Discrimination by Math

5399389a5e1ae61cf1eda5d0e84ef070Seattle   Having spent a week in Juneau, Alaska working with men and women dealing daily with the stigma and discrimination that comes with mental health challenges and disabilities, I should have been prepared for Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction and its warnings of the pervasive, powerful, and often destructive and discriminating role that Big Data and the algorithms it is fueling are having on all of our lives. I wasn’t. But, I also wasn’t surprised.

One of the issues I heard about from the members of MCAN included being fired from jobs in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They didn’t know the half of it! O’Neil detailed the way that huge employers including lower wage service establishments like McDonalds and others are using personality tests with data driven questions that sort out people with any kind of mental health issue. A lawyer in Tennessee watched his son, a super student with two years at Vanderbilt University who had dropped out for a couple of semesters to deal with depression successfully, somehow failed to land any minimum wage jobs as a janitor, burger flipper, and so forth from a number of companies using the same blunt instrument of a personality test. He filed a ADA class action suit that is still pending. Even that may be only the tip of the iceberg since data driven, resume reader machines are also discarding applications with a few misspellings, bad typos, and other trivialities.

These WMD’s, as O’Neill cleverly calls them, are perhaps most destructive when it comes to the way too many of them from police and crime statistics to loan applications to even the efforts to get insurance or an apartment from a landlord are discriminating, often invisibly, based on the zip codes identifying where someone lives. The question may never say race or risk, but the zip code identifying the neighborhood plots the Big Data odds, and they do not stack up in your favor. Stop and frisk programs, common under New York mayors Guilliani and Bloomberg and now touted by Trump, under analysis revealed huge racial profiling and targeting of African-Americans and Latinos because of misapplied and understood algorithms.

It was also disconcerting, given our long experience in the United States and Canada in providing service at citizen wealth centers for low-and-moderate income families to find that algorithms employed by payday lenders, diploma mills, and other shyster, predatory operations that are datamining names and contact information from people who are going online to ask for information and access to programs to provide them advice or assistance. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I can remember complaining to our tech people years ago when we used Google Ads about the fact that I could be writing a Chief Organizer Report on our fights against payday lenders and find, embarrassingly, ads running alongside my blog for some of the same blood sucking, scammers I was calling into account in the paragraphs next to their ads. Duh!

It goes on and on. O’Neill cautions that there are dangers here, and they need to be regulated not just for privacy along the European opt-in system, but for transparency. If you ever thought, even for a second, that some of the “value-added” tests for teacher evaluations that many states have employed were valid or about the meaning of things like body-math-indexes and wellness, your application for McDonald’s would also probably be rejected.

She does argue that it is not the math’s fault, as much as the way the math is being used. With a different objective some of the same algorithms could be pointing people in the right direction, connecting them with resources, getting them out of prison, rather than in, and into a job rather than out on the street.

There seems to be no mathematical formula on when that miracle might happen.


Beat Goes On But Ecuadorian Economy Reeling

DSCN1351Quito    I had not visited Ecuador for three years. I sat for hours in the sparkling new airport that opened after my last visit or more specifically in the Airport Center across the street from the actual ticket counters, security, gates and airplanes. If modern airports have become shopping malls serviced by airplanes and runways, Quito has essentially built a mall across the walkway from their airport. There’s a patio. There are plenty of chairs and free Wi-Fi. There are many worse places in the wide world to spent hours waiting for a plane.

Walking through the main streets of the city near our hotel not far from the major park and Botanical Garden, everything seemed clean and well-ordered. The coffee shops were active and on the streets people bustled along in well-turned sport coats or high heels and big leather purses. Talking to friends, colleagues, and organizers we had worked with us on campaigns either in the United States or Ecuador or both, a more unsettling picture emerges.

This is not Venezuela where food riots have become almost daily occurrences and political and social unrest is intense, but nonetheless Ecuador at all levels is feeling the pain. One former political activist we knew well from our work on field operations in the last presidential campaign in Ecuador in describing the impact of the falling price of oil, remarked that 60% of the national budget was derived from oil revenues and even as the price moves towards the $50 per barrel that is essentially breakeven in the United States, Ecuador needs the price to hit $60 to $70 because of the extra cost of bringing their crude to the market. An organizer I had worked with at Casa de Maryland, back home now and working at a governmental ministry, told us that this year the budget of her department had been cut from $20 million to $6 million. Needless to say, the impact was devastating and the layoffs severe. She was surprised to still have a job!

