My path from strawberry and blueberry fields to college

By Alma Hernandez, NCL Child Labor Coalition Summer 2022 Intern

Alma attends the University of South Florida, where she is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Public Health.

Alma Hernandez (far right) is joined by fellow National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association  farmworker youth interns Jose Velasquez Castellano and Gizela Gaspar. NCL CLC Coordinator Reid Maki is also in the photo.

Imagine being a five-year-old child – happy and carefree. The age where you either attend pre-K or start kindergarten. But can you imagine a five-year-old working in farm fields in hot 90-degree humid weather with her parents? I was that child. I wore a long-sleeved shirt, jeans, closed-toed shoes, and a hat to protect me from the hot sun. At five years old, I was unaware of how difficult agricultural labor is. My mom had enrolled me at the Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA), a Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program, but she also wanted to teach me to value my education.

My mother’s life lesson started during the weekend after I did not want to wake up for school. My mother remembers that I was full of confidence when asked if I wanted to go to work with her and my father. However, I did not know what was in store for me.

Arriving at the fields around 7:30 am, I first saw endless rows of strawberry fields. I felt enthusiastic. My task: collect as many bright red strawberries as I could and place them in my pink Halloween bucket. After filling my bucket, I would give the strawberries to one of my parents. Around 12, I felt the heat. It was around 90 degrees. The humidity made it feel worse. I felt like I was in 100-degree weather; I did not like that at all and wanted to go home. I was already tired and asked if we could leave. My mom said no; I had to stay until they finished. And so I kept working.

I do not recall what happened the rest of the time I was there, but I remember what happened afterward. I went home and sat on the stairs of the house with a red face, a headache, and clothes covered in dirt, and reflected on the decision I had made to join my parents in the strawberry fields. I went inside. I was so tired that I ignored dinner and skipped a shower and went straight to bed just to wake up the next day, to repeat another day of long, hard work. My parents had me help them one more day; and convinced that my lesson was learned, they let stay home where, in the next few years, I could help take care of younger siblings when my parents could not find childcare.

Although my work in the strawberry fields was short-lived, I have much more experience harvesting blueberries. I started working on blueberry farms when I was 12 years old and worked every summer until I was 16. The blueberry season starts in the summer after school ends in Florida.

My family and I would leave Florida near the end of June and start the 17-hour drive to Michigan. Unlike the strawberry season, I liked picking blueberries because I did not have to bend down low to the ground all day; blueberry plants grow higher. My job was to fill up my six buckets. Once they were all filled, I would carry all the buckets to place them into plastic containers and have them weighed. On average, six buckets would be 42 to 45 pounds, and depending on who we were working for, the average pay was 0.45 to 0.55 cents a pound. I had to pick as many pounds as I could. On good days, I would be able to pick 200 pounds or more; on many other days, I would pick less.

The clothing I wore was also the same: long sleeves, jeans, closed toes shoes, and a hat to protect myself from the sun. The weather in Michigan is not as humid as it is in Florida; usually, it was in the mid-80s to low 90-degrees however it was still hot being there all day. We would go in each morning at 8:30 or later depending on how wet the blueberry plants were and leave the fields around 8 or 9 at night.

I did not like going to a new school in Michigan every September just to leave in late October and return to Florida and start school. The curriculum was very different; I would excel quickly in Michigan since what I was learning I had already studied in Florida. But I also did not like how every time I would go to a new school, I’d be the “new girl,” struggling to make friends but knowing I would soon be migrating. “What is the point?” I would wonder. So I always kept to myself and only spoke when I was spoken to, and to this day I still do.

I also did not like the “what did you do during the summer?” question on the first day of school when I returned to Florida because all I did was work all summer and had no fun. Work caused my parents to miss many school functions that other parents would attend. Sometimes, it felt like a lack of support, but I understood that this type of work was their only way to generate income to provide for the family.

This summer, after four years away, I came back to Michigan with my family for the blueberry harvest one more time. Now that I am 20 and reflecting on my family’s agricultural experience, I appreciate my parents for what they have done for my siblings and me. They wake up early every day, go to work, come home to cook, and still spend a little bit of time with my younger siblings. I help around as much as I can because I know they cannot do everything on their own, especially now that they are getting older. I know they are tired and have no rest days. But thanks to them, I am the first person in my family to go to college and serve as an example to my siblings which proves to them that there is a reason for our parent’s sacrifices.

