Sunshine in Litigation Act introduced in the District of Columbia

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Here in the District of Columbia, we have a chance to stop the problem of secret settlements with the introduction of the DC Sunshine in Litigation Act (SILA).

The bill, which is scheduled for a hearing before Councilmember Allen’s Judiciary Committee on December 8, would require DC judges to consider public health and safety before granting a protective order, sealing court records, or approving a settlement agreement. Introduced by consumer champion and DC Councilmember Mary Cheh, the bill will ensure that injuries caused by dangerous or unhealthy products do not any longer get sealed away from the public through legal settlements.

As Councilmember Cheh said in her letter to the Council:

“This presumption in favor of public access is especially important in cases that have implications for individuals beyond the parties to litigation—in particular, cases that involve defective products or dangerous environmental conditions that pose a risk to the general public. Unfortunately, it has become increasingly common in cases like these for parties to undermine the public interest, often with a court’s endorsement, either through sweeping confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements or through protective orders issued by the court.

“Court-sanctioned secrecy in such cases can be a matter of life and death. Perhaps the clearest example of this comes from the high-profile litigation related to the opioid epidemic. As early as 2001, individuals and governments began filing lawsuits alleging that opioid manufacturers had misled doctors about the dangers of prescription opioids. However, because judges in these cases required that court records remain under seal, the compelling evidence of the manufacturers’ wrongdoing and of the dangers of opioids uncovered by the litigants was kept from the public for over a decade.”

This issue of secret settlements has a long and sordid history. Typically, a consumer sues a manufacturer for an injury or death that has resulted from a defect in one of the manufacturer’s products. The victim is suing a large corporation that can spend huge sums of money defending the lawsuit and delaying its resolution. Facing a formidable opponent and mounting medical bills, plaintiffs are discouraged from continuing and often seek to settle the litigation. In exchange for monetary damages, the victim is often forced to agree to a provision that prohibits him or her from revealing information disclosed during the case. While the plaintiff gets a respectable award and the defendant can keep damaging information from being publicized, the public remains unaware of critical health and safety information that could save lives.

Bipartisan federal SILA bills have been introduced since the 1990s, with Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI), now retired, being the prime champion, but sadly, none became law. So, we are left to legislate this important consumer protection matter on the state level.

The witnesses who testified before Congress in past years have developed a strong set of stories that underscores the importance of getting these bills passed. A shameful litany of products that have caused injury and death exists but without public scrutiny, the company continues to market and sell the product and keeps the hazards secret. At the hearings in 1990 and 1994, Congress heard testimony about silicone breast implants, adverse reactions to a prescription pain killer, “park to reverse” problems in pick-up trucks, defective heart valves, dangers from side-saddle gas tanks, playground equipment, IUD birth control devices, tires, and portable cribs.

Fast forward to 2011, the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing included many such stories of dangerous products whose hazards remained a secret, including the following.

