Hunger Action Month: September 2014

September is Hunger Action Month, and New Jersey’s advocates and legislators have been garnering attention to the plight of the state’s seniors.

According to the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger’s report, The State of Senior Hunger in America 2012, “the fraction of seniors under the threat of hunger increased nearly 30% from 2007-2012.” Unfortunately, the impact of food insecurity among seniors is sometimes downplayed or forgotten. One in six people in the US, including 8.8 million seniors, experience hunger. The effects of food insecurity can contribute to diminished health in older adults and lead to a reduction in their quality of life. Hunger Action Month is an opportunity to shine a spotlight on food insecurity issues facing our seniors and take action to combat hunger in the community.

Not long ago (winter 2013) we witnessed a contentious Congressional debate over reauthorization of the Farm Bill, leading to a significant reduction in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) budget. A federal budget sequester further reduced SNAP spending. Subsequently, some states (Michigan, New Jersey and Wisconsin) have elected to decline monies from the federal government that would have qualified beneficiaries to receive additional food stamps. These actions have been debilitating for many low-income families and seniors who rely on this assistance for basic nutritional support.

Against this background, some elected officials have worked to call attention to the struggle SNAP recipients face. Recently, 18 New Jersey legislators decided to join the state’s Greater MetroWest Food Stamp Challenge to raise awareness and encourage a bi-partisan solution to this issue. The challenge ran from September 8 – 14 and was designed to present each participant with an opportunity to learn what it is like to live on the average daily food stamp benefit. According to a report in New Jersey Jewish News, Senator Lesniak (D) lasted half a day and “busted” his budget to buy coffee. Assemblywoman Munoz (R) learned how challenging it can be to shop—she considered buying a rotisserie chicken which was less expensive than raw chicken but realized that SNAP rules preclude the purchase of “hot food and any food sold for on-premises consumption” and therefore she could not choose the more financially feasible option. The Assemblywoman reportedly said, “We have to get that rule changed.”

Although September is designated as Hunger Action Month by Feeding America, senior food insecurity occurs throughout the year. In January 2014, WOW partner New Jersey Foundation for Aging (NJFA) aired a 30-minute interview with a local food advocate and food bank service provider on its cable television program, Aging Insights. The interview focused on food and nutrition benefits for seniors. NJFA Program Manager Melissa Chalker and her guests addressed issues such as lengthy wait times between being approved for SNAP and actually receiving benefits, along with good nutrition and healthy eating.

WOW’s research suggests that, other than through housing subsidies, the largest decreases in senior economic insecurity can be achieved through participation in SNAP, congregate meals and other nutrition assistance programs. Currently, WOW is working under a grant from The Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation to identify local and non-local causes of senior food insecurity in New Jersey’s Bergen and Passaic Counties. WOW will convene local partners and service providers to identify changes needed in both policy and practice, as well as potential additional advocacy efforts.

As we approach the end of Hunger Action Month, WOW joins friends and allies across the country in reminding everyone to keep the nation focused on reducing hunger, and to use the hashtag #getSNAP to tweet about the Hunger Action Month campaign.

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Addressing Sexual Assault on Campus is a Matter of Gender Equity

Education is an important tool to achieving economic security. Eighty percent of college graduates with a four-year degree are economically secure. Yet this important opportunity is often accompanied by a troubling reality for women – 28.5% of college women reported an attempted or completed sexual assault before or since entering college.

The prevalence of sexual violence on campuses creates a hostile environment for female students, which undermines their ability to take advantage of the same educational opportunities as male students. The impacts of sexual assault can have life-long repercussions on the lives of survivors. This is exacerbated when colleges and universities fail to prevent and appropriately handle cases of sexual assault.

As a result of sexual assault, survivors are often faced with high healthcare costs including care for physical trauma, reproductive health care (if accessible at all) and counseling. Emotional trauma, fear of running into the person who raped them, and/or threats from their rapist result in diminished academic performance. Ultimately survivors may drop out of school, leaving them with debt and poor employment prospects. One study found that the lifetime cost of rape is $145,000 due to health costs, legal fees and lost wages. More information on the economic impacts of sexual violence facing college-aged women can be found in a 2013 brief released by the Economic Security for Survivors Project.

Addressing the prevalence of sexual assault among college aged women is a matter of gender equity. Women who are assaulted face life-long barriers to recovery and economic security. 

