What Made DC Councilmembers Back Off Just Hours?

October 27, 2016

Picking up where I left off on a dormant, though perhaps not dead proposal to make the lives of some low-wage workers less hectic — and perhaps less cash-strapped too.

I’ve already summarized the problems the proposed Hours and Scheduling Stability Act would have addressed, for whom and how. Here, as promised, are the main arguments that apparently persuaded a majority of DC Councilmembers to shelve it.

But I should first note that the bill the Council tabled was substantially different in various ways from the version opponents testified against. The responsible committee clearly sought to accommodate objections.

Nothing it could do, however, to placate the chain businesses the bill covered because they want to keep on doing exactly what they’re doing now. And, they say, their workers want that too. Or so one gathers from their champions who testified.

Our Businesses Are Unique

Spokespersons for retail stores, restaurants and other businesses in the hospitality sector, e.g., bars, nightclubs, all claimed that each and every one has unique staffing needs — and the best way of meeting them.

The bill would impose a “one size fits all” system — a case of government micromanaging operations “typically decided between employers and employees.”

Note here — and not here only — how the erratic schedules and insufficient hours workers have complained of become mutually agreed-on, win-win arrangements.

Workers Will Be Harmed, Not Helped

We’re told, by one spokesperson after another, that workers value the flexibility in their schedules. If they can’t work the hours they’re scheduled for, they just tell their manager, who usually finds someone else to fill in.

But that wouldn’t happen any more because the business would have to pay that someone for an extra hour.

This is true, but only if the manager asked a particular worker to fill in. The business would then owe her, on average, less than twelve bucks, I figure. No such hit to the bottom line if workers just agreed to switch hours or freely volunteered. So the much-touted flexibility isn’t necessarily hampered.

We find other overblown harms in the testimony. The National Restaurant Association, for example, claims that the bill “prohibits restaurants from offering part-time employment to new employees.” But it doesn’t.

It could, however, deny some prospective workers part-time jobs because businesses would have to offer current part-timers more extra hours first. Several spokespersons referred specifically to students trying to earn money to pay for their educations.

Some still might gain jobs in the covered businesses. But they couldn’t count on schedules that would let them go to classes, do their homework, etc.

More generally, spokespersons equated part-time work with “flexibility” that accommodates workers’ needs. That’s, in fact, how large retail stores “create and maintain” their schedules now, says a senior vice president at the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

Reading the testimony I’ve summarized here, I felt as if transported to an alternative universe. Schedules designed as workers want them, readily changed when they ask, generally far less than full time because that’s their preference.

What then to make of the fact that four out of five low-wage D.C. workers surveyed said that getting more hours was important to them? Or that nearly one in four said they’d been disciplined and/or told they might be fired when they asked for a different schedule?

Or the McDonald’s cook who was told she’d have to choose between work and going to school?

The District Is Piling On

The curbs on erratic schedules, pay disparities and hiring are the straw that would break the camel’s back, all the heavy hitters said.

Businesses already have to pay a higher minimum wage. They’ve got to provide some (modest) amount of paid sick leave. They’ve got to provide a transportation benefit (though not necessarily to pay for what their employees must shell out to get to work and home again).

They can’t automatically refuse to consider job applicants who’ve got criminal records. They’ve got to deal with tougher protections against wage theft.

The fast food restaurants and other carryouts have had to switch from styrofoam cups, plates and the like to more environmentally-friendly alternatives.

The skyrocketing growth of the local restaurant industry has already slowed — not because the market is reaching capacity, as one might think. More likely the collective impact of the mandates, says the National Restaurant Association’s local affiliate.

Both it and its parent warn that the hours and scheduling requirements will stunt the growth of “homegrown chains” because they’ll chose to open only as many restaurants as will keep them exempt (and far less profitable than they might be).

So the District will forfeit tax revenues — not only what the restaurants would pay, but what workers who live here would. Because, make no mistake about it, the bill’s a job killer. Further proof that the District is not “a business-friendly city.” Thus, a further incentive for businesses to locate just across the borders.

How often have we heard this, folks? How often the claim that proposals to help low-wage workers will harm them instead?

Others Dampers on the Bill

I don’t want to leave the impression that the bill would have solved the problems low-wage workers struggle with. Nor that a Council majority would have passed it if spokespersons for the retail and restaurant chains hadn’t come out with all guns blazing.

The Bowser administration didn’t expressly oppose it. But the Director of the Department of Employment Services leaned heavily on the negatives — mainly, but not entirely related to compliance and enforcement.

Basically, a very business-friendly position, reflecting the Mayor’s. So she might have vetoed it. We’ll never know.

But the initiative will rise again from the ashes. The head of the recently-formed Subcommittee on the Workforce has announced a public roundtable* on fair scheduling for November 3. So we can look for another lively exchange — and, I think, another bill.

* A roundtable is essentially a hearing open to testimony by anyone who signs up or submits a written statement by date certain.

Reprieve for DC TANF Families (We Hope)

June 7, 2012

The DC Council came through for families in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — as best it could, given that the budget itself was already set in stone.

