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Uncovered California: Why Millions Have Fallen Into Health Care Gaps

Sasha Abramsky




Right now, I have a medicine sitting at Wal-Mart pharmacy that I can’t purchase till payday,” Jacqueline, a 55-year-old San Diegan told me during a telephone interview in mid-April. She asked that her last name not be used for this story. “I’ll go without, eight or nine days till payday. It’s for my high cholesterol.”

Five years after the Affordable Care Act became law, and more than three years after California began moving aggressively to implement its provisions, upwards of three million Californians remain without health care coverage; and millions more, like Jacqueline, have basic coverage but continue to be grievously under-insured.This is the story of how so many Californians continue to fall through the ACA’s cracks.

“Uncovered California” is a three-part series of stories and videos examining how the Golden State is trying to fill holes in its health care coverage. Sasha Abramsky’s articles look at working people who are falling through coverage cracks, and at what’s being done to help community college students gain access to mental health services. Debra Varnado reports on efforts to expand the role of nurse practitioners to increase medical services for low-income Californians.

Until a few years ago, Jacqueline worked a hospital security job, which paid fairly decently. Then she lost it and ended up with another security job, this one paying only $11 an hour. It didn’t come with health insurance, and so Jacqueline went online to buy insurance through California’s health insurance exchange, set up in the wake of passage of the Affordable Care Act. Because her earnings left her well below 400 percent of the federal poverty line – the upper limit for insurance assistance under ACA — she qualified for subsidies.

These subsidies are calculated on a sliding scale according to a recipient’s income, so that people pay anywhere from two to 9.5 percent of their income. But, Jacqueline discovered, buying into a gold or silver plan would still cost more than she could afford. And so, despite the fact that she suffered from diabetes, high cholesterol, neuropathy and other ailments that required frequent doctors visits and a steady array of medications, she bought into a bronze plan.

Five years after the Affordable Care Act became law, upwards of three million Californians remain without health care coverage.

Such plans essentially shift the financial burden from now, when the monthly payment is due, to later – when the bills come in from doctors; prescriptions have to be paid for out of pocket. They cap out-of-pocket expenses at $6,850 for an individual and $13,700 for a family – which, for the working poor, represents a prohibitive outlay of cash. (A Cost Sharing Reduction Subsidies program can significantly reduce out-of-pocket maximums.) Take, for example, the story of Maria Can de Tec, a laundry worker at an Orange County convalescent hospital, who managed to buy subsidized Anthem-Blue Cross insurance for $151 per month but, following an emergency room visit for internal pains and bleeding, ended up with nearly a thousand dollars in bills that she is now having to pay off in $76.92 monthly installments.

The bronze plan that Jacqueline chose still cost her $50 per month — the upper limit of what she could afford — and, as she found out once she began using its medical services, it came with hefty copays and deductibles. It was, in many ways, barely more than catastrophic coverage. Near the end of each month, with no money in the bank and days to go until her next paycheck, she would run out of medicines.

I can tell the difference when I have my medicine and when I don’t,” she said. “I have more stress and worry. I wanted to see the doctor about issues of mental health. Stress and tension. And once I found out how much it was going to cost, I didn’t go. I came to a decision that I really need this, but I couldn’t afford to go. And I’m having really bad issues with my neck, back and legs – and I can’t afford to go to the specialists.”

When the Affordable Care Act was passed, California embraced its principles more assertively than did most other states. It set up the nation’s biggest insurance exchange and invested heavily in Covered California, the organization responsible for bringing the uninsured into the insurance system; it added state dollars to provide additional subsidies to anyone whose earnings placed them at less than 250 percent of the federal poverty line; it expanded its Medi-Cal roles dramatically – the ACA allowed states to cover anyone whose income was no more than 138 percent of the poverty line. And it has spent heavily, for each of the last five years, on outreach to bring children and other particularly vulnerable groups into primary care settings – since studies indicate that previous expansions of the health care safety net, from the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, to Medicare for the elderly, have taken four to five years to bring in all the people they can, and to reach a state of steady enrollment.

Health Access California's Anthony Wright

Health Access California’s Anthony Wright

The ACA, says Anthony Wright, executive director of the Sacramento-based advocacy organization Health Access California, which campaigns for policies that would bring more Californians into the health care system, “allowed us huge progress. We’ve cut the number of uninsured by half. We had seven million uninsured prior to ACA. The modeling suggested we would land at around three million – and that three or four million would [eventually] be covered.” So far, California has already outperformed these goals, with close to four million newly covered Medi-Cal patients, and upwards of 1.5 million buying into subsidized insurance.

And yet, because of the way the federal law was worded, as well as some of the unique demographic and economic characteristics of the state, six years after the ACA’s passage many millions of Californians remain uninsured; data from the 2014 California Health Interview Survey, the most comprehensive study to date, estimates five million. They are, as researchers from the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, and the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Health Policy Research calculate, disproportionately Latino and male, and most of them work at least 30 hours per week. In addition to the uninsured, however, hundreds of thousands more, like Jacqueline, bought into bronze plans that essentially provide financial disincentives to seek medical attention and thus leave them significantly underinsured.

There are the spouses and children of workers whose employers provide them with health insurance but either don’t offer coverage to family members or offer it only at a price that renders it unaffordable. Because of an accidental miswording in the ACA, these families, even if they are less than 400 percent of the poverty line, aren’t eligible for subsidies. It’s a trap that advocates refer to as the “family glitch” and it ought to be relatively easy to fix. But because the Republican majority in Congress is more interested in defunding ACA than in filling in holes in its coverage, the glitch remains in place. In 2011 UC Berkeley Labor Center researchers calculated that 144,000 Californians were caught in this trap.

If my husband, daughter and I all purchased insurance through his employer,” wrote Brenda, a 57-year-old woman from the town of North Hills, to Bethany Snyder, who until last May was director of communications at Health Access California, “that amount would be half of his monthly take-home pay, leaving very little for food, housing and other essentials.” While her husband was covered through his employer, and their daughter was on another insurance plan, which cost them $161 per month, Brenda herself was unable, because of this, to afford insurance. Instead, she was relying on a cost-sharing plan for her medical bills run through Christian Healthcare Ministries. It was better than nothing, but she still wanted, one day, to be able to access proper health insurance.

In high-cost-of-living areas of the state, there is another problem: families at just over 400 percent of the poverty line, who on paper ought to have plenty of disposable income to buy nonsubsidized insurance, but who spend so much on housing that they end up not having enough to buy insurance.

While there are tax penalties in place for those who go uninsured, those penalties are not imposed on people who can show that to access nonsubsidized insurance they would have to spend more than eight percent of their income on health care policies. In some parts of the Bay Area, for example, health care analysts have found clusters of middle-aged people who are foregoing coverage because of extremely high housing costs, and who are not subject to tax penalties because the cost of insurance, which rises the older one gets, would be more than eight percent of their income.

The last, and largest, remaining group excluded from health care coverage consists of California’s millions of undocumented residents. When ACA was passed, Congress explicitly excluded them from access to Medicaid and to federally subsidized insurance policies. As a result, even as most of the legally resident poor in California have accessed some form of coverage in the years following the ACA’s passage, the undocumented remain intensely vulnerable. Wright estimates that whereas, before ACA, only one in five of the uninsured lacked legal residency status, today upwards of half of the state’s uninsured are undocumented.

They have to rely on the emergency room for all their health care needs,” explains Don Nielsen, director of government relations at the California Nurses Association. (Disclosure: CNA is a Capital & Main financial supporter.) We’ve met opposite the Capitol building in a café frequented by the political classes. Nielsen is wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses and a black suit with a “Bernie” pin on a lapel. The CNA had, months earlier, endorsed Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in large part because of his commitment to single-payer health care. “That’s a big roll of the dice,” Nielsen says. “They [ERs] have to accept everyone, but they are only required to ‘stabilize’ them. They don’t have to do anything beyond that. It’s real hit and miss.” CNA’s slogan on health care reform was simple: “Everybody in, nobody out.” Under single-payer, Nielsen states, no one, regardless of their immigration status, could be denied access to health care.

