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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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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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Background on Diabetes and Homelessness

vietnam-war-vet-in-wheelchairIn both medicine and the societal disgrace of homelessness, one maxim is true: Preventive care is always less expensive than end-stage care. This is why smart cities go with the Housing First philosophy — because supportive housing is less expensive in the long run than a decades-long succession of stays in shelters, hospitals and jails.

It goes without saying, that Housing First also greatly reduces the toll of human suffering, but that is not the argument that holds the most sway when presented to the government and other entities responsible for doling out dollars. In the medical arena, everyone agrees that preventing or aggressively treating diabetes is much preferable to letting it run its course — better for the patient, and infinitely better for the budget.

Thirty million Americans have diabetes. 17% of people experiencing homelessness, according to the House the Homeless Health Survey, are either diabetic or pre-diabetic. Adding to this unsolicited, self reporting statistic, it was coupled with solicited, self-reporting with 40% declaring high blood pressure,thus exacerbating the problem in that these negative health conditions often go hand in hand. House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell says,

A large number of these people can positively affect their situation through dietary response; however, no one has thus far devised a methodology for consistently providing a good diet.

Diabetes is disordered insulin. Insulin helps glucose (sugar) to get into the body’s cells so they can use it for fuel. If the pancreas doesn’t make any insulin, a person has Type 1 diabetes. Usually, they’re born this way. They need multiple injections per day, and may even wear a high-tech (and very costly) computerized pump that analyzes the blood and automatically delivers the right amount of insulin.

Type 2 diabetes is probably preventable, but a lot of people get it anyway, from less than optimal eating habits or other precipitating causes. Sometimes it can be handled with oral medication, but if it’s serious enough to require insulin, there are no pills, only shots.

It isn’t always easy to keep thing in balance. Either too much blood sugar (hyperglycemia) or not enough of it (hypoglycemia) can put a person into a coma. When insulin is called for, the need is urgent. Diabetes can spawn other expensive and medical problems, including the amputation of a foot or leg.

The grim reality

Managing this disease is difficult enough for a housed, insured person. Imagine being on the street, confined to a wheelchair, with no choice but to eat food you know will make you sicker. An amputee who still has one foot is supposed to take very good care of it, and inspect it carefully every day for signs of trouble. Not so easy to do when you live under a bridge in an artificial cave. Picture being non-ambulatory, in constant need of injections, having to prick your finger and then stick a needle into yourself in filthy conditions.

Picture needing to get back and forth to a pharmacy with tedious frequency. Or to and from a medical facility for dialysis. The plight of a wheelchair-bound person experiencing homelessness is dire. Where and how do you wash your clothes and yourself? Even in cities with some sense of decency, how many handicap-accessible porta-potties have been set up?

Diabetes can also affect the eyes. Imagine being blind, with or without the amputation. To look at this situation is to see a lot of human suffering, and premature death, and unnecessary expense to the taxpayer. Creative innovation could make a big difference.

This has been the introduction to a difficult and complicated topic. Next week, we shine a light on some of the potential pathways toward getting this diabetes thing handled.

Reactions?

Source: “Diabetes Latest,” CDC.gov, 06/17/14
Photo credit: expertinfantry via Visualhunt/CC BY

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The 5th of July

singing-hanging-outOkay, so we’ve celebrated July 4th, now is it time to forget about veterans until the next patriotic holiday? Not on this page. We haven’t concentrated specifically on vets for a while, so there are a couple of little matters to catch up on, like the outrage felt by some when they learned that the big boss at one veterans’ hospital took 80 days off in a year.

DeWayne Hamlin still drew a salary of almost $180,000, “despite being absent from the hospital approximately one in three business days” in 2014. On one vacation trip…

He was arrested by Florida police while sitting in his car at 2:00 a.m…. Police said that he smelled of alcohol, twice refused to take a breath test, and that they found oxycodone for which he did not have a prescription. He reportedly refused to say where he got the painkiller.

Journalist Luke Rosiak went on to explain that high-ranking civil servants generally get away with any amount of questionable activity. Usually the worst that happens is early retirement with full bennies. He gives the example of Glenn Haggstrom, who used to be in charge of all the VA’s construction projects. The Government Accountability Office found all the department’s major building projects to be “behind schedule and hundreds of million dollars over budget.”

But what the heck, the whole point of being a senior executive is the opportunity to rip off the taxpayers who foot the bill, and shortchange the veterans in need of medical care, housing, and other services — the veterans who wait, and wait, and wait.

The very next month, the heat was on Philadelphia, according to a Washington Examiner piece, also by Rosiak, whose headline said it all: “Philly VA office altered wait times, doctored reviews, hid mail, ignored warnings.” According to the article:

More than 31,000 benefits claims were pending an average of 312 days instead of five, which is the standard, because they were “mismanaged” at “various levels.”

[…] Numerous times, management ordered staff to change the dates on old claims to be the current date…

The claims backlog should have been obvious to Washington headquarters earlier because it was many times the size of other offices.

At the same time, with nobody keeping track of deaths, or of duplicate records, millions of dollars were paid out that should never have been authorized. Even when wrongful recipients honestly reported that they were receiving too much money, those communications were ignored. The Inspector General’s office found laxity in the safeguarding of patients’ confidential information, and pointed to inefficiency and disorganization as two of the major problems:

The inspector general found 6,400 pieces of military mail that workers said were unidentifiable, but which the inspector general said could easily be matched to veterans. One employee also hid bins of mail.

Investigators learned a particularly dirty little secret. Someone in the Philadelphia VA office made liars out of the veterans who did receive help. Of the reviews that customers were asked to provide about the quality of service, 60% had been rewritten, and what’s worse, management knew about the practice and did nothing to stop it.