Gun violence is a public health problem

By Eric Feigen, NCL Health Policy Summer 2022 Intern

We live in a nation where children fear for their lives at school, racially motivated killings are pervasive, and mass shootings have become commonplace. The United States is in the midst of a gun violence epidemic. One promising avenue that could help address this crisis involves approaching gun violence from a public health perspective. By developing strategies aimed at protecting the health and safety of people and communities, we can develop a policy framework for reducing incidences of gun violence and suicide.

Of the 24,897 people who have died from gun violence in 2022, 13,530 people have lost their lives to suicide. To compound this loss, National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that 45 percent of people who take their own lives visit their primary care physicians within a month of their death. Many Americans are reaching out for support. However, due to the inaccessibility of mental health services, people cannot receive the help they desperately need. According to the American Psychological Association, in 2018, 39 percent of people could not afford the cost of receiving mental health services. Even for those with healthcare coverage, 26 percent choose to forgo treatment because their copays are too high.

There are a wide range of public health policies that could be implemented to remedy this issue. The first task is improving accessibility. A survey by the Health Resources and Services Administration indicates that the demand for mental health services far exceeds the number of professionals in the field and some primary care professionals receive no training in suicide assessment or management. In addition, many Americans have to travel immense distances to receive mental health treatment. The pandemic has illustrated the effectiveness of telehealth as a solution to this issue, however programs such as fellowships, outreach seminars, and more must be put into place to increase the number of health professionals in the field.

Gun violence in America is also an equity issue, disproportionately affecting communities of color. This has created a cycle of violence which places children at an increased risk for gun violence exposure earlier in life. A NIH study indicates that the prevalence of gun violence during childhood increases interactions with firearms later in life to a medium to large effect. This leads to the second policy issue that must be addressed: improving access to quality mental health services in order to break cycles of violence.

To accomplish this, policies designed to incentivize and increase the number of psychiatric practitioners of color must be put into effect. Not only do Black and Brown mental health professionals have a better understanding of the challenges their communities face, but studies indicate that white mental health workers often misdiagnose minority patients leading to counterproductive treatment. In 2019, racial/ethnic minorities made up only 17 percent of the psychologist workforce, illustrating how marginalized communities have disproportionately less access to quality mental health services in comparison to their white counterparts.

The social determinants of health; healthcare, housing, economic mobility, and more are inescapably linked to the root causes of gun violence. In addition to those listed above, policy solutions include:

  • Expanding healthcare coverage to include mental health services
  • Tightening regulations on opioids and other dangerous prescription drugs to create safe and healthy environments
  • Including safeguards against measures intended to limit an individual’s right to treatment such as the lack of affordability of clinically prescribed medication
  • Ensuring that for those currently receiving effective treatment, their medication is not switched to a less effective alternative just because it is cheaper
  • Expanding Extreme Risk Protection Order laws
  • Promoting health equity as those facing adverse health conditions are at higher risk for experiencing violence. This includes increasing access to:
  • vaccines, including COVID-19
  • treatment for chronic conditions, such as diabetes
  • healthy fresh foods and vegetables
  • Increasing research devoted to tackling gun violence as an investment in national public health

While many forms of gun control legislation have been written off as politically impossible, there are other solutions Congress can enact to mitigate the gun epidemic. Approaching the issue from a public health perspective is an effective avenue policymakers can take for ensuring that the gun-related tragedies, which now seem omnipresent in America, harm fewer people in the future.

My Juneteenth federal holiday didn’t turn out the way I hoped. It was even better!

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

This week we celebrated the Juneteenth federal holiday and one that the National Consumers League will continue to honor into the future.

Juneteenth marks the date in 1865 when a union general and his soldiers rode into Galveston, Texas to tell the enslaved community that they had been emancipated from slavery; the plantation owners didn’t bother to give them the news.

At last, these Texans were free human beings.

Sadly, this happened two years after the 1863 signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln.