Says one Sacramento resident, who was undocumented for 16 years and asks to remain anonymous, “My Dad has needed a surgery for a hernia operation for years.” Her parents, who live in the southern part of the state, remain undocumented. “He’s just been waiting, hanging on, hoping there will be a time he can afford surgery and time to recover. It’s a struggle. There’s no safety net.” The woman’s father had worked for years in a factory that made RVs. But then he became injured and could no longer do the heavy lifting required in the factory, and he was out of work.

It’s kind of a sad tune we are all familiar with,” his daughter explains. “We know we’re forgoing care. It’s too expensive. It’s too bad, you know?”

Many California counties, no longer having to provide indigent care for poor, able-bodied adults now covered under Medi-Cal, have used some of their savings to expand basic clinic coverage for undocumented residents – realizing that it is actually cheaper to provide more comprehensive primary care coverage than to have to pick up the emergency room bills accrued when the undocumented finally seek treatment in hospital settings. Forty-seven counties are now providing more than just emergency care to these residents, up from only nine just last year. But while that change has been welcomed by advocates, in the long run it is only a scattershot solution to a vast problem – and one that leaves the undocumented vulnerable to changing financial and political winds at the county level.

storkA more systematic approach has, in the past year, emerged at the state legislative level: In October of last year, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that would allow California to use state dollars to provide Medi-Cal to undocumented children. The provisions of this law, which follows passage of similar state measures and city ordinances in Massachusetts, New York, Chicago and Washington State, went into effect in early May of this year, meaning that with good outreach in the coming months almost all of California’s children could end up with health coverage. Wright and other advocates believe that upwards of 175,000 of the estimated 250,000 undocumented children in the state will soon be enrolled in Medi-Cal. The state is also using its own dollars to cover refugees who don’t have their green cards, as well as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students. If the U.S. Supreme Court allows DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans) to proceed, California will stand ready to expand health care access to this group, too.

For the past year, Sacramento has also discussed legislation that would allow undocumented adults to buy nonsubsidized insurance plans on the Covered California exchange. The legislation would require a federal waiver, but since the exchanges are no longer federally funded, such a waiver is likely to be granted. And this year state Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) has pushed Senate Bill 10, a proposal that would expand Medi-Cal access, again paid for with state rather than federal dollars, to undocumented adults too. Polling from 2015 indicates 58 percent of Californians support this move.

Slowly, California is plugging the ACA’s gaps. It has taken five years to halve the number of uninsured in the state. It will likely take several more years to make a serious dent in the remaining numbers. And some of the problems, such as the family glitch, will likely still remain even at the back-end of years of effort.

But, unlike on the federal level, statewide there is at least now the political will to tackle this problem. And that’s a huge accomplishment in and of itself.

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Labor & Economy

Battling Income Inequality With Second Avenue Partners’ Nick Hanauer

The Seattle maverick, who has pushed for a slate of progressive policies while warning his “fellow zillionaires” that the pitchforks are coming, explains on “The Bottom Line” podcast that his dad helped to shape his values.

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When venture capitalist, entrepreneur, and political provocateur Nick Hanauer was coming of age in Seattle, he wanted a sports car. His father, however, wouldn’t let him get one.

It wasn’t because the family, which owned and ran bedding producer Pacific Coast Feather Co., didn’t have the money for a luxury like that. Nor was it because Hanauer’s dad deemed it too dangerous or frivolous.

He forbade the purchase because he was worried about the optics. “He felt strongly that it sent the entirely wrong signal to our employees who worked, in his opinion, harder than I did and couldn’t afford such a thing,” Hanauer told me on the latest edition of my podcast, The Bottom Line.

“That was just kind of the perspective that my dad had,” Hanauer adds, “and I suppose I got some of it.”

Actually, Hanauer got substantially more than some.

An early investor in Amazon and a co-founder of Second Avenue Partners, Hanauer for years has been citing the dangers of income inequality in America, famously warning his “fellow zillionaires” that “if we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us.”He also hasn’t been shy about offering a host of policy prescriptions to lift up the working class. Among them: raising the minimum wage to as much as $25 an hour at the nation’s biggest corporations; making vastly more people eligible for overtime pay; creating a system of portable, pro-rated, and universal benefits for independent workers; and curtailing stock buybacks.

If he had his way, he’d also significantly boost corporate taxes—a total reversal of Trumpian economics.

Hanauer says that he learned the merits of this idea from watching his father manage Pacific Coast Feather. At the time, in the 1970s, the top corporate rate was 48%. (The Trump tax law just lowered it to 21% from 35%.)

“When I grew up in the family business and tax rates were very, very high, my dad employed this fantastic tax-avoidance scheme,” Hanauer says. “We called it investing in the business.

“What my dad did to avoid paying corporate tax, which he hated, was to spend every dollar of cash flow on more employees, more factories, and more equipment,” he recalls. “We kept our profits insanely low because we did not want to pay more corporate tax. Today. . . the penalty of high profits is very, very low.”

While Hanauer has harsh words for what he calls the “trickle-downers,” his condemnation is not limited to one side of the political aisle. “The evisceration of the middle class,” he says, “took place during Democrat and Republican administrations.”

He also sees the public sector as just one part of the problem; the private sector, in Hanauer’s eyes, has largely abdicated its responsibility, as well. “In the old days, big companies used to set the tone at the top,” he says. “Today, they drag everyone down to the bottom. And that shouldn’t be tolerated.”

One of the corporations that Hanauer criticizes is Amazon, which he helped to get off the ground (and where, it was recently disclosed, the median employee made $28,446 last year while CEO Jeff Bezos’s net worth has climbed to more than $130 billion).

“They’re super exploitive—just unacceptable,” Hanauer says. “What I can guarantee you is that Jeff Bezos is not going to change those things in the absence of somebody putting essentially a gun to his head and forcing him to do it.”

If Hanauer’s father helped to forge a firebrand, there’s at least one aspect of the son’s life that he would have trouble fathoming. “I . . . have this giant pile of money that would have been inconceivable to my dad,” Hanauer says. “And I live a ridiculously lavish life as a consequence of that.”

You can listen to my entire interview with Hanauer here, along with Larry Buhl reporting on the steady erosion of overtime pay in America, and Karan Chopra explaining how great social benefits can result when “agents of innovation” combine with “agents of scale.”


The Bottom Line is a production of Capital & Main

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BlueLA E-Vehicles Hit the Streets

With rates roughly equal to rideshare services like Lyft and Uber, BlueLA appears unlikely to make a significant dent in Angelenos’ travel habits anytime soon.

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Rex Weiner




The writer test-drives an e-vehicle.

Last month a controversial French company and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation rolled out the blue-carpet at a full-launch party for BlueLA, an eco-friendly car-sharing service. BlueLA enjoys enthusiastic municipal backing for its mission of helping to ease L.A.’s desperate transportation woes with a fleet of electric cars and charging stations, initially targeting, LADOT says, some of the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods. (A soft-launch of the L.A. program was unveiled last June.)

Although questions remain about the viability of BlueLA’s business model, on April 20 — while a DJ spun tunes under sunny skies on the L.A. Community College campus in East Hollywood, community organizers and environmental groups dispensed brochures, food trucks served lunch and reporters test-drove the nifty blue e-vehicles — local pols hailed the co-venture between LADOT and Blue Solutions, the parent company of BlueLA.

“BlueLA is making a difference,” said Sandy Berg, vice chair of the California Air Resources Board, which is granting $1.7 million of cap-and-trade regulation funds to the $10 million project. A statement from Mayor Eric Garcetti declared that the company would provide “underserved communities with an environmentally-friendly way to get around town—at an affordable price.”

BlueLA’s first seven stations are located at Los Angeles City College, Koreatown, MacArthur Park and downtown Los Angeles. The next round of stations will include Los Angeles Trade Technical College, Echo Park and Westlake. The program’s first phase aims to have 100 vehicles available in 40 locations, with subsequent expansions tripling the program’s reach by the end of 2021. A phone app allows users to locate and reserve available cars.

The pricing structure offers users a “Community” level subscription: one dollar per month and 15 cents per minute, provided the user is “low-income qualified,” with a total annual gross income of less than $31,550 for an individual. Proof requires pay stubs, tax returns or enrollment in Medicaid/Medi-Cal, SNAP or other public-assistance programs. At this level the second and third hours of any rental period are free, adding up to a cost of $9 for the first three hours, after which the 15-cent-per-minute rate applies.