Last Friday, WOW joined dozens of advocates and leaders in the movement to combat violence against women in the East Wing of the White House where President Obama and Vice President Biden announced a new campaign to address sexual assault on campus as part of continued efforts in response to recent findings from the “Not Alone” report. The new campaign, “It’s On Us”, seeks to prevent sexual violence on campuses by engaging bystanders and making the case that every member of the community has a role to play in creating safer campuses where intellectual growth is accessible to every student. “It’s On Us” asks that everyone be a part of the solution by pledging to (1) recognize that non-consensual sex is sexual assault, (2)  identify situations in which sexual assault may occur, (3) intervene in situations where consent has not or cannot be given, and (4) create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported.

We are glad to see that the administration is committed to ensuring the safety and equality of opportunity for women. We hope you join us in signing the pledge and becoming part of the solution. #ItsOnUs

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The Economics of Abuse: Lessons from #WhyIStayed

The new video of former Ravens football player Ray Rice brutally assaulting his then fiancée Janay Palmer has spurred a public debate around intimate partner violence. There was shock and disgust at Ray’s sickening actions. There was outrage at the National Football League for their abysmal response. And, of course, there was victim blaming. As an advocate, one of the first questions I hear when I describe my work is: “Why doesn’t she leave?”And it didn’t take long for some to raise questions of why she stayed.

It is important to understand the dynamics of intimate partner violence. Intimate partner violence is insidious. It is not about rage or hatred; it is about power and control over a person. Abusers do everything within their power to dominate the lives of their victims. They isolate them. Deprive them of the resources they would need to be independent. They use intimidation and threats, not only against the victim, but family members, pets and their livelihood – all with the goal of leaving them few options but to stay.

This lack of understanding of the reality victims face has generated a social media response under the hashtag #WhyIStayed in which survivors of violence share the myriad reasons they stayed in abusive relationships. Economic factors played into the stories of many victims. Abusers deliberately control financial resources that are necessary for victims to escape. Abusers hide car keys, slash tires or destroy cell phones so survivors cannot reach out for help. They financially cripple victims by maxing out credit cards and saddling them with debt. They disrupt their ability to work by making them late, or constantly calling and showing up at their workplace, ultimately resulting in job loss. Abusers can also prevent victims from attending or completing school which reduces their future employment prospects. Victims may rely on an abuser for health insurance to cover needed medications for illnesses or disease. Victims often have to choose between being unable to provide food and shelter for their children and their own personal safety. Finances strongly influence the decisions victims make.

WOW’s research underscores the impact economic insecurity has on the ability of victims to be independent. A single parent in America needs on average $2,624 per month to cover the average cost of their basic needs – housing, utilities, food, transportation, childcare and health insurance. Note that this doesn’t take into account taxes, necessary personal and household items such as hygiene or cleaning products, or debt. If a person earning minimum wage could only cover housing costs and some food and without the ability to pay for transportation or childcare, this individual would likely lose his or her job. This person wouldn’t be able to make it on their own.

BEST

But what about public assistance programs – can’t they help? In short, no. They often fail to make up the difference. These programs are underfunded and have waiting lists or have eligibility requirements that can prevent victims from accessing them – particularly those who are still married to their abuser. In those cases, spousal income is often taken into consideration when survivors apply for benefits thus making them ineligible for support. Support programs such as shelters and transitional housing programs, legal aid, childcare and transportation assistance are in high demand and have limited resources. A 2010 survey found that nearly 10,000 requests for assistance went unmet. Without some level of economic security to provide for their basic needs options are limited.

So aside from the practical complications and physical dangers of leaving, consider the math. How easy would it be for you to drop everything and leave your partner? Could you afford it? Would you be homeless, without a car or childcare? What other barriers would you face? If we are to help victims escape and recover from the physical, emotional and economic costs of abuse we need to break down the power and control abusers exercise over victims and empower victims with resources and opportunities to achieve independence. This requires a comprehensive systemic approach in which the government, businesses, community groups and citizens work in concert to respond to devastating epidemic that is intimate partner violence. We all have a role to play.

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Encourage your Senator to Support the Paycheck Fairness Act! In the Meantime, Join a Union.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first bill President Obama signed into law. Today, the Senate took a significant step towards building on the Fair Pay Act by voting (73-25) to open debate on the Paycheck Fairness Act. This vital legislation would work to fight pay discrimination and help women collect the pay they’ve earned.

