Safety Net

Congress Wants to Make it Possible to Drug Test Anyone Who Applies for Unemployment

Tomorrow, the House of Representatives is expected to vote to roll back a Department of Labor regulation that protects people who apply for Unemployment Insurance (UI) from unnecessary drug testing. It’s a not-so-subtle attack on the character of unemployed Americans, rooted in stereotypes that blame workers for job loss.

Congress has already agreed to allow states to test UI claimants in two specific, narrow circumstances: if a worker was fired from their previous job because of drug use, or if the worker is looking for a new job in a field that regularly drugs tests employees.  But since the Great Recession, some states have been clamoring to expand drug testing for UI applicants—they believe that they’d be able to shrink the program as workers test positive for drugs, or that workers would decline to apply for benefits because of their drug use. Despite the complete absence of data to support this theory, three states—Texas, Mississippi, and Wisconsin—have enacted laws that permit the drug testing of UI recipients (though they have all held implementation until the Labor Department rule was finalized).

Lawmakers aren’t just hoping to roll back the Labor Department rule. They’re also counting on passage of a bill introduced in the 114th Congress by Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) that would effectively allow states to drug test all jobless workers filing for unemployment insurance.

Here are five reasons that shouldn’t be allowed:

1. It’s unconstitutional

Drug tests have historically been considered searches for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment. For searches to be reasonable, they must be based on “individualized suspicion.” That means the government would need to have a specific reason to believe that each person they drug tested was doing drugs. Otherwise, it’s like conducting a search without a warrant.

The only exception to this rule has been if the government can show there is a special need, such as public safety, that warrants it.But governmental programs like Unemployment Insurance, TANF, SNAP, and housing assistance do not naturally evoke the special needs exceptions that the Supreme Court has recognized in the past.

2. It’s redundant

Twenty states already explicitly deny people UI benefits if they lost their job because of drug use or a failed drug test. In addition, virtually all states treat a drug-related discharge as disqualifying misconduct even if it is not explicitly referenced in their discharge statutes. Adding an additional regulation when state regulations are already accomplishing this task would add to the bureaucracy that this administration has vowed to reduce.

3. It’s expensive

Creating a new qualifying requirement for UI would be very expensive, and federal law prohibits states from making potential beneficiaries pay for drug tests. States would have to absorb the cost of drug testing thousands of unemployed workers, and UI programs are already too under-funded and under-staffed. Though there are no comprehensive estimates of how much this would cost, when Texas was considering drug testing UI applicants a few years ago, it was estimated to cost $30 million per year.  In FY 2012, federal funding fell short of covering states’ administrative expenses by an estimated $231 million.

4. Workers have already paid for access to the program

Unemployment Insurance is funded through payroll taxes. Workers earn that benefit over the course of their career—and they don’t have access to it unless they lose their job and are working to find a new one.

5. It’s based on negative stereotypes, not data

This attempt to violate the privacy of every American who is unlucky enough to lose a job is rooted in a blanket assumption that the ranks of the unemployed are crowded with lazy drug abusers. However, there is no evidence to support this claim. When states have attempted similar drug-testing initiatives in the past, only a small fraction of recipients—less than one half of one percent—actually tested positive (and finding that small group of people cost hundreds of thousands of dollars).

Realistically, two-thirds of Americans will struggle with unemployment at some point during their careers. Imposing an expensive, ineffective, and unconstitutional new obstacle to a program that most of us will need doesn’t actually solve anything.

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Labor

How a Union Vote in Charleston Could Change the Labor Movement in the South

Mike Evans has worked as an organizer for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) for more than two decades.  He says he’s never had an organizing experience like he’s had in Charleston, South Carolina—home of a 6,000-worker Boeing plant.

Last year, when the union tried to sponsor the city’s Cooper River Bridge Run, its check was returned.

“We got a letter saying that what we do as a union doesn’t fit with their other sponsors”—which included Boeing, says Evans.

The union then tried to sponsor the Knights of Columbus 5K race on Thanksgiving.

“They sent the check back after consulting with their board,” says Evans. “They didn’t want to give us any ability to brand ourselves as being part of the community.”

Organizers of both events declined to comment on why the union’s sponsorship was rejected.