A statement from Marie Bolloré, CEO of Blue Solutions, a division of the Paris-based Bolloré Group, which manufactures the Blue Cars and the e-vehicle’s battery, reiterated the goals of sustainability and “creating inclusive communities,” and saluted CARB and LADOT for “unwavering support” for their co-venture.

Yet it’s not all been a win-win for her company. The 30-year-old heiress to the Bolloré business, which dates back to 1822, and “director of the Electric Side of The Empire,” according to the French press, might not have known that less than a week later her father, Vincent Bolloré, would be arrested by French judicial police. The 66-year-old head of one of France’s richest conglomerates—counting Universal Music Group and a large tranche of French TV and film media companies among its diversified holdings, which yielded 18.3 billion euros in 2017 revenues—is the target of a bribery investigation involving the presidents of Togo and Guinea in West Africa, where the Bolloré Groups’ myriad interests in transport, palm oil plantations and shipping make it one of the continent’s biggest investors.

“That is about things that happened 10 years ago,” Blue Solutions managing director Christophe Arnaud told Capital & Main by phone about the senior Bolloré’s arrest. “It won’t affect our operations in L.A.”

Indeed, l’affaire Bolloré has not yet affected AutoLib’, the company’s 3,000-car rideshare service in Paris, or BlueIndy, the company’s three-year-old American test project in Indianapolis. But, even if the parent company’s distant troubles don’t impact the rollout of BlueLA on the streets of Los Angeles, other factors present daunting challenges to the car-share venture’s success here.

BlueLA is not expected to turn a profit for 12 to 13 years, says Arnaud, describing it as a “long-term investment.” The business plan envisions revenue, beyond customer subscriptions, coming from three main sources: the offering of its charging stations to other e-vehicles; advertising on the sides of Blue Cars; and selling the car batteries’ stored juice back into the grid. Arnaud admitted, however, that for the scheme to pay off, BlueLA’s infrastructure will have to scale up quickly.

With rates roughly equal to rideshare services like Lyft and Uber, and competition from rapidly expanding bike-share services around the city, as well as other share-ventures such as Santa Monica-based Bird electric scooters, BlueLA appears unlikely to make a significant dent in Angelenos’ travel habits anytime soon.

As for the idea of servicing the EV community, BlueLA’s charging stations do not currently accommodate other e-vehicles, nor are the Blue Cars compatible with any of the city’s existing charging stations, despite the fact that Los Angeles is one of the country’s top 10 EV cities, according to a recent study by Indiana University, with more than 1,200 plug-ins within 10 miles around the city.

The car’s solid-state lithium battery has its pluses—such as “no cobalt,” Arnaud emphasized, referring to the rare-earth element that is often mined under conflict conditions for other batteries—but faces overwhelming competition from Tesla and other battery manufacturers. Also, outside of sunny California, the Blue Solutions battery must be kept plugged in and warmed above a certain temperature.

Still, a quick spin around L.A.’s Mid City neighborhood in a BlueCar was easy, with radio and AC functioning on a recent hot day, built-in GPS guiding my way and pretty good acceleration, although I wouldn’t take it on the Santa Monica Freeway. Want to practice your French? Tap the Help button; it connects to customer service in France. But don’t forget the nine-hour time difference. “It is two in the morning!” said the voice with a touch of Parisian impatience, as I rounded the corner of Melrose and Vermont avenues.

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Labor & Economy

Manuel Pastor on California’s Golden Resistance

A new book argues that the dismantling of policy initiatives that made up the Golden State’s successful postwar social compact were, in part, driven by racial fears as state demographics shifted. 

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Bobbi Murray




When reading Manuel Pastor’s State of Resistance, it’s hard not to wonder if the present White House dumpster fire is being fed by the same ideological tinder that fueled California’s political right wing from the 1970s throughout the 1990s. Pastor, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, offers an unsentimental view of that period: “By the 1990s racism had really gotten the better of us. Race made us take our eye off the ball of development.” His book, subtitled, What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future, recalls that two-decade span as a disaster for California’s development as a forward-looking state, but also, perhaps, as a necessary prelude to its current status as the progressive movement’s shield against the Trump administration.

A community activist, contemplating the destruction visited upon Los Angeles after its 1992 civil unrest, is quoted as wearily declaring, “There’s an immediate need to think long-term.” In Pastor’s view it is long-term thinking that has carried California forward as the model of a state of resistance—as a leader in wage justice, in climate change policy, in support of immigrant and other civil rights.

Pastor’s book also examines what has led to the Golden State’s periodic explosions. He takes readers at a brisk pace through 20th-century California history: years when migrants from across America came to it in hopes of bettering their lives; through various political backlashes and then onward to the social movements that learned to build and wield power and helped turn the state in a progressive direction.

In his book and during a recent interview, he is clear about the ways in which the playing field in the state was never quite level for people of color but, until the 1990s, had at least been seen by a broad spectrum of people as a place of opportunity.

That minimal social compact, he says, was undone “by a series of well-organized and often grassroots right-wing movements usually taking advantage of the racialized anxieties of voters frightened of a changing state.” Pastor argues that the dismantling of policy initiatives that made up the Golden State’s successful social compact—support for public education, transportation, housing desegregation and economic development–were in part driven by racial fears as state demographics shifted.

One pivotal moment came in 1978, with the passage of Proposition 13, a ballot initiative ostensibly proposed to put a brake on California’s spiraling home property taxes, but which the author claims defined a racial and generational divide. The new law had the practical effect of protecting older, whiter homeowners from rising property taxes and locked in commercial taxes at artificially low levels for decades — while ultimately stripping funding from state services that support the young, especially education and public infrastructure.

But, as California turned younger and browner, conservatives were only getting started, as they pushed through a wave of ballot initiatives to recalibrate the social compact and target people of color:

  • Proposition 187 in 1994 sought to block undocumented immigrants from access to education and non-emergency health care and elections; it succeeded at the ballot box but those two features were overturned in court;
  • Proposition 184, a 1994 three-strikes law, imposed a life sentence for any crime if the offender had two prior convictions categorized as serious or violent, and disproportionately affected black youth;
  • Proposition 209, an anti-affirmative action measure passed in 1996, inhibited access to higher education for people of color.

Pastor outlines vibrant grassroots efforts that emerged in Los Angeles in response to the civil unrest and the public policy that fueled it —the South Los Angeles organization SCOPE, committed to power-building in poor and black and Latino communities; the Community Coalition, founded by now-Congresswoman Karen Bass; the economic justice-inspired Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and others that connected with similar organizations throughout the state.

“Relationships got built so that when people were pursuing slightly different strategies they didn’t end up with a permanent hostility,” Pastor says. “They just recognized that they were pursuing different strategies at different times.”

By the 2016 elections the organized right wing had seized powerful pieces of the national narrative, according to Pastor. “The Tea Party was astroturfed in by the Koch brothers–but actually did have a grassroots component and spoke to a high level of pain and anger that was out there.”

Social change means being attentive to narrative—how people talk with one another, Pastor says. “How do you change the debate so that it’s not, ‘We need to raise the minimum wage,’ it’s the Fight for Fifteen? That it’s not about ‘comprehensive immigration reform,’ it’s about Dreamers? That it’s not about ‘civil rights for gays,’ it’s about marriage equality?”

Crucial to making California a state of resistance was a turn from the conventional get-out-the-vote approach that pops up every election season and does little to connect with the electorate.

“What happened in California was this emergence of integrated voter engagement—what we call community organizing-based politics,” Pastor says. By this he means cultivating new and occasional voters, rather than those who never miss an election and tend to vote conservatively. The book details the work of California Calls, a statewide network of community organizations located in towns from the Central Valley to San Diego County, whose members work door-to-door between elections to stay in touch with the political pulse of voters and mobilize them at election time, boosting the turnout from low-income areas.

Throughout the country there are similar efforts that Pastor calls “movements that capture the imagination,” including the New Florida Majority, focused on mobilizing and including marginalized communities, and Black PAC, which provided a vote margin to turn an Alabama election for a U.S. Senate seat against hardline conservative Roy Moore.

