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How to Become Homeless: Get Burned Out

For The New York Times, Kirk Johnson and Conor Dougherty interviewed people experiencing homelessness for the first time in the California city of Santa Rosa. Some consider themselves lucky to have grabbed cell phones, passports and a few clothes before fleeing the deadly blazes. (If you don’t have time to read the whole article, look for the story of a man named John Page.)

Most of the fire refugees who gathered at a donation center did not even have “the paper trail of their lives: deeds and marriage licenses, tax files and social security cards.” Formerly secure Americans are learning the hell of being without documents, a condition all too familiar to both the chronically and temporarily homeless people of America.

Of the estimated 100,000 Northern California evacuees, some travelled as far as 70 miles to take refuge in San Francisco and Oakland, which were pretty crowded already, and expensive. A lot of those folks have nothing left to go back to. The cost in human lives is terrible with 40 people already known to have died.

NIMBY all over again

An old joke goes, “What’s the difference between a developer and an environmentalist? The developer wants to build a house in the woods; the environmentalist already has one.” This has been part of the problem in the state’s counties of Napa and Sonoma, where new housing starts come nowhere near to matching the number of new residents.

The people who work in San Francisco and Silicon Valley have to live somewhere, but there is resistance to building in rural areas. The reporters also cite…

[…] the complexities of California’s housing, zoning and building regulations, and the environmental problems involved in cleaning up home sites made toxic by the ash from the fire.

Climate change increasingly plays a part in the likelihood of more fires. Tribune News Service describes the recent past and the probable future:

Six years of drought was followed by record winter snow and rain, followed by record heat from April through September. Santa Rosa hit 110 degrees Sept. 1, a record high for the date. Five weeks later parts of the city caught fire, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses. Worse extremes can be expected in coming decades.

Some Santa Rosa evacuees are sleeping at the Sonoma Fairgrounds on Red Cross cots. Others are 20 miles away at a shelter manned by the National Guard. What will change in the aftermath of the current fire disaster? Housing prices were already ridiculously high and can only get worse, now that nearly 6,000 buildings have been destroyed. There will be many things to consider, in future housing plans, including better escape routes.

No one is exempt

Recent events make it very clear that people experiencing homelessness are not a different species. A fire can happen to anybody. Almost everyone knows someone whose life was changed irrevocably by a fire. Fire plays no favorites, and some of the narratives contain painful irony. For instance, a 2012 story (that has not been archived on the Internet) described how a Syracuse, New York, couple who had devoted their lives to helping the homeless, were themselves made homeless by a fire.

Seemingly senseless accidents happen, like when a toaster jammed and burned a house leaving an Iowa family of five homeless. In 2015, in Minnesota, a family that had been doubling up with relatives for three months finally completed the formalities and complied with the regulations to move into a house they were buying. The were in residence for only two weeks when a fire made them homeless again.

Sometimes it’s nature, and sometimes human malice is to blame. In January of this year, an apartment fire left 18 people homeless. The man arrested and charged with arson had a grudge against one of the tenants, and had made a previous attempt to burn the building. All kinds of things can happen.

House the Homeless has mentioned T.C. Boyle, whose novel The Tortilla Curtain sketched a heartbreaking picture of the existence of undocumented workers living in a ravine on less than nothing. His newer book, A Friend of the Earth, projects the bleak outlook for the California of the future. When a reporter asked for a remark on the current fires, Boyle said:

People say I was prescient by what I predicted for 2025. The sad joke is I should have said 2015. It is frightening how quickly we got here.

Reactions?