This Wednesday, the workers at the plant will vote on whether to unionize.

***

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner plant in North Charleston is the crown jewel of South Carolina’s economic rebirth. Union opponents point to a state economy that is currently growing at twice the rate of the U.S. economy. However, that growth hasn’t meant equal opportunity for all.

South Carolina has the 11th highest poverty rate in the U.S., with 16.7 percent of its residents living below the poverty line. Despite the opening of new manufacturing plants, the state’s poverty rate is actually higher than when the recession began in 2008.

One contributing factor is a lack of unions throughout the state, which depresses wages. In fact,  research shows that unions increase workers’ wages and benefits, reduce inequality and poverty, and boost economic mobility across generations.

At the North Charleston plant, for example, Evans says that workers in some job classifications are paid half as much as their unionized counterparts in Washington State, and that they often have second or third jobs to help make ends meet.  As a result, the IAM has been trying to organize since the plant first opened in 2011.

“Every community event, you see them everywhere sponsoring stuff,” says Ken Riley, President of the South Carolina AFL-CIO. “They have been sponsoring Little League ballgames. If there is a picnic in the city, they are there.”

Boeing has countered with billboards and TV ads painting the IAM as an out-of-state organization that previously tried to prevent the plant from opening in order to keep jobs in Washington State. To support its case, Boeing has focused heavily on an NLRB complaint that the union filed in 2011 and later withdrew.  In it, the IAM alleged that the company shifted work to South Carolina in order to retaliate against Washington State-based union workers who went on strike in 2009.

“Boeing has always believed in South Carolina, but the IAM hasn’t” reads WeAreBoeingSC.com, an anti-union website built by the corporation.  “Now they want our teammates and our community to forget about how they tried to shut us down”.

Boeing workers have been forced to attend anti-union seminars. Management even set up two tables at the plant—one with diapers and children’s clothing, another with groceries—each representing the $800 dollars in union dues that workers would pay annually.

This isn’t the first time Boeing has taken on an IAM organizing effort at the plant. In 2015, the company organized town halls with workers and promised to address their complaints. Many workers believed Boeing’s assurances, and support for the union waned. Fearing a loss, the IAM called off the election.

But the union says this time around is different—some of the goodwill workers felt towards the company has worn off.

“We are getting much more support than last time because of [Boeing’s] broken promises,” says Evans.

Workers say that the plant has reneged on promises to be more responsive to feedback, hold regular meetings with workers to hear criticism, increase wages, and make scheduling more consistent.

“I have honestly never worked anywhere, union or not, that flip-flops so much as Boeing has lately,” says Sean Cribb, a production worker at the plant. “They can’t decide overtime rules, [or] work schedules.  They are moving management around so much that none of them can learn the work package so they can better assist their team.”

Although Boeing declined to comment on any of these specific allegations—and it’s worth noting that U.S. labor protections are so weak that none of this anti-union activity is illegal—spokesperson Elizabeth Merida said in a statement, “[Boeing] believe[s] our team is best served by having a direct relationship with the company and working as one team as we continue to build on the great successes that have already been achieved here.”

***

Union officials say a win on February 15 could be a watershed moment, opening the door for organizing in the south, beginning with the BMW plant in Spartanburg or the soon-to-open Volvo plant in Berkeley County.

“This would be the breakthrough of the century if they would win,” says Riley.

That’s because corporations and their political allies routinely argue—with great success—that unions in the north are the main reason why so many corporations are heading south. South Carolina has the lowest unionization rate of any state in the nation, with only 2.1 percent of its workers organized.  Former Governor Nikki Haley was explicit about her desire to keep unions out.

“You’ve heard me say many times I wear heels. It’s not for a fashion statement. It’s because we’re kicking them every day, and we’ll continue to kick them,” she said.

But Evans and other organizers say a win in North Charleston would be a huge step towards ending that anti-union legacy, finally giving workers in South Carolina a voice in addressing wages and increasing inequality.

“This is such a tough environment. There is really a lack of any structure that tells people that they can do this,” says Evans.  “When they see workers at Boeing get a first contract and its decent, I think a lot more people in the south will want to reach out.”

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Safety Net

The Affordable Care Act Would Have Saved My Husband’s Life

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from a Facebook post. 

