Posts Tagged ‘ Sharon Lerner ’

Why Democrats Seem More Like Normal People (OPINION)

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

Over the next few months, the editors of Parents.com will report on hot-button election issues that American families face today, from healthcare to education. In the spirit of offering diverse perspectives on the election, we’ve chosen three moms from across the political spectrum to be guest bloggers on Parents News Now. Each one of them will offer a unique take on the topics that they–and you!–are most passionate about. (Read the entire blog series.)

By Sharon Lerner

There’s nothing like convention season to remind you of how ridiculous politics can be. The Republican gathering frightened me. (Though admittedly, I got a fair amount of my coverage of the Tampa goings on from the Daily Show.) It felt staged, weird, rabid. They wore goofy hats.

And last night, the Democrats got a little embarrassing, too. Scripted call and response, as in Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s “forward-not-back” number, is just not my kind of thing. I don’t like sing-alongs much either. Waving pre-printed signs embarrasses me, too. So does ending a speech with the obligatory “God Bless America.”

But.

Watching the Democrats last night reminded me that, if American politics necessarily contain a certain amount of hooey, I’ll take the Democratic kind of hooey any day.

I started getting excited around Deval Patrick’s speech. When he began with that heavy-handed, old “American dream” talk, I rolled my eyes and got ready to scoff some more. But by about a minute in, when he was calling Republicans on the fact that their government-shrinking approach was what got us into the recession, I was pumping my fist.

Clearly, some of this is about content. I agree with what this man said. It was deeply satisfying to hear someone for once unapologetically–and a teensy bit angrily–to say what the Democrats are for. It was especially heartening that he, along with most of the night’s other speakers, included gay marriage and women’s right to end an unwanted pregnancy right up there with the party’s priorities. (Those were his words, by the way–“a woman’s decision whether to keep an unwanted pregnancy,” as opposed to the daintier and more roundabout “choice.”)

But as I was hooting and strutting in my living room, I started thinking that my excitement was about more than the Democratic platform. The convention left me feeling less alone, and more hopeful. I was relating to Patrick. The Republican delegates I saw interviewed creeped me out. They were dressed in costume, espoused extreme views, and didn’t seem to understand the impact of the policies their party espouses.

But when the cameras panned the Charlotte audience, I found myself awash in a visceral sentiment. These are my people!

Of course, many Republicans probably feel the same recognition when they encounter their kinsfolk. It makes me think about that icky research that there’s a genetic basis for political allegiance. Are we destined for eternal tribal political warfare, with the blue and red clans forever fighting across a sea of alienation?

Luckily, just as I was contemplating this depressing thought, Michelle Obama took the stage and assuaged my fears. Why do I relate more to Democrats like her and her husband? Because, as she explained, they have lived in the world that I–and most of the people I know — inhabit. They’ve experienced the problems we have. They also understand that their lives have been shaped by their own–and, critically, their parents’–struggles.

Seeing Julian Castro talk about his grandmother, who worked cleaning houses, it was apparent he truly understands that he has her to thank for his success. The Obamas clearly “get it” on this level, too–both because their parents worked hard so their children could succeed and because, as parents, they seem grounded by the same priorities.

Coming from families that struggle the way most do makes Barak and Michelle Obama seem as much like normal people as a president and his wife can.

Not all Democrats come from humble beginnings, of course. Many–including, sometimes, the President–disappoint me. And some are creepy in their own right. But, more than Republicans, they value equality. They see the need to make sure that Americans who need help get it.

Hearing Michelle give the personal side of these values left me hopeful. With so many Americans now needing help, and the Republican party moving ever further to the right, how can voters not connect with basic humanity that came through in Charlotte last night? Even with all the hoopla, the convention shows them to be the more humane–and far less creepy–choice.

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Who Is Responsible for the Way Felix Trinidad Died? (OPINION)

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Over the next few months, the editors of Parents.com will report on hot-button election issues that American families face today, from healthcare to education. In the spirit of offering diverse perspectives on the election, we’ve chosen three moms from across the political spectrum to be guest bloggers on Parents News Now. Each one of them will offer a unique take on the topics that they–and you!–are most passionate about. (Read the entire blog series.)