Source: “Fires Leave Many Homeless Where Housing Was Already Scarce,” NYTimes.com, 10/15/17
Source: “Wildfires and weather: Doom fiction called California reality,” WatertownDailyTimes.com, 10/16/17
Source: “Unattended Toaster Sparks Fire, Leaving Family of Five Homeless,” SiouxlandProud.com, 07/26/15
Source: “Previously homeless Winona family loses new home in fire,” KTTC.com, 10/11/15
Source: “Arrest In Buffalo Fire That Left 18 Homeless,” WGRZ.com, 01/22/17
Photo credit: Orin Zebest via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Resistance, Advocacy, and Ambivalence in Maspeth

In Maspeth, which is part of Queens in New York City, a Holiday Inn became a homeless shelter. In April, some locals sued the mayor on technical grounds related to the building’s certificate of occupancy, but apparently an uneasy truce is now in effect.

But the permanent residents are vigilant. A woman filed a FOIA request (subsequently denied) for information on the shelter residents, particularly “employment information, last known addresses, reasons for their homelessness, drug use and length of stay.” In August, a headline read, “Cops say this couple has been breaking into Maspeth homes in broad daylight.” (Not the couple pictured on our page, by the way.)

According to the article on QNS.com:

Police have released images of a man and a woman responsible for a burglary pattern in Maspeth, hitting two homes within a span of three days in broad daylight…

In other words, the pair tried but failed to break into one house, and successfully broke into another and stole things, if that can be called a pattern. Obviously, some journalistic sensationalizing is in play, but, surprisingly, the local news sources are reticent about connecting crimes to the formerly homeless population. Strangely, a blog about local affairs never mentions the shelter at all.

Outside friction

A story from Gothamist is titled, “Ask A Native New Yorker: Is It Wrong To Hate Homeless People?” It quotes lively discussions between journalists, members of the affected community, and people who are neither. It illustrates, among other things, the proneness of trolls to deploy “straw man” arguments.

A person known as “Maspeth Sympathizer” wrote:

No one wants some 20 year old baby breeder and her litter of kids scrubbing off the good hardworking taxpayers.

However, the original Maspeth plan was to create a 110-bed shelter for adult families, defined as couples and families with children older than 18. Using rude and crude language, the same New Yorker voiced the frustrations felt by people who work hard to buy a piece of property with a house on it, and then find their communities playing host to people experiencing homelessness.

Nice middle-class neighborhoods are rare in the metropolis. They are populated by workers who “clean the streets, run the public transportation system, enforce the law, put out the fires, pick up the trash, teach our future and hold the doors open for the snobs who can’t be bothered.”

Clash of cultures

Critics say that people who live in shelters mess up their neighborhoods, and this is an understandable complaint. Parents whose kids play in the local park don’t want broken glass to suddenly start showing up. The obvious retort is that not all people experiencing homelessness are poorly socialized semi-barbarians who were raised in dumpsters with rats for pets.

The families in the shelter might have been traumatically transplanted from a nice middle-class community just like Maspeth. These days, almost no one in America is immune to the threat of homelessness.

A knee-jerk reaction would be to fence the park, limit the hours, convince the police to make a strong presence, or hire security guards. But it doesn’t have to be like that. What if community members went a bit out of their way for a while, and put in a little extra effort?

Local parents could spend more time at the park with their kids, getting healthy exercise and demonstrating by example how to treat a shared public space. Churches could create a welcoming atmosphere. A good-hearted intention to enfold newcomers, rather than repel them, could probably make a considerable difference in many instances.

Some kind of humane approach would certainly accomplish more good than the random pronouncement of blanket generalizations, like the following:

This homeless shelter in Maspeth, like all homeless shelters, is going ruin the neighborhood. There isn’t a neighborhood with a homeless shelter that hasn’t been ruined.

Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin begs to differ, citing peaceful assimilation in several areas of NYC, both rich and poor. He suggests that what’s really going on is simple fear. Housed people live in terror of the prospect of homelessness, as well they should, because then they might be treated with the same scorn they pour on others now.

Dobkin diagnoses, and advises:

It’s much easier to believe that these people are sub-human trash, rather than just normal people who had the bad luck of being poor in an expensive city—because if you believed that, there’s nothing that could guarantee you’d never end up facing the same problem. Rather than pointing at the poor shelter residents, who are mainly the victims of bad luck and stratospherically-priced housing, you’d be better off directing your anger at the people who really have power in our city’s real estate market: the rich developers and the politicians whom they control.