Ten years ago, before the Affordable Care Act was passed, I became a 26-year-old widow with a 2-year-old child.

I want to tell you about how health insurance changes lives—how it can save them, and what is lost when it fails.

My late husband Bob and I met when I was only 13. Bob was a wise old man of 15. Everyone liked him—he was the kind of person who made other people feel good about the world and about themselves. I liked him right away, and we started dating after he asked me to go to a dance. We were the rare high school sweethearts who maintained a relationship through college, even though Bob was two years ahead of me in school.

Bob was a musician and an educator. He earned a Master’s degree in music, and performed in St. Louis and towns all over the Midwest. His income from those gigs was a very significant part of our household budget. He taught at jazz camps for kids, and as an adjunct faculty at various local colleges. Bob loved teaching. A lot of people teach because it’s a reliable source of income to support their passion for performance, but Bob taught because he loved being with students. He was incredibly methodical and organized in his approach to teaching. Many of his friends and former students are still teaching music today using his methods and materials at various institutions in and around my hometown of St. Louis.

Bob was also a gifted composer, because he had worked hard to learn theory and technique until they obeyed the commands of his heart. He spoke the language of music far more eloquently than most of us ever speak with words. I didn’t recognize Bob’s gift when he was living as well as I do now. After he released a CD in 2004, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) selected him to receive a Young Jazz Composer’s Award for one of his songs, “Nola’s Waltz.” As my own musical understanding grows, I hear more and more of what he had to say and how beautifully he told his stories.

He was certainly living the dream in those years—from 1997, when his musical career started, until 2007, when it abruptly came to an end.

What happened?

When he was 25, Bob started having stomach aches. We were married, expecting a child, and working ten jobs between the two of us. I had three jobs and was a full-time student, and Bob taught at six different places in addition to his performance gigs. None of these jobs had paid sick days, so when Bob had stomach pains, he just went to work anyway.

He had a pre-existing condition: he had taken medication for acne

Health insurance was always a problem for us. We purchased it through our college when we were students, but when Bob graduated and we tried to find our own insurance most companies rejected us because Bob was overweight and had a pre-existing condition: he had taken medication for acne when he was in high school. We were able to purchase a catastrophic insurance policy, but it had a deductible of $5,000 and cost us a little less than that each year in premiums.

About 20 percent of our income at that time was going toward medical expenses. We were racking up debt, and paying quite a bit of interest on it. In hindsight, we probably restricted our access to care. Just paying the premiums was enough of a financial burden—we did not want to add to it with copays.

Bob’s stomach aches got gradually worse over time, until he finally went to the ER. We both thought he was having a heart attack, because he was so sweaty and clammy and in so much pain. He was diagnosed with gallbladder problems, and we were relieved that it wasn’t something worse.

In a follow-up visit to the doctor, Bob was told that he didn’t have to do anything until the pain was bad enough to warrant having his gallbladder removed. So Bob muscled his way through the attacks, even when they were so bad that he was literally crawling in pain. It was very frustrating for me as his wife. I was angry with him because he refused to go to the doctor and get his surgery to get that gallbladder out.

Starting in the 2006-2007 school year, Bob was hired as a full-time faculty member of Southwestern Illinois College (SWIC). We had employer-based health coverage for the first time, and he was not about to risk losing that right we got it by calling in sick for a few weeks. He was determined to stick it out until the end of that school year to do the right thing for his job—and his wife and son.

On March 22, 2007, Bob called me at home and told me that he was having an attack at work and that I needed to come get him and take him to the hospital. I drove him to the ER with our 2-year-old in tow, and the three of us spent the entire night in a hallway in the hospital basement. Bob was delirious from pain and sedation. He had acute pancreatitis, which was caused by a gallstone that had escaped his gallbladder and lodged itself in his pancreas.

Bob spent three weeks in the ICU at that hospital, was airlifted to a bigger hospital, and spent another three weeks in the ICU there.  His last words to me were all confusion about why he was in the hospital and why no one would let him go home. He just wanted to see his son.

In the middle of the night on May 3, a nurse called to tell me that Bob had taken a turn for the worse. I called his friends and family, and we sat vigil for him in the waiting room. There were probably 30 of us there when a nurse told me he was the sickest person in the hospital.

