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New York City Workers with Disabilities Fight for Inclusion in Pandemic Recovery, Mayoral Race

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Even before the pandemic, unemployment among disabled workers in New York City was at a crisis level—just 30 to 35 percent were employed. Over the past year, the situation has grown even worse.

Independent living centers, which help disabled residents find socio-economic stability, reported that more than 50 percent of their clients were let go from their jobs, the Center for an Urban Future found in a March 2021 report.

Now, leaders of these centers are preparing a policy platform and calling for greater resources from City Hall hopefuls. As talk of pandemic recovery intensifies and the June 22 primary for citywide and council races fast approaches, leaders see an opportunity to make inroads against growing inequities.

FIRST FIRED, LAST REHIRED

The United States Census estimated there were nearly 900,000 people with disabilities in New York City as of 2019; the Office of the New York State Comptroller put it even higher, closer to 930,000 in 2017.

That’s a population close to twice the size of the borough of Staten Island. It’s a broad group of people, cutting across class, racial, and gender identities, with disabilities such as visual, hearing, ambulatory, cognitive—the list goes on.

“We’re the nurse, the doctor, the police officer, the educator, the person who’s cleaning the sidewalk, the person stocking shelves in stores,” said Christina Curry, executive director of the Harlem Independent Living Center. “You don’t need to be born in this community. It can happen at any moment.”

Independent living centers like Curry’s offer job training, counseling, and educational programs. Organizer Ed Robert led efforts to develop the independent living movement in the 1970s in Berkeley, California, as a means of empowering disabled people to live fulfilling lives on their own terms.

But New Yorkers with disabilities face a longstanding employment crisis. “Poverty is a huge, huge issue,” said Susan Dooha of the Center for the Independence of the Disabled, a nonprofit that serves 40,000 New Yorkers annually.

Data compiled by the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability Statistics showed that about 26 percent of people with disabilities were living below the federal poverty level last year. The poverty level for a family of four in the United States in 2021 is an annual income of $26,500.

“We’re the last hired, first fired, and last rehired if things work the way they are now,” said Susan Scheer, founder of the city’s Access-A-Ride program (launched in 1990, the initiative offers a door-to-door transportation service to disabled New Yorkers) and CEO of the Institute for Career Development.

Often the main barriers to employment are “misinformation, fear, stigma,” Curry said. “Our common goal is to get the disabled community employed, to have access to the community, to remove those barriers.”

TRANSIT A HUGE OBSTACLE

With thousands out of work, transit reform will be crucial to bridging the gap.

Joe Rappaport of the Brooklyn Center for the Independence of the Disabled points to a survey by the New York Independent Living Council. “Transportation is cited as the second-most prominent reason for people to have trouble getting employment,” said Rappaport. “Second to discrimination.”

Less than one-quarter of New York City’s subway stations are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which passed over 30 years ago. And that’s if none of the elevators are out of service.

Many advocates want to see the transit system overhauled to reflect the principle of universal design, in other words, the reconstruction of spaces so that they can be accessed and understood by the largest group of people, regardless of their background and ability. Many of the changes community members would like to see, such as accessible subway stations and taxi cabs, are already mandated by city, state, or federal laws like the ADA.

Rappaport and others are involved in a growing number of accessibility-related lawsuits against local and state government to force these reforms. While he couldn’t comment on any one case in particular, he said he sees a decades-spanning trend.

“Typically, the response of the city when a disparity or shortcoming is pointed out by members of the community or organizations is, the city just says, ‘We’re going to fight this with everything we’ve got.’” Rappaport said. “This isn’t the de Blasio administration, or Bloomberg, or Giuliani, or Koch or Dinkins—it’s every administration.

“It’s inexcusable and it costs money. We’re going to win. The city’s going to lose. But in the meantime, the city’s lack of action puts people at risk.”

EMPTY BOARD SEATS

While it’s true that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and state legislators in Albany have immense power over the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), New York City isn’t powerless when it comes to decisions on the system’s capital projects.

The new mayor, whoever that turns out to be, may have a rosier relationship with the governor’s office than current Mayor Bill de Blasio does. Rappaport suggested a new mayor should redouble efforts to appoint members to the MTA Board; there are two vacancies now, but Cuomo has made no concerted public effort to get de Blasio’s nominees confirmed by the state senate.

These individuals would have veto power over capital projects that don’t, for instance, include financing the construction of additional elevators in the city subway system.

“Other entities—the state senate and assembly for example—over the years, have influenced the direction of the MTA’s capital program by using the threat of veto power to get what they want,” Rappaport said. “It’s not an unheard-of idea.”

In April the MTA proposed “Zoning for Accessibility,” a series of zoning reforms to incentivize private developers with the promise of financial awards to build elevators in the city’s subway stations.

