“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!



Marching for a Climate Change Turning Point

2014-09-21t181449z_242980738_gm1ea9m064l01_rtrmadp_3_usa-climatechange-march.jpg_1718483346New Orleans    The march in New York demanding action on climate change was hard to get a handle on from a distance.  The Associated Press called the number 100,000.  The New York Times studiously avoided ever giving a number in the aftermath of the march, simply saying there were tens of thousands.  Finally, a week later the Times’ editorial page tagged the number at 300,000.  Between police, press, promoters, and regular people, it’s very difficult to get a handle on facts when it comes to organizing, and when we are looking for the heartbeat of a movement, it’s actually not just a question of engineering, but a way to measure passion, so it is actually very important.  So many mainstream institutions and media are so punctilious about not seeming to support protest that it is virtually impossible to benchmark the truth as opposed to the promotion.

            Talking to Dean Hubbard, national director of the Labor Project for the Sierra Club, on Wade’s World on KABF recently, opened up a different perspective.  Dean said they were astounded by the numbers.   They had expected 100,000 in New York City, but instead they thought the numbers had topped 400,000.  We’ll never know.  He argued, perhaps more interestingly, that the wider footprint of the march could be found in the hundreds of cities throughout the USA that did something on that date and the thousands of cities, large and small, that stepped up to the mark globally.

            President Obama seemed to have used some of this energy to argue more aggressively for action, not only in the USA, which as the worst of the worst, has to be a leader here, but also to challenge China to join the fight as the largest bulk polluter even though we are the greatest per capita polluter.  India, the next in line, seems still unwilling to join the fray.

            It’s Dean’s job to argue that the fight between jobs and the environment is finally reaching détente, and he made the case as best he could, and there’s merit to his argument.  His weakest point might have been the fact that there were 10,000 marchers under union banners in New York City, led by some predictable unions like the Service Employees, but also importantly the giant Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electricians, a critical chink in the armor of the construction trades which have been stubbornly resistant to many environmental arguments with a “jobs are everything” and the devil take the hindmost attitude.  Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement that he supported retrofitting all of the buildings in New York City before he personally joined the march, was a key piece of leadership moving the NYC trades.

            Where Dean and the Sierra Club’s case improved was as he recited the increasing amount of alternative energy development that is replacing standard generation methods, and the number of jobs that are, and will be, produced by such construction, energy creation, and distribution.  It seems impossible to argue whether on the threat of climate change or the ticking time bomb of contemporary resource depletion that no matter the math now or the facts on the ground, that the tide of history is now flowing in the direction of Dean’s argument with the opponents cries simply being the gurgles of dinosaurs on their way to extinction, hopefully not bringing the rest of us with them.


Nine Years after Katrina

Lower 9th Ward before and after

Lower 9th Ward before and after, credit to Ted Jackson at nola.com

Little Rock       Perhaps the best news in the nine years since Katrina has been that we have not faced another devastating hurricane, as the city continues to struggle to rebuild.  We had a bit of problem a couple of years ago in 2012, but not so severe that it forced widespread evacuation or extensive damage.  Every year that we can get past Katrina is another gift.

            Surveying the changes over nine years isn’t easy.  Many of the positives come with big, fat “buts.”

            Like the fact that population in the metro area is now 93% of what it was before the storm, but in the city itself we are only 78% of where we were before Katrina.  The Census Bureau estimates New Orleans’ population at 378,715 compared to the 2000 Census population of 484,674.  That’s still 100 grand down, and that’s not good.

            We’re growing, yes, but people still can’t find their way home, especially African-Americans.

The Census Bureau estimated 99,650 fewer African Americans in 2013 compared to 2000, but also 11,494 fewer whites and 6,023 more Hispanics. African-Americans still represent the majority of the city’s population at 59 percent, down from 67 percent in 2000.

All of which means we are becoming more diverse, even while we have so many “missing New Orleans.”  We gained 44,281 Hispanics and 6,564 additional Asian residents. The Hispanic population in the metro spiked 76 percent between 2000 and 2013, a rate greater than the nation’s 53 percent growth.

            So the city fathers that wanted a “whiter” city, didn’t get their wishes, even though their policies barred return for so many.  They also didn’t get a richer city because of their continued programs.

            According to The Data Center’s figures:

While the poverty rate in the New Orleans metro declined from 18 percent in 1999 to 15 percent in 2007, it then increased to 19 percent in 2012, such that it is now statistically unchanged since 1999. In New Orleans itself, the 2012 poverty rate of 29 percent is also statistically the same as 1999 after falling to 21 percent in 2007.   Like the overall poverty rate, child poverty in Orleans Parish and the metro area dropped in 2007 but has since increased to its 1999 levels. In 2012, the child poverty rate was 41 percent in the city and 28 percent in the metropolitan area, both higher than the U.S. rate of 23 percent.

