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This Week in Poverty: Houston Janitors' Strike Goes Citywide | The Nation

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Greg Kaufmann

Poverty in America: people, politics and policy.

This Week in Poverty: Houston Janitors' Strike Goes Citywide

Governor Mitt Romney got all the press at the NAACP convention in Houston on Wednesday, but janitor Alice McAfee got a standing-o. She spoke to a packed auditorium about her plight and that of over 3,000 fellow janitors in the city.

The Houston janitors are currently paid an hourly wage of $8.35 and earn an average of $8,684 annually, despite cleaning the offices of some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world—Chevron, ExxonMobil, Wells Fargo, Shell Oil, JPMorgan Chase and others in the “City of Millionaires.” They are asking building owners and cleaning contractors for a raise to $10 an hour over the next three years; the counter offer is a $0.50 pay raise phased in over five years, virtually guaranteeing that the janitors continue to live in poverty.

On Tuesday, following a month of protests and one-day strikes, 250 janitors in nine buildings walked off the job to begin a citywide strike. By today, janitors from eighteen buildings will have joined the picket line. They are protesting employer harassment—including potential stripping of healthcare benefits and workplace intimidation—in response to the workers’ attempt to improve wages and benefits. The workers won’t return to their jobs until the cleaning contractors return to the bargaining table.

“We think we’ve moved past discrimination but we haven’t,” McAfee told the convention. “Now it’s low-wage workers who are treated like second-class citizens.… This fight is about putting an end to discrimination once and for all—racism, discrimination against immigrants, and discrimination against the working poor. This is about restoring dignity to all work.”

In addition to giving McAfee a standing ovation, audience members started spontaneously handing her cash—and it just kept coming; a total of $3,200 in unsolicited donations will be deposited into the janitors’ strike fund.

I had a chance to speak with Ms. McAfee on the phone yesterday about her experience at the convention, her work, and where the strike is headed. She told me she’s been a janitor in Houston for thirty years.

“And I have never missed a day, I have never been late. I take great pride in my work,” she said.

McAfee works at the Galleria Tower II and describes her job as “very hard, very strenuous.”

“They used to give me five hours to do three floors,” she said. “Now I have four hours for five floors. Something’s wrong with the picture.”

Her voice sounded distinctly elderly to me, and Adriana Vasquez had spoken of older janitors whom she worries about as they tackle grueling work. I asked would she mind telling me her age?

“Tell you what,” she said, “age and weight are two things you don’t ask a lady.”

So we moved on. Like Vasquez, McAfee said she has to literally run to finish her work on time.

“You’re running from the time you get in until the time you leave because if you’re not, no way you’re going to complete the work,” she said. “You got to punch out at 10 pm on the dot or they will write you up for insubordination because you’re not doing what they tell you to do on time. We don’t have no breaks, and when you get finished you’re so tired you need somebody to drive you home.”

Beginning at 6 pm, McAfee’s work includes “heavy floors,” which she describes as “a lot of heavy garbage, boxes, books”—both Wilson Architects and JPMorgan Chase require this kind of labor. (She cleans for Chase on the fourth, twentieth and twenty-first floors. In Congress, CEO Jamie Dimon told Vasquez to call him at his office to discuss the fact that he doesn’t pay his janitors a living wage. So far, however, he hasn’t returned her call.) She cleans kitchenettes; mops the floors; does “high dusting and low dusting”; rids glass desktops of finger smudges; cleans and dusts pictures.

“I take great pride in my work and I like to do it right,” McAfee said. “But now that they have cut the hours and increased the workload, there’s just no way for me to do it the way I want to. I’m doing eight to twelve hours work in four hours, and it’s just impossible.”

McAfee said she has been “targeted” since joining the union. Not only did her employer then increase her workload and cut her hours, her supervisor said she “wants me off the job.”

“But I do my work, stay focused, stay prayed up and move on,” said McAfee.

Moving on this week meant telling the NAACP and others her story.

“People need to know we are professional janitors and when we go to work, we work hard,” she said. “Right now we’re needing to choose between turning on our AC, or our box fan, and buying gas. We give building owners and CEOs an honest day’s work and we are only asking for a fair, honest day’s pay in return.”

Feds Investigating Pennsylvania’s ‘Drop in Medicaid Enrollment’

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the 89,000 children in Pennsylvania who have lost their Medicaid coverage—including many with life-threatening illnesses who were mistakenly deemed ineligible. It looks like the federal government is asking questions about it too.

