Episode 19: #KillTheBill
How activists have steered the conversation around Trumpcare, minimum wage preemption, and lead in Los Angeles. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.
Following the election, it seemed all but certain that the Affordable Care Act would be immediately repealed. And while its fate remains uncertain, constituents have made it more and more difficult for Congress to strip them of their healthcare. Rebecca speaks with Jeff Stein, a Congressional reporter at Vox who’s been covering activism to kill the bill in communities across the country. Next, she speaks with a member of Indivisible’s Phoenix chapter, whose efforts to swing Senator Jeff Flake to the “no” column are informed by her time as a claims analyst at a health insurance company. Then, with July marking eight years since the last time the federal minimum wage was raised, Rachel West of the Center for American Progress explains the trend that has enabled Republican-controlled legislatures to stop wage hikes in their states. And finally, thousands of LA families are facing serious health and safety consequences due to the now-closed Exide battery plant. Hilda Solis — former Secretary of Labor and current member of LA County’s Board of Supervisors — joins with the story of how the community has stepped up— and what it’s like to see the progress she helped create in the Obama Administration get unraveled by his successor. But first, Jeremy Slevin joins with this week’s edition of In Case You Missed It.
This week’s guests:
- Jeff Stein, Vox
- Heather Moffitt, Indivisible
- Rachel West, Center for American Progress
- Hilda Solis, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors
For more on this week’s topics:
- How activists have steered the fate of Trumpcare
- Powerful words from Heather Moffitt, of Indivisible’s Phoenix chapter
- Why you should take the study on Seattle’s minimum wage hike with a grain of salt
- How Supervisor Hilda Solis has handled lead in Los Angeles County
This program originally aired on July 14, 2017.
REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m your host, Rebecca Vallas. Following the election, it seemed all but certain that the Affordable Care Act would be immediately repealed with Republicans controlling the White House and both chambers of congress. And while its fate remains uncertain, constituents have made it more and more difficult for congress to strip them of their health care. I speak with Jeff Stein, a congressional reporter at Vox who’s been covering activism to kill the bill in communities across the country. Next, I speak with a member of Indivisible’s Phoenix chapter whose efforts to swing Senator Jeff Flake to the no column are informed by her time as a claims analyst at a health insurance company. Then with July marking 8 years since the last time the federal minimum wage was raised, I’m joined by Rachel West of the Center for American Progress who explains the growing trend of preemption, which has enabled Republican controlled legislatures to stop wage hikes from moving forward in their states. And finally, thousands of Los Angeles families are facing serious health and safety consequences due to the now closed Exide battery plant. Hilda Solis, former secretary of labor under President Obama and now a member of LA county’s board of supervisors joins with the remarkable story of how the community has stepped up to hold the state accountable to making their communities safe and healthy and what it’s like to see the progress she helped create in the Obama administration get unraveled by his successor.
But first in case you missed it, the Slevinator, the Slevs, he’s back, he’s here, he’s got things to say, Slevs.
JEREMY SLEVIN: Hello.
VALLAS: So, without further adue, what’s going on this week Jeremy? Not too much, huh?
SLEVIN: So there’s actually been some good news out west in the states, but there’s also been obviously a lot of developments here. So it depends, do you want the good news first or the bad news first?
VALLAS: I always want bad news first before I get my good news, but the fact that you came with good news is a positive development!
SLEVIN: Yes, it’s good news that I came with good news.
VALLAS: It’s good news that you came with good news. So we actually started with the good news and now we’re going to the bad news, before we go back to the good news.
SLEVIN: Ok, so I think we’re going to talk a lot about health care this episode. And do some deep dives there, but I —
VALLAS: You are correct.
SLEVIN: But little discussed yesterday, I’m giving away the date but this was on Tuesday, the House of Representatives actually passed a really bad bill that funds Trump’s so called border wall and they, includes funding up to $1.6 billion, even though we thought Mexico was going to pay for it.
VALLAS: And by we you mean Trump.
VALLAS: Just to be clear, I’m not part of that wave.
SLEVIN: It really includes a ton of increased spending on mass deportations, including $100 million to hire more border patrol agents, more border technology aircrafts and sensors, in total like $14 billion in new spending on like, really deporting people and splitting up families in this country.
VALLAS: So just to put this in english, this bill —
SLEVIN: Sorry, that was all in Spanish.
VALLAS: It was, [LAUGHTER], well, might have been helpful if it were, actually.
SLEVIN: It would be more clear.
VALLAS: Who’s going to be impacted, right?
SLEVIN: Yes, that’s true.
VALLAS: It’s a lot of folks who are new Americans who are trying to make it work here. But just to kind of go back for a second and think about what this means. This is an appropriations bill is what it is.
VALLAS: What does that mean that the House of Representatives passed this bill? Does it take effect? It doesn’t yet.
SLEVIN: So, it doesn’t yet because the senate still has to, the house originates appropriations bill but this is still has to go to the president’s desk, you know. It’s got to be passed by both chambers. But what’s really scary about this is that the Trump administration and some members of the House Freedom Caucus, which is the radical right wing caucus there are saying they would force a government shutdown over this. That is, if the senate won’t go along with this, they are willing to shut down the government to have a border wall.
VALLAS: So holding America hostage to building the big beautiful wall. So this was the bad news.
VALLAS: And something to watch.
SLEVIN: I have one more piece of bad news but we can —
SLEVIN: I mean —
VALLAS: Well give it to me. I’m here, I’m prepared.