Fast forward to June 20, 2022. While watching the Today Show, I saw a 95-year-old inspiration named Miss Opal Lee, appropriately from Texas, who made it her life’s work to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. The piece featured Miss Opal’s photos from her childhood when she had celebrated Juneteenth in Texas.

Most of the U.S. didn’t know about the importance of this date, but, in Texas, the black community has been honoring Juneteenth for decades – with parades and music and traditional foods. The Today Show clip featured Miss Opal in 2021 when President Joe Biden signed the bill creating the federal holiday; she is standing next to him surrounded by members of Congress.

This heroic former schoolteacher was nominated for a Nobel Prize. Not only did she march to Washington with more than one million signatures to get Juneteenth recognized, but she created a food bank out of her kitchen that has grown into a huge warehouse. She launched a farm to feed thousands in the community.

I was in awe of this incredible woman and was so grateful to learn about her role in the adoption of this federal holiday.

Later that day, I was looking forward to celebrating local events around D.C., and headed down to the National Museum of African American of History and Culture. Sadly, I couldn’t get in because the museum had sold out of timed passes. I was so disappointed.

On the ride home from the museum, I happened to see horses being put back into a trailer by African American men dressed as union soldiers. I stopped and got out to see what was happening; they told me this was the end of a parade from 14th street down to Howard University.

Then they said, “Miss Opal came too.”

“Miss Opal?”, I asked. Was this Miss Opal the same amazing lady who made it her life’s work to make Juneteenth a federal holiday?

“That is her over there,” they told me.  I asked if I could meet her – it turned out she was in a car near the food trucks. She rolled down her window and we talked for a few minutes about how she made Juneteenth happen. I shook her hand and thanked her for being a true American hero; for finally getting this most important federal holiday on the calendar; for teaching school and; for her incredibly uplifting spirit. She was just as inspiring in person. I hope I have her energy and spirit when I’m 95 years old!  She invited me to come down and see her in Fort Worth, which I might just do!

Serendipity in Washington, D.C.

Juneteenth didn’t turn out like I thought it would, but I feel so honored to have met this towering figure in American history. Go Miss Opal Lee!

Dispatches from Durban: May 15-20, 2022

Reflections on the 5th Global Conference on the elimination of child labour in Durban, South Africa: May 15-20, 2022

Reid Maki is the director of child labor advocacy at the National Consumers League and he coordinates the Child Labor Coalition.

The recently-concluded week-long “5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour” in Durban, South Africa was convened against the backdrop of the announcement last July of an alarming rise in child labor numbers after two decades of steady and significant declines in global child labor totals.

The global conference, which typically comes about every four years, brought together an estimated 1,000 delegates from foreign governments and small number of representatives of NGOs. It also brought together for the first time at one of the quadrennial child labor conferences dozens of participant youth advocates as well as a number of child labor victims and survivors.

The conference had the difficult mission of righting the ship and trying to reverse the rising child labor numbers, which seem destined to rise further as the COVID pandemic’s impact will continue to be felt for years. Sadly, the pandemic threw 1.6 million children out of school, often for prolonged periods and some of those children entered work and may never return to school.

We would first like to thank the South Africa government for the herculean task of organizing a global conference during a still raging pandemic, all against a backdrop of devastating floods in April that savaged the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Easter Cape and killed nearly 500 people, destroyed 4,000 homes and displaced 40,000 people.

As the conference opened, Guy Ryder, the Director General of the International Labour Organization, which helped advise the government of South Africa on the organization of the conference, suggested that the rise in 8 million child laborers from 152 million to 160 million likely represented complacency and a loss of focus by global governments on the child labor problem and must be rectified. He noted increases in child labor impacting children under age 11 and urged delegates to redouble their efforts. “We need to increase our efforts, and pay particular attention to child labor in agriculture,” said Ryder, who added that child labor advocacy is threatened by a “perfect storm” created by COVID’s enduring impact, rising food insecurity, and debt crises that are expected to impact 60 nations in the coming years.

South Africa’s president Cyril Ramamphosa delivered a stirring welcome. He noted that his country’s embrace of child rights is not just a matter of principle. “The assertion of the rights of children was a direct response to the deprivation, discrimination and deliberate neglect that had been visited on the black children of this county by successive colonial apartheid administrations,” said Ramamphosa. “Child labor perpetuate the cycle of poverty, denying young people the education they need to improve their circumstances. It condemns communities to forms of economic activity and labor that limit any prospect of advancement or progress.”