The wage gap impacts women of every race, disproportionately impacting Black and Hispanic women who earn 64 and 53 cents for every dollar earned by black men. It impacts women in every occupation, from traditionally female jobs like teachers to those in nontraditional jobs (particularly non-unionized positions). It exists in every state, from Washington, DC where women earn on average 80% of what men make, to Louisiana and Wyoming where women earn just 67 and 64 cents, respectively, for each dollar earned by men in those states. The wage gap impacts women at every level of education and it compounds over women’s lifetimes to produce significant gaps in economic security between men and women in retirement.

According to WOW’s Basic Economic Security Tables, the wage gap leads to 60% of single adult women lacking basic economic security as compared to only 45% of single men. Recent analysis by WOW finds, however, that closing the gender wage gap between a full-time employed woman and man would increase that women’s economic security by 22%. A woman working full time at the current wage gap making median wages will make over $320,000 less over the course of her career. Persistently lower wages throughout a woman’s working years result in a diminished capacity for saving and increased economic insecurity.

Between the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and today’s Senate momentum around the Paycheck Fairness Act, the Administration has also continued helping to prevent wage inequity. President Obama signed Executive Action preventing federal contractors from retaliating against employees for their discussion of wages and pay. The President also signed an Order requiring federal contractors to track and release compensation data, broken out by sex and race.

These actions by the Legislature and the Administration are important steps in the right direction. We urge both branches to continue their push to help women earn the wages they deserve and move women and their families into more economic security.

While these efforts continue, one way to increase women’s economic security and pay equity is to expand high-wage, high-skill jobs to women – following the President’s vision to expand apprenticeship to different locations, sectors, and populations. A recent CEPR report details the ways in which women in Unions in nontraditional fields experience virtually universal pay equity. The report details that women in unions earn higher wages than those not in unions, more than five dollars more an hour on average. This is true particularly for low wage jobs, such as office cleaners – whose wages were 30% higher with union membership. The report explains that being part of a union positively impacts low- and mid-wage earners more than high wage earners. As women are generally concentrated in low wage jobs, this inequality means women’s wages more closely reflect men’s. Next, the report credits the collective bargaining process – with managers making fewer decisions on individual workers’ wage levels and required transparency – with removing the pay secrecy and bias or discrimination that may play into wage levels.

Now it’s time to continue the momentum – keep pressuring your Senator to support the Paycheck Fairness Act, help expand collective bargaining and unionization,  and open paths to high-wage, high-skill occupations for women.

For more information on the gender wage gap and the Paycheck Fairness Act, see WOW’s website.

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On the Hill: Heading Towards Recess

As the final work week for Congress before a month long summer recess, lawmakers in both the House and Senate scrambled to wrap up consideration of a few key legislative priorities before heading back to their districts. Pressing items included passing legislation to shore up the Highway Trust Fund, which provides funds for many of the nation’s major infrastructure projects, something lawmakers can tout to their constituents while at home. Also on Congress’s agenda was passing a supplemental spending bill that would include additional funds for a response to the growing influx of child migrants arriving at U.S. borders. On Thursday a $3.6 billion supplemental was blocked in the Senate, which would have funded border security, wildfire response and an Israeli missile defense system. The measure failed 50-44 on a budget point of order, which required 60 votes to waive, with senators objecting to the bill’s emergency funding not being offset. The move followed turmoil in the House, where Republican leaders had already scrapped a vote on their own slimmed-down supplemental after it lacked sufficient support for passage. House Democrats as well as the Obama administration had long criticized the House bill as an insufficient patch for a broken system, and for its “undercutting of due process for vulnerable migrant children which could result in their removal to life threatening situations in foreign countries.” After the votes were canceled, Republicans, who are suing President Barack Obama for an alleged overreach of executive power, called on the president to take steps to address the border crisis without congressional action. House leadership pledged to work through the night on Thursday on changes to make the bill palatable for more conservative factions of the House Republican caucus. With lawmakers eager for recess it remains to be seen whether they can craft a spending bill to garner sufficient Republican support to pass the House, though any such measure would certainly fail in the Senate and be rejected by President Obama.
 
