The Other Race on Georgia’s January Ballot

Originally published in The Intercept on November 23, 2020.

WHEN GEORGIA VOTERS cast their ballots in the U.S. Senate runoffs, with Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock facing off against Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, they’ll also be weighing in on another statewide contest that had no clear winner on November 3: public service commissioner.

The Georgia Public Service Commission — a relatively obscure but highly consequential five-member body — makes important decisions like setting rates on Georgians’ electric bills and determining state investments into renewable energy. The commission has been controlled for years by Republicans who sit six-year terms, but this year District 4 Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald fell just shy of the 50 percent needed to win reelection, with Democrat Daniel Blackman earning 46.9 percent of the vote.

One of Blackman’s central campaign arguments is that the Public Service Commission has been too friendly to utility companies at the expense of customers and has not made fighting climate change an urgent priority. Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company and a regulated state monopoly with 2.6 million customers, has pushed the commission to charge higher rates even as Southern Company earns billions in profit. Georgia Power is also a major producer of coal ash, toxic residue created when coal is burned by power plants to produce electricity. Environmental activists have been pushing resistant state lawmakers to enact tougher regulations over coal ash storage, and they see the election of Blackman, a politician willing to speak out against Georgia Power, as a way to bolster their campaign.

Blackman said he knows no one in the state party really expected him to make it to the runoff, and his campaign didn’t depend on the party, either, which was focused on the U.S Senate and presidential races. “Democrats get excited when there’s a big election, but we have a real chance now to appeal to voters who have felt disenfranchised for a long time,” Blackman said, adding that his platform of “energy security, energy equity, and lower rates” has been a way to bridge coalitions between Democrats, Republicans, progressives, moderates, and those who never vote at all.

THE STATEWIDE Public Service Commission runoff was originally scheduled for December 1, but on November 11 Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced that due to the ongoing election disputes, the planned presidential recount, and the two U.S Senate runoffs, he would be postponing the commission runoff to make it easier for election workers.

Supporters of Blackman, like Travis Town in Troup County, Georgia, are relieved that the runoffs will be combined on one ballot, since it would likely boost turnout for the commissioner vote. “I don’t think people are informed about the PSC, the majority of folks are just eking out day-to-day existence,” Town said. “I was worried about that election being right after Thanksgiving.”

Blackman, who has advised the Congressional Black Caucus and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on environmental justice issues and served as Georgia’s political director for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential bid, said he will also be an advantage to Warnock and Ossoff, because his contest deals with issues directly of concern to disenfranchised voters.

Blackman pointed to a recent study from WalletHub that found Georgia has the eighth-highest utility rates in the country and the fifth highest electric rates. “Everyone has an electric bill,” he said.“When you look at Warnock and Ossoff, their biggest arguments are the [Affordable Care Act], the Supreme Court, and election protection. No disrespect at all to those, but a lot of average people at their dinner table aren’t talking about that — but they are talking about their grandmother and grandfather on a fixed income with their lights about to be cut off.” Blackman also noted that many young voters are single-issue voters on climate, and the Public Service Commission has direct influence over investments into areas like solar energy. “What we are able to do is add value to the Democratic argument as it relates to climate change,” he said.

McDonald, who is 81 and would be 88 at the end of his next term if he wins, was originally appointed to fill a vacant commissioner seat after serving 20 years as a state representative. While he has touted his work in pushing the commission to invest in solar, advocates say he has not used his platform to make fighting climate change a top priority, including pushing back on some of the anti-climate measures coming from the Trump administration.

The PSC Accountability Project, an effort led by the Georgia Conservation Voters Education Fund and the Georgia Ethics Watchdogs Education Fund, has said that 85 percent of McDonald’s contributions have come from companies and people that may profit from the commission’s decisions. Utility companies can’t donate directly to commissioners’ campaigns, but individual employees can. McDonald told The Intercept that he could not comment for this story due to being tied up with hearings this week, though in October he told the Atlanta NPR affiliate that he’s not influenced by the industries he regulates. “As far as the influence of minor contributions, it’s no more than my neighbor giving me a contribution, or people in my church, or people that know me, it’s all within the framework of the laws,” he told WABE. “I’m not an expert in every area of the world, and when they bring advice, I listen. I listen to both the negatives of those and the positives of those, and at some point in time, I make a decision.”

One of Blackman’s central campaign arguments is that the Public Service Commission has been too friendly to utility companies at the expense of customers and has not made fighting climate change an urgent priority. Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company and a regulated state monopoly with 2.6 million customers, has pushed the commission to charge higher rates even as Southern Company earns billions in profit. Georgia Power is also a major producer of coal ash, toxic residue created when coal is burned by power plants to produce electricity. Environmental activists have been pushing resistant state lawmakers to enact tougher regulations over coal ash storage, and they see the election of Blackman, a politician willing to speak out against Georgia Power, as a way to bolster their campaign.

Blackman said he knows no one in the state party really expected him to make it to the runoff, and his campaign didn’t depend on the party, either, which was focused on the U.S Senate and presidential races. “Democrats get excited when there’s a big election, but we have a real chance now to appeal to voters who have felt disenfranchised for a long time,” Blackman said, adding that his platform of “energy security, energy equity, and lower rates” has been a way to bridge coalitions between Democrats, Republicans, progressives, moderates, and those who never vote at all.

Another area climate activists have expressed frustration with Public Service Commission members is around two nuclear reactors under construction at Plant Vogtle in Burke County. Blackman himself calls the project “one of the most fiscally irresponsible decisions in Georgia,” demonstrating how he employs rhetoric that appeals both to progressives and conservatives. Originally approved by state lawmakers in 2009, the Georgia Nuclear Energy Financing Act permitted Georgia Power to charge customers in advance for the construction of the two nuclear reactors, adding roughly $10 a month to an average customer’s bill. But today, the reactors are years behind schedule and billions over budget, and Blackman said thanks to the commission, ratepayers will have to pay those overruns in the form of even higher Georgia Power energy bills. “The Republicans on the PSC have approved every single Plant Vogtl monitoring report and every single integrated resource plan and every single budget for the last decade,” he said. “Those decisions were made to keep a very small group of folks in the utility industry very wealthy.”

In December 2019, the Public Service Commission voted to raise the rates of Georgia Power utility bills by $1.8 billion over three years. While this was less than what Georgia Power requested, commissioners approved the rate increases, saying they wanted to ensure that the company remained successful as it made new investments. The average customer saw their energy bill rise by about $6 per month in 2020, and will see another 2 to 2.5 percent increase in 2021 and another 4.5 to 5 percent in 2022. John Kraft, a spokesperson for Georgia Power, cited federal tax credits and interest savings from Department of Energy loan guarantees as ways the company has “actively pursued customer benefits” to reduce the impact to consumers. The loan guarantees, he said, will save customers “approximately $550 million in financing costs overall.” Kraft also emphasized that the company does not endorse political candidates.

“Folks don’t want to pay higher power bills, and Georgia Power doesn’t need the money,” said Brionté McCorkle, executive director of Georgia Conservation Voters, which has endorsed Blackman. “But they keep getting the PSC to do these things, and it just hurts the consumer.” Utility costs have become an even more serious issue for consumers during the Covid-19 pandemic; Georgia Power ended its pandemic utility shutoff moratorium in mid-July, and nationwide activists have been trying to raise awareness about the public health implications of utility disconnections.

In 2019, Southern Company CEO Tom Fanning’s pay jumped 30 percent, up $3.7 million in a single year. His total take-home compensation last year was $27.9 million.

ADVOCATES SAY Georgia Power’s resistance to being regulated is one reason state House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, the rare Democrat representing a rural Georgia district, lost his election in November. Trammell, a moderate first elected in 2014, held his seat in 2016, even as his district voted for Donald Trump, and in 2018, when his district voted for Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. Trammell’s seat became the Republican State Leadership Committee’s top target in the country this past cycle, with millions spent on electing Trammell’s opponent, David Jenkins. It was the most expensive statehouse election in Georgia history.

Trammell drew the ire of Georgia Power over the last year, as, among other things, he supported environmental advocates who have been calling to store coal ash in lined landfills. While Georgia lawmakers passed one bill this year — SB123 — that fixed a loophole that had made it cheaper to dump coal ash than regular trash, meaning that millions of tons of coal ash from neighboring states were being dumped in Georgia, the state legislature resisted Trammell’s bill — HB 756 — which would have required coal ash to be disposed of in lined pits. Georgia Power has been planning to excavate 10 of its 19 ash ponds into unlined pits, which advocates say do not adequately protect water sources.

Kraft, of Georgia Power, said the company has “worked with third-party professional engineers and geologists to design our plans on a site-by-site basis considering size, location, amount of material and the geology of the area among other factors.” He added that each closure design “is unique and designed to meet” state and federal coal ash standards. Environmental advocates plan to campaign again in the next legislative session for lined pit storage.

Residents from the rural city of Juliette, where a coal ash pond sits in contact with groundwater, traveled to the state capitol in February to advocate for Trammell’s bill and raise awareness of the contaminated water in their community. Georgia Power denies that its coal ash pods contributed to Juliette’s toxic water. In August, residents of Juliette filed a lawsuit against Georgia Power, alleging that the company polluted their water with coal ash. “Plaintiffs suffer from cancer, disorders of the cardiovascular, immune, renal and urinary, and respiratory systems; neurological, thyroid, liver, skin and cell damage; and developmental disorders, in addition to other personal injuries,” the complaint reads. “The cancer rate in Monroe County … is more than double the state and national averages. And Plaintiffs’ property values are devastated because of the contamination.” Georgia Power denies wrongdoing and the case is pending.

Blackman and his supporters say the Democratic Party needs to recognize that issues like fighting climate change and lowering utility rates have the potential to build broad coalitions capable of defeating well-funded conservatives, and there needs to be more attention paid to down-ballot races.

“It’s called the Public Service Commission because it serves the public,” said McCorkle. “What matters here is doing the right thing for the people of Georgia.”

Latino Organizers Work to Mobilize Georgia Voters Ahead of Senate Runoffs

Originally published in The Intercept on November 16, 2020.

ALL EYES ARE on Georgia and its upcoming U.S. Senate runoffs, races that will clarify which party will control the chamber for Joe Biden’s first two years as president. For Democrats interested in flipping the Senate blue, organizers stress that there is no viable path without mobilizing Latino voters, who now make up a decisive 5 percent of the state’s electorate and were key to running up Democratic margins in the presidential race. Biden won Georgia by about 14,000 votes, and exit poll data showed that Latinos there voted for him over Donald Trump, 62 to 37 percent.

Latinos broke for Democratic Senate candidates, too, though exit poll data suggests the split was more narrow than in the presidential contest, with about 52 percent of Latinos breaking for Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff, and a combined 57 percent of Latinos breaking for Democratic candidates Raphael Warnock and Matt Lieberman. Though Latinos represent a significant portion of the electorate, they have rarely been targeted with the same focused energy that candidates have dedicated to mobilizing other groups, a price Democrats might pay in the upcoming runoffs.

Political leaders “don’t do outreach, they don’t have Spanish-speaking mailers or ads that are resonant with our community,” said Susi Durán, the Georgia state director for Poder Latinx, a group focused on building Latino political power. “They’ll throw in a few Spanish key words, maybe a few Spanish-speaking hit songs and Latin artists, but they don’t give us anything of substance or anything to vote for.”

Durán’s group made 219,000 calls to Latino voters in Georgia leading up to the November 3 election and ensured that every phone-banking session was 100 percent bilingual. “Language accessibility is one of the biggest things to focus on, and you’d think that would be common sense across the political world, but it just doesn’t happen,” she said. “It makes such a big difference, and Latino voters are often really surprised and appreciative to get information from one of their own.” Durán said Poder Latinx is planning to make 300,000 more calls for the January runoffs.

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, noted that Latino turnout has been rapidly increasing and even outperforming national Latino participation rates in 2016 and 2018. Yet while much attention has been given to the efforts led by 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in helping to register more than 800,000 new voters in Georgia, and more than 240,000 Latinos were registered to vote in Georgia leading up to the general election, about 137,000 eligible Latinos were not registered.