SLEVIN: So St. Louis, they passed a minimum wage hike recently. It was up to $10 an hour which is not $15 but higher than the $7.25 national threshold and higher than Missouri’s level which is $7.70 an hour.
VALLAS: But Jeremy, this sounds like good news!
SLEVIN: This is good news except what the state of Missouri which recently has sworn in a Republican governor and now has a Republican legislature just essentially blocked any localities from passing minimum wage laws. So people who already got a minimum wage hike, and Cynthia Sanders is mentioned in this story whose job went from $8.30 to $10 an hour, she is going to get a pay cut because her legislators said you cannot pay above $7.70. Another city in Missouri, Kansas City was set to raise their minimum wage to $15 an hour. That is now going to be blocked.
VALLAS: So the basketball was in the net, it had literally gone past the rim, it was in the like mesh-y part of the net, and basically the state reached in, pulled the ball out, threw it out and said no basket, sorry.
SLEVIN: It’s kind of like that Yankees Orioles playoff game from 1995 I think it was. My only sports references are from the ’90s when that guy, if anyone knows Major League Baseball, he reached into, dove over the wall, a ball that was going to be caught by an outfielder and stole it from them. Anyway, that’s the best sports analogy I can come up with.
VALLAS: And the only one I’ve ever heard you make. I’m just so impressed.
SLEVIN: It’s the only one I got.
VALLAS: Well so OK, but very real consequences for folks because you’ve got this overwhelmingly popular policy, raising the minimum wage happening. You’ve got policymakers moving it forward and then it gets blocked is what I’m hearing you say.
SLEVIN: Yes, yes.
VALLAS: So we’ll be talking more about this later in the episode but what was the good news, Jeremy? You promised good news.
SLEVIN: I think it’s largely going unnoticed because of all the terrible stuff that’s happening on the federal level. We’re seeing like a lot of really exciting progressive action out west. So Washington state this week passed one of the most ambitious paid leave laws in the country and it includes 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a new child or a sick family member which goes beyond the Ivanka Trump paid leave plans. And folks can earn up to $1000 a week, depending on their income level, folks, low income people can get up to 90% of their wages reimbursed for this paid leave. So this is some of the best policy we’ve seen in general on paid leave.
VALLAS: And again states continuing to lead.
VALLAS: I’ll take that as good news.
SLEVIN: Yeah, can I get one more from out west?
VALLAS: I want, I need good news. In a week like this, in a year like this, good news is to be savored.
SLEVIN: So another big issue is fair scheduling where because of hours and companies not making it clear how many hours folks are going to work in a given week, people, it’s hard to plan and it’s hard to plan for child care, etc. And there’s been a big progressive push to have more fair scheduling laws so employers have to notify their employees ahead of time what the schedule’s going to be. So Oregon took action and starting in July ’18, large companies will have to give estimated schedules to workers. This will be largely low income wage earners, at least 7 days before the start of the work week. And then even it’ll increase to fourteen days, two weeks before the work week.
VALLAS: Sounds like a small deal but for anybody who takes for granted the fact that they know which days they’re working and which hours they’re working and that they know that on a regular basis, if it’s not like that and you’re picking up shifts or you’re being told day of I want you to come in at 2 and then you come in and they tell you to go home because they actually don’t need you, it’s companies finding efficiencies that have real consequences for people whose lives and incomes and family responsibilities and everything else is on the line. Way to go, Oregon.
VALLAS: Jeremy, you did not fair to impress me this week with stuff that cheered me the friggin frick up, you know?
SLEVIN: That’s why we put the good news in the back half.
VALLAS: That’s why I wanted it that way.Slevs, come back next week and come back with good news.
SLEVIN: I’ll be here.
VALLAS: Don’t go away, more Off-Kilter after the break, I’m Rebecca Vallas.
VALLAS: On Thursday, Senate republicans unveiled their latest version of Trumpcare with Leader McConnell pledging to bring the bill to a vote as soon as next week. Earlier this week I sat down with Jeff Stein, a reporter at Vox to talk about his reporting on the health care activism sweeping the country.
Jeff, thanks for joining the show.
JEFF STEIN: Good to be here.
VALLAS: So I want to start off with actually a question about your beat. We were just talking before we started taping about how you’re a congressional reporter at Vox. Your focus is in theory supposed to be, and I hope I don’t get you fired by bringing this out and talking about how the sausage gets made but your beat is about what’s going on in Congress, which often becomes a discussion of amendments and process and sort of day to day horse race kind of stuff, as opposed to people. But what you’ve been doing for the last several weeks if not months has really been covering human beings and their fight to kill this bill. How did you get into covering protesters and activism over just the halls of congress?
STEIN: I think it started from the insight, that was not mine but that several of the activists and resistance leaders put to me which was that you can look at the legislative process and you can look at the debates over amendments and bills and text and you can zone in on that. But if you really want to understand the structural forces that in turn shape those internal debates you have to look beyond the walls of congress. And you have to see what politicians according to political science and according to just basic common sense are responsive to and those things range the gambit from protest to opinion polling to activism and hopefully we’ll get to talk a little bit more about that. All of those things are sort of the crucial ingredients that shape the surface level outcome in legislation that we see. So I think that’s been sort of a crucial thing that’s often been missed in coverage of the health care debate.