A bigger picture

It is characteristic of the NIMBY mindset to believe that homeless shelters should only be for people who were rendered homeless in that exact locale. The woman who petitioned the government for personal information was hung up on a 2014 statistic that claimed only four homeless families in Maspeth, and wanted to prove that most of the shelter residents came from other places.

That is an absurdly local perspective. Looked at on a larger scale, out of 12,000 families in the NYC “system” only 135 families (or less than 2%) are from places other than New York City.

The disgruntled “Maspeth Sympathizer” notes that homeless families tend to consist of women and children, with the fathers always missing. Deeper thought and more compassion would promote the understanding that often these families are homeless precisely because the father was taken from them — often by legal action.

It is no secret that minority-group males are accused, convicted, and incarcerated in numbers that do not line up with statistical probability. In city and county jails and state and federal prisons, the black and Hispanic inmate count is wildly disproportionate to the corresponding demographics of the population as a whole. And besides, people in places like Maspeth resent being called racist, when they are merely anti-homeless.

Reactions?

Source: “‘Homeless Holiday Inn’ sparks lawsuit against mayor,” NYPost.com, 04/24/17
Source: “Cops say this couple has been breaking into Maspeth homes in broad daylight,” QNS.com, 08/22/17
Source: “Ask A Native New Yorker: Is It Wrong To Hate Homeless People?,” Gothamist.com, 09/09/16
Photo credit: Steve Baker via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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How to Become Homeless — Be Flooded Out

On September 25, the president tweeted, “Texas & Florida are doing great.” However, it seems that some areas are experiencing and expecting even more flooding. And desolation is widespread.

Many people are experiencing homelessness for the first time. For some it is only temporary (though not at all easy), but others will never be housed again. Among those who were already homeless, conditions are worse than ever.

In Austin, Nacodoches and Dallas, people are still taking shelter. The City of Orange set up a headquarters able to hold 250 cots.

Only three days ago, I overheard in real time a conversation about trying to help a young couple with children in Texas. In their normal living space, wet building materials were being removed, while new drywall and other necessary supplies were eagerly awaited. The family was living in their van parked outside, and dared not venture far.

If funds were to be sent to the bank, getting to the bank would be a problem for them, and besides, they were not even sure if the bank was open. And there was no mail service in their part of the city.

The flood drowned 80% of the Gulf Coast town of Dickinson, and half the homes were totaled. To give just one small example of the struggles documented by reporter Quint Forgey:

Many trash haulers have abandoned this community to work in Houston, 30 miles north, where the pay is better… “That’s our biggest challenge — getting the debris trucks in here and keeping them here,” said Ron Morales, Dickinson’s emergency management coordinator…

In 2015, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority interviewed more than 3,000 people experiencing homelessness (out of the estimated 44,300 in the entire county.) The agency was interested in what caused people to be unhoused. According to Authority:

For a fifth of those interviewed, it was primarily a matter of unemployment or finances. Seventy-nine said they were released from jail. Nearly 200 blamed a breakup or separation. Many cited multiple reasons from the list that interviewers read to them.

[…] Lost employment, lost everything by theft, lost Section 8 (federal housing assistance). Hurricane Katrina, fire and “God’s calling” were all cited too.

Often, disaster is one of the reasons, either alone or in conjunction with another misfortune. Ashlea Surles related the story of Jack, a 53-year-old man who lived in the woods in Mississippi. Once a wealthy businessman, he ran out of money paying for his wife’s cancer treatments, and she died anyway. Hurricane Katrina destroyed his house. He told the reporter, with confusing syntax, “Basically people that are homeless sometimes you’re just in the mold where they just don’t care.”

A year ago, Connellsville, Pennsylvania, and a neighboring town suffered severe damage, and it only took five inches of rain in a two-hour spell to cause the nightmare. “Flood leaves more than 50 families homeless in western Pa.,” the headline read. In a place with a population of around 7,500, that’s a pretty big slice of the demographic pie.

