Category Archives: Your Wallet

$1.65 an Hour Raise, Too Much?

Houston Janitors conducted a strike and work stoppage on Tuesday as the companies that hire them aren’t willing to give them a $1.65 per hour raise, along with other contract requests.

Service Employees International Union has been organizing Janitors in Houston for quite some time and have achieved various successes for Janitors in the recent past. Well, the contract has ended, it is negotiation time, and it is time the seven companies in the negotiations treat their employees with some added respect; not to mention incentive, for cleaning up after them.

The janitors, whose contract expired May 31, want to boost their pay to $10 an hour over the next three years. Most janitors in Houston top out at $8.35 an hour.

Martinez said janitors might strike at other locations this week.

“We want to give owners and contractors a chance to respond,” she said. “As the weeks go by, it could get bigger.”

Let’s hope the message is received, so that all those involved achieve job security and a slight raise. Or as SEIU puts it:

As Houston’s poverty and hunger rate rise, janitors are calling attention to the income inequality that’s contributing to the deterioration of our communities. Houston janitors clean the offices of some of the richest corporations in the world, including profitable energy corporations Chevron, Exxon Mobile, Shell Oil, Penzoil, Centerpoint Energy and Reliant. Despite record profits and ballooning CEO pay, janitors who clean Houston’s office buildings are paid less than $9,000 a year—less than half the poverty level. A janitor would have to work more than 2,000 years in order to earn what the Exxon and Chevron CEOs make in just one year.

City and Southwest Agree on Hobby Expansion

Well, congrats to all those involved, especially Council Member James Rodriguez, for leading on this particular issue. Although the vast majority of Houstonians agree that a 2nd international airport would be good for Houston, there is still some strong opposition in the form of United lobbyists and future PAC money. Although the Council still has to approve the deal, this is a huge step forward, for sure.

So, what was agreed upon? It was agreed that Southwest Airlines would be paying for the international expansion.

Mayor Annise Parker today announced her support for international service at Hobby Airport and released details of a proposed agreement under which Southwest Airlines (SWA) will cover all costs related to the $100 million expansion. The Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) requires SWA to design and build the five new gates and customs facility to the City’s specifications.  When finished, the City will own the improvements debt free.  In return for its investment, SWA will have preferential scheduling rights and pay no rent for its use of four of the five new international gates, and will also pay no rent for its use of the customs facility.  The fifth additional gate and the customs facility will be available for use by all other airlines at Hobby, but unlike SWA, the other airlines will pay rent.

“This will be financed with no City debt and no Passenger Facility Charges (PFC),” said Mayor Parker.  “SWA will bear all the risk.  “They will also have to abide by our minority and small business contracting requirements and Hire Houston First policy.  That helps guarantee our local workers get a chance at the construction jobs.  From the beginning, I have said that my decision would be based not on what is best for one or another airline, but rather on what is best for the City, the local business community and the traveling public.  There is no question we have done that.”

But like I said, there is still more to come–more lobbying and more debate. If you support the expansion, then call your Council Member.

The proposed MOA is subject to approval by Houston City Council and SWA management.  City Council consideration is expected May 30, 2012.  Construction is planned for the spring of 2013.  In the interim, the City will work closely with SWA and Washington to obtain the necessary federal approvals as well as a commitment for an adequate number of customs and border patrol agents at both of our airports.

“Again, this is not about one airline over another,” said Mayor Parker.  “My goal is to ensure the millions of international travelers who pass through Houston receive adequate customs services no matter which airport they use.”

Sounds like a good deal to me. Let’s move forward.

DC-Inbox: Public Service Career Expo on Tuesday

From the Mayor’s Office:

Who: City of Houston
Metropolitan Transit Authority
Houston Independent School District
15 colleges and universities
More than a dozen agencies and private-sector companies
Houston-Galveston Area Council
Workforce Solutions
Greater Houston Partnership
Project Grad
Big Brothers and Big Sisters
What: 2012 Career Day Expo
When: Tuesday, May 22, 2012 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
Where: George R. Brown Convention Center Exhibit Hall B, 1001 Avenida de las Americas
Notes: This career expo will expose high school students to hundreds of career paths in the public sector and in local major industries.Scores of organizations and companies will showcase the careers they offer – many little known – with exhibits, demonstrations and discussions.  The event is expected to draw 1,000 youngsters.

Initially planned by the City to inform students of municipal government career choices, the event has since expanded to include the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the Houston Independent School District, 15 colleges and universities and more than a dozen agencies and private-sector companies. Partners also include the Houston-Galveston Area Council, Workforce Solutions, Greater Houston Partnership, Project Grad and Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

Part of the city’s community sustainability initiative to grow its own workforce, the event will also feature real-life examples of employees who will talk about their distinct jobs and paths to success.