Many don’t! An activist we knew, was now living at home. Her brother had lost his job with the state, and her sister in another job had her hours cut in half. An old friend, comrade and former organizer who had worked with us in Florida on our Walmart campaigns a decade ago, told me when he responded to my email and arranged to meet us for breakfast at the hotel that he would do his best to make it because “he was so busy.” When we met, I asked him what kind of jobs he was handling now that were keeping him so busy. “None,” came the surprising answer from my well-connected friend. He was hustling just to keep above water. A job in another country had mysteriously fallen through a week before. When I asked after his father, an elegant and sophisticated gentlemen, whom I admired and knew well and would have thought traveled smoothly in the upper class of the country, I learned he was also now unemployed and in danger of losing his home.

I worried that our members, many of whom depended on the “bono” or basic, cash welfare assistance that President Correa had raised unilaterally in the previous political campaign, might have seen that cutback. The answer from everyone we talked to was, “Not yet,” which was hardly reassuring. Higher oil prices had led to more robust economic projects, expanded public programs and public employment, and increased debt for Ecuador, both externally and internally. Like any bubble of sorts, the country, like Venezuela and smaller states like Louisiana, was caught still standing when the music stopped and everyone raised for a chair.

After the encouraging gains in many Andean countries where recent economic growth in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia had lifted education, citizen wealth, health, and living standards, one gets the sense that this is unraveling in a case study of what globalization gives, it then takes away. We met with two young doctors. They were originally from Honduras, but had trained for seven years in the vaunted Cuban healthcare system. They wanted to practice in rural areas where the need was greatest, but Honduras had no government program to support their work, so then ended up in Ecuador about 4 hours by bus from Quito. I asked them to rank the healthcare systems they knew and how the economic situation was impacting healthcare. Not surprisingly, they said of the three, Cuba was first, Honduras last, and Ecuador in-between. As for the economy, they were still getting paid, so at least that was something they said, but they could already see shortages starting to show up in medicine supplies.

Being forced to root for the price of a barrel of oil to go up just about says it all about the unsustainable economy we have built in the world.




Jobs, Guaranteed Annual Income, and Robots

2015-06-25-1435268405-3625858-8506058779_426b197e66_bNew Orleans   The big whoops are scratching their heads on a weaker than expected jobs report recently. Has the economy begun to sputter after recent acceleration or have we reached something close to full employment? Remember full employment doesn’t mean everyone has a job, but means that we’re at something close to the bottom of the barrel in terms of workers available for hire. Such a situation is not necessarily a happy place still for workers, but something that satisfies business because there are still some available workers and economists are out of clues about how to go lower.

Keep in mind that these are any old jobs that pay a wage which is not to be confused with good jobs or even living wage jobs much less what was once called family-supporting jobs. Economists have also recently expressed concern that Americans are becoming less mobile and willing to relocate to search for work. Not much of a surprise really. The Midwest is still hemorrhaging people, but a lot of states, particularly in the West are staying put, because they are not sure there’s anything better out there or a place they can afford to live where there are rumors of more jobs. If you’re stuck working for McDonalds, why move across the country to do so? Oh, and housing prices are going up, partially because of a shortage of what? Yes, labor!

So, how are people going to make it? How about a threshold level of guaranteed annual income? Organizing as part of the welfare rights movement in the late 60’s, this was our key national demand. $5500 or fight! For a family of four anyway. We didn’t come close to winning that number, though President Nixon proposed a floor for all welfare recipients that was categorically a guaranteed annual income program though it was called the Family Assistance Plan or as we shouted Fight the FAP! Anyway, here’s how it would have worked:

For a family of four without any other income, the FAP would provide $1,600 (2013: $10,121). But a family that did have income from employment would get a declining amount of FAP dollars until family income reached $3,920 (2013: $24,798). A family of four that had been earning $12,652 in 2013 dollars would have had its income increased through the FAP to $18,725. Ultimately, the vast majority of benefits would have gone to the “working poor,” a significant departure from then-existing programs that denied welfare benefits to those who were employed.

Meanwhile under the first President Clinton, welfare recipients and the notion of minimum support for families disappeared so that recipients got zapped, not Fapped, and in some cases have been reduced by some states to a maximum eligibility of only one-year and hardly $200 per month. We’ve changed in Clinton’s words “welfare as we know it” from just mean-spirited to just plain vindictive.