“Political change is not just about elections,” Pastor cautions. “We have to invest in progressive infrastructure.”

In each election season, he says, “there’s a lot of money being spent on pollsters [and] strategists who don’t produce messaging that resonates, get-out-the-vote that’s not integrated voter engagement.”

The most effective way to not get a Trump elected, Pastor argues, is to invest in the grassroots.

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Labor & Economy

Caregivers Union Says Orange County Colluded With Freedom Foundation

The potential effects of an anti-union ruling in Janus v. AFSCME could already be on display in Orange County, where a right-to-work group scored a win involving orientations for new in-home health care aides.

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Robin Urevich




A union home care worker addresses the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

This spring the Supreme Court is likely to deal the U.S. labor movement a crushing blow if, as expected, it rules in Janus v. AFSCME that public employees who choose not to join unions no longer have to pay service fees for union representation.

For the political right, the case is a dream come true because weakened unions would mean a weaker Democratic Party, which relies on organized labor for campaign money and boots on the ground to get out the vote.

If plaintiff Mark Janus prevails, deep-pocketed conservative groups—funded by the likes of the Koch brothers— have announced they’ll wage war for the hearts and minds of public employees in an attempt to separate them from their unions.

The fight is already on in Orange County, where the right-to-work group Freedom Foundation, based in Washington state, scored a win last January in a battle over orientations for new in-home health care aides.

Because of this, new workers are being explicitly told they can leave the room during optional union presentations at job orientations. Because home-care workers don’t have a central work place, union officials say these presentations are one of the union’s only opportunities to sign them up as members.

The United Domestic Workers, which represents home-care workers in Orange County,  argues this new practice discourages membership among public sector employees — in violation of a California law that took effect this year.  (Disclosure: The union is a financial supporter of this website.)  What’s more, union officials contend the county illegally sidestepped its obligation to meet and confer with them over the new orientation policy, claiming that the union contract specifies that a labor-management committee is to plan such orientations.

In-home health care workers, who provide support for low-income elderly and disabled people, are canaries in the Janus coal mine, since the Supreme Court ruled four years ago, in Harris v. Quinn, that these caregivers couldn’t be compelled to pay union fees if they chose to opt out of membership. Ever since, the Freedom Foundation – in Oregon and Washington, and since last year, in California, has knocked on doors, launched a cable TV ad campaign and a website aimed at convincing home-care workers to quit their union. (Freedom Foundation would not answer questions for this story.)

California law allows unions that represent home-care workers to give 30-minute presentations at new-employee orientations. But last fall, the Freedom Foundation’s Orange County director, Sam Han, objected to the union’s sole access to new employees and began lobbying the supervisors, all of whom are fellow Republicans, to give him five minutes to also address the new recruits. He further argued that the workers should be explicitly told they could leave the room during the union presentation.

In January, the Orange County Board of Supervisors discussed the matter in closed session. County counsel Leon Page said the closed-door consideration was justified because a decision by the supervisors to allow Han into new worker orientations would likely lead to a lawsuit from the UDW.

Page said the supervisors took no official action, but that he alone decided to change the script that guides employee orientations to clearly state that the union presentation was optional and to maintain the county’s neutrality in union matters.

“We are Switzerland,” Page said, contending that the county’s previous approach—of only informing new workers the presentation was optional if they asked—was biased in favor of the union.

Two days later Han declared victory on the Freedom Foundation website. Union officials were incensed that he got word about Page’s action a full week before they did.

The UDW has filed an unfair labor practice charge against the county with the state Public Employee Relations Board. Union attorney Tony Segall said that to his knowledge it’s the first such charge to be filed under the new state law that bars employers from discouraging public employee union membership. He noted the dispute will take on added significance if the court decides against organized labor in the Janus case.

“We’re going to be fighting this battle everywhere,” Segall said.

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Labor & Economy

Reality Check: CalChamber’s “Job Killer” Bills Actually Create Jobs

CalChamber won’t say how many jobs on its Job Killer list would be eliminated by proposed environmental and workplace protection bills — or even how such legislation would eliminate them.

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Judith Lewis Mernit




Photo: Joanne Kim

Shortly after Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher assumed office in the California Assembly in 2013, her work started getting a special kind of attention. Every year for more than 20 years, the pro-business lobbyists at the California Chamber of Commerce have put out a list of bills CalChamber considers “job killers” — proposed laws that, it contends, would so burden business owners that they’d presumably start firing workers, or at least cease to hire new ones. Among the bills to make the list during Gonzalez Fletcher’s first legislative session was one of her own: A measure ordering employers to grant one hour sick leave for every 30 hours worked.

Even Democrats who supported sick-leave legislation feared the Chamber’s wrath.

The Chamber’s influence has historically been persuasive in Sacramento; by its own reckoning, it has managed to kill 92 percent of the bills named on its annual list. In the two years before Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego) took office, only five of 70 so-called “job-killer” bills were passed into law. Even Democrats who supported sick-leave legislation so feared the Chamber’s wrath that they urged the new Assemblywoman to modify her bill to be more business-friendly.

“People said to me, ‘You have to work with the Chamber and get them to remove that title.’ I said ‘Why?’ I come from organized labor and represent a working class district. They’re going to oppose whatever I do.”

The Assembly and Senate did make some changes to the bill to make it less onerous for business owners. But its basic premise remained intact, all the way to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. In August 2014, California extended the nation’s largest expansion of paid sick leave benefits to workers. “We caught up to the rest of the world,” Gonzalez Fletcher says.

In the years since, Gonzalez Fletcher has become known for sponsoring bills that end up in the Chamber’s cross-hairs. In 2016, she carried a bill to grant overtime to farm workers, correcting part of a 77-year-old law that cut farm workers out of federal labor standards. Brown signed it into law that September. The year before, she successfully pushed through a law to require grocery stores to retain workers for 90 days after they changed ownership.

“That was my favorite one they called a job killer,” Gonzalez Fletcher says. “It was literally a bill to save workers’ jobs.”

California has often been a target of scorn for its stringent regulations, mostly from pro-growth conservatives who see any law that restrains business, be it worker protections or environmental controls, as inimical to economic success. And to be fair, new laws and market forces sometimes do affect jobs. The state’s singular climate laws, which set accelerating greenhouse-gas emission standards for electrical utilities and industries, have undoubtedly forced coal-fired power plants in Utah, Arizona and Nevada to shut down over time, eliminating jobs as operations wind down. One bill on the California Chamber’s list, to permanently close SoCalGas’ troubled Aliso Canyon storage facility, which blew a catastrophic leak in 2015, would necessarily uproot a certain number of workers were it to pass.

But just as some jobs go away in one market sector, other ones arise in another. “When you’re transitioning, there is a loss in traditional jobs, and then there’s growth in non-traditional jobs,” says Mary Leslie, president of the Los Angeles Business Council, which works toward corporate sustainability. “Then those jobs become the jobs of the future.” After the legislature passed the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, for instance, building owners in the state made investments in energy efficiency — one of the easiest ways for a company to reduce resource use and emissions.

“That created a whole industry around energy efficiency,” Leslie says. And far from killing jobs, that industry helped businesses save money on their utility bills, potentially creating revenue for new hires. “Now that they’ve made the switch, they won’t go back.”

California also has more jobs in the solar industry than does any other state, thanks to a cluster of state climate laws and incentives — 86,414 jobs, according to the Solar Foundation’s 2017 National Solar Jobs Census. That’s down from 100,050 in 2016, but California still holds more than a third of the nation’s solar jobs. “Distributed [rooftop] solar has helped fill the gap that was left after the recession in Los Angeles,” Leslie says. “We saw people start new companies, become successful business people.”

In fact, all of California’s climate laws continue to show up on various job-killers lists. A bill in this legislative session that would ban the registration of gas and diesel vehicles by 2040 has also been tarred by the Chamber, even though the state’s promotion of clean vehicles has given rise to not just jobs but whole new businesses. And even while some of those businesses, including Tesla and Lucid Motors, have located at least some manufacturing facilities outside of highly regulated California, they have indisputably created jobs.

