For Some Iowa Voters, Caucuses Remain A Barrier To Participation – Juana Summers January 31, 20205:00 AM ET

Voters listen to instructions during a Democratic Party caucus in 2016. The party has been under pressure to make the process more accessible this year, but some activists remain frustrated.
Patrick Semansky/AP

Marlu Abarca has lived in Iowa for a decade and says she now “identifies as an Iowan.” For the past few weeks she’s been attending training sessions to chair a satellite caucus site at the South Suburban YMCA in Des Moines.

Even so, she’ll have to miss work to participate.

“I have to take vacation to chair the satellite caucus,” Abarca, 28, said during a lunch break from her job at a Des Moines library.

Abarca is far from the only Iowan who has to make special arrangements to participate in Monday’s caucuses, or who may be unable to participate at all. To caucus, voters have to show up in person at 7 p.m. CT, at a specific location. They can expect to spend some time, multiple hours even, at that location.

That tends to pose problems for a lot of voters: parents who don’t have childcare options; employees who work irregular schedules and can’t take time off; and people with disabilities who may struggle to navigate a process that demands a lengthy amount of physical presence, often in a crowded room.

Iowa is home to more than 3 million people, but the most that have participated in a presidential caucus was about 240,000 for the 2008 Democratic contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In 2016, slightly more than 171,000 people turned out for the Democratic caucuses.

“I think that there are more accessible ways to involve people in the democratic process. After being in Iowa for 10 years and identifying as an Iowan, I understand why being the first in the nation and having something like a caucus feels so special to Iowans,” Abarca said. “The Midwest is often left out in a lot of conversations nationally. So to get this type of attention is different… But we have to recognize that we inherently don’t have a society that’s inclusive and values people’s right to vote.”

With an eye toward making the caucuses more accessible for all voters, the Iowa Democratic Party has ushered in some changes, including early check-in and a streamlined process for voters to sort out their support for candidates. They’ve also expanded “satellite caucuses,” like the one that Abarca is leading in Des Moines.

That was the party’s way of extending access for people who cannot attend one of 1,678 designated caucus sites. All told, there will be 90 satellite caucus sites this year, most of them in Iowa. About a half dozen will be Spanish language satellite caucus sites, including the one Abarca is chairing in Des Moines.

She’s been attending meetings to learn how to run a caucus, something she’s never done before, and learning how to translate an already confusing process from English to Spanish. One thing that she and other organizers have encountered is the fact that the word “caucus” lacks a Spanish equivalent.

“It’s similar to the term ‘marketing,’ where in Spanish there’s no comparable word that would represent the idea of what marketing is. So the Spanish language has simply adopted the word ‘márketing.’ Very similarly ‘cau-kos’ or just ‘caucus,'” Abarca explained. “More and more Spanish speakers are becoming familiar with the term, but there’s no other word.”

Activists and organizers have raised concerns about language barriers, and note that while there are now Spanish language satellite caucuses, the roughly 194,000 Latinos in Iowa — some, though not all, speak primarily Spanish — are scattered across the state and may need access to interpreters to understand the process.

“For the first time in a caucus cycle we have a full time AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] and Latinx outreach director, and accessibility outreach director to help make sure all Iowans have the resources they need to caucus, including translation services at the caucuses,” said IDP communications director Mandy McClure in a statement that pointed out a number of other changes. “Expanding participation has been at the heart of all of these changes, and we will continue to work to look for ways to increase accessibility on caucus night.”

One group, the Latinx Iowa Caucus Education Project has been working for months to get more Latinos in Iowa to participate, circulating non-partisan videos to educate would-be participants on the process, which relies on person-to-person contact at community meetings.

The move to expand the satellite caucus program, which was piloted by the state party in 2016, came after plans for the “virtual” caucus program — which would have allowed caucus participation over the phone or through video chat. But the Democratic National Committee rejected that proposal last year over cyber security concerns. That means that even with the addition of satellite caucuses, Iowans must still show up in person to participate.

“Obviously, caucusing is an activity that requires a physical presence, so there in lies the crux of the problem with regard to a few different populations of people,” said Reyma McCoy McDeid, the executive director of the Central Iowa Center for Independent Living.

