Realities of Low-Income Working Families
ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY POVERTY REDUCTION TASK FORCE
09:44 AM -- Realities of Low-Income Working Families
The committee heard a panel presentation titled the "Realities of Low-Income Working Families." The panel was asked to discuss challenges and opportunities involving: building family assets and financial stability; increasing educational opportunities and upgrading work skills; making work pay; addressing child care and other work supports; and becoming self-sufficient. Representative Kefalas described the format for the presentation, and noted that the discussion would have a moderator to summarize each panelist's testimony. Ms. Bridget Reavy, representing 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women, introduced herself as the panel's moderator.
09:48 AM -- Ms. Anna Davis, representing herself and 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women, described her personal experiences with poverty as a single mother of six children and as a victim of domestic violence. Ms. Davis summarized the steps she took to end her abusive relationship and to begin accessing benefits and furthering her education. She spoke about her time at the Community College of Denver, and noted that the support system that helped her there no longer exists. Ms. Davis discussed the benefits programs that she has used, including the Child Care Assistance Program, Medicaid, and food stamps. She described benefits programs that she was not able to access due to eligibility requirements, such as Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF). Ms. Davis explained that budget cuts had at one point made students ineligible for child care assistance. Ms. Davis outlined the issues faced by victims of domestic violence, and noted that she now has a masters in Public Affairs from the University of Colorado at Denver, and that she specializes in domestic violence. Ms. Davis suggested ways to provide victims of domestic violence with benefits more easily, and stated that an application form cannot always accurately represent an individual's true circumstances. Ms. Reavy summarized Ms. Davis's remarks.
09:58 AM -- Ms. Germaine O'Donnell, representing 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women, described her experiences as a victim of gender and disability discrimination. She stated that she is currently unemployed as a result of workplace discrimination, and now depends on Medicare and Social Security Disability Insurance payments. Ms. O'Donnell outlined her experiences with her former employer, and stated that she has filed charges against the employer but cannot afford a lawyer. She suggested that once an employer has been made aware of an employee's medical problem, the employer should be required to allow the employee to leave the workplace for medical reasons without jeopardizing his or her employment. She also suggested that taxpayer-funded agencies such as the Civil Rights Commission should use a panel of civilians to make decisions. Ms. Reavy provided a summary of Ms. O'Donnell's remarks.
10:04 AM -- Ms. Jasmine Peters, representing Single Parents United, introduced herself and described her organization, which promotes self-sufficiency for single parents. She stated that she is a single parent of five children and she discussed her employment history. Ms. Peters spoke about her personal experiences being homeless and dependent on public assistance. She explained that the application process for public assistance can be overwhelming and frustrating, and she provided detail on specific struggles that she experienced. She suggested that databases should share information better to lessen the paperwork required from people applying for assistance. She also suggested that programs should provide incentives to individuals receiving assistance who wish to further their education. She discussed the possibility that the "cliff effect" could be lessened by allowing individuals who find employment while on public assistance to gradually decrease the benefits they receive as their pay increases, rather than being cut off from public assistance immediately.
10:09 AM -- Ms. Laura Reinsch, representing herself, spoke in favor of providing paid sick days for all Colorado workers. Ms. Reinsch described her experience as a retail worker. She indicated that she would probably be considered "working poor," as she lives paycheck to paycheck and has no assets. She indicated that she currently has no paid sick leave, although she has worked for her employer for two and a half years. Ms. Reinsch explained that she is unable to use vacation time for sick leave because vacation time must be requested two weeks in advance. Ms. Reinsch indicated that missing a day of work would prevent her from fulfilling her monetary obligations, so she goes to work even if she is sick. She suggested that other people at her workplace behave similarly, which may lead to customers getting sick as well. Ms. Reinsch noted that managers get paid sick leave. She stated that no one should have to choose between having a job and having a sick day, and she commented that her situation is even more challenging for women who have children. She described studies that indicate that paid sick leave is good for the economy and for public health, and businesses that offer paid sick leave see increased productivity and decreased turnover. She discussed the H1N1 flu virus and noted that the government has encouraged people who are sick to stay home from work. She pointed out that public service workers are unlikely to have sick days and are likely to have daily contact with members of the public. She encouraged the legislature to require that all employers provide paid sick leave. Ms. Reavy summarized Ms. Reinsch's remarks.
10:15 AM -- Ms. Lisa Rogers, representing Feed Denver: Urban Farms & Markets, described her background as an entrepreneur and as a small business consultant. She discussed her personal struggles with unemployment and spoke about the unemployment rate among her neighbors in Denver's Highlands neighborhood. She explained that many people in her situation are suffering from decreased investments and have exhausted available benefits. She stated that many individuals do not understand the public benefits system, and did not expect to be unemployed for so long. Ms. Rogers commented on the decline of "core human work" and vocational skills. She suggested that corporations, rules, and regulations have squeezed out cottage industries, preventing individuals and local businesses from making a living by providing core services such as making clothes or food for neighbors. Ms. Reavy summarized Ms. Rogers' testimony.
