First Person

Dear Senator Toomey: The Cuts You Vote for Make It Impossible to Feed My Family

Editor’s Note: These are modified remarks from a “Tuesdays with Toomey” event on February 7, 2017.

Dear Senator Toomey,

You don’t know me. You have never met me, or answered any of my calls. But you have power and influence over my life—and my children’s well-being—and that scares me.

So Senator Toomey, let me introduce myself:  My name is Myra Young. I’m a mother, an advocate, and I live in poverty.

I work hard to take care of my family. For the last 22 years I worked as a certified nursing assistant, but I still lived in poverty and needed government assistance to put food on the table and to keep my kids healthy. Two months ago, the company I worked for closed and I was laid off. Now without my job, my struggle is even more difficult.  I only receive $33 a month in food stamps—barely enough to get my family through one healthy meal. My kids need fruit and vegetables, but I simply cannot afford them.

Last week, my 10-year-old son asked, “Mom, why do you cry so much?”

I told him, “Because I want to take care of you and your sister, but it’s so hard.”

But why is it so hard, Senator?

It’s hard because wages are too low.
It’s hard because we have to beg for scraps when we need help.
And it’s hard because of politicians like you, Senator Toomey.

You have everything I want: a safe home to go to, a job that pays a good wage, and a family in good health.  But you want to take away the little bit I have by cutting programs that help me—and people like me—feed my family.  That hurts us.  That keeps us down. And that makes me angry.

You are wrong, Senator Toomey.
You are wrong if you don’t protect these programs.
You are wrong if you don’t care about my family.

Would you be able to survive one week in my shoes?

Would you be able to survive one week in my shoes?  Would you be able to manage the daily struggle of trying to feed your family? Manage the stress of not knowing if you will be able to pay rent for the month? Manage the fear that your child may need health care that you cannot afford?

If I were in your shoes, and had the power to help a mother with two disabled children, I would do it.  I would make sure she has the services she needs to care for her family.  I would take care of the more than 1.6 million people in Pennsylvania who live paycheck to paycheck.

Senator Toomey, as a member of Witnesses to Hunger, my sisters and I will continue to speak out and fight for the needs of our children, families, and communities.

It’s your responsibility to do the same.



Trump’s Labor Department Nominee Should Just Drop Out Already

President Trump’s pick for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, should finally have a confirmation hearing this Thursday—after four separate delays.  His nomination process has been fraught since it was announced two months ago: The media has surfaced allegations ranging from past mob ties, to disputed allegations of domestic assault, to illegally avoiding taxes by paying a housekeeper under the table. The parade of scandals has caused some Senate Republicans to question whether the mega-rich CEO of CKE Restaurants, the corporation that operates Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., is qualified to lead the Labor Department.

These allegations may be what ultimately derail Puzder’s path to confirmation, but it’s actually his virulently anti-worker behavior that should disqualify him from being the nation’s top advocate for working people.

Despite Trump’s often-repeated campaign promise to stand up for working Americans, his nominee is a longtime advocate for gutting worker protection laws and silencing workers’ voices on the job. While this may be good news for CEOs in fast food and other low-wage industries, it’s bad news for the people Trump has sworn to protect.

Even though Americans’ wages have been stagnant for years, Puzder opposes government policies that would increase wages and improve job quality. He opposed the recent rule that would expand overtime so that it would reach 4.2 million more workers, he has scoffed at the idea that workers may need to take rest breaks over the course of their shift,  and he has argued that “some jobs don’t produce enough economic value” to justify raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.

Carl’s Jr. practices in other countries undermine Puzder’s argument that the market couldn’t bear a higher wage.  At its 20 locations in New Zealand, the chain must pay at least the federal minimum wage of $15.25 per hour (or $11.07 in American dollars). The chain is also planning to open up 300 stores in Australia, where the law requires that adult fast food workers be paid at least $19.44 per hour (nearly $15 in American dollars) with hourly pay premiums for overtime and night shift work.

But here in the U.S., Puzder’s company may have failed to even comply with the existing federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.  In a 2014 investigation of a corporate-owned Hardee’s in Alabama, government investigators alleged that workers were being paid less than the federal minimum wage because CKE was paying workers with fee-laden prepaid debit cards. And just last week, two Carl’s Jr. employees filed suit against CKE and its franchises, claiming that the companies use “no-hire agreements” that prevent managers from moving to new jobs with higher pay. The company released a statement saying it will not comment on the specifics of the lawsuit.