“When we talk about voter suppression initiatives that occur across the country, we tend to focus on one particular political party. But the fact of the matter is voter marginalization, voter suppression is a non-partisan phenomenon and the caucuses are, unfortunately, a fantastic example of that,” she added.

The Central Iowa Center for Independent Living, or CICIL, is also hosting a satellite caucus, specifically aimed at making the caucus process more inclusive. It starts two hours prior to the 7 p.m. start time typical in precincts across the state, will include food and childcare (including a caucus activity just for kids).

There will be quiet space with softer light for people who need a space with less sensory overload, and space to lie down for those who need it. Participants are being reminded that, while caucuses can be loud, passionate affairs, they should be mindful of their volume “for the sake of caucusers who experience neurodiversity, overstimulation or anxiety.” An American Sign Language, or ASL, caucus will take place in a different room.

Emmanuel Smith is also participating in a satellite caucus, one they petitioned to hold in the lobby of their apartment building.

Smith, who works for the advocacy group Disability Rights Iowa, uses a wheelchair and has chronic pain and fatigue. In 2016, it took more than an hour for them to reach their caucus site. Once they arrived, they found it was too crowded to maneuver through the crowds, even to use the restroom.

“Having a satellite location in my apartment building was one of the only ways I knew to at least give me a good chance of being able to attend,” Smith said in an interview at Disability Rights Iowa’s Des Moines office. “Not a guarantee, but prevent, you know, the long commutes and different issues I’ve encountered in previous years.”

The Iowa Democratic Party has worked to ensure that disabled Iowans have a better experience than in 2016, when many said they struggled to participate. They launched an online form for people to request accommodations and have recently added a new, disability director.

The national party has applauded these moves.

“I’m proud of the historic steps taken by the Iowa Democratic Party to increase participation and accessibility in the Iowa caucuses,” DNC disability council chair Tony Coelho said in a statement. “These efforts include hiring a caucus accessibility director, having satellite caucuses, and requiring every caucus location to meet accessibility standards. This didn’t happen overnight. This happened because of the leadership of the Iowa Democratic Party and the tireless work of disability advocates.”

The staff of Disability Rights Iowa and other advocates say that satellite caucuses are just a stop-gap, rather than a long-term solution.

“It’s like trying to fix your basement foundation with some masking tape,” said Annie Matte, voting outreach coordinator at Disability Rights Iowa,

They want to see more changes to the caucuses, including options that allow Iowans to participate without showing up in person like absentee ballots or proxy voting. Such options haven’t come into play because of fears that an absentee ballot would lead the caucuses to be considered a primary election by officials in New Hampshire, who oversee the country’s first primary and might try to jump ahead in the nominating process.

“There’s 300,000 Iowans with disabilities of voting age, so this is a big group of people,” Jane Hudson, the executive director of Disability Rights Iowa. “If they don’t have a voice because they can’t even participate in the first stage of picking presidents, they are really being disenfranchised.”

Why Chief Justice Roberts refused to read a question from Rand Paul at Trump’s trial – Li ZhouJan 30, 2020, 3:20pm EST

He’s said he won’t read questions attempting to out the intelligence community whistleblower.

In this screengrab taken from a Senate Television webcast, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts presides over impeachment proceedings against U.S. President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol on January 21, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Senate Television/Getty Images

Chief Justice John Roberts on Thursday refused to read a question from Sen. Rand Paul that appeared intended to out the whistleblower whose complaint eventually led to the impeachment investigation.

“The presiding officer declines to read the question as submitted,” said Roberts, after Paul offered the written question.

Paul’s inquiry, according to tweets he later posted, focused on the relationship between a staffer at the House Intelligence Committee and someone he may have worked with at the National Security Council, naming two specific individuals. He went on to add that he had no “independent information” about who the whistleblower was.

“I think this is an important question, one that deserves to be asked. It makes no reference to anybody who may or may not be a whistleblower,” Paul told reporters at a press briefing. One of the names he mentions, however, has been floated by some conservative publications as the potential whistleblower.

It’s the second time in the Senate’s two days of questioning that this scenario has played out; on Wednesday, Roberts told lawmakers that he would not read questions that could include the identity of a whistleblower, seemingly dismissing a submission from Paul, according to Politico.