The Associated Press reports that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) hasn’t yet received a response from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW) to its letter of inquiry sent June 14.

I obtained a copy of that letter which reads in part: “A large number of cases were closed for ‘failure to provide information’ or ‘failure to return renewal form’ at a time when DPW [was] unable to process within appropriate timeframes all the information beneficiaries had submitted to verify their eligibility.… It appears that it may have been improper to terminate Medicaid coverage for lack of requested information since an eligibility worker could not have been sure that such information had not been submitted by the beneficiary.”

According to the letter, DPW agreed in mid-April to review 12,000 closed cases “to determine whether any had been closed inappropriately.” The review was to begin with “3,000 pregnant women and newborns,” and DPW staff assured that those results “would be available soon.”

“We consider DPW’s [review] of closed cases to be an important step towards understanding the drop in Medicaid enrollment overall,” the letter reads.

As of Wednesday, still no word on those 3,000 pregnant women and newborns, or on the other 9,000 cases DPW is supposed to check out.

Medicaid for 297,000 South Carolinians

As my colleague George Zornick recently observed, Republican governors can hate on the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion all they want—in the end it’s state legislatures that will decide whether low-income Americans enjoy a rare and historic victory or are once again left to fend for themselves.

In South Carolina, advocates are already working to build the kind of formidable coalition needed to convince a Republican legislature not only to pass the Medicaid expansion but also to override an expected veto by Governor Nikki Haley—no easy task, since that would require a two-thirds majority in each chamber.

“We’re going to have to build a coalition of healthcare advocates, providers, businesses and insurance companies—working with those who have a financial interest in this thing, along with those who have a human interest because it’s simply the right thing to do,” says Sue Berkowitz, director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, who has worked on poverty-related issues for thirty years.

According to the Urban Institute, 297,000 currently uninsured South Carolinian adults would be newly eligible for Medicaid under the expansion—232,000 of them live below the federal poverty line of $22,314 for a family of four. New federal tax credits and subsidies will be available only for people with incomes above the federal poverty line, so the 232,000 worse off citizens won’t receive that assistance either.

“By saying no to Medicaid expansion, Governor Haley is basically saying it will be status quo for the poorest of the poor—they get nothing,” says Berkowitz.

Of course, folks like Berkowitz have been making a powerful case for helping poor people from time immemorial. (See the dude Isaiah, 58:10: “And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in darkness, and thy gloom be as the noon-day.”) Their work has contributed to some great victories. But if I were a betting man—or actually just a man with a pulse and a passing interest in US politics in the twenty-first century—I’d wager this decision will come down to what the powerful moneyed interests with a financial stake in Medicaid will do to fight for something that makes complete economic sense.

A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that the federal government is picking up 100 percent of the cost of the Medicaid expansion over the first three years; nearly 93 percent of the cost over the next nine years; and no less than 90 percent after that. That’s significantly higher than the 70 percent match South Carolina currently receives for Medicaid patients.

A state’s costs for the Medicaid expansion would also be offset by reduced expenses for mental health services and emergency hospital care for the uninsured. An Urban Institute report indicates that in 2008, state and local governments shouldered $10.6 billion—nearly 20 percent of the cost—to care for uninsured people in hospitals. Another study indicates that state and local governments provided 40 percent of the funding for state mental health agencies in 2009, amounting to $17 billion. Both of these state contributions would be significantly reduced as the federal government picks up more of the tab through Medicaid services.

In South Carolina, these factors and others would result in an actual savings of as much as $678 million from 2014–19, compared to the costs of opting out of the Medicaid expansion.

“I would also note that we have a multiplier of $3.50 for every federal Medicaid dollar spent in the state,” says Berkowitz. “The one growth industry we know we have here—besides union busting and Boeing—is healthcare. We’ve got a very sick population and the opportunity to bring down federal dollars to help solve that problem and get better health outcomes. But the governor clearly isn’t looking at any of this. It’s just pure politics to appeal to her Tea Party base.”

Berkowitz believes some in the business community will advocate for Medicaid expansion because a healthy workforce and stable healthcare attract good jobs to the state. Rejecting Medicaid is also bad for small businesses that can’t (or don’t) pay their employees enough to purchase health insurance. The employees wait until they are too sick to work and then are forced to turn to emergency care.

“Businesses are better off when employees have a [regular provider], receive preventive care, and have better health outcomes,” says Berkowitz.

