Commentary, News

Workers, advocates speak up for Black lives, call for passage of federal HEROES Act

As the twin plagues of COVID-19 and police violence continue to inflict a disproportionate toll on the lives of people of color in North Carolina and around the country, local workers and worker advocates are speaking up and demanding change. A powerful recent example took place yesterday during a virtual event hosted by the North Carolina State AFL-CIO.

The event, which was part of a national “Workers First Caravan,” shined a spotlight on three North Carolina women of color who shared their heartfelt stories of struggle during the pandemic. All called for passage of the federal HEROES Act, which is a multi-part “second stimulus” bill that would expand and improve upon the federal CARES Act passed earlier this spring in numerous ways.

In sometimes tearful testimony, Sherita McCullers, a GoRaleigh Transit operator, explained how she worries about bringing the virus home to her family. She explained that her godmother has already passed away because of the virus and that her brother was recently admitted into the hospital with COVID-19.

“I know COVID-19 is real, and it’s not going away,” McCullers said. “So I’m asking Senator Thom Tillis, we need to keep all frontline workers safe and secure. We need you to do your job and support the HEROES Act.”

McCullers was followed by Ivy Jones, who is employed as a postal service worker. Jones explained how the U.S. Postal Service has been a critical resource for American communities for over 200 years and how she’s worried it could fail without new federal assistance. She said the USPS has provided many employment opportunities for Black Americans, and that privatization (or allowing the USPS to become insolvent) could have disastrous effects.

“Black women make up nearly 18 percent of the public workforce, or about 1.5 million workers,” Jones said. “The current administration wants us to go backwards, but Black people won’t go backwards, the labor movement won’t go backwards. We refuse to go backwards.”

Jones was followed by Jocelyn Bryant, a retired AT&T worker and union/community activist in Greensboro. Commenting on the 1,200-plus people in North Carolina who have died from COVID-19, Bryant noted that “Most of them were retirees like me. How can we pretend it’s over when people are still dying?”

All three women specifically urged Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr to work to remove opposition to the HEROES Act in the Republican-controlled Senate — a plea that was reiterated by MaryBe McMillian, president of the NC State AFL-CIO and Will Munn, a policy analyst with the Health Advocacy Project of the North Carolina Justice Center (parent organization to NC Policy Watch).

McMillan put it this way:

“The HEROES Act would keep frontline workers safe by requiring OSHA to pass an emergency infectious disease standard and by mandating that employers provide proper training and protective equipment. In addition, it would provide hazard pay to frontline workers and provide needed funding to our postal service, our public schools, our states, and our cities.”

Meanwhile, Munn reported (as he has previously on The Progressive Pulse) that Black workers have contracted and died from coronavirus at much higher rates in North Carolina and elsewhere due to longstanding inequities, the prevalence of Black workers in essential industries, and the fact that so many workers of color must often work multiple jobs for low pay and without health insurance.

“That’s why we’re calling on Senator Tillis to support our essential workers in this time of unprecedented crisis,” Munn said.

Click here to view the entire event on Facebook.

Courts & the Law, Higher Ed, News

Blind student files federal discrimination lawsuit against Duke University

Image: Duke.edu/Julie Schoonmaker

B efore Mary Fernandez enrolled at Duke University, she was assured she would be provided the accommodations for an equal education to her peers who aren’t blind.

Despite that assurance, Fernandez experienced barriers that permeated every aspect of her educational experience at Duke, according to a news release about a new federal lawsuit against the university.

“When she applied for admission, she encountered an inaccessible web-based application,” the release states. “When she registered online for courses, she could not access the course descriptions. When she utilized the employer recruiting system, she could not set up her user profile and could not utilize any of the search functions. In addition, Duke failed to provide Ms. Fernandez with timely access to accessible course materials, including hard-copy Braille and tactile graphics when she requested them. As a result, Ms. Fernandez was continually forced to divert her time and attention away from her studies to advocate for equal access to her education.”

Duke University officials did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Duke University systematically discriminates against blind students and alumni in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday. The action, brought by the National Federation of the Blind and Fernandez, alleges that Duke failed to ensure that blind students can interact with digital content and platforms and access course materials on an equal basis with students without disabilities.

Fernandez began the Duke daytime MBA program in the fall of 2018. To read print, she uses screen access software, Job Access with Speech (JAWS), which vocalizes the text using synthesized speech or displays it on a connected device called a refreshable Braille display. For STEM subjects, Fernandez also uses hard-copy Braille and tactile graphics to better understand the complex concepts because refreshable Braille displays only display a single line of Braille cells at a time, and thus are not useful for complex equations, coordinate planes, diagrams, maps and other graphics.

“I expected an institution with Duke’s high standards and reputation to be able to meet my needs as a blind student and was assured that would happen,” Fernandez said. “Instead, my time at Duke has been something of a nightmare. I hope the action I am now taking will improve things for future blind students who want to attend Duke.”

The National Federation of the Blind, headquartered in Baltimore, is the oldest and largest nationwide organization of Americans with low vision. It defends the rights of blind people of all ages and provides information and support to families with blind children, older Americans who are losing vision, and more.

Mark Riccobono, president of the organization, said discrimination against blind students is not a new issue; it’s been a focus of their advocacy for nearly two decades, and “institutions of higher education have no excuse for not meeting this legal and moral obligation.”

“The blind cannot and will not tolerate discrimination of this kind,” he added.The blind cannot and will not tolerate discrimination of this kind. Click To Tweet

The plaintiffs are represented by the attorneys of Disability Rights NC and the law firm of Brown Goldstein Levy LLP.

“The failure to provide blind students with timely, accessible course materials and career services not only harms their educational experience, it puts their future career and economic self-sufficiency at risk,” said Virginia Knowlton Marcus, CEO of Disability Rights NC. “Duke University, in particular, has previously been sued by Disability Rights NC regarding the inaccessibility of its course materials and has the responsibility to know better and do better.”

Duke University settled a lawsuit in 2016 filed by Disability Rights NC on behalf of a student with dyslexia who accused the school of not accommodating his educational needs. Under the settlement, Duke agreed to provide additional training to its disability services staff and liaisons to enhance the effectiveness of student accommodations, to forge a connection between the disability services office and IT staff to ensure that technical issues related to the provision of accommodations are resolved quickly and to publicize the student ombudsman’s contact information on the accessibility services website, according to a previous news release.

Commentary, COVID-19, NC Budget and Tax Center

New report: Now is no time for federal and state governments to retreat

In case you missed it yesterday, be sure to check out a new report from the fiscal and economic policy experts at the N.C. Budget & Tax Center entitled “Meeting the needs of today to secure a more inclusive recovery tomorrow.” In it, the BTC analysts explain why it’s critical that both the federal and state governments remain strong and active in responding to the health pandemic. Now, the report, points out, is the last time to start cutting services and aid to communities in need.

In a section entitled “Critical lessons learned from prior recessions,” the report puts it this way:

In this historic policy landscape, policymakers are likely to best accomplish the goal of a full recovery from the public health and economic crisis with the least possible harm by considering lessons from previous recessions alongside the unique features of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Timely and targeted interventions. Early response to the crisis is a critical element to both public health and economic shocks as timely engagement can address the initial impacts before they spread broadly into other aspects of life. While many public health analysts point to the delays at the federal level in planning and responding to COVID-19 despite knowledge of its potential harm, the federal response began with a targeted effort to respond to the public health issues with a focus on bolstering the public health infrastructure and accelerating research into a vaccine and treatment.

Bold and inclusive support. Another lesson of public policy response in moments of crisis is the importance of bold action. Researchers often point to the fact that the greater risk comes from proposals that are too small relative to the need and that don’t do enough to reduce the potential for long-term impact on people and communities. Such support must also reach all people since the exclusion of certain groups can further hamper the recovery process and hold back overall public health.

Systems-oriented policy design. Perhaps most significant in this moment is the need for a sustained commitment to the use of public policy to address the issues resulting from public health or economic shocks. Many analysts have pointed to the problem of ending public policy interventions too soon before the recovery has been secured and reached all people. Additionally, making certain the policy design continues to meet and respond to emerging needs is critical to ensuring that families are supported to financial security and greater well-being.

The coronavirus pandemic ended the longest economic expansion in U.S. history, and its threat to public health will persist for longer than a season. Researchers at the Congressional Budget Office suggest that effects on the economy could extend through 2021 into 2022. While projections for North Carolina in particular are still forthcoming from state agencies, some economists in North Carolina have pointed to the early stages of impacts and the long road to recovery.

Once the official expansion begins, however, it will be clear that recessions have a longer-lasting impact on well-being than the time frame in which they occur. North Carolina’s own experience of the last expansion period showed little progress in bringing down poverty and increasing the wages of the average worker. National studies of the Great Recession and prior downturns point to the large and scarring effects — including lost income and wealth, reduced educational opportunities, and poorer physical and mental health outcomes — on people. Recessions also generate disproportionate harm on communities of color and women, both of which already face barriers in connecting to opportunities.

Given that the underlying cause of this economic shock is likely to linger, it is even more important that policymakers continue to engage in assessments and actions that can minimize the long-term harm to our collective well-being.

In short, the basic message is that now, more than ever, is the time for government to do its job and for state and federal leaders to secure the resources necessary to make it possible. Click here to read the full report.

COVID-19, News

Senate President: Medicaid expansion not on the table, federal funding will determine cuts elsewhere

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger says North Carolina went from a revenue surplus to possibly a $4 billion shortfall as the result  of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Berger told reporters Monday that despite the bleak economic outlook, lawmakers hope to avoid the layoffs and deep budget cuts seen during the Great Recession, more than a decade ago.

Berger believes many of the decisions that will be made in the coming weeks will be based on guidance from the federal government and the flexibility to spend $2 billion in CARES Act funding that has not yet been earmarked.

“It is my expectation that we will need to have those dollars in order to make sure we don’t see the kinds of layoffs and freezes that occurred before.”

Asked whether his chamber would consider Medicaid expansion to help offset healthcare costs associated with the coronavirus, Berger said he did not see a scenario where that would make for good policy.

“We are seeing multiple states have to cut their Medicaid programs,” said Berger.”The federal government through the various bills that have been passed, has provided North Carolina with funds to make sure anyone who is affected or thinks they are affected by COVID-19 can get themselves tested and it doesn’t cost them anything.”

Click below to listen to Sen. Berger discuss the likelihood of Medicaid expansion this year:

Berger said the state’s soon-to-be-released consensus revenue forecast will determine funding levels for other big-ticket items in this year’s budget, including any possible raises for educators.

Lawmakers are not holding out hope for another large relief package from Congress.

“I think what we need in North Carolina is not necessarily more (federal) dollars coming to the state, but flexibility with the dollars that are here to make sure that our normal budgetary items can be met.”

The senate leader said his chamber will also use the coming weeks to push for greater oversight of the executive branch, specifically in how unemployment insurance benefits are being paid out.

“We keep hearing they are hiring additional people, but that doesn’t seem to be moving the needle.”

COVID-19, NC Budget and Tax Center

NC General Assembly allocated some federal dollars; more are available and urgently needed

Yesterday, Gov. Cooper signed into law the first two pieces of legislation agreed upon by state lawmakers following five days of committee and chamber meetings that were held virtually in Raleigh. Unfortunately, while this first step will address some of the urgent needs arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, it leaves most of the response work undone. As a result, lawmakers will need to move quickly to use billions of dollars in available federal and state funds to combat the immediate effects of the crisis and prepare for recovery work.

The package approved by the Governor yesterday spends $1.58 billion for fiscal relief for transportation, supports for nonprofits and hospitals in meeting the needs of the rural and marginalized communities, “non-transportation” state agencies and local governments, funding to support remote K-12 education, local government supports and more.

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