Paul is among the members of the GOP who’ve been eager to use the focus on the whistleblower to divert attention from the abuse of power Trump is charged with committing. “Do your job and print his name!” Paul yelled at the press during a rally last fall.

In the months since the impeachment inquiry has been underway, Republicans, spurred by Trump himself, have sought to question the credibility of the whistleblower in order to undercut the allegations that have been raised against the president.

The whistleblower first raised concerns about a July 25 call between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and President Trump that focused on investigations into the Bidens via a complaint that was shared with the intelligence community Inspector General Michael Atkinson last summer.

Paul has been one of the senators most focused on unearthing the whistleblower’s identity, which some lawmakers have argued is important because it would explain potential biases that the person has.

Other Democrats and Republicans, meanwhile, have argued that protecting the whistleblower’s anonymity is vital to ensure that people feel able to come forward when they observe potential wrongdoing in the government. Exposing the whistleblower, who is a member of the intelligence community, could also put this person at risk of professional retribution and other potential threats.

While current whistleblower laws lay out protections for individuals to come forward, they provide a limited shield if these people wind up getting exposed.

House managers have emphasized, too, that the identity of the whistleblower isn’t important — the allegations the person raised have been corroborated by other sources including a summary that the White House released of the July 25 call, which shows Trump asking for investigations into the Bidens.

Because of Roberts’s opposition, Paul wasn’t able to carry out his stunt in the Senate on Thursday and had to take the antics to Twitter.

Artists Who Paint With Their Feet Have Unique Brain Patterns – By Claudia Lopez-Lloreda SMITHSONIANMAG.COM JANUARY 30, 2020 1:53PM

`Neuroscientists determined that certain “sensory maps” in the brain become more refined when people use their feet like hands

Longstaff Painting
Peter Longstaff, a foot artist who participated in the neurological study. (Courtesy of Peter Longstaff)
By Claudia Lopez-Lloreda

Tom Yendell creates stunningly colorful landscapes of purple, yellow and white flowers that jump out of the canvas. But unlike most artists, Yendell was born without arms, so he paints with his feet. For Yendell, painting with toes is the norm, but for neuroscientists, the artistic hobby presents an opportunity to understand how the brain can adapt to different physical experiences.

“It was through meeting and observing [Yendell] doing his amazing painting that we were really inspired to think about what that would do to the brain,” says Harriet Dempsey-Jones, a postdoctoral researcher at the University College London (UCL) Plasticity Lab. The lab, run by UCL neurologist Tamar Makin, is devoted to studying the sensory maps of the brain.

Sensory maps assign brain space to process motion and register sensations from different parts of the body. These maps can be thought of as a projection of the body onto the brain. For example, the area dedicated to the arms is next to the area dedicated to the shoulders and so on throughout the body.

Specifically, Makin’s team at the Plasticity Lab studies the sensory maps that represent the hands and the feet. In handed people, the brain region dedicated to the hands has discrete areas for each of the fingers, but unlike these defined finger areas, individual toes lack corresponding distinctive areas in the brain, and the sensory map for feet looks a bit like a blob. Dempsey-Jones and colleagues wondered whether the sensory maps of ‘foot artists’ like Yendell would differ from those of handed people.

Dempsey-Jones invited Yendell and another foot artist named Peter Longstaff, both part of the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (MFPA) partnership, into the lab. The scientists interviewed the two artists to assess their ability to use tools designed for hands with their feet. To Dempsey-Jones’ surprise, Yendell and Longstaff reported using most of the tools they were asked about, including nail polish and syringes. “We were just continuously being surprised at the level of ability they had,” Dempsey-Jones says.

Then the researchers used an imaging technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to develop a picture of the sensory maps in Yendell and Longstaff’s brains. The researchers stimulated the artists’ toes by touching them one at a time to see which specific parts of the brain responded to the stimuli. As they stimulated each toe, distinct areas lit up. They found highly defined areas in the brain dedicated to each of the five toes, one next to the other. In the control group of handed people, these toe maps did not exist.

For Yendell, who had been part of brain imaging studies before, the defined toe maps didn’t come as a surprise. “I’m sure if you take a table tennis player who has a very different way of using their hand, the brain map will be slightly different to the average person. I think there’s lots of instances where it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to be different in any way.”