By Sharon Lerner

I felt sick when I heard about Felix Trinidad, a 34-year-old man who died in July after working through months with stomach cancer. Trinidad worked at Golden Farm, a Brooklyn market that sells produce and groceries. And he was so worried about losing his job, he didn’t take time off to go to the doctor to get a diagnosis until he had no chance of beating the disease.

Why would someone so sick soldier, working six days a week, 12 hours a day with so little apparent concern for his own life?

Trinidad, a Mexican immigrant, had worked at Golden Farm for 12 years. Yet, along with some 1.1 million workers in New York City–and nearly 40 million nationwide–he didn’t have even a single paid sick day.

Taking a day off could have cost Trinidad his job, and he had two young children and a wife to support. So even when he vomited blood, he kept clocking in and lifting crates. His employer deducted four hours of pay from his paycheck when he finally gave in to his suffering and went to the emergency room.

Who’s to blame for the way Trinidad died–working through pain and exhaustion, and missing a potentially life-saving diagnosis for fear of losing his income?

I feel complicit. I shop at Golden Farm, which is conveniently located between my house and my kids’ school. I’ve gone there for years because of the low prices. I never thought of myself as someone who would endanger another person’s life just to save a little on milk and mangoes. But, in a sense, I guess I am.

In another sense, Golden Farm, which has been cited for numerous violations, including failure to pay overtime, bears some of the responsibility. This is clearly how New York Communities for Change, which is organizing a boycott of the market, sees it. (The group has also set up a page where you can donate to Trinidad’s wife and children.)

Looking beyond this one unscrupulous employer, there is also the problem of the playing field on which Golden Farm operates. The store has to compete with others that likely don’t provide paid sick days either. That’s because there is no law requiring them to do so. For this sad state of affairs, I blame New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn.

Quinn, who is hoping to become the city’s next mayor, has resolutely refused to bring a paid sick days bill to a vote, despite the fact that Council members and the public overwhelmingly support the legislation. The legislation would require businesses with 20 or more employees to provide nine paid sick days each year. Employers with at least five employees would have to give those workers five days of paid sick leave annually.

The Council Speaker has dodged paid leave legislation since an earlier version came before the Council in 2009. Even while a campaign and petition spearheaded by Gloria Steinem and hundreds of other prominent New Yorkers targeted her, Quinn has refused to let her fellow elected officials speak for their constituents on sick days.

But the responsibility for Felix Trinidad’s death goes beyond local politicians and the petty deals they make in the hopes of ascending to higher office.

Cities and states have made a valiant effort to protect sick workers. Connecticut passed a paid sick leave, as have Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. And campaigns are underway in dozens of other places.

Momentum is gaining on the issue, but too slowly. Clearly we need a national law that requires employer to provide paid time off for sick employees. After all, that’s how at least 127 other countries–including every single developed nation–does it.

It makes obvious sense. People who don’t have sick days– including 90 percent of restaurant workers–are more likely to go to work sick, and when they do, to spread their illnesses.

We did, in fact, have a national paid sick leave bill ready for a vote when President Obama came into office. But, although the President supported it, Congress wasn’t on his side and, like New York City’s bill, our national proposal never came up for a vote.

Now, neither political camp in this election mentions the brutal bind facing workers like Felix Trinidad, who can lose their jobs if they call in sick or lose their lives if they don’t.

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How Paul Ryan–and My Six-Year-Old–Clarified that the Election is All About Fairness (OPINION)

Monday, August 13th, 2012

Over the next few months, the editors of Parents.com will report on hot-button election issues that American families face today, from healthcare to education. In the spirit of offering diverse perspectives on the election, we’ve chosen three moms from across the political spectrum to be guest bloggers on Parents News Now. Each one of them will offer a unique take on the topics that they–and you!–are most passionate about. (Read the entire blog series.)


By Sharon Lerner

“Parents do cry,” I heard my older son telling his little brother the other day.