Around the same time, Louisiana was slammed with a “1,000-year flood,” in other words, the kind of freakish disaster that is statistically predicted to strike only once per millennium. (Obviously, someone didn’t get the memo.)

In some communities — Denham Springs, for instance — 90% of houses flooded, leaving their owners homeless.

According to FEMA rules, wrote reporter Andrea Gallo, “people in shelters who owned or rented property before the floods qualify for the agency’s transitional shelter assistance, which includes rental assistance, the shelter-at-home program and temporary mobile homes as a last resort.”

Even though people are entitled to help, you can’t rent a hotel room that doesn’t exist, and how many hotels are in rural Louisiana? Without transportation, how do you even go and look for a place to live?

For The Advocate, Gallo profiled a couple who had lived in Walker until their house was inundated by over five feet of water. Gerald and Cris Burkins were placed in one shelter, then another, unable to meet with family members including their daughter whose boyfriend had just died in an auto accident. They were left with nothing, and needed, at the very least, a car and an apartment.

At the height of the emergency, over 11,000 people were taken into Louisiana shelters, among them many who hadn’t been living in any particular place. While a lot of the people in this group may have received the benefit of a more gradual learning curve, flood victims have to very quickly come to terms with their calamitous displacement.

It must be interesting, for experienced homeless people, to see formerly housed neighbors hit with the reality of what having nothing is all about. Gallo says:

If there was ever novelty in living alongside strangers and not having control over what to eat, what to wear and where to go, it has long since worn off.

The reporter also interviewed a woman who had been only two years away from having her house mortgage paid off, suddenly made homeless with nothing but her two cats. Another woman hinted that individuals, such as landlords, could lapse into compassion fatigue:

When people did things for you in the beginning, it was “We want to help.” Now, it’s changed. We didn’t ask to be homeless.

*****

NOTE: Readers who missed the most recent post, “Flooding and Its Aftermath,” might wish to check out the part that begins, “What to do?”

Reactions?

Source: “Tent City offers temporary housing for evacuees,” OrangeLeader.com, 09/28/17
Source: “Texas Towns Crushed by Hurricane Harvey Struggle to Clean Up and Rebuild,” WSJ.com, 09/29/17
Source: “LA’s homeless, in their own words, on how it happened,” LATimes.com, 11/26/15
Source: “Hattiesburg men explain how they ended up homeless in a tent city,” WDAM.com, 2012
Source: “Flood leaves more than 50 families homeless in western Pa.,” WIFT.org, 08/31/16
Source: “Louisiana left stunned by damage from ‘1,000-year’ flood: ‘It just kept coming’,” TheGuardian.com, 08/16/16
Source: “‘We didn’t ask to be homeless’: 850 people remain in shelters, worry about being forgotten as others move on,” TheAdvocate.com, 09/09/16
Photo credit: Texas Military Department via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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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

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Training Wage or Hidden Injustice?

First, before getting into today’s topic, remember that next Tuesday is Bridge the Economic Gap Day, a day for action. Everything there is to say about this yearly tradition is contained in last year’s post, except that this time, it’s Tuesday, September 5, a week from today.

What is commensurate wage?

Since 2009, the federal hourly minimum wage has been $7.25, and the government has designated which workers it applies to. A whole separate area of law describes who can be paid less, and under what circumstances. There are two major exceptions to the requirement to pay minimum wage, and a person may fall under one or the other, or maybe even both.

It seems that the two can be mixed-and-matched, depending on the needs of the company that applies to be certified for the privilege of paying less. This is known as a commensurate wage, which has more dignity than “sub-minimum,” a word that could be termed meaningless, since “minimum” already means “least.”

One affected group are workers under 20 years old, who can be subject to a 90-day training period at $4.25 per hour. This is based on the idea that it will take them a while to get up to speed. During the probationary period, they will not only learn how to do the particular job, but will adapt to the mores of the workplace, such as timely arrival. When the probationary period ends, they will graduate to the ranks of regular employees. But more about this next week.