  • Phenylpropanolamine – Known as PPA, in 1996 caused a seven-year-old boy in Washington State to suffer a sudden stroke and fell into a coma hours after taking an over-the-counter medicine to treat an ear infection. After three years in a coma, he died. The child’s mother sued the manufacturer of the medicine alleging that the stroke was induced by PPA, an ingredient with deadly potential side effects, which has since been banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Unknown to the public, similar lawsuits in state and Federal courts had previously been filed against the drug manufacturer, but were settled secretly, with the lawyers and plaintiffs subject to restrictive confidentiality orders.
  • Silicone breast implants – Information about the hazards of silicone breast implants was discovered during litigation as early as 1984, but because of a protective order that was issued when the case settled, the information remained hidden from the public and the FDA. It was not until several years and tens of thousands of victims later that the public learned of potentially grave risks posed by the implants.
  • “Park-to-reverse”’ malfunction – For many years, one car company was aware of problems associated with “park-to-reverse”’ malfunction in its pick-up trucks and quietly settled cases stemming from this alleged defect. It was not until years later that the company made a minimal effort to notify original owners by sending stickers alerting them that there was a problem. The stickers made no mention of the potential risks of severe injury or death. Unfortunately, 2.7 million of these truck owners did not receive the warning. One victim was Tom Schmidt. His parents Leonard and Arleen Schmidt testified before the Subcommittee on Courts and Administrative Practice. During their lawsuit they learned that the company had known about the problem as early as 1970 and had quietly settled cases with strict protective orders concealing information about the problem.
  • Bjork-Shiley heart valve – Over the course of several years, Bjork-Shiley heart valves were linked to 248 deaths. The manufacturer insisted on secrecy agreements when settling dozens of lawsuits before the FDA finally removed the valves from the market. The Subcommittee on Courts and Administrative Practice heard testimony from Fredrick Barbee about how court-endorsed secrecy prevented him and his wife from learning about the potential heart valve malfunction and prevented her from getting the appropriate and life-saving treatment she needed when her valve malfunctioned.
  • Dalkon Shield – In 1974, the FDA suspended use of the Dalkon Shield, a popular intrauterine birth control device. The device was linked to 11 deaths and 209 cases of spontaneous abortion. Prior to the FDA’s action, the maker of the device had settled numerous cases with strict confidentiality agreements. The manufacturer even attempted to include agreements with the plaintiffs’ lawyers that would have prohibited them from taking another Dalkon Shield related case.
  • Side-saddle gas tanks – Over the course of several years, one car company quietly settled more than 200 cases brought by victims of fiery truck crashes involving the automaker’s side-mounted gas tanks before the defect became known. It was not until 1993, when General Motors sued Ralph Nader and the Center for Auto Safety for defamation, that lawyers discovered records showing that GM had been sued in approximately 245 individual gas tank pick-up truck cases. The earliest cases had been filed as far back as 1973. Almost all cases were settled and almost all the settlements required the plaintiffs to keep the information secret.
  • Playground equipment – Miracle Recreation Company manufactured and sold a piece of playground equipment called Bounce Around the World. Dozens of lawsuits were brought against the company alleging that it was dangerous and caused serious injuries to young children, including severed limbs and crushed bones. For 13 years, the public and regulatory agencies remained in the dark about the potentially crippling equipment because the company insisted on settling lawsuits conditioned by confidentiality agreements. Approximately 80 children between the ages of four and five were seriously injured before the CPSC learned about the magnitude of the danger and the company recalled the merry-go-round
  • Collapsing decks – On June 16, 2015, shortly after midnight, five Irish J-1 visa students and one Irish-American died and seven others were injured after a balcony on which they were standing collapsed. The group was celebrating a 21st birthday party in Berkeley, California. One of those injured died of her injuries later that year. Building inspectors later found that the wooden supports holding up the balcony had been eaten away by dry rot, even though the structure was less than 10 years old. It subsequently emerged that the contractors who built the complex, Segue Construction of Pleasanton, California, had paid $26.5 million in settlements for previous defect cases, but that this information had not been available to the state construction licensing authority or to clients.

What needs to be done

Time is of the essence in getting this bill enacted in the District of Columbia. Residents of DC will not know what hazards are lurking out there until this bill passes!

Business interests have typically opposed these bills in other states and in Congress. They claim that the Sunshine in Litigation legislation will slow down the courts, discourage settlements, and launch fights over production of documents. In fact, AK, FL, LA, MT, NV, NC, OR, SC, TX, VA, and WA, have all adopted some form of SILA laws and there has been no such collapse of the legal process.

As Councilmember Cheh noted in her letter introducing the bill, “according to the legal advocacy organization Public Justice, there is no evidence that these anti-secrecy laws have discouraged settlements, exposed proprietary interests or trade secrets, or imposed burdens on the courts.”

We look forward to the December 8 hearing and having residents of the District come forward to tell members of the City Council how especially important the Sunshine in Litigation Act is to their families and communities.

Debt cancellation is not Biden’s only aid to borrowers

By Eden Iscil, Public Policy Associate

If you’ve got student loans like I do, you were probably waiting on President Biden’s student debt cancellation since January 6, 2021. And in late August, President Biden delivered on this promise and announced up to $20,000 in relief for borrowers. While the one-time debt relief has dominated headlines (and rightfully so), Biden’s Department of Education (ED) has implemented a few other noteworthy changes to the federal student loan system—reforms that could save thousands of dollars for millions of borrowers.

Here is a brief (and non-exhaustive) overview of recent modifications to US student loan infrastructure that consumers should keep in mind.

One-Time Debt Cancellation

The application for one-time debt relief is live and can be accessed at https://studentaid.gov/debt-relief/application. The process is 100% free and it takes less than five minutes to complete. This is the only website to which consumers should be providing information to receive debt cancellation. Filers do not need to go digging for old forms, IDs, or income receipts as the only information the application requires is name, date of birth, email, and Social Security number. The ED may contact select borrowers to verify eligibility or request further information, but unless you are contacted, you are good.