After some lengthy and heated discussion, it approved an amendment to the Budget Support Act* that would delay further benefits cuts for families who’ve participated in the program for 60 months or more.

And a good thing too. As I (and others) have argued, these families shouldn’t be penalized because the program has egregiously failed to identify their strengths and needs and to link them to the appropriate mix of services.

The additional year before the cuts resume will supposedly give them an opportunity to benefit from program improvements the Department of Human Services is rolling out.

“Supposedly” because DHS still has a long way to go before completing the assessments that will form the basis for individually-tailored training and supportive services plans. Only 25% completed now, according to Councilmember Jim Graham, who introduced the amendment.

At the current rate, some of the at-risk parents won’t have anything like a full year to benefit from their plans. Whether even a year would be enough to enable some of them to secure — and retain — living-wage jobs is another question.

All but three Councilmembers voted for the amendment — a tribute to some very fine advocacy. That plus an evident desire on the part of a couple of Councilmembers not to be on the losing side of a cause that obviously had majority support.

The Council also unanimously rubber-stamped then-Chairman Kwame Brown’s substitute for the BSA it passed in mid-May.

This too is good news for TANF families and those who care about them because the revised BSA folds in some additional provisions that were part of the proposed TANF Time Limits Amendment — or rather folds in something akin to them.

Most would expand eligibility for POWER (Program on Work, Employment, and Responsibility) — thus shifting some parents out of TANF and shielding them, at least temporarily, from the 60-month time limit.

These are parents who can’t reasonably be expected to meet the TANF program’s regular work activity requirements — those who, for example, are receiving services to help them recover from the trauma of domestic violence, caring for a severely disabled family member or still in their teens and enrolled in school.

Another provision could give parents an additional 24 months to continue their postsecondary education or participation in a training program leading to a certificate or the equivalent.

Smart move since enabling these parents to get those degrees and certificates is the very best thing the program could do to help them achieve self-sufficiency.

Still another provision would prohibit DHS from counting toward the 60 months time that a child received benefits while living with an adult or adults who didn’t.

These so-called child-only cases are often exempt from the standard time limit — as they surely ought to be since one can hardly expect a child to engage in direct preparation for work.

So the Council did the right thing.

But (why is there always a but?) the benefits cuts will go forward as scheduled unless the Chief Financial Officer projects more revenues than the budget assumes.

Specifically, the estimated $3.8 million cost of the delay will be carved out of the additional $14.7 million for TANF job training that’s second on the list of priorities that will get funded if revenue estimates are higher.

In other words, the fate of more than 6,100 families — including nearly 14,000 children — hinges on a projected revenue increase of at least $10.8 million.

The exemptions and exceptions also hinge on higher revenue projections and would be paid for by another carve-out from the job training pool — this one about $1.75 million, according to the BSA.

As some disturbed Councilmembers observed, the time limits delay will eat into additional funding needed to provide appropriate job training and other services — assuming the hoped-for revenues materialize.

So will the exemptions, though no one mentioned it.

The end result is thus a tad perverse, but the Council chose it by not grappling with the timing and coverage of the benefits phase-out earlier.

Or perhaps I should say the former Council Chairman chose it since the BSA was largely an artifact of his private dealings with Mayor Gray’s staff, and both he and the administration apparently underestimated the support the benefits delay would have.

I have nothing like the expertise that would be needed to comb through the Fiscal Year 2013 budget and identify funds that could obviously have been better spent on benefits for the very poor families who rely on them — and on training that would enable many of them to be off “welfare,” which they want as much as the Mayor and Council do.

I’ve just got a hard time believing that everything in the $9.4 billion budget is more important.

As things stand now, we’ve just got to keep our fingers crossed.

* The Budget Support Act is the package that makes whatever legislative changes the Budget Request Act, i.e., the budget proper, requires.

DC Council Improves Mayor’s Budget, But Not for TANF Families

May 17, 2012

Much celebrating in the local advocacy community. Much back-patting in the DC Council. Face-saving endorsement by Mayor Gray.

All this occasioned by the Council’s unanimous approval of a Fiscal Year 2013 budget for the District. And there are good reasons for the high-fives.

Among them, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports:

  • Projected savings and revenues that will preserve hospital-based health services for approximately 19,000 low-income residents insured by the DC HealthCare Alliance.
  • An infusion of $18 million into the Housing Production Trust Fund — basically, a replacement of funds that were shifted out this fiscal year.
  • An additional $4 million for the Local Rent Supplement Program, earmarked to provide stable housing for 200-300 currently homeless families. This will free up space to shelter some of those the Department of Human Services has been turning away.

These are large achievements. And as Councilmember Michael Brown observed, they reflect “great work by the advocacy community in this city,” which focused much of its energy — grassroots especially — on the affordable housing initiatives.

But it’s surely not the case, as the Mayor says, that the budget “protect[s] our most vulnerable residents.”

Nor, as Councilmember Marion Barry asserted during the pre-vote discussion, that it shows “sensitivity to TANF recipients.” Because they, in fact, got left under the bus.

As I earlier wrote, Mayor Gray’s budget assumed more than $5.6 million in savings from further benefits cuts to the 6,100 or so families that have participated in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for a lifetime total of 60 months.