Organizers and activists are grappling with some of the more unique challenges of reaching Latino voters. One national survey released on November 4 found that 47 percent of Latinos in the U.S. said they were neither contacted by any Democratic or Republican party representative during the 2020 cycle nor by any independent community organization. On election night, Democrats were caught off guard by the surge in Latino turnout for Trump in South Texas and Florida.

Maria del Rosario Palacios, an organizer in Georgia and chair of the state Democratic Party’s Latino caucus, said one obstacle to reaching potential voters has been a deprioritization of the kinds of digital platforms Latinos are most likely to be using. “Who is doing WhatsApp electoral outreach?” she asked. “Nobody. WhatsApp is a big deal for Latinos.” Palacios also noted that many Latinos are more likely to have pay-as-you-go phone plans compared to other voters, and so may be less likely to answer calls from unknown numbers. She also critiqued national pollsters for not asking Latinos questions in conversational, accessible language that could better gauge where voters stand.

One of Palacios’s main mobilization strategies has been to distribute political literature and organize voter outreach in partnership with major businesses, grocery stores, and laundromats that Latinos regularly frequent. “There hasn’t been a lot of centralized efforts historically,” she said, though she acknowledged that things have been evolving since the surge in voter registrations over the last few years. “2018 really changed how we did politics in Georgia, so we’ve been working on it.”

Overlapping with the U.S Senate runoffs are other races in Georgia where Latino activists have been getting galvanized. On December 1, Deborah Gonzalez, a Democrat, is facing a runoff for district attorney in the Western Judicial Circuit, which includes Athens-Clarke County — where the University of Georgia is — and Oconee County. Gonzalez would be the first Latino DA in Georgia history and is running on a platform of criminal justice reform, including ending death penalty prosecutions, declining to prosecute low-level marijuana possession, and reducing the use of cash bail. She is running against James Chafin, a nonpartisan candidate.

“I can remember the first time I ever ran for office, I was told, you’re not Black, you’re not white, you can’t win here,” recalled Gonzalez, who formerly served in the state legislature. She said she’s proud of the diverse coalition her campaign has built and that her candidacy has been backed by the Latino Victory Fund and Galeo.

One challenge for Georgia organizers is that unlike in the general election, voters can’t cast their runoff votes for district attorney or the state legislature and the U.S. Senate together. Gonzalez said it can be frustrating how even with all the national Democratic money and energy being funneled into Georgia for Ossoff’s and Warnock’s campaigns, little has been trickling down to races like hers.

“When people say all eyes are on Georgia, well, we’re not getting that attention, and sometimes there’s a little shortsightedness,” she said. “We don’t need the millions. We can do a lot with $10, 20, 30,000, and that wouldn’t take away anything from them.” Gonzalez emphasized that there need to be Democrats as district attorneys, public service commissioners, and state legislators, and the party shouldn’t discount the momentum that can come from winning those races. “Democrats need wins, it makes people feel good,” she said. “You want those wins heading into January. [The party] tends to only think about the big goal, but underneath those are the down-ballot races that  make important local decisions and keep those people on top.”

Both nationally and in Georgia, one of the most important issues to Latino voters is Covid-19 relief aid. Latinos are falling ill and dying from the coronavirus at disproportionate rates, and in Georgia, Latino poultry workers have gotten sick at much faster rates than other workers. Moreover, the federal government denied stimulus checks to families in which at least one member of the household was undocumented. In Georgia, that affected 488,000 residents living in so called mixed-status families, including 176,000 children and spouses who are U.S citizens or green card holders.

Local groups like Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, Galeo, Mijente, the Latin American Association, and Latino Community Fund have been pressing political leaders to take Latinos’ needs more seriously for years. Activists and organizers are focusing now on mobilizing Latino voters to cast their ballots again in the runoff, to combat misinformation from the right, and to register the thousands of Latino voters who are turning 18 between November 4 and December 7. According to exit polls, young Latino voters broke even harder for Biden, with 18 to 29-year-olds backing him over Trump 74 to 25 percent.

A spokesperson from the Warnock campaign said it has been working to ensure that its website’s issue pages are available in Spanish, as well as developing “talking points tailored to Latino communities.” In addition, the Warnock campaign said it hired a Latinx coordinator, purchased ads in the Latino print market, and hosted a single Latinos for Warnock meet-and-greet and a text/phone-bank volunteer event for Spanish speakers. The Ossoff campaign did not return a request for comment.

Palacios said she believes the Latino grassroots organizations “have been getting a lot of love” since the election. “I’ve seen Google Doc after Google Doc listing some of the amazing on-the-ground work of Latino organizers, even beyond electoral politics,” she said. What Palacios worries about are Latino voters who might be deterred from voting by mail again due to issues with their absentee ballots during the general election. According to the U.S. Election Project, 34,676 Latinos in Georgia voted by mail, and 71,176 Latinos voted early in-person.

“The No. 1 outreach I was getting on Election Day was from Latinos who had to cure their ballot because they got notices that their signature on their absentee ballot was off or something else,” Palacios said. (Just 71 Latino absentee ballots were ultimately rejected in Georgia, according to the U.S. Election Project.) Durán said some of her phone bankers have had to focus on addressing misinformation, like voters who say they were told that they were only eligible to vote in one election and not in the runoff.

Activists and organizers stress that while Latinos in Georgia are no monolith, it’s important to recognize that many Latinos see voting as a collective act: a ballot cast not just for themselves but also for their family and community. “Whether the voters were formerly undocumented or their parents were or their friends, I think for us, when we go out to vote, more uniquely than other folks, we don’t just vote for ourselves,” said Palacios.

Why Reopening Schools Has Become the Most Fraught Debate of the Pandemic

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 28, 2020.

Many families are desperate to get their kids back to school, and many political leaders agree, worried about harm to children’s educations and believing that key to fixing the economy is making it easier for parents to work. But the pandemic, which is still raging and getting worse nationwide, has made many of these school plans more challenging, if not elusive. It’s also led to one of the most politicized and divisive debates in America: Can we safely reopen schools?

The go-to academic on this question has become Emily Oster, a prominent economist at Brown University. Oster doesn’t have a background in public health, but over the last decade she has earned a reputation as a data-driven, empathetic, and trusted parenting expert, writing best-selling books on pregnancy and child-rearing. Her email newsletter, ParentData, is one of the most highly subscribed publications on Substack. Since March, she’s been helping families navigate questions around school reopenings, giving numerous interviews on what the available research suggests, and writing op-eds for outlets like The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Atlantic, and Slate.

Oster tells her audiences that she’s using data to help inform the best decisions possible, though at times she’s adopted more explicit advocacy on the need to reopen schools. Occasionally, she has downplayed negative research findings that complicate the picture, and amplified studies that experts say were weak.

Back in early May, for example, Oster concluded that “infection among kids is simply very unlikely. It’s not that they are infected and don’t know it, it seems like they are just not infected very often.” But this ignored some conspicuous caveats to those early studies—for example, kids were rarely tested in the spring (as tests were in short supply), and children were stuck at home, with far less opportunity for exposure.

In late July, when a study came out that suggested children with COVID-19 have a higher viral load than adults, Oster quickly wrote a piece saying it would be a “very big leap” to apply these findings to school reopening discussions. Instead, she urged focus on a large South Korea contact tracing study, which suggested younger children transmitted the virus in their households at a lower rate than other groups. A month later, the leaders for that South Korea study said it wasn’t really clear who infected whom in the households, and called for further research. Even today, how effectively children transmit the virus to others remains one of the fuzziest, and most pressing, questions.

Parents and writers (many of whom are parents) have embraced Oster’s thinking, along with some oft-quoted public-health experts like Ashish Jha, also of Brown, and Jennifer Nuzzo of Johns Hopkins, who say we can move forward more quickly with reopenings, especially at the elementary school level. But a growing number of epidemiologists—generally ignored by the media—have been urging caution, stressing that our understanding of child transmission remains far more limited than some of the louder voices in the conversation have suggested.

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These debates over the science have grown more charged, as leaders seek to bring more students back to the classroom, but as Congress continues to drag its feet on stimulus funding. Many cash-strapped districts are struggling to implement the kinds of mitigation strategies that experts say have worked well abroad and that more-affluent schools have adopted. As COVID-19 cases rise nationwide, the question remains if reopening schools is a tolerable risk or a dangerous gamble, especially for communities of color ravaged most hard by the virus.

IN LATE AUGUST, Oster announced a new project of “systematic data collection and reporting” on COVID-19 in schools, in partnership with associations of school superintendents and principals. “Once we have a dashboard for these data, the media could use these sources to drive their coverage,” she wrote. “Even if they chose not to—because ‘Day 45 with infection rate below 0.01 percent’ doesn’t generate a lot of clicks—citizens would be empowered to analyze the relevant information themselves.”

With a public desperate to return to normalcy and school reopening at the forefront of that, it didn’t take long for national outlets to start reporting Oster’s data. On September 23, The Washington Post ran a story boldly headlined “Feared Coronavirus Outbreaks in Schools Yet to Arrive, Early Data Shows.” Featuring figures from Oster’s new tracker, the Post reported that, for a two-week period beginning August 31, 0.23 percent of students in her database had a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19, and just 0.49 percent of teachers. About two weeks later, Oster published an op-ed in Insider with the provocative headline “School Infection Rates Are Low Even in Areas With High COVID-19 Rates, According to Data on 550,000 US Students.”

A growing number of epidemiologists have been urging caution, stressing that our understanding of child transmission remains limited.

These stories clearly suggested that COVID-19 infections in schools were few and far between. But they also reflected an extremely small and unrepresentative sample of schools. There are over 50 million K-12 students in 130,000 public and private schools across the United States, but the database used in the Post story had just 550 public and private schools nationwide voluntarily reporting data, including at least 200 schools that were fully remote. And of the 550,000 students in the Insider article, less than a third (about 175,000) were learning in person.

Oster acknowledged that more data would be needed to understand what was going on in areas with high transmission, but she made no mention that students are still getting tested at significantly lower levels than adults, and that many schools have no requirement for even symptomatic students to be tested.

Nevertheless, her findings were soon echoed by influential media figures, like MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who tweeted out to his 2.2 million followers, “We now have pretty good data” to show that schools can open in person even in places “with pretty high community transmission.” The authoritative assurances brought relief to tired families, but when some public-health experts offered objections and reason for skepticism, the media establishment either ignored them or cast them as liberal hysterics. In fact, anyone who objected must be unreasonably searching for a world where zero risk exists. This is a straw man, of course, but an effective one—and one easily found in many articles about school reopenings, including Oster’s pieces.

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Here are some additional facts about the COVID-19 School Response Dashboard dataset, as it existed on October 25. There were 1,322 schools voluntarily reporting data, or about 1 percent of all K-12 schools in the country. It did not say how many school districts were reporting, though Oster told me last week they currently have “about 150.” There are 13,500 school districts across the United States.

A more detailed look brought its glaring gaps into sharper relief. There was not a single urban traditional public school reporting data across 27 states in her dataset, including from Florida, Texas, New York, Minnesota, Arkansas, and Mississippi. Some states, like Colorado, Kansas, Ohio, and Alabama, had just one urban traditional public school reporting data. Oster told me they’re working to make their dataset “more representative” and conceded that those who opted to voluntarily report tended to be a “higher-income sample, and more suburban.”ExpandCohen-School reopening 102820 screenshot1.png


An examination of suburban traditional public schools, though, was not much better. Twenty states in her tracker had zero traditional public schools reporting; Nevada and South Carolina had one; Texas and North Dakota had two; Connecticut and Oklahoma had four.ExpandCohen-School reopening 102820 screenshot2.png


The resulting concentration of private schools, coupled with the dearth of public schools, makes it especially difficult to draw inferences, especially for less-resourced areas and communities with high concentrations of Black and brown students. This work-in-progress dataset wouldn’t be such a concern if Oster wasn’t disseminating broad conclusions based upon it. In a Wall Street Journal article published last week on school reopenings, Oster told the reporter that her data “suggests the risks to kids from going to school are small.”