Houston, We Have A Wage Theft Problem!

The good folks with the Down With Wage Theft campaign released a report on the impact wage theft has on the community (PDF), and let me tell you, it’s worse than one would generally think. Wage theft has affected the worker and workers’ families in the millions of dollars, but it has also affected the entire Houston economy. As strong as one might feel the local economy has remained despite the recession (or as strong as Forbes thinks the job outlook is), it seems to me it could have been a lot better. Especially for ordinary working people if  they had been protected from those who prey on them.

Here are some of the highlights:

Wage Theft is a Community Problem:

  • Wage theft becomes a problem to the community as a whole because of: (1) the sheer prevalence and pervasiveness of wage theft; and (2) the individuals’ connection to the broader community undoubtedly has collateral effects on their families, the public, the taxpayer, the local economy and even other businesses.
  • An estimated $753.2 million dollars are lost every year due to wage theft among low-wage workers. The consequences of this loss further depress working family incomes, resulting in decreased community investment and spending and limited economic growth.
  • Over 100 wage and hour violations occur in Houston every single week, a conservative figure that still demonstrates the pervasiveness of wage theft in the city. Although it is prevalent in the Houston construction and restaurant industries, it affects all types of industries, especially low-wage work.

The System Charged with Wage Enforcement is Failing:

  • Across the board, agencies and institutions – including the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division, the Texas Workforce Commission, the Courts, and community organizations – face many limitations, including understaffing, financial barriers (for both institutions and workers), and lack of enforcement and jurisdiction.
  • As a result, many workers are left unprotected, either through exclusions from the law or financial barriers to reporting and pursuing wage theft cases.
  • Weak employer enforcement and near non-existent consequences for violations make wage theft recovery increasingly difficult and also fail to deter future wage theft occurrences.

Houston has Many Opportunities to Bring Down Wage Theft through Community & Policy Action

  • Throughout the nation, communities have been resisting wage theft by implementing creative community actions and successfully pushing comprehensive policy solutions at the local and state levels.
  • Houston can capitalize on successful models nationwide, as well as on its own local innovation, to create better wage theft prevention and recovery mechanisms based on the needs of the region’s industries and workers.
  • The city can take action by facilitating wage claims and resolutions through an administrative hearing process, increase employer consequences to improve wage theft recovery and prevention, and strengthen worker protections against retaliation for reporting wage claims within the city.

That last one is very important and is something our City Council should take action on ASAP. The City has an opportunity to set a high standard and show its commitment to working people by taking such an action.

The Chron Visits Sharpstown

Chris Moran at the Chron took some time out of his busy City Hall schedule to do this write-up on my new neighborhood–Sharpstown. While Moran reminds us of the various negative things in the area, such as crime and some blight, I cannot but agree with my Council Member Mike Laster.

District J Councilman Mike Laster, a longtime Sharpstown activist and resident, compares his community today to the Heights of 15 years ago and Midtown a decade ago.

There are many components to revitalization, Laster explained. “The first and most important one is changing people’s attitudes about your area.”

Laster and Acquaro point to bricks and blueprints as evidence that Sharpstown is poised for a revival.

I think Sharpstown does suffer from a PR problem, as much as any of the cosmetic problems. And the perceptions, as they come from different people even within the community, are quite different, too. It seems when there is a discussion about Sharpstown, people either skirt the issue or come close to blaming the diversity of the area for the problems, while also trying to appreciate it.

I attended an HD-137 candidate forum this weekend and one of the candidates brought up “the old Sharpstown mall,” now known as PlazAmericas, and how all of the anchor stores are long-gone. The problem is, most shopping centers in the area don’t have anchor stores either; such as those huge shopping centers in what is known as Chinatown. It may be for obvious reasons:  It’s a challenge for anchor stores to locate and market in shopping centers which market to specific groups.

Perhaps a major reconstruction of the area will open a door, as is being done to Chinatown. Some cosmetic improvements have also been done to the PlazaAmericas area. To simply point to the problem is not enough; if you want to improve an area, then you have to work on bringing in investors and businesses, as well as push government to provide the necessary resources–law enforcement, city services, etc.–to help a business community thrive and a community revitalize. I see that commitment from CM Laster and from various leaders who have resided in Sharpstown and have chosen to stay.