VALLAS: Now it’s important obviously to understand where things stand, where process wise the debate is. Which chamber of congress should be focused on, who are the targets, that’s a lot of the kind of nuts and bolts and key ingredients for successful activism. So I don’t want to ignore where things are and I think it’s helpful for listeners, given how much has been in flux to know what’s, kind of what moment we’re at and what we should be looking at. So without completely ignoring that piece, where are things, Jeff?
STEIN: So I think sort of in a big picture way the important thing for people to understand right now is that McConnell appears to be hedging his bet that he can shore up the bill by making it more conservative and as a result, win over the moderates, sort of in a similar playbook that Paul Ryan did in the house. If you remember back in I believe it was in March, Paul Ryan faced severe defections from the House Freedom Caucus, made the bill more conservative and then somehow was able to leverage that new bill to win over the moderate flanks. And that’s really important to grasp because it suggests that the conservative votes that were expected to be against the bill in particular, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, at least two of those guys are now likely to support it, which means that the pressure is going to be on a handful of Republican moderates, Shelley Capito, Rob Portman, Susan Collins, Dean Heller being sort of the most important ones in the next, I guess that we’re learning that there’s going to be a vote next week or Tuesday, although that keeps on getting pushed back but you know if that really happens, those are going to be the people to watch.
And you know it seemed like the conservatives at least would be the ones that would be least responsive to left wing and activism, left wing pressure because they have conservative objections to the bill. The moderate senators now who are looking like the decisive votes are also the ones who presumably are most interested in seeming like centrists.
VALLAS: Now horse race can be fun and sort of following everyone’s twitter and going, “Oh my god, a tweet from Jeff Flake, what might it mean?” Right, this is a lot of what folks in Washington are doing. But what you have really done through your reporting is even with that kind of congressional reporter beat at a place like Vox, you’ve taken it and you’ve taken it in a direction that is so much more focused on not just the moment to moment where are certain moderates but rather what’s at stake if this bill becomes law but also who are the people who are raising their voices and telling their members of congress what they think about it?
STEIN: I think it was really scarring for a lot of progressives to watch what happened in the house and if you recall, it looked for weeks like Paul Ryan didn’t have anywhere near the number of votes to pass this bill. And you know, every week or so there would be another head count in the Huffington Post or in CNN saying they don’t have the votes. And as that process was happening the resistance got quiet. The resistance fell silent, it got confused. It did not see this as a imminent danger. And it had been the whole time.
VALLAS: A lot of people thought we had won.
VALLAS: Right, he didn’t have the votes in March, it was this dramatic moment, the front of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post was all Paul Ryan looking really sad because he didn’t have the votes and we all went yay, we won.
STEIN: I remember so vividly being right outside the capitol and house Democrats and their allies stood in a circle and literally jumped and that moment is so seared into my mind because it was so premature. And I think that’s sort of the reason that people have sort of refocused their attention on trying to look at more structural factors behind the bill. You can look at a head count, see that the Republicans are short and say they’re not going to do this. If you’re instead looking at oh, the conservative coalition groups are getting behind the bill. If you’re looking at the progressive groups are not mobilized, there aren’t activists in the street, there aren’t people protesting it. If you looked there, if you hadn’t been looking there through March and April, you would’ve seen that Paul Ryan was getting very very close to passing this. If that was your factor point, if that was your mode of analysis you would’ve been much more likely to predict the outcome of the vote.
I think obviously, like we all fell on our faces doing predictions last year, myself included. So I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to whether this bill will pass and I probably shouldn’t have hazarded a guess as to whether the house bill would pass but you know in terms of seeing when McConnell’s going to move a vote, I think those are the things to pay attention to.
VALLAS: So tell me a little bit about what’s it’s been like, not just in DC but really travelling the country, following actions as they happen. Sit ins, sometimes protests lasting more than 24 hours where people are having food brought in. I mean you’ve covered some really amazing stuff and at the heart of it, one of the organizations which we’ve talked a lot about and with in our last episode was ADAPT. Disabled protesters really putting their bodies on the line for their continued independence, which is what’s at stake if Medicaid cuts in this bill become law. What has it been like travelling the country with these kinds of folks?
STEIN: I haven’t been to that many of the protests outside of DC but I sort of been in close contact with many of the activists who are on the ground. The one that I just keep on returning to is this protest that was in Colorado, I don’t know if it came up in your last interview. And I was amazed that it got so little coverage, even in Denver, but these protesters went into the offices of Cory Gardner and stayed for 60 hours.
VALLAS: 60, six zero.
STEIN: Six zero, two full days. And these are people who are, who have respirators, who they weren’t sure if the batteries on their respirators would last. These are attendants who you know, they are not disabled themselves but have become so invested in caring for the disabled and so aware of the dangers of Medicaid cuts that they are willing to spend two days sleeping in a 15 by 13 office to get their point across. It was just wild to just talk to them and they brought in inflatable pool toys to sleep on because they had no other ways to rest in 60 hours in this tiny enclosed space.
VALLAS: So in watching a lot of different and whether it’s in DC or around the country and also remaining in close contact with people who have been doing this. In following so closely what activists and many of them disabled protesters have been doing to kill this bill, what you have, what is your take on what is working versus what’s not working? What’s really breaking through? What’s causing members of congress to change their minds on where they want to be on this bill?