“They do?” The littler one looked skeptical.

“Mom cried when we saw a guy asleep outside.”

A brief silence followed in which two little boys pondered the disturbing thought of grown-ups in tears.

For the record, I do not cry every time I see a homeless person. I’d be extremely dehydrated if I did. The reason I cried was the conversation my son and I had about this particular homeless man, who was sacked out on a bench along our route to the camp bus-stop. Sam wanted to know why he was sleeping outside, and when I explained that he didn’t have anywhere else to go, he asked why we didn’t just invite him to our house. That was what made me cry.

What got me was his simple, straightforward sense that it was wrong for someone to be without privacy and protection from the bugs and heat and noise when his own cozy bedroom, with a fan and ample room for a sleeping bag, was just steps away. With his unadulterated (pun intended) sense of right and wrong, he saw that we could solve the problem and thus concluded that we should. D’oh!

It’s more complicated than that, of course. There are liability laws, safety concerns, and our own privacy to think about. Plus, as I tried to explain, our offering a single person a place to sleep won’t solve the larger problems of homelessness or inequality. But Sam wasn’t buying any of that. At just six-years-old, he can’t understand the practical challenges and limitations of inviting random strangers into your home.

Still, if he’s fuzzy on the practicalities, his impulse to help is right–as is his sense that there is something very wrong with a world in which one person can spend his day happily munching granola bars and playing tether-ball while another struggles to survive. Kids instinctively know such unfairness is intolerable.

Having lived in New York City my entire adult life, I have a pretty thick buffer against human desperation. Yet, lately the pure, fresh sting of wrongness has pierced my protective armor. Some of my increased sensitivity–the tears, at least– can be explained by watching my child try to make sense of the world, and seeing his simple desire to make things right.

But another part of it is that the whole matter of the haves and have-nots is getting worse. I’ve long felt that there is both more zany wealth–and desperate poverty–than when I was a kid, but it’s been hard to put my finger on how much of this is just my own impression. This is why, perhaps, I found myself staring at an image on David Leonhardt’s blog the other night.

For those who feel like looking at a graph of income inequality (and I totally understand if you don’t), I’m talking about the second image down, which shows a series of increasingly large and angry-looking upside-down Vs. Turns out that census numbers confirm–and precisely calibrate–my sense that there’s a growing gap between the richest of the rich and everyone else. In the last 15 years, the income of the top .01 percent has gone haywire, almost quadrupling.

Meanwhile, earnings of the middle and bottom fifths of the country have barely budged, making for a huge and widening gap. In 2007, the after-tax income of the top 1 percent were 75 times greater than the bottom fifth of households, compared to 1980, when they were only 8 times greater.

If there were any lingering questions before this weekend about which candidate would close that gap – or at least get it moving in the other direction – there are none now that Romney has chosen Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate.

Ryan, the architect of the Republican budget in the House, has proposed a $4.3 trillion dollar tax cut to the wealthiest, while eliminating tax deductions for things like mortgage interest and health premiums that would benefit the middle class. He’s also planned to cut spending on children, education, the elderly, and the disabled.

Scarily for me and anyone else who has a parent or in-law near retirement age, Ryan has also vowed to turn Medicare into a voucher program, a move that could increase elderly people’s health costs by thousands of dollars.

A Romney-Ryan ticket would make our country even more starkly divided than it already is. And, for Sam–and this mother, who would like to remain hydrated and composed all the way to the bus-stop–that’s a very bad thing.

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The Workers Who Didn’t Matter in Mitt Romney’s World (OPINION)

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

Over the next few months, the editors of Parents.com will report on hot-button election issues that American families face today, from healthcare to education. In the spirit of offering diverse perspectives on the election, we’ve chosen three moms from across the political spectrum to be guest bloggers on Parents News Now. Each one of them will offer a unique take on the topics that they–and you!–are most passionate about. (Read the entire blog series.)

By Sharon Lerner

“Do you have to cheat to be rich?”

The question came from the chocolate-smeared lips of my six-year-old son, Sam, as we licked fudgesicles at the end of another steamy day.

