Expecting a Baby? Know Your Workplace Rights

Nina MartinezThe election season has generated a good deal of conversation around women’s rights at work, from the gender pay gap, to the dearth of women in leadership positions, to incidents of sexual harassment. One particular workplace abuse, however, has not gotten much play: discrimination against pregnant employees. This is unfortunate given the fact that thousands of pregnancy-related discrimination claims are filed each year with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

When faced with discriminatory treatment in the workplace, pregnant employees in New York City should be aware that they have a range of protections available to them under city, state, and federal law. Although efforts to obtain these protections represent a hard-fought battle for women in the workplace, they are progressively expanding through the enactment of more targeted reforms.

The federal protection against discrimination on the basis of pregnancy is rooted in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. Curiously, when Title VII was first enacted it did not specifically include pregnancy as a protected trait. In fact, as late as 1976 the Supreme Court ruled  that an employer who treated pregnant workers differently for the purposes of participation in a disability plan was not in violation of federal law.

In response, Congress enacted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA), amending Title VII to include pregnant workers as a protected class. The PDA explicitly prohibits an employer from terminating, demoting, or reducing the pay of an employee solely on the basis of pregnancy, but fell short of obliging them to accommodate employees who, due to pregnancy-related conditions, require temporary assistance. Therefore, in the years following the passage of the PDA, women who had prenatal visits to attend, fell ill due to morning sickness, or took time off to give birth and recuperate were not protected by the law and were regularly terminated for “excessive absenteeism.”

When Congress amended the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 2008, it expanded the definition of disability to include impairments resulting from pregnancy, such as cervical insufficiency, anemia, sciatica, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, or depression. The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 eases the burden of an employee to show that a medical condition is a covered disability under the Act. As a result, pregnancy-related conditions that may have prior to 2008 been difficult to request accommodations for are now generally accepted disabilities under the ADA. Because the ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, the 2008 amendments expanded protections for pregnant workers and has allowed them to retain employment prior to giving birth. According to the EEOC’s guidance, accommodations can range from altered break and work schedules in order to rest or use the restroom, permission to sit or stand, ergonomic office furniture, shift changes, and permission to work from home.

The ADA does not, however, consider pregnancy itself a disability and therefore leaves women who have normal pregnancies without the legal option of seeking accommodations at work, despite the fact that they will inevitably require time off to give birth, attend doctor’s visits, and request the occasional opportunity to sit or deviate from standard break schedules.

In 1993 Congress enacted the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to ensure job protection for employees with qualified medical and family reasons, including pregnancy. However, there are significant limitations to FMLA. Most notable is the fact that FMLA leave is unpaid. Additionally, employers are required to provide FMLA leave only where there are at least 50 people employed and an individual has worked at least 1,250 hours within the past 12 months. As a result, a large segment of pregnant workers are not able to take leave either because their employer is not covered by FMLA or their financial situation makes it impossible to take unpaid time off.

In addition to federal laws, New York City employees are covered by city and state human rights laws. In fact, New York’s anti-discrimination laws are the oldest in the country and predate the creation of Title VII. The New York laws are constantly evolving to address the needs of pregnant workers and tend to cover employees who would not be eligible for protection under the federal law. Where Title VII requires that at least 15 individuals be employed for coverage, the state and city human rights laws require just a minimum of four employees. Additionally, the have been liberally interpreted to provide more expansive protections to workers than the federal law. More recent legislation stipulates that employees with normal pregnancies are entitled to the same accommodations as those with ancillary medical issues like preeclampsia. In May 2016, the New York City Commission on Human Rights released robust guidance on pregnancy discrimination. This guidance sets forth very clearly the obligations of employers and the rights of employees in the context of discrimination and accommodations.

Pregnant workers in New York City should reach out for assistance in the face of discriminatory treatment and feel confident that such treatment will be remedied under the law.

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In Support of Intro 214-A

ann dibble blog card 410Yesterday, Beth Goldman, President of the New York Legal Assistance Group, had the opportunity to join a number of advocates, tenants, academics and legal services providers in testifying before the New York City Council Committee on Courts & Legal Services. She was there to speak in support of Intro 214-A, legislation introduced in March 2014 by Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson. It has been sponsored by 41 members of the Council and the Public Advocate, and endorsed by the New York Times Editorial Board. The bill would create a right to legal representation for low-income New Yorkers in eviction, ejectment and foreclosure proceedings.