STEIN: I think to really answer this question you have to sort of go back to January. And right after the election, there was a lot of talk that Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell were going to repeal Obamacare in its entirety by January or February. I think a lot of people forget that because now it’s months later and they’re still trying to do it. It’s an encouraging thing for many people on the left to think of. Because I think what happened was you had Republicans have their regularly scheduled town halls and we had a series of images from House and Senate districts across the country where you had Trump voters screaming at the top of their lungs that people were taking away their benefits. And this was even before we knew about the Medicaid cuts but people demanding the Obamacare be preserved. And that was through one channel of feedback that Republicans quite smartly did away with. So instead of saying we’re going to address the fundamental issue being raised at these town halls that you want to take away our healthcare, they said we are going to stop having town halls.
So the left really had to get creative at that point. When that happened, when Republicans said instead of responding to this means of feedback, we are going to simply circumvent or cut it out together the left had to figure out a new way to escalate in response. And it took some time to work that through mentally. But they eventually I think, sort of fell back on civil disobedience, protest, rallies, grassroots activism. Stuff that is actually much harder to put together than a bunch of people at a town hall getting upset. It takes quite coordination, it takes, you know, bravery to put your safety and health on the line. But I think there is no doubt that when you had two weeks ago, several dozen people involved in wheelchairs and on respirators being dragged screaming and yelling from Senate leader Mitch McConnell’s office in DC, that that really got people’s attention and I don’t know how to disaggregate that from the slowdown of the bill but it seems certainly entangled.
VALLAS: There’s been a lot of discussion on the left about what’s the theory of change here, right? Is it that you’re trying to get moderate Republicans to be scared that they’re not going to be reelected next year? I think that’s what a lot of people have been pushing as sort of why they think that this level of resistance and these forms of resistance is important. Do you believe in that theory of change? Do you think that that is actually going to work here? And I’m asking you a little bit to look into your crystal ball but not necessarily to cross the line into making bets you don’t think you can keep.
STEIN: You know I think that’s an interesting question. There is a way in which the political fear that senators have I think does play a central role here. That Dean Heller is up for reelection in a state that Hillary Clinton won in Nevada, he does not want to lose that race. There are signs that this bill is wildly unpopular basically everywhere. But to give the senate Republicans some credit I think that a lot of them are genuinely moved by images of people putting their lives on the line like this. There was a study by a political scientist, I’m not sure the name so I’m not going to try it, but that found that face to face interaction with a member of Congress was the most impactful form of pushing someone in your direction on an issue. That for a lot of these people this is numbers, this is abstractions, this is budget reports and estimates and do we change the Medicaid funding by greater than the rate of inflation or do change it to some other metric? Those questions are very very hard to connect to people’s daily lives sometimes. And so while I think that the political calculus is obviously essential, I wouldn’t discount the role of seeing victims face to face that that might have if not on the Republican senators themselves but at the very least, their staffs who are sort of directly interacting with these people without exaggeration, on a day to day basis.
I was at yet another round of protests at the capitol yesterday and there were maybe 200 protesters who were going into 13 different senate Republican and house offices and just getting arrested, screaming, “no cuts to Medicaid,” yelling on the floor and there were these staffers who really looked like green, sort of idealistic young fresh faced people who looked genuinely shocked and potentially traumatized by what they were seeing. I think for a lot of people who come straight off of college campus and into a hill office, politics feels like a game of abstractions and reasoned debate and that’s obviously not true. But sometimes it takes forcefully showing up for that switch to turn on in people’s heads.
VALLAS: Don’t go away, more Off-Kilter after the break, I’m Rebecca Vallas.
VALLAS: You’re listening to Off-Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. The next iteration of Trumpcare dropped in the Senate this week and it’s just about as destructive as the previous version. One of the senators whose vote will decide the future of health care in this country is Arizona’s Jeff Flake. And activists in the state have not let him off the hook. One of those activisms is Heather Moffitt, she’s a former claims analyst for a health insurance company and she also has a personal stake in the fight against Trumpcare as well. She’s been involved with Indivisible’s Phoenix chapter. Heather, thank you so much for joining Off-Kilter.
HEATHER MOFFITT: Thank you for having me.
VALLAS: So you have been new to activism. This is not something that you’ve done in the past but would you tell me a little bit about how you got to a place where you’re deeply involved in the fight to kill this bill?
MOFFITT: Well, I’m probably like most people after the election, I was devastated and depressed and trying to figure out what I should be doing to help. I felt guilty for not doing more sooner. I kind of stumbled upon Indivisible when it was first starting and I joined the local chapter. I decided that I needed to do something because, not just because of my personal experience or what I used to do but because I’m a mother. My youngest son is autistic, fortunately at this point he is covered under his father’s insurance but he has been covered under Medicaid prior. We’re lucky in Arizona that it’s been expanded, I have two other sons. My oldest son actually just turned 18, so if we didn’t have the Medicaid expansion he would be uninsured because I don’t have health insurance right now. I did previously when I worked for a health insurance company but I’ve been working as a production designer for the past couple years and it’s contract work so they don’t offer insurance. So I’m currently uninsured and fortunately the statement in exception to cover my children if Medicaid was to lose its funding, they would be uninsured because I don’t have anyway to provide it for them and here in Arizona there was only one insurance company that’s offered through the exchange and it’s Blue Cross. And the last time I checked because I did want to enroll, the premium was almost $1,000 a month and that was just for me.
VALLAS: So you’ve been deeply involved in Indivisible’s work in Arizona and a lot of what you’ve been doing has been really, it’s not just been calling, it’s not just been engaging in social media activism, it’s also been on the ground trying to tell Jeff Flake how you feel. Tell me a little bit about what you’ve been up to and whether you’ve been able to communicate that message?
MOFFITT: Well I’ve been going to his office starting in January I was going to his office every Friday and I first started sending emails and making phone calls and I, to this day, have never received a response from him so I decided to start bringing my letters in person. And I still have not received a response to any of the letters that I’ve ever brought to his office. He won’t respond to requests for a meeting. So it’s pretty frustrating, so the only way we’ve been able to get messages out to him is through social media so we decided to just go into his office and we read our letters and the things that we want to say to him that we’re not receiving responses to and we put them out on social media, hopefully he’s picking them up that way.
VALLAS: You mentioned that you also, you used to work for a health insurance company and part of what you used to do was actually to look at claims, people who were seeking to use the health insurance that they either were paying for or that they had provided by employers or other sources. What was it like to play that part within a health insurance company and what has that told you and taught you about what you’re doing now, trying to stop the repeal of the Affordable Care Act?
MOFFITT: It was horrible. Part of me, I feel guilty for even doing it. Just like everybody else, we have to do a job and we may not necessarily like what we’re doing but it does give me deep insight into what they’re doing and I hear about Senator Flake wanting to work with Cruz on this amendment to basically allow insurance companies to go back to selling these junk plans because that specifically is what I worked with. I worked with the limited benefits division so I worked with plans that were prior to the passage of ACA, the Affordable Care Act. That basically allowed insurance companies to sell policies that covered little to nothing, majority of the policies that I worked with that I was processing for, they had yearly maximums of a thousand, some as little as $500. And on top of that, they didn’t pay for hardly anything. Some people had these plans, and prior to being a claims analyst I worked in customer service too, so I not only processed these people’s policies, but I also had to speak to them.
So I have people that you know, they have chronic conditions or they’re going into the hospitals and they’re getting hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills and they’re completely unaware, they think they have real insurance and then something catastrophic happens and they’re getting a hundred thousand dollar bill from the hospital and then they’re calling wondering what’s going on and we have to tell them that their plan only covers $500 a year. And then they’re done. And they can’t cancel the plan because it’s coming out of their paycheck, through their employer, so they have to keep paying their premiums every month out of their paychecks for a plan that’s not going to pay anything more that year. That’s how the plans I worked with were administered. They were yearly, they weren’t lifetime maximums but I understand how those work as well. They didn’t cover anything and prior to the ACA they didn’t cover preexisting conditions at all, didn’t cover women’s health services. I mean some of them didn’t even have coverage for prescriptions. These plans were tailor made for the employers so they could pick and choose what they wanted to cover and what they didn’t want to cover and that’s exactly what they’re trying to do now, is to bring it back that way.
VALLAS: Heather, thank you so much for what you’re doing in Phoenix and throughout the state of Arizona, thank you for continuing to try to get that message to your senator Jeff Flake about why returning to the world you just described will have catastrophic consequences for millions of Americans. And thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me for the show.
MOFFITT: Thank you.
VALLAS: Heather Moffitt is a former claims analyst for a health insurance company and she also, as she described has a very personal stake in the fight against Trumpcare. She’s been involved with Indivisible’s Phoenix chapter. Heather, thanks so much for joining Off-Kilter.
VALLAS: You’re listening to Off-Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. This month marks 8 years since the last time Congress raised the federal minimum wage. Dozens of states and localities have taken matters into their own hands, raising their state and local minimum wages to $10, $12 and even $15 an hour. But in a recent trend, a growing number have seen their efforts stymied by Republican state legislatures who have used a tool called preemption to stop wages from rising. Here to discuss preemption, what it means and what the future of it looks like is Rachel West, she’s the associate director of the Poverty to Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress and one of my favorite humans. Rachel, lovely to have you on the show finally.
RACHEL WEST: Pumped to be with you, thank you for having me on, Rebecca.
VALLAS: I wish it were a better news topic we were talking about but it’s 2017 so how could we possibly be talking about good news.
WEST: Oh preemption, it gets bad this year.
VALLAS: Well so preemption, it’s a technical term, it sounds a little bit like what it means but help us understand, what is preemption? How does it work? And what’s been going on with respect to the minimum wage?
WEST: Sure so preemption occurs when a higher level of government passes a law to prevent governments at a lower level from taking specific action. So this could be like the federal government preventing states from taking action, or states preventing local areas. So in rare occasions I would say preemption can be appropriate if there are legitimate concerns about health or safety or civil rights. But lately what we’ve seen in the last few years is a wave of hundreds of preemptions laws, many of which are written and sponsored directly by ultra conservative organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council.
VALLAS: Better known as ALEC.
WEST: ALEC. That prohibit local residents from taking just very basic steps to do things like raise wages for low paid working families or protect their residents’ safety. So some examples, 25 states now have minimum wage preemption laws. Another 19 have paid leave preemption and a growing number, 43 and growing prevent local areas from introducing stricter gun legislation, gun control legislation than the state has. So this, I would say this move to sort of squash local laws and residents desires is really ironic and hypocritical coming the Republican party who has always touted local control. But nonetheless, there are a growing number of states with in particular wage preemptions, and that includes examples like Iowa and Missouri most recently, Missouri for example actually reversed a law that was already in place allowing workers in St. Louis to get a raise from $7.70 to $10 in August. Their wages will actually go back down because of a new preemption law.
VALLAS: So actually jumping, the state legislature jumped in and said you know what, we’re actually going to, we’re not even going to stop this from happening moving forward, we’re going to undo it moving backwards. Taking money out of the pockets of people who actually had already earned it effectively.
WEST: That’s right. And the same thing happened in Iowa. So that sets a really bad precident and one that other red state legislatures will likely follow going forward.
VALLAS: So this isn’t a brand new trend. This is actually something that we had seen on the books before. States with preemption laws pertaining to minimum wages but it is something that’s picking up. Now meanwhile, we’re actually in July celebrating, maybe not celebrating, but commemorating the last time that we saw the federal minimum wage increased. And there actually is a push happening right now to try to wage the federal minimum wage. Democrats have not given up but we’re not seeing Republicans agree to go along with it. Is this sort of the backdoor way that Republicans have realized not just stopping federal legislation from happening but actually that they need to take their game to behind the scenes in the states?
WEST: That’s exactly right. It’s a new and growing tactic and I think Iowa and Missouri’s experiences in particular underscore the real need for federal legislation going forward. As you point out, it’s been 8 years now since the minimum wage was last increased to $7.25 per hour and every year that it’s not increased low wage workers’ purchasing power erodes because of inflation. So with the Republican controlled White House and Congress there’s very little hope that this new minimum wage bill will pass in the short term. And for that reason, 29 states and dozens of localities have already sort of taken matters into their own hands and raised their own minimum wages but there are 21 states where workers are still stuck at $7.25 per hour, and a growing number of states with preemption so that local areas are no longer able to raise their minimum wages which underscore that for those areas, federal action is really the only solution. So even though it’s not likely to pass I would say there’s a bright spot with this new bill and that is that it —
VALLAS: And this is a new bill in congress, it’s actually the first federal bill we’ve seen the raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. So this fight for $15 cry that’s really been all over the country really generating tremendous amounts of interest, momentum and actually change in states and in cities across the country, fight for $15 has come to Washington in the form of the first ever federal bill to raise the minimum wage, the federal minimum wage to $15. That’s what you’re talking about.
WEST: That’s exactly right. It will be $15 by 2024, so there will be gradual phase-in. So it is a bold proposal but it has a majority, for the first time, of Democrats in both the house and the senate behind this bill, calling for the, underscoring the need for really bold action. And so it’s got an unprecedented level of support that just a few years ago would not have been imaginable for a wage level like $15.
VALLAS: So what else is in that bill? I know that it obviously raises the hourly wage, but there’s a lot else that it does that either is new or that we haven’t seen from Democrats in congress before if we’ve maybe seen it in state houses or in local actions. What else is in the bill?
WEST: Exactly, so two other things that I would flag that I think are real milestones for the progressive movement on minimum wage, both having to do with sub minimum wages. So workers who can be paid less than $7.25 per hour. The first is tipped workers, so workers at restaurants and so on, who receive more than $30 in tips per month. Their wages have been stuck at $2.13 for a quarter of a century now. This new federal minimum wage bill with phase out that tipped minimum wage for tipped workers and bring it up to the overall minimum. The second, which we haven’t seen at all in a federal bill is workers with disabilities also have a subminimum wage that allowed them to be paid as little as pennies on the hour and leads to a lot of exploitation and abuse and poverty among workers with disabilities. And for the first time this federal bill would phase that out as well and workers with disabilities would earn the one fair wage.
VALLAS: So a lot of folks helps who maybe previously have been left out of efforts to raise overall wages. But in the last minute I have with you, there’s this ongoing sort of conservative chestnut. The argument opposing raising the minimum wage is that it’s actually going to be bad for people. It’s going to kill jobs, it’s actually going to hurt the folks that we’re trying to help and in fact a recent study coming out of Seattle looking at an increase in the minimum wage there purports to add fuel to that fire. Should we give credence to this new study and should we give credence to this conservative argument and say maybe it’s time to stop trying to raise the minimum wage because it’s actually not going to do what we want?
WEST: Right, so I would say this is like Christmas in July for conservatives. This new study is so far outside the realm of the significant previous literature that we have on what minimum wages, that policy does for low income workers. The study claims to find that the typical worker will actually lose $125 per month due to Seattle’s’ minimum wage increase.
VALLAS: Sounds pretty terrible.
WEST: Yeah, outside the pale of previous research. There are in additional to being questionable on that ground and the fact that Seattle’s’ economy is booming, its unemployment rate is lower than the national average by 1.5%, there are serious methodological concerns with this particular study. Just a couple to note; it omits more than 40% of Washington state’s low wage workforce including workers at chains like McDonalds and Starbucks where, who are most likely to be affected by the minimum wage change. It also compares Seattle statistically to other areas in Washington state, none of which are big cities like Seattle. They’re mostly rural and small towns. Very different labor markets. A different study coming out around the same time compared Seattle to areas more like Seattle that didn’t raise their minimum wage and came to very different conclusions. So I think folks should take this with a great degree of skepticism and look further into the evidence on what minimum wage increases do.
VALLAS: And shameless plug for you because you actually wrote about this study. For folks who want to learn more about why this Seattle minimum wage study that is Christmas in July for conservatives as you put it, Rachel, is flawed and is not something to take too seriously or at least, it’s something to approach with skepticism. You can go to AmericanProgress.org and you can find a piece the title of which is, do you remember Rachel?
WEST: “5 flaws with a new study on Seattle’s minimum wage” or something approximately, maybe not.
VALLAS: And it’s part of the syllabus too so it will be easy to find. Rachel West is the associate director of the poverty to prosperity program at the Center for American Progress and an expert on preemption it seems. Rachel, thank you so much for joining Off-Kilter.
WEST: Thanks so much for having me.
VALLAS: You’re listening to Off-Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. Thousands of families in Los Angeles, California, disproportionately comprised of low income families and communities of color, are in fear for their safety and health after a toxic Excide battery plant in the area was shut down. The state’s cleanup efforts have been insufficient, advocates and residents say, spurring community leaders to partner with the LA county board of supervisors to take matters into their own hands. Hilda Solis, former secretary of labor under President Obama and now a member of LA county’s board of supervisors has been leading the charge in LA to get families soil tested and protect resident at risk of lead exposure. Supervisor Solis, thank you so much for joining Off-Kilter.
HILDA SOLIS: Thank you, Rebecca, it’s my pleasure to be with you today.
VALLAS: So Flint was really in many ways the tip of the iceberg. I think people are becoming more aware of that, more familiar with that. The more that there are horrible tragic situations in cities across the country that bring struggling families, disproportionately struggling families and also I should say disproportionately people of color into proximity of toxic substances like lead. This is something that folks in LA have been living for some time now. Not just in public housing complexes like got reported some number of months back and as we discussed on this show, but actually now there is a new situation. It relates to the former Excide Technologies plant and a bunch of folks living near that plant who now are facing real health hazards. Tell us a little bit about what happened with Excide.
SOLIS: Right, well thank you for allowing me to speak about this issue. It is in fact, in my opinion, our Flint, Michigan. Because this is a battery recycling plant that has been in existence for decades. However for the last more than 30 years it was running on an illegal permit. That is to say that they did not abide by the regulations set forth by the state and other regulatory bodies. So what happens with that is that while they’re conducting their business illegally, they’re spewing out about 7 million pounds of lead over the course of these, that we know of, at least 3 decades, impacting hundreds of thousands of households in the southeast Los Angeles and East LA area. Most people were not aware of this problem and it’s something that as soon as I got on the board almost three years ago, it was definitely on my radar. People were very concerned in part because of the health impact, and if you know anything about lead, especially its impact on children. It can create learning disabilities, cancers, genetic deformities, tumors, and have a lasting impact for a lifetime.
And that also short of saying will also impact our county health ability in terms of helping to maintain a healthy environment when you got those challenges impacting an area that spans beyond a 1.7 mile radius that the state determines to be the area impacted. We know it’s larger than that. And we believe that it’s about 10,000 households and we’re very concerned. So as a part of our goal is to try to provide information for the cleanup, to do a responsible cleanup that actually respects the culture and the competencies necessary to get to a highly immigrant, low skilled community that is by and large I would say maybe 80% Latino. Many immigrants, many even undocumented. So it is a travesty what has been allowed to happen and the county feels responsible because we are the last form of health care safety net. If you put it in those words, we are the mandated agency that is supposed to provide health care delivery to people, even if you’re indigent.
And so that is quite a mountain to climb for us as well when we’re not receiving sufficient funding to help cover all of this and the state has been overseeing the clean up now for about two years. There was a lawsuit that came forward, Department of Justice got involved. The state Department of Toxic Substance Control got involved. They closed down the plant, they agreed to some remediation and put some millions, maybe 9 million to start some clean up. That was insufficient. So there was pressure that was applied to the California legislature and the governor to provide more funding. About a year ago after hearing from the community and having the community actually go up on a bus that we helped to provide through the county. We had people from East LA knocking on doors in the corridors of the capitol explaining what the impact of Exide has had, the lead poisoning on these families. It was very compelling and as a result about two weeks later the governor eventually put in about $176 million dollars, which is a good amount but it’s not even nearly enough of what we’re projecting that needs to be provided to help maintain that there is good mitigation and that families are given relief. And what do I mean by relief? That means clean up the exterior homes, clean in the interior parts of the homes. Make sure also that the community has all the benefits of understanding what the impact can or would be on them given this level of lead and arsenic spewed for decades.
VALLAS: And Supervisor Solis, if I could jump in there, you’ve started to talk a little bit about the cleanup efforts. But this is big part of where you and your colleagues on the board of supervisors started to get involved was there was this battery recycling plant as you describe. It was having toxic and hazardous potentially consequences for folks living nearby. That plant is now closed and there’s been a large scale state led clean up of lead contaminated homes underway for some time now. But it was your suspicion and your colleagues’ suspicion that that cleanup was insufficient. What led you to believe that what the state was doing was not enough and that you guys needed to get involved?
SOLIS: Well in part the method that they used in terms of going about collecting data, they weren’t in my opinion sufficiently testing key neighborhoods and areas. And that’s what we kind of gleaned even further more. Just a month ago, when we actually had about 1,500 county employees and volunteers go door to door on a Saturday between 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Go knocking on about 16,000 doors. Talking to people, asking them what they knew about Excide, asking them if their homes got tested, if they had received information back from the state about what the test results were. And if they knew anything about lead poisoning and cancer, any of that type of information. The information we got back just again, tells me the state was not doing a good job. About I would say 65% of the people that we did see say yes, someone came and maybe tested my soil but they didn’t adequately tell me what that meant or if I had to do further cleanup. They did not also explain to them what the impacts are of lead. And what other health resources could be made available to them if, for example, they have asthma, they had high blood, hypertension. Things like that that are attributed to lead poisoning and exposure over time.
So we know that there’s still a whole criterion of things that have to happen for our community and that’s why the county is engaged. That’s why we decided to go out and actually survey our community. And while it may not be scientific, it does give us a good point to be able to show to the state, look here are some gaps. We believe you need to follow through and make sure that residents are fully aware of what the environmental conditions are and make sure that people are given access to affordable healthcare and specialized services if they need it. And also to provide more information and awareness to the community because about 25% of the houses that we visited that one Saturday, people didn’t even know what Excide was. So that tells me that that also is on our radar here. Again, we also as a result of all this, want to make sure that the soil tests information get back to the right homes, to the people there, the residents, that it’s interpreted correctly and that there is mitigation. And it isn’t just for the cleanup on the exterior, soil removal, but it’s also clean up on the inside, the interior of the homes. And that is something that the state really has not hammered down on. So we are very skeptical of their plan.
VALLAS: And Supervisor Solis, some pretty striking findings that you’re describing from what is an unscientific as you note, but a very thorough and very kind of upcoming and personal survey. Door to door of more than 4,000 households across many, many different neighborhoods and areas of LA county. One of the findings that to me was perhaps most striking was that as of June 30th more than half, 55% of the surveyed households said that they hadn’t even received results from the soil testing that had been completed in their yards. Two-thirds said that no one in their home had had their blood tested for lead. So really important findings from this work that you’ve done. What has been the state’s response? Has the set of results from this survey, scientific or no, that you have generated with your colleagues on the Board of Supervisors, has this caused the state to respond or to alter its response in its cleanup in any way?
SOLIS: Well what we know is that they just issued their environmental review report, the ERR. And basically what they’re saying is that they will go to first 2,500 homes that they believe need to be cleaned up immediately but they don’t tell you what that criteria is. So if you understand some of the formula that they use in determining clean up, we know that over 80 parts per million is technically considered unsafe. And we also know that at 400 parts per million, it’s dangerous and over 1,000 parts per million is considered hazardous. We know that there are more homes, we believe over, perhaps even the 2,000 number that are at the 1,000 parts per million. That’s hazardous waste. That should be cleaned up immediately. And that’s not what we’re hearing from the state.
VALLAS: And yet we’re in a moment where we’re also watching a massive assault on resources for clean air, clean water, environmental protection at the federal level. Now in this new political landscape that we’re living in. So I would also love to just hear from you as the former Secretary of Labor in a very different Washington and in a very different United States of America although it wasn’t that long ago. I would love to hear your perspective having lived through the first chunk of 2017 that we’re all still living. What has been like to watch this new administration as it moves forward with its priorities and many of which are actually to roll back success and initiatives that you championed when you were part of the Obama administration?
SOLIS: Well it’s ironic that this president says he wants to build upon American products and creating jobs when in fact he’s taking away several million if not billions of dollars in workforce training programs that will help the middle class, that will help those people in construction, manufacturing jobs, be able to move up and hopefully make good salaries and be competitive and aligned with what industries want. If you take that money away, believe me, you will devastate many, many of the accomplishment of reforms that we have been moving towards. Jobs that could be created in health care, jobs that could be created in the environment, the climate, all of that will go away. The private sector won’t be as responsive. Many times you have to provide them with some carrot to say look, we’ll meet you halfway, we’ll help provide training and we’ll help to offset that cost. We’ll even give you tax credits to do that. All that gets removed from the table. That will have an impact on future people that work in the labor force, particularly young people and as you know it’s hard right now because those are the, that’s the population right now that’s stagnant and from what I can tell is there’s still a lot of young people between the ages of 16 and 25 that still are stuck without having adequate access to education, training and good jobs. And that is going to hinder us in terms of where we move in the next decade.
I’m also equally concerned on the assault of collective bargaining and the right to work states. The prerogatives of some of these business people who believe that people shouldn’t have the right to organize. For me, for many of the people that I represent, being represented by a union means having civil rights, having a fair day at the table with your employee. Being able to bargain collectively to make sure that work that you do is worth the pay that receive and can give you some semblance of security, maybe retirement, maybe a pension and maybe even health care on top of that. So yes, it is very crucial that the public understands that this president wants to erode many of those protections that we have all come to know about for many many decades if not centuries. And I really think that there is a big assault also on investments in green renewable energy. That was one of our big platforms as the president really pushed out. We created, I think at the time that I was there, anywhere from 3 to 5 million jobs in the green economy. Whether it was wind, solar, all kinds of different types of jobs that were created. If you pull the plug on that, well, guess what happens. I think there’s going to be other factors that will also impact our economy but growth and potential for communities to be attractive, to bring other industries in and provide support for groups that want to incubate and begin their own process of building out renewable energy. All that goes away, gets taken off the table.
VALLAS: Hilda Solis is former Secretary of Labor under President Obama, she is now a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, representing the 1st district of LA county. And really one of the best examples in the country of people working at the local level to continue to achieve progressive priorities. Supervisor Solis, thank you so much for joining Off-Kilter.
SOLIS: Thank you for having me.
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s episode of Off-Kilter, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m your host, Rebecca Vallas. The show is produced each week by Eliza Schultz. Find us on Facebook and Twitter @OffKilterShow. And you can find us on the airwaves on the Progressive Voices Network and the We Act Radio network, or anytime as a podcast on iTunes. See you next week.