Workplace Fairness

Menu

Skip to main content

  • print
  • decrease text sizeincrease text size
    text

One City’s Pioneering Project to Push Police Funding Into Housing the Homeless

Share this post

Homelessness in the U.S., which was already on the rise prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, increased in 2020, exacerbated by the economic realities of the pandemic. Austin, Texas, is no exception, with an estimated 11 percent increase in homeless people counted in the city and Travis County between 2019 and 2020, according to the point-in-time (PIT) count reported in the Austin American-Statesman. Of Austin’s population of roughly 1 million, an estimated 2,500 people experience homelessness on any given night, according to the 2020 PIT count. Austin City Council member Gregorio Casar says this is a number “a community of [more than] a million folks should be able to care [for].”

In an effort to do so, the city of Austin has been purchasing underutilized hotels and transforming them into housing and services for people experiencing homelessness. In a February 4 meeting, the Austin City Council approved the purchase of a fourth hotel—which will provide 150 new homes to the homeless population in the city. Casar says the city plans to move forward on purchasing a fifth and a sixth hotel in the future.

“We have found sufficient resources in the city budget to acquire more hotels because we really believe that it’s a strategy for significantly reducing homelessness in the city,” he says.

In addition to providing long-term and transitional housing to people experiencing homelessness, the hotels purchased by the city will also provide supportive services, including mental health services, trauma services and job services.

“We are working with trusted community groups and nonprofit organizations to provide services at the hotels because we know that there are lots of folks who have experienced real trauma while living on the street and who need support so that their homelessness can permanently end,” Casar says. “And then there are lots of other folks who just need a connection to a job and a stable address for a while so that they can get back on their feet.”

According to Tara Pohlmeyer, communications director for Council Member Casar, Integral Care and Caritas of Austin have submitted letters of interest in operating the hotels and providing services, and the Homeless Services Division (HSD) anticipates negotiating a contract with a service provider/operator for each hotel in April.

He says while shelters provide an important service, oftentimes, they’re just temporarily addressing the issue. The plan for the converted hotels is for them to serve as a more permanent housing solution, to address the real needs of each person they house.

“That’s the way that we can reduce the amount of homelessness in the city, instead of just sort of hiding it, or moving [the homeless population] around while the numbers grow,” Casar says.

To pay for these supportive services, the city will reallocate dollars originally assigned to the police budget, as part of its project to reimagine safety, in response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and public demand. Funding for operations and services of the hotels will come from Austin Public Health, using a portion of the additional $6.5 million added to the Fiscal Year 2021 budget to address homelessness during the city council’s efforts to reimagine public safety.

“We have never had so many people engage in local government before [the BLM movement],” he says. “There were tens of thousands of people that contacted my office alone. In the weeks of protest over the summer [in 2020], we had hundreds of people testifying at city council meetings, for hours, about the changes that they were calling on us to make. I think that was really important. It shifted all of our perspectives. The community here in Austin is calling on us to be real leaders for our community and for people across the state and across the country. Austin, I think, actually responded to the call to transform police budgets in a way that very few cities across the country did.”

Casar says while cities often have the dollars to make the capital investment in property to house the homeless, the long-term funding for operating those buildings and providing supportive services tends to be the challenge. He says prior to last summer’s BLM movement, which pressured cities across the nation to reallocate police funds into supportive services, one of Austin’s greatest challenges regarding homelessness was related to finding that long-term funding.

“The dollars from the police budget are going to provide the services and operate the hotels,” he says. “No matter how many changes I and some others have tried to make to the budget in years past, we’ve, oftentimes, struggled to make really transformative change because so many dollars get wrapped up in the police budget. This last year, there was finally an opportunity for us to rethink that budget and recognize that we were spending so many dollars on jailing folks experiencing homelessness and policing people experiencing homelessness—but that actually doesn’t reduce homelessness.”

Between the four hotels the city has purchased, there are about 300 rooms, some of which might be able to house a couple of people, and many of them just a single person. The plan is for the city to continue to purchase additional hotels and expand the programs offered, Casar says.

“We have to pull hundreds of people off the streets this year,” Casar says. “I think that would make a really significant difference.”

The extreme winter weather experienced in Texas through February and March makes the need to provide safe shelter and supportive services for people living on the streets all the more urgent.

“In a city as prosperous as Austin, no one should have to live on the streets, period. That became even more clear as we saw folks still sleeping out under bridges when we knew that zero-degree temperatures were coming—and sometimes there were hotels or lit-up buildings right across the streets where they could have safely stayed,” Casar says. “It’s clearly already so dangerous to live outdoors and without a home, and these extreme weather events make it even more clear why we can and should reorganize our resources and our priorities to make sure that everybody has a place to lay their head at night that is safe.”