Scientists have known for a long time that the brain is malleable. With training and experience, the fine details of sensory maps can change. Maps can be fine-tuned and even reshaped. However, scientists had never observed new maps appearing in the brain. Dan Feldman, a professor of neurobiology at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not part of the study, believes the findings are a striking demonstration of the brain’s capacity to adapt. “It builds on a long history of what we know about experience-dependent changes in sensory maps in the cortex,” he says. “[The research] shows that these changes are very powerful in people and can optimize the representation of the sensory world in the cortex quite powerfully to match the experience of the individual person.”

The research has important implications for the newly emerging technology of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). BCIs are devices that can translate brain activity into electrical commands that control computers. The technology is intended to improve the lives of people without limbs and people recovering from a stroke. Understanding the fine details of how the body is represented in the brain is critical for more accurate development of brain-computer technologies.

“If you want to have a robotic limb that moves individual digits, it’s very useful to be able to know that you have individual digits represented, specifically in the brain,” Dempsey-Jones says. “I think the fact that we can see such robust plasticity in the human brain argues that we can maybe gain access to these changeable representations in a way that might be useful for restoring sensation or for a brain-machine interface,” Feldman adds.

But a fundamental question remains: How do these toe maps arise? Are they present at birth and maintained only if you use your toes frequently? Or are they new maps that arise in response to extreme sensory experiences? Dempsey-Jones believes, as with most processes in biology, the answer is a little bit of both. She says there is probably a genetic predisposition for an organized map, but that you also need sensory input at a particular time of life to support and fine-tune it.

Yendell recalls scribbling and even winning a handwriting competition when he was two or three years old. The Plasticity Lab wants to understand how these early events drive the establishment of toe maps. By looking at early childhood experiences, Dempsey-Jones and her team might be able to identify which timepoints are necessary for the development of new sensory maps in the brain. “We’ve found that if limb loss occurs early enough, you have brain organization similar to someone born without a limb,” she says.

Once scientists determine the periods of development that generate this unique organization of toe maps, the improved understanding of the brain could lead to better technologies for people who are disabled or missing limbs. Yendell, who is on the board of the MFPA, is more than happy to contribute to these types of studies. “Anything that helps other people understand and overcome things, then you’ve got to do it.”

This piece was produced in partnership with the NPR Scicommers network.

The Majority of Voters Now Support Decriminalizing Sex Work. It’s About Time. – Natasha Lennard January 30 2020

People march in support of decriminalizing sex work and against the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act on June 2, 2019, in Las Vegas. Photo: John Locher/AP

As recently as spring 2018, every single Democratic presidential candidate who was then in Congress — from progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders to conservative Sen. Amy Klobuchar — voted for a bill that expanded the criminalization of sex work and imperiled sex workers nationwide. The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, later combined with the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act to form the pernicious FOSTA-SESTA legislative package, sailed through both the Senate and the House with bipartisan support. The voices of sex worker organizers, who correctly stressed that the law would deny sex workers crucial online resources and networks while failing to end trafficking, were roundly ignored.

Fast forward nearly two years and the Democratic consensus around the criminalization of sex work has, thankfully and finally, seen a most dramatic shift. As a report published today by a coalition of organizations, including Data for Progress, the American Civil Liberties Union, Mijente, and the Human Rights Campaign noted, “For the first time in presidential primary history, 2020 candidates have competed for a progressive position on the sex trade.” While the issue has arisen as more a talking point than a clear policy proposal for the candidates, the positioning away from criminalization is marked.

The report, released on Thursday alongside two new national polls, does not just focus on sex work decriminalization as an electoral issue — it also surveys and commends a significant shift in public support, especially among young people, for seeing sex work decriminalized.

The Democratic consensus around the criminalization of sex work has, thankfully and finally, seen a most dramatic shift.