This proposal aligns with the transit system’s five-year plan released in 2019 to pump millions of dollars into accessibility-oriented upgrades at dozens of stations. This week several transit and accessibility advocacy groups rallied together to call on President Biden to include $20 billion for this capital plan in the proposed federal infrastructure bill (also known as the American Jobs Plan).

CITY MUST LEAD BY EXAMPLE

And yet, even if transit options were widely accessible, other barriers to employment abound—chief among them, discrimination by employers.

Brett Eisenberg has been battling it for decades; before his current role as executive director of the Bronx Independent Living Center, he was at the insurance company American International Group working to improve corporate hiring practices.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about hiring people with disabilities,” said Eisenberg. “A new administration should lead by example. If you’re not hiring people with disabilities, how can you expect anyone else to?”

Many advocates point to the federal hiring quota for people with disabilities as a standard that the city should adopt, since it currently does not have one. Under the Obama administration, the federal government required that people with disabilities comprise 7 percent of its workforce; it soon surpassed that figure, hitting 14 percent in 2016.

SHUT OUT OF ELECTIONS

In an open letter to candidates for municipal office this spring, a coalition of independent living center directors and advocates demanded that campaigns become more accessible to disabled voters.

“Federal and local laws require reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, including allowing full access to events, forums, and meetings,” they wrote. “But those laws often are ignored, and we end up shut out of the electoral process.”

The letter hasn’t gotten much response. “To be honest, we received a little inquiry, but not what we would want,” co-signer Eisenberg said. “In general when we talk about people with disabilities, the biggest problems we have are attitudinal.”

With primary day drawing near, a mix of co-signers of the April letter and others are working to release a formal platform to present to candidates on behalf of the disability community.

“It’s late in the game, but we think it will be useful for the next administration,” Rappaport said, “not just the next mayor but the next city council and other officials.”

‘NOT EVEN ON THE RADAR’

Only a few candidates had reached out to center leaders by the time of writing this article. Many advocates are concerned that services for the disabled are still largely left out of the political discourse.

“I have to be very careful, because politicians have very long memories,” Curry said. “We’re not even thought about to be forgotten when politicians and candidates start talking about what they want to do to help New Yorkers. We’re not even on the radar.

“We’re constantly re-educating them: we’re here. You want us to go vote? Well, it would be nice if you would help us in that fight to make sure the polling place is accessible.”

For Scheer, it comes down to political will. “Disability is a product of the environment, and the environment can be adapted,” she said. “I use a wheelchair, so stairs make me disabled when a ramp makes me abled.

“I don’t want to be having this conversation again with somebody in 20 years. This is our moment and we can really change the tide.”

This blog originally appeared at LaborNotes on June 10, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Emmet Teran is content manager of Unit, a digital platform launched to help U.S. workers form unions. He’s also a New Yorker with low vision and an Urban Policy & Leadership Master’s student at Hunter College.


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Thousands of federal workers say they’ve gotten COVID-19 on the job

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Even when people survive COVID-19, their health can be seriously damaged, and their lives changed. We don’t know yet how many people will suffer long-lasting effects, but we can find one sign of how widespread the physical devastation is in federal workers’ claims for disability compensation after they contracted the virus on the job.

About 4,000 federal workers have filed for disability compensation, The Washington Post reports, while 60 families are seeking survivors’ benefits. The number is expected to grow to 6,000 by August 4.

The Federal Employees’ Compensation Act program administered by the Labor Department announced in March that, for workers at high risk of being infected on the job, such as first responders, public health and medical workers, or law enforcement, it would “accept that the exposure to COVID-19 was proximately caused by the nature of the employment and will only require medical evidence that establishes a diagnosis of COVID-19, such as a positive COVID-19 test result.” Other workers have to show that they contracted the virus on the job.

”Employees of three departments with high concentrations of jobs deemed to carry the highest risk of exposure—Homeland Security, Justice and Veterans Affairs—accounted for most of the 4,011 claims filed through July 23,” the Post reports. “Of those, 1,623 had been granted, fewer than seven denied, 25 withdrawn and the rest were waiting to be adjudicated—including all of the death claims.”

But even setting aside the claims by survivors of federal workers who died, there are around 4,000 claims by people who say they contracted the virus in the course of working for the government. And they’re a drop in the bucket of federal workers who’ve gotten sick or died: more than 5,000 infections among civilian Defense Department employees and 32 deaths; more than 3,000 total cases among Veterans Affairs employees and 40 deaths; and more.

Some federal agencies have been recalling workers to the office in July, a move that exposes more to risk especially as coronavirus cases spike in many states.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on July 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Trump administration backs off from slashing Job Corps centers after bipartisan outcry from Congress

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The Trump administration’s move to slash federal jobs and job training for rural youth hasn’t gone according to plan. In fact, it’s not going to go at all after bipartisan outcry. The plan to shut down nine Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers, with 16 more to be privatized or shifted to state control, was scrapped Wednesday.

