims,” and the references can be found in a fact sheet compiled by that organization. About the kids, NELP says this:

Teen workers are likely to be from struggling households that depend on the teens’ additional income to make ends meet. Moreover, significant numbers of employed teens are students working their way through two or four year colleges — in fact, nearly half of college students today work full time while going to school.

The scrooges want us to believe that when the minimum wage is raised, this shocking intrusion reverberates throughout all businesses at every level, and horrible things happen, and it’s all the fault of young people — especially teens of color — who have the nerve to expect to make enough money to live on. Yes, this sounds like asking a lot, when we hear that nobody any anywhere in the U.S. can afford a one-bedroom apartment on the minimum wage.

But there are kids aging out of foster care who would happily live in a commune, or a car, or share a single room with someone working the opposite shift. There really are teenagers who have to take care of themselves, and to help them do it benefits everyone.

More nonsense

Minimum-wage scrooges claim that small businesses are already so stressed they can’t possibly afford to pay anybody enough to live on. However, when Chicago was in the midst of its “Fight for $15,” John Arensmeyer, founder of Small Business Majority, said the following:

The vast majority of small business owners already pay their workers more than the minimum wage in order to attract and retain quality workers. By raising it across the board, more Americans will have more money to spend at small businesses. This will help them create jobs, which strengthens the economy overall.

Nice! But here is how ornery and perverse the scrooges are. A writer named Michael Saltsman labeled that Small Business Majority survey a scam, saying:

Were SBM actually interested in the impact of a higher minimum wage on small businesses, the majority of employers they surveyed would have employees earning the minimum wage. Instead, a full 85 percent of the businesses polled by SBM had no employees earning the minimum.

Read that paragraph a few times and see if it makes any more sense the last time than the first. And why are the scrooges so worried about small businesses, anyhow? About two-third of minimum wage earners work for places that have over 100 employees — like corporate welfare queen Walmart where, as Robyn Pennacchia points out, “the CEO makes more in an hour than most of his employees will make in a year.”

The scrooges practice what may or may not be willful blindness, for instance by taking it for granted that certain things are immutable. James Dorn wrote for Forbes:

Moreover, if the minimum wage cuts into profits, there will be less capital investment and job growth will slow.

But maybe profits don’t always have to remain at the obscene level that corporations have become used to. Maybe the system could change in ways that would accommodate the workers as much as the shareholders.

Dorn gets all sniffy about Costo:

The company’s CEO made waves when he endorsed a higher minimum wage in March of this year. Yet the membership warehouse giant has a unique retail business model (you pay to be a customer) that allows them to pay above the minimum wage and earn nearly $10,000 in profit per employee.

Well… maybe, since that is such a successful model, more businesses should adopt it! Which is exactly how “the market” is supposed to work. Somebody figures out a profitable angle, and the competitors take a cue and get a clue, and do likewise. You’d think a bunch of hardcore conservative capitalists would realize that, but they seem to suffer from a brand of selective cognitive dissonance on certain topics.

Again, Dorn says, “In order to remain profitable, businesses must either dramatically raise prices… or find ways to maintain their business operation with manageable costs.” By which he means, keep the pay down. So in all the big, wide world, those are the only two choices. But hey, boys, how about cutting those executive salaries and bonuses? The only reply is silence.

Erin Shannon, defender of low minimums and sub-minimum training wages, says, “The lower wage justifies the extra work employers must put in to teach that 16-year-old how to be a productive employee.”

Or — never mind that. Maybe we could do things a different way. A boss could forget about that sub-minimum stuff, and maybe even start people at better than minimum! The company could let prospects know that on-the-job training is one of the perks. As an employer, you don’t have to do it, but you’re doing it.

You could look at it the way mixed martial arts trainers do. If aspirants come without experience, there are no bad habits for you, the employer, to train them out of. You can mold them into the exact right kind of employees for your business. And if you pay them the minimum or better, instead of some insulting training wage, maybe they will be more willing to pay attention and respond favorably to your employee-forming efforts.

Reactions?

Source: “Give teens a leg up — expand the training wage,” SeattleTimes.com, 01/18/17
Source: “A ‘Training Wage’ for Teens or New Hires Would Hurt New York’s Workers and Undermine Responsible Employers,” NELP.org, March 2016
Source: “Chicago Minimum Wage Workers ‘Fight for $15’,” HispanicBusiness.com, 04/24/13
Source: “Minimum Wage Legislation, And The Small Business ‘Survey’ Scam,” Forbes.com, 05/09/13
Source: “Most minimum wage workers are adults who work for large corporations,” DeathAndTaxesMag.com, 05/10/13
Source: “The Minimum Wage Delusion, And The Death Of Common Sense,” Forbes.com, 05/07/13
Photo via VisualHunt