The real difference-makers in the Medicaid decision might be hospitals. Under the Affordable Care Act, they will receive a smaller reimbursement for the emergency care provided to uninsured people—that’s one way the government pays for Medicaid expansion and the new federal subsidies to help individuals purchase health insurance. As Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein notes, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that Medicaid expansion would cut South Carolina’s uninsured rate among eligible adults by 56.4 percent—the fourth-largest drop in the nation. That significantly improves hospitals’ bottom lines.

But Berkowitz says that “the business and provider communities are not exactly profiles in courage all of the time.” When advocates worked to pass the cigarette tax ten years ago, many health care providers who privately agreed with it said they couldn’t take a public stand. It wasn’t until the tax gained traction with the public that they joined in the coalition.

Getting that kind of traction this time around might prove difficult.

“There’s just a huge lack of compassion for the poor among a lot of folks in our electorate,” says Berkowitz. “And the money being funneled to our opponents is huge. So far, the national foundations and funders who are on our side are putting money into states where the fight over Medicaid is much easier. We need them to not think of us as a lost cause. We’re not giving up this fight.”

Great Resource from Demos

Tracking American Poverty & Policy is a powerful data visualization that tracks American poverty over the decades, with breakdowns by race, gender, education and more. The tool was unveiled at Demos’ national bi-partisan conference earlier this week, co-hosted with Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy; and The American Prospect. The conference examined what low wages, low job growth, demographic and cultural trends and budget-cutting plans mean for Americans in poverty or near-poverty.

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Support paid family and medical leave and paid sick days

Articles and other Resources

Nikki Haley Slashes Support for Violence Victims…,” Bryce Covert

To Beat Odds, Poor Single Moms Need Wide Safety Net,” Pam Fessler

House Proposes Cutting Food Stamps by $16 billion,” Food Research and Action Center

Moor Latino Children Go Hungry Under Roby Amendment,” Sarah Jane Glynn

Low Wage Rates and Low Income Very Common for Employed Single Mothers,” Legal Momentum

Study Confirms Importance of Child Care Subsidies for Working Families,” Hannah Matthews

Lawsuit: Republican Supervisors Designed System to Cheat Indigent $38 per Month,” R. Scott Moxley

For Black Americans, Financial Damage from Subprime Implosion Likely to Last,” Ylan Mui

National Coalition for Paid Sick Days, Family Leave Insurance Convenes in DC,” National Partnership for Women & Families

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $22,314 for a family of four): 46 million people, 15.1 percent of population.

Children in poverty: 16.4 million, 22 percent of all children, including 39 percent of African-American children and 35 percent of Latino children.

Number of poor children receiving cash aid: one in five.

Poverty rate for people in female-headed families: 42 percent.

Single mothers with incomes under $25,000: 50 percent.

Single mothers working: 67 percent.

Deep poverty (less than $11,157 for a family of four): 20.5 million people, 6.7 percent of population. Up from 12.6 million in 2000.

Increase in deep poverty, 1976–2010: doubled—3.3 percent of population to 6.7 percent.

Americans with no income other than food stamps: 6 million, 2 percent of population.

Twice the poverty level (less than $44,628 for a family of four): 103 million people, roughly 1 in 3 Americans.

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996: 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: 27 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Quotes of the Week

“We’re at this very unusual moment where there’s the potential for one of the biggest steps forward for low-income families in several decades if the Medicaid expansion is fully implemented in every state and the deficit reduction for the mid- and long-term that we need were achieved in a way that protects people at the bottom. But there is also a significant possibility that—depending on the outcome of the election—the entire Affordable Care Act is repealed, or perhaps even a majority of states do not take the Medicaid expansion; and, more fundamentally, we could achieve large-scale deficit reduction in a way that really devastates programs focused on low-income people, destroys the structure of Medicaid, food stamps, huge cuts in the Pell Grants for low-income kids. I don’t ever remember a time when there was the potential for as huge rollbacks as there is now.”
—Bob Greenstein, president, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities,
speaking at Demos conference

“They try to pit the Latinos against the blacks—to separate us—but we’re not going to be separated, we’re together. We’re going to stand together because we are our sisters and brothers and that’s how we look at it on the job.”
—Alice McAfee, on cleaning contractors’ efforts to divide Houston janitors

This Week in Poverty posts every Friday morning. Please comment below. You can also e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.comand follow me on Twitter.

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