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

About the Author: April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.


Share this post

America Needs Infrastructure To Build Back Better

Share this post

Patricia McDonald layered on sweaters, socks and mittens and huddled under blankets for 15 hours as the temperature in her Duncanville, Texas, home plunged to 42 degrees last week.

Well after the water in her kitchen froze, McDonald decided she’d had enough and braved a hair-raising ride over snow-covered, ice-slicked roads to get to her daughter’s house several miles away.

The Dallas County probation officer was safe and warm there. However, McDonald couldn’t establish the computer connection she needed to check in with colleagues, and she worried about clients who had had fewer resources than she did for surviving the state’s massive power failure.

This isn’t merely a Texas problem. Failing infrastructure—from pothole-scarred roads and run-down bridges to aging utility lines and dilapidated water systems—poses just as big a threat to the rest of the country. 

Without a bold rebuilding campaign, Americans will continue to risk their well-being and livelihoods as the nation collapses around them.

McDonald, financial secretary for United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9487, which represents hundreds of city and county workers in Dallas, grew increasingly angry knowing that it took just several inches of snow and frigid temperatures to knock out the Texas power grid and paralyze the state.

Some Texans, confronted with days-long power outages, slept in idling motor coaches that officials turned into makeshift warming centers or drove around seeking hotel rooms that still had light and heat.

Others hunkered down at home, melting snow to flush toilets after frozen pipes burst or heating rooms with generators and charcoal grills despite the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. A handful of people froze to death, including an 11-year-old boy found lifeless in his bed.

But even as McDonald and other Texans waited for power to be restored, police and firefighters in Philadelphia used rafts to rescue at least 11 people trapped by a torrent of water after a 48-inch main ruptured in the city’s Nicetown neighborhood. 

About two weeks ago, a utility worker in Oldsmar, Fla., averted disaster when he noticed that a hacker had taken over his computer and increased the amount of lye in the drinking water supply to dangerous levels. The security breach provided a chilling reminder that financially struggling water systems not only contend with lead-tainted pipes and failing dams but vulnerable computer systems that also require urgent improvements.

America cannot move forward if it continues falling apart. That’s why the USW and other labor unions are championing a historic infrastructure program that will modernize the country, improve the nation’s competitiveness and create millions of jobs while simultaneously enhancing public safety.

“There needs to be change,” said McDonald, one of millions affected by the blackouts that utilities hurriedly imposed because surging demand and equipment failures put the whole power grid seconds or minutes away from a catastrophic failure that could have left the state without electricity for months. 

A major infrastructure investment, such as the one President Joe Biden envisioned in his Build Back Better plan, will create jobs not only for the workers who build roads and bridges but for the Americans who manufacture aluminum, cement, fiberglass, steel and other items essential for construction projects.

Stronger, more resilient infrastructure will help America weather the ever more frequent, increasingly severe storms associated with climate change. That means not only upgrading power grids but encasing utility poles in concrete or relocating power lines underground. It also requires strengthening coastal barriers to guard against the growing hurricane damage that Texas and other states face.

Expanding broadband and rebuilding schools will ensure that children across the country have equitable access to educational opportunities. Investments in manufacturing facilities will enable the nation to rebuild production capacity decimated by decades of offshoring. 

And an infrastructure campaign will ensure local officials have the resources they need to manage growth, such as the huge expansion underway at the Electric Boat submarine shipyard in Groton, Conn.

Kevin Ziolkovski welcomes the business that the shipyard brings to his community. But Ziolkovski, who represents dozens of Groton Utilities workers as unit president of USW Local 9411-00, said it makes no sense for the federal government to continue awarding bigger contracts to Electric Boat without providing sufficient funds for related infrastructure.

Ziolkovski says Groton Utilities needs $3.5 million more just to construct a new water tank for the shipyard, one of its biggest customers. He also knows that Groton and other towns need funds to upgrade roads, sewerage systems, public transit and recreational amenities to accommodate the expected influx of workers and their families.

“If you want to see these multibillion-dollar nuclear submarines get built for the defense of the entire nation, you should support everything that goes into that, too,” said Ziolkovski, who sees a national infrastructure program as one solution and developed a briefing book on local infrastructure needs for Connecticut’s congressional delegation. 

McDonald, who returned to her home after three days to find the power back on but her neighborhood under a boil-water advisory, knows that other communities will suffer unless the nation embraces a rebuilding program.

It pains her to know that America fell into such disrepair that it cannot provide basic services, like power and safe roads, at the very time people need them most.

“There’s no excuse for this,” she said.

This blog originally appeared at Our Future on March 7, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).