Moran points to KIPP and other private schools in the area, including HBU, which will be working on expanding some of their offerings. And those institutions reach a few people; however, the vast majority of students are in public schools and there must be a commitment to improve those–whether in Gulfton, Sharpstown or any of these areas. Good, safe school do not only provide an educational foundation, but they also provide a base for community relations–organizations, cultural events, and community activism. Without investment in the public infrastructure, changing people’s perception will be an even bigger challenge.

Nonetheless, there are various issues in Sharpstown, and these are the same issues that affect most other neighborhoods in Houston–crime, blight, slow progress on economic development, etc. And as various entities partner up to improve the area, there needs to be some sort of cheer squad to pump up the positive aspects of the area:  its diversity–ethnic, cultural, and economic–and even small business opportunities. And it will take the most important part of Sharpstown to get this done–its people.

My neighborhood has a little bit of everything and nothing made me feel more hopeful than driving by a low-income apartment complex which has been improved and seeing its residents hold a community garage sale and car wash to raise money to keep improving their little community. And that’s just one instance of many that can make any Sharpstown resident feel hopeful.

I’m looking forward to Sharpstown’s process of revitalization–the process, not just the end product.

Study Slams Texas Higher Education

The Chron’s got a report on a study by UPenn which basically slams Texas Higher Education.

The report notes that college enrollment is up, more degrees are being awarded and educational leaders are pushing to boost the national ranking of the state’s colleges and universities.

The study by the University of Pennsylvania‘s Institute for Higher Education Research, however, offers a cautionary note.

“If Texas spreads its finite financial resources among too many priorities, however worthy, it is unlikely to get a handle on the soaring tuition that is threatening to price more and more Texans out of a college education, thus perpetuating racial and economic disparities,” the report says.

The report touches specifically on a few things that I worried about when the whole “Tier 1” election was happening, and the reason I voted against it.

• The state’s emphasis on expanding seven emerging research universities could divert funding from efforts to boost college enrollment and produce more job-ready college graduates, a trade-off that “state leaders have not recognized.”

• The state falls far short of national averages in most measures of college readiness, enrollment, and graduation rates. For example, only 32 percent of Texans 25 or older have earned at least an associate’s degree, putting Texas 39th among states in that measure.

• Long known for low tuition rates and low financial aid rates, Texas has now become a state where tuition is increasing substantially but financial aid has not kept pace. In 2009, students at public universities were paying 72 percent more than they had been six years earlier, forcing many families to borrow more money or forgo college.

• There are “huge inequities” among racial and socioeconomic groups, with blacks and Latinos making up half the state’s population, yet lagging in college attainment and readiness. Among 25-to-34-year-olds, 43 percent of whites have at least an associate degree, compared to 28 percent of blacks and only 15 percent of Latinos.

• State funding for community and technical colleges hasn’t kept pace with rising enrollment at those schools, which enroll more than half of all students seeking a postsecondary education and serve a disproportionate number of poor and minority students.

The fact that many of these “emerging” institutions have less than stellar graduation and retention rates set off an alarm for me back in 2009. Yes, research money is needed; however, my fear has been that a lack of commitment to increase grad and retention rates would put Texas higher education into a tailspin, and the Republicans ensured that with their last budget.

And this line from one of the authors, Jodi Finney, is quite telling:

“Texas is very anxious to become California, to create more research-intensive universities. But California made a huge trade-off. Access and opportunity for research comes at the expenses of funding other areas,” said Finney. “If Texas siphons off resources to expand research universities, students – especially Latinos – will be harder hit.”

And with Rick Perry’s recent promise to cut into funding for the type of programs which are needed, what exactly is going to happen in 2013? The study is spot-on when it says some tough choices need to be made.

Do we want to graduate more students? Or is the priority some artificial status that does little to bring up grad and retention rates?

DC Inbox: Mayor Announces “Love Your Block” Grants

This sounds like something fun to do, while helping our neighborhoods.

MAYOR PARKER ANNOUNCES “LOVE YOUR BLOCK” GRANTS
New Grants Support Volunteer-Led Street Block Revitalization

Who: Houston Mayor Annise Parker
What:
Mayor Parker will announce the launch of Love Your Block, a new City of Houston grant program designed to encourage volunteers to conduct residential street block improvement and beautification projects in their neighborhoods.  The grant program is part of Houston SERVICE, administered under the Mayor’s Volunteer Initiatives Program in the Department of Neighborhoods.  The City’s community partners Keep Houston Beautiful and Trees for Houston will provide tools, supplies and other resources for the funded projects.  A grant review committee will provide guidance in aligning the funded projects with existing City priorities. The program will fund 20 projects in 2012.
When: Wednesday, April 18 – Following 9:00 a.m. Houston City Council Meeting
Where: Houston City Council Chamber, 901 Bagby, 2nd Floor, Houston, TX 77002
Notes: The deadline for grant applications is May 11, 2012.  Grantee organizations will receive a $500 gift card from Home Depot for the purchase of supplies and equipment necessary to implement the projects.  Funded projects must be implemented between June and December, 2012.  To apply for a grant, visit www.HoustonSERVICE.org.