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi noted the particular challenge that the sub-Saharan African region is facing with the highest rates of child labor and one in five children are in child labor.

Satyarthi urged listeners to embrace the idea that every single child can be protected from child labor. “Let us march from exploitation to education,” he urged, calling for children to have a “fair share” of resources. The amount needed to ensure all children have access to needed resources is only $53 billion – not much considering the wealth of many nations, said Satyarthi who also noted that the G7, which is about to meet on June 26th, has never focused attention collectively on child labor. “This needs to change,” he urged.

The conference opened with a pledge by European Union (EU) Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen that the EU will create a new $10 million euro initiative to reduce child labor in agriculture. Child labor must return to the political agenda, she urged.

The six-day conference, attended by 1,0000 delegates in person and an estimated 7,000 online, according to organizers, featured workshops and side events, and included three meetings every other day by separate groups of employers, workers, and governments. Readers can find a conference agenda here with video links to many sessions.

Twenty-four side events focused on many related topics including child labor in supply chains, a decent work agenda, youth-led activism, small-scale mining, livelihoods skills development, African priorities, partnership in Latin America to end child labor, due diligence legislation, data and research needs, labor inspections, artisanal fisheries and aquaculture, and a child-labor-free zone in Ghana. For a complete list and to view specific side events, please go to agenda, scroll each day’s offerings and click links to the videos.

Attendees learned a lot about specific intervention efforts, and the struggles many nations are engaged in, including Malawi, which has recently been hit by two cyclones and where there is a shortage of 50,000 schools – less than half of the children have access to education, said the nation’s Education Minister Agnes Nyalongje. She pleaded for international help, noting that 12 years of sustained aid could create generational change in Malawi and fix its troubled education system.

It’s difficult to summarize the hundreds of hours of content but readers may get a sense from the CLC’s twitter stream which included four to five dozen original tweets at @ChildLaborCLC.

The conference’s concluding “Call to Action” document emphasizes the need for urgent action, because “the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, armed conflicts, and food, humanitarian and environmental crises threaten to reverse years of progress against child labour”. The document includes commitments in six different areas:

  • Make decent work a reality for adults and youth above the minimum age for work by accelerating multi-stakeholder efforts to eliminate child labour, with priority given to the worst forms of child labour.
  • End child labour in agriculture.
  • Strengthen the prevention and elimination of child labour, including its worst forms, forced labour, modern slavery and trafficking in persons, and the protection of survivors through data-driven and survivor-informed policy and programmatic responses.
  • Realize children’s right to education and ensuring universal access to free, compulsory, quality, equitable and inclusive education and training.
  • Achieving universal access to social protection.
  • Increasing financing and international cooperation for the elimination of child labour and forced labour.

As is often the case at conferences, many of the side conversations are of great interest. We had many great conversations with Simon Steyne, who recently retired from the International Labour Organization but continues his child labor advocacy. Simon is campaigning to bring about a child-labor-in-agriculture conference in the coming year. With 70 percent of global child labor in agriculture and rising child labor rates, a focus on agriculture at this time is absolutely essential, Steyne argued.

What might have been improved at the conference? It seems that a relatively small number of Civil Society participants were invited to the conference, included few from the Americas and Asia. The pandemic and travel distances certainly impacted in-person attendance. And we know a lot of NGO participants were able to join online. We hope that a broader spectrum of Civil Society is invited to future global child labor conferences. NGO delegates often possess in-the-field, grass roots knowledge lacked by government and employer groups and NGO presence is a key element in the fight to reverse accelerating incidence of child labor.

The Civil Society advocates and experts who were there enhanced the conference greatly, mostly through the two dozen side events. We were delighted to be joined at the conference by CLC members Bank Information Center and GoodWeave, which organized the side event “Child Labour Free Supply Chains: Tackling Root Causes from Maker to Market” — included panelist Thea Lee, the deputy undersecretary for International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor, who was ubiquitous at the conference. CLC-member Action Against Child Exploitation (ACE) also presented a side event: “Promoting an Integrated Area-based Approach to the Elimination of Child Labour: A Case of the Child Labour Free Zone in Ghana,” with Yuka Iwatsuki, president of ACE among the panelists.