More than 1,100 federal workers at centers that train disadvantaged youth and young adults were slated to be laid off under the plan, which would have hit some rural communities hard. Those rural communities are often represented by Republicans, who objected vociferously to the layoffs and closures. That’s why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposed the plan, which would have closed two centers in Kentucky, and why a letter from 51 members of the House and Senate was resoundingly bipartisan. (It more or less goes without saying that if the closures had targeted heavily Democratic areas, Republican lawmakers would have been all for it.)

“[In] 2017 1,200 students at CCCs participated in fire assessments, providing the equivalent of 450,000 hours of service during the height of the fire season,” the 51 lawmakers wrote. “Students at CCCs also provided 5,000 hours of support in response to Hurricane Harvey.”

And what do you know? The Trump administration decided it was easier to back down than to anger all those rural Republicans—the elected ones writing letters and, presumably, the average people who were going to lose out because of the closures. Funny how that works.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on June 20, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

 


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The Trump Administration’s War on Federal Workers

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Claiming 700,000 members in the United States and overseas, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) stands as the nation’s largest federal and D.C. government employee labor union. The union represents employees who provide care and support for veterans, the elderly and disabled, and people in need of housing through the Social Security Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, along with other federal agencies.

A statement on the AFGE website describes these employees as the “vital threads of the fabric of American life.” Now, the AFGE contends, its members are under attack, thanks to recent actions by the Trump administration.

The AFGE is currently in contract negotiations with the Department of Veterans Affairs on behalf of 260,000 employees who work for the agency. In the process of these negotiations, AFGE District Office Manager Matt Muchowski says that VA management is attempting to undo labor rights that have been won by the union since its founding in 1932.

To better understand the nature of these affronts, Muchowski argues, it is important to look at three executive orders signed by President Trump on May 25, 2018. While the orders have since ostensibly been ruled in violation of labor law by a U.S. District Court in August 2018, Muchowski says that sections of the orders which limit time spent during the work day on union activities (known as “official time”) as well as due process are being pushed into the contract by VA negotiators.

This approach is “making it difficult for federal workers to do what they do,” by seeking to alter key elements of the contracts negotiated between AFGE members—including Veterans Affairs workers—and management, he says. Further, Muchowski notes, this strategy has already been employed during negotiations over the Social Security Administration contract earlier this year, which resulted in major concessions for workers. He says the Trump administration’s approach to the AFGE negotiations “represents an escalation of its anti-union tactics.”

The key elements of the 2018 executive orders fall under three categories: employees’ job protection and due process rights, official time and collective bargaining procedures.

The first order outlines limits on the use of “progressive discipline” approaches for workers in federal agencies and instead calls for the allowance of more immediate dismissals, among other more stringently dictated relations between management and workers.

The second order calls for more regulated and restricted use of “official time”: time employees are allowed to spend on union duties while still on the clock. This is a concept that has been part of AFGE’s labor contracts since the Carter administration, Muchowski notes, when the presence of unions in the workplace was seen as “part of effective governance.”

Under this model, an employee can conduct union business while using government-provided items such as office space, computers or phones. Trump’s executive order, however, calls for employees’ official time to be greatly reduced and also mandates that they should no longer be given free or reduced rate access to an office or a computer.

While the Trump administration holds that this revision is necessary to make the government “effective and efficient,” Veterans Affairs employee Germaine Clano disagrees. Clarno is a social worker at the Edward Hines, Jr., VA Hospital in suburban Chicago, and she says the loss of official time would be devastating.

Clarno provides full-time union representation to doctors, social workers and other professional employees of the VA through the official time provision, whether they are dues-paying union members or not. It’s work she describes as essential. “The culture of the VA is still very retaliatory,” Clarno says, noting that she acts as a resource for employees who would like to bring allegations of “waste, fraud or abuse” to light.

“Taking away official time means taking away employees’ security around being able to report what’s going on at the VA,” Clarno insists, “so that we can make things better for our veterans.”

The third order issued by Trump in 2018 is designed to “assist executive departments and agencies in developing efficient, effective, and cost-reducing collective bargaining agreements.” The order claims that collective bargaining agreements limit managers’ ability to either hold “low-performers accountable” or reward “high performers,” and that they are often drawn out, at the expense of taxpayer money.

The order calls for an expedited contract negotiation period, with lingering disputes to be settled by the politically-appointed members of the Federal Service Impasses Panel (FSIP). In the post-Janus era—which has brought new challenges to public sector unions—it’s notable that panel member David Osborne’s bio states that he has built a career around “offering free legal services to those hurt by public employee union officials.”

While both the FSIP and attempts to govern through executive orders are not new, they are part of an increasingly fraught era for federal workers and the Trump administration’s federal management team.