With spending decisions on hold and other priorities such as raising the federal minimum wage or extending unemployment insurance benefits stalled until after recess at the earliest, the only major development of the week came not from Congress but from President Obama, who announced on Thursday a new executive order requiring federal contractors to give their workers more rights in labor disputes. By forcing companies to disclose recent labor law violations, the executives order puts pressure on the most egregious violators to improve or else lose out on lucrative federal contracts. The requirement that contractors divulge labor violations within the past three years applies to those bidding on contracts of more than $500,000. The order also requires that contractors give their workers information to determine whether their paychecks are accurate, and allow workers to have a judge, not an arbitrator, hear sexual assault and civil rights grievances. Another provision prohibits companies seeking contracts that exceed $1 million from requiring their workers to agree upfront to submit certain sexual assault, harassment and discrimination disputes to arbitration, rather than seeking redress through the courts. Multiple congressional studies show that the same U.S. companies with the highest fines for labor violations also continue to win billions of dollars in annual government contracts. Thursday’s executive coincides with others the President has signed this year, including those requiring federal contractors to pay their workers at least $10.10 an hour and barring contractors from discriminating against gay or transgender workers.
 
Notwithstanding additional action in the House on a spending supplemental bill through the weekend, both the House and the Senate will be in recess for the month of August, returning to session on Tuesday, September 9th.
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Paul Ryan’s Safety Net Plan Creates, Not Combats Poverty

Last week, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan unveiled his proposal for an anti-poverty plan at the American Enterprise Institute. Shifting federal assistance towards a block grant he calls the “Opportunity Grant,” Ryan proposed to give the states responsibility to decide how they would distribute funding for eleven safety net programs. The Opportunity Grant masquerades as a plan to uplift low-class and working Americans, while ultimately pulling more people down into cyclical poverty. Historically, block grants have been ineffective and poverty is still a painful reality for many working families, which this plan fails to acknowledge. With no resources to even effectively implement such a program, the Opportunity Grant is destined to fail.

The main issue with Ryan’s proposal is the move away from adjustable assistance programs towards lumping assistance programs into state-distributed packages. To start, block grants are not responsive to economic shifts because they are distributed in fixed annual appropriations. Moreover, block grants have been historically problematic, which Ryan conveniently overlooks. When funds are administered at the state level they can easily be relocated to fill other state budgetary holes. For example, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that states have used billions of dollars of welfare block grants on unrelated programs – in 2011 only 29% of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds were being used towards their intended purposes.

Additionally, block grant programs tend to be chipped away at on the federal level by legislators who considered the money to be “flexible” or superfluous. A prime example of this is the Social Services Block Grant, which has lost 77% of its funding since its establishment and would be entirely cut under the Ryan plan. Ironically, this is a program that would be necessary to sustain the kind of case management Ryan wants to create under his plan. Ryan already wants to make significant cuts to programs like SNAP and Medicaid, so formatting the programs into a lump sum package will make these funds even more vulnerable to further cuts and misallocation.

Ryan’s plan is overly focused on getting people into jobs and is not concerned enough with fixing bad jobs that don’t pay well. He also overlooks other assistance that working individuals and families need to get by, like paid sick and paid family leave, both of which are not required by federal labor laws. In 2014, a full-time worker making the $7.25 federal minimum wage earns approximately $15,080 annually, only 71% of the poverty level for a family of three. This translates to approximately 8.9 million Americans working full-time minimum wage jobs who live below the poverty line. It’s clear that jobs are simply not the end-all to climbing out of poverty. In falsely considering poverty as an issue primarily for people who choose not to work, Ryan’s plan falls short of encompassing the full spectrum of poverty.

Ryan’s proposal also includes lowering the income limit for assistance cutoffs, increasing the eligibility gap and accentuating the poverty cycle even more. These eligibility “cliffs” cut people off from food and housing programs before they can afford them on their own, keeping individuals and families in limbo between self-sufficiency and assistance programs. As the name suggests, eligibility cliffs will drop recipients from help before they even get out of poverty instead of gradually reducing benefits. In fact, in some states like Colorado, simply earning one more dollar an hour could make a low-income individual lose SNAP benefits or experience drastic cuts to their childcare subsidies. Smoothing out these cliffs ensures that recipients continue to have some stability while they become more economically independent. 

Finally, a plan like the Opportunity Grant proposal is financially unfeasible because it calls for cutting funding for some programs while not adding funding for new initiatives, like individualized, paid case managers. More paperwork and bureaucracy will be necessary if Ryan is committed to such case management, paradoxically creating here what he vowed his plan would cut elsewhere. Because Ryan does not propose any increases in program funding, paying for case management staff, training and facilities will only siphon already-limited funds from the block grant. Ryan’s “deficit neutral” plan allots no more money to struggling Americans while simultaneously making it more difficult for those Americans to receive assistance at all.