Workers have filed dozens of other complaints against Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. stores for wage theft, overtime violations, sexual harassment, and unfair labor practices. A spokesperson for CKE restaurants said the company will not comment on the pending litigation, but argued—despite a recent report to the contrary—that the franchise restaurant owners are “solely responsible for their employees, management, and adherence to regulations and labor practices.”

He prefers workers who do not—or cannot—advocate for better conditions.

In addition to opposing a living wage and basic worker protections, Puzder has made it clear that he prefers workers who do not—or cannot—advocate for better conditions. As an employer, he has reasoned that immigrant workers make better employees since they have what he refers to as a “‘Thank God I have this job’ kind of attitude,” which presumably translates to a hesitance to speak up when there are problems. He also looks forward to one day operating completely automated employee-free restaurants since machines are “always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”

These individual anti-worker beliefs and practices culminate in Puzder’s desire to silence the voice and power of working Americans by dismantling unions. He is a vocal critic of the Fight for $15, and he opposes reforms that would hold franchisors accountable for discrimination against workers who participate in protests and strikes. At least one former Hardee’s franchise employee alleges that she was fired for her involvement in protests to demand higher wages and a union.

Puzder’s disdain for unions extends beyond the fast food industry where he has a clear self-interest. When Walmart announced last year that it would close 154 stores (the vast majority of which were smaller stores) in an effort to focus on supercenters and e-commerce, he ignored Walmart’s own statement and blamed workers for the closures. With no evidence to back up his claim, Puzder penned an op-ed faulting a worker group for the closures.

This sort of right-wing opposition to unions and workers’ collective voice isn’t new—but with a Republican-controlled White House and Congress the stakes are higher. The government will likely debate legislative proposals and administrative changes that could cripple unions by cutting their funding and membership.

If Puzder continues to take aggressively anti-union positions as labor secretary, it will not just be bad for union members. Unions help raise wages, reduce inequality, and boost economic mobility for all workers—whether or not they’re in a union. And without organized labor, working people lose negotiating power in the workplace and in government—whether it’s their ability to negotiate for higher wages or to defend policies like Social Security and Medicaid that protect the middle class.

So much for Trump’s promise to protect and fight for American workers.



Congress Wants to Make it Possible to Drug Test Anyone Who Applies for Unemployment

Tomorrow, the House of Representatives is expected to vote to roll back a Department of Labor regulation that protects people who apply for Unemployment Insurance (UI) from unnecessary drug testing. It’s a not-so-subtle attack on the character of unemployed Americans, rooted in stereotypes that blame workers for job loss.

Congress has already agreed to allow states to test UI claimants in two specific, narrow circumstances: if a worker was fired from their previous job because of drug use, or if the worker is looking for a new job in a field that regularly drugs tests employees.  But since the Great Recession, some states have been clamoring to expand drug testing for UI applicants—they believe that they’d be able to shrink the program as workers test positive for drugs, or that workers would decline to apply for benefits because of their drug use. Despite the complete absence of data to support this theory, three states—Texas, Mississippi, and Wisconsin—have enacted laws that permit the drug testing of UI recipients (though they have all held implementation until the Labor Department rule was finalized).

Lawmakers aren’t just hoping to roll back the Labor Department rule. They’re also counting on passage of a bill introduced in the 114th Congress by Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) that would effectively allow states to drug test all jobless workers filing for unemployment insurance.

Here are five reasons that shouldn’t be allowed:

1. It’s unconstitutional

Drug tests have historically been considered searches for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment. For searches to be reasonable, they must be based on “individualized suspicion.” That means the government would need to have a specific reason to believe that each person they drug tested was doing drugs. Otherwise, it’s like conducting a search without a warrant.

The only exception to this rule has been if the government can show there is a special need, such as public safety, that warrants it.But governmental programs like Unemployment Insurance, TANF, SNAP, and housing assistance do not naturally evoke the special needs exceptions that the Supreme Court has recognized in the past.

2. It’s redundant

Twenty states already explicitly deny people UI benefits if they lost their job because of drug use or a failed drug test. In addition, virtually all states treat a drug-related discharge as disqualifying misconduct even if it is not explicitly referenced in their discharge statutes. Adding an additional regulation when state regulations are already accomplishing this task would add to the bureaucracy that this administration has vowed to reduce.