Since the climate laws have been in effect, California’s economy outpaced the nation’s by seven percent between 2008 and 2016. That economic growth would seem to contradict the California Chamber’s 2012 claim that California “can’t be a leader in the global economy if it interferes in the global marketplace.”

“It’s time for them to come up with a new rap,” Leslie says. “They’re starting to sound like dinosaurs.”

Other bills on the Chamber’s current list have less to do with jobs and economic growth than they do with economic justice and fairness. One, by Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes (D-San Bernardino), would give residents of disadvantaged communities advance notice of industrial development projects slated for their neighborhoods, with the intent of ending discrimination in the siting of polluting facilities. (Reyes has modified the bill enough for the Chamber to strike it from the list, but it still opposes the measure.) Another, by the Assembly’s Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance), would protect hotel workers against violence and harassment. Still another would forbid employers from punishing workers who use cannabis for medical purposes.

This year, Gonzalez Fletcher is pushing a bill that would end forced arbitration agreements between employers and their workers. “When you disempower individuals, it allows companies to be bad actors,” she says.

How precisely these bills would kill jobs, and exactly how many would die, the California Chamber doesn’t specify. (No one from the organization responded to interview requests.) “They never come into the legislature with estimates of projected job losses” based on any research, Gonzalez Fletcher says. “They haven’t shown how any of the policies they’ve opposed have resulted in a single job loss.” Meanwhile, the Chamber stands behind policies that are known job killers, such as increased automation in the workplace.

Gonzalez Fletcher suggests that perhaps it’s time to change the list’s title. “If you want to call it the ‘Profit Reduction for the One Percent’ list, that’s fine,” she says. “Just be honest with your label.”

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Labor & Economy

Municipal Broadband: Urban Savior or Gentrification’s Wrecking Ball?

Co-published by Fast Company
While municipal-broadband initiatives and digital-friendly promotional campaigns project a narrative of progressive growth, the repercussions for disenfranchised communities often go overlooked.

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Julianne Tveten




Illustration: Define Urban

“The coattails on tech jobs aren’t like they used to be in the industrial economy, where large industries would come in and 800 jobs would be created in a factory.”


Co-published by Fast Company

In March, Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Krekorian introduced a motion to study the feasibility of municipal broadband, citing the increasing indispensability of Internet access in daily life. Los Angeles would not be the first city to do so; eyeing the precedents set in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which implemented a high-speed municipal broadband program in 2010, local governments elsewhere in California, Colorado, Kentucky and other states have initiated their own efforts, buttressed by popular support.

The case for city-operated broadband is compelling. It offers comparatively fast service: Chattanooga’s broadband runs up to 10 gigabits per second, whereas traditional providers such as Comcast and Verizon claim to offer a maximum of two or nearly one gigabits, respectively (and deceptively). It’s celebrated as a means by which to preserve net neutrality, which prevents Internet service providers from altering the speeds and availability of individual websites. It also has the potential to liberate communities from ISPs’ notorious monopolistic control of regional billing inflation, and denial of service to rural and low-income communities — a phenomenon popularly termed the “digital divide.”

Chattanooga’s tech-centric downtown has the fastest rate of gentrification in the nation.

Furthermore, municipalities often tout broadband alternatives as a means of “economic development,” an expression typically denoting the process of attracting businesses and, by theoretical extension, creating jobs. Fast, reliable Internet connections, the logic goes, are appealing to companies — particularly tech startups that rely on consistent broadband access in their daily operations and seek environs cheaper than West Coast metropolises. Chattanooga has exemplified this selling point. As of 2015, the city had reportedly generated $865 million over a four-year period by “cutting power outages, improving data connections, lowering power bills and attracting businesses to the self-described ‘Gig City’”; Mayor Andy Berke, meanwhile, has cited its fiber-optic infrastructure as a fundamental part of his city’s nascent tech economy.

Yet, while cities’ broadband initiatives and digital-friendly promotional campaigns project a narrative of progressive growth, the repercussions for disenfranchised communities often go overlooked.

Chattanooga has remodeled its downtown Innovation District, a locus of coffee shops and office space for the largely white, middle-class constituency of the tech-centric “knowledge economy.” Mimicking Silicon Valley’s tech centers, this area has aggravated displacement of low-income communities. As of 2012, downtown Chattanooga’s ZIP code was found to have the fastest rate of gentrification in the nation; between 2000 and 2010, more than 500 white residents moved in, displacing nearly 1,000 African-American residents. The situation has since worsened.

Coding is “not going to catapult you
into the next income bracket.”

Ken Chilton, an associate professor of public administration at Tennessee State University, told Capital & Main that Chattanooga has “done a lot in terms of funding a place that would be attractive to what Richard Florida used to call the ‘creative class’: that kind of young, tech, hipster persona. That was intentional.” He added, “The broadband [initiative] kind of magnified that, once they figured out how to monetize it.” Chilton estimates that, since then, 4,000 to 5,000 white residents have moved into neighborhoods in or near the downtown area, such as Jefferson Heights and Southside, while roughly 5,000 to 6,000 African-American residents have left.

The numbers may be even greater. “We’ve had [approximately] 7,000 people come into the area in the past four years,” added Michael Gilliland, board chair of the community-organizing nonprofit Chattanooga Organized for Action. “A lot of this is a combination of tech professionals, higher-income earners, as well as empty-nesters.”

Media outlets — and the city itself — portray Chattanooga as a progressive, burgeoning hub of innovation, a once-scrappy postindustrial municipality transformed by its novel broadband program and corresponding downtown revitalization. However, “You’re only seeing a small sliver of what Chattanooga actually is,” Gilliland said. “That sort of shiny facade is really hiding a lot of  inequality in the city.”

Chattanooga isn’t alone. Among cities entertaining nontraditional broadband projects and fostering local tech industries, Columbus, Ohio has gained significant attention. In addition to contracting with a private broadband consultancy firm in 2015 in an effort to become the next “gigabit city,” Columbus won the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2016 “Smart Cities Challenge,” vowing to outfit more vehicles and city resources with Internet connectivity, putatively, to benefit low-income neighborhoods. Meanwhile, corporate tech publications rank it among America’s top tech-job locations, while former Silicon Valley venture capitalist and Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance recently relocated there, pledging to invest in startups in Columbus and the broader Midwest.

As in Chattanooga, the image Columbus projects — a new beacon of enterprise with relatively low costs for developers and business owners — neglects a considerable portion of the existing population. “The city has an idea of what they consider to be a ‘Smart’ citizen,” said Columbus tenants-rights organizer Bernard Hayman. “When they construct these plans, it’s based around one kind of demographic — white, male, early 20s, early 30s, with a certain kind of background, certain kind of income, and a certain kind of aspiration.”

This environment is increasingly evident. As is the case in most major cities, Columbus suffers from a housing-affordability crisis: As property values have risen 50 percent in neighborhoods like Franklin Park over the last handful of years, luxury housing is rendering low-income public housing scarce. More uniquely, Columbus is home to a longstanding infant-mortality crisis disproportionately affecting poor, African-American communities; in the neighborhood of South Linden, the rate is four times the national average.

Aware of many of the problems afflicting its poorest residents, Columbus’ local government claims it will leverage its Smart City capabilities to address them. Columbus City Council president pro tem Michael Stinziano cited the Smart Columbus Operating System and multimodal trip-planning and common-payment system as examples “geared towards connecting neighborhoods and residents.” Stinziano also alluded to the city’s prenatal trip assistance program, wherein expectant mothers in underserved communities may have access to subsidized “Uber-like” ride-sharing services for transportation to medical facilities. (The initiative has garnered skepticism from urban-planning and reproductive-justice experts.)

Among some residents’ concerns of cities’ unfurling strategic tech initiatives is another issue: government and police surveillance. As part of its broadband program, Columbus boasts improved mobile connectivity among police stations, as well as the transmission of video from cameras that monitor specific neighborhoods — developments for a city that, in recent years, has been home to the highest rates of fatal police violence against African-Americans among major U.S. cities. (Stinziano told Capital & Main the camera installation was driven by citizen feedback.)

“If we’re giving police even more powers of surveillance and control than they already have, where’s the accountability for that?” asked Hayman. “How are we going to make this function in a way that’s not going to . . . make people feel even more surveilled?”