Rebekah Jones, a former Florida Department of Health data scientist who says she was fired in May over a refusal to manipulate her state’s COVID-19 stats, has publicly pushed back on Oster’s claims. Over the summer, Jones launched her own national tracker of school coronavirus cases called COVID Monitor. It’s run in partnership with Google and FinMango, a financial-literacy nonprofit. To date, it has data from nearly 4,000 school districts, over 26 times the number in Oster’s dataset.

Oster approached Jones’s team in August about potentially collaborating, and they offered Oster full and free access to their data. “But she basically decided to just pick what data she wanted, not what’s available,” says Jones. “It’s offensive to researchers, when you see something so unabashedly unscientific, and when the opportunity to do something scientific was there.” Jones added, “You can’t just have one point in a state and claim you have a grasp on what is occurring for a wide spectrum of school types and incomes, but that is literally what she does.”

Oster says she thinks Jones’s tracker is a “great project,” and it’s “really valuable to have such a comprehensive view,” but that her goal was to also study individual school rates. COVID Monitor, however, does track school rate data.

THINGS CAME TO A HEAD following a viral Atlantic piece Oster published earlier this month, with the controversial headline “Schools Aren’t Super-Spreaders.” Her argument, that schools are minor sources of transmission, hinged primarily on her own dataset, though she also pointed to reopenings in places like Florida, Georgia, and Texas. There were no caveats about why those states’ data might be interpreted with caution, and no mention of their rising caseloads.

Instead, Oster employed the straw man. “These numbers are not zero, which for some people means the numbers are not good enough,” she wrote. “But zero was never a realistic expectation.”

While surveys of parents have shown reticence to schools reopening, especially among parents of color, Oster chalked up slower reopenings to “fear and bad press.” She dinged Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston for remaining remote, despite having relatively low positivity rates, and bluntly concluded, “Predictions about school openings hurting the broader community seem to have been overblown as well.”

Her piece said nothing about low in-person attendance rates for districts that have reopened, the lag time in reporting, and the persistent inadequacy in testing and tracing school-related cases. It also didn’t mention the major public-health fear that transmission could change as the weather gets colder. It made no mention of the fact that children now make up 10 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the U.S., up from 2 percent in April.

Oster’s story also said nothing about race. “It’s myopic. The piece of analysis that’s missing both in her Atlantic article and the dashboard is that Black and brown communities have been disproportionately hit hard by COVID,” said Constance Lindsay, an education policy researcher at UNC. Black and Latino communities have been contracting COVID and dying of it at higher rates, and while Oster targets Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston specifically for not reopening schools, there was no mention that these cities have higher concentrations of Black and Latino families. Another study published in mid-September also estimated that up to 44 million high-risk adults in the U.S. either work in schools, or have school-aged children. “You can have a low overall positivity rate and it still be a place where you don’t want to open schools because it will further the health disparities and minority children will be at greater risk,” says Theresa Chapple, an applied epidemiologist who focuses on child and maternal health.

Lindsay adds that she’d feel a little better if Oster’s database broke out information about Title I schools and the percentage of Black and brown students at each school. Oster told me “that’s something we can certainly do, and I think those kinds of covariates are on our to-do list.”

A number of epidemiologists started speaking out following Oster’s Atlantic article, concerned about the way she had used her preliminary data with strong selection bias to draw sweeping conclusions about risk.

“Places where you have people sitting, talking, and stationary, where those three things overlap, that’s where you run into potential for superspreading clusters, and schools hit all those things,” says Dominique Heinke, an epidemiologist who critiqued Oster’s piece. “For the most part, we just don’t have good data on kids and spread. It doesn’t mean kids will spread it; it means we don’t have the research right now to say either way.”

The general premise of Oster’s piece, of whether schools are “superspreaders,” also reflected how the goalposts around school reopening debates have shifted throughout the last few months. “A place is not a superspreader, a superspreader has to do with k, it has to do with the conditions that make a virus more likely to spread,” Chapple says.

We had no study showing the White House “was a superspreader” for eight months of the pandemic. Yet when the White House had a superspreading event, few were surprised, given the conditions that were tolerated there. Wedding ceremonies can be superspreaders, and they can also be small, held outdoors, and safe. Indoor dining can lead to superspreading clusters, though limiting customers and taking other precautions can reduce that probability. Japanese officials have chalked up conditions that increase the likelihood of superspreading events to the “three C’s—close contact, closed spaces, and crowded places.

Chapple thinks many leading the conversation have lost sight of the goal, which is to reduce the rate of the coronavirus in the community. “If opening schools is adding to community transmission, then we’re fighting a harder battle, even if we raise transmission by a tenth of a point,” she says. “People don’t want to come out and say they’re OK with others dying, so instead they just cite a small percentage number and avoid talking about what that actually translates to for people, families, and communities.”

The conventional wisdom has also not caught up to rising caseloads and a long-expected fall wave. Over the last two weeks, there’s been a 43 percent increase in COVID-19 cases across Texas. Cases among students and staff have risen to over 21,000, even as most districts do not require students to be tested, and the state only reports test-confirmed cases. Nevertheless, last week The Texas Tribune reported that some districts say they will no longer accommodate educators at high risk from infection by allowing them to work remotely.ExpandCohen-School reopening 102820 infographic.jpg


Meanwhile, Florida is on the verge of a COVID-19 resurgence, with modelers warning that Miami-Dade and Broward Counties are particularly at risk for case increases. Jones’s tracker has reported over 11,000 school-age cases, from more than 7,000 Florida schools, since September 8. Two of the state’s largest school districts—Broward and Miami-Dade—didn’t even open up for in-person learning until this month.

The CDC estimates that 40 percent of all COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic, and younger students are less likely to show symptoms than older ones. “While there are numbers of students being reported as positive, it is unclear how well those counts are capturing the true spread of COVID on a campus,” Dan Potter, the associate director of Houston Education Research Consortium, told me last week over email. Potter puts the blame on his state and federal government for failing to provide districts with the resources to proactively measure and monitor COVID-19 spread. In the absence of that support, he said, districts have to rely on parents and staff to voluntarily self-report test results.

PUBLIC-HEALTH GROUPS that initially made firmer declarations about the safety of kids and coronavirus have since tamped down their statements. One of the most prominent is the American Academy of Pediatrics, which made waves in late June when it issued strongly worded guidance urging schools to open for in-person learning, and stating that “the preponderance of evidence indicates that children … may be less likely to become infected and … to spread infection.” In August, the association updated its guidance to say more research is needed to understand infectivity and transmissibility in children, and that opening schools to all students is “likely not feasible” in many places because of community spread.

“I think the stance the AAP took in the beginning was that since negative health outcomes to children seem low with coronavirus, and the risks of not being in school are high, therefore children should be back, but that’s a very child-centered stance and children are not the only ones at school,” says Chapple. “We do not know the impact that infected children can have on our vulnerable populations. The conversation can’t just be about children, it has to be about children and communities.”

One hurdle is the poverty of strong data. The first U.S. child death related to COVID-19 didn’t happen until May, a few months into the pandemic and after thousands of seniors had already died. This helped deprioritize research into specific areas involving children: transmissibility, the long-term effects of infection, and the need for testing.

In late August, Laura Garabedian, a professor of population medicine at Harvard Medical School, and Rebecca Haffajee, a health policy researcher at RAND, co-authored an op-ed in USA Today on the limitations of existing studies that had suggested children could transmit less COVID-19 than adults. Both are parents in the Boston suburbs, and after attending Zoom meetings to learn about their schools’ plans for reopening, they realized quickly that leaders were making decisions based on shaky research. “Right now, the evidence on children’s rates of infection and transmission is inconclusive,” they wrote, and urged “aggressive” mitigation strategies until more is known.

By September, the CDC had published a new study again complicating our understanding of transmission, finding that children who likely got infected in Utah child care centers spread the virus to others outside, including to adult household members. The centers had varying mask policies.

“What was really interesting about that study is that in each of those three [child care] facilities, they think the first case was from a staff member,” says Garabedian. “So it was an adult suspected of bringing it in, they spread it from staff to children, and then the next step was children brought it home. That was a really important study and I haven’t really seen anything similar to that.”

Evidence from other countries, though regularly cited as conclusive proof of the safety of reopenings, presents a mixed picture, and often comes with methodological limitations. Studies from Australia and Ireland suggest that schools with positive cases can control and prevent transmission if proper mitigation strategies are in place. A recent study from Spain found school reopenings were not linked to spikes in community rates, and in Germany, school reopenings were actually linked with lower rates of COVID-19 spread.

But European school outbreaks are occurring, particularly in places where community transmission is on the rise. Another study published in Science in late September used extensive contact tracing in India and found, among other things, more evidence of child transmission, including from young children to other young children. And last week, Israel’s health ministry released a report finding that Israeli children were more likely to be infected with COVID-19 than adults. The ministry warned that children can act as “super-spreaders” and noted that 51 percent to 70 percent of infected children were asymptomatic. A group of nine Israeli epidemiologists, though, rejected that report, arguing the government had misinterpreted its data.

Garabedian and Haffajee cite Australia and Ireland as encouraging examples in their USA Today piece, but caution about extrapolating too much from their experience, and noted some of the international research was also conducted when kids were spending more time outside.

In a joint interview, Garabedian and Haffajee said that in places where schools quickly test, contact-trace, and impose measures like mask-wearing, upgraded ventilation, and social distancing, reopenings seem to be working. But they acknowledged that not all communities have the resources to put those mitigation strategies in place, and they wonder what will happen in places where community rates rise, and contact tracing becomes overwhelmed. The researchers said we also have no clear idea of what would result if schools were again doing in-person learning at full capacity, which is happening in few places in the U.S.

THE FACT THAT scientists say we’re still trying to get a handle on kids and transmission hasn’t stopped many prominent writers and media outlets from declaring questions resolved, and the data decisive.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published last week entitled “End the School Shutdown,” a research fellow with the conservative Hoover Institution and an economics professor at the Naval Postgraduate School cited Oster’s tracker showing September case rates of .13 percent among students and .24 percent among staff. “That’s a shockingly and wonderfully low number,” they wrote, while providing no context.

New York Times education reporter Eliza Shapiro went so far as to tweet last week, “It seems increasingly like the choice to keep elementary schools closed in places where the virus is contained and there are school safety measures in place is no longer grounded in science.” Her tweet linked to a New York Times story where the third paragraph said, “The evidence is far from conclusive, and much of the research has been tarnished by flaws in data collection and analysis.” Shapiro’s post was amplified by Oster and FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, though just two days after the aforementioned article came out, updated random sampling from the U.K. showed that children there were actually more prone to infection than adults, echoing the findings from Israel.

Perhaps most influentially, in a widely read ProPublica piece from late September on students left behind by remote learning, journalist Alec MacGillis theorized that anti-Trump sentiment was a significant factor in why schools were not reopening faster in Democratic-run cities. (The argument, that liberals turned against school reopenings because the president started speaking more forcefully for them, was silent on Republican support also dropping in that same time period.)

MacGillis’s feature made the case that more schools could safely reopen, and even referenced the September Washington Post story on Oster’s tracker, noting that “so far there was little evidence of the virus spreading inside school buildings.” He omitted the CDC research on toddlers infecting their household members, and he downplayed news that cases were rising among children.

MacGillis’s main points were that in many places the cure appears worse than the disease; that we’re underestimating the long-term harms to students’ academic, social, and physical development; and that these policy choices threaten to widen already gross disparities between the rich and poor. There is absolutely truth to this, and research has long shown that in-person instruction is better for children. The nation’s inequitable access to broadband internet has made virtual learning even harder for millions of families to access, and the fact that bars and restaurants remain open for indoor dining while schools are closed is a staggering political choice.

Still, many adults work in schools, and illness and death can set back kids, too. If children infect their parents, teachers, or neighbors, or spend time in school anxious that they might, experts warn that too could yield harm. (Some students agree, and have rallied in solidarity with teachers against reopening plans.)

New research is still emerging almost every week, like a study from Sweden that found schools played an overall minor role in the spread of COVID-19, but that teachers in schools with older students had double the rate of infections compared to those who taught remotely, and their partners also had higher rates.