The Ryan plan is riddled with inconsistencies, contradictory proposals and methods that have proven ineffective since the advent of the welfare safety net. Low-income Americans and the unemployed need assistance that will not disappear at arbitrary cutoff points and that will encompass childcare, food assistance, housing and job training. An anti-poverty plan must go further to address the real issues facing Americans today, not only reinforcing the welfare system but also raising the minimum wage, expanding worker’s protections and extending unemployment insurance. Because it overlooks the facts about poverty and what workers need to get out of it, the Opportunity Grant program will revoke assistance to those who need it most and worsen the problem of poverty in the US.

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On the Hill: CR, Minimum Wage, and Ryan’s Poverty Plan

In its second to the last week of session before adjourning for August recess, this week Congress focused on several last minute items including supplemental spending plans, proposals to improve outcomes for veteran’s health care through the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, and ways to address the growing crisis of undocumented migrant children arriving at the U.S. border. 
 
With House lawmakers far apart from their Senate counterparts on spending and work on individual spending bills at a standstill in the Senate, it appears certain that Congress will pass a continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government funded beyond the end of the fiscal year on September 30. Appropriations staff members from both parties have long acknowledged quietly that a CR likely would be needed for the more contentious fiscal 2015 spending bills and that a wrap-up omnibus in the lame-duck session would likely be the best scenario during a fiercely partisan midterm election year. House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday that the House will not deal with funding the government before the August recess, but that the House will pass a short term continuing resolution sometime in September. Lawmakers will return from their August recess on Sept. 8 and the House will have just 10 legislative days to pass the continuing resolution. In passing a short-term continuing resolution and putting off key spending issues until after the November elections, control over 2015 spending will fall to a lame-duck Congress. In the near term, the Senate Appropriations Committee released a draft fiscal 2014 supplemental spending bill to address pressing needs such as the child migrant influx and wildfire fighting.
 
In keeping with a series of pre-midterm election votes on issues, Senate Democrats made known plans this week to hold a vote on the long-stalled proposal to raise the federal minimum wage. Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP)Committee Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa said Democrats would rally around the proposal to raise the hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10, and that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) planned a cloture vote to proceed to the measure after the month-long summer break. Thursday of this week marked the anniversary of the last three-stepped increase in the minimum wage, enacted in May of 2007. The law required the last increase in the minimum wage from $6.55 to $7.25, on July 24, 2009. The Senate fell short of invoking cloture by a party-line 54-42 vote on Harkin’s proposal on April 30. Opponents cited a February analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, which projected it could eliminate 500,000 jobs, while lifting 900,000 persons out of poverty. But supporters replied this week by pointing to a July 18 Labor Department report on employment at the state level that found nine of the 13 states that raised their state minimum wage last January were among the 30 states with significant over-the-year job gains in June. The nine states were Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, New York, Ohio, Oregon and Washington. 
 
Finally House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan released an anti-poverty report this week entitled “Expanding Opportunity in America.” The plan, a sweeping consolidation of the nation’s anti-poverty programs, would combine the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families as well as child-care and housing assistance into a single “Opportunity Grant” that a select handful of states could use for the pilot projects. The money would be funneled to competing local service providers – including nonprofits, for-profits, and state agencies – and all able-bodied beneficiaries would be required to work. Notably, the plan does not cut spending on the poor, but those opposed to Ryan’s plan, including the Center on Public and Policy Priorities argue it will likely increase poverty and shrink resources for poverty programs over time.
 
Both the House and the Senate will be in session starting on Monday of next week.
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Wage Theft and “Ban the Box” Victories for Workers in DC

Last week, labor activists in Washington, DC, saw months of hard work pay off as the DC City Council unanimously passed the strongest laws in the country on wage theft and employment discrimination against people with criminal backgrounds. These laws are crucial for individuals and families to achieve economic justice. The wage theft legislation will overwhelmingly affect low-wage workers, while the “ban the box” legislation holds particular value for survivors of domestic violence attempting to reenter the workplace with a criminal background.

Wage theft is all too common in the United States. It occurs when employers fail to pay their workers their promised wages, delay payment on wages or don’t pay them at all. This phenomenon adds up to an estimated $35 billion withheld from millions of workers each year. Over three-fourths of the nation’s population lives paycheck to paycheck, making failure to pay or delayed payment a serious problem for the economic security of millions. DC’s Wage Theft Prevention Act will restructure wage and hour enforcement by increasing penalties for employers who engage in wage theft of all kinds and creating formal hearings for these incidents.