Share this post

Southern Cities Are Passing Paid Sick Leave—But Republicans Won’t Let Them Have It

Share this post

On August 16, the San Antonio city council voted 9-2 to pass a paid sick leave ordinance that will allow residents to earn an hour of time off for every 30 hours worked up to six days a year at small employers and eight at larger ones. 

The United States is alone among 22 wealthy countries in having no national guaranteed paid sick-leave policy. As a result, states are left to pass their own laws, and in those like Texas where GOP legislatures stand opposed to paid sick leave, it’s up to the cities.

San Antonio became the 33rd city in the country to take such a step, and the second in the South after Austin passed a similar law in February.

The San Antonio law is supposed to go into effect in January, and Austin’s was scheduled to go into effect in October. But the fate of both laws is up in the air.

The very day after San Antonio’s ordinance passed, an appeals court temporarily put Austin’s law on hold in the midst of a lawsuit brought by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation— a member of the Koch-backed State Policy Network—that claims the law violates the Texas Minimum Wage Act.

Even if that lawsuit fails, many Republican members of the Texas legislature have vowed to pass legislation to block such local progressive laws throughout the state. Lawmakers are expected to take up broad preemption legislation as a top priority when the next legislative session begins in the new year.

Texas cities have watched the state erase their laws before. After he took office in 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott pledged to preempt cities’ ability to pass their own ordinances. In 2017 he explained this decision would “continue our legacy of economic freedom” and “limit the ability of cities to California-ize the great state of Texas.” In 2015, the state blocked cities from regulating oil and gas drilling activity, including fracking, and it has also banned local laws that would create sanctuary cities.

It’s a growing trend in legislatures controlled by Republicans. At least 25 states have passed preemption laws that block cities from raising the minimum wage, and 20 have banned cities from instituting paid sick leave. The majority of these laws have been enacted since 2013 and advocates for higher workplace standards say the trend is only accelerating.

Texas advocates for paid sick leave haven’t given up hope, however. They plan to wield the sheer amount of popular support for these ordinances in their favor and against the state politicians who block them. “Our state leadership is out of touch with what the majority of Texans believe and want for their communities,” says Michelle Tremillo, executive director of the Texas Organizing Project, a community organizing group behind the paid sick leave ordinance.

Two years ago, the Texas Organizing Project began surveying working families in San Antonio about what issues were most important to them and what would most improve their lives. “It was very clear…that issues addressing economic security were at the very top of the list,” Tremillo says. Number one was access to jobs that pay well, but in Texas only the state can raise the minimum wage, followed by benefits and the ability to get paid time off for illness, understandable since an estimated 350,000 city residents don’t have access to paid sick days.

Advocates also eagerly watched what happened in Austin. “It just made sense that we would figure out how to make that happen in San Antonio as well,” Tremillo says.

Her group and others decided to take the issue directly to city residents. In San Antonio, anyone can put an issue before the city council by collecting signatures from 10 percent of the eligible voting population in the previous municipal election. If they succeed, the city council can either decide to vote on the topic directly or reject it, thus sending it to the ballot for voters to weigh in on. To hit the 10 percent requirement, paid sick leave advocates needed to collect at least 70,000 signatures to force the issue.

Within ten weeks they managed to collect more than double that number, eventually receiving more than 144,000. “The response was forceful. People wanted to sign it,” Tremillo says. “People understand immediately how important that basic right is, it is a basic right to take care of yourself and your family.”

It was the first time in Rey Saldaña’s seven years on the city council that he saw any issue get above the 70,000-signature threshold, he says. “It was an easy sell, easier than many folks had actually thought,” he says. Surprised at the level of support behind the issue, the mayor and Saldaña’s fellow council members decided to take it up and pass the ordinance themselves.

Saldaña, who supported paid sick leave from the beginning, chalks the support up to the fact that so many people in the city work in the service industry where paid sick day are uncommon. “Many of them know what it feels like to have to make decisions between going in sick or taking a pay cut that week,” he says. “[But] they didn’t realize that they had that power to try to ask the government to step in and intervene on some of the pressures they have in life.”

That support, he believes, will make it hard for state lawmakers to reverse the progress made. “The time is going to expire on the state of Texas’s ability to ignore that issue,” he says.

“Unfortunately we have a state leadership that is determined to interfere with our cities’ ability to do what’s best for their citizens,” Tremillo says. “We have a state leadership that is not at all concerned about improving conditions for working people.”

“The state has turned its back on working Texans and turned its back on solutions,” Saldaña agrees. “It does not surprise the city of San Antonio, just like it does not surprise Austin or Dallas or Houston, that the state wants to step in and keep cities from innovating and applying rules and laws that support the working men and women who prop up our economies.”