The Swiss just hammered a GAI proposal in a referendum by a 77 to 23% margin. A Scandinavian country is involved in a promising pilot, so all is not lost, but these programs are universal, rather than based on need or work-status. Ironically, some of the impetus behind the current interest in GAI has to do with technological displacement now that economists and others are willing to concede that technology does not guarantee added jobs, but actually shrinks job availability. Estimates by some naysayer economists say, hey, no problem, this will take a couple of decades and tech transitions to robots and the like will only eliminate 9% of US-jobs.

Hmmm. Right now there are roughly 150 million jobs so if this were today, that means losing 13.5 million jobs. Kaboom! That’s a lot of jobs to replace, and in 20 years if we have 180 million jobs, then that’s 16.2 million jobs down the drain. It’s not clear to me how conservatives are going to twist their minds and mouths to blame all of these workers for their lost jobs and lower pay at the hands of economic change?

Something is going to break. If Nixon knew it, we have to wonder why it’s not obvious to everyone already. Today might not be the time for winning the guaranteed annual income, but the numbers and the politics seem to say that the day is coming.


Overtime Rule is One Thing, Enforcement is Another

iStock_000015098858MediumSan Jose   It’s official now. Starting December 1st, a bit more than six months from now, salaried employees making less than about $47,000 per year or $913 a week will be eligible for overtime pay at time-and-one-half of their effective hourly rate. The last adjustment in 2004 was a bit over $23,000 or $455 per week. Importantly, embedded in the rule is a regular adjustment every three years, so in 2020 the Department of Labor estimates that overtime eligibility will be $51,000. Earlier estimates targeted the impact as potentially effecting more than 5 million workers. Restaurant and other trade associations have indicated continued opposition, but no matter the sound and fury, the impact of this new rule will be huge one way or another.

At the least the new rule mandates a much closer accounting of hours for workers that have been salaried in the range of an effective rate of between $12 per hour and $23 per hour, which will require an obvious adjustment for many employers. The reckoning will not just come in the area of the standard workweek. Any regular meetings, conventions, seminars, and other work-related events that had been automatic for salaried workers in that range will now potentially trigger overtime. And, if not, overtime adjustments in workers’ schedules or exclusion from such events. Travel time has always been a contentious issue for hourly workers, and we can expect a deluge of transitional controversies for such workers now.

Increases before 2004 were more minimal, allowing employers to potentially meet the overtime requirements by raising minimum salaries above the threshold, giving workers a nice raise and avoiding the problems. We can expect that a doubling of the rate will not be met by most employers with an across the board raise of ten or fifteen thousand a year, but some who are close might bump workers over.

Opponents insist that this will mean reduced hours for many salaried workers, and that sounds right, but that’s also fair. Reduced hours for salaried workers does not mean less income than they are receiving now, but at least it means less work for the same amount of money. Workers given fewer hours will either have more leisure or more opportunity to do other work rather than being tied to more hours at the same pay with their primary employer.

My bet though is that this transition will be hard and that the Department of Labor will be swamped with both questions from workers, newly eligible for overtime, and with complaints from many workers whose employers are hoping they can wink-and-nod rather than tightening hours or paying overtime. In city after city where minimum wage increases have been won, we have all found that often the key to whether or not workers actually benefit from the changes is whether or not there is real provision for enforcement. Enforcement means rules with teeth and personnel. There’s no indication that Congress has suddenly beefed up the Wage and Hours Division of the Department of Labor, and they are already lagging in enforcing the existing minimum wage and overtime rules.

For workers to get the benefits claimed by this new rule and actually see increases in real income, it will take a change in employer mindset and enforcement to make sure that employer hearts and minds are forced to change. That change will be harder to realize than the process of simply establishing a new rule. Until then the jury is out on whether or not real wages will increase for salaried workers at the level projected.


Is There any Silver Lining in Republican Class Divide?

10repubs-JP-01-ALT-master675New Orleans   The talking heads, the pollsters and pundits, and political reporters for the largest national newspapers, and one distinguished contributing editor after another have finally come to a consensus that this Donald Trump – Ted Cruz hater machine resonates with the red meat part of their base, and, worse, and these mad dogs want to be fed, rather than taken for granted by Wall Street, big donors, and the party establishment. They may not agree on what it takes to glue the pieces of their Humpty-Dumpty back together again or if that is even possible, but they at least agree that it’s broken, and there is now a class divide in their largely stale and pale base that they can’t just paper over and ignore.