Columbus and Chattanooga officials concede that economic and racial disparity pervades their cities. In an email, Chattanooga’s Berke noted that “We are fully aware…that we have a responsibility to make sure this best-in-class, municipally-owned Internet infrastructure benefits all Chattanoogans, including low-income households and older citizens.” Berke mentioned Tech Goes Home Chattanooga, a program that offers digital training and assists low-income residents with obtaining access to low-cost home Internet.

Still, community activists are skeptical that digital training and access alone, even if they’re purported to broaden job opportunities and address transportation and health-care issues, will suffice to improve the quality of life of its most vulnerable residents. Tennessee, for example, has a historically high concentration of low-wage workers, many of whom work in tourism and hospitality, as well as service industries offering little to no job security, benefits or upward mobility.

“The coattails on tech jobs aren’t like they used to be in the industrial economy, where large industries would come in and 800 jobs would be created in a factory,” said Chilton. “The old factory job that might have been 40 hours a week, with some benefits, has been replaced by an accommodation job that might be 24 to 26 hours a week and no benefits.”

Furthermore, while Chattanooga and other cities courting the middle-class tech labor force offer programs to train workers and “recruit candidates in underrepresented communities,” Hayman cautions that the financial promise of work available to them may not be as high as suggested. “A lot of cities, and Columbus among them, look to coding as the next [way] that everyone can be an affluent tech worker, and if you gain these skills…then you have an entry into that industry,” he said. “The flip side of this is that coding is not necessarily the most affluent tech job. It’s becoming a rote, blue-collar kind of job, to where you’re not going to make a lot of money. It’s not going to catapult you into the next income bracket.”

Access to alternative broadband is a boon to cities, but Gilliland and Hayman agree that technological progress alone isn’t a societal panacea. Rather, meeting all residents’ material needs, they contend, requires a multi-pronged effort that entails investments in housing, education and other resources necessary to all members of the community. “The public aspect has to extend beyond…just the gig,” Gilliland said. “There has to be an increased investment across the board if this is going to become an equitable model. You have to be very purposeful about the attempt to lift all boats.”

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Labor & Economy

What the NLRB’s About-Face on McDonald’s Means for Franchise Workers

While the National Labor Relations Board is currently divided 2-2, the confirmation of another Trump appointee will restore the Republican majority — which is bad news for fast-food-chain workers.

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Charles Davis




Illustration by Define Urban

With Donald Trump’s election, the momentum at the NLRB is now with employers.

Workers at McDonald’s joined the union-backed Fight for $15 campaign because many found that they could not get by on minimum wage without the help of family and public assistance. But joining that campaign spurred retaliation, with dozens of employees alleging that they lost money or their job for organizing to get better pay.

Enter the U.S. National Labor Relations Board.

In a victory for workers, the board decided the McDonald’s Corporation was jointly responsible for punitive actions against employees across the country because the company dictates, among other things, how those employees cook and clean. That 2015 decision, in a case called Browning-Ferris, established a broad definition of “joint employer.” It made franchisors potentially liable for the actions of individual franchises, citing the “indirect” control they exercised over employees and their workplaces. And it meant fast-food chains, among others, would have to collectively bargain with employees who joined a union.

Donald Trump was elected president the next year. By December 2017, the NLRB was back on the side of business with respect to who is and who is not a joint employer, the board overturning with a 3-2 vote the “indirect control” standard of Browning-Ferris.

Then a Republican member of the board retired, evenly dividing the NLRB along partisan lines. The board’s inspector general then issued a report in February 2018 saying the December decision never should have been made — that, in particular, a Trump appointee should have recused himself due to a conflict of interest. The decision was thrown out, with congressional Democrats, such as Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, calling for hearings.

By that point, however, the NLRB had already ordered its lawyers to retreat in the most visible battle over the “indirect” joint-employer standard.

When an administrative trial began back in 2016, the NLRB had said McDonald’s was jointly responsible for alleged labor violations at its franchises, including reduced hours, surveillance and wrongful termination of employees who had been organizing for better pay.

“If McDonald’s is involved in determining working conditions at its franchised operations, it is responsible for what happens to workers subject to those conditions,” NLRB lawyer Jamie Rucker said at the time.

But the NLRB sought and won a 60-day suspension of that trial earlier this year. Lawyers representing the Fight for $15 movement and its allies say the NLRB is now rushing through a proposed settlement that would see McDonald’s get off without a finding of joint liability — which won’t make it any easier for low-wage workers to collectively bargain.

“What I see is an attack on workers’ ability to form a union,” said attorney Marni von Wilpert of the progressive Economic Policy Institute (EPI). “If you were able to find a joint-employment relationship with the corporate [franchisor], then all of a sudden they all have one big employer, and all the employees can go to corporate McDonald’s. That’s really what it’s all about, whether workers can organize.”

Under the proposed settlement, McDonald’s admits no wrongdoing, but its franchisees agree to cover back pay for workers fired as a result of their organizing.

The NLRB “is proposing a sham settlement,” said Mary Joyce Carlson, a lawyer representing Fight for $15. “McDonald’s directed a wave of retaliation that stretched from coast to coast and included illegally harassing, surveilling and firing workers in the Fight for $15. The hardworking cooks and cashiers who were organizing to get off of food stamps and out of poverty deserve a ruling in their case, not a settlement hammered out at the last minute in collusion with the Trump administration.”

With Trump’s election, the momentum at the NLRB is now with employers. Any setbacks would appear to be temporary: while divided 2-2 for now, the confirmation of another Trump appointee will restore the Republican majority. Once that happens, the NLRB can be expected to seek another opportunity to overturn the Browning-Ferris joint employer standard.

While Browning-Ferris did not explicitly pertain to the franchise model, it clearly spooked those who depend on it — and inspired those who think franchisors like McDonald’s should be liable for the mistreatment of employees at locations bearing its name.

Fight for $15 has prioritized organizing at fast-food businesses, but forming unions is extremely difficult when a dozen small restaurants with the same name may have a dozen different owners. There are over 14,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the United States, with only one in 10 owned by the corporation. The ability to collectively bargain with McDonald’s, the corporate franchisor, would make a union’s task easier — and help address the sort of labor violations that regulators routinely find at fast-food franchises. An EPI report says unionized workers are half as likely to be victims of wage theft, for example.

At an April 5 hearing, Fight for $15 attorney Kathy Krieger urged NLRB Administrative Law Judge Lauren Esposito to reject the settlement. Krieger argued that McDonald’s had conspired with its franchises to thwart worker organizing, the corporation recommending, she said, that franchisees “restrict crew members from taking their meals or their rest breaks outside the crew room” as a means “to prevent concerted activity.”

McDonald’s attorney Willis Goldsmith said the company would never accept a settlement identifying it as a joint employer. “The franchisees, they’re independent business people,” he said. “They did whatever they did, and if they are willing to concede that, they’re going to have to pay people. It’s not our job.”

While it appears the NLRB under Trump will ultimately reimpose the stricter, pre-Browning-Ferris standard that a joint employer must have direct rather than indirect control of workers, industry groups aren’t taking any chances.

Jenna Weisbord, a communications manager at the International Franchise Association to which McDonald’s belongs, said her group is looking to Congress to pass the “Save Local Business Act,” which would legislatively reimpose the pre-Browning-Ferris standard. “We understand the Senate will take on this task later this year,” she said of the bill, which passed the House last year.

A television ad campaign sponsored last year by the franchise association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce argues the measure would restore “balance to labor law” in the face of a “runaway government agency.” That agency, in the era of Trump, is increasingly tilting in the favor of business.

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Labor & Economy

New Study: Early Exit from Short-term Homelessness Prevents Worse Scenarios

Escape Routes: Meta-Analysis of Homelessness in L.A., produced by the Los Angeles Economic Rountable think tank, finds that homelessness results from a cascade of system-wide failures, requiring a broad range of responses. Early intervention is key to all solutions.

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Read the Economic Roundtable’s report here.

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Golden State Green Rush

Golden State Green Rush: A Trimmigrant’s Tale

Trimmers make from $100 to $300 for a day that can run 15 hours. The bad gigs are the grows where weapons are numerous and the bosses are stressed out and high.