Just days before Trump issued his three executive orders, news reports noted the rising tension between workers and federal managers, who had just unveiled “an ambitious and aggressive plan to modernize the civil service,” according to Nicole Ogrysko of the Federal News Network. This plan, union leaders alleged, was intended to cut department budgets while turning more federal employees into poorly compensated temp workers.

Trump’s executive orders were contested in court by the AFGE and other labor unions, and in August 2018, U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson ruled in favor of the unions. At the time, a review of the case appeared in the online news outlet, Government Executive, where reporter Erich Wagner stated that Brown Jackson found the executive orders to be in violation of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.

This Act upholds the value of good-faith labor-management negotiations and concludes that they are done “in the public interest.” Nonetheless, Muchowski says, the Trump administration has persisted in seeking to negotiate labor contracts with federal employees according to the 2018 executive orders. As evidence, he cites the recently settled contract between the Social Security Administration and the 45,000 AFGE members who work there.

During the contract negotiation process, SSA management and union negotiators could not agree on twelve clauses, according to a reportfiled by Tom Temin of the Federal News Network. As a result, the contract was turned over to the FSIP, which has the power to either “recommend a way to agree,” or “order specific, binding actions” that both parties must abide by, Temin states.

While some government panels are bipartisan, the FSIP is not: All seven members were appointed by Trump. Temin notes that, of the twelve disputed clauses, the FSIP sided with management on ten of them. Although AFGE members were able to keep certain grievance rights, they did lose ground on some central matters, including the implementation of a seven-year contract (the union wanted a two-year term) and the loss of both office space and hours set aside for official time.

David Cann, director of field services and education for the AFGE, says he believes the FSIP’s actions are a violation of Judge Brown Jackson’s ruling against certain aspects of Trump’s executive orders. Brown Jackson’s decision, Cann notes, found that parts of the executive orders violated collective bargaining rights outlined in the Civil Service Act of 1978, and that neither the president nor his subordinates could continue negotiations under such terms.

Because the FSIP is an entirely politically appointed body, Cann argues that its members are, in effect, Trump’s subordinates and therefore should not be allowed to settle disputes, using what he believes are the administration’s executive orders as a guide.

In a statement posted to its website, the AFGE minced no words about the dangerous precedent such a decision could set: “A panel of Trump’s union-busting appointees has imposed anti-worker provisions in a new labor-management contract for the people who ensure elderly Americans and those with disabilities can live with dignity and financial security.”

Clarno has been closely tracking the contract settlement between AFGE and the Social Security Administration and says that, for her, the “fear is that the Federal Service Impasse Panel will push the same thing” for VA workers in contract negotiations. “Federal employees can’t strike,” she states. “Really, what leverage do we have? We have none. It’s very, very concerning.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on June 14, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and former English Instructor. She is a 2015 Progressive magazine Education Fellow and blogs about education at brightlightsmallcity.com.


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What If My Security Clearance Is Altered Revoked?

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Many federal jobs (civilian and military) require a specific level of security clearance. If your security clearance is revoked, or if the minimum clearance level changes, you stand to lose your current position and possibly your government career.

You do have remedies to appeal a change in security clearance status. You also have rights if you suspect your clearance was revoked or changed due to retaliation or discrimination. It is important to seek legal guidance immediately if your security clearance is in jeopardy.

What are the main reasons for revocation of security clearance?

Security clearance can be rescinded if your actions, associations or circumstances call into question your integrity or allegiance to the United States. The Adjudication Guidelines list 13 grounds for revocation, ranging from foreign influence to security violations.

Your security clearance can also be revoked for off-duty personal conduct that could compromise your judgment or loyalty. For example, a drug addiction or financial hardships could convince you to sell out your country. A sex scandal could make you vulnerable to blackmailers. And so on.

Why would my security level change?

The most common scenario is a job change or promotion associated with sensitive or classified information. But your security clearance can change even if you do not switch jobs. Your position could be reclassified at a higher clearance; for example, outside contracts or internal developments that justify higher scrutiny. In that event, you should be a given a grace period to apply for the higher clearance level.

If your clearance is revoked abruptly for vague reasons or if you are singled out for a change in security level, there may ulterior motives. It could be cover for discrimination, such as actions based on race, religion, national origin, disability or pregnancy. It could be retaliation by management for something you did, such as whistleblowing on fraud, making a sexual harassment complaint or filing a work injury claim.

Are you really a national security threat?

Your agency may provide a Notice of Intent to Revoke. This gives you an opportunity to dispute the revocation through administrative channels. If your revocation, suspension or change in security level is upheld, you may be able to appeal a security clearance decision to the Merit Systems Protection Board.

However, the MSPB does not have the authority to second-guess national security threats. The board can’t address the supposed reason for revocation; it can only gauge whether you were denied due process.

  • Was the security clearance decision arbitrary? Did it apply to others at your grade or in your department, or only to you?
  • Did the agency follow protocols in rescinding or changing your clearance? Can they state a specific reason?
  • Is there evidence of discrimination or reprisal?