In the simplest sense, the answer is no, of course. But you can forgive a child–or an adult, for that matter– for having such a thought in this particular election cycle.

After all, the Republican presidential candidate has made oodles of money doing something that–at best–is unclear, and–at worst–seems exactly like cheating. (I say oodles, not because I’m too lazy to look up the details of his fortune, but because Romney has refused to release the tax returns which would give us the figure–estimated to be anywhere between $150 and $250 million.)

His dad, George Romney, ran a car company. I get that. American Motors made money by turning metal into automobiles. Mitt, our would-be president, ran a company called Bain Capital, a “private equity firm” (already I’m on shakier ground) that bought and sold other companies.

How do you make money when you don’t actually create anything? The standard answer is that you “eliminate inefficiencies.” But what does that actually mean? And how does it affect companies’ employees and their families?

To find out, I called Cindy Hewitt, who was the HR manager at Dade Behring, a company that Bain formed from another company it acquired in 1994, in part by laying off some 850 of its employees in Florida three years later–and sold in 1999 at a profit of $242 million.

The Dade Behring factory, which made pills and blood testing devices, was on the banks of the Miami River in Florida across the street from a small cluster of houses where many of the workers lived. Hewitt describes the place as “a working class community, nothing fancy,” that was nonetheless remarkably close-knit and stable:

“What made this incredibly unique was the fact that so many people within that community worked there, walking to work across the street every day. Multiple generations, extended families were employed by the plant.”

Unfortunately Hewitthad to give the people of this small, river-bank community the devastating news that they’d lost their jobs when Bain closed the plant in November of 1997.

“Usually, if someone gets laid off, others in the family can help each other out,” says Hewitt,“ who was familiar with the ways of the corporate world, having previously worked at Pepsi and Exxon. “But here, because multiple members within families lost their jobs, there weren’t those resources. There were families where multiple aunts and uncles and parents all worked at the plant.”

Adding to the pain of losing well-paying jobs with decent benefits was the indifference with which the company handled the transition.  Hewitt says the factory work came with health insurance and paid in the $15- to $20-an-hour range.

In September of 1997, before she had any idea the plant would close, Hewitt’s bosses told her to bring over roughly a dozen skilled workers from a similar plant that was closing in Puerto Rico. The workers didn’t initially want to come, she told me, and specifically worried about what might happen if they lost their new jobs in Florida.

Hewitt relayed their concerns to her higher-ups and was assured that there was absolutely no discussion of closing the facility. Yet, 60 days after they moved to Miami, these workers had their fears confirmed when they learned that the plant’s demise was imminent. This was in November, after school was underway, and half of them had brought their children with them.

Dade Behring had paid the Puerto Rican employees’ moving costs, which Hewitt estimates were about $10,000 each. As part of their contract, they had signed agreements that stipulated that the workers would repay these costs if they left the company before a certain amount of time had passed. Hewitt says most of the recruits from Puerto Rico asked to be released from their agreement before the plant closed so that they could return to their home to seek new jobs and restart their lives there.

“The only decent thing to do would be to release these employees from their relocation agreement,” says Hewitt. But, despite the fact that Dade Behring was terminating their employment, the company threatened to collect the money from the employees if they left before the plant closed, and even threatened to go after them legally if they didn’t pay it, according to Hewitt, who describes the workers’ experience as particularly gut-wrenching.

“They had just gone through the plant closure in Puerto Rico and they come over here for what they believe is a continuing career only to find they have to go through the same horrific experience,” she says. “All they asked was don’t make us pay you back the thousands of dollars for relocation.”

Perhaps these moving costs are some of the inefficiencies that Bain specialized in eliminating. Still, it’s hard to see how a company would fight so hard to get $120,000 (to use Hewitt’s estimates) from workers whose lives–and children’s lives–they themselves had thrown into chaos. Had they made just this one concession toward decency, Bain would still have walked away with $241,880,000.