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Donnell Alexander




Photo: Pandora Young

What’s to become of trimmers, the untold thousands of minimally skilled laborers who haunt the new cannabis horizon, is one of this industry’s most compelling issues.


Matilda reclines on a Northeast Los Angeles couch she’s paid $25 to sleep on for one night. The young woman, who earlier in the day had returned to the U.S. from Mexico, talks about her job as a cannabis trimmer. Matilda—not her real name—gives a heads-up on her epilepsy, and through the night she’ll make a number of unusual, loud sounds in her sleep.

Matilda has worked most in Mendocino on trimming jobs good and bad. At most black-market marijuana grow operations, she’s found there are guns. She grew used to the constant, noisy whirr of the high-powered generator that powered the lights growing the plants. The bad gigs are the grows where weapons are numerous and the bosses are stressed out and high.

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She left one trimming gig where the volume of open gunplay made her uncomfortable, and moved to another one in the Emerald Triangle–– Northern California‘s Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties –– that featured consistent pay. The farm’s generator operated at lower decibels and the guns were out of sight. Sweet gig. Except for the bathroom, which sat a good 30 yards from the house. Every midnight tinkle run was an adventure.

“You shouldn’t have to worry about bears on the way to the bathroom,” Matilda said.

Briefly, about five years ago, I trimmed for room and board in Oakland and Marin County. My top boss was a retired Russian circus clown who tooled about the Bay Area with a briefcase full of many thousands of dollars and, of course, a heater. While riding with — let’s call him Yuri — it became clear the industry could not function without trimmers, who are generally unseen and often as high as the strain they’re cutting will let them get. What’s to become of these untold thousands of minimally skilled laborers who haunt this new cannabis horizon is one of the industry’s most compelling issues.

The adult-use and medical marijuana markets may collectively think pot magically goes from a plant in the soil to that jarred nugget in your local dispensary display case. But that eye-catching product was prepared by a worker who’s been at the mercy of their employers. Unlike growers, whose value derives from the training and practice necessary to grow pot on a large scale, trimmers are often regarded as disposable. Almost any stoner—or even nonstoner—can do their job. The profile of this work will only become more visible as adult-use marijuana goes mainstream.

A sizable subset of trimmers like Matilda are called “trimmigrants” due to the nomadic nature of their seasonal outdoor labor. Word of workers like Matilda coming together to improve their working conditions has begun getting out, however uncertainly. Matilda herself was unaware of any such movement; however, trimmers are indeed getting organized in a movement that’s as undeniable as it is necessary.

Trimmers are taken less seriously than growers and testers because their labor is viewed as an easily scalable craft that can be completed while thoroughly baked.

California labor law requires that any cannabis licensees with 20 or more employees be prohibited from operating in the state without a labor peace agreement between the business and a union representing cannabis workers. With the peace agreements in place, labor organizers can then recruit workers to join their union without interference from the employer. If the workers join, union negotiators will seek basic workplace protections: freedom from sexual or other harassment, regular pay schedules, incremental wages, just-cause termination and consistent, scheduled breaks.

Down the road, labor contracts hope to include health insurance and other benefits for the folks who trim California’s cannabis, as has happened with the unionized licensees since 2010. Union negotiators want to make sure protections now in place become industry-wide standards, and that all jobs (including trimming) allow a living wage and mobility.

United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 770 consultant Robert Chlala said that by organizing trimmers, “My hope —and what we are seeing in our work already—is that we can avoid trimmers being treated as contingent workers or falsely labeled as independent contractors, that they can get the same protections as other workers.” (Disclosure: UFCW is a financial supporter of this website.)

Along with the Teamsters, the UFCW has greeted California’s adult-use cannabis-legalization era with a spate of organizing among trimmers. “From what I have also seen, it’s rarely just one-off,” Chlala said. “Trimmigrants do this work, but many also work in other aspects of the industry, from cultivators to retailers.”

Trimmers have little recourse to being asked to work topless or perform fellatio to receive earnings.

Trimmers are taken less seriously than growers and testers, and even bud tenders and deliverers, because their labor is viewed as an easily scalable craft that can be completed while thoroughly baked.

Before pot ends up in the hands of a distributor and, in the legal marketplace, a lab tester, it is cultivated. After cannabis “colas”–– the flowering site of a female cannabis plant––are grown, dried, and cured, it’s the trimmers’ responsibility to manicure the plant. Leaves, which contain less tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, are cut away, leaving only the cola’s bud. Bad trimming can be aesthetically unpleasant and a waste of time and product. Great trimmers are a business asset.

Their pay can range from $100 to $300 a day. Some in the off-the-books grows, as mentioned earlier, trim as barter. Work days can run as long as 15 hours. The work is inherently repetitive and often done while high and listening to music and, increasingly, podcasts.

Work conditions can be as varied as the strains of cannabis cultivated in the state. The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal reported in 2016 that sexual assaults on female trimmers are frequent and woefully undercounted. Because of the vagabond nature of these workers—many are college students on break and travelers from Europe—there’s little recourse to being asked to work topless or perform fellatio to receive earnings.

However, there’s no single way to summarize the trimmer experience, according to Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association. “A licensed grow and a trespass grow on wilderness land are two different experiences, and the needs are very different,” said Allen. “California’s a very, very diverse marketplace, with a lot of different practices, from best to worst. And it’s very important to avoid generalizations.”

The arrival of industrial-sized pot farms raises concerns that worker treatment will more resemble that found in big agriculture than the kind seen in traditional mom-and-pop pot growing.

Criminal grows are most likely where openly stored guns are found, Allen told me. Small farms that employ family and friends are more the norm, and firearms are not out in the open. These farms, particularly in the Emerald Triangle, are grappling with the California industry’s volatile changes—new regulations and massive companies—and the demands of finding a path to legal status. Allen compares the concerns of these workers to Detroit just before President Obama’s auto company bailout. Simply maintaining jobs is the primary on-site issue.

Big marijuana businesses such as the Oakland-headquartered behemoth Harborside Farms and the average pot cultivator are incorporating these changes differently. Harborside Farms came factory style to ag iconic Salinas, bringing a 360,000-square-foot grow with it. The typical grow is smaller than 5,000 square feet. Flower greenhouses have been largely replaced by cannabis farms. Land costs have skyrocketed as other cannabis operations have streamed into Monterey County. The Harborside Farms effect has raised concerns that worker treatment will more resemble that found in big agriculture than the kind seen in the county’s previous mom-and-pop pot growing.

“That workforce is a lot more interchangeable with the traditional ag workforce,” Allen said, noting that he’s unfamiliar with the specifics of Harborside’s business practices. “You run into a lot of traditional issues. You run into the same safety and wage issues that you do with criminal grows, oddly enough.

“Big industrial ag is pretty well known for human rights abuses, the same sort of human rights abuses that cannabis workers are used to seeing on those criminal grows.”

At the opposite end from the skeletally policed Emerald Triangle, in a small Los Angeles warehouse, two trimmers luxuriate in just how satisfying the craft can be. While classic rock plays from an old-school radio, Francisco, 44, lovingly prepares a nugget to go out into the world. The cola has just come from the curing room. He and his partner that day were waiting for their boss at the door, eager to work.

“Every time I trim one I’m like… ahh,” he says, clipping at a bud while explaining. “You just make it look the way you like it. Trim it until the little red hairs are showing, until you can see all of the really good crystals. I really enjoy looking at it.”

The two sampled the cannabis and explained to their bosses how the product was working. Two thumbs up. It’s a much more satisfying job than Francisco’s previous work as a landscaper. The closest thing there is to a labor of love that he would do for free.

Yet, the trimmer’s work needs protection and recognition, noted Chlala, who’s also President of Latinos for Cannabis. Southern California, with its vertically integrated cannabis companies—where grows are owned by the same people who sell and move green product—is likely to lead the way in trimmer organizing around the state. Santa Barbara has seen an influx of big pot businesses and is likely to be a big target for unions.

The organized shops could not come soon enough for a workforce too often on the lookout for bears and regarded as an industry stereotype.

“While trimmers are often treated like they do one discrete task,” Chlala said, “their work is key to the production chain for cannabis—no different from any agricultural process like harvesting tomatoes or processing cut flowers or almonds.”