The federal rules

At the moment, the subject is disability. The Fair Labor Standards Act is enforced by the Wage-Hour Division (WHD) of the U.S. Department of Labor. For detail-oriented readers who want to follow up, the Field Operations Handbook is available online.

This excerpt is from section 64c00:

A subminimum wage is a wage paid a worker with a disability that is commensurate with that worker’s individual productivity as compared to the wage and productivity of experienced workers who do not have disabilities performing essentially the same type, quality, and quantity of work in the vicinity where the worker with a disability is employed.

Some examples of disabilities that may affect a worker’s earning or productive capacity include blindness, intellectual or developmental disability, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, alcoholism, drug addiction, and age.

Age alone is not considered a disability, but it is often concurrent with other disabling conditions. Disabilities range from mild to severe, in one or more of the following areas: “impairments in perception, conceptualization, language, memory, and control of attention, impulse, or motor function.”

The main thing to know is, an employer can pay a sub-minimum wage only when the disability impairs the person for the specific job. In other words, there would be no justification to pay a blind coffee-taster less.

For the employer, several rules apply. There are standards about work measurement and time studies and how the hourly commensurate rate should be calculated, and the company has to promise to reevaluate the job performance every six months or when the actual requirements of the job change.

The WHD civil servants are specially admonished about the importance of their oversight duties “because many of the workers with disabilities paid at sub-minimum wages have little knowledge of their rights under the various acts enforced by the WHD or may be unable to exercise them.”

Potential for mischief

Apparently, the three-months training period exception can be applied to disabled workers as well as those under 20. Some critics feel that, as a Washington state news editorial phrased it, 680 hours might be excessive:

That seems like a long time for a person to get the knack of a minimum-wage job, which by its very nature requires a relatively low level of skill. Would it really take a person 85 days (of eight-hour shifts) to learn a minimum-wage job?

In Seattle, these matters were hotly discussed when state and city minimum wages were adjusted. Washington’s Department of Labor & Industries had designated four sub-minimum wage categories, called “student learners,” “handicapped workers,” “adult learners,” and “student workers.”

Journalist Anna Minard wrote in her 2014 article:

The state has issued only five certificates in the last five years — four for individual handicapped adults, and one for student workers at a boarding school. But while the state program has been small, there’s no telling how many employers would apply for certificates with Seattle’s new higher wages — and how creatively they might try to interpret the existing but rarely used state codes. Opponents of training wages fear this could become a huge loophole for businesses to exploit.

One problem with the training period is that it encourages the unscrupulous employer to engage in an outright scam. Rather than retaining people at full pay, they might let them go when the probationary period is over, and hire a new batch of “trainees” at a discount. Michelle Chen wrote:

Advocates are also campaigning to stop federal subsidies for segregated sheltered workshops and “training” programs, where workers tend to languish indefinitely in jobs with virtually no redeeming educational value.

Please sign this petition!

House the Homeless hopes the reader, now armed with some background information, will take another step. The National Federation of the Blind is petitioning on behalf of all American workers with disabilities to end the Special Wage Certificates that allow the lower pay scale. The petition itself is a model of persuasive eloquence, and the points are worthy of consideration.

Reactions?

Source: “Field Operations Handbook,” DOL.gov, 09/21/16
Source: “Address flaws in bill creating ‘training wage’,” BellinghamHerald.com, 02/04/13
Source: “What’s the Deal with ‘Training Wages’?,” TheStranger.com, 05/28/14
Source: “People With Disabilities Aren’t Entitled to the Minimum Wage,” TheNation.com, 09/07/16
Image courtesy House the Homeless

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Disability Wage or Exploitative Loophole?