The MSPB can reinstate your security clearance if it determines you were mistreated or that the clearance is a ruse. There is a short window to appeal an adverse action such as revocation of security clearance. Seek a lawyer who is familiar with federal employment law and the Merit System Protection Board.

This blog was originally published by Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law on March 21, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Founded in 1990 by Edward H. Passman and Joseph V. Kaplan, Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law, is focused on protecting the rights of federal employees and promoting workplace fairness.  The attorneys of Passman & Kaplan (Edward H. Passman, Joseph V. Kaplan, Adria S. Zeldin, Andrew J. Perlmutter, Johnathan P. Lloyd and Erik D. Snyder) represent federal employees before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and other federal administrative agencies, and also represent employees in U.S. District and Appeals Courts.


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With Shutdown Over, OPM provides Guidance on Back Pay for Federal Employees

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In late January, federal employees across the country returned to work for the first time in over a month.  In an effort to provide retroactive pay as quickly as possible, The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has issued guidance to federal agencies impacted by the shutdown to explain how their employees should receive back pay and other benefits.

Back Pay

Employees who were furloughed will receive back pay at their standard rate of pay for the time that they would have been in a regular pay status if the shutdown had never occurred. This includes overtime pay, night pay or other premium pay (e.g. LEAP, holiday pay, etc.) that the employee would have received.

However, if an employee was scheduled to be in a non-pay status during the shutdown, including Leave Without Pay (LWOP) or serving a suspension, then the employee is not eligible for backpay during that period, including holidays.

For excepted employees who were required to work without pay during the shutdown, they will receive their regular pay for the hours they actually worked, including any overtime or other premium pay. Conversely, if the employee did not show up for work and did not request leave, they will be marked absent without leave (AWOL) and will not receive back pay.

For any employees who received unemployment payments during the shutdown, the state involved will receive notice of the back-pay amount and then make a determination as to what repayment is required.

Leave

Furloughed employees cannot be charged paid leave or other paid time off during the shutdown, even if they had prescheduled paid leave. On the other hand, excepted employees may be charged leave – and compensated for it through back pay – for periods during the furlough where they used paid leave in lieu of reporting to work.

Many employees were planning to take “use or lose” annual leave but were furloughed before they could do so. According to OPM, agencies must restore any annual leave that was scheduled in writing prior to November 24, 2018. Note that restoration of leave will not apply to scheduled leave for December 24, which was declared a federal holiday in 2018, unless the employee can show they would have rescheduled the leave for another day. Restoration also does not apply to leave that had previously been restored. In those instances, the leave is lost for good.

Similarly, employees who were unable to use compensatory time off in lieu of overtime pay due to the shutdown will be paid for such time. Compensatory time off for travel that was forfeited can be restored and extended for another 26 pay periods.

In regard to accruing leave during the shutdown, all employees receiving back pay are considered in a pay status for that period and will also accrue leave at normal rates.

FMLA

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks but employees are permitted to substitute paid leave during this time to continue receiving pay.  For employees that were on FMLA during the shutdown, back pay will be dependent on whether the employee was scheduled to substitute paid leave. If the employee had planned to use paid leave during their FMLA leave period, these employees will not only receive back pay but they will also not be charged any leave. However, employees scheduled to be in a non-pay status (i.e. FMLA LWOP), will not receive back pay. For all employees using FMLA leave, the shutdown period will still count toward their 12 weeks of protected leave.

Benefits & Retirement

Employees are also entitled to retroactive benefits. Deductions will be taken out of the back-pay checks to cover employee contributions to health and retirement plans. Loan payments to Thrift Savings Plans (TSP) will also be made.

For those employees who requested to retire during the shutdown, the retirement will be made effective retroactively to the date requested and no back pay will be received after that date.

It isn’t yet clear when agencies will begin making these retroactive payments. If you believe the agency has incorrectly calculated your back pay or you have been improperly denied any benefits as a result of the shutdown, you should contact an experienced federal employment attorney to determine what options you have to protect your rights.

About the Author: Alan Lescht has been successfully litigating employment discrimination, civil rights, and commercial litigation cases for more than 30 years and has won dozens of notable trials. He is the founding partner of Alan Lescht and Associates, PC, where he oversees the firm’s employment litigation and counseling practices.


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The longest shutdown in U.S. history will have lingering consequences for federal workers

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Though President Donald Trump and Congress finally brokered a deal to end the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history, members of the federal workforce are still left dealing with the financial pain it caused.

The partial shutdown stretched on for 35 days, depriving government employees of two paychecks. Although President Donald Trump said on Friday that federal workers will receive back pay “as soon as possible,” about 800,000 workers — many of whom have had to take out loans and find part-time work — will have to wait late into next week to receive their pay. Contract workers aren’t eligible for back pay at all.