National polling carried out by Data for Progress and YouGov Blue found that two-thirds of voters aged 18 to 44 support the full decriminalization of sex work; two-thirds of Democratic voters of all ages agree, compared to 37 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of independents. “Fully 52 percent of voters somewhat or strongly support decriminalizing sex work,” noted the report, authored by Data for Progress fellow Nina Luo, who is also an organizer with Decrim NY, a coalition pushing for decriminalization, the decarceration of sex workers, and the destigmatization of the censured industry. In a similar poll taken just seven month earlier, 45 percent of overall voters supported decriminalization; support among Democratic voters has increased from 56 to 61 percent.

Sex work decriminalization should not be considered a fringe issue. It intersects many of the most urgent political struggles of our time: the fight to end mass incarceration, racial profiling, and transphobic police violence; the demand for a social safety net; and robust and protections for all workers. To fight for the decriminalization of sex work is to fight for and with society’s most vulnerable and marginalized communities, in particular women of color and of immigrant backgrounds, especially trans women who often rely on sex work when discriminated against in other industries. Black women account for 94 percent of people arrested for the absurd and capacious charge of “loitering for the purposes of prostitution” in the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. Thus, to ignore the struggle for sex workers’ rights is de facto to allow their lives not to matter.

According to Luo, it is in part the growing recognition of the necessity of these connected struggles that accounts for the increased support for sex work decriminalization. “Living wages haven’t risen and 13 percent of Americans know someone who has died because they couldn’t afford health care,” Luo told me, noting that “people are in economically desperate situations and increasingly understand that people do things for survival, that survival work is work, that sex work is work.” Full decriminalization would recognize that as work, sex work is not the business of the police and courts. For many, sex work may not be good work, or always free of exploitation, and it may be resorted to when there are few other options. But the very same is true of many jobs in which workers are nonetheless deemed worthy of rights and legal protections as workers.

Luo also attributed the changing views on decriminalization to the sex worker movement’s alignment with a multiracial coalition and “a rising left.” There’s little doubt that the infusion of new, decidedly left-wing blood into parts of the Democratic political landscape has pushed the issue to the fore in state houses nationwide. New York and D.C. have introduced bills to decriminalize sex work, and similar efforts are gaining ground in California, Oregon, Illinois, Vermont, Connecticut, and Colorado, the report noted. Progressive politicians like Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., deserve credit for new efforts to repeal FOSTA-SESTA, and left-to-liberal NGOs getting behind the issue are to be commended. But the long overdue shift in political consensus was hard fought by sex worker organizers on the front lines.

The report includes testimonies from a number of sex workers and former sex workers attesting to the violences enacted through criminalization. Bianey Garcia, a trans rights organizer with immigrant advocacy group Make the Road, who emigrated from Mexico as a teenager to escape LGBTQ persecution, was fired from her restaurant job in the U.S. when she transitioned on hormones. Having previously been a victim of sex trafficking, Garcia then turned to consensual, independent, survival sex work. “I’ve been arrested four times for prostitution,” she notes in the report, “Only once was I actually doing sex work, the other three arrests were just profiling because I’m a trans woman.” Another testimony, from Victoria Walker, who turned to sex work for survival, recalls that each time an aspect of the industry was further criminalized, the work became more dangerous. For example, FOSTA-SESTA led to the shuttering of sites where workers could screen clients and connect to other members of the community. “If sex work were decriminalized,” notes Walker, “the sex worker community could find each other again and feel safe by having each others’ backs.”

“If sex work were decriminalized, the sex worker community could find each other again and feel safe by having each others’ backs.”

It is only full decriminalization that can lay the ground for sex workers to obtain the rights they well deserve. The so-called Nordic model, in which only buyers of sex or third parties face criminalization, forces sex workers into the shadows and continues to entrap sex workers and their loved ones in the system of carceral injustice. Examples abound of sex workers being arrested for soliciting under such laws. The new report notes that under the Nordic model, pitched as legislation to protect sex workers, Norway “evicted more than 400 sex workers, primarily migrant women, from their home.” Full decriminalization will not offer economic justice and material safety for the vulnerable people who turn to sex work for survival, but it would remove at least some of the grounds used by the police and state to further oppress these communities.

And it is support for full decriminalization that the new polls reflect. Respondents were asked whether they would support sex work following the example of New Zealand, which in 2003 did away with “criminal penalties for adults to sell and pay for consensual sex while also maintaining laws that criminalize violence.” New Zealand has not seen the sex work industry grow since it was decriminalized, according to the report, but 90 percent of people trading sex said decriminalization gave them employment, legal, and health rights, while 64 percent found it easier to refuse clients.