The lack of affordable housing in New York City has become a true humanitarian crisis, increasing homelessness, displacing families that have lived here for decades and irreversibly altering the character of neighborhoods. Low-income New Yorkers at risk of eviction and foreclosure face an enormous justice gap. There is a drastic imbalance in the level of legal representation between landlords and tenants in eviction proceedings, as well as between banks and homeowners in foreclosure actions. These challenges are compounded for low-income elderly, disabled and non-English speaking clients. While the recent increased funding has been highly impactful, funding can be decreased or eliminated. Establishing access to legal counsel as a right for low-income New Yorkers facing eviction and foreclosure would level the playing field and ensure a fairer resolution of such disputes.

As a recent report from the NYC Office of Civil Justice demonstrated, even with the significant additional funding the City has committed to civil legal services, which has significantly increased the number of tenants represented, it remains the case that almost 75% of  most tenants facing eviction and 40% of homeowners facing foreclosure are still unrepresented. The only way to guarantee full representation for all vulnerable tenants and homeowners is to create a right to counsel.

Every day, NYLAG attorneys meet tenants who have unwittingly waived crucial rights and defenses in their eviction proceedings because they were unrepresented and unware of their legal options and remedies. New York City housing law is a vast and complex subject and even the most sophisticated tenants simply don’t know all of their rights. Landlords, on the other hand, are almost always represented by an attorney. This power imbalance results in tragic outcomes every day, including: tenants who sign agreements to move out of an apartment they have a legal right to remain in; who agree to pay large sums for back rent or fees they don’t legally owe; who are intentionally misled to believe that their landlord’s attorney was actually their attorney or a neutral court attorney and as a result enter into an unfair agreement that is not in their best interest; who don’t know how to undo a default judgment that was entered against them because their landlord failed to serve them with court documents; and who agreed to move out of their life-long homes after the death of a spouse or parent because they did not understand their succession rights.

Among homeowners, we regularly meet clients who have been victims of mortgage scams, have already been foreclosed upon, or are on the verge of losing their homes to foreclosure. Often they were unaware that an action had been commenced against them until it was too late, cannot determine who owns their mortgage and therefore whether the person who sued them has standing to do so, and cannot determine whether the amount that is claimed is what they actually owe. Homeowners are often unaware of what modification and other workout options are available to them.

One of the most effective ways for the City to address homelessness and maintain affordable housing is to provide all low-income tenants and homeowners facing eviction with access to legal services. It is far easier and more cost-effective to preserve housing than it is to find housing for an individual or a family that has become homeless. Attorneys are able to protect tenants’ rights, keep tenants in stabilized apartments, assist tenants with obtaining appropriate subsidies, preserve subsidies, ensure housing is safe and habitable and arm tenants with knowledge regarding their rights. When a tenant has an attorney, a landlord is much less likely to pursue a frivolous claim or a course of harassment. Individuals facing the threat of homelessness who are given access to an attorney are less likely to become homeless than those who do not have access to one.

New York City cannot resolve its housing crisis without providing individuals and families at risk of homelessness access to legal counsel as a matter of right.

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No Lawyer on Your Case? Alternatives Can Help.

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randal jeffrey blog cardEver since the Supreme Court handed down its landmark 1963 decision in Gideon v. Wainwright establishing the right to counsel at state expense in criminal cases, those concerned with access to justice have advocated for an extension of this right in civil cases.

While the Supreme Court has extended the right to counsel past the specific holding in Gideon, including to certain “quasi-criminal” cases, it has never interpreted the United States Constitution to require that the government provide a lawyer in purely civil cases. Thus, the provision of counsel to those who cannot afford an attorney has long been left to a patchwork of programs throughout the country. In recent years, however, the right to counsel movement has gained increased attention throughout the United States.

In 2014, several bills were introduced to the New York City Council providing for the right to counsel in Housing Court. While none has been enacted (cost continues to be a factor), the advocacy surrounding the right to counsel in housing court has informed the dramatic increase in funding for legal services. In stark contrast to the federal government, whose funding for legal services has remained flat for years, there has been a renaissance in funding in New York State.

Former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman led the charge by steadily increasing Judiciary Civil Legal Services funding, set to reach $100 million annually in State fiscal year 2017. New York City has dramatically increased its budget for eviction prevention and anti-harassment tenant protection legal services, and for legal services for the working poor, while the State has increased funding for legal services for homeowners at risk of foreclosure and those seeking disability benefits.

