School Workers as Well as School Children Exposed to Lead in Texas

Pictured, left to right, Retired Workers Thomas Taylor, Doris Taylor, Kenneth Morgan and William Morgan. Photo Credit Kenneth Stretcher

Pictured, left to right, Retired Workers Thomas Taylor, Doris Taylor, Kenneth Morgan and William Morgan. Photo Credit Kenneth Stretcher

New Orleans    The Dallas Independent School District (DISD) had acquired the old Proctor & Gamble soap manufacturing plant relatively speaking for a song. A big, hulking highly visible building on Lamar Street near downtown, the facility became a multi-purpose center for odds and ends of the district large and small. The district is now shuttering the building because they have found lead, mercury, and other heavy metals. In speaking to Channel 5 TV, Dallas ISD spokesman Andre Riley said “the district is not sure what caused the contamination at the 95-year-old building.” We can only imagine!

United Labor Unions Local 100 represents workers from bus drivers to custodians to food service workers throughout Dallas County. They are reading the reports from this building very closely, as well as the reports from Flint, Newark, and around the country where schools have been found to have lead and other chemicals in the water in old buildings. In Texas there is no requirement that schools test the water, so workers are likely to find parents joining them in making demands to assure the water is safe to drink, but our members, both working and retired, are now also worried about whether the conditions and lack of safeguards may have already been damaging to them.

Kenneth Stretcher, Local 100’s longtime organizer in Dallas, met with ten retired DISD workers this week who had worked in the old P&G plant who were vocal on these issues. Though the district has promised that it would provide and pay for blood tests for any workers concerned, there has been no follow-up to implement this promise with current or former workers. Local 100 has also been joining hands with community organizations working in the area of the old plant who are working with the medical school to provide blood tests in the community, and they may step in where the district has been slow to act.

The problems in this building are hardly new. A Texas State Libraries story talking conditions in the building in the 1990s said “the records center was located on the sixth floor of an old Proctor and Gamble soap factory…the conditions were less than favorable for storing records: the floor contained standing water, birds were in flight, and some boxes were held together by mold. Additionally, a variety of wildlife had nested in the containers….” And, they weren’t even thinking about the conditions or their impact on health and safety for the workers.

This will be a big campaign in Dallas, but it also been a wakeup call for Local 100. We are now moving to set up a system to collect soil samples on schools where our members work throughout Houston and Dallas. Obviously, we will join with the community to demand testing of the water quality especially in the older facilities. We are expanding such tests to our health facilities in Louisiana and state facilities in Arkansas where we have members as well. We are reaching out for help to university partners who have state-of-the-art testing equipment.

It was shocking recently to read that OSHA has issued almost no new rules during the seven years of the Obama Administration. Where were they on this lead and heavy metals assault on workers in public and private?

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Loopholes on Employer Mandates of Obamacare Killing Low Wage Workers

ACA-Employer-Mandate1Shreveport    The devil is in the details, and lower waged employers, like large nursing home chains, have figured out a way to be the devil with the details when it comes to making a mockery out of the employer mandate to provide healthcare coverage. Bargaining a renewal contract for Local 100 United Labor Unions at a nursing home in Shreveport that we had represented for almost thirty years was a case study in the travesty of the law and the tragedy for the workers.

In fulfilling the information request and providing details on the health insurance offering for the workers, this company, the second largest nursing home chain in Louisiana, gave us a mishmash of materials forcing the bargaining committee to ask a number of questions hoping for a glimmer of hope that didn’t seem obvious from the materials, but no such luck.

We saw two plans. One that covered some our bargaining unit, including the activities director and maintenance staff. The other for all of the certified nursing assistants.

The first plan was no Cadillac plan, believe me. The deductible was $2500 for an individual in or out of the network. The examples of coverage were cautionary. If you had a baby costing $7540 from the hospital, the plan would pay for $3530 and you would be out $4010. The second plan was from land of Simon Legree. The deductible was a whopping $6350 per person, the highest we have seen or heard of anywhere, no matter the low wage employer! Worse, it covered almost nothing. Having a baby with the same cost would have the plan paying less than a grand and in fact only $940 while the patient paid $6600 with the deductible now stated to be $6400 and something called “exceptions” adding another $200. Managing diabetes was another example where if the cost were $5400 on the first plan, the worker would pay $3280 and the plan $2120. On the second plan we devolve into farce, where on the cost of $5400, the plan would pay a measly $20 bucks and the worker would pay $5380. Yes, $20.