His death came at the end of a desperate, gory fight to save him. If you’ve never watched someone die of sepsis, I hope you stay that way.

Bob’s funeral was attended by at least 600 people. It was beautiful. People came together to express their grief by supporting his family. I was amazed at how caring people can be. I also barely remember it, because I slept so little in those days. Bob’s death left me adrift as a 26-year-old widow and single mother with few job prospects. I was still in the middle of my own education when he died.

Things worked out far better for me than they do for most people in my position, thanks to Bob’s life insurance, health insurance, and Social Security. Since Bob was covered by his employer’s health insurance, the medical bills that packed my mailbox for months after his death—I lost track of the total after it topped a quarter of a million dollars—were covered. They didn’t force me into bankruptcy, so I was able to rebuild our life. I spent countless nights grieving alone and struggling to work around the hole in my heart, and I spent my days going to school and raising our son, Bobby. I earned a Master’s Degree in Art Therapy Counseling, and provided more than 1,400 hours of services to others as part of earning that degree. I remarried in 2011.

It all could have gone very differently if the laws in our country had been on a slightly different timeline. If the ACA had passed in 2004 instead of 2009, Bob and I would have had coverage we weren’t afraid to use. Bob would have been covered by his parents’ insurance until only two months before his employer-based coverage began. He could’ve had his gallbladder taken out months before it killed him.

If the ACA is repealed, there will be many more stories like Bob's

If the ACA is repealed—if we no longer prevent insurance companies from excluding people based on pre-existing conditions like teenage acne, or no longer require insurance companies to cover young adults when they may not yet work the kinds of jobs that provide health insurance—then there will be many more stories like Bob’s. There will be many more incandescent American lives that flicker out.

If we lose these provisions, my own experiences will inform the health care I’m willing to procure for my children. Perhaps I’ll decide that it’s better to leave my children’s allergies and minor illnesses and acne untreated, knowing that a diagnosis as a child could prevent them from being able to access more important health care as an adult.

Is that really the best we have to offer our children?

I know the ACA isn’t perfect—our employer-based coverage premiums and copays have gone up. Insurance policies change too often. But at least we have coverage, and under the current law we aren’t afraid we will lose it if we use it.

That is worth protecting. Find a way to do it.

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Safety Net

Trump’s Plan for Medicaid Would Decimate Services for People With Disabilities

As Congressional Republicans careen face-first towards the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, another threat is taking shape that promises to devastate the services that seniors and people with disabilities need. In addition to rolling back the health care law, and the Medicaid expansion that came with it, the Trump administration has announced its intention to turn what is left of Medicaid into a block grant.

Most Americans see Medicaid as only a health insurance program, but it is also the main source of funding for a wide variety of disability and aging services that keep people out of institutions. From the 93-year-old grandmother who needs an attendant to help her get out of bed, to the 24-year-old with Down Syndrome receiving a job coach, to the 6-year-old with a disability whose parents need support paying for skilled nursing care in their home—the Medicaid program is critical to ensuring the independence and freedom of disabled people of all kinds.

“Block-granting” the program will transform it from a guaranteed benefit for low-income Americans and people with disabilities to an annual lump sum payment to states that is not tied to the need for services. If an increasing number of people needs these healthcare services, a block grant will not adjust to meet rising demand.

A block grant will not adjust to meet rising demand

In addition, under the current Medicaid program, the federal government matches each dollar spent by states, enabling policymakers to make new investments toward eliminating waiting lists and broadening available services. However, without the guarantee of matching funds, states will not be able to sustain existing services—much less expand them to meet the tremendous unmet need in the disability community.

In fact, previous block grant proposals resulted in a loss of approximately 1 trillion dollars of federal investment in Medicaid over the next decade.

Additionally, the Trump approach would diminish the federal government’s historic role in using Medicaid funds to deinstitutionalize seniors and people with disabilities. For nearly 20 years—since the Supreme Court ruled in Olmstead v. L.C. that people with disabilities have a right to access supports in the community—federal policymakers have used Medicaid dollars to reward states that moved people out of institutional facilities and instead offer in-home services and supports.