Jones, of COVID Monitor, told me she submitted a study two weeks ago to the CDC on trends in K-12 Florida school reopenings, but that the projected wait time for review is five weeks.

Some businesses—like Google and The New York Times—have recently announced they will continue to allow remote work until July 2021, and some teachers believe they should be allowed to do the same, especially if states and the federal government continue to deny resources to schools to help them implement robust mitigation strategies. Other districts are considering returning to in-person learning just for elementary-aged children, or those who are homeless or have special needs. In Washington, D.C., the mayor wants to allow 21,000 elementary school students to return beginning November 9, although 14,000 of those students would do virtual learning from inside classrooms, supervised by non-teachers.

Moving forward, Chapple suggested researchers like Oster partner more with local health departments to gather better surveillance data on children. Whitney Robinson, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, also noted the federal government has given no additional funding to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a decision, she says, that reflects the government’s deprioritization of young people.

“People are resilient, children are resilient, families are resilient, but over and over we see tragedies that if you’re not getting what you need at critical points in development it can have really long-term consequences,” Robinson says. “So I think about the short-term and long-term risks. Still I can say something is pretty safe, but people need to feel safe.”

Oster, unlike others and to her credit, does acknowledge that some people will get sick and even die if schools reopen. In addition to emphasizing the social, emotional, and academic harms students face by missing in-person school, Oster says we accept mortality risks in normal times, like allowing people to drive cars, have swimming pools, and avoid the flu shot. “There will be some in-school transmission, no matter how careful we are,” she wrote in July. “This is the unfortunate reality. Some of these people may get very sick. If we are not willing to accept this, we cannot open schools.”

Organizers Push For Stronger COVID-19 Utility Shut-off Protections As Winter Nears

Originally published in The Intercept on October 22, 2020.

IN AUGUST, AT the same time that Illinois environmental activist Georgia de la Garza was sick with the coronavirus, her water was shut off for nonpayment. “I had been sick for several weeks and that bill was stacked up with the mail,” she recalled. “In the height of my Covid, like 102.6 fever, I was by myself, feeling delirious, [and] I went to get cold water from my shower, and my water was shut off.” Mortified, de la Garza, who lives in the southern Illinois town of Carbondale, begged her city’s water company to take her credit card number over the phone, but they said she’d have to pay on their website. She spent the next few hours unsuccessfully trying to pay online, and eventually managed to get her water turned back on by reaching out to a friend who works on her county’s board.

The Illinois Commerce Commission had announced in March an emergency moratorium on all utility shut-offs to protect customers during the public health crisis, but the patience of utility companies was wearing thin, even as the state unemployment rate hit 11.5 percent, up from 4.2 percent a year earlier.

After this experience, de la Garza joined an organizing effort led by Urbana resident Allan Axelrod, who had his own scare with a potential gas and electric shut-off in July. He had received a letter from his utility company saying that service disconnections would be resuming within 30 days of Illinois entering “Phase 4” of reopening, or September 1, whichever came sooner. When Axelrod tweeted out his letter, his utility provider Ameren promptly replied that they were planning to disconnect service due to nonpayment by August 11.

Axelrod, who had fallen behind on payments because he was trying to catch up on his credit card debt, managed to pay off his utility bill but knew others wouldn’t be able to so easily and was alarmed at how quickly companies were moving. He started reaching out to other activists, and together they launched a grassroots effort to pressure Illinois’s Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker to impose a mandatory utility shut-off during the pandemic, as at least 17 other states and D.C. had done. 

The Illinois activists, organizing under the banner of #NoAmerenShutoffs, have been calling the governor’s offices in Springfield and Chicago en masse, showing up to his press conferences, speaking out at Illinois Commerce Commission public meetings, pressuring local city councils to pass resolutions, and raising awareness on social media. They say their pressure has yielded some success — namely Illinois’s utility shut-off moratorium has been extended until March 2021 — but unlike in some other states, it’s not a mandatory ban. “The governor has politely asked those multi-billion dollar corporations to not shut people’s water off but he has the power as the governor to issue a legally-binding moratorium,” said Emiliano Vera, a coalition member who disrupted a press conference Pritzker gave last month. State filings show that at least 16,165 Illinois households were disconnected in September alone, with the majority of shut-offs from Ameren and Commonwealth Edison.

Early on in the pandemic, as millions of people lost their jobs and became unable to pay their bills, some state and local governments began offering relief in the form of moratoriums on evictions and utility shut-offs. But it didn’t last long. According to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, 33 states have either let their Covid-19 utility moratoriums expire or never passed them at all, and seven states, with a combined 20.5 million people, have moratoriums that are set to expire in early November. Already more than 205 million people across the U.S. are at risk of having their utilities shut off, according to NEADA. 

“What we’re seeing anecdotally is a real increase in utility debt,” said John Howat, senior energy analyst at the National Consumer Law Center. Howat said that utility shut-offs amount to de-housing people without it being counted as an eviction. “It’s a pernicious way to harm people,” he said. “It’s one of the most subtle and least obvious threats that poses the most immediate risk to people’s pandemic safety.”

While utilities are largely a local matter, some federal lawmakers have taken up the issue too. A national ban on utility shut-offs was included in both versions of the House Democrats’ HEROES Act, which passed in May and October. In the Senate, Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris introduced companion legislation, but it has not been voted on. More than 830 organizations have urged Congress to act. 

Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who is the vice chair of the House Subcommittee on Environment, in particular has been outspoken on the issue. Most recently, on October 5, she, along with subcommittee chair Rep. Harley Rouda, sent a letter to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield urging him to use his authority under section 361 of the Public Health Services Act to issue a nationwide moratorium on drinking water shut-offs, citing the CDC’s issuance of an eviction moratorium in September. “Just as CDC acted to ensure that Americans are protected from evictions, access to water in each person’s home is also essential to preventing the spread of the coronavirus,” they wrote. The representatives quoted Redfield’s own words back to him on the importance of hand-washing to contain Covid-19.

“Without water you can’t wash your hands after changing a dirty diaper,” said Mary Grant, the Public Water for All campaign director at Food & Water Watch. “This is a public health crisis. It’s about protecting people, their families, and their communities.”

PRITZKER, THE ILLINOIS governor, has used his executive power to prevent pandemic evictions, and has faced heat to do the same with regard to utilities. On September 21, when asked at a press conference about utility shut-offs, Pritzker defended his administration’s approach, and said while they will continue to talk with companies, “I do want to also make sure people know that there is a limit to what the kinds of things that we can order businesses to do” and cited the need to “balance interests.” Activists started chanting at Pritzker to use his executive power to prevent the shut-offs.

An attorney at the National Consumer Law Center has filed a petition with the Illinois Commerce Commission, a quasi-judicial body which has three Democratic appointees and two Republican appointees, calling on the body to extend the shut-off moratorium. The activists have also tried to apply pressure on the ICC, and Axelrod says ICC’s members have listened to their concerns and pressured companies to avoid disconnections. ICC spokesperson Victoria Crawford said while they can’t comment on a mandatory moratorium because it’s an open petition issue on their docket, the Commission “has worked vigorously to protect all residential and small business consumers from losing access to utility service.” Pritzker’s office did not return a request for comment.

Similar actions have taken place in New Jersey, where activists achieved a major victory last week when the state’s Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order extending a mandatory moratorium through March 15, 2021. The order applies to all residential gas, electric, and water utilities, both public and private, and bars utilities from charging late fees or fees to reconnect services. 

Matt Smith, the New Jersey state director for Food & Water Action, said the momentum in their state was bolstered by the broader national social justice movement. “There’s been a sea change in what’s seen as possible,” he told The Intercept, crediting Murphy for “stepping up and showing leadership.”

Renee Koubiadis, the executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, said it took months of organizing to finally get this issue at the top of leaders’ agenda. “From the start of the pandemic we felt like we weren’t getting a good response from leadership on utilities, that it was getting pushed to the backburner,” she said. According to data from New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities, more than 440,000 residential electric and gas accounts were at least 90 days past due in August, an increase of 41 percent from 2019. The average overdue New Jersey utility balance was $600.

The rising costs of utilities and associated debt have taken on a new level of urgency in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, as people have been asked to stay home, and millions of Americans are now working and attending school from their residences. 

“In this country, without a basic level of electricity and heating service, your home is inhabitable,” said Howat. “And you’re not able to participate effectively in society at all.” Without electricity, households lack light, refrigeration, and are unable to maintain healthy indoor temperatures. In the time of Covid-19, utility shut-offs can prevent children from participating in virtual learning, make it difficult for adults to find jobs, and make it even harder to keep hands clean and take showers.

ONE CHALLENGE FOR understanding the scale of the utility shut-off crisis during the pandemic is a lack of clear data. Most states do not require electric or gas providers to report data on how customers are accessing or retaining services, though some states, like Ohio, California, and Pennsylvania, have better requirements than others. Utility companies have historically fought efforts by advocates, regulators, and policymakers to report comprehensive data, aware of the public relations nightmare that could follow.

Michael Thomas, a former journalist and founder of an energy efficiency startup Carbon Switch, leaned on his old reporting skills to compile as much information as he could from state websites on expiring utility moratoriums and what the impact might be.

“There were a lot of stories about the states where moratoriums were expiring but most lacked context of how many people would be at risk,” he said. His first report, published in August, found 34.5 million households would lose shut-off protections in the next month, leaving 9.5 million unemployed people at risk by October 1. In October he published a second report, finding that four states did let their moratoriums expire in September, affecting 16 million households, with 2.3 million of those households below the poverty line before the pandemic started. Another 2 million people in those states are unemployed.

Thomas said finding the data was “a complete mess because it’s so archaic in how it’s all stored and presented” on public utility commission websites. Civil rights groups like the NAACP have long called for actual federal guidelines on clearly reporting utility data, but for the most part, the information remains chaotic and hard to access. And while Thomas’s research helped illuminate who in a state is energy-burdened, the actual number of people who have had their utilities shut off is unknown as most companies don’t have to report it.

For now advocates are continuing to organize, hoping more governors flex their executive power to help struggling residents. “We estimate that by the election there will only be five states that have a comprehensive water moratorium,” said Grant of Food & Water Watch, referring to California, New York, Vermont, Washington and New Jersey. “We’re already seeing thousands of shut-offs happen across the country, particularly in the South and Midwest.”

Family Care: Good Policy, Good Politics

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 22, 2020.

In late July, then-presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden gave a speech announcing the third and final plank of his economic recovery plan: a ten-year, $775 billion investment in care work.

If elected, Biden promised, he would bail out struggling child care centers, invest in building more facilities, and raise the pay and benefits of all caregivers, including those who care for seniors. Biden also pledged to expand universal preschool, and give low- and middle-income families tax credits for child care.

“We are trapped in a caregiving crisis within an economic crisis within a health care crisis,” Biden said at the July campaign event in New Castle, Delaware. Emphasizing his experience raising his son as a single father, Biden touted his proposed investments in care work as “a fresh, bold way to build up a critical part of our labor force and help us recover faster and stronger.”

Aspects of Biden’s care work plan overlap with child care legislation backed by Democrats in Congress, as well as parts of the child care proposal Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) ran on during her presidential campaign. In 2016, Hillary Clinton championed new investments in child care in her run for the White House.

Biden’s proposals don’t go as far as Bernie Sanders’s plan to make child care free and universal. Marie Newman, who is likely headed to Congress in January after ousting Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) in a primary in March, also made universal child care a key plank of her campaign. Mondaire Jones, who won an open seat in New York’s Westchester County, foregrounded universal child care as well.

Biden’s ideas also don’t amount to so-called universal family care—the policy idea unveiled in 2019 by Caring Across Generations, which would provide child care, paid leave, assistance for people with disabilities, and elder care, all through a new social-insurance program. But his rhetoric has gotten a lot closer to that idea. That Biden has decided to make caregiving a key facet of his run against Donald Trump reflects the growing recognition among mainstream politicians that these caregiving issues are not just crucial economic issues, but also winning political ones.

Jess Morales Rocketto, the executive director of Care in Action, which leads political advocacy for the country’s 2.5 million domestic workers, described Biden’s care work plan as a win for activists, despite falling short of universal family care, which is their ultimate goal.