No small reason for the continued poverty and stalled return continues to rest on the problem of inadequate and unaffordable housing, because of the double whammy of first the storm and then the recession which rolled back credit availability and made home reconstruction unaffordable for many low-and-moderate income families.  Rents soared after the storm and continue to be sky high.  The Data Center finds that “36 percent of renters in the city paying more than 50 percent of their pre-tax income on rent and utilities in 2012, up from 24 percent of renters in 2004.”

The beat goes on like that.

We did better on jobs and jobs on recovery after the storm than many cities in the recession, but the jobs didn’t pay diddling, especially when so much of the income went for housing.  Higher education is lagging, especially for African-American men, and the charter school experiment has not moved the needle on failing schools.  New businesses are up, but so are sales tax revenues and other taxes servicing a smaller population, so many of these businesses are marginal.  We have more bike lanes and bike trails but can’t seem to fix the potholes in the streets.

Here’s the story in New Orleans.  We’re going to make it, but every day is still going to mean a struggle over a bumpy road.  We’re going to come back somehow and we’ll welcome all the new people, but we can’t escape the heartache for people we miss, who still can’t make it home.


Education Stuck in Class

Galveston, Texas, natives Melissa O’Neal, from left, Bianca Gonzalez and Angelica Gonzales took part in a college-prep program for low-income students, but found that school wasn’t a ticket to upward mobility. Michael Stravato New York Times News Service

Dauphine Island    “Life happens,” was a quote from one of the three young women from south Texas who believed so completely that education would change their lives, and perhaps more significantly, redirect their fate and future from the path of their parents to a brighter new world of opportunity.  The Times story was unfair to these three young women though.  “Life” actually happens to everyone.   Decisions are made.  Paths are taken or abandoned.  Choices abound at the crossroads.

Reading the story it became clear that any chance of education changing their lives in the radical way that they hoped it might when they were naïve young girls was only true in the margins or perhaps by even more random luck, because class had already created most of the limits and boundaries.  One faced the long shot odds of $40,000 in debt to Emory University in Atlanta because the university somewhat arbitrarily closed off her application without giving her financial assistance and got the money by almost implicitly agreeing to marry the high school boyfriend and work for his furniture store later.  Even with some college all three were all working hourly shifts in the service industry back in Texas five years later.  One was still trying and close to getting a degree in a local college, but I honestly would challenge anyone reading this piece to smugly argue that graduating or not graduating in her case is going to radically change her prospects.

There can’t be a crueler lie now in America than the notion that simply getting a college degree from any of the thousands of schools out there somehow put the young graduate on the path to a great job and a wonderful future.  She’s still going to be in South Texas, and that’s not a bad place to be, but the jobs are what are available there:  agriculture and its service, service in general, warehousing and distribution, and so forth.

To move out of “class” is not $40,000 but over $200,000 and more if one stumbles from South Texas or any lower income urban neighborhood into something approaching the Ivy League and its “gold card” of greater opportunity.  And, frankly, in this economy that’s no guarantee as well.  I listen and watch at the challenges faced by the young men and women who were my daughter’s classmates at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, which was an excellent institution that provided her a spectacular education.  I don’t mind writing the check every month for what is left on that debt, but I guarantee none of them jumped on the fast train out of Hampshire.  ACORN International has a brilliant volunteer that has done research for us whose mother I met speaking at Williams and who graduated from Hampshire a couple of years after my daughter.  She has gone through internships, interviews, and more to try and find a place to work and make a contribution.  My son with a degree from Rochester Institute of Technology:  same story, different verse.  Frankly, compared to the odds faced by these young women in Texas, both of them had it easy and have emerged smelling like roses.

Was it only last year or the year before when all of these colleges and universities used to talk about need based scholarships and special recruiting efforts to diversify their enrollment based on a fairer chance for lower income, working class students?  What happened to that?  Yes, I know:  life happened to them!  Now all we hear about is that they are raising their tuitions and struggling in the economy, blah, blah, blah.  The first hint of news I heard in this direction was some kind of sweetheart, side deal that some high priced school make recently with KIPP, the charter school operator.  That kind of deal might assuage the conscience of some well paid admissions officer somewhere, but that’s nothing but a sweetheart deal and a slap in the face at public schools and the places where education could be a key out of the class jail.

We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t when it comes to our sorry education systems.  The competition in a small job market means that too many want a college degree for $8, $9, and $10 per hour jobs, so some degree, any degree, is a bump over minimum wage, but $20,000 a year is not a break out of the rigidity of American society’s increasingly rigid class structure.  The sooner we stop pretending that we are solving any problems with either our higher education or “lower” education system, and start really talking about this and other scalable tools to break down class barriers all around us, the better. We’re going to lose more than a generation though by continuing to look backwards and not facing the reality of the mess we have today.