Randy Erwin, the president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said in a statement that the record-breaking shutdown “caused irreparable harm to working families across the country,” calling it a “shameful chapter in American history.”

“Federal workers and others have resorted to selling their possessions, and many have defaulted on loans and mortgages in order to afford heat, medicine, and food,” Erwin said.

The 35-day partial government shutdown exposed the reality that many Americans are living in financially precarious situations.

Seventy-eight percent of full-time workers say they live paycheck-to-paycheck, according to a 2017 CareerBuilder report. And 40 percent of adults say they would struggle to take on an unexpected $400 expense, reporting they would be forced to sell their belongings, borrow money, or forgo paying the bill at all, a 2017 Federal Reserve report found.

The people who make up the federal workforce often face specific financial constraints.

Federal worker salaries on average fall behind the salaries of their private sector counterparts by 31.86 percent, according to a 2018 Federal Salary Council report. In an executive order issued in December, Trump said pay rates for federal civilian employees would remain stagnant in 2019, claiming that approving a pay raise for federal workers would be “inappropriate” given the financial challenges facing the government.

The federal contractors who won’t receive back pay to compensate them for their missed hours of work are particularly vulnerable. Some estimates find that 40 percent of the entire government workforce is made up of contract workers, totaling 3.7 million people.

“I think [contractors] get lost by the wayside in the concentration on the 800,000 people who are direct employees of the federal government,” said Ken, a contractor for the Federal Aviation Administration who is based in New Jersey, during a Wednesday protest against the shutdown at the Hart Senate Building. 

Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) — along with Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) — introduced legislation earlier this month that would require federal agencies to work with contractors’ companies to secure back pay for those workers.

While the government was partially shuttered, unpaid workers still needed to figure out what to do about their bills. This month, unpaid federal workers owed about $438 million in mortgage and rent payments — which breaks down to $189 million in rent payments and $249 in mortgage payments — according to a report from the real-estate firm Zillow.

Federal workers told ThinkProgress that the shutdown forced them to take out loans, file for unemployment, take on part-time work, and even consider leaving town. Some of the choices they made over the past month may have lasting financial repercussions.

Patricia Floyd-Hicks, a furloughed worker for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) who attended Wednesday’s protest at the Hart Senate Building, told ThinkProgress that she had to dip into her savings as she prepares to retire.

Federal workers also worry that the shutdown could damage their credit scores, since workers only need to miss one credit card payment to have points taken off their credit score. Credit-scoring experts told CBSNews that it isn’t easy for a company like FICO to adjust its model in response to an event like the shutdown.

Although the government has reopened for at least the next three weeks, it’s unclear what will happen once lawmakers reach the February 15 deadline for the short-term spending bills that passed Friday. The uncertainty and financial instability is too much for some employees.

Several federal workers told ThinkProgress they are seriously considering whether they should leave the federal government altogether. According to research from the employment-related search engine Indeed, they fit into a bigger trend, as furloughed workers have been searching for jobs at an increased rate during the shutdown.

Indeed’s director of economic research, Martha Gimbel, compared job searches on the Indeed platform among employees in agencies across the government. She found that TSA workers’ job searches were up about 30 percent compared to the same time last year, while IRS workers’ job searches rose about 50 percent. Department of Health and Human Services workers’ searches were up 80 percent over this period last January.

The government watchdog group National Taxpayer Advocate estimates it will take about a year for the IRS’ operations to return to normal, according to the Washington Post — and one of the reasons for the delay, the group says, is that many of the agency’s workers have already decided to leave for the private sector.

Financial struggles can affect people’s mental health in serious ways, as research has shown. University of Southampton researchers published a 2013 report finding a significant relationship between debt and mental disorder, including depression. Findings from a 2016 study on U.S. households “suggest that short-term debt may have an adverse influence on psychological wellbeing.”

Many federal workers have now experienced this strain firsthand. When President Donald Trump threatened to keep the government partially shut down for months or even years, Jordan — who works for the U.S. Department for Housing and Urban Development, and who asked to withhold their full name and gender out of fear of retaliation for speaking to the press — said the “real shock” of hearing this remark “led me to some crazy thoughts.”

“There is a bit of fear that raged through my body,” Jordan said.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on January 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.


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Shutdown forces federal workers to consider career changes just to make ends meet

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Federal workers and contractors are growing increasingly weary with the partial government shutdown as they begin to feel the financial squeeze, leading many to reconsider government work.

Last Friday, many federal workers missed their first paychecks since the shutdown began on December 22 over demands from President Donald Trump that Congress fund a $5 billion wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. On Saturday, the shutdown became the longest in U.S. history, currently stretching into its fourth week, at 26 days.

ThinkProgress spoke with federal workers and contractors who are making tough choices about whether or not to look for other jobs, or stay in the federal government even if they are able to get back to work soon. The employees quoted in this story asked not to be identified by their actual names out of fear of retaliation.