“It’s a very significant step and reflects what we’ve been saying, which is that care is the future of how we keep people safe,” she said. “This is a real opportunity for us to help show people that universal family care is more than just a message frame or rhetoric, but a real and serious policy plan.”

THE NEED FOR affordable child care and elder care isn’t new, so many may wonder why it’s taken so long for politicians to get to this point.

Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow at the think tank New America, points to three reasons the U.S. has moved at such a sluggish pace when it comes to care work.

The first, she says, is a perception problem. Unlike the rest of the developed world, which has robust public investments in care infrastructure, the U.S. has left care work as something to figure out privately outside of government. As a result, child care and elder care have been dismissed within public policy as “individual issues that people need to navigate on their own,” Shabo says.

The next hurdle involves the anti-regulatory stance of businesses and the Republicans who cater to them. Powerful corporations and conservatives have foregrounded the idea that workers and employers should be sorting out these types of family issues individually, free from rules dictated by government.

The last reason, Shabo says, is that for a very long time politicians in the U.S. treated care work as a “woman’s issue,” as somehow less important than other economic policies legislators prioritize.

That last point is starting to change. While child care and elder care still are largely women-led issues in Congress, some male politicians are stepping up. “I’m excited to see people like Sherrod Brown, Ron Wyden, and Cory Booker take these issues on in the Senate,” said Shabo, adding that there is also energy coming from younger and more diverse members of Congress like Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-CA).

Advocates say they feel encouraged, too, by the fact that Republicans have seemed more open to family care proposals, even if the bills fall far short of what’s needed. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) teamed up with Ivanka Trump in 2018 on a paid family leave bill funded by clawing back future Social Security benefits, leaving families in a retirement hole. But compared to the nonexistent conservative proposals for family care in years past, it was at least a start. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) has been working on a bipartisan version of a paid family leave policy.

The pandemic has unquestionably helped shift the politics around child care, forcing long-standing problems around care work into the public eye, and helping millions of Americans grasp the health and economic implications of not having robust systems in place.

The shifting politics are evident in the way the ongoing coronavirus stimulus debates have played out. In the Senate, Republicans included $15 billion in “back to work” child care grants in their COVID-19 stimulus package released in July. And in a coronavirus package passed in mid-March, lawmakers included ten paid sick days for employees of certain businesses suffering from COVID-19, and up to 12 weeks for parents caring for a new child, though only ten are paid.

“That was the first-ever federal paid leave mandate,” said Shabo. “It’s flawed, and up to 106 million workers could be denied, but it matters that it was included.”

Activists hope to capitalize on the political momentum and help steer the public conversation more to their “North Star”: universal family care. In some ways, that shouldn’t be too heavy a lift, given how many people could benefit from such a policy. According to government statistics, roughly eight million families pay for someone to watch their kids while they’re at work. Sixty-three percent of married couples with children have two working parents, and single parents are even more likely to need help balancing work and child care. The costs for these services have skyrocketed, and even before the pandemic access was a huge problem.

Increasingly, adults are balancing not just child care but caring for their aging parents at the same time. This kind of dual-caretaking situation falls disproportionately on Hispanic Americans, but is increasingly common for all families, especially as millennials rely longer on their parents for support than children in earlier generations did.

Long-term care is an expensive proposition and the costs are not generally covered under Medicare. For roughly half of Americans 65 years and older who will have long-term care needs, the average cost is more than $266,000, and more than half of that is paid out of pocket. The AARP estimates that relatives spend 20 percent of their own money on these caregiving costs.

The idea of some sort of publicly funded long-term care program has real political support. A 2018 Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that approximately two-thirds of adults support a long-term care program like Medicare, including 76 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of Republicans.

While most politicians have tended to think of care work legislation as coming in discrete buckets—like one bill for paid family leave and one bill for child care—advocates for universal family care think conceptually combining all these elements into one program will be easier for voters to grasp. It also expands the constituency to everyone who needs care, for a child or parent or even themselves, in the case of sick leave.

“Everyone has a care story,” said Morales Rocketto. “For the average family, all these costs come out of the same bank account, and we’re all just looking at the bottom line. So what we want is the government to just say, we’re going to make a program that ensures you have enough to afford your care obligations.”

Universal family care wouldn’t come cheap, but this is a government-sized problem, she adds, so “we need a government-sized solution.”

New polling conducted by Data for Progress over the summer provides some quantitative support for the idea. Likely voters were asked if they’d support a payroll tax of 2.5 percent of their income to create a social-insurance fund for universal access to child care, elder care, long-term care, and paid family leave. A little more than half of all likely voters expressed support in the poll, including 49 percent of women. Among people of color, the support was even higher: 61 percent of Black respondents supported the proposal, as did 53 percent of Hispanic respondents. Forty percent of independents backed it, and 20 percent of respondents said they didn’t know one way or another.


Polling conducted in 2019 by the People’s Policy Project found similar enthusiasm for federal grants to school districts for free public child care. Fifty-seven percent of registered voters backed this idea, including more than half of independents.

One advantage care advocates have in the political arena is that this need for people to take care of themselves and their families is universally understood. “From a narrative perspective, we’re starting from a position of strength,” Shabo said.

To push the issue politically, advocates are hoping to link the fight for universal family care to the fight for racial and economic justice. When Seattle passed paid sick days in 2015, the UFCW was a critical partner to getting that through, as was SEIU when Massachusetts passed statewide paid family leave in 2018. Shabo says enlisting business allies early on has also been critical, since “the organized business lobby is almost always opposed” to new care policies.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who has sponsored individual bills for national paid family leave and child care, says she thinks splitting the proposals up separately still makes more sense, but she agreed one could structure a universal home care policy that includes all care policies together.

Gillibrand pointed to her work on paid family leave, which began in 2013. “We worked so hard to make sure it was debated in the last two presidential cycles, and we know from state examples, like in California, that the business community has actually welcomed it once it’s in place,” she said. “All of these things would have made such difference during the pandemic if we had nationwide.”

She is optimistic about the political prospects for care work legislation. “I do think the country is open to these ideas, and Congress tends to be ten years behind the country on a good day,” she joked. “I think the pressure will grow because people need these solutions. We’re in a crisis and the landscape is ripe for change.”

Injured Employees, Attorneys, and Labor Advocates Testify About D.C.’s Public Sector Worker’s Compensation System

Originally published in Washington City Paper on October 16, 2020.

Approximately 30 witnesses turned out Friday to testify at a virtual hearing on public sector worker’s compensation in D.C. and the inequalities between the District’s public and private sector worker’s comp systems.

Up for discussion were two bills Ward 4 Councilmember and Government Operations Committee Chairman Brandon Todd introduced in July: the Public Sector Injured Workers’ Equality Amendment Act and the Public Sector Workers’ Compensation Permanent Total Disability Amendment Act. The first bill would subject injured D.C. public sector workers to the same rules and regulations as the private sector, and the latter bill would clarify that public sector workers are eligible for permanent relief if their injuries are serious enough, just as private sector workers are.

Worker’s compensation is an issue that typically garners little attention from legislators and labor advocates, for reasons explored last week in a longer City Paper examination of the issue. Among other things, this has meant that a series of restrictions of public sector worker’s compensation passed over the last decade has gone overlooked, including one restriction that imposes a 500-week cap on the benefits injured public sector workers receive. This 500-week cap is approaching in April 2021, and the Office of Risk Management, which oversees public sector workers’ comp, says there are 79 injured public sector workers who could be affected, meaning they could lose their benefits.

At Friday’s hearing, which ran about three hours, a handful of worker’s compensation attorneys turned out to argue that the present system denies justice to injured public sector workers, in part by deterring lawyers from representing those clients at all.

One such attorney, Steven Kaminski, argued that Todd’s bill to equalize the two systems would not only benefit workers but also assist administrative law judges who act as fact-finders during worker’s comp cases. Increased “attorney involvement would further increase the efficiency” of the system, he said.

Todd asked Kaminski for some examples of how the status quo deters attorneys from taking on public sector clients and Kaminski cited “tight deadlines that are not realistic” for injured public sector workers. For continuation of benefits, he explained, the public sector worker can be asked to produce medical records within 10 days of filing their claim. “Ten days to produce medical records is almost impossible,” Kaminski argued. “There were times even before COVID where requesting medical records could take at least 60 days, and since the pandemic occurred, my requests can go unfulfilled for six months.” These tight deadlines he argued, not only dissuade attorneys, but basically make it impossible for workers to have their claims fairly adjudicated. “It’s almost a trap where they’re set up for failure,” Kaminiski said, noting most injured public sector workers do not have any legal representation. 

“Does the District government really want to have its legacy be denying equal benefits to its own employees?” asked Benjamin Douglas, an Ashcraft & Gerel attorney who represents both public and private sector claimants in D.C. “Are those the values that the District wants to convey to the world?”

Union representatives, including Andrew Washington of AFSCME District Council 20 and John Gibson of Teamsters Local 639, testified in support of the Public Sector Injured Workers’ Equality Amendment Act. “It is wrong to treat our public servants as second class citizens,” said Washington.

William Lightfoot, a former at-large D.C. Councilmember who now works as a senior trial attorney at the law firm May Lightfoot, testified that passing the comprehensive reform bill would ultimately save the government money through things like streamlined staff training and establishing compatible computer software between the public and private sector systems. Lightfoot said he personally refuses to take public sector worker’s compensation cases and believes they “are rigged.”

Marcus Goodwin, an at-large candidate for the D.C. Council whose family members work in the public sector, testified in support of passing the comprehensive reform bill. Goodwin said he did not think the bill addressing permanent-total disability went far enough.

A number of injured public sector workers turned out to testify, including a handful who spoke about their positive customer service experiences with the Office of Risk Management. 

Hal Levi, an attorney who represents injured public sector workers in D.C., testified that he believes the narrower bill, which addresses only permanent-total disability, would be more appropriate for passage now, and urged the creation of a “blue ribbon panel” to study broader changes in the future. Todd asked Levi who should be on such a panel and Levi said he would be more than happy to participate, and suggested including at least private sector attorneys, public and private sector claimants, and a representative from the Office of Risk Management.

Laurie Posner, a former paramedic who injured her back and neck several times on the job, is one of the 79 workers who may lose their worker’s comp benefits in April. “The Office of Risk Management agreed that these injuries made me disabled,” she testified. “But they don’t care.”

National Service Has Rare Bipartisan Support But an Uncertain Future

Originally published in Bloomberg Businessweek on October 15, 2020.

It’s difficult to find an issue that polls as well in the U.S. as voluntary national service. In a survey conducted in May by a Republican data firm and commissioned by the advocacy group Voices for National Service, 80% of respondents across the political spectrum said they supported increasing federal funding for programs like AmeriCorps, which places workers in stints with nonprofits such as health clinics and Habitat for Humanity.

And it’s not just in response to the pandemic: In January, almost four out of five voters—including strong majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents—told the same firm they wanted federal investment in civilian national service to be maintained or increased. “These levels of support and responsiveness are essentially unheard of in today’s policy debates,” pollster Michael Meyers wrote in a memo.

Yet when Democrats in the House of Representatives passed a $3 trillion coronavirus aid package in March, it wasn’t even mentioned. “That was a very disturbing development,” says John Bridgeland, who, as director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under George W. Bush, led a substantial expansion of national service following Sept. 11. “It’s just not a top priority for members of Congress. It’s a Tier 3 priority, and I say that with sadness.”

It’s been more than a decade since Congress last voted to expand national service—and even then, funding was never authorized. The 2009 Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act was intended to triple the size of AmeriCorps, from 75,000 annual volunteers to 250,000. Five years after that bill became law, the number of AmeriCorps slots had barely budged; a federal school volunteer program, Learn and Serve America, had been eliminated; and spending on Senior Corps, which engages older adults in volunteer service, had been slashed. Proponents of national service criticized President Obama for paying lip service to it, and congressional Republicans backed major cuts during his presidency.

The Trump administration went further, proposing to zero out the budget for national service programs altogether, though advocates have been successful in pushing back against that call.