Eighty percent of disabled people are said to be excluded from the American workforce. Even for those who are deemed employable, the picture is not bright.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, private-sector employers with more than 15 employees are not allowed to discriminate against disabled people in the area of pay. They are also supposed to make “reasonable accommodation” (e.g. wheelchair accessibility) for these workers without reducing their pay to recoup the cost of this accommodation (e.g. wheelchair ramp).

But section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) allows these same employers to pay less based on productivity, which on the surface seems fair. Why should a company write the same paycheck to someone who makes one widget per hour, as to the expert who makes five widgets per hour? Good point. But however sensible this may be in principle, the day-to-day realities are many and tangled.

The employers’ side

Because so many kinds of human limitations are included under the umbrella term “disabled,” complications arise. Stephen Hawking would be a different type of employee from a someone whose cognitive ability was devastated from the start by fetal alcohol syndrome, or from a military veteran whose PTSD makes the most basic human interactions problematic. Whether fair or not, the scientific genius, regardless of the elaborate support system he would need, will be a greater asset to the company, and there’s no getting around it.

The employees’ side

This means, writes Taylor Leighton, that “some disabled workers can make significantly less than the minimum wage, in some cases even less than a dollar per hour.” Prospect.org says “hundreds of thousands” of disabled workers earn around $2 per hour — with “many receiving a lot less.”

In the documentary film, Bottom Dollars, made in the state of Washington, a member of the organization Rooted in Rights looks at records from other states and remarks, “There’s one person down here who is making two cents an hour.”

To gain skinny-paycheck permission, an employer has to obtain a special certificate from the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division. The exception is said to affect between 400,000 and 420,000 disabled Americans, although the exact number is hard to get a bead on.

In 2014, one source said:

Overall, according to the most recent statistics from the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, there are nearly 2,000 certified employers paying more than 216,000 workers a sub-minimum wage.

At any rate, Michelle Chen writes, in recent years the rules have been relaxed here and there, resulting in even less opportunity for disabled workers. She says that employers “can effectively pay whatever they want — if the firms certify the wages are ‘commensurate’ for their duties (an arbitrary standard prone to exploitation).”

Private sector employers can circumvent section 14(c) by characterizing their jobs as training programs, and consequently get way with paying some people less than $1 per hour. Taylor Leighton reports:

Disabled Americans enter these programs under the assumption that they will gain valuable skills that will lead to real-world jobs and financial independence… Many never graduate from the program and are stuck making subminimum wages while employers benefit from the cheap labor.

Another writer notes that some workers make “only pennies an hour for mundane, repetitive tasks.” When analysts get their hands on the numbers, they conclude that less than 5% of the disabled workers in segregated, subminimum wage shops will ever transition into an integrated work environment. In some cases, of course, it may be that the individual is simply not capable of taking on more complex job responsibilities.

But part of the reason for this stagnation can be explained in another way. Apparently, once an employee has learned a task, their “training” status can be perpetuated by changing the task, so the person is once again in training.

NEXT: What is being done, and what needs to be done.

Reactions?

Source: “Can employers actually pay disabled Americans below the minimum wage?,” PolitiFact.com, 08/12/16
Source: “Below the Minimum No More,” Prospect.org, 05/30/17
Source: “Law allowing lower wages for disabled draws scrutiny,” king5.com, 06/01/17
Source: “Some disabled workers making pennies per hour,” ChicagoTribune.com, 02/10/14
Source: “People With Disabilities Aren’t Entitled to the Minimum Wage,” TheNation.com, 09/07/16
Source: “Transitioning to Integrated and Meaningful Employment Act, (TIME Act) (HR 1377),” NFB.org, undated
Photo credit: The Library of Congress via Visualhunt/No known copyright restrictions

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What’s Up with Goodwill?

The National Employment Law Project calculated that two out of three low-wage workers are employed by large corporations. Only one-third work for small businesses, which throws shade on the argument that raising the minimum wage will destroy the economy by slaughtering small businesses. No, two-thirds of the stingily-paid are in the employ of huge, profitable enterprises.