Luo told me that the shift in support for decriminalization, especially among young people, is a “momentous” indication of “where the future is for the issue,” but the organizer was clear that barriers to full decriminalization, decarceration, and destigmatization remain steep. She highlighted that beliefs in carceral approaches to ending violence and exploitation, transphobia, fearmongering, and myths about trafficking persist with force, as do reactionary and powerful police unions lobbying for criminalization. She added, though, that “perhaps the greatest barrier of all” is that people who are inoculated from deprivation and discrimination “find it unbelievable that people living at the intersections of marginalization and oppression often trade sex to survive.” As Luo put it, “it gets at the very core of who we are as a society, pretty immediately.” And to reckon with the realities of survival sex work and the added brutality of its criminalization is to understand that this society needs changing at its core.

‘I suffer through it’: how US workers cope without paid sick leave – Miranda Bryant Last modified on Fri 31 Jan 2020 03.38 EST

The US is one of just a few high-income countries globally that do not guarantee sick leave, forcing many to work when they are not medically fit to do so

Wanda Coker, of Durham, North Carolina, poses for a portrait at the office of NC Raise Up/Fight for $15 on 12 December 2019.
Wanda Coker, of Durham, North Carolina, poses for a portrait at the office of NC Raise Up/Fight for $15 on 12 December 2019. Photograph: Rachel Jessen/The Guardian

Wanda Coker has life-saving dialysis every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning.

Despite feeling tired, nauseous and suffering cramps from the four-hour treatments that keep her kidneys from failing, the 52-year-old rushes back from the clinic to her home in Durham, North Carolina. She changes into her work uniform, drives an hour through traffic to Burger King and somehow summons the energy for a 10-hour shift. She finally gets home at around 2 or 3am.

As a manager at the fast-food restaurant, Coker works a minimum of 50 hours a week across five shifts, leaving her little time to rest or recover. For over two years, this has been her weekly routine.

“The days I’m off I pretty much try to catch up on sleep if I can because I don’t sleep a lot,” she said. “I just basically have to suffer through it … I take whatever I can for pain, which is only about Tylenol while I’m working. I have to work because we don’t have any paid sick days.”

The US is one of just a handful of countries globally that do not guarantee paid sick leave. According to World Policy Centre data, the US, Palau and South Korea are the only three high-income countries not to offer the basic right to their citizens.

This leaves workers suffering from life-threatening illnesses and conditions such as kidney failure and cancer with little option but to work when they are not medically fit to do so, and having to go to extraordinary measures to fit treatment around their jobs.

Coker’s strength and resilience confound even medical professionals. “Most of the time my doctors are like: ‘Ms Coker I don’t know how you do it to go and work 50 hours a week because we know that dialysis is straining on you,’” she said.

When her doctors offer to write her sick notes for work, she declines. “I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills.”

After years of inaction in the US, national conversation around the issue of paid family leave – which can include childbirth, serious illness and caring for a sick family member – has started to gain political ground, and has become a policy point in the 2020 US election.

Most of the Democratic presidential contenders support paid family leave and, for the first time, many Republicans are taking an interest in paid parental leave – including Donald Trump. But national policy remains a long way off.

Coker, who lives with her daughter, granddaughter and son-in-law, first started having problems with her kidneys about four years ago. It came to a head when she was driving to work in May 2016 and started vomiting uncontrollably. She ended up spending a week in hospital with pneumonia – during which her kidney function spiked and didn’t return to normal.

While people can live for years on dialysis, the process is notoriously hard-going. In the two years that Coker has been having treatment, five of her fellow patients have died. It is also emotionally gruelling. “I’ve seen a therapist and we have a social worker at dialysis, so I talk to her a lot about the situation and they do what they can to help.”

Wanda Coker leads a workshop at the recent Worker Power Summit.
Wanda Coker leads a workshop at the recent Worker Power Summit. Photograph: Courtesy NC Raise Up/Fight for $15

She hopes to get a kidney transplant. She is currently looking for a donor, which can take three to seven years. Burger King has offered her $2,500 towards the cost of the transplant, but she said her bosses could do more to support her.