Trump and Cruz and the fact that they are not fading away, even if they may have capped out on the growth of their base, spells trouble for all of the Republican establishment candidates and could put one of these mean boys in the final vote for President. A former Bush speechwriter and now senior writer for The Atlantic magazine in a recent issue makes the case that the establishment most critically misjudged the depth of antipathy the lower and moderate income part of their base, essential to their success in the West and South, feels about immigration reform. He argues that the megadomes in the wake of their defeat in 2012 thought all they needed to do was soften their hate speech around immigration reform and adopt the Jeb Bush “not soon, but someday” supporting immigrants and a path of legalization. Marco Rubio has recanted any role in immigration reform under the new calculus and Cruz and Trump want to go past security and engage in mass deportations. This is all very bad news and argues poorly for immigration reform in a Republican Congress, even if a Democrat is successful, and, friends and neighbors, not matter what you read, that’s never a sure thing!

On the other hand, the Trump base which is rebelling against the Republican establishment wants to protect Medicare, wants more guarantees that trade doesn’t mean the loss of good jobs, and wants to make more money from the jobs they have. None of this will make Wall Street, the donors, or the corporate chieftains and Old Guard of the GOP happy, but perhaps there is a silver lining that might bring some dividends to the rest of us for a change in a Congressional compromise.

More job protections for trade would win applause across both sides the aisle, if some of the elephants come heavy footing in our direction. There probably isn’t a groundswell for $15 per hour, but after more than an 8-year drought on raising the minimum wage, how can Republicans not deliver a real raise in 2017 for their base and ours? The rebels in their base are also clear that they aren’t crazy enough about their guns to want to fire them up on another war in the Middle East or anywhere else, and we can probably all agree on that as well. Protecting Social Security and Medicare are also issues where we could make progress, and for all of the storm and fury about Obamacare, the working class part of this radical, rebel horde is not willing to die hard without health care.

The radicals in the conservative’s working class base are being clear in the Republican primary finally and are saying they want theirs, too. Some of what they want meshes with some of what we want, and there might be some deals to be made on some issues, even if we have some mountains to climb on others in 2017.


“Ban the Box” and LinkedIn Prescreening Job Obstacles

Ban_BoxNew Orleans      Maybe there’s some hope for job applications from different sides of the fence in fighting the employment obstacles created by prescreening for job applicants in a coincidental conjoining of problems for former felons and professionals, white shoe job applicants where both get screwed and left on the curb and out of work.  Who would have imagined that former felons and fans of the professional social networking site, LinkedIn, used by many for job searches would have common cause, but employer abuse might provide just that.

            The National Employment Law Project (NELP) has been promoting a “ban the box” campaign for several years and now reports that 12 states along with 66 cities and counties around the country have eliminated the box on job applications about whether or not the applicant has ever been convicted of a crime.  Many of these jurisdictions have only banned the box when hiring in the public sector, but a recent NELP report finds that in some areas private sector employers and contractors have also been required to ban the box, including Buffalo and Rochester in New York, as well as Newark and Philadelphia.   The impact of such actions is to force employers to make decisions on hiring an applicant based on her qualifications, rather than their biases about their past.

            A lawsuit by a woman named Sweet in Suwanee, Georgia may topple prescreening utilizing LinkedIn on the white shoe side of the fence as well.  Ms. Sweet applied for a job with a hotel chain and didn’t get the gig.  She later found that the hotel company, like many other employers it seems, subscribed to LinkedIn’s so-called premium service which allowed them to search for connections between Sweet and others who claimed to have known her or worked with her, frequently in only the most random and coincidental ways.  Nonetheless, they could message these people directly for information and/or references on Sweet and in so doing block her from employment.  Sweet got a lawyer and sued under the Fair Credit Reporting Act saying this was prescreening.

            The reporter doing this story for the New York Times had a company do a search on her own LinkedIn account that produced forty connections claiming to have worked with her at the Times including two interns among others.  She only personally knew four of the forty, and was somewhat horrified that any of this random list might have been able to determine her future employment status.  I dare say.  I don’t use LinkedIn, but I have an account and routinely “accept” anyone who wants to link to me largely because doing so confuses data aggregating sites that specialize in profiling, but of course I’m not looking for a job, since I’m already overwhelmed by all I do now.

            Jobs are hard to find though, so anything that might link some of the bigger whoops with so many people in our communities that have been stigmatized by “broken window” policies of urban police forces that have tacked criminal records on vast numbers of people for minor and trivial pursuits, and put all potential jobs on a firmer footing and more level playing field would be a good thing.  Fair is fair, isn’t it?  Shouldn’t a prospective boss have to actually read your whole application, interview you seriously, and make the hard call about whether you might be just the worker for their business?  I should say so!