This is more than enough to describe the horrors here, but adding insult to injury, remember that the worker would also be paying for this sorry story. The rate of payment was not fixed which was a first for in our experience, but was calculated to the wage of each individual worker so that the company could squeeze the last penny of the 9.5% allowable for an Affordable Care Act plan from the worker. The cap was $175 per month at the highest worker’s wage and the minimum was around $111 per month figured at the individual worker’s hourly wage times 130 hours for a regular employee times 9.5%. No math shaming here but if you are a certified nursing assistant to elect this plan the employer begrudgingly was providing under the employer mandate of Obamacare, you would be paying anywhere from about $1300 to $2100 for the ability to claim health insurance on your job where you would then have to pay more than $6000 before you got the first dollar worth of health insurance benefit. The math is daunting. These are workers making less than $20,000 per year and closer to $18000 annually who would be paying up to $8000 out of their income to access any benefit from the policy! Incredible!

The employer insisted that the plan qualified, despite our objections, and, frankly, it may. The employer had no answer to the question of why all workers were not put in the first plan which was hardly a gift. The employer pretended not to have available the number of workers who had elected to pay for this travesty of insurance, even as the union asked if it was more than one and less than ten workers.

Meanwhile the workers are blocked from the subsidies and cost sharing payments provided under the Affordable Care Act, because their employer supposedly provides health insurance if that is what you call what is described here. And, to pile on since none or next to none are foolish enough to join this so-called plan that means beginning in 2016 the workers will pay a 2.5% penalty on their gross income or $450 to $500 for not having insurance, so their boss can take more money to the bank.

Needless to say there’s no Medicaid expansion yet in Louisiana – and many other states. This is not a health care solution for lower waged workers who desperately need health care protection!

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Is the NLRB Getting Better?

indexNew Orleans   After a lengthy rule-making procedure, legal challenges, and a host of complaints from the right and the business community, perhaps one and the same thing, but that’s a topic for another day, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued new rules that they claimed would speed up certification elections to determine whether a union would be able to represent bargain unit workers in collective negotiations for a contract. We were skeptical that it would make much difference. Our position is evolving from that point to “we’ll see,” but so far our early experiences, after avoiding the NLRB procedures for some years, are trending positive.

We’ve filed for two elections over the last two weeks as Local 100 United Labor Unions sought to represent 42 janitorial workers in New Orleans and 63 nursing home workers in Atkins, Arkansas. The janitorial unit on the fast track ended up with the employer giving us voluntary recognition almost as quickly as they received their copy of the petition. We had previously had contacts with the company’s ownership, so perhaps that wasn’t a fair test. In the nursing home unit we are being told by the case officer that the election might be as soon as 3 ½ weeks after the petition was docketed by the NLRB, if everything proceeds on schedule, and if that happens, that would be the equivalent of lightning speed for the Board. Big “if,” but it could happen.

There are some new twists.

Some parts of the process are now automated especially the docketing. The petition is submitted online for example and a confirmation is sent almost immediately that is time dated and starts the ball rolling, making it a lot easier, even if not that much quicker.

One new requirement is that the union now alerts the company that we are seeking to represent the workers simultaneously via facsimile or otherwise. The copies of the authorization cards requesting the election are no longer submitted until later, but that doesn’t change the clock. Our old trick of filing on a Friday at 4:25 pm to get docketed by the NLRB then and start the clock running, knowing that the notice to the employer would not be mailed until Monday, used to burn 4 or 5 days off the clock without as much opposition. Now, they know immediately, but if it still ends up with a quicker election then that’s OK, and if they don’t work over the weekend, the clock is still ticking until someone checks the fax machine.

The real deal will be whether or not the claims about bypassing hearings on procedural or marginal issues until after the elections is successful. Our nursing home petition in Arkansas will be a better test since such units frequently end up in either hearings or last minute stipulations swallowed by the union even when inappropriate in order to finally hold the election, often creating weird unit configurations for bargaining and servicing later. I read that the Service Employees president Mary Kay Henry said they got an election and won in a 1000-person hospital unit in California in amazing time as well.

Take all of this new data along with other NLRB decisions like putting the union-busting Teach for America 2-year contract workers into charter school bargaining units, standing up for adjunct teachers in higher educational units, and coming decisions on subcontractors and co-employer status, and change may be coming from the NLRB that makes a difference even if much less than we hoped for or need to level the playing field between workers and their bosses. We need to start watching all of these developments closely to see if a window is really opening or if this is just a crack of light finally breaking through.

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Nonprofit Hospitals Are Going to Have to Prove They are Not Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing

medical-bills1-660x330Little Rock     For many top executives and CEO’s it easy to imagine that running a big urban nonprofit hospital has been a sweet gig.  Looking at some of the 990’s that all nonprofits submit to the IRS annually, salaries in the millions are not unusual at some of these big hospitals and many make millions all down the corporate flow chart. They are big whoops in their local communities with thousands of jobs and money to spend and, hey, for all that the regular folks out there know — they’re doing fine, while doing good. Luckily for their patients and the whole community, their world is going to have to change.