3. It’s expensive

Creating a new qualifying requirement for UI would be very expensive, and federal law prohibits states from making potential beneficiaries pay for drug tests. States would have to absorb the cost of drug testing thousands of unemployed workers, and UI programs are already too under-funded and under-staffed. Though there are no comprehensive estimates of how much this would cost, when Texas was considering drug testing UI applicants a few years ago, it was estimated to cost $30 million per year.  In FY 2012, federal funding fell short of covering states’ administrative expenses by an estimated $231 million.

4. Workers have already paid for access to the program

Unemployment Insurance is funded through payroll taxes. Workers earn that benefit over the course of their career—and they don’t have access to it unless they lose their job and are working to find a new one.

5. It’s based on negative stereotypes, not data

This attempt to violate the privacy of every American who is unlucky enough to lose a job is rooted in a blanket assumption that the ranks of the unemployed are crowded with lazy drug abusers. However, there is no evidence to support this claim. When states have attempted similar drug-testing initiatives in the past, only a small fraction of recipients—less than one half of one percent—actually tested positive (and finding that small group of people cost hundreds of thousands of dollars).

Realistically, two-thirds of Americans will struggle with unemployment at some point during their careers. Imposing an expensive, ineffective, and unconstitutional new obstacle to a program that most of us will need doesn’t actually solve anything.



How a Union Vote in Charleston Could Change the Labor Movement in the South

Mike Evans has worked as an organizer for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) for more than two decades.  He says he’s never had an organizing experience like he’s had in Charleston, South Carolina—home of a 6,000-worker Boeing plant.

Last year, when the union tried to sponsor the city’s Cooper River Bridge Run, its check was returned.

“We got a letter saying that what we do as a union doesn’t fit with their other sponsors”—which included Boeing, says Evans.

The union then tried to sponsor the Knights of Columbus 5K race on Thanksgiving.

“They sent the check back after consulting with their board,” says Evans. “They didn’t want to give us any ability to brand ourselves as being part of the community.”

Organizers of both events declined to comment on why the union’s sponsorship was rejected.

This Wednesday, the workers at the plant will vote on whether to unionize.


The Boeing 787 Dreamliner plant in North Charleston is the crown jewel of South Carolina’s economic rebirth. Union opponents point to a state economy that is currently growing at twice the rate of the U.S. economy. However, that growth hasn’t meant equal opportunity for all.

South Carolina has the 11th highest poverty rate in the U.S., with 16.7 percent of its residents living below the poverty line. Despite the opening of new manufacturing plants, the state’s poverty rate is actually higher than when the recession began in 2008.

One contributing factor is a lack of unions throughout the state, which depresses wages. In fact,  research shows that unions increase workers’ wages and benefits, reduce inequality and poverty, and boost economic mobility across generations.

At the North Charleston plant, for example, Evans says that workers in some job classifications are paid half as much as their unionized counterparts in Washington State, and that they often have second or third jobs to help make ends meet.  As a result, the IAM has been trying to organize since the plant first opened in 2011.

“Every community event, you see them everywhere sponsoring stuff,” says Ken Riley, President of the South Carolina AFL-CIO. “They have been sponsoring Little League ballgames. If there is a picnic in the city, they are there.”

Boeing has countered with billboards and TV ads painting the IAM as an out-of-state organization that previously tried to prevent the plant from opening in order to keep jobs in Washington State. To support its case, Boeing has focused heavily on an NLRB complaint that the union filed in 2011 and later withdrew.  In it, the IAM alleged that the company shifted work to South Carolina in order to retaliate against Washington State-based union workers who went on strike in 2009.

“Boeing has always believed in South Carolina, but the IAM hasn’t” reads, an anti-union website built by the corporation.  “Now they want our teammates and our community to forget about how they tried to shut us down”.

Boeing workers have been forced to attend anti-union seminars. Management even set up two tables at the plant—one with diapers and children’s clothing, another with groceries—each representing the $800 dollars in union dues that workers would pay annually.

This isn’t the first time Boeing has taken on an IAM organizing effort at the plant. In 2015, the company organized town halls with workers and promised to address their complaints. Many workers believed Boeing’s assurances, and support for the union waned. Fearing a loss, the IAM called off the election.