In addition to thanking our gracious South African hosts and the ILO for its organizing role, the CLC also wishes to express appreciation to our valued partners the Global March Against Child Labour and the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation for enhancing the conference significantly through organizing side events and bringing the voices of youth advocates to Durban.

Tara Banjara. 17, was among the youth advocates who appeared as a panelist. Tara said she is from a community in India where there are no schools and “no one had an idea about what education is.” She was four and half when she went to work on roads with her mother. They cleaned garbage and rubble out of potholes. The work was exhausting and difficult and went on till she was rescued by Bachpan Bachao Andolan’s Bal Ashram.

Today, Tara is the first girl to complete grade 12 exams in her entire family. She asked attendance participants gathered in Durban and the thousands on line: “Is this our fault that if we are born in a small village, we do not have the right to live our childhood with freedom?” She asked.

“We want freedom. We want the right to education,” Tara said, sharing her dream of becoming a police officer some day and working at the grassroots level to ensure that all children have equal rights and freedom. In one of the conference’s emotional high points, Tara asked attendees to stand and make a pledge: “Let us all pledge to create a world where every child is free from slavery; every child gets an education and an opportunity to fulfill their dreams.”

Breyault and Amazon’s Alyssa Betz discuss policing fake reviews and counterfeits

 

By NCL Staff

 

This week, John Breyault, our Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications, and Fraud, sat down with Amazon’s Director of Public Policy, Alyssa Betz. On this episode of NCL’s We Can Do This! podcast, Alyssa and John discussed fake reviews, Amazon’s product liability, and more. This has been the latest collaboration between Amazon and NCL in our partnership towards improving consumer safety and online experiences.  

Fake Reviews 

With users increasingly relying on user reviews to make buying decisions, having access to trustworthy reviews is critical for consumers. Last month, Amazon sued a group of review brokers who were allegedly paying for fake reviews at large scale. In addition to discussing the suit, Betz outlined some of the steps they have taken to ensure that user reviews are trustworthy and accurately reflect consumers’ experiences. 

Counterfeits 

Given the vast number of products sold through nearly two million sellers worldwide, Amazon has an enormous responsibility to ensure consumer safety. Alyssa discussed some of the measures Amazon has taken to reduce criminals’ ability to operate on their platform, including investing over $700 million and employing more than ten thousand people to protect its store from fraud and abuse, including counterfeit products.

To hear the full episode, including John and Alyssa’s conversation about product liability and how to spot those phony Amazon delivery phishing texts, click here. 

If you have received suspicious communications or packages claiming to be from Amazon, you can find Amazon’s support page here. 

Annual fraud report highlights crypto insecurity

By Eden Iscil, Public Policy Associate

Earlier this month, NCL’s Fraud.org project released its annual Top Ten Scams report. After collecting thousands of consumer complaints, we sorted through the data to share the major trends from the past year. We saw some interesting trends! 

As the pandemic has entered its third calendar year, notable patterns included median dollar losses from fraud reaching a 10-year high and investment-related scams increasing by almost 170 percent, likely due to the rising popularity of cryptocurrency. So, consumers who lose money to scams are losing more of it. And cryptocurrency-related scams are something we all need to start paying attention to. 

These are the top ten scams reported to Fraud.org in 2021: 

  1. Prizes/Sweepstakes/Free Gifts  
  2. Internet: General Merchandise  
  3. Phishing/Spoofing  
  4. Fake Check Scams  
  5. Friendship & Sweetheart Swindles  
  6. Investment: Other (incl. cryptocurrency scams)  
  7. Advance Fee Loans, Credit Arrangers  
  8. Family/Friend Imposter  
  9. Computers: Equipment/Software (incl. tech support scams)  
  10. Scholarships/Grants 

The categories with the highest median losses were fake check scams at $2,000 and investment scams at $1,750. 

Focus: Cryptocurrency driving investment fraud 

Fake check scams have often scored near the top on our annual trend reports, but investment scams jumped several ranks, more than doubling their share of consumer complaints. Given the explosive growth of cryptocurrency usage in 2021, the emerging market likely provided an opening for fraudsters to take advantage of still-developing regulations and a lack of consumer knowledge about these new forms of investing.  