Borrowers who earn less than $125,000 a year are eligible for up to $10,000 in debt relief on federally held student loans. This amount increases to $20,000 in cancellation for Pell Grant recipients. Student loans eligible for cancellation must be held by the federal government and disbursed on or before June 30, 2022.

Student loans eligible for Biden’s debt cancellation include:

· Federal Direct Loans (including Direct Subsidized Loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, Direct PLUS Loans, Direct parent PLUS Loans, and Direct Consolidated Loans)

· Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL) held by ED

· Federal Perkins Loans held by ED

· FFEL and/or Perkins loans that were privately held but the borrower applied for these loans to be consolidated into a US ED consolidation loan before September 29, 2022

Student loans not eligible for the federal, one-time debt cancellation include:

· FFEL loans not held by ED

· Perkins Loans not held by ED

· Federal loans that were consolidated into a commercial loan

· Student loans held by a private lender

· Student loans held by a state government

Refunds for Loan Payments Made During the Pandemic

If you had paid off your federal loan balance after the pandemic began, you can request a refund for those payments to receive your debt relief. This should be done before applying for the debt cancellation. Also, this should only be done if you paid off your entire balance and would otherwise be unable to claim debt relief. If you still have an outstanding balance equal to or greater than the amount of debt cancellation you are eligible for, you likely do not want to request a refund for your payments.

To get your money back, call your loan servicer directly to ask for a refund on payments you made since March 13, 2020. You should figure out the specific amount of money you are requesting back before contacting your servicer. Additionally, you should have your payment confirmations and receipts nearby throughout this process to ensure that you get a refund for every payment that you want refunded. Then, you should apply for the one-time debt cancellation.

Will Debt Relief Be Taxed?

The one-time debt relief will not be taxed by the federal government, thanks to a provision within the 2021 American Rescue Plan. States, however, can tax debt cancellation as income. This is something that a small number of states have weirdly said they intend to do, while a handful of others may also end up taxing their residents on debt relief by failing to pass legislation in time to exempt the debt cancellation. Most states though will not tax the relief for borrowers.

Federal Payment Pause Ending

President Biden coupled the sweet with the sour by announcing the end of the federal payment pause on student loans alongside the debt cancellation. Since early 2020, student borrowers have not had to pay a cent toward their federal student loans. Now, that payment pause (AKA administrative forbearance) is set to expire on December 31, 2022, it is unclear what the impact will be of an added monthly expense to tens of millions of borrowers (especially as recession worries grow). The two-and-a-half-year pause made clear that these payments are not necessary—Biden, there’s still time to change your mind!

A New Income-Driven Repayment Plan

While receiving a significantly lesser share of the headlines, the new income-driven repayment (IDR) plan will have a significant impact. As opposed to standard repayment plans, which are calculated only from the principal loan balance, the interest rate, and the length of repayment, ED’s IDR plans put a cap on a borrower’s monthly payments proportional to the borrower’s income. Although a few IDR plans have been available for some time, President Biden’s newly announced IDR plan includes enhanced provisions to help prevent debt from becoming unmanageable.

The new IDR plan will place a payment cap at 5% of a borrower’s discretionary income (half of the previous 10%). Additionally, it will raise the threshold for non-discretionary income to 225% of the federal poverty level (the equivalent of $15/hr); borrowers earning less than this amount will not have to make a monthly payment. Furthermore, borrowers with original loan balances of $12,000 or less will have their debt wiped out in 10 years of enrollment in this IDR plan. Lastly, if monthly payments are made, the ED will cover the added interest, ensuring that borrowers’ outstanding balance does not grow, even if their monthly payment is $0 due to their income level.

To enroll in the new IDR plan when it becomes available, or to switch to any of the four existing ones, visit https://studentaid.gov/idr/.

Fresh Start for Borrowers in Default

When the federal payment pause ends on December 31, 2022, the federal government will open their Fresh Start program for one year, allowing borrowers who were previously in default to enter repayment in good standing. The program will not require anything like a lump sum payment or consolidation, but it will remove the many penalties associated with default, such as wage garnishment and the denial of further student aid.

More details on how to enroll when this program opens on January 1, 2023 can be found at https://studentaid.gov/freshstart.

Support for labor unions on the rise

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

The good news is in: 71 percent of Americans support labor unions. This is an all-time high and so encouraging as America celebrates our federal Labor Day holiday.