Low-income workers are especially susceptible to paycheck exploitation by employers: in a study by the National Employment Law Project, 26% of low-wage workers were paid less than the minimum wage in the week prior to when they were surveyed. Women hold approximately two-thirds of low-wage jobs across the nation. In the wake of the recession, sixty percent of women’s job gains during the recovery have been in the ten largest low-wage jobs, which pay less than $10.10 per hour. WOW’s BEST indicators suggest that an adult worker with no children in DC needs to earn at least $18.36 an hour to be economically secure, but DC’s $9.50 per hour minimum wage does not even come close to this.

A poignant example of such exploitation lies in the restaurant industry, where 71 percent of servers are female and are nearly three times more likely to be paid under the poverty line. In most states, these workers can legally be paid $2.13 an hour. Workers in tipped positions like servers are especially vulnerable to wage theft because, though employers are supposed to make up the difference between what their tipped workers make in hourly tips and the state’s minimum wage, over 12% of tipped workers faced theft of tips by their employer. DC’s new anti-wage theft law will raise the stakes for restaurant employers attempting to engage in wage theft, hopefully deterring them from paying unjust wages or no wage at all.

The Fair Criminal Records Screening Act, commonly known as a “ban the box” law, will prohibit employers from asking questions about a person’s criminal record on employment applications, including the checkbox that asks if an applicant has been arrested or convicted for a crime. DC joins 65 other jurisdictions across the country that have implemented “ban the box” measures, and expands on the Returning Citizens Public Employment Inclusion Act of 2010 by prohibiting private as well as public employers from discrimination based on criminal or arrest records. Seeing as 10% of DC residents, or 60,000 people, possess a criminal record and that people with a criminal history consistently have high unemployment rates, this law opens doors for millions of potential workers to reenter the workforce and move on with their lives. The law also leverages hefty fines on employers found guilty of employment discrimination and allows for applicants to explain their criminal or arrest backgrounds if they are legally brought up in later hiring rounds.

For survivors of domestic violence, this law can mean getting a much needed job despite a criminal record due to crimes coerced by a abuser or physical retaliation against an abuser out of self-defense. Abusers can manipulate domestic violence scenarios in which dual arrest occurs, especially when they have financial control and can economically intimidate their victims from cooperating with a prosecution. Even after domestic violence has ended, these incidences will remain on survivors’ records unless they are expunged or sealed. The new “ban the box” law will provide survivors with criminal records a better chance at employment and the right to explain past arrest or criminal records that resulted from an abusive partner.

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On the Hill: Highway Trust Fund, UI, and Contraception Act

In one of their final weeks of work ahead of the August recess, House lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a deal to continue funding the nation’s transit infrastructure projects by addressing a coming shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund. The House-passed deal is expected to be quickly taken up and cleared by the Senate in coming days.

Unfortunately the measure — a 10-month patch shoring up the fund through May 2015 with $11 billion — may have also dealt a fatal blow to lawmakers hoping to reinstate federal unemployment insurance benefits, as the “pay-for” for the extending funding for the highway trust fund came from the same mechanism (so called “pension smoothing”) that lawmakers had suggested could be used a “pay for” for extending jobless aid. The development makes chances increasingly slim that a renewal of emergency unemployment insurance will get a vote in the Senate before the midterm election, as Sens. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Dean Heller (R-NV) must now find a new way to pay for their five-month extension of unemployment insurance — the longest time frame lawmakers could find money to pay for in a manner that centrist Republicans would accept. Senate Republicans rejected unpaid-for extensions earlier this year, eventually passing a $10 billion, five-month bill in April that the House never took up. After that bill’s timeline ran out, Heller and Reed introduced a new five-month extension that — unlike previous efforts — did not include retroactive benefits. But now without a “pay-for”, that bill, if Reed and Heller were somehow able to secure another vote, would likely fall short of needed support. Senator Heller has insisted that, despite the setbacks, he and Sen. Reed will try to determine if there’s a new unemployment insurance proposal that could pass this year.