Modern Healthcare, the industry’s bellwether magazine, reported recently on the shivers running through many nonprofit hospital CEO’s spines as they absorbed the new world in which the courts and the Federal Trade Commission are no longer willing to take their word for it when they say that mergers and consolidations in their markets will just mean better patient care, when it is clear that they will also create healthcare monopolies able to charge escalating prices on a captive market. A federal appeals court has ordered St. Luke’s Hospital in Bosie, Idaho to unwind their purchase of a major area medical practice, the Nampa, Idaho-based Saltzer Medical Group.  The court essentially said that they could hear St. Luke’s saying it would be better for the community and patient care, but in fact St. Luke’s would have to prove that it wasn’t really much more than an attempt to build a health care monopoly with no price controls.  The FTC had earlier delivered a similar blow to an Ohio hospital, and the head of the FTC has been speaking loudly and clearly in recent months about the agency’s skepticism towards healthcare mergers now.And, then of course you have the fact that nonprofit hospitals are going to have to toe the line because of the new rules from Treasury and the IRS being implemented under the Affordable Care Act. As we assemble our “volunteer army” to look at the 990s for nonprofit hospitals in Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, we’re already seeing enough to turn our stomachs.  A billion dollar children’s hospital that claims to spend only $6 million in charity care and some of that is suspect, along with huge fundraising efforts that seem mainly about politics, public relations, and marketing and in fact lose money at year’s end. So-called “community benefit” items included under charity care by other nonprofits that are also in many cases simply marketing efforts dropped into the category.  Many are simply self-serving like one outfit that put the cost of training its doctors as a community benefit under charity care.  I get the feeling when Local 100 finishes pulling all of these pieces together it’s going to make our hair burn and our hearts’ hurt.St. Luke’s in Idaho is a bit far out of our range, but looking at their particular cut on the twisted reality of all of these matters gives me a feeling that they also are going to have many lessons to learn. In their Q&A section they are careful to point out that they are nonprofit and exempted from some taxes, and in their view that requires them to invest in expansion and new services. How about charity? No mention of that. In fact in their self-presentation they have a unique way of describing for their whole hospital system how they see charity. Here’s how they explain their munificence when it comes to handling Medicaid:

The amount of money St. Luke’s receives from Medicaid is an indication that St. Luke’s provides care to a large number of Medicaid patients. In fact, St. Luke’s provides more care to patients covered by Medicaid than any other health care provider in the state.  Medicaid pays hospitals well below the cost of providing care to Medicaid patients.  The costs that count for Medicaid purposes do not include all of the hospitals costs, so the reimbursement is even less on a percentage basis than it would appear.  Because Medicaid pays below cost, a higher volume of Medicaid funding results in lower net revenue for the hospital.  In other words, on balance, St. Luke’s pays to see Medicaid patients because we spend more on the care of the patient than we receive in payment for the care we provide.

What a unique argument!  St. Luke’s “pays” to see the poor, because they believe that Medicaid reimbursement rates are low compared to their view
of their market pricing.

In a similar bit of double-speak, St. Luke’s communicates in totally imperial and oblique terms their collection policy for the poor Idahoan
that cannot pay the sticker price.

If a patient has difficulty paying their medical expenses, St. Luke’s Patient Financial Services works with them to determine what options are available for assistance, including a possible payment plan.  If it is determined that a patient can pay all, or a portion, of their medical bills but chooses not to do so, St. Luke’s refers those accounts to a collection agency to help collect payment from patients. St. Luke’s may charge interest on outstanding accounts depending on the circumstances.

“Chooses” not to do so?”Interesting.  Probably the same way they “choose” to be poor or unemployed or even for that matter, sick and in the hospital in the first place.  It doesn’t take much imagination to believe that St. Luke’s is taking a page out of the now notorious Heartland Hospital’s playbook in St. Joseph, Missouri.We’re doing the work, but we can already tell even as we get started that we are not going to like what we find, but neither are some of these nonprofit hospitals, because change is coming. There are way too many wolves in sheep’s clothing seeing nonprofit status not as a mission but as a tax dodge.
***
Please enjoy Modern Times by Dropkick Murphys

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Year End Meeting Highlights: Bengaluru, Checklists, and Campaigns

IMG_2746New Orleans               Ten organizations from the US and Canada in our family of community organizations, labor unions, media operations, and social enterprises came together as we do every year in a Year End / Year Begin Meeting to evaluate the work of the past year and plan for the current year.  Beside the people meeting in the Common Space at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, reports were heard via Skype from a small sample of ACORN International’s affiliates in India, the United Kingdom, and our emerging project in France, adding excitement to the meeting, as well as a reports from our affiliates based in Maryland and Pittsburgh.