But the union says this time around is different—some of the goodwill workers felt towards the company has worn off.

“We are getting much more support than last time because of [Boeing’s] broken promises,” says Evans.

Workers say that the plant has reneged on promises to be more responsive to feedback, hold regular meetings with workers to hear criticism, increase wages, and make scheduling more consistent.

“I have honestly never worked anywhere, union or not, that flip-flops so much as Boeing has lately,” says Sean Cribb, a production worker at the plant. “They can’t decide overtime rules, [or] work schedules.  They are moving management around so much that none of them can learn the work package so they can better assist their team.”

Although Boeing declined to comment on any of these specific allegations—and it’s worth noting that U.S. labor protections are so weak that none of this anti-union activity is illegal—spokesperson Elizabeth Merida said in a statement, “[Boeing] believe[s] our team is best served by having a direct relationship with the company and working as one team as we continue to build on the great successes that have already been achieved here.”


Union officials say a win on February 15 could be a watershed moment, opening the door for organizing in the south, beginning with the BMW plant in Spartanburg or the soon-to-open Volvo plant in Berkeley County.

“This would be the breakthrough of the century if they would win,” says Riley.

That’s because corporations and their political allies routinely argue—with great success—that unions in the north are the main reason why so many corporations are heading south. South Carolina has the lowest unionization rate of any state in the nation, with only 2.1 percent of its workers organized.  Former Governor Nikki Haley was explicit about her desire to keep unions out.

“You’ve heard me say many times I wear heels. It’s not for a fashion statement. It’s because we’re kicking them every day, and we’ll continue to kick them,” she said.

But Evans and other organizers say a win in North Charleston would be a huge step towards ending that anti-union legacy, finally giving workers in South Carolina a voice in addressing wages and increasing inequality.

“This is such a tough environment. There is really a lack of any structure that tells people that they can do this,” says Evans.  “When they see workers at Boeing get a first contract and its decent, I think a lot more people in the south will want to reach out.”


First Person

The Affordable Care Act Would Have Saved My Husband’s Life

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from a Facebook post. 

Ten years ago, before the Affordable Care Act was passed, I became a 26-year-old widow with a 2-year-old child.

I want to tell you about how health insurance changes lives—how it can save them, and what is lost when it fails.

My late husband Bob and I met when I was only 13. Bob was a wise old man of 15. Everyone liked him—he was the kind of person who made other people feel good about the world and about themselves. I liked him right away, and we started dating after he asked me to go to a dance. We were the rare high school sweethearts who maintained a relationship through college, even though Bob was two years ahead of me in school.

Bob was a musician and an educator. He earned a Master’s degree in music, and performed in St. Louis and towns all over the Midwest. His income from those gigs was a very significant part of our household budget. He taught at jazz camps for kids, and as an adjunct faculty at various local colleges. Bob loved teaching. A lot of people teach because it’s a reliable source of income to support their passion for performance, but Bob taught because he loved being with students. He was incredibly methodical and organized in his approach to teaching. Many of his friends and former students are still teaching music today using his methods and materials at various institutions in and around my hometown of St. Louis.

Bob was also a gifted composer, because he had worked hard to learn theory and technique until they obeyed the commands of his heart. He spoke the language of music far more eloquently than most of us ever speak with words. I didn’t recognize Bob’s gift when he was living as well as I do now. After he released a CD in 2004, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) selected him to receive a Young Jazz Composer’s Award for one of his songs, “Nola’s Waltz.” As my own musical understanding grows, I hear more and more of what he had to say and how beautifully he told his stories.

He was certainly living the dream in those years—from 1997, when his musical career started, until 2007, when it abruptly came to an end.

What happened?

When he was 25, Bob started having stomach aches. We were married, expecting a child, and working ten jobs between the two of us. I had three jobs and was a full-time student, and Bob taught at six different places in addition to his performance gigs. None of these jobs had paid sick days, so when Bob had stomach pains, he just went to work anyway.

He had a pre-existing condition: he had taken medication for acne

Health insurance was always a problem for us. We purchased it through our college when we were students, but when Bob graduated and we tried to find our own insurance most companies rejected us because Bob was overweight and had a pre-existing condition: he had taken medication for acne when he was in high school. We were able to purchase a catastrophic insurance policy, but it had a deductible of $5,000 and cost us a little less than that each year in premiums.