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Golden State Green Rush

Golden State Green Rush: A Grower’s Story

Co-published by Fast Company
Bryant Mitchell drove the 450 miles between Los Angeles and Guerneville twice a week, learning, among other facets of horticulture, how distillation practices could be applied to making marijuana concentrates. In time he would become a master grower.

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Donnell Alexander




Photo: Pandora Young

“This is not something people welcome a lot of blacks into. We’re the guy who’s selling it. That’s all we are, and that’s the way they look at us.”


Co-published by Fast Company

A slim hall leads into a dark room where one enters the soul of the Blaqstar Farms cannabis grow, an 85-light operation rooted in East Los Angeles. On the other side of this warehouse where the lighting is standard luminosity, a couple of cool brown cats in their forties trim a strain called Birthday Cake and fill bags with the fluffy, freshly coiffed green nuggets. But it’s in this dark room where Blaqstar begins. Its owner Bryant Mitchell, 40, shows the soul of his business, a clutch of genetics — prime cannabis plants for breeding.

Dah-nale,” Mitchell says in his Texas drawl, “all these plants here come from those plants back there.” He points to some weed that’s ready to join the cool brown guys at the breakdown table. The plants, he says, “come from buddies, from respect, from people trying to see if I could grow their old stuff.”

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If the cannabis equity movement in America is to ever be more than just Green Rush theater —an inconsequential sideshow to the emerging multibillion-dollar legal marijuana industry — it’s going to need a lot of anomalies like Mitchell. Black people didn’t get our 40 acres and a mule after the Civil War, and we’ve yet to gain the trust and money to be brought into the cannabis industry at a foundational level. In a world where black celebrities endorse cannabis brands that people of their racial heritage don’t own, Mitchell is the rare black grower operating at the 85-light level and in the light of adult-use legal scrutiny. Necessity brought Mitchell from dispensary owner to grower after he hired someone who couldn’t repeat what he’d previously cultivated. In only a few years, Blaqstar has earned the endorsement of the popular rap act Migos and the admiration of cannabis equity supporters.

This grower is not blind to the turnabout he represents.

“This is not something people welcome a lot of blacks into,” says Mitchell. “We’re the guy who’s selling it. That’s all we are, and that’s the way they look at us.”

The enabling real estate, money and cannabis have not come together for the hundreds of aspiring legitimate cannabis entrepreneurs presently struggling to get in.

Who is this cash-rich black dude whose eyes shine with intelligence? He’s not a rapper or actor or a man who plays with a ball. Bryant Mitchell is a master marijuana grower. Cross the street from his warehouse for a cup of coffee — where his neighbors “know, but they don’t know” — and the joy that folks show from just seeing him is apparent. They won’t let him be, and it’s not just because of the pot.

Sit down with Mitchell over that coffee and see him let loose a single tear while running through the list of family and friends he’s lost to the war on drugs. That lone tear tells a story with dimensions the nation’s only beginning to comprehend.

Mitchell comes from sales, but in a first-class sense. The son of a cop, he’s taken operations and strategy as the basis of his training. After graduating from historically black Prairie View A&M University, just outside of Houston, he received an MBA from the University of Chicago. Mitchell flew around America pointing out to corporate executives whom to fire, telling his clients the time while using their own expensive wristwatches to do so.While he was in the Bay Area in his twenties and consulting for Chevron, Mitchell complained to a colleague that travel aggravated his sciatica, and the colleague introduced cannabis to his world. Not long after, Mitchell began buying and growing for himself, both in California and at his home in Houston. His oil industry consulting after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill brought the trove of money that allowed Mitchell to buy and invest in cannabis so heavily. In a sense, that Birthday Cake in East L.A. comes from hours billed to British Petroleum, a kind of bonus treat.

Women Abuv Ground CEO: “Most underground growers don’t want to come out. It took me years to find a lot of black growers.”

He bought a medical marijuana dispensary in the San Fernando Valley called Valley High. It was a smash hit, but Valley High was raided at the end of 2013. Mitchell says he lost $250,000.

But he had $400,000 banked, he says, part earned from consulting, part earned from his dabbling in the marijuana market. He’d put another $400,000 into building an indoor grow. But Mitchell’s cultivator was proving unable to repeat the dope work he had done for Valley High.

“Here’s my chance to do it,” he said. “I don’t know how to grow at this volume. As a consultant, one thing you learn is how to learn. I’ve got to learn fast as I can, and I can’t learn from my grower because he doesn’t know how to grow.”

Mitchell resigned from his day job and decided to go all-in on cultivating cannabis, big time. Then he headed to Sonoma County and Guerneville, California, 75 miles north of San Francisco.

Most Californians couldn’t find Guerneville on a map. Mitchell drove the 450 miles between Los Angeles and Guerneville twice a week. He started off watering outdoor plants on a partner’s 78-acre property. He also volunteered at Sonoma County wineries, learning, among other facets of horticulture, how distillation practices could be applied to making marijuana concentrates. In Sonoma County the newbie Mitchell unearthed the goods to become a master grower.

After Bryant did a second harvest, this MBA learned that he still needed to learn.

“I’d go out with the guys and would be like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna help,’” he says. “They’d say, ‘Come on in.’ No roadblocks. I’d be out for a week and would be one of the best trimmers. Never told ‘em I was growing.

“I wanted to see the plant from start to finish.”

Back at the East L.A. indoor grow, the first post-Guerneville harvest came in. The first large-scale weed came out larfy — immature and lacking in structural density.

“You ever cook eggs?” he says. “Easiest thing in the world, right? Ya throw ‘em in the pan, you get ‘em out. But cook eggs for 200 people, it’s a lot more complicated — even though it’s not that complicated. You’re not going to be consistent.”

He did a second harvest. The pot came out better. But then the thing that sets this MBA apart kicked in yet again. He learned that he still needed to learn.

“I’m doing these damn [harvests] every six months,” he says. “I gotta change that shit. Why does everybody do it that way? It’s a project. So why don’t I make every room a project —stagger it, and make sure I can deal with cash flow issues. It was out of necessity, but when I staggered it, guess what? My learning curve turned over so much quicker.”

It’s a characteristically African-American approach, turning necessity into productivity. Improvisational like basketball, if not as innovative as jazz.

“Bryant represents what we want to see in the culture, someone who’s compliant and doing business the right way,” said Bonita Money, CEO of Women Abuv Ground, a networking organization assisting people of color enter the cannabis industry. “Most underground growers don’t want to come out. It took me years to find a lot of black growers.”

Compliance has come because Mitchell’s money is cleaner than most. His techniques are organic, so his marijuana is also compliant. He says that living in the warehouse with his product nudged him toward clean growing; if spraying chemicals made him sick, the stuff could not in the end be good for customers, he surmised. Most black-market growers don’t know what he knows.

The legion of small-time pot farmers knows nothing of Guerneville tactics. Certainly, they don’t have multi-acre, outdoor Cali grow money, prompting this question: Until the state’s cannabis equity programs set aside opportunities for those with no legacy of having land, are we just doing theater?

“They are; I’m not,” Mitchell says. Cannabis equity programs “don’t know how to make sure social equity is delivered. Not defined, but delivered.”

The enabling real estate, money and cannabis have not come together for the hundreds of aspiring legitimate cannabis entrepreneurs presently struggling to get in. Oakland, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento have defined the strategy of a business initiative, but the means for realizing the goals aren’t yet in place. Help connecting investors and developers and building relationships with money sources is still missing in action.

So, too, are relationships with the weed veterans still deep in the black market.

“You treat adult-use marijuana like a business, then forget that there’s been a business here for 35 years,” Mitchell says, growing animated. The fact is that the underground pot market, in large part popularized by Californians of color, is far, far older than that.

“Today I’m gonna learn how to do this,” he continues. “And I’m going to share this. We need an ecosystem. That ecosystem doesn’t preclude white people participating. I want to include. But I want them to understand: You’re coming to us, ya dig?

“We made it because once they got our shit, they had to keep getting it,” Mitchell goes on. “Once you get into a motherfucker’s spot, and they’ve got to have your shit? They’ve got to have it. You turn from a want to a necessity. That’s what I had to position Blaqstar as — a necessity.”

Tomorrow: The Trimmigrant’s Tale

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