Fraud.org’s data appears to take the same shape as trends from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which had reported a ten-fold increase in cryptocurrency fraud. The FTC’s data spotlight on cryptocurrency scams also included a median loss of $1,900, a figure further demonstrating the heightened risk that consumers face within this sphere. Unfortunately, consumer protections in cryptocurrency usage are largely a patchwork of state-by-state rules, with some trading regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). 

Notably, Bitcoin and Ethereum (the two most popular cryptocurrencies) have so far been exempt from the SEC’s strictest oversight requirements, as it is considered a commodity rather than a security. The lack of comprehensive, nationwide protections coupled with the fact that these coins exist to be anonymous, instant, and irreversible creates an unsafe environment for consumers—especially ones who may be entering this space for the first time.  

Although media buzz has generated a lot of interest in crypto, with reports often centered on the potential for eye-popping returns, these articles do a disservice to readers if they don’t include the risks involved. Market volatility, a lack of consumer protections, and environmental damage only scratch the surface when it comes to hazards related to virtual currencies. These liabilities can be minimized by sticking with traditional forms of payment and investment—pending comprehensive regulation of digital coins. 

The full Top Ten Scams Report for 2021 can be found here. Additionally, Fraud.org’s February Fraud Alert includes great tips to help consumers better protect themselves against 2021’s top scams. 

Airline executive testimony conflicts with travelers’ reality

By Eden Iscil, Public Policy Associate

Last month, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing titled “Oversight of the U.S. Airline Industry,” which featured the CEOs of the major domestic airlines (American, Delta, Southwest, and United). With the federal government’s $50 billion bailout of the aviation industry serving as the primary focus of the hearing, airline CEOs managed to avoid serious scrutiny despite the massive service failures seen in 2021 and early 2022.  

The underlying problem centers around the air traffic companies choosing to incentivize employees to leave their jobs, despite receiving billions of dollars in assistance from the federal government with the primary condition being not to fire workers. The bailout, officially known as the Payroll Support Program, served as an undeniably central piece to America’s quick economic rebound from the early COVID-19 recession. Yet, airlines still could not service hundreds of thousands of flights over the past seven months due to a lack of staffing. This caused a meltdown of delays and cancellations in the summer and early fall of 2021 and again during the end-of-year holidays over the previous two weeks. 

While certain conditions understandably contributed to flight schedule changes, such as the Omicron variant, the airlines’ lack of preparation remains a consistent problem. For example, in October 2021, Southwest Airlines cancelled more than 2,000 flights, blaming weather and FAA issues. But these excuses do not hold water, as consumers quickly pointed out that while Southwest cancelled 28 percent of its schedule, competitors only cancelled around 3 percent of their flights. A couple weeks later, CEO Gary Kelly acknowledged staffing shortages that had led to Southwest’s service problems. 

The reality travelers have faced does not match the rosy picture airline executives painted at the Senate hearing. Southwest’s Kelly expressed pride in not cutting hours or laying off employees throughout the pandemic. Yet, his airline was still understaffed at the end of October (according to Southwest’s own hiring goals) after the airline reduced its workforce by 28 percent at the onset of the pandemic. To get around the prohibition on involuntary firing, air traffic carriers like Southwest incentivized early retirement and extended time off packages. The results of these practices are visible in every major airport nationwide. 

Additionally, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker told senators that “large events” of cancellations “don’t happen very often” and that a shortage of employees is not a problem. Just a week later, airlines began experiencing staffing troubles, which led to more than 18,000 flight cancellations between Christmas Eve and January 3. Given the predictable spike in COVID infections we have seen during periods of high travel for almost two years, especially during the winter holidays, it is unclear why airlines were entirely unprepared for the latest holiday traffic.  

To be clear, employees absolutely should not report to work when they are ill (hopefully by taking paid sick leave). Given the record-breaking transmissibility of the Omicron variant, workers’ safety needs to remain paramount. It is unfortunate that airlines did not take steps to rectify previous mistakes and increase staffing ahead of the winter travel season in order to avoid the enormous wave of cancellations. In addition to the headaches and last-minute adjustments stranded travelers needed to make, the service failures were especially impactful as this was the first holiday season for many people to enjoy with loved-ones since before the pandemic.