About 20 percent of our income at that time was going toward medical expenses. We were racking up debt, and paying quite a bit of interest on it. In hindsight, we probably restricted our access to care. Just paying the premiums was enough of a financial burden—we did not want to add to it with copays.

Bob’s stomach aches got gradually worse over time, until he finally went to the ER. We both thought he was having a heart attack, because he was so sweaty and clammy and in so much pain. He was diagnosed with gallbladder problems, and we were relieved that it wasn’t something worse.

In a follow-up visit to the doctor, Bob was told that he didn’t have to do anything until the pain was bad enough to warrant having his gallbladder removed. So Bob muscled his way through the attacks, even when they were so bad that he was literally crawling in pain. It was very frustrating for me as his wife. I was angry with him because he refused to go to the doctor and get his surgery to get that gallbladder out.

Starting in the 2006-2007 school year, Bob was hired as a full-time faculty member of Southwestern Illinois College (SWIC). We had employer-based health coverage for the first time, and he was not about to risk losing that right when we got it by calling in sick for a few weeks. He was determined to stick it out until the end of that school year to do the right thing for his job—and his wife and son.

On March 22, 2007, Bob called me at home and told me that he was having an attack at work and that I needed to come get him and take him to the hospital. I drove him to the ER with our 2-year-old in tow, and the three of us spent the entire night in a hallway in the hospital basement. Bob was delirious from pain and sedation. He had acute pancreatitis, which was caused by a gallstone that had escaped his gallbladder and lodged itself in his pancreas.

Bob spent three weeks in the ICU at that hospital, was airlifted to a bigger hospital, and spent another three weeks in the ICU there.  His last words to me were all confusion about why he was in the hospital and why no one would let him go home. He just wanted to see his son.

In the middle of the night on May 3, a nurse called to tell me that Bob had taken a turn for the worse. I called his friends and family, and we sat vigil for him in the waiting room. There were probably 30 of us there when a nurse told me he was the sickest person in the hospital.

His death came at the end of a desperate, gory fight to save him. If you’ve never watched someone die of sepsis, I hope you stay that way.

Bob’s funeral was attended by at least 600 people. It was beautiful. People came together to express their grief by supporting his family. I was amazed at how caring people can be. I also barely remember it, because I slept so little in those days. Bob’s death left me adrift as a 26-year-old widow and single mother with few job prospects. I was still in the middle of my own education when he died.

Things worked out far better for me than they do for most people in my position, thanks to Bob’s life insurance, health insurance, and Social Security. Since Bob was covered by his employer’s health insurance, the medical bills that packed my mailbox for months after his death—I lost track of the total after it topped a quarter of a million dollars—were covered. They didn’t force me into bankruptcy, so I was able to rebuild our life. I spent countless nights grieving alone and struggling to work around the hole in my heart, and I spent my days going to school and raising our son, Bobby. I earned a Master’s Degree in Art Therapy Counseling, and provided more than 1,400 hours of services to others as part of earning that degree. I remarried in 2011.

It all could have gone very differently if the laws in our country had been on a slightly different timeline. If the ACA had passed in 2004 instead of 2009, Bob and I would have had coverage we weren’t afraid to use. Bob would have been covered by his parents’ insurance until only two months before his employer-based coverage began. He could’ve had his gallbladder taken out months before it killed him.

If the ACA is repealed, there will be many more stories like Bob's

If the ACA is repealed—if we no longer prevent insurance companies from excluding people based on pre-existing conditions like teenage acne, or no longer require insurance companies to cover young adults when they may not yet work the kinds of jobs that provide health insurance—then there will be many more stories like Bob’s. There will be many more incandescent American lives that flicker out.

If we lose these provisions, my own experiences will inform the health care I’m willing to procure for my children. Perhaps I’ll decide that it’s better to leave my children’s allergies and minor illnesses and acne untreated, knowing that a diagnosis as a child could prevent them from being able to access more important health care as an adult.

Is that really the best we have to offer our children?

I know the ACA isn’t perfect—our employer-based coverage premiums and copays have gone up. Insurance policies change too often. But at least we have coverage, and under the current law we aren’t afraid we will lose it if we use it.

That is worth protecting. Find a way to do it.