Oil Field, Big Money, Big debt or School?

Dauphine Island     A front page article in the Times blurted out that “Pay in Oil Fields, Not College, Is Luring Youths in Montana,” as if they were sounding the alarm that perverts were roaming loose in the playgrounds.  A 19-year old was shown in front of his new, black GM Silverado pickup in short sleeves with the snow dusted trees of eastern Montana behind him.  Just out of high school, he was making $50,000 per year in the latest oil field boom with fracking wells there between Montana and North Dakota.  A young woman was making $20 per hour as a server.  Others were helping build the “man camps,” hotels, and houses.  School principals when interviewed told of shooing away recruiters, as if they were candy men, from their charges.  Community college enrollments were down by almost half in the area.  I scratched my head reading this, was in an alarm or an advertisement?

We have national crises of youth unemployment with escalating higher education costs and student debt loads that are staggeringly unconscionable with no relief in sight, and someone thinks it might be news that young people would jump at the chance to make $40 or $50 grand right now, today in the oil fields.  What world are these people living in?  Pull up your pants and stop showing so much of your class!

We all remember forks in the road in our lives, where we might have taken this route or another, made this decision or another, and our lives would have been totally different.  Being born and raised in the oil patch from Wyoming to Colorado to Kentucky and finally to Louisiana where we chased the fields, I can tell you the siren call is loud and tempting.  I worked as a roustabout in the Velma oil fields south of Oklahoma City the summer after graduating from high school to make money to go to college.  I was only there to make money.  I’d work my shift during the day and at night I would process invoices and run totals on a hand cranked calculator in the office.  One 20 day stretch it was over 100 degrees on that red dirt and dry as a bone so much that several times we dropped a job, threw our tools in the truck, and when highballing on the dirt roads to fight grass fires with tanks strapped to our backs to keep the fire from the horsehead pumping wells.  I was offered a job as a foreman on a crew at the end of the summer, but I had spent too much time listening to Pete Bills tell about his life from Oil City, Pennsylvania to Texas to Oklahoma chasing oil to be tempted.

On the other hand the next summer working offshore for a contracting company on Chevron rigs out of Venice, Louisiana, 14-on, 7-off with 12-hour shifts and living on the rigs, I had one year of college done, Vietnam was raging, I was making money, and the bloom of school was off the rose from studying, working shifts in the cafeteria, driving a laundry truck, and stacking boxes of books at the college bookstore.  Drilling was in full force on the huge new fields in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, they were desperate for workers with oil field experience, and the rumor was that they were so desperate you could get a critical job draft deferment.  Alaska, too, was something ever kid raised in the West wished and wondered about – it was Wyoming on steroids!  But, at the end of that summer the gut check was really all about the money.  If I signed on for 90-days straight on a drilling rig they would pay me $20,000 for the tour, shake my hand and I could come back for more or keep walking wherever my life led me.

$20,000 for 90 days work would be tempting today for 19-year old, but $20K 45 years ago was big time, crazy money!  Thanks to the miracle of Google, I can tell you that those 20000 dollars in 1967 would have had the same buying power as $137,186.63 in 2012!!   I was going to Williams College at the time which then, as now, was priced at the top of the scale, but $20K would have paid my tuition all four years meaning a 90-day turn in Alaska and the financial loan and debt burden of school would have been next to nothing.  I rolled around on that platform bunk 10 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico many a night trying to figure out what to do and whispered about what it all meant to the young girl back home I was dating in New Orleans until her father would come to the door in the wee hours to reel her back in again.

Maybe if the offer had been a little firmer?  Maybe if my years in the warm weather of Louisiana and then the freezing winter of western Massachusetts hadn’t made me wary of 90-days in the winter in Prudhoe Bay?  Maybe if I had been willing to break with my parents then, as I was only a few months later?  Maybe if I were surer about the draft deferment or whether my bad knee would keep me away from the rice paddies and war of Southeast Asia?  Maybe this, or maybe that?  In the end I passed on Alaska and all the money that came with it then, and went back to school for another 4 months before leaving to organize against the war and making the series of large and small decisions which became my life to this day.

Nonetheless, I can’t read an article like this one in the Times without knowing how easy it would be to grab the job and the money now, rather than the certainty about school debt and uncertainty about employment later.  If I were living anywhere in the West east of Billings, I would be in the oil fields in a minute today.  I still think about how close the call was then in Louisiana to pass on Alaska and give Massachusetts one more, last chance.

More of us need to realize, there but for fortune….

Locating Housing for the Poor: Good Intentions, Expediency, and Living with the Consequences

Robert Moses, seated at left in 1959, used his position as head of the Mayor's Committee on Slum Clearance to mass-produce thousands of units of public housing, often near the shoreline.