These efforts depend on the federal government using innovative programs like Money Follows the Person. This program helped more than 63,300 people with disabilities leave institutional settings by providing an enhanced federal match rate to states to cover the full cost of supporting a person in the first year after they leave an institution.

In the absence of a federal role in Medicaid to promote community living, people with disabilities will find themselves at greater risk of institutionalization—despite the fact that they overwhelmingly express a preference for living in their own homes and communities.

As we fight back against Donald Trump’s assault on so many different communities, people with disabilities supported by the Medicaid program deserve our full advocacy and activism too.

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Safety Net

There’s a Huge Racial Gap in Cervical Cancer Deaths. Repealing Obamacare Will Make it Worse.

When epidemiologists at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health recently recalculated cervical cancer mortality rates, they found that black women were nearly twice as likely to die from the disease as we previously thought. What’s more, the researchers found that black women die from cervical cancer at rates more than double those of white women—a gap that is also twice as large as earlier estimates.

The study revealed that, among black women, there are 10.1 cervical cancer deaths per every 100,000 individuals—versus just 4.7 per 100,000 white women. Previously, these figures were believed to be 5.7 and 3.2, respectively.

It’s hardly a secret that socioeconomic status and racial discrimination greatly impact patients’ health outcomes in the United States. Low-income patients with diabetes are 10 times more likely to undergo limb amputation than affluent ones, black women are 41% more likely than white women to die from breast cancer, and even though African Americans are more likely to have elevated blood pressure than white Americans, they are 10% less likely to be screened for high cholesterol. The list goes on.

But what makes the recalculated cervical cancer death rates stand out is that the disease is preventable as long as it is detected early and treated appropriately. The low fatality rates among white women by and large reflect that fact. Black women, however, die from cervical cancer at rates comparable to those in sub-Saharan Africa.

One of the factors behind the disparity is that black patients face inferior access to quality detection services and follow-up care (the root cause of which is, of course, racial discrimination). Another recent study of patients with advanced-stage cervical cancer found that a majority received substandard care, and that those patients were more likely to be black and low-income.

How do we get adequate preventive care to all people?

As Dr. Otis W. Brawley, the Chief Medical Officer for the American Cancer Society, said in response to the Johns Hopkins study, “When we look at the difference between black and white, and rich and poor, we find the same disparity. The quality of assessment and follow-up treatment can be the difference. The question becomes: How do we get adequate preventive care to all people?”

But unlike the medical community, whose goal is to expand care, Congressional Republicans’ relentless attacks on the Affordable Care Act and Planned Parenthood will dramatically reduce it—and worsen the racial disparities that have killed so many black women.

The Affordable Care Act mandated coverage of cervical cancer detection services—along with all preventive care—at no cost to the patient. But the Republican-controlled Congress and White House have already taken steps to dismantle the ACA, and the fate of preventive care is uncertain as a result. (Conversations between House and Senate Republicans reveal that there is no consensus around how best to replace the healthcare law.) If racial disparities in cervical cancer death rates boil down to unequal access to quality detection services and subsequent treatment, then patients who struggle to afford care are bound to be worse off under repeal.

The proposal to roll back the Medicaid expansion, backed by many Congressional Republicans, threatens to strip coverage—and thereby the ability to obtain detection services and treatment—from the patients who arguably need it the most. Some 11 million low-income individuals will lose access to Medicaid under this proposal, and black women are more likely to be affected. Moreover, the proposal to turn Medicaid into a block grant will cut between 14 million and 20 million patients from the health insurance program.

Furthermore, Congressional Republicans continue to target Planned Parenthood, a core provider of reproductive and sexual health services—cervical cancer detection included. If they defund Planned Parenthood, the health care provider will be stripped of more than one-third of its budget. Low-income women and women of color, who are disproportionately represented among its patients, will likely suffer worse medical outcomes as a result. And if Congressional Republicans follow through with plans to slash Title X—the nation’s only federal source of funds for reproductive health clinics—patients will find cervical cancer detection services (and other vital healthcare) even further out of reach.

Racial disparities in medical outcomes are completely avoidable—particularly when the disease in question is as preventable as cervical cancer. While the medical community rallies to address these differences in mortality rates, efforts to rectify them will only be stymied by Congressional Republicans. But the cost, in this case, is people’s lives.

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