But, at least at Dade, executives didn’t seem particularly concerned with decency or worker’s feelings, as evidenced by another incident Hewitt described to me. This one took place after the announcement of the plant’s closing, while workers were putting in mandatory overtime despite facing imminent job loss. It was a somber period, according to Hewitt:

“They know their job is ending,” she says. “They understand that it’s unlikely that they’re going to find anything that will remotely sustain their families the way this job has. They also recognize they’re going to have a harder time competing with workers in their twenties. But they’re still working many hours.”

And yet, one day during this awful time, the workers– “people who are working their butts off, whose lives are in total disarray,” Hewitt says–were treated to an extra helping of humiliation. As they made their way from the plant’s production area to the break room, they passed by the executive suites where, through the glass wall that separated them, they could see their bosses practicing their golf strokes.

Hewitt remembers 20-or-so workers with their faces pressed against the glass wall, staring, open-mouthed as the men on the other side casually swung putters.

Romney has responded to some of the criticism around Dade Behring (which is just one of seven companies that went bankrupt after being taken over by Bain in the Romney era) by noting that he left Bain in 1999, which was two years after the plant’s closing and the same year as the $242 million payout to the private equity firm.

But, in light of the news that Bain filed documents with the Securities and Exchange Commission listing Romney as the chief executive and chairman of Bain until 2002, that defense seems pretty crumbly. (Romney responded to that revelation by explaining that, despite being “the owner of an entity that is filing that information,” he had no role in running the company.)

For Hewitt, the Dade Behring affair was traumatic enough to drive her from the corporate world. Days after seeing her co-workers stare at their golf-playing bosses, she quit. I reached her at an animal shelter, where she now tends to feral cats and enjoys the feeling that she can “make a difference.”

For me, the sordid story of what happened to this small community in Florida is enough to convince me that, whether he broke the law or not, Romney is indeed a cheater in the sense that I think Sam meant it: someone who does the wrong thing to make money.

You don’t have to cheat to be rich, I’m going to tell Sam when he’s old enough to understand. But it appears that Romney did. And someone like that should never be President.

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Supreme Court Decision ObamaCare: We Should Rejoice

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

Election BloggersOver the next few months, the editors of Parents.com will report on hot-button election issues that American families face today, from healthcare to education. In the spirit of offering diverse perspectives on the election, we’ve chosen three moms from across the political spectrum to be guest bloggers on Parents News Now. Each one of them will offer a unique take on the topics that they–and you!–are most passionate about. (Read the entire blog series.)

By Sharon Lerner

Let’s call today family day, since all families should be rejoicing about the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Obama’s health care law. I know I am. The law increases coverage for more than 30 million uninsured Americans, including children who were legally denied because they had preexisting conditions. It provides billions of dollars of prescription drug benefits for seniors. It ends lifetime limits on coverage. And it lets us keep our adult kids on our insurance plans til they’re 26.

The only hitch seems to be that the court gave states some wiggle room to not expand their Medicaid programs, which the law had said should include people with incomes up to 133 percent of the poverty level. We’ll undoubtedly soon see what that will mean for low-income families.

Still, to every American who has, is, or was a child: congratulations!

But as we’re breathing a collective sigh of relief (and Republicans are vowing to repeal), we also need to be thinking about why the challenge to this major, common sensical advance happened in the first place. And, for that, I invoke the New Hampshire license plate.

A few days before the health care decision (or BHCD, as I’ve come to think of it), my six-year-old son, Sam, spotted this relatively rare (for us New Yorkers) plate. This has been the season of learning about state mottos in our family and he was pleased, if puzzled, to encounter a new one. “Live free or die,” he read aloud from the car in front of ours. “What does that mean?”

I took the opportunity of his being strapped into captivity to prattle on a bit about early America. I want to give my kids a sense of our country’s complicated history and began explaining that some colonists felt so passionately about getting independence from England they were willing to go to war. Although Sam soon glazed over and moved on to counting mini Coopers, I found myself stewing over this bit of righteous license plate rhetoric, and what it had to do with challenge to health care.