“It has just been a nightmare”

Drew, a federal worker within the Department of Agriculture, said the shutdown is particularly difficult for them as they’re in their 20s and in the beginning of their career. When asked what they’re doing to stay afloat financially, Drew said they’re not going anywhere or doing anything that requires spending money. They have cancelled any unnecessary regular spending.

“I covered bills for this month but it’s a question of next month of whether I will be able to make it because I do unfortunately live paycheck-to-paycheck and my savings are rather limited,” Drew said. “It’s been terrible for my economic situation. It’s been terrible for my personal life. It has just been a nightmare.” 

A 2017 CareerBuilder report that polled 2,000 managers and more than 3,000 full-time employees found that 78 percent of full-time workers said they lived paycheck to paycheck. Drew added that it’s particularly tough that they can’t help cover expenses for their group house, which affects everyone else they live with.

Anne, a contractor who works with the Bureau of Lands Management, has started filing for unemployment. Contractors did not receive backpay during the 2013 shutdown and it isn’t expected that they will receive backpay after this one, unlike federal workers. Even the process of filing for unemployment reminded her that she isn’t considered as affected by the shutdown as federal workers. One of the questions she had to answer was whether she was a federal employee affected by the shutdown, but since she’s a contractor she was told to answer that she had been laid off due to lack of work.

“We have to be careful and not spend money, or make trips, or eat out, or go to movies as much, but I have some coworkers who are a lot more worried. They have kids, and in some cases supporting their entire family,” she said. “We have some savings, enough to cover me for probably a month, but if not, I’ll join up with some of my other coworkers and start looking for another job, which sucks but I am not there yet.”

Drew and Lee, a federal worker at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said that they believe the shutdown may result in a wave of federal workers leaving their government jobs.

“I think most workers on the federal level think if we stick around long enough [President Trump] will be out of office and this whole thing will blow over and I am seriously reconsidering that approach,” Drew said. “I think everyone I know has been trying to stay there to be a force of good or consistency in whatever agency they’re working for and a month-long period to reconsider what you’re doing with your life and your place in the federal government is more than enough to make some people feel like they want to seriously change their mind.”

Drew said they think a lot of people who have worked for the government for a decade or longer will either leave through early retirement or by changing jobs. They added that a lot of people have already started looking for new jobs, which means the government could lose considerable talent and consistency in agencies.

Lee said the administration has been “hostile” to government workers since it began.

“There’s already a Baby Boomer brain drain and retirements in federal government due to Clinton and Bush administration hiring freezes,” Lee said. “This will just expedite that.”

Workers blame Trump and Republicans

Most of the federal workers and contractors who spoke with ThinkProgress said they put at least some of the blame on Trump, as well as Republican members of Congress. A majority of Americans share their views. According to a CNN poll conducted by SSRS, a market and survey research firm, 55 percent of people surveyed said Trump is more to blame for the shutdown than Congressional Democrats. President Trump’s approval rating has also dipped five points since last month.

“I’d put the blame 90 percent on Trump because his leadership is not good,” Anne said. “He’s not playing the game well. He’s drawing a line in the sand and he is not willing to cross it. He’s not even negotiating at this point. That’s what politics is about it’s about negotiation and he’s not doing that. He’s failing.”

Lee, a federal worker at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is worried that the media coverage has been centered only on House Democrats and the president.

“There’s an entire other legislative body. People should be pressuring [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)] to at least let the Senate vote up or down,” he said.

Drew said the blame should be shared by President Trump and Republicans in Congress. 

“This could have been avoided by the Congress that was leaving and they could have negotiated something earlier on when they had a full Republican house and Senate. Something could have gone through,” they said. “I assign blame for wall funding and wall funding was a tactic used by Trump to explain a very complicated issue. It has blown itself up into this one issue he has overwhelming support on and he is trying to stay behind it and it’s just not working.”

Most of the workers and contractors who spoke to ThinkProgress said they felt their communities were aware of how the shutdown affected workers, but when Anne visited family in New York for the holidays, she said they didn’t seem aware that she wouldn’t get paid.

“They were like, ‘oh yeah you’re going to get paid right?’ So I had to explain that a lot. Like, ‘no I’m not getting backpay,’” she said.

Her grandfather, who is conservative, appeared to feel differently about the shutdown once he knew how it would affect her, she said.

“He was like, ‘Oh who cares, shut it down.’ But when I explained to him how I was affected, he got kind of quiet and didn’t say anything. By the time we had to say goodbye, he said, ‘I hope you get back to work soon.’ So I think the awareness is not great, but it’s definitely growing.”

Lee said a conservative family member “changed his mind about the Republican Party” after the 2013 shutdown.

