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NYS unions demand tax fairness to support economic reboot

Members of many unions shared their experiences and insights March 1 on how New Yorkers are faring as the COVID-19 pandemic enters its second year.  They spoke in a live Labor Revenue Forum streamed by the NYS AFL-CIO through its Facebook page.

Their overarching message:  Everyone should contact their elected state representatives and tell them to invest in state and local services, infrastructure and people.  Spending cuts will not get New York out of the economic crisis resulting from the pandemic, but making the wealthiest citizens pay their fair share can make it happen

It’s a platform supported by PEF, which is fighting for revenue enhancements like a billionaire’s tax, while also organizing to reduce wasteful spending and stop service cuts across the state, from bed reductions at OMH to closures of OCFS facilities and the use of expensive consultants at ITS and DOT. (Visit our Budget Fight Back page to contact your lawmakers in support of PEF’s priorities.)

As the forum’s moderator Ryan Delgado of the state AFL-CIO said in a Facebook post about the forum:  “Working people have borne the brunt of the pandemic with their lives and livelihoods, and unless New York raises revenue to fund vital services they will be the victim of the crisis once again.”

Ron Deutsch from New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness said that considering New York has the greatest level of income inequity of any state, it should raise taxes on its wealthiest citizens.  Decades of disinvestment in people, services and infrastructure have run parallel to an explosion of wealth for some state residents.

What’s more, Deutsch said, New York has one of the largest numbers of billionaires in the country (118), but every time someone suggests raising taxes on the extremely wealthy, they are told these people will flee the state. He said that simply isn’t true.

“We did it in 2009 and after 9/11 in 2001 and the number of millionaires has doubled,” Deutsch said.

Courtney Smith of New York State United Teachers said she was teaching children with severe learning disabilities in Roosevelt, N.Y., but lost her job last September because of low enrollment at the school.

“My former students are not receiving the services they need,” Smith said.

Desma Reeves, a health care worker and member of the Service Employees International Union’s local 1199, talked about how understaffed and unprepared her workplace was to face the COVID-19 crisis.

“It was so stressful.  Staff wasn’t informed what was going on and every day people just left because they didn’t know what to expect,” she said. Reeves is one of many who cut back her hours from full-time to part-time.

Dangerous short staffing, and not enough PPE and other needed equipment were issues raised by Debbie Hayes of the Communication Workers of America District 1.

“Patients died in New York State because we were not prepared for the pandemic.  Our health care system has been cut to the bone in this state and our facilities were already on the verge of collapse.  Some nurses had seven to 10 COVID patients on a shift.  We are at a critical point in our history,” Hayes said.  “We can’t cut our way out of this deficit.  There’s nothing left to cut.  We have to face this crisis head on and we have to raise revenue from our wealthiest New Yorkers.”

Bev Healey of the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) said the pandemic has revealed the stark economic disparities between rich and poor, especially those disparities affecting women, and black and brown women most of all.  They have lost their jobs or had their working hours reduced, and many have had to stay home to care for children who were suddenly at home every day, instead of in their classrooms.

“A lot of the ground they have gained has taken a step backward,” Healey said, “and it will have a long lasting impact on our economy.”  If the state fails to make the richest people pay their fair share, “we’ll see a rise in poverty and in the physical and mental strain on workers.”

Danny DiClemente of the American Federation of County and Municipal Employees talked about workers in food service and security for the Rochester School District who were laid off, and even the few who held onto their jobs had their hours “slashed in half.”

“They live paycheck to paycheck.  They can’t afford to be laid off.  The bottom 95 percent of earners pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes, than the top 5 percent.  That needs to change,” DiClemente said.

New York State Nurses Association member Jayne Camissa said hospitals and other health care facilities were “already in a very deep hole” when the pandemic hit New York a year ago.  “This is not the time to cut resources.  Cuts just invite an even greater health care crisis,” she said.

CSEA retiree Willie Terry said the two groups most in need of help at this point are children and seniors.  He quoted the great abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, who said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Power concedes nothing without a demand.  It never did and it never will.”

It is time for every New Yorker to speak up and demand tax fairness and the resources New York needs to support its people and its economy as they come out of this pandemic, Terry said.

NYS AFL-CIO has a letter writing campaign underway. You can let your local lawmakers know they can’t cut their way out of this fiscal crisis by using this link.

By SHERRY HALBROOK