3rd Centavo: Clean Energy and the Environment As Houston Latino Issues

by Dr. Reynaldo Guerra

Maria Cardona, a CNN Contributor, wrote a great article on the environment being a Latino issue nationwide.  She makes a strong case for the environment and clean energy being ‘linked’ for Latinos.  I completely agree, but I’d take it a step further.  While the term ‘linkage’ does imply a connection, it doesn’t necessarily connote dependence, and all evidence points to there being a strong dependence between the three, especially here in Houston.

The nerd in me can’t resist the opportunity for a science analogy here.  Let’s start with a definition:

Symbiotic Relationship: A relationship between entities that is of mutual benefit or dependence. (Note: 100% of scientists don’t agree on this definition, but that’s a separate discussion better had over a frothy beverage.)

I’m not sure how old I was, I was probably still playing with G. I. Joes, but I remember learning about symbiotic relationships in science class.  I still remember the picture of the small fish (a remora, it turns out) swimming, almost with a smile, next to a very mean looking shark.

Even a superficial look at our current situation in this country illustrates the fact that Latinos, the environment, and clean energy all have a symbiotic relationship (I’ll leave it to the reader’s imagination to decide the shark leaving crumbs for remoras in this metaphor).  The three are all dependent on each other in some way or another. Each thrives and is much healthier for the other.  Their survival may even depend on their having a healthy relationship.

Given the fact that Houston is the energy capitol of the world and Latinos are 44% of her population, this tri-symbiotic relationship is especially pronounced here in Houston.  Let’s frame the discussion.

Green Home Construction

There is a large contingent of Latinos here in Houston that are blue-collar workers.  It’s even fair to say that anytime something is built or constructed, Latinos will likely play a major role.  I recently visited a LEED Gold certified elementary school as a part of our mayor’s Green Building Tours Initiative (kudos, Mayor Parker).  Not only was one of the creative designers a Latino from Paraguay, but it’s a safe bet that most of the construction was performed by Latinos as well. Given the population and demographics of the construction industry, solar panels, low-E windows, insulation, or any other green measure installed in Houston will most likely be installed by Latinos.

Building Energy Efficiency: REEP

Unfortunately, the City of Houston’s Residential Energy Efficiency Program (REEP) appears to be on the chopping blocks.  However, since 2010 REEP is responsible for having created, by some estimates, almost 1,000 jobs and for having made thousands of low-income homes energy efficient.

To put REEP’S environmental benefits into perspective, residential and commercial buildings account for 67% of all electricity consumption and 40% of CO2 emissions in the U.S. (DOE).  Either African-Americans or Latinos occupy the vast majority of low-income homes in Houston.  Energy bills are also a much bigger percentage of income for low-income communities.  Making homes energy efficient in the 4th largest city in the country has a huge impact on the environment and on the health and pocketbook of the Latino community.

The REEP program not only created blue-collar jobs for Latinos, it also created managerial and entrepreneurial opportunities.  Four prime contractors were initially awarded the REEP contract.  Two of them were minority owned: Payless Insulation (woman-owned) and PMG Project Management Group (Latino-owned).  The government requirement that prime contractors subcontract out 25% of their work to minority- or women-owned firms has created significant opportunities for Latino entrepreneurs and blue-collar workers.

The Mayor and the City of Houston have made strong commitments to a Green Houston.  They have publically stated a goal of becoming number one in the nation in Energy Star and LEED certified buildings and have committed to making 30 million sq. ft. of city property energy efficient by 2020.  The realization of these goals will undoubtedly lead to more blue- and white-collar jobs for Latinos.

Environmental Justice

The GOP has been in the news lately attacking potential environmental regulations as ‘”job killers.”  Well, not only is the opposite true (see case studies all over Europe and even Austin, for example) but, as Cardona points out, for millions of Americans, especially Latinos, clean air regulations are “life-saving regulations.”  This isn’t surprising, since most occupied areas affected by pollution happen to be inhabited by Latinos or African-Americans.  Again, this is especially true in the Houston area, Pasadena being a prime example.  With respect to creating jobs, retrofitting existing equipment or installing new equipment to meet environmental regulations requires labor, excellent job opportunities for Latinos.  Again, regulations that target pollution and carbon emissions are both health preserving and job creating.