And some underpaid Americans work for Goodwill Industries, much to its shame. Investigative journalist John Hrabe has called the nonprofit exploitative, a racket, and the worst charity in America. Investigating for Watchdog.org, he learned that most Goodwill branches were paying disabled people less than the federally determined minimum wage.

Hrabe’s reportage contains sentences that are scarcely believable, such as this one:

More than 100 Goodwill entities employ workers through the Special Wage Certificate program, a Depression-era loophole in federal labor law that allows organizations to pay subminimum wages to people with disabilities. According to Goodwill, 7,300 of its 105,000 employees are subject to the minimum wage exemption…

Well, it’s a charity, right? It takes in used items of all kinds, and sells them cheaply to the economically disadvantaged. Maybe there simply isn’t enough money to go around. Except, there is. Goodwill was paying out more than $50 million per year to its top earners, with some individuals making $1 million a year. Hrabe gives many shocking examples of executive compensation that has really gotten out of hand.

And the travel expenses? Nearly $40 million, for a year’s worth of travel for the upper echelon. What possible need is there for people who run a charity to travel so much? Goodwill isn’t a thirsty young startup, trawling for business. It’s a long-established, staid, and supposedly trustworthy nonprofit organization. And nowadays, we have the Internet and video-conferencing, and all that good stuff. So the question is worth asking — what’s up with the urgent need to go somewhere?

Busted

Goodwill was accustomed to skating along, enjoying an excellent reputation that received bushels of good press — and didn’t expect its labor practices to be questioned. Some reporters latched on in the early 2000s, and found that the workers were making as little as 20 cents per hour, but their complaints did not gain much traction. In 2012, it was 22 cents an hour.

When you hear someone disparage the minimum wage because it supposedly prevents less-abled people from ever getting jobs, don’t listen. That is a downright fib, as they very well know or ought to. In government, for every regulation, there is a waiver. In this case, a thing called the Special Minimum Wage Certificate allows companies to pay some people far less than the legal minimum.

So, even if the minimum wage went up to $50 an hour, the government would still be willing to cut a deal for businesses that find and exploit the Special Minimum Wage Certificate loophole. And even though Goodwill is nominally a nonprofit, and doesn’t pay taxes, it is one of those privileged businesses.

Hrabe learned some details from Brad Turner-Little, Director of Mission Strategy at Goodwill International, Inc. The special work certificates are only good for two years, and a massive amount of paperwork is supposed to prove that the organization complies with all the applicable regulations. Consequently, the journalist asks:

Why is Goodwill spending so much time and money on this bureaucratic nightmare? Remember, Goodwill claims that the sub-minimum wage policy helps them save money and hire more workers.

It would be nice to reassure readers that this is just a history lesson, and that all discrepancies have been remedied, but sadly this is not the case. In 2016, after four months of investigative work, Henry J. Cordes wrote a highly revealing series for the Omaha World-Herald.

Among other problems, the local Goodwill execs were quite disproportionately overpaid, in comparison with other Goodwills and other nonprofits. Here is a rather incendiary quotation:

While Goodwill Omaha runs job training and assistance programs that serve thousands annually, nearly all of those activities have been funded by government grants and contracts — not the $4 million in annual profits generated by Goodwill’s thrift stores in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa. Even its signature program that employs disabled job trainees within its stores is primarily funded by school districts.

Whoa! Did he just say Goodwill takes money from school districts? In what universe are schools so lavishly bankrolled that they can financially support an charitable organization whose bigwigs collect gigantic paychecks? This alone should be enough to inspire some real public backlash.

Reactions?

Source: “Goodwill Minimum Wage Loophole Will Shock You,” HuffingtonPost.com, 05/15/13
Source: “Goodwill’s Charity Racket: CEOs Earn Top-Dollar, Workers Paid Less Than Minimum Wage,” HuffingtonPost.com, 09/25/12
Source: “Goodwill Omaha: No Culture of Thrift,” DataOmaha.com, 10/22/16
Photo credit: Mike Mozart (JeepersMedia) via Visualhunt/CC BY

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