Voluntary civilian national service dates back to the 1930s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt rallied 250,000 young unemployed men to join the new Civilian Conservation Corps. In that successful Depression-era effort—the most popular program of the New Deal—corps members planted trees and built dams and campgrounds on public lands. In the midst of the current economic and public-health crisis, devoting a fraction of government stimulus to Covid-19 contact tracing, math tutoring, disaster relief, and other jobs seems like an unobjectionable, and fittingly American, idea.

Advocates say there are many reasons why national service is a smart solution to our present woes. These jobs can address urgent needs in struggling communities, strengthen the bonds of civic attachment, and quickly put people, especially young people, back to work. (Youth unemployment stood at 13.5% in September.) From a cost-benefit perspective, national service also looks pretty good. In 2013 economists at Columbia University found that every dollar invested in youth national service generated almost a $4 return to society, and more than $2 in taxpayer savings.

Even as negotiations over more stimulus flounder, there is some momentum again on Capitol Hill behind expanding national service, and leading advocates say they’re optimistic. A bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate in June by Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, and Republican Roger Wicker of Mississippi would quickly double the number of AmeriCorps positions in response to the pandemic and offer 600,000 service opportunities nationwide over the next three years. The $16.6 billion Corps (Cultivating Opportunity and Response to the Pandemic through Service) Act has 17 co-sponsors, including Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, and Florida Republican Marco Rubio.

“National service has long enjoyed bipartisan support for a simple reason: It works,” Coons said. “Many of us—Republicans and Democrats—have seen the very real impact national service programs have on our communities and the Americans who serve. The Corps Act will ramp up these locally driven programs, empowering Americans in our hard-hit communities to be part of our recovery while earning valuable skills for the future.”

The chances of the Corps Act passing before the election are slim to nil. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who leads President Trump in polls, has not discussed national service specifically on the campaign trail. However, he has come out in favor of establishing a so-called Public Health Jobs Corps, a national-service-like program that would mobilize at least 100,000 Americans to help with coronavirus contact tracing. Biden also tapped Pete Buttigieg to join his transition team; Buttigieg campaigned hard during the primary on scaling up national service.

AnnMaura Connolly, the president of Voices for National Service, says she’s seen “more progress in terms of deepening, strengthening, and broadening our support in the last couple years than since I started working in this field almost three decades ago.” Connolly points to a greater appreciation of volunteers’ impact on the local level, which she says has translated into more pressure on the national level and yielded more congressional backers, especially Republicans.

Alan Khazei, a co-founder of City Year, an education nonprofit that works closely with AmeriCorps, says he thinks the pandemic has created the right “conditions” to expand national service, at least after the election. “I’ve never been more excited about the potential for large-scale national service as I am now,” he says.

The challenge for advocates, he says, has been getting Congress to take young people and their opportunities seriously. Youth lack their own organized lobbying presence like AARP, and they vote at lower rates than their elders. The other challenge is that national service has long been regarded as a “nice” thing, in Khazei’s words, and “not an essential thing.” But it is essential, he says, because nothing other than national service can effectively address so many of the nation’s problems at once.

Khazei was part of an 11-person bipartisan commission Congress authorized in 2017 to study national and military service. In late March, after two-and-a-half years of public hearings and research around the country, it published a list of recommendations, including increasing the living stipends for participants and using national service to reintegrate ex-offenders. Together, these steps would support 1 million national service opportunities annually by 2031, the commission’s final report said.

Joe Heck, who chaired the commission, says the report’s rollout was overshadowed by the Covid crisis. “We had a whole week’s worth of activities planned in Washington, including scheduled committee hearings, which were postponed.” The commission still provided input to some federal representatives—and it sparked a House bill, the Inspire to Serve Act, introduced by Democratic Representative Jimmy Panetta of California—but Heck worries that his commission’s work will become “like so many other congressional reports, which sit on a shelf and collect dust.”

While there is some evidence of momentum in Congress, illustrated by a flurry of new national service bills, including the Inspire to Serve and Corps acts, the old barriers remain. Bridgeland notes that lawmakers who sign on to co-sponsor a bill may not be willing to actually go to bat during negotiations. “The field still has a lot of work to do to make national service a Tier 1 priority,” he says.

Connolly, of Voices for National Service, is not deterred by the lack of any expansion to speak of, more than seven months into the pandemic. “There are a number of viable vehicles to get this through,” she says. “And if national service ends up not being in whatever the next package is, we will keep going.”

Locked in a Tight Race, GOP Sen. Dan Sullivan Caught in Environmental Scandal

Originally published in The Intercept on October 12, 2020.

IN THE FINAL month of his reelection campaign, Alaska’s one-term Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan is fighting to recover from a scandal that ties him more closely to a controversial mining project opposed by the majority of voters in his state.

Sullivan’s political crisis centers around Pebble Mine — a yearslong contested project that would bring large-scale mining to the Bristol Bay watershed, a mineral-rich region that supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, and home to more than two dozen federally recognized tribal governments. The senator has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from lobbyists, executives, and employees involved with the project, according to a recent investigation by journalists Judd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria.

Those contributions could prove to be a political liability in a Senate race being prioritized by national Democrats as they seek to retake the upper chamber. Democratic challenger Al Gross has been funding new radio, TV, and digital ads blasting Sullivan for his ties to Pebble Mine, prompted by a recent investigation that showed how mining executives envision the reach of the project growing larger than had been publicly stated. Sullivan and Gross are locked in a tight race, according to a late September poll, conducted by a Super PAC aligned with Gross. If elected, Gross — who is registered as nonpartisan — would caucus with Democrats, like Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine. Gross is backed by national groups including Indivisible, the DSCC, and anti-Trump conservative group the Lincoln Project

In September, the Environmental Investigation Agency — an advocacy group focused on exposing environmental crimes — published secretly recorded conversations between undercover actors, who had pretended to be potential Pebble Mine investors, and Pebble Limited Partnership CEO Tom Collier and the head of its parent company, Northern Dynasty Minerals CEO Ronald Thiessen. In those tapes, Thiessen made clear to the fake investors that the company would aim to expand Pebble farther than it has already applied to build, contradicting Collier’s written 2019 testimony submitted to the House Water Resources and Environment subcommittee, where he stated Pebble has “no current plans, in this application or in any other way, for expansion.” Join Our NewsletterOriginal reporting. Fearless journalism. Delivered to you.I’m in

Polls show that majorities of Alaskans have consistently opposed the mining project since at least 2012, when Bristol Bay Native Corporation began conducting statewide annual surveys. One fear is that the proposed Pebble Mine is only the beginning of even more harmful extraction; more than 60 percent of Alaskans believe that if a smaller mine project moves forward, then plans for a larger mine will be later pursued and approved. Another poll released this past summer by the Bristol Bay Defense Fund, a coalition of business, tribal, nonprofit, and community groups, found likely Alaska voters opposed construction of the mine by a 2-1 margin.

A three-year, peer-reviewed EPA assessment released in 2014 found that Pebble Mine — which would be one of the largest open pit copper mines in the world — could have devastating impacts on fish populations and surrounding streams. When the EPA vetoed the Pebble proposal that year, Sullivan blasted the move, claiming the EPA “short-circuited the permitting process” and the project should have gone to the Army Corps of Engineers for review. The veto was reversed under the Trump administration, which fast-tracked the Army Corps of Engineers assessment. This past summer, the Corps determined that “as currently proposed, the project could have substantial environmental impacts within the unique Bristol Bay watershed and lacks adequate compensatory mitigation.” Mining executives are hoping to get a modified plan approved by the end of the year.   

Collier also said on the calls that Sullivan and Sen. Lisa Murkowski were not real impediments to their plans, despite the lawmakers’ occasionally critical public statements, which Murkowski has couched in claims that she has little influence over the project. On Sullivan specifically, Collier said the senator, who has been notably vague on Pebble, was hoping to “ride out the election” and keep silent on the project. “I think that’s our plan to work with him. Leave him alone and let him be quiet.” Thiessen said they were “trying to work” with Sullivan by allowing him to say critical things that didn’t offer explicit opposition to the project.

Collier took the fall from the tapes and resigned, and has been replaced by former Pebble CEO John Shively. Thiessen, meanwhile, has stayed in his position but apologized for his comments that were caught on tape.

Three days following the release of the explosive tapes, Sullivan tweeted his most firm opposition to Pebble Mine yet, writing, “I oppose Pebble Mine. No Pebble Mine.” On a radio show last week, Sullivan went even further, claiming he would oppose the mine project even if the developers drafted a solid plan to mitigate environmental harm. During a Zoom debate on Saturday, Sullivan’s Democratic challenger Gross pressed the senator on the mining issue. In response, Sullivan said, “The Pebble Mine is dead, and I’m going to keep it that way.”

Gross has also been running nonstop attack ads on the tapes’ revelations and Sullivan’s ties to Pebble Mine.

The vulnerable Republican senator has been trying to distance himself from the political fallout and the project itself, but his financial entanglements keep getting in the way. While the Anchorage Daily News first reported that Sullivan received more than $10,000 from Pebble Mine executives and employees since 2017, Popular Information, the newsletter run by journalist Judd Legum, found the tally is actually more than $34,000 in campaign contributions when including donations from Northern Dynasty and its lobbyists.

Sullivan’s campaign did not return a request for comment, but during the Saturday debate, he said he would give Collier’s campaign contributions to charity. Collier has donated at least $7,400 to reelect Sullivan since 2017, according to FEC filings.

Environmental groups have been up in arms since the tapes were revealed.

Andy Moderow, the Alaska director at Alaska Wilderness League Action, said the whole scandal revealed Sullivan’s “hand caught in the cookie jar” in terms of doing corporations’ bidding. “This is a story that’s going to be going all through October,” Moderow predicted. “It’s a September and October surprise.”

Tim Bristol, director of SalmonState, told The Intercept that Sullivan’s comments were “deeply disappointing” and that despite “Alaskans want[ing] action” they have not gotten it from their senator. “Opposition to Pebble … is an issue that unites Alaskans across the political spectrum and has for 15 years now,” he added. “The foot dragging from our leaders shows they are out of touch on the issue.”

Bob Shavelson, the advocacy director at Cook Inletkeeper, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting Alaska’s Cook Inlet watershed, called the Pebble Mine tapes “an absolute bombshell” which has “blown shrapnel” through the whole project.

Shavelson was also unimpressed by Sullivan’s recent statements of opposition to the project. The senator is “a corporate shill who will do whatever he has to get reelected,” Shavelson said. “He’s had years and years to take a principled stand on Pebble and he’s never said anything close to definitive until these tapes came out and it looked like it was a close election. He’s just embarrassed now because they treated him like a little lap dog to go sit in the corner.”

Workers’ Compensation in D.C.: Separate and Unequal

Originally published in Washington City Paper on October 7, with the support of Spotlight DC — Capital City Fund for Investigative Journalism.

In April 2009, then-53-year-old Esther Layne, a customer service representative with the D.C. Office of Unified Communications, suffered an acute attack from exposure to allergens in her workplace and had to be hospitalized. Layne says she was first exposed to toxic gas and pesticides while working as a clerk typist for a D.C. substance abuse facility in the 1990s. Though she tried to return to work following her 2009 hospitalization, Layne continued to suffer complications, and never fully recovered. A few months later she was approved for public sector worker’s compensation, and began receiving benefits both to treat her asthma and rhinitis, and for wage loss.

Now, at 65, Esther Layne is fighting an unexpected development: D.C. abruptly cut off her benefits after a city-hired physician concluded last year that her ongoing symptoms including sensory deficits and shortness of breath could not be objectively linked to her workplace exposure. “I see a top allergist in D.C. [Dr. Elena Reece] and they just ignored her letter, and they send me to their doctors who are quacks,” Layne says.

Now Layne’s attorney is pressing the city to give her permanent relief, but D.C. is claiming because she worked in the public sector as opposed to the private sector, she’s not even entitled to that kind of redress anymore. 

“All my credit cards are maxed out and the little bit of savings I had is gone,” Layne says. “I’m trying not to be depressed, but I’m so stressed and I’m behind on all my bills. They don’t care anything about your health and living situation. It’s disrespectful, and the thing that really bothers me is I dedicated my life to government.”