MLK 2022: Reflecting on victories

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

This weekend we celebrate the life of the great American civil rights icon and hero, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This is a good time to reflect on civil rights victories won by Dr. King during his lifetime and the work left do to achieve his vision for voting rights and protections.

This past year, I revisited the site of Dr. King’s 1968 assassination in Memphis and spent the day walking through the powerful civil rights museum attached to the motel where Dr. King was shot. The museum provides the most complete history I’ve ever seen of America’s legacy of slavery and its aftermath. It was so inspiring but also so sad. I contemplated how different the world might be if we had the wisdom of Dr. King’s words and deeds to guide us all these decades.

Greenberg (right) and friend at MLK Rally for Voting Rights in Washington, DC on January 17, 2022.

During Dr. King’s lifetime and because of his work, the nation made great strides in the movement for racial equality:

  • the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education overturning the doctrine of “separate but equal” and forcing the integration of public schools in America, argued by brilliant litigator and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall
  • the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, when 40,000 Black bus riders—the majority of the city’s bus riders—boycotted the system. Black leaders met to form the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). The group elected Martin Luther King Jr., the 26-year-old-pastor of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, as its president, and decided to continue the boycott until the city met its demands. After several federal court cases, Montgomery’s buses were integrated on December 21, 1956, and the boycott ended. It had lasted 381 days.
  • Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first major civil rights legislation since Reconstruction allowing federal prosecution of anyone who tried to prevent someone from voting and creating a commission to investigate voter fraud
  • The 1963 March on Washington organized and attended by civil rights leaders such as  Philip RandolphBayard Rustinand Martin Luther King Jr. when Dr King gave his “I have a dream speech”
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, banning all voter literacy tests and provided federal examiners in certain voting jurisdictions.
  • The Fair Housing Act, which became law on April 11, 1968, just days after King’s assassination. It prevented housing discrimination based on race, sex, national origin and religion. It was also the last legislation enacted during the civil rights era.

Greenberg marching across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge.

Sadly, as we start this 2022 MLK weekend, many states have chipped away at voting rights and protections. The Brennan Center reports that an unprecedented 19 states have enacted 33 laws that will make it harder for Americans to vote.

A bill to counteract these attacks on voting rights, “Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act” combines the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is awaiting action in the Senate but its prospects for passage are dimming.

If enacted, it would push back against the undermining of voting rights, affecting everything from how votes are cast to how they are tallied across the country. And it would sweep beyond that, remaking campaign finance laws and calling for a significant redraw of the nation’s House districts.

On this MLK Jr. weekend, the best tribute we could pay to Dr. King and his legacy and sacrifice would be to pass the Freedom to Vote Act in the Senate and get it to President Joe Biden’s desk. I’m still hoping for that miracle to happen.

NCL, H&R Block partner to help consumers prepare for 2022 tax season

By Eden Iscil, Public Policy Associate

This week, NCL partnered with H&R Block to provide a free webinar on recent changes and other items to be aware of as we enter tax filing season. The event included a short presentation by Manuel Dominguez (Tax Agency Analyst at H&R Block) outlining the biggest changes tax filers should know, followed by a Q&A session with the panel of tax experts. Moderater NCL’s Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications, and Fraud, John Breyault, was joined by panelists Joanna Ain (Associate Director at Prosperity Now), Dominguez, and Garrett Watson (Senior Policy Analyst at the Tax Foundation). If you missed it, you can watch the event on NCL’s YouTube channel here. 

One of the biggest takeaways from the discussion is this: your tax return could look very different from what you may expect due to changes stemming from the 2021 American Rescue Plan (President Biden’s COVID relief bill). For example, parents who received advance Child Tax Credit (CTC) payments throughout 2021, could see a smaller refund than previous years since part of that credit was given in monthly payments throughout the year. Additionally, consumers who were eligible but did not receive an Economic Impact Payment (a.k.a stimulus checks) could see larger-than-expected refunds. 

