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Fast food pay raise sparks push

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 08/28/2015 - 1:07am


If fast-food workers are going to make $15 per hour, county employees should, too.

For Ulster County Legislature Chairman John Perele, that's as good a rationale as any to explain why he wants to set the minimum pay for county employees at $15 an hour. Such a proposal appears to be a novel idea among New York's county governments in the wake of a state wage board's July recommendation to raise the pay for fry cooks, cashiers and other staff at chain fast-food joints.

"I think it's time to send a message out that people need to be compensated fairly," Perele said by phone earlier this week. "Quite honestly not just the food service folks, but the people that work in infirmaries cleaning bed pans and all the other folks."

Raising the wage for county employees isn't quite the minimum wage proposal it might sound like. While oftentimes increases of the minimum wage are considered for all employees or certain industries — that's to say government considers raising the pay of those in the public and private sectors — Perele's proposal essentially amounts to a company deciding how much its employees should be paid. Thus, home-rule legislation does not need to be passed by the state Legislature to approve a higher wage.

That said, $15 an hour is the so-called living wage that progressive activists have called for all workers to make and is what ultimately fast-food employees will be paid should the state labor commissioner accept the board's recommendation. The commissioner is expected to accept the recommendation.

Perele said the idea was spurred by testimony that Ulster County Executive Mike Hein gave before the board during its Albany hearing earlier this year. He said he has followed the $15 wage fight as well.

Should Ulster raise its base pay it would affect an extremely limited number of employees — estimated to be between six and 10 employees, Perele said, adding that more research is ongoing.

At least one dissenting legislator told the Kingston Daily Freeman he opposes the proposal on general principle.

Ulster would appear to be the first, if not the only, county to consider such a proposal.

Suffolk and Westchester counties have laws on the books mandating that certain outside contractors pay their employees a living wage, though those wages are less than $15 per hour. Suffolk's is fluid based on the Consumer Price Index. Westchester's was set at $11.50 per hour plus health insurance or $13 per hour without health insurance as of Jan. 1, 2006.

It would not appear minimum-wage legislation has reached the desks of county-level lawmakers in the immediate Capital Region. Spokesmen for Schenectady and Rensselaer counties said no legislation has been proposed, and Saratoga County Board of Supervisors Chairman Matthew Veitch said in an email that the county hasn't considered a raise for its employees. A representative for the Albany County Legislature's majority conference did not respond to an email last week.

Veitch said most employees already make above the minimum. Four employees who are part of a Workplace Investment Act program and 81 summer youth employees make the minimum, Veitch said.

"We do evaluate the need for a higher wage as they come up on an as-needed basis," he said. "For example, we just raised the wage to $12 per hour for part-time Board of Elections workers from minimum wage since we were not getting enough interest, and the BOE needs an increase in personnel for the upcoming election season."

Schenectady County Legislature Clerk Geoffrey Hall said about 3 to 3.5 percent of county employees — excluding student workers and summer youth employees — make less than $15 per hour.

Down in Ulster, the legislature's Ways and Means Committee has not ruled on the proposal yet. The county is preparing its budget, making it an opportune time to calculate in a wage increase, Perele said.

"If you want to save the world, you've got to start with your own family to make sure they're secure," he said. • 518-454-5449 • @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

Secular education at Jewish yeshivas probed

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 08/27/2015 - 9:07am


There was no science, no geography and no math past multiplication at the ultra-Orthodox Jewish school Chaim Weber attended. And the only reference he ever heard of the American Revolution was when a seventh-grade teacher introduced it as "story time."

Naftuli Moster said he never learned the words "cell" or "molecule" at the ultra-Orthodox schools he attended, where secular subjects were considered "unimportant or downright going against Judaism."

Now young adults, the two yeshiva graduates echo complaints critics have made for years about the rudimentary level of secular education at private schools serving New York's Hasidic communities. Now, for the first time, the city Department of Education is investigating more than three dozen of the schools to make sure their instruction is up to the most basic standards.

But even the advocates who called for the investigation question whether the city will be able to pierce the close-knit, insular Orthodox community to force meaningful change.

"These schools have been operating for a very long time," said Weber, one of 52 former students, parents or former teachers who signed a letter requesting the investigation into 39 yeshivas. "They have kind of perfected their method for pulling the wool over the eyes of authorities."

The investigation itself is shrouded in secrecy. The names of the yeshivas targeted have not been released because of fears of retaliation. And aside from Weber and Moster, who agreed to speak out, the names of those who called for the probe have also not been publicly released.

"I'm worried for my kids. They could be kicked out if I named the school," said Weber, who said his 10-year-old son has learned addition but not subtraction.

What is known is that 38 of the 39 yeshivas are in Brooklyn, the center of the city's Hasidic community.

State law mandates that the instruction in private schools must be at least substantially equivalent to what can be found in the area's public schools.

Categories: State/Local

NY stages topless parade with 60 cities worldwide

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 08/27/2015 - 1:07am

NEW YORK — Broadway put on a very different kind of Sunday matinee: bare-chested women and men parading down the Great White Way.

The GoTopless Pride Parade took to the streets of midtown Manhattan to counter critics complaining about topless tip-seekers in Times Square.

Appearing bare-breasted is legal in New York. But Mayor Bill de Blasio and police Commissioner Bill Bratton say the body-painted women in the square who take photos with tourists are a nuisance.