Workers say they are also exasperated that they are unable to continue projects that would benefit Americans, particularly marginalized groups. Anne noted that the Bureau of Land Management has recreational land that they are unable to keep safe and clean. Migration corridors, which maintain wildlife populations, for instance, are going to be delayed. Drew said that the USDA is unable to follow up with organizations on grant work, while Lee expressed concern about how people served by HUD will be affected by the shutdown.

“I have fielded a call from resident in HUD’s housing choice voucher program that needed a reasonable accommodation due to her disability,” Lee said. “Her housing authority wasn’t accepting her medical documentation and I needed colleagues in the field to help her file her fair housing complaint and potentially reach out to the housing authority to resolve the issue informally.”

He added, “She’s probably homeless right now.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on January 16, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.


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Transgender guidance disappears from Office of Personnel Management website

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Under President Obama, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which oversees all federal employees, issued detailed guidance protecting transgender people in the workforce. As of Friday, that guidance has disappeared and been replaced by generic language with no content specific to transgender people.

The previous “Gender Identity Guidance” page, which was still live as of earlier this week, laid out definitions for terms related to transgender identities, and outlined specific expectations for respecting transgender employees. These included ensuring that trans workers could dress according to their gender identity, that they were called by their preferred names and pronouns, and that they were allowed to use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.

“Transitioning employees should not be required to have undergone or to provide proof of any particular medical procedure (including gender reassignment surgery) in order to have access to facilities designated for use by a particular gender,” the guidance stated. “Under no circumstances may an agency require an employee to use facilities that are unsanitary, potentially unsafe for the employee, located at an unreasonable distance from the employee’s work station, or that are inconsistent with the employee’s gender identity.”

On the new site, that language and any reference to transgender people is now gone, although the page does still state that discrimination on the basis of gender identity is prohibited — consistent with an executive order President Obama issued that is still in effect.

Gone, however, are the detailed definitions for the terms “gender identity,” “transgender,” “gender non-conforming,” and “transition.” Specific references to confidentiality related to transitioning have been replaced with generic language about medical privacy. The page’s dress code language no longer provides reassurances that employees will be allowed to dress consistent with their gender identity.

Before:

After:

Two vital sections have been erased without a trace: both the section on respecting employees’ names and pronouns and the section addressing access to “sanitary and related facilities.” There is no longer any guidance whatsoever to ensure that trans people are respected according to their gender identity in the federal government. Should a manager have questions about how to respond when an employee comes out as transgender, they will find no answers on OPM’s page.

The changes to the page came without any announcement or notice.

From the beginning of the Trump administration, federal agencies have increasingly erased content related to LGBTQ people or gender more broadly. The day after President Trump’s inauguration, the White House website discarded its page dedicated to LGBTQ rights and the Labor Department also removed a report on LGBTQ workers’ rights.

A few months later, questions that would help identify LGBTQ people in data collection were erased from two important national surveys. This past July, the Department of Health and Human Services removed language on sex discrimination from its website, and in October, it scrapped “gender” from its civil rights page. Recent reports have even suggested that the administration is trying to remove references to “gender” in United Nations documents.

While these unannounced website changes have been somewhat inconspicuous, the administration’s opposition to trans rights has been anything but subtle. A memo leaked in October laid out the administration’s plans to completely erase trans people from any recognition under any agency of the federal government. People would be defined solely by the sex they were assigned at birth, subject to genetic testing.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on November 23, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Zack Ford is the LGBTQ Editor at ThinkProgress.org, where he has covered issues related to marriage equality, transgender rights, education, and “religious freedom,” in additional to daily political news. In 2014, The Advocate named Zack one of its “40 under 40” in LGBT media, describing him as “one of the most influential journalists online.”


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Federal Judge Rules Trump’s Anti-Worker Executive Orders Unconstitutional

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When Donald Trump issued a series of executive orders attacking the rights of federal government workers, he wasn’t prepared for the response from working people. Our response, led by AFGE, included filing lawsuits to stop the orders and rallying across the country in support of federal workers. Now a federal judge has agreed with working people that these executive orders are illegal.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson ruled that key provisions of the three executive orders are either unconstitutional under the First Amendment, violate congressional intent or exceed the president’s authority.

AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. lauded the ruling:

President Trump’s illegal action was a direct assault on the legal rights and protections that Congress specifically guaranteed to the public-sector employees across this country who keep our federal government running every single day.

We are heartened by the judge’s ruling and by the huge outpouring of support shown to federal workers by lawmakers from both parties, fellow union workers and compassionate citizens across the country. Our members go to work every single day to serve the American people, and they deserve all the rights and protections afforded to them by our Founding Fathers.

Now that the judge has issued her decision, I urge all agencies that have attempted to enforce this illegal executive order to restore all previously negotiated contracts and to bargain in good faith with employee representatives on any future changes as required under the law.

Regardless of what attacks on working people corporate interests and their allies dream up next, the labor movement will continue to stand up against any attempts to weaken our rights.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on August 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 


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