But that only adds urgency to the campaign to protect the laws that cities have passed on their own. Advocates pledge to keep up the momentum no matter what the state does. “We will continue to fight at the city level and at the state level for what people really need and want,” Tremillo says.

And she notes that San Antonio’s experience, with over a hundred thousand people voicing their support, shows that the state is up against a swell of popular support. “These are large numbers of voters and people in our community who are demanding improvements to working conditions,” she says. “I think our numbers are only going to get bigger. I think people are going to stand up against our state leadership… We’ll continue to increase the number of people participating in our democracy.”

She adds, “They should stay out of interfering with what our cities are doing and they should start listening to the needs of regular Texans.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on August 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at the New York Times, has written for The New Republic, The Nation, the Washington Post, The New York Daily News, New York magazine and Slate, and has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC and NPR. She won a 2016 Exceptional Merit in Media Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus.


Share this post

Workers’ rights are being abused as they rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Harvey

Share this post

Day laborers, many of them undocumented, are reportedly being exploited as they rebuild after Hurricane Harvey, and their health and economic well-being are are stake.

According to a report from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and University of Illinois Chicago that surveyed 360 workers, 26 percent of workers have experienced wage theft in their post-Harvey work and 85 percent did not receive health and safety training. Sixty-one percent of workers did not have the necessary respiratory equipment to protect them from mold and chemicals, 40 percent did not have protective eyewear, and 87 percent were not informed about the risks of working in these unsafe buildings.

Workers have been exposed to mold and contamination on a regular basis, and regardless of whether workers are undocumented, they often aren’t aware of their legal protections, according to the report. To make matters worse, Texas is the only state that lets employers opt out of workers’ compensation for work injuries.

Advocates for different labor groups focusing on undocumented laborers have been speaking out on the issue of exploitation and visiting work sites to survey workers and pass out flyers with information on labor rights. There is tension between these advocates in Houston and Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) on how the federal funds for hurricane recovery should be distributed. According to the Guardian, worker groups would prefer the money be distributed through the office of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D), since the mayor is seen as a progressive ally. They’re afraid that if the money is instead distributed through the general land office run by George P. Bush, as Abbott wants, immigrant and worker groups won’t receive the aid they need.

The Associated Press interviewed workers hired by individual homeowners, subcontractors working on residential and commercial buildings, and work crews from outside of Texas about the working conditions. Martin Mares, a native of Mexico who came to Houston in 1995, told the AP that the demand for labor attracted people who don’t usually do this kind of work and don’t know how to do it safely. He gave the example of a pregnant woman working without gloves in an apartment building that had flooded.

Jose Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project wrote in the Guardian, “One woman contacted us when she and her crew, after spending more than 90 hours clearing out a Holiday Inn, were turned away without pay.”

Advocates for undocumented workers in Houston are also concerned about Senate Bill 4 (SB4), a Texas law that lets local law enforcement ask people they detain or arrest about their immigration status and hits local government officials with jail time and large financial penalties if they refuse to comply with federal detainer requests. The law is currently being held up in the courts, but that hasn’t completely erased fears among immigrant communities in Texas.

In addition to being exposed to mold and chemicals as well as experiencing wage theft, undocumented workers have already suffered from the devastation of the storm in unique ways due to poverty, lack of insurance, and their undocumented status. There are some 600,000 undocumented immigrants in Houston. After the hurricane, many undocumented people were afraid to use local shelters because of their immigration status or didn’t want to leave homes because they were concerned about protecting property. Although local and federal officials have tried to persuade undocumented people that they are not there to enforce immigration laws, undocumented people are still worried about the risk of seeking help.

Before the rebuilding efforts began, labor rights advocates and former officials from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) told ThinkProgress they were concerned about exploitation of workers in Texas and undocumented workers in particular, because laborers are routinely exploited and suffer major injuries. The Trump administration has already sent signals that it is not committed to labor rights. Workers groups have been critical of OSHA’s reportedly lax approach to coordinating health and safety training and the Labor Department’s ties to nonunion construction companies.

After Hurricane Katrina, workers were similarly exploited. A 2006 New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice study found that 61 percent of workers they surveyed had experienced workplace abuses such as wage theft and health and safety violations. A 2009 University of California, Berkeley study found that there were significant differences in conditions for undocumented versus documented workers.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on November 27, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

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


Share this post

Follow this Blog

Subscribe via RSS Subscribe via RSS

Or, enter your address to follow via email:

Recent Posts

Forbes Best of the Web, Summer 2004
A Forbes "Best of the Web" Blog

Archives

  • Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
  • Find an Employment Lawyer

  • Support Workplace Fairness

 
 

Find an Employment Attorney

The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.