On Wednesday Senate Democrats fell short in their efforts to pass legislation responding to the recent Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision, a 5-4 ruling which said closely-held companies do not have to comply with the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act if the owners have religious objections. The bill, which would have negated the Supreme Court’s ruling by eliminating the religious exemption, fell three votes short of the 60-vote threshold to end debate. Republicans Susan Collins (ME), Mark Kirk (IL) and Lisa Murkowski (AK) voted with the Democrats in favor of the bill. Senate Majority leader Harry vowed to bring the legislation up again for another vote, and Democrats were quick to note that Sen. Brian Schatz (HI) was not present for the vote, meaning that if a re-vote is taken they will only need to convince two more Republicans to support the measure for it to be considered on a simple majority vote.

With just a handful of days left in session before the August recess and campaign season entering full swing. Still, both parties have emphasized in recent days new economic priorities aimed at wooing support from middle-class voters. The Democratic agenda has been retooled in recent weeks to focus more on middle-class workers and families and less on closing the gap between low-income families and the middle class, with House Democrats’ agenda resembling aspects of the Senate Democrats’ “fair shot” agenda. Among several items on the list, the Democratic agenda includes familiar proposals such as raising the minimum wage, incentives for manufacturing, easier terms for student loan repayment and new pay equity guarantees for women workers.

Both the House and Senate will be in session next week, with the Senate in on Monday and the House resuming legislative work on Tuesday, July 22nd.

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Pregnant Workers’ Rights on Supreme Court and Congressional Agendas

On July 1st, the Supreme Court agreed to review a case regarding a former UPS employee who claims she was discriminated against because of her pregnancy. The petitioner in the case, Peggy Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., alleged that her employer refused to make accommodations for her pregnancy after her doctor told her not to lift packages weighing more than seventy pounds. Instead of accommodating her with lighter work, UPS forced her onto unpaid maternity leave, leaving her without healthcare or an income during her pregnancy. The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA) bars employment discrimination against pregnant workers, but does not require employers to accommodate their employees’ requests for changes to their work during their pregnancies. As a result, employers can use troublesome loopholes that allow them to discriminate against pregnant employees, such as an unplanned job evaluation after the pregnancy is announced, and may even fire them on the basis of their pregnancy.

Sixty-two percent of pregnant women and new mothers participate in the labor force nationwide. It is essential to the economic security of women and their families that they are accommodated during their pregnancies so that they can continue to work or be supported by paid maternity leave. Discrimination in hiring and in the workplace against pregnant workers still occurs despite protections under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Many of these actions stem from employers’ own stereotypes about pregnant women or even what is best for a child. For instance, workers who announce their pregnancy early on are sometimes automatically moved to light work or are given fewer responsibilities even if they can still perform their duties with no issues. Pregnant women are sometimes forced onto sick leave or maternity leave, despite a doctor’s note or the employee’s resistance. In addition, maternity and sick leave are generally unpaid and often not covered by employers’ health insurance, leaving pregnant women in strapped financial and healthcare situations during their pregnancies. The work environment itself can be hostile to pregnant workers as well. Many pregnant women report being denied a water break or a stool to rest on occasionally during long shifts.

Respecting pregnant women’s right to work and to be accommodated should be reflected by both the Supreme Court’s decision and forthcoming legislation. Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc. arrives on the heels of House and Senate consideration of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), which could resolve the issues brought up by the case. PWFA would fill in the loopholes employers have found in the PDA that have allowed them to continue discriminating against pregnant employees. It would also mandate that employers with 15 or more employees accommodate their pregnant employees during shifts, like allowing breaks or water bottles, in addition to affording them job alterations tailored to their pregnancy. This week, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released the Enforcement Guidance on Pregnancy Discrimination and Related Issues, the first publication on discrimination against pregnant workers since 1983. The Enforcement Guide incorporates Pregnancy Discrimination Act enforcement with practical implementation and employers’ best practices, in addition to addressing how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) might also apply to individuals with pregnancy-related disabilities.

The interests of both employers and their pregnant employees are met by supporting protections and flexibility in the workplace. Giving pregnant workers flexibility in their job is low-cost or free, reduces absenteeism, increases productivity and encourages employee retention. At the recent White House Summit on Working Families, President Obama spoke in support of pregnant workers, arguing that pregnant women should not have to choose between the health of their child and their job, and that employers had a responsibility to accommodate instead of punish them. To this end, he called for the passage of the PWFA in the Senate as a step towards ensuring employment fairness and economic security for all workers. Labor legislation and policies must take a supportive stance towards pregnant workers for the benefit of more inclusive, efficient workplaces and the financial security of their workers.

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