Other parties

Of course, the federal government is not the only entity in a position to hurt veterans. Some people do it as a freelance occupation. This story took place in the San Francisco Bay area, in such towns as Palo Alto and San Carlos. People dressed in military fatigues and camo were collecting money from the public for the National Paradigm Foundation.

When journalist Betty Yu met with its CEO, he said the group had helped maybe 45 vets over a three-year period, by providing food, clothing and referrals to agencies. They also discussed how the foundation’s not-for-profit status had been suspended, which seemed to surprise the National Paradigm leader.

Yu followed up by interviewing Vietnam veteran Michael Blecker, who has headed up Swords to Plowshares for nearly four decades. She quotes him as saying:

They have the American flag, they have the symbols and they take advantage of this sea of goodwill. It hurts a group like Swords doing legitimate work, to make people feel like everybody is ripping them off so they can’t support anybody. So it’s bad for the whole system of care when people exploit that.

That same spring, the Wounded Warriors Project (WWP), which has been around for a while doing such work as providing lifetime home care for some severely wounded vets, was spotlighted by Daily Beast reporter Tim Mak. Sadly, the story was not favorable. WWP had become known as a very litigious organization that spent a lot of time and money on “brutal” lawsuits against other charities. Additionally, rumblings were heard that its spending habits could stand improvement.

Anyone who wants to know more about that situation and how it turned out is urged to read the very detailed accounts in Stars and Stripes and The Washington Post

Not sad enough yet? For the New Yorker, David Finkel interviewed veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, and quoted a soldier who said this:

I told my wife some of my stories about my experiences, and her response to me was “You knew what you were getting into when you signed on the dotted line, and I don’t feel sorry for you.”

Reactions?

Source: “Veterans Affairs hospital chief draws $179k salary despite missing 80 days a year,” WashingtonExaminer.com, 03/30/15
Source: “Philly VA office altered wait times, doctored reviews, hid mail, ignored warnings,” Washingtonexaminer.com, 04/15/15
Source: “Is Money Raised By Bay Area Charity Really Going To Help Homeless Veterans?,” CBSlocal.com, 02/04/15
Source: “The Return,” NewYorker.com, 09/09/13
Photo credit: Elvert Barnes via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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Mental Illness and Homelessness

homeless-person-sleepingRemember State Representative Tom Brower of Hawaii, who got headlines by destroying a bunch of shopping carts? In a followup story, Brower expressed only one regret: that some people had interpreted his berserker sledge-hammer rampage as an “attack on the homeless.” 

Apparently still puzzled about why anyone would think that, a couple of years later he was filming residents of a homeless camp without their permission, and some teenage boys asked him to delete the pictures he had taken, and he refused, and they roughed him up.

A short time later Brower told the press he was not angry, and would continue to stay “in touch with the community” in the same way. Two weeks after that, he decided to press charges against at least one of the youths. Apparently, voters are content with all this, as Brower was reelected again just three months ago.

Speaking of mental instability…

In a Nation of Change opinion piece, Prof. Carol Caton, whose expertise is in the sociomedical sciences, addressed the issue of Americans with severe mental illness. She proposed that the government would be foolish to defund what has proven to be “a cost-effective intervention that provides a solution to homelessness.”

What is this intervention? According to Caton:

Supportive housing, funded and coordinated by several different federal agencies and nonprofits, provides homeless people who have severe mental illness with housing coupled with treatment and support services.

Unlike the temporary respite provided by crisis shelters, it provides access to permanent housing, mental health treatment and support from mental health professionals to guide the adjustment from homelessness to stable residence in the community.

There is no increase in net public cost compared to street and shelter living… Cutting funds to house the homeless would cost us more money than it would save.

Those last two sentences are important. When something needs to be done about a harmful situation, humane reasons are very often insufficient. Several federal agencies provide funding to aid those who are both mentally ill and experiencing homelessness, and the taxpaying public needs to be reassured that the bottom line will not suffer. Fortunately, dedicated people and organizations keep close track of the numbers, and can verify the savings to the public wallet.

Supportive housing means less use of homeless shelters, psychiatric hospitals, or community hospital emergency rooms; less expenditure for legal aid and other costly public services; and certainly less criminal incarceration. The movement took hold in the early 1980s, and the journey has never been easy. Over a nine-year period ending in 2016, it helped reduce the particular category of homelessness known as “chronic” by 35%.

Still, there is a great shortage of supportive housing units, not nearly enough to fill the need, and the threat of losing the existing facilities is appalling. Significant funding comes from the departments of Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services — or did, anyway, up until the next round of budget cuts. Four states pitch in some dollars, and so does the occasional county or city government. There are even charitable donations and a modicum of support from private foundations. Still, the prognosis is not good.

What next?

An estimated one-third of homeless people suffer from mental illness, “often compounded by multiple health problems and substance abuse.” At the mention of substance abuse, a segment of the public has the knee-jerk reaction of “Let them go, it’s no loss.” But moral judgments are not productive. The only difference between a rich alcoholic and a poor alcoholic is that one of them can afford rehab in Malibu.

Leaving aside the question of bad lifestyle choices, there actually are people who are too disabled to work for reasons they had nothing to do with causing. A person with shaken baby syndrome never had a chance. A veteran is very likely to suffer from traumatic brain injury. Do we want soldiers thinking they made a bad lifestyle choice?

Reactions?

Source: “Hawaii politician opens up about assault near homeless encampment: ‘I have no ill will to anyone’,” NYDailyNews.com, 07/03/15
Source: “How funding to house mentally ill, homeless is a financial gain, not drain,” NationOfChange.org, 05/10/17
Photo credit: J.RISTANIEMI via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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