“They send me text messages like: ‘You need to do a better job of getting to work on time.’ And to me I’m like, how can I do a better job of getting to work on time when I have a set time that I’m on the machine, which is four hours?”

Instead she thinks they should give her two of her dialysis days off so that life would not be such a struggle.

If her condition deteriorated and she was physically unable to get to work, she said she would have to file for disability benefits, which after four weeks would drop to a fraction of her salary, making it impossible to pay her mortgage and bills.

She is eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave from work under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but could not afford to live without an income.

“I barely make enough money now to afford all this stuff [bills and living costs], especially with the medication that I have to take right now.” She currently pays about $143 a month for medicines alone and a further $104 a month on Medicare and $58 a week on health insurance.

A national paid family leave law guaranteeing sick leave would improve her life enormously. “Instead of having to go to work all these days that I’m sick or tired or just feel like I can’t make it I could actually be able to be off,” she said. She also thinks companies like Burger King should pay for all of their employees’ healthcare. Currently, she believes, only managers have access to health insurance.

Through her work as a local leader for the global worker movement Fight for $15, Coker comes across people in similar situations to hers every day. She said a fellow Burger King manager had a heart attack at work. When he called a district supervisor to say he was having chest pains and needed to leave, she claims, he was not allowed to close the store early. “He actually had the heart attack in the store and had to leave the store in an ambulance and someone else came to keep the store open. It’s ridiculous.”

Burger King and Burger King franchisee Carrols Corporation did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Just 40% of workers have access to short-term disability benefits, according to recent US government figures, and 34% to long-term disability. Although private companies are increasingly starting to introduce paid family leave policies, many of them do not include paid leave for serious illness.

Of the about 60% of workers who are eligible for unpaid leave under FMLA, many, like Coker, cannot afford to take it.

Some states – such as in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island – have their own paid medical leave programmes, but there is no protection nationally.

Sarah Fleisch Fink, vice-president for policy and strategy at the National Partnership for Women & Families, which is campaigning for paid family and medical leave and paid sick days, condemned the “broken system”.

“It’s terrible. People in this country, some people who don’t even have access to unpaid job-protected leave, so people who aren’t covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act, can lose their jobs if they need chemotherapy treatment or dialysis and they’re working and they can’t find another way to accommodate that treatment.”

For Darsheen Sargent, 47, not having paid leave meant going to work every day in considerable pain. The part-time home care worker from Seattle suffered third-degree burns across her body during a house fire in August.

After taking about two weeks unpaid time off, she was still in pain physically and emotionally, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, and coping with the damage to her home and possessions. But she needed the money and she was worried about losing her job.

“Even now, I’m wary when I need to take time off if I’m in too much pain – I just push past it. Every day I cry and say, God I just wish I had time to just heal,” said Sargent, a single mother of three adult children and a 10-year-old daughter.

While her employer has been accommodating – giving her lighter jobs and helping her out after the fire – the process has still been extremely painful.

“With the pain and you’re not able to really just function and focus it’s very hard and you’re not sleeping, so you’re running off just, I don’t know, grace.”

Water services worse than in 1994 – Sipho Kings 31 Jan 2020

Troubled waters: A girl collects water from a spring. In South Africa there are 5.3-million households without access to safe and reliable drinking water.
Troubled waters: A girl collects water from a spring. In South Africa there are 5.3-million households without access to safe and reliable drinking water. (Delwyn Verasamy)

In the minutes of its national executive committee lekgotla last week, the ANC said 87% of people have access to water. In admitting that “more still needs to be done” it blamed “ageing and failing infrastructure, lack of investment and implementation of operations and maintenance, vandalism, theft, corruption and a culture of nonpayment [for] services”.

But, just two months ago, Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu launched her department’s water “master plan” with another number buried inside. The headlines afterwards were about the R898-billion she said was needed to fix South Africa’s water and sanitation infrastructure. But deeper inside the 400 pages was another admission: “The current percentage of the population receiving reliable water services [is] lower than it was in 1994.”

Instead of the 87% — or the 95% that the ANC campaigns on in elections — the master plan said, on four different occasions, that a lower percentage of homes have reliable water than when the party came to power. More homes have water now, but as a percentage of all homes fewer have water now than in 1994.