For me, the support of the health law is a no-brainer mostly because it’ll leave more families with health care. I’ve thought and written about what happens to uninsured people for years. I know that some 45,000 deaths a year can be attributed to a lack of health coverage. While that can seem an unfathomable number, I know it represents actual humans. Since I was a kid, my mother, a pediatric nurse who works in some of our city’s poorest neighborhoods, has regaled me with stories of her patients going without treatments because their families can’t afford them. (NOTE: This was corrected from a previous version which mistakenly said that the health law would leave more families without health care.)

I also know that mothers are more likely to be uninsured than either women without children or men. This is largely because private health insurance is tied to full-time employment, a fact that not only leaves mothers and often their children in medically risky limbo but also affects how we work. Sixty-two percent of mothers with children at home who work full-time would prefer part-time work and many of them don’t because reducing their hours would mean losing their–and often their children’s–health benefits.

In my ideal world, we would have a single-payer health system, so health care could be de-linked from jobs, everyone would be covered, and we wouldn’t be wasting more than $156 billion dollars of health care spending on insurance costs. (By the way, private insurance companies, in turn, spend tens of millions of those dollars on lobbying Congress each year and have already donated more than $1 million to Romney. Along with other critics of the health care law, they’ve already spent more than $235 million fighting it, money that’s effectively swayed public opinion.)

Although the Affordable Care Act left these unnecessary middlemen in place, kept employment as a route to insurance, and will leave millions uninsured, I still embrace it. Now we can let our adult children stay on our policies until they’re 26! In 2014, we will be able to get insurance even if we were pregnant or had breast cancer! It will be illegal to deny us coverage just because we had a C-Section! Finally we’re inching toward the rest of the developed world by providing health coverage to more Americans. And I desperately want that.

My support for health reform is so clear, it’s been hard to understand why anyone would oppose the new law, let alone file a legal challenge to it, as 26 State Attorneys General did. Do they honestly think that some people deserve to go without treatment because they lose their job–or work for a stingy or cash-strapped employer? Do they really believe it’s okay to deny health insurance to someone with, say, cancer just because she’s had it for a while? Or on the grounds that pregnancy is a pre-existing condition?

Even though the law has withstood this challenge, we’re going to need to understand how Republican health care haters, who are now vowing to repeal the law, think. And this is where the license plate comes back in. Despite a few unseemly exceptions, it does seem possible that much of the popular anger that led to this supreme challenge case is based not on sadism but on a dumbed-down notion of freedom–the kind so simplistic it might be boiled down to a four-word license plate slogan.

There are plenty of reasons it’s absurd to pretend that opposition to “Obamacare” is based on principle, beginning with the fact that the Republican nominee who now vows to get rid of what’s left of the law instituted an almost-identical health care plan when he was governor of Massachusetts. (The individual mandate that was almost invalidated at the behest of many Republicans has actually “been at the heart of Republican health care reforms for two decades,” as Ezra Klein points out in the New Yorker.) And then there’s the problematic reality that most of the people who oppose “Obama-care” don’t actually know what it entails. (NOTE: This was corrected from a previous version which mistakenly said that the individual mandate was invalidated.)

But the most frustrating part of this excruciating exercise has been this twisted notion of freedom. This isn’t freedom from slavery, on which abolitionists staked their lives, or even freedom from a colonial power, which Patrick Henry (who may be referenced by the license plate) was talking about. No, this attack on health care was based, in theory, on freedom of purchasing power and, in reality, on freedom from responsibility for our fellow citizens.

As for the principled part, Henry was talking about his own life when he was demanding to be given liberty or death; he was willing to sacrifice himself for what he believed in. Alhough deaths would have resulted if they’d struck down the law, they wouldn’t, for the most part, have been among the people who took this “principled stand.” The people behind this policy reversal were apparently willing to have other people die for their principled belief.

Luckily, it looks as though that won’t happen. So, I’m going to celebrate our victory–and tell Sam about this historic day, when decency prevailed over some silly slogans.

For another perspective on the healthcare ruling, see Why the Safely Insured Should Care About Universal Health Care. For an opposing view, see ObamaCare: A Tax By Any Other Name Is Still a Tax.

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