With the recession still in town, it behooves the Latino community to rally around policy, elected officials, and businesses that support the environment and clean energy initiatives.  Our health and ability to put food on the table may depend on it.

Dr. Reynaldo Guerra is a Houston small business owner and Chair of the Greater Houston Civic Coalition.

Criminalizing Charity? Who Else is Targeted?

That’s what I get from this whole thing about regulating charitable meals for the homeless. Or else, why the misdemeanor?

But the rules on the way to council tomorrow (see item 10) have been characterized by opponents as criminalizing charity because of the fines of up to $2,000 for violations of the new rules.

I can understand, and even appreciate, the public spin of the intent to have safe food and cleaner facilities; however, we’re talking about nonprofit organizations attempting to help people.  As the regs go:

The rules would:

  • Limit feeding of the homeless on public property to Tranquillity Park, Peggy’s Point Plaza Park and a park on Chartres Street just north of Minute Maid Park. Written authorization of the property owner would be required for feedings on private property.
  • Require feeding organizations to register with the city and to take a food safety training class.
  • Require that the food be served within four hours of preparation (or removal from temperature control).
  • Mandate that the feeding site be left “in a clean, waste-free, litter-free condition.”
  • Make violations a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $50 to $2,000.

Don’t get me started on “feedings,” but giving HPD (or an inspector) a license to arrest or ticket helping organizations seems a bit, no, it is too much. As far as the other rules go, there couldn’t be just a simple agreement between the City and the organizations? A criminal penalty is required? Let’s not even talk about the cost of enforcement when we have real crimes to address, especially if HPD only “assists” an inspector.

And how far does this law go? Let’s define “demonstrable need,” because there are other groups who provide charitable meals (see how easy it is to not to say “feedings”?) to day laborers, some who are immigrants, beyond downtown. How would they be affected? And would 287(g) and S-COMM come into play if an overzealous cop were to assist any inspectors? Because we know those overzealous ones exist.

I think the ordinance leaves too much open to interpretation. Maybe the Mayor and some council members might say it is not the intent, but what about when they’re gone? The homeless, or anyone else in need, should never fear some sort of raid when all they want is a little sustenance. And neither should those who give from the heart.

Mayor and Council, please reconsider and come up with a better way of addressing this issue.

UPDATE:  The ordinance was delayed for a couple of weeks.

Council members Oliver Pennington and Jack Christie said they would like to hold off on mandatory rules until after a campaign that promotes voluntary compliance with some of the proposed rules, such as clean-up of the sites where food is served.

I would say get rid of the excessive fine and criminal penalty, too.

What A Great Idea: An Independent Crime Lab

Houston Mayor Annise Parker made the proposal today to create an independent crime lab to serve HPD and perhaps other crime-fighting entities. The slide show is an interesting one which gives us a clearer picture.

As outlined by Parker, City Attorney David Feldmanand chief development officer Andy Icken, the seven members of the board could not be removed by City Council except for intentional misconduct. They envision the board would include a representative from the Innocence Project, the legal team nationally renowned for its work in exonerating the wrongfully convicted. Feldman said Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheckcalled him and told him he thought it was an excellent idea.

“I clearly prefer to have our forensics sciences not under the influence of police, prosecution or politics,” Parker said.

Sounds reasonable to me, but not to my Council Member, who seems to have a lock ’em up no matter what attitude about this. Because lives are in the balance in some of the worst crimes, some balance on the independent board is indeed called for, so, I’ll  just chalk it up to typical right-wing electioneering on the part of Mike Sullivan. So much for keeping politics out of this, right?

Anyway, the cost of something like this obviously is on our minds. The current cost of $23 million to run this kind of operation sounds about right, but the start-up costs would definitely be a concern. Ensuring there is no duplication of services offered by the County’s facility is one solution; however, if the County isn’t willing to step up and help create this kind of facility (the county is mandated by law to report to the Commissioner’s Court, apparently) then that’s a problem, too.

There’s a solution somewhere–a practical one, rather than a political one. Unfortunately, when different political ideologies are in charge of things, these clashes will happen. In this case, I prefer the Mayor’s plan.

Update:  Thanks to Kuff for catching this nugget of hope:

County Judge Ed Emmett said that although the city and county are on separate tracks right now, Parker’s proposal ultimately could make it easier for the two governments to come together.

“By having the LGC, it opens up more options for how the city can approach forensic science, including partnering with the Institute of Forensic Sciences,” Emmett said.