Layne’s fight for relief overlaps with other ongoing worker compensation battles in D.C, an area of government that has garnered markedly little media and political attention over the years. Unlike nearly every state, D.C. has two separate systems for injured public and private sector workers, and the inequalities between those systems have grown wider over the last decade as new restrictions limiting benefits for public sector employees have rained down.

Workers’ comp is now slated for a rare moment in the spotlight, with a Council hearing scheduled for Oct. 16, but even that event is enmeshed in confusing politics. Ward 4 Councilmember and government operations committee chairman Brandon Todd introduced two bills in July to address some of the inequities of the public-sector system, but his bills have no co-sponsors to date. And since Todd lost his primary to challenger Janeese Lewis George in June, he will exit the Council at the end of the year. 

Some Council watchers speculated his bills had been driven by a last-ditch effort to court labor groups during the primary, since union discussions around potential workers’ comp reform started in the winter. Others pointed to the influence of Todd’s chief of staff, Sherryl Newman, who is married to an attorney who represents injured public sector workers in the city. Todd did not return multiple requests for comment.

“Workers’ comp is one of those technical issues that does really end up affecting people’s lives, but it doesn’t really rise up to be anyone’s top priority,” says Elizabeth Falcon, the executive director of DC Jobs with Justice, and a supporter of one of Todd’s bills.“Even for the unions there’s only some sectors that need workers’ comp … I hope that the weird politics of this don’t undermine the Council solving the problem, which is real.”


Originally born out of Germany and later adopted by the U.S. in the first two decades of the 20th century, workers’ comp is the idea that employees will give up their right to sue if they are injured on the job, and in return employers will pay their medical expenses and at least some of their lost wages. Factories were dangerous places and highly prone to gruesome accidents, and in his 1907 State of the Union Address President Theodore Roosevelt touted the importance of expanding this workplace bargain. “The number of accidents to wage-workers, including those that are preventable and those that are not, has become appalling in the mechanical, manufacturing, and transportation operations of the day,” Roosevelt declared. “It works grim hardship to the ordinary wage-worker and his family to have the effect of such an accident fall solely upon him.”

Today, in nearly every state, injured public and private sector workers are covered under the same set of workers’ comp rules, except police officers and firefighters, who often have their own arrangements. But in D.C. it’s different, a product of Congress’ decades of control over local affairs. When Congress gave governing authority back to the District in the 1970s, it required D.C. to establish a merit-based personnel system that mirrored the Federal Employee Compensation Act, leading to the Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act of 1978. Among other things, this law established workers’ comp for former federal employees now working for the city government; private sector workers were covered under their own statute passed a year later. While both sectors of workers’ comp were originally handled by D.C.’s Department of Employment Services, beginning in 2003 public sector workers’ comp was transferred to the newly created Office of Risk Management, a fitting moniker, workers say, for the conflict of interest inherent in having the same agency act as the city’s insurer, an adjudicator of workers’ claims, and a drafter of workers’ comp rules.

(Because D.C. Superior Court hears appeals of ORM’s decisions about issues like the need for medical treatment, ORM insists they are sufficiently independent and there is no conflict of interest. However, attorneys point out this still leaves fact-finding in the hands of ORM, as the Superior Court does not conduct hearings or review new evidence.)

In the late 1990s, when the city’s finances were under particular duress, some business and political leaders complained that D.C. was too generous to its injured workers and urged officials to put more stringent limits on potential relief. The Council imposed a few modest reforms to the private sector law but resisted pressure to limit the length of time an injured employee could collect benefits, to the chagrin of the business community and the Washington Post editorial board. “If we’re not interested in being competitive, then we do what we’re doing and we can sit back and complain when businesses don’t come here,” Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans lamented at the time.

For public sector workers, meanwhile, things were a mess. Injured employees were increasingly losing their benefits or denied them for arbitrary and conflicting reasons, and others were never given notice before their checks were cut off. For those who did receive notices of termination in the mail, most would say that in ORM’s judgement they were no longer disabled, based on the opinion of the government’s hand-picked medical examiners.

After hearing from many people with similar complaints, attorneys working at the Employment Justice Center, the George Washington University Law School’s Public Justice Advocacy Clinic, and the private firm Miller & Chevalier filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the publicmsector workers in 2001. The case, Lightfoot v. District of Columbiawas litigated for more than a decade and called for reinstating previously denied workers’ comp benefits and halting future terminations until a fairer process could be installed.

“Nobody was talking about workers’ comp, it was just an invisible issue,” recalls Laura Brown, the former director of legal services at the Employment Justice Center who helped litigate Lightfoot. “There weren’t really many rules that were known. It was like this weird internal system that only people working there knew the rules, and the claimants did not. People’s benefits were being terminated, suspended, modified without notice, and often with little or no input from the worker.”

Duncan Stevens, a former Miller & Chevalier lawyer who also helped with Lightfoot, remembers asking the city for data on how many people saw their benefits terminated between 1998 and 2002. “We asked them, and they didn’t know—they just did not know,” he says. “And we said, ‘How can you not know?’ and they gave us all sorts of answers.”

While the lawyers were successful in bringing more due process to the public sector system, the courts ultimately declined to recognize all the injured workers as a single class. “Members of a class must be treated more or less identically to band together, but the system was so chaotic that you could not say employees had been treated the same,” Duncan explains. “Some got decent explanations [for terminating their benefits], some got no explanations at all.”

Around the same time the Lightfoot case was wrapping up, beginning in 2010, things started to get worse for injured public sector workers at the D.C. Council. Those who had unsuccessfully advocated for caps to private sector workers’ comp in the 1990s found new success with lawmakers curtailing rights for those working for city government. Among other things, the D.C. Council, with the support of the Office of Risk Management, removed the compensability of most emotional and psychological injuries, repealed augmented pay for public-sector spouses and dependent children, removed the ability of an injured worker to choose their own doctor, removed the requirement that courts give legal preference to the opinion of a worker’s treating physician, and instituted a new 500-week cap on receiving benefits. None of these rules existed or exist for injured private sector workers.

Advocates note that most of the Council’s changes came as part of budget support acts, generally with no hearings to debate the proposals, and with very little legislative history to review.

D.C. wasn’t the only place where workers’ compensation was quietly being rolled back. A ProPublica and NPR investigation published five years ago found that between 2003 and 2015, lawmakers in 33 states, largely at the behest of the business community, passed new workers’ comp laws to reduce benefits or make it harder to qualify for them. These measures were often branded as “reform” and pushed on “the false premise that costs [were] out of control.” While the journalists looked at changes across 50 states, D.C. was not included in their survey.

One reason the national degradation of workers’ comp had attracted little attention was because after budget cuts in 2004, the U.S. Department of Labor stopped tracking state workers’ comp laws. Reporters found that the cutbacks in some places “virtually guarantee[d]” injured workers would sink into poverty, and that workers often had to battle insurance companies “for years” to get the medical care their doctors recommended.

J. Paul Leigh, an economist at the University of California, Davis, who has studied workers’ comp, says one change he’s tracked has been the rising clout of doctors, who are charging far more for common procedures than they used to. “As medical costs continue to go up, state legislatures and insurance companies have wanted to restrict the amount spent,” Leigh says. “It used to be roughly 30 percent of workers’ comp went to the doctor, and 70 percent to workers in lost wages. Now it’s over 50 percent going to the doctor.”

When the D.C. Council approved, as part of its Budget Support Act of 2010, a new provision to limit public sector workers’ comp to 500 weeks, lawmakers clarified the clock would start ticking one year after enactment, meaning September 24, 2011. 500 weeks is now a mere six months away, and longtime injured workers are set to be cut off beginning in April 2021. The Council also required that within the final 52 weeks prior to termination, a worker is entitled to a hearing before an administrative law judge to determine if their injuries are permanent.

The Office of Risk Management tells City Paper there are 79 injured workers who have received notice that the 500-week temporary benefit cap would be reached within 52 weeks. Of those workers, ORM says they’ve received on average 1,126 weeks (or 21.67 years) of benefits. 

One of those workers is 65-year-old Laurie Posner, a former paramedic who injured her back and neck several times on the job in the 1990s, requiring multiple surgeries, and again in early 2000, while lifting a patient. Posner couldn’t return to work and was approved for workers’ compensation for her cervical strain. On May 6, the Stafford, Va., resident received a letter informing her that she will be reaching the new statutory cap on April 24, 2021, though she could schedule a hearing.

“I’ve been in chronic pain for years, and if I were cut off I would lose my home, which I’ve had to refinance three times just to stay in it,” Posner says. “It’s not like I’ve paid off my house. I’ve been using my equity to survive on what little I’m making, and if I lost that, I would lose my home, definitely.”

Hal Levi, a local public sector workers’ compensation attorney says that “unfortunately there’s a lot of people out there injured prior to September 2011 who have no idea what’s happening and don’t know what’s going to happen to them next April.” Many workers’ comp beneficiaries lack legal representation and it would be easy to read their termination notice and not understand what it means. “If they reach that 500 weeks next April, they won’t even have a right to a hearing,” Levi adds. “Their benefits will just be stopped.”

Levi’s oldest client was injured back in 1983, some 37 years ago. “Some of these clients are crippled, some are in wheelchairs, one has had a heart transplant,” he says. “They come to me because I’m one of the few lawyers around here who will take on their matters and I feel for them. I really feel they’ve gotten royally beaten down by the Office of Risk Management to get approval for their medical bills.”


One of the most striking disparities that has emerged over the last decade between the public-sector and private sector workers’ compensation systems is the notion that public sector workers are no longer eligible for permanent relief from serious workplace injuries. The Office of Risk Management and their lawyers at the Office of the Attorney General claim the D.C. Council did away with this eligibility in a 2015 budget bill,though workers’ compensation attorneys hotly dispute that legislative interpretation.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson tells City Paper he doesn’t “have much memory” on what the legislative intent was in 2015 and would have to review the committee report. “The only thing I remember is that the disability comp has been very controversial for the public sector system and the Council felt that the Office of Risk Management was not doing a very good job,” he says. “ORM was seen to be more interested in not processing claims as a way of saving the government money, which was not something the Council liked.”

In D.C., like in nearly every other jurisdiction, there are four categories of workers’ compensation, which go by names like “temporary-partial disability”, “temporary-total disability,” “permanent-partial disability,” and “permanent-total disability.”

Temporary-partial is when a disabled worker is seeking treatment but expected to work part-time or at a lower-level job until they completely recover. Temporary-total is when an injured worker cannot work, though could potentially return to their job eventually—this is typically the default classification in D.C. Permanent-partial is when a worker’s ability to earn income is partially impaired from an injury that will never heal, and permanent-total is when a worker can’t earn any future income by performing the work they used to do.

Many workers, like Posner, the former paramedic, have been classified as temporary-total disabled, but have been receiving benefits for decades and effectively treated as permanently disabled. “It’s been a distinction without any real meaning until now,” says Levi.

Posner says she was never told how long her workers’ compensation benefits would last, but ORM informed her in 2003 that she couldn’t return to work as a paramedic. “They told me I would be compensated until I could return, and since I was told I couldn’t return I assumed it would be for life,” she tells City Paper.

To justify their interpretation, the Office of Risk Management points to a budget bill the Council passed in 2015, when lawmakers repealed a provision dealing with so-called “scheduled awards,” or cash settlements granted for certain injuries. The Council also added a new provision clarifying that a public sector worker receiving a scheduled award could no longer receive temporary-total or temporary-permanent disability benefits on top of it.

Two years later, the Office of Risk Management issued new regulations that claimed the Council had thus eliminated permanent-total and permanent-partial disability for public sector workers in 2015, though workers’ compensation attorneys say nothing in the legislative history suggests that was the case. This interpretation however, has had calamitous implications for workers like Esther Layne who cannot return to work and are now learning they are not even eligible to be considered for a permanent extension of their temporary-total benefits, which are newly capped.

In a court filing sent to Layne’s attorney on Dec. 13, the Office of the Attorney General wrote that permanent benefits for public sector workers are “no longer available” since their alleged repeal in 2015, and that the Office of Risk Management’s interpretation of the statute should be “deemed the accurate interpretation” unless there is a clear error.