Sunday's parade was among dozens of such events staged in about 60 cities on the worldwide GoTopless Day.

GoTopless spokeswoman Rachel Jessee says the goal is for gender equality when it comes to baring one's chest.

— Associated Press

Categories: State/Local

Inmates frozen to a fence

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 08/27/2015 - 1:07am

It was between 5 and 10 degrees in the prison yard at Bare Hill Correctional Facility, north of Malone in Franklin County, when staffers heard that one inmate had slashed another in the face. Corrections officers moved quickly to investigate.

They stopped a group of inmates walking near the scene of the attack, which took place on Feb. 7, 2013. They ordered the men to remove their hats and gloves and place their hands on a chainlink fence to be searched for weapons. None were found.

According to internal prison documents and lawsuits, the officers then told the inmates — who had been on their way back from dinner — that they would stay in that position until someone offered information on the assault.

Accounts differ on how long the men remained at the fence. Inmates claimed the incident went on for 30 to 45 minutes, while guards and an internal investigator said it lasted about 15 minutes.

By the time it was over, at least 10 of the men had contracted frostbite, lawsuits allege. Inmates said they had to peel their hands away from the cold metal. Internal records indicate the men suffered swelling, blistering and pain that in some cases persisted for weeks. At least one lost all his fingernails. In court documents, some said they had permanent nerve damage and chronic discomfort. One inmate, Laqwan Thompson, said his right hand turned "black and it was kind of stuck bent." Another went to a hospital emergency room a week later for "circulation concerns," according to a prison memo.

The men filed grievances with the prison, but after an internal investigation all were dismissed. Instead, the injuries were ascribed to "Failure to properly dress for the weather."

The case, which has not been previously reported, offers a glimpse into the backlash inmates say they face behind prison walls even when they are not found to be involved in wrongdoing.

After the recent escape of two prisoners from New York's Clinton Correctional Facility in Clinton County, inmates reported they were beaten and tortured by corrections officers who pressed them for information about the breakout. In a separate instance, inmates who witnessed the April death of a prisoner at the hands of officers at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Dutchess County were reportedly put into solitary confinement and threatened after speaking with lawyers, reporters and the dead inmate's family. State corrections officials have said they will investigate and discipline anyone found to be involved in misconduct or abuse.

"I have never witnessed a significant disturbance at a prison that was not followed by allegations of collective punishment and abuse," said Karen Murtagh, executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services of New York, a group that provides legal representation for inmates in the state's prisons.

The details of the Bare Hill search are revealed in lawsuits that were filed in state and federal court after several of the men contacted New York attorney Elmer R. Keach. Keach said one inmate handed him what the man claimed was an envelope full of his skin, which he had been saving as it peeled from his fingers to maintain as evidence. One man who didn't file a grievance has also sued.

The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which oversees Bare Hill, declined to comment on pending litigation.

There is a history of tension between inmates and staff at Bare Hill. In 2008, the Correctional Association of New York, a state-sanctioned prison watchdog agency, visited the Franklin County facility. The group eventually published a report saying inmates there reported higher rates of physical confrontations and verbal harassment compared with other medium-security facilities in the state.

"We were very concerned that people were being treated very harshly," said Jack Beck, director of the association's Prison Visiting project, which documents prison conditions across the state. "Bare Hill was a problematic place."

At Bare Hill, which sits about 10 miles from the Canadian border, prisoners aren't provided with gloves but could buy them for 40 cents at the time of the 2013 incident. Inmates are given a winter coat, a sweatshirt and six pairs of socks, and receive additional gear, including gloves, for special work assignments, the corrections department said.

The onset of frostbite can be hastened by certain conditions, said Dr. John Janikas, the director of emergency medicine for Albany Memorial Hospital and Samaritan Hospital. "Touching metal would essentially act like wind chill, because it literally whisks away heat from your body," he said.

Nine of the men allege they had to remove their hats and gloves for the entire incident, and some say they were threatened with violence if they did not comply. Officers said in depositions that the protective wear had to be removed only during the brief pat-down, and no one was threatened.

Lt. Terrence White, a prison staff member who was assigned to investigate the grievances, reviewed commissary records and concluded that the 10 men all had neglected to buy or wear gloves that night, making the injury their fault.

"I've been here four days," one inmate, Rashid Evans, told Lt. White during the investigation, internal memos show. "I had no money for gloves when I came in."

Another, Jamel Weaver, said he had just been transferred from another prison, and his commissary account hadn't yet caught up with him. Other inmates said they had gloves, even though there was no record of their having bought them, or had borrowed them or claimed they were stolen by corrections officers. Several said they had never before needed gloves.

While the officers did not dispute that the inmates got frostbite, several said in depositions that no one complained or asked to move his hands during the incident. They defended the decisions as necessary to maintain security.

"I thought this situation over many times," the ranking officer at the scene, Sgt. Craig Demmons, said in a deposition. "This was ... the best way in the situation to be able to maintain a vigilant observation of the whole group of inmates as this was being conducted."

A spokesperson for the state Attorney General's office, which is representing the officers, declined comment. Attempts to reach White and Demmons through their union and at their homes were unsuccessful.

Officers said in depositions they had never received training on conducting pat-downs in the cold. Demmons said an employee with the corrections department's Inspector General's office, which investigates prison incidents, contacted him, but other officers involved said they were not contacted by investigators.

The Marshall Project is a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for its newsletter at, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.

Categories: State/Local
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