This translates to 5.3-million households. With a national average of more than four people per household (according to Statistics South Africa) this means 21-million of the 60-million people in the country either do not have water, or have a water source that could make them sick.

And more than 14-million people do not have access to safe sanitation.

This isn’t a story about the state not wanting to give people their constitutionally guaranteed right to water (which works out, practically, at 25 litres a person a day). Since 1994, it has built infrastructure to get water to 95% of the population.

The master plan said this focus on “new water services” since 1994 has meant: “The operational reality is that existing infrastructure was ‘stretched’ because of significant underinvestment in infrastructure maintenance and delays in renewal of aged infrastructure.”

A reliable water service means a household has clean drinking water for 300 days a year, with any interruption not lasting longer than two days at a time.

Instead, mismanagement, corruption and a skills shortage have meant that a third of all water infrastructure doesn’t work. The water master plan gave the total value of all South Africa’s water infrastructure — the 500 dams, 290 000km of pipelines and five-million taps — at more than R1.3-trillion.

This failure to maintain and invest in new water infrastructure is why, last week, Sisulu was in QwaQwa to announce R220-million in funding to get water to people that had been protesting because they don’t have water. It’s why Gauteng will run out of water at some point in this decade, because a new dam in Lesotho has not been built to store more water. And it’s why children continue to die of diarrhoea after drinking polluted water — like in 2014 in Bloemhof when three babies died and dozens of adults ended up in hospital.

Nearly half of water treatment works are “in a poor or critical condition, causing health risks” and 11% are “dysfunctional and in a collapsed state”. In 10 municipalities, less than 30% of the population has access to a reliable water supply. Access to water is the worst in the Eastern Cape (49%) and Limpopo (53% of households).

A third of all water leaks out of broken pipes (the best practice is 10%) and 83% of stations that monitor water quality in South Africa rivers are picking up pollution.

And it’s becoming worse. The master plan notes: “Unfortunately, the reliability of these services is currently declining.”

To keep tabs on infrastructure, the South African Institute for Civil Engineers releases a regular report card. When awarding water infrastructure a “D” in 2017, it said: “The unchanged low grade [D] belies the further deterioration in the ageing bulk water infrastructure portfolio as a result of insufficient maintenance and neglect of renewal.” Of the country’s 278 municipalities, 202 do not have a civil engineer — up from 126 in 2005, says the institute.

The water master plan gives an overview of the overwhelming, and competing, interests and problems that have led to 21-million people not having clean water. The first issue is the number of groups involved — from the water department to energy, minerals, agriculture, human settlements, local and national government — and the fact that “their mandates are not always clear”. The National Planning Commission sounded an alarm about this in 2011 with its own diagnostic report.

Fixing all this ostensibly lies at the old and crumbling door of the water department. But it is technically insolvent. The master plan says that a “serious shortage in technical skills” has meant the department “continues to over-rely on consultants in key strategic areas, including planning and programme management”.

The government is also R333-billion short of the R898-billion that the master plan said needed to be spent this decade to fix water infrastructure. This funding gap could also increase, given the history of water projects attracting “poor project planning, unsolicited bidding, construction delays, vandalism, poor contract and financial management, unrealistic expectations of users and theft of infrastructure”.

Of the R1.3-trillion of water infrastructure, R332-billion needs to be fixed or rebuilt — and 10% of that is in need of “critical renewal”.

The problem is that selling water, and getting money from treasury to deliver water to people who cannot afford to buy it, brings in only R98-billion a year. That’s R10-billion less than the government and municipalities need just to buy water (and electricity to move that water), as well as pay staff. Those municipalities also owe the water department R10.5-billion, and 43% of the people who should pay for water do not — costing the economy R26-billion a year.

Fixing that would nearly make up the shortfall in paying for the master plan. And, although the plan says that water is too cheap and will have to become more expensive, it admits: “Users will probably not allow increases in tariffs if simultaneous control over spending is not clearly demonstrated.”

This is also without the added effect of climate change, which the master plan says: “Adds significant additional stress to an already stressed environment and is changing rainfall patterns in ways that we have yet to understand fully.”

Water services worse than in 1994