It is beyond dispute that it is better for someone with a legal issue – whether it is an adversarial case in court or an out-of-court legal matter – to have full representation by a lawyer than to be unrepresented. But even if right to counsel efforts are successful for certain types of cases and funding for civil legal services increases even more substantially than it has already, the majority of New Yorkers who cannot afford an attorney will continue to go without full representation for the foreseeable future. This does not mean, though, that they have no options. There are programs in place that can and do play an important role in bridging the justice gap.

A View From the Field

New York State, with the judiciary at the helm, has been a leader in establishing programs that provide legal information to a large number of litigants and limited representation to others, recognizing that current resources are insufficient to provide full representation in all cases, and that alternatives can have a positive impact. Each of these programs is unique, filling a niche within the broader effort to improve access to justice. NYLAG has participated in many of these efforts.

Legal help desks represent the highest volume of legal assistance to unrepresented litigants. Housing Court Answers, for example, has been providing information and assistance to housing court clients since 1981. With so many unrepresented litigants in the courts and before administrative agencies, help desks play a pivotal role in ensuring that these litigants have access to at least some legal information to assist them with their cases.

Other valuable programs include the Court Navigators Program in Brooklyn the Bronx, whose services range from what can best be termed as moral support to explaining the court process to litigants, and Legal Hand, an initiative to provide legal information, assistance, and referrals at neighborhood storefronts in areas with a high need for legal services.

The Mobile Legal Help Center (MLHC) was launched by the Access to Justice Program in partnership with NYLAG in 2012. The first of its kind in the country – a law office on wheels – the MLHC provides direct community access to legal services at a different location, every day. Another Access to Justice initiative, Court Do-It-Yourself forms, offers pro se litigants 24 interactive programs for the drafting of forms for various court actions.

The Volunteer Lawyer For a Day program, launched by Access to Justice in 1997, provides limited scope representation to pro se litigants who are being sued for consumer debts. Pro bono attorneys and student volunteers advise clients under the supervision of an attorney from one of several legal services agencies, including NYLAG. Since its inception, the program has represented over 20,000 litigants.

A final program of note began in the wake of the Great Recession, when New York State instituted settlement conferences as a mandatory first step for mortgage holders pursuing foreclosure litigation. Representation in settlement conferences has proven to be an effective means to resolve some foreclosure cases without the need for full litigation.

Alternatives to Full Representation in Practice

US Supreme Court

Beyond the direct impact these programs have on improving outcomes for litigants, they also place lawyers directly on the ground, where they become aware of systemic problems both with the administration of justice and in the substantive areas of law. For example, lawyers providing limited legal services in court have been instrumental in changing the culture of the courtroom, ensuring that represented plaintiffs do not take advantage of unrepresented litigants. Similarly, help desk staff have identified trends and problems that the courts have then been able to address.

It is important to note that, just as seeking the right to counsel in certain limited types of cases does not diminish the argument or necessity for seeking this right for other types of cases, so too the provision of less than full representation for some clients does not diminish the argument that full representation should be provided in those types of cases in the future. Judge Lippman has advocated for such an incrementalist approach, while recognizing the benefits of full representation. Under this approach, the courts, in partnership with the legal services community and the bar more generally, pursue a wide range of initiatives that allow us to “incrementally move closer to a civil Gideon.”

Ultimately, there should be a greater investment in continuing to review these programs in order to more fully appreciate their impact. Such evaluations will go far to confirm what those involved in these programs already know: in a world where low-income families and individuals face pervasive civil legal services needs – and resources are limited – alternatives to full representation play an important and effective role in expanding access to justice.

This article is excerpted from an essay by Mr. Jeffrey in IMPACT, a collection of essays published by the New York Law School’s Impact Center for Public Interest Law. You can read the full essay here.


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Guest Blog: LGBT Older Adults Face Unique Legal Hurdles

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Vanessa BarringtonDenny Chan

Legal services organizations play a crucial role in alleviating the effects of poverty for all Americans. However, when it comes to older Americans, not all low-income seniors have the same legal needs, not all will seek out help on their own, and many will require culturally competent services to meet their needs.