“The public sector system here has some of the drastic anti-worker features that you find in the reddest states,” says Benjamin Douglas, an Ashcraft & Gerel attorney who represents both public and private sector claimants in D.C., including Layne and Posner.

Levi, who is 73 years old and has been practicing law for more than four decades, says he has watched as the Office of Risk Management and the Council “changed the rules of the game in ways that’ve been very, very damaging” to injured public sector workers.

“We’ve tried to fight it, we’ve tried to challenge it, and up until now, we’ve had very little success in doing either,” he says. “Commenting on rules as they’ve been proposed has done no good. Testifying at the oversight hearings has not done much good. I’ve gotten convinced in past years that ORM just seems to have its way with the City Council, which is very unfortunate.”

One factor that has suppressed the concerns of injured workers is that there has never really been an organized advocacy group speaking on their behalf, aside from a couple of lawyers like Levi. Many are not D.C. residents; some live in Maryland and Virginia or have moved even further away, and never really had the ear of the Council. And for the longtime injured workers who are no longer paying union dues and may never return to work, their plight has never risen to the top of labor’s legislative wishlist, either. In a climate of austerity many unions made the decision to fight for their current members rather than rally on behalf of those who could no longer do their jobs.


Robert Newman got into public sector workers’ compensation law through Hal Levi, who he was connected with through a mutual friend. In 2018 the two men went to Councilmember Todd with some proposed changes to the Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act. (Newman is married to Todd’s chief of staff, Sherryl Newman.) This then led to the Injured Public Workers Fairness Amendment Act of 2018, introduced by Todd and At-Large Councilmember Robert White, and co-sponsored by Ward 8’s Anita Bonds and Ward 6’s Charles Allen.

The bill was referred to At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman’s Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, which then had jurisdiction over the Office of Risk Management. But it “never saw the light of day” says Newman, who lamented that Silverman never brought the bill up for a hearing.

Silverman’s office confirmed they met with Levi and Newman in June 2018 and felt at the time that they couldn’t fit their bill into the already packed fall legislative schedule before the end of the Council period. Silverman’s office was also concerned that it hadn’t heard from injured workers or their unions about issues with workers’ compensation, and staffers reasoned the underlying issues could be explored further at ORM’s annual performance oversight hearing the following February. In January, however, the agency was transferred to Todd’s Government Operations Committee.

Now, two years later, there are two new bills before the Council, both introduced by Todd.

One bill, which is more sweeping, would seek to make the public-sector system broadly identical to the private sector one. Advocates for this bill, the Public Sector Injured Workers’ Equality Amendment Act, say it will lead to greater justice for city employees, granting them the same rights and privileges as their private sector counterparts. Among other changes, the bill would let injured public sector workers again choose their own doctors, receive benefits for more emotional injuries, be eligible for permanent relief, no longer have to wait for the D.C. government to respond to them before they can file for their own hearings, and make it easier to obtain legal representation by making it easier for lawyers to be reimbursed for their services.

Advocates also point to a racial equity aspect of harmonizing the two systems. According to a recent Economic Policy Institute analysis of Census data, roughly 64 percent of D.C. government employees are Black, and 27 percent are White. In the D.C. private sector, by contrast, 34 percent of employees are Black, and 45 percent are White. And according to statistics about the two workers’ compensation systems gleaned from a Freedom of Information Act request, between 2009 and 2019 public sector workers in D.C. were approximately half as likely to receive permanent-partial disability and nearly 100 percent less likely to receive permanent-total disability than their private sector counterparts. The FOIA data also suggests that the public sector has significantly higher accident rates than the private sector.

We are really at a workers’ compensation disadvantage in the public sector,” says John Gibson, president of Teamsters Local 639, which represents city government employees like custodians and school grounds workers. Gibson’s union is backing Todd’s bill to equalize the two systems, and while he says the problems have been evident for a while, “it just never really gained traction” before to tackle. “We have heard nightmare stories about people losing just everything because [ORM] drags their feet on processing claims, or they don’t hear the full case, and we just feel they’ve been really partial,” he says.

Brenda Zwack, an attorney representing American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 20, which is also in support of the Public Sector Injured Workers’ Equality Amendment Act, says while unions had heard complaints over the years, raising awareness about these rules “was kind of an esoteric legal question,” making it “hard for people to advocate around.”

Though AFSCME and other unions do not negotiate over it, Zwack acknowledges many workers do come to unions with workers’ compensation concerns. “It’s not at the top of AFSCME’s legislative agenda, but we do think [the bill] is the right thing to do because we’ve heard members complain about the system,” she says. “In the broad sense we want to support good things for workers, and AFSCME represents some people working in some of the most dangerous jobs.”

Todd’s second bill, the Public Sector Workers’ Compensation Permanent Total Disability Amendment Act, would propose a narrower fix, clarifying that city government employees are indeed entitled to permanent relief for serious injuries.

This legislation is what Levi and Newman support; they say rushing to put the public sector workers’ comp system under the same rules as the private sector without deliberately studying the tradeoffs between the two could result in losing some aspects of the public-sector system that are currently more advantageous for workers. They argue the more sweeping bill could be more in the interest of attorneys than the workers themselves, and lawmakers should prioritize fixing the permanent disability provision, so those receiving temporary-total disability benefits could remain covered after the cap expires in April.

“My personal belief is this requires a whole lot of study that hasn’t been given to it. I think hearings need to be held and it’s really got to be delved to the point where the Council understands what the pros and cons are,” says Levi. “I’m not using this as a vehicle to try and gain business. I’m going to be retiring soon.”

Levi supports repealing all the changes made to the Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act over the last decade, but he worries there may be some aspects of the private sector system that if adopted wholesale, could actually jeopardize public sector workers. One example he cites is cost-of-living increases, which currently are only permitted in the private sector for permanent disabilities, but the Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act allows increases also for temporary disabilities. Newman suggested the Council form a committee to study the best way to equalize the systems, and then come back and propose legislation.

Robert Preston, a spokesperson for ORM, said the administration’s position on Todd’s bills “will be provided to the Council in the normal course of the legislative process.” Preston maintained that comparing the public and private workers’ compensation system is like comparing “apples to oranges” and argued the two systems have “completely different” orientations. 

Zwack, of AFSCME District Council 20, says she’s “yet to see any downsides” for workers under Todd’s comprehensive reform bill and thinks they’d be “by far better off” if it were to pass. “Council 20 is certainly satisfied, the proposed legislation would be a huge step forward to equity,” she says.

Douglas, the Ashcraft & Gerel attorney who also supports the comprehensive bill, says it “would allow attorneys to fight more for our clients, because we could actually take matters to court when it suits our clients and not just when it suits the Office of Risk Management.” It’s true the Public Sector Injured Workers’ Equality Amendment Act would have fewer constraints on when attorneys could be compensated for their legal services, but Douglas says “that is also how it would help clients get representation.”

The politics are complicated by Todd leaving the Council, but as long as the bills are given a hearing this year, they could then be fast-tracked in 2021, even if they are not voted on in December. Mendelson says he’s had no conversations with his colleagues about these public sector workers’ compensation issues, and advocates haven’t approached him either.

“I think Todd’s hope was to get the hearings done and then if we need, we can find someone else to sponsor it,” says Newman. “In 2018 we had four co-sponsors, so I think we can find one of them to bring it forward.”

Douglas also says he’s not too worried about their legislative prospects. “As for long-term plans, I am optimistic that the Council will get on board with serious reform this year,” he says. “If that does not happen, of course the struggle will continue.”

Amid Internal Power Struggle, Firefighters Union Clears President of Wrongdoing

Originally published in The Intercept on September 22, 2020.

THE INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION of Fire Fighters has absolved its president, Harold Schaitberger, of any wrongdoing related to his receipt of pension payments, according to an internal review obtained by The Intercept. The union’s No. 2, General Secretary-Treasurer Ed Kelly, had charged back in March that Schaitberger was receiving the payments too soon, prompting the investigation. Another internal review, which was distributed within the union last week, found that Kelly had improperly hired outside legal counsel to investigate Schaitberger and the IAFF.  

Kelly alleged in the spring that Schaitberger, who was elected as the IAFF’s president in 2000, after 24 years of serving as an IAFF staffer, has been drawing from his staff pension benefits too soon, receiving more than $1 million earlier than allowed by federal law and union rules. The allegations sparked the internal probes, which were led by board-level committees.

The jockeying at the top of the IAFF, which represents 320,000 firefighters and paramedics across the U.S and Canada, comes at a crucial political juncture, ahead of the presidential election in November and union elections in January. Schaitberger is a key ally of former Vice President Joe Biden, and under his leadership, the IAFF endorsed Biden in April 2019, long before any other labor union, drawing the ire of President Donald Trump. Schaitberger is up for reelection in January and is currently running unopposed — though, as The Intercept reported last week, Kelly has expressed interest in the role, according to an IAFF leader from the Midwest and other union members. Kelly’s chief of operations, Matt Golsteyn, was pardoned for war crimes by Trump in November 2019 and campaigned with him at a Republican Party fundraiser a month later.

Following Kelly’s accusations, the union executive board suspended Schaitberger’s monthly pension payments and suggested that the union may need to “recover the impermissible benefit payments” Schaitberger had received, potentially by offsetting them against future payments. The board then launched its internal review; neither Schaitberger nor Kelly were involved in appointing members to the committee tasked with reviewing the pension claims, according to the 29-page report.

The report was distributed to thousands of IAFF leaders on Monday, and in it the union reversed its suspension of Schaitberger’s pension payments. The report also noted that the union’s executive board unanimously approved an amendment in 2002 affirming Schaitberger’s right to collect his staff pension while serving as president. It does not say definitively whether he improperly received payments, but concludes that any overpayment he may have received “cannot be recovered from him” because it would be “improper” under the principles of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 to hold him financially responsible for that. (The federal retirement law places the responsibility of record retention on the employer, not the employee, and the union noted many key witnesses involved in managing the pension fund are now dead.) “Our determination is due in no small part to the amount of time that has passed since the events at issue and the significant prejudice to Mr. Schaitberger resulting from the passage of time and the wasting of evidence,” the report concluded.

Earlier this month, federal authorities launched a criminal probe into the allegations. In the union’s new report, the authors acknowledged that the federal government may still find wrongdoing, but emphasized that if a pension “correction” is needed with the IRS, Schaitberger should not be personally on the hook for it.

On Monday, Schaitberger sent a lengthy email to IAFF leaders sharing the pension report, which he claimed “vindicated me,” laying out the major findings of the internal review. He also warned that some may try “to mischaracterize this Decision, to once again serve their own ambition and purposes. When they do, they will continue to expose their own agenda and further harm this IAFF.”

A second executive board committee report, which was distributed internally to IAFF leaders last week, blasted Kelly for secretly hiring the “antiunion, anti-employee” law firm Nelson Mullins in January to investigate the union’s finances. Kelly used his personal email account to hire the law firm, without knowledge or approval from others on the union executive board. When reprimanded in March by Schaitberger for the unauthorized hire, Kelly defended his decision, saying that his constitutional authorities as general secretary-treasurer “provide[s] for the ability to retain outside counsel to assist me with my fiduciary responsibilities as the association’s treasurer.” (The IAFF’s general counsel disagreed with this assessment, according to an email he sent Kelly on March 12.)

In the report pertaining to Nelson Mullins, the IAFF said that when it had first asked the firm for documents and emails relevant to its representation of the union, it “provided an incredibly incomplete response” and allegedly withheld documents from the executive board. This prompted the board to vote in July to instruct Nelson Mullins to immediately cease all IAFF work and provide the union with all documents, correspondence, and work product by August 7. But the law firm, according to the IAFF, did not stop working and proceeded to submit a so-called preliminary report on the union that had not been requested. The IAFF blasted Nelson Mullins for producing an unauthorized work product that “is filled with unsubstantiated allegations, innuendo, and factual misstatements” and “appears to be nothing more than a hit piece on the IAFF Executive Board and General President.” 

Asked about the internal reports, a spokesperson for the IAFF told The Intercept that they “speak for themselves.”