Only Councilmember Jim Graham tried to avert the cuts, though all but one member of the Human Services Committee had voted for the TANF Time Limit Amendment Act.

This bill would, among other things, protect long-term participants from further cuts until they’ve been properly assessed and had a chance to benefit from an appropriate mix of programs and services, as the TANF redesign plan envisions.

When Graham tried to fold it into the Budget Support Act — the package of legislation that’s paired to the budget proper — Council Chairman Brown said he couldn’t because the proposal wasn’t paid for.

In other words, no additional savings or revenues had been identified to keep the budget balanced if the amendment became law. And indeed, they hadn’t.

This speaks volumes about priorities and Brown’s cat-herding skills as well.

We are, after all, going to spend $3 million for a bang-up DC Emancipation Day celebration, which Councilmember Vince Orange asked for. Also some unidentified sum for a dog park in Ward 4.

Graham and Brown will supposedly look for the money to fund the time limit amendment before the Council takes the required second vote on the BSA next month.

Let’s not hold our breath. Nor take comfort in the fact that $14.7 million for TANF is second on the Council’s contingency revenue list, i.e., its priorities for spending any Fiscal Year 2013 revenues higher than those projected.

The additional money for TANF — the source of Councilmember Barry’s enthusiasm — is needed to make the TANF redesign a reality, though DCFPI says it wouldn’t be enough to cover employment services for all parents who should receive them.

Not a penny would go to preserving benefits.

So, with or without the wish-list revenues, TANF program improvements won’t go forward as planned.

And participants will still get punished because the program didn’t do what it should have to help them achieve greater self-sufficiency — or exempt those who weren’t ready, as federal rules allow.

Well, politics is the art of the possible. And the Council deserves credit for producing a budget balanced much less on the backs of the poor than the one the Mayor sent over.

But is it a budget that, as Chairman Brown claimed, shows that the Council is “putting people first?” Depends, I guess, on who people are.

DC Bill Puts Priority On Homeless Youth

July 21, 2011

The DC Council seems again poised to amend the Homeless Services Reform Act — the basis for much of what the District does to address homelessness in our community.

The bill is nothing like so controversial as last year’s amendment, which, as you may recall, sought to restrict emergency shelter to people who could prove they were D.C. residents.

The new amendment was jointly introduced by Councilmember Jim Graham, Chairman of the Human Services Committee, and Councilmember Michael Brown, Chairman of the Housing and Workforce Development.

It’s got nine cosponsors — all sitting Councilmembers who had an opportunity to sign on except Jack Evans and David Catania.

Last month’s hearing on the amendment was a virtual love fest. All but two witnesses supported it as-is.

And those two had reservations about just one part — seats on the Interagency Council on Homelessness designated specifically for represents of organizations that serve homeless youth and homeless families. Not, I think, a make-or-break.

The strategic plan ICH issued last April pays a good deal of attention to homeless families — as well it should. Virtually nothing, however, about homeless youth who aren’t with adult family members.

Concern about them dominated the hearing. And it’s surely a legitimate concern.

As a majority of witnesses emphasized, homeless youth are distinctively different from homeless adults.

Many become homeless for different reasons, e.g., because they need to escape abusive situations, because their parents throw them out, because they “age out” of the foster care system or get released from detention without provisions for housing.

They’re still developing emotionally and cognitively — more vulnerable, but perhaps more open to help than people who’ve endured years of hardship, humiliation, downright hostility, etc.

They’re more likely to be in unstable housing situations — couch surfing in homes of friends and relatives — than in shelters or on the streets. And, for that reason, we’ve got no idea of how many there are.

The Graham-Brown amendment aims to give the DC Council a better fix on the problems and solutions — not only for homeless youth, but for other subgroups that the ICH strategy and homeless counts already distinguish.

It requires ICH to develop a new five-year strategic plan, plus annual plans for implementing it. The Council is supposed to get these as part of the administration’s annual budget proposals.

Many specific parts to the plan. Some seem to me very challenging — for example:

  • A gap analysis of the shelter, housing and support needs of discrete homeless populations, along with numerical goals for housing production or rental assistance for each.
  • A strategy for working collaboratively with surrounding jurisdictions.
  • An account of trends in federal homelessness funding, plus an analysis of how local agencies and nonprofits can get more federal funds and, as if that weren’t enough, how said funds would be “utilized and prioritized.”

Heavy lifting, I think. But something along these lines could be feasible if all the senior District officials now nominally on the ICH actively participated — and committed staff support.

That in itself could be a heavy lift for agencies already struggling with budget-driven staff shortages.

I’ve remarked before that the DC Council seems better at making good policies than at providing the oversight and resources needed to make them work.

I fear that the Graham-Brown amendment may prove a case in point. But I hope it passes anyway.

We have nonprofits in the District that specialize in services for homeless youth. But our government needs to make serious investments in helping these young people out on their own get connected to caring adults and onto a pathway out of poverty.

Clearly also needs to do a much better job of making sure there aren’t so many homeless youth to begin with.

Can’t do that until it knows where it is, where it should be going and what it must do to get there. And the rest of us could use better data and benchmarks too.