Other credits that have seen changes include the Child and Dependent Care Credit, with allowable expenses increased to $8,000 for one dependent and $16,000 for two or more dependents. In addition, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) saw an increase in the credit amount and income thresholds for taxpayers with no qualifying children as well as a “loopback election” which allows filers to use either 2019 or 2021 income for the purposes of claiming the EITC (in order to get the highest credit value). 

Another change that could affect filings involves charitable contributions. Normally, filers who choose the standard deduction cannot claim a deduction for charitable contributions. But this year, single filers can claim a deduction of up to $300 for cash contributions to qualifying charitable entities ($600 for joint filers). 

Given the new assistance provided by the federal government, the IRS will be sending new tax documents that filers need to have available when filing. Letter 6419 relates to any advance CTC payments received in 2021. Letter 6475 relates to the third Economic Impact Payment (stimulus check) which went out under President Biden. These documents are important to keep as they will ensure the information you input when filing taxes matches IRS data; if there are discrepancies, your tax return may be delayed.  

For consumers who do not receive a Letter 6419 regarding advance CTC payments, the CTC Update Portal can help. Filers who do not receive a Letter 6475 regarding the third stimulus check should check their eligibility for the Economic Impact Payment and its correlated tax credit here 

Confused? You’re not alone! 

Fortunately, there are government-sponsored tax preparation services available for free. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program offers help to people who make less than $57,000, filers with disabilities, and individuals with limited English language knowledge. Additionally, the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) program is aimed at people 60 and older, with specialization in pensions and other retirement-related issues.  

Lastly, taking the following steps can ensure that you receive your tax return as quickly as possible. First, filing your taxes online is much quicker than filing your taxes by physical mail. Because of backlogs in processing returns from 2021, returns mailed to the IRS will almost certainly result in slower-than-normal refunds being issued. Filing as early in tax season as possible is a great way to reduce the risk of tax identity fraud. Second, keeping those CTC and stimulus check letters (Letter 6419 and Letter 6475, respectively) as well as any previous notices given by the IRS will help avoid any errors and discrepancies which would otherwise cause a lag. Third, using direct deposit to receive refunds can save time by not relying on physical checks sent through the U.S. Mail. 

 If you would like to hear our panelists cover what you should know before filing your taxes in their own words, video of the full webinar can be found here 

Capital One eliminates predatory overdraft charges

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Low- and middle-income consumers suffer serious economic harm when they are forced to pay predatory overdraft fees. These fees are triggered when consumers charge more to their bank account — either on a debit card or by writing a check — than the funds existing to cover the charge. These can mean that a $5 charge —when there isn’t enough money in the account to cover it — costs a consumer more like $40 due to an overdraft fee of $35. And if the customer makes other charges not covered by the balance, each one of them can add a $35 overdraft fee.

Some good news, though, came recently from the CEO of Capital One, Rich Fairbanks. He announced that the company will stop charging these harsh fees and return “simplicity and humanity” to banking.

It used to be that covering an overage was a courtesy extended to bank customers at no cost. Sadly, that changed during the 1990s and 2000s, when overdraft fees became a profit center. And the profits are kind of shocking: $15.5 billion in 2019 for banks and credit unions on overdraft fees alone, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. For some financial institutions, these fees represent more than half of their profits. Reforms are badly needed.

A recent Washington Post editorial identified overdraft best practices:

  • Don’t charge more than one fee per overdraft
  • Provide at least a day grace period
  • Notify customers with a text or email alert about the overdraft
  • Limit the number of fees per year
  • Don’t assess fees at all if the overdraft is under $50

It’s just plain wrong for any industry to rack up big returns on the backs of low- or middle-income consumers. That’s known as a predatory practice for good reason. The National Consumers League hopes the example set by Capital One — to do away with harsh overdraft fees — will be a model for the industry. Banks are entitled to a fair profit, but overdraft fees are clearly a predatory practice. We applaud Capitol One for taking the first step and urge other industry members to follow suit; if nothing else, we hope the industry will move on its own toward the “best practices” playbook outlined above.

Addendum: As of this writing, Ally Bank, PNC, Santander, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Capital One Banks have either eliminated or reduced overdraft fees. We are very pleased to learn of these very important developments, which will greatly reduce the burden of overdrafts, particularly on low-income consumers. We thank these banks for taking important steps to reduce crippling charges for overdrafts