 Quito    One of the ironic outcomes of recent disasters, whether New Orleans or now New York, is that the public, policy makers, and politicians are finally forced to reckon with where the poor are, and often, where they have put the poor in ways that are hard to escape.  In a smaller way this is true of politics and elections as well, as we have recently seen in the sudden realization of the Republican Party that there are a whole, whopping lot of people out in America that don’t look or think like them.   Like disasters, democracy is an equally transforming experience, as I am also seeing daily in Quito and throughout Ecuador, as new and old parties try to calculate their appeal and power in places they do not know and with people they do not completely recognize because they are foreign to their daily experience.

In New Orleans ignoring the failure of public protection and the levee system, many areas that flooded were in places like the 9th Ward where land had at one time been cheap enough to allow African-American families to buy and build or where swamps had been filled sufficiently to allow developers to create cheaper land for housing expansion as the city grew.  In Quito or Mexico City or Lima, poorer and lower waged workers, immigrants, or migrants moved to where there was land, squatted, and tried to make the best of it, until cities were slowly forced to deal with the burgeoning populations and politicians were forced to figure ways to deliver to leverage their support. 

In New York an interesting piece today in the Times, “How the Coastline Became a Place to Put the Poor,” by Jonathan Mahler, looks at the role of legendary power broker and public developer, Robert Moses.

The Rockaways were irresistible to Moses. Once a popular summer resort for middle-class New Yorkers, who filled its seaside bungalows and crowded into its amusement parks, the area had fallen on hard times when cars, new roads and improved train service made the beaches of Long Island more accessible.

Never one for nostalgia, Moses saw the Rockaways as both a symbol of the past and a justification for his own aggressive approach to urban renewal, to building what he envisioned as the city of the future. “Such beaches as the Rockaways and those on Long Island and Coney Island lend themselves to summer exploitation, to honky-tonk catchpenny amusement resorts, shacks built without reference to health, sanitation, safety and decent living,” he said, making his case for refashioning the old summer resorts into year-round residential communities.

What is more, the Rockaways had plenty of land that the city could buy cheaply, or simply seize under its newly increased powers of eminent domain, swaths big enough to accommodate the enormous public-housing towers Moses intended to build as part of his “Rockaway Improvement Plan.” Though only a tiny fraction of the population of Queens lived in the Rockaways, it would soon contain more than half of its public housing.

In fairness of a sort, Mahler even concedes that maybe some of these re-locations might have not just been based on cheap land and eminent domain, but even “good intentions,” citing the efforts of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to clean up the slums on New York’s Lower East Side, pushing new housing towards the waterfront, which also flooded in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

What interests me is not that plans go awry over time, that good intentions can create their own hells, or that concentrated high rises for the poor, the old, the infirm, and the challenged can re-ghettoize areas into new wastelands “…without reference to health, sanitation, safety and decent living” in the earlier words of Robert Moses, but the inability of governments, politicians, and the public to abandon their nostalgic notions of what they had hoped might be developed when they pushed the poor out of sight and fully meet the challenge of resolving the handiwork of earlier decisions and their consequences.  Without a doubt, cheap land is going to attract poorer families and poorly funded public works.  This is simply reality, regardless of the intentions, so let’s get past that.

The real problem is that whether governments push people there as in New York City or turn their heads and finally find them there in New Orleans, Quito, Lima, Mexico City, and thousands of other cities, small and large, ignorance of the government is not bliss, and the challenges created by reality have to be faced.  For want of a better way to say this, if housing is going to be separate, at least citizens and families have to be assured that it is equal.  Services have to be provided.  Transportation has to be affordable and accessible.  Jobs and work locations have to have incentives to move nearby.  Decent retail outlets have to be located in accessible areas and subsidized if necessary to ensure success.  Public schools, police, fire, health clinics and hospitals have to be built, supported, and guaranteed to perform at the same or better quality as provided anywhere else in the government’s jurisdiction.

The social contract between government and citizens cannot guarantee that there will never be mistakes or that perfection is possible, but has to warrant that every effort will be made to create equity and in simpler terms, to fix whatever is broken.  Ironically, doing so not only provides more citizen wealth, city stability and security, but on the long run saves money as countless studies have established.

Democracy encourages us to not avoid the messes we create and the problems around us because it allows people to have a voice and creates occasions where these voices cannot be ignored or silenced.  Disasters by definition are terrible and force us to stop ignoring the precarious problems we have created and reckon with the largeness of our “community” in terms of morality and human rights, easily swept aside in the hurry of everyday lives, but now no longer invisible, and recommit to the minimum standards that must be equitably guaranteed to all.

Land use is a public decision and commitment, not a matter of fate and possible fatality.