A lot of work was done, and there were thrills and chills a plenty as you might expect.  Certainly one of the highlights was hearing from Suresh Kadashan, who directs ACORN India’s work based in Bengaluru, Chennai, and elsewhere in south India.  Suresh had an amazing year, though he said he was disappointed at having failed to reach the goal he had set.  The ACORN union now registered and rolling among hawkers, street sellers, and food workers in Bengaluru has now reached 18,000 members there with another 5000 in Chennai, another couple of thousand in Pondicherry, also in Tamil Nadu, and more than 10,000 in five other cities in Karnataka totally 35,000 members now.  Suresh had set his sights on 50,000 this year, but we were ecstatic.  Reports from the UK indicated solid progress in Bristol, Edinburgh, and London, but also encouraging news of the expansion now underway in Birmingham and Newcastle.  Drives along the ACORN model have also begun in Grenoble, France and work is underway with our partnership with ReAct, based there as well, so the news was encouraging.

A lot of time was spent not only on reports and plans, but also on how to improve the way we organize our work so that we can get more done with the talented people we have despite often challengingly scare resources.  The ACORN Canada staff had read Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto before their YE/YB in Chicago in December and shared the work they were doing to implement a system of checklists to streamline and make their work more effective.  The meeting embraced the idea and small groups throughout the weekend tackled the process for actions, doorknocking, daily planning, meetings, and other common experience.  It will be interesting to see how these next steps play out over the year.

The other major progress was the fruitful discussions around campaigns directed at developing new strategies to win hospital accountability and increase wages in cities where we work where living wage campaigns have been blocked at the ballot.  Mike Gallagher, formerly with SEIU and an old veteran of ULU and many of our other labor projects, joined us to help look at the impact new regulations on nonprofit hospitals provide us with handles to force more accountability and lower costs for many of our members and people coming through the Citizen Wealth Centers.  On wages we took a fresh look at whether coalitions might be organized with our allies to win adoption of wage increases based on public campaigns and agreements from individual institutions and corporations even in the absence of mandatory enforcement.

There’s a lot more work to be done, but it was encouraging to still mark our progress and continue to consolidate our team and our network of organizations so that they can engage big issues and deliver important victories as our members build power.

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Rallying for $15

10478188_731954839698_3276092294241401119_nBirmingham, England      Before catching a plane for the UK, I went down with fifteen Local 100 United Labor Unions members and supporters with our t-shirts on to join the New Orleans piece of the national rally and demonstrations for raising wages to $15 per hour for fastfood and other workers in the US. We met in the parking lot of the new Whole Foods grocery store in New Orleans on Broad Street in Mid-City, no small irony there, since they are not the best on wage issues by a long shot, but they are at least smart enough to look the other way when 50 people are mustering in their parking lot.

Our crowd was pretty typical of what has become the “new normal” for these kinds of events around the country. A smattering of union activists from the local labor council, AFGE, and others who were in town to help with the endgame of the Landrieu election for Senate were there. There were some red-shirts saying Unite HERE for the local union. There were shirts identifying a local immigrant rights organization and one saying Legalize Arizona from the marches there several years ago, a t-shirt and action I was proud to participate in as well. There were some shirts calling for $15 per hour, who I assume were a combination of local and out-of-town SEIU folks but none of us knew any of them other than the national campaign organizer assigned to New Orleans who had convened the meetings that had brought all of us there. Perhaps there were two or three workers from McDonald’s and other fast food operations. One spoke briefly before we marched over to the McDonald’s on Canal Street next to the RTA Building named after A. Philip Randolph, the former legendary head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. There weren’t many civilians. This was a labor-for-labor rally.

It was a gorgeous December day in New Orleans with temperatures in the 70’s, so t-shirt weather all the way. There was some whispering before we began about the fact that contrary to earlier claims, four workers had been fired the previous year for their participation, three days after the annual rallies. Nonetheless, we were encouraged to parade individually through the store. It was all good-spirited with whoops and chants and whatnot. Many were surprised and confused to read the news reports later that some people had been arrested since this had somehow happened off to the side or after the main column had gone on about their business.

On the whole this is all good stuff. We need to have unions and union activists standing up for lower waged workers, especially given the tenuousness of their employment. Advocating for higher wages for workers is 100% the business of unions, and given the frozen minimum wage, fast food workers are good poster people for the campaign. A portrait of a leader of these actions from Kansas City profiled in the New York Times was inspiring. This is decidedly not about unionizing these workers, nor a strike in any way, but none of that should detract from the fact that it’s the right thing to do, and we all should do our part.

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