Representative Gagliardi described her experience as a single mother and asked Ms. Davis to provide additional information on the support system at the Community College of Denver. Ms. Davis explained that she had seen a counselor for women who specialized in helping single mothers in an effort to retain students; she indicated that the position has since been eliminated. Responding to questions from Representative Kefalas, Ms. Davis indicated that she was not sure how the counselor was evaluated, but surmised that the position had been cut due to funding issues. Representative Kefalas encouraged representatives from the Community College of Denver to explore ways to evaluate the performance of such counselors to ensure that programs that are cut are programs that are not working, rather than ones that are. Ms. Davis added that when she transferred to Metro State College of Denver, the Institute for Women's Studies and Services provided similar support with a full-time staff. Responding to questions from Representative Gagliardi, Ms. Davis addressed the budget cuts that had stopped child care assistance for students, noting that Denver County eventually reinstated child care assistance for students. She stated that when cuts were made, people who were more likely to become self-sufficient were cut. She discussed a public meeting concerning the budget cuts, and Senator Sandoval noted that she attended the meeting that Ms. Davis was referring to. Senator Sandoval offered comments on the county's need to prioritize in order to balance the budget.
Senator Sandoval asked Ms. Rogers to provide additional detail on the unemployment rate in the Highlands neighborhood. Ms. Rogers indicated that she had been referring to her own neighbors, family, and friends. In response to Senator Sandoval's suggestion that the neighborhood economy seemed robust, Ms. Rogers noted that lifestyles are hard to change, and people still allocate a portion of their budgets towards socializing. Discussion continued between Senator Sandoval and Ms. Rogers regarding the unemployment rate of individuals over age 55.
Senator White asked Ms. Davis if her masters degree had enabled her to find employment and to reduce her need for public assistance. Ms. Davis answered that she is currently unemployed, as she had to quit her previous job in order to concentrate on her last semester of class and her thesis. She discussed the reduced funding for nonprofits. She noted that although two of her children have "aged out" of her care, her 18-year-old is struggling to find employment and she is supporting him. Senator White made additional comments.
In response to questions from Representative Kagan, Ms. Davis described the overwhelmed legal aid system and discussed steps she had taken in her experience with the court system and options available to provide assistance.
Senator Boyd addressed Ms. Peters' testimony regarding a method of bridging the "cliff effect." She noted that federal TANF rules provide one obstacle to changing the system. Representative Kefalas spoke about a method used in public housing programs to promote self-sufficiency by setting up an escrow account and freezing rent for the first year that an individual becomes employed. He expressed interest in learning if other programs could take similar steps.
Senator Hudak and Ms. Peters discussed the issue of teen parents who live with their parents and do not qualify for funding because of their status as a dependent. Senator Sandoval addressed Ms. Peters' testimony regarding the "cliff effect" and noted that federal legislation may prevent states from changing the current system, unless they are granted a waiver. Ms. Peters stated that she had been fortunate to find an employer who volunteered to help her transition off of public assistance; she discussed the possibility that corporations could set up internal programs to help their employees, rather than waiting for federal legislation.
Senator Scheffel addressed Ms. Rogers' testimony regarding cottage industries and applauded her attitude. He asked if she thought that people were inhibited from pursuing cottage industries because of regulation issues or because people have lost the skills themselves, or both. Ms. Rogers replied that it is a combination of both elements. She acknowledged that many regulations are based on common sense and safety concerns. She suggested that local food is more expensive than food from a corporation, and that corporations that price out entrepreneurs are barriers to self-sufficiency. She noted that the current recession has made people reevaluate measures of self-sufficiency and success.
Discussion continued between Ms. Davis and Ms. Rogers regarding homeowners' association (HOA) rules that prohibit small businesses. Senators Boyd and Sandoval addressed Ms. Rogers' testimony regarding the expense of local produce. Ms. Rogers made additional comments concerning processed food and food distribution issues. Ms. Peters discussed the possibility of bartering.
Ms. O'Donnell asked Ms. Peters for additional information regarding bartering. She discussed her experiences with the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. Representative Kefalas commented on his desire to learn more about measures of success. He discussed local economy movements and addressed barriers to home businesses.
Senator Sandoval remarked on the importance of corporate policies. She noted that Whole Foods buys from and encourages local producers, and added that King Soopers and other stores have elevated local products as well. She stated that corporate policies can help support local businesses, and consumers need to do their part also.
Representative Gagliardi and Ms. Reinsch discussed the number of paid sick days that would be ideal; previous legislation on the subject was included in the discussion. Representative Gagliardi commented on the practice of giving managers paid sick leave, but not other employees. Ms. Reinsch noted that she likes her managers, and some work longer hours, but others work the same number of hours as her and have more benefits and better pay overall. Ms. Reinsch stated that it was a moral issue to provide paid sick leave to everyone, and offered some statistics on the subject. Representative Gagliardi addressed Ms. Rogers' comments regarding cottage industries and local businesses, and discussed the importance of providing incentives to such businesses.
Senator Sandoval joined the discussion on paid sick leave. She discussed her experiences as an employer, and noted that small businesses may struggle with a mandate to provide paid sick leave. She indicated that such a mandate may mean the difference between being able to employ ten people and having to close. She also pointed out that managers are generally paid on salary, and therefore have to work until the work is done, even if it is longer than a 40-hour workweek. Senator Sandoval addressed the needs of hourly employees, and stated that any legislation providing paid sick leave for all employees should be analyzed to ensure that small businesses owners are not inadvertently affected, which could put even more people out of work. Ms. Reinsch said she agreed with Senator Sandoval's assessment, and commented that legislation introduced in the 2009 session only addressed certain businesses.
Representative Kefalas expressed his appreciation for the panel's testimony and stated that the committee would take a brief recess.