I’ve had some interesting labor experiences this past week while visiting my sister Jane in Minneapolis. Wednesday, we went by Starbucks and saw that it was closed due to striking workers. We cheered them on and went across to Caribou coffee for our drinks. Then a mailer showed up at Jane’s house addressed to her son, who is a Minnesota school teacher. It read “Stop Funding Racism with Your Union Dues.”

Hmmm, I thought, this is curious. Union dues to fund racism? Sounds fishy to me.

The flyer featured a photo of young African American woman holding teaching materials and said, “Your union really negotiated a contract that undermines the Civil Rights Act.”

I started to dig deeper and learned that the union has negotiated terms that guarantee a diverse work in Minnesota. That is what this group is calling “racism” – racism against white folks apparently. The mailer’s return address was from the “Freedom Foundation,Cincinnati OH”. At the bottom it says “CancelUnionDues.com”.

Yup, you guessed it – it’s a full-on attack on teachers’ unions, which I learned from reading an interview this week with AFT president Randi Weingarten. As part of an on ongoing attack on teachers by the right, this flyer was directed at the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.

As for the Freedom Foundation mailer, the Maryland State Education Association has this to say about them:  The Freedom Foundation [is funded by] conservative donors, including the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, that supports conservative and libertarian organizations.

“When educators are aware of who’s funding [these anti-union campaigns], and what their agendas are, then the charade of these emails falls away pretty quickly,” said Adam Mendelson, a spokesperson for the Maryland State Education Association.

For a shot in the arm about labor rising, I recommend both President Weingarten’s Labor Day blog post along with AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler’s remarks to the Federation of International Football Associations titled Don’t Leave Workers Behind. Young people are excited about organizing unions – they get it – and we must be there to support them.

Legislation is needed to close the environmental health gaps in the Polluters Pay Principle

By Eric Feigen, NCL Health Policy Intern

Today, more than 40% of Americans live in communities with unhealthy levels of air pollution and every year, millions of deaths and chronic illnesses have been found to be directly caused by various pollutant types. This represents the human cost inherent in environmental degradation. Despite this, policy-makers and regulatory agencies continue to ignore public health consequences when crafting legislation designed to address environmental issues nationwide.

The current approach towards addressing both climate change and environmental damage is rooted in the Polluters Pay Principle (PPP). This commonly accepted practice dictates that those who pollute are responsible for not only abatement costs, but also compensating those adversely affected by their actions. From the Clean Air Act to the more recent Inflation Reduction Act, PPP is the fundamental framework for the majority of environmental legislation in the U.S.

The core mechanism used in PPP is cost-benefit-analysis. Due to the fact that polluters receive a benefit from polluting, in the form of profits, they must correspondingly compensate individuals for the negative externality their pollution creates. For example, paying for a water treatment plant in order to ensure a safe water supply for a community.

One of the most significant externalities of pollution is long-term health conditions. High levels of particle air pollutants are linked to a variety of health issues including asthma, cancer, infant mortality, and premature death. However, as previously mentioned, while 40% of Americans live in places with failing grades in air quality, not all of these individuals have asthma. This illustrates the uncertainty inherent in including the costs to humans’ health in the PPP’s cost benefit analysis. Using this logic, Michigan v. EPA set the precedent for omitting the negative impact polluters have on health from PPP-based calculations.

The Public Health Air Quality Act is one solution to the uncertainty dilemma surrounding pollutants and chronic health conditions. This is because the Act sets thresholds for pollutant levels at the point where the pollutant becomes harmful to human health. In essence, while previous legislation has made polluters pay for the right to pollute, the standards in this legislation will prohibit contamination after the air quality reaches a dangerous level. Furthermore, the Act will also mandate new air pollution monitoring programs and allow the EPA to follow the “precautionary principle”, which errors on the side of safety when determining what levels of pollution may be harmful to humans.

Another arena where PPP must be supplemented is equity. While designed to reduce environmental damage nationwide, PPP fails to address how pollution disproportionately harms Black and Brown communities. An example of this is exposure to PM 2.5, an air pollutant responsible for upwards of 85,000 deaths a year. A recent study highlights that while the Clean Air Act has led to a nationwide decrease PM 2.5 related health conditions, the number of deaths this pollutant causes in communities of color has remained constant.

Climate change and environmental degradation are just as much a public health issue as they are an environmental one. Policy-makers have the obligation to create legislation to supplement PPP policies to mitigate the harm polluters inflict on public health and ensure an equitable approach to environmental regulation and cleanup.

 

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. 

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.