For example, the intersection of poverty and discrimination creates an array of unique legal needs for LGBT older adults. By focusing on the most prevalent legal issues and providing culturally competent services, legal services organizations can deepen their impact. How Can Legal Services Better Meet the Needs of Low-Income LGBT Seniors? is a new Special Report by Justice in Aging, produced in partnership with Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, & Transgender Elders (SAGE) that offers practical help to direct legal service providers.

The report is divided into three sections. The first section outlines some of the systemic issues that lead to LGBT older adults experiencing higher rates of poverty, highlighting how some groups, such as people of color and transgender individuals, suffer disproportionately.

The second section discusses how discrimination and other factors lead to problems accessing economic security and health care benefits, and the legal issues that often ensue as a result. This section also runs down the key legal issues that legal services professionals should be well-versed in, including how recent marriage laws affect public benefits, discrimination in health care, culturally incompetent health care, housing discrimination, discrimination in long-term care facilities, powers of attorney, wills, and advance directives, and name and gender change paperwork.

The third section offers practical tips for outreach, intakes, and providing culturally competent legal services to LGBT older adults.

A short video that shows the diversity of the LGBT population and highlights the types of legal challenges LGBT people might face as they grow older accompanies the report.

This Special Report is a reminder of the unique legal needs facing many different communities. It is meant to provide some tailored strategies for legal services organizations to engage and serve low-income LGBT seniors in order combat the persistent effects of poverty and discrimination and have the maximum impact through legal representation.

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Medicare Counseling: A Lifeline We Must Sustain

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Head shot of Valerie Bogart

Before the members of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee adjourned for the July 4th holiday they struck a blow to the independence and wellbeing of millions of seniors and people with disabilities by proposing to eliminate funding for a vital Medicare counseling program that helps people navigate an increasingly complex Medicare benefits system. Fortunately, last week the U.S. House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education approved a bill that would provide funding at the current level of $52.1 million.

For the last 24 years, Medicare State Health Insurance Assistance Programs (SHIPs) have operated in every state to provide information and one-on-one counseling that assists, educates and empowers Medicare-eligible seniors and people with disabilities. Counselors help beneficiaries, their families and caregivers understand – quite literally – the A, B, C, D (and more) of Medicare. Every year the federal government’s 1-800-Medicare hotline refers over 250,000 callers to local SHIPs offices for help with complex cases. An average counseling session lasts almost an hour, due to the complexities of Medicare and the in-depth nature of SHIPs counseling.

Navigating Medicare is a daunting process. Today, Medicare beneficiaries must choose from among a dizzying array of prescription drug plans, Medicare Advantage plans, as well as various Medigap supplemental insurance policies–all with different premiums, cost sharing provisions, provider networks, and coverage rules.

For the clients NYLAG and other advocates for the poor serve, SHIPs are a particularly critical resource. Medicare is a great benefit, but it is expensive. Low-income people would never be able to afford Medicare without expert assistance to obtain the vital subsidies they need to reduce costs.

Along with other advocates, NYLAG collaborates with the New York State Office for the Aging to accept referrals of the most complicated cases and resolve thorny Medicare issues. We also operate as technical assistance support for the State’s Health Insurance Information, Counseling and Assistance Program (HIICAP).

To give you a sense of the magnitude of the assistance provided, according to theMedicare Rights Center, in 2015 New York’s HIICAP saved people with Medicare an estimated $30 million through enrollment in low-income assistance programs, including Medicare Savings Programs and the Part D Low-Income Subsidy.

NYLAG and our partners, the Community Service Society, Empire Justice Center, Medicare Rights Center, New York Statewide Senior Action Council, and the Legal Aid Society, host NY Health Access, a website that provides information and training for attorneys and other professionals. Click here to have your mind blown about the complexity of the Medicare Savings Programs. In New York State alone we have, in addition to the original Medicare plan, numerous supplemental Medigap insurance policies, 30 insurance companies that offer 128 different Medicare Advantage plan options, and 22 Part D prescription plans.

And remember, the website is a tool for Medicare wonks like me, people who are familiar with health and public benefits law. Imagine how intimidating, if not terrifying, it would be for someone who is poor, elderly and suffering from Parkinson’s to wade through these arcane rules and attempt to select plan options that match her health needs and her ability to pay.

In 2015, SHIPs provided assistance to more than 7 million people including nearly 1.3 million people with incomes below 150 per cent of the Federal Poverty Level (less than $18,000 in annual income for a single household). And those numbers are going up significantly, with 10,000 Baby Boomers every day becoming eligible for Medicare benefits. That’s 10,000 more people – daily – who are confused by the array of choices, don’t understand the coverage offered, aren’t sure whether it will include the drugs they need, and have no idea what their rights are. Volunteers play a vital role, providing about half of SHIPs counseling sessions. But this work can’t be done by volunteers alone, and volunteers can’t go it alone. It takes money to screen, train, and support these valuable partners.

In the months ahead, it is imperative that Congress adopt or improve on the House Subcommittee proposal to provide SHIPs funding at the current level. Rather than eliminating SHIPs, Congress should dramatically increase funding. The alternative is to leave millions who need support stranded–with nowhere to turn.

(For more information about how SHIPs can help you or a loved one, please contact the New York State Office for the Aging: call 1-800-701-0501 or go to their website. To find SHIPs in another state, call 1-877-839-2675 or go to www.shiptacenter.org.)

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Heartbreak and Hope

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alisia cordero blog card 410 heightFollowing the U. S. Supreme Court’s deadlock last week in a case challenging President Obama’s action to shield undocumented immigrants from deportation, a Texas judge’s temporary injunction remains in place – and millions of immigrants’ lives remain on hold. The President’s executive action would have kept immigrant families together while strengthening our communities and our economy. This non-decision is heartbreaking for immigrant families, and for the staff at NYLAG, which served over 78,500 New Yorkers last year – half of whom are immigrants.

The President’s initiative was designed to expand Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to a larger number of people. DACA, introduced in 2012, has already provided temporary relief to 730,000 immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as young children, allowing them to apply for temporary work authorization and to obtain a social security number, driver’s license, and credit card. The President’s plan also calls for Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) for the parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who meet certain criteria. Neither DACA nor DAPA represent a pathway to citizenship, but would remove a barrier for many hardworking immigrants who have been forced to work under the table, often for appallingly low wages and in substandard conditions. Most importantly, thousands of families who have lived in fear of being separated would for the first time be assured that parents and children will not be torn apart.

It is painful for me to remember how excited I was just a few months ago when I was actually in Washington, along with my colleagues, Crystal Moncada and David Mullins, on the day the Supreme Court heard arguments in United States v. Texas, We were among the thousands who gathered outside of the court to show our support and solidarity, and to urge the justices to rule that the President’s executive action was constitutional. It was a unique and empowering experience to be among city organizers, advocates and lawyers, as well as students, parents and families – all united in their support of the President’s plan as the only solution to the decades-long legislative deadlock in Congress over immigration reform.

While we traveled we heard from young college students hoping the Justices understood the sense of invisibility and alienation they feel by living most of their young lives undocumented in the U.S. One of them, Gustavo, told a reporter, “I am just an American that has extremely difficult legal hurdles, but I am an American and I will achieve.”

Now, as millions of deserving immigrants like Gustavo find themselves still in limbo, it is vitally important that we continue to fight for reasonable, fair, compassionate immigration reform. Advocates, elected officials and the voting public must work toward the creation of an immigration system that promotes unity and dignity for immigrant families that have suffered enough under the nation’s current broken system.

We stand with our clients and the remarkable immigrant population of New York. Their contributions have made us the vibrant, diverse, thriving city that we are today. Along with agencies across the city we will continue to provide them with the range of legal services and support they need. Immigrants needing assistance in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision can call: NYLAG’s DACA/DAPA hotline (212-613-6597); New York State Office for New Americans hotline (1-800-566-7636); or dial 311 and ask for DACA/DAPA information. The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs has also posted information on their website.

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Guest Blog: Right to Counsel in Housing Court: The Bottom Line

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Susanna BlankleyAndrew Scherer

A new report, which finds that New York City would save hundreds of millions of dollars a year by providing a right to counsel for tenants facing eviction, has added new urgency and optimism to a campaign to pass a bill that would establish such a right.

The bill, introduced in March of 2014 by New York City Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, would require the city to provide attorneys to low-income tenants and homeowners who face eviction and foreclosure. The bill would benefit New Yorkers whose income is 200% of the federal poverty line or below, meaning households earning less than $50,000 a year for a family of four. If signed into law, nearly 130,000 tenants could qualify for the right to counsel.

While 40 of the City Council’s 51 members have signed on to support the bill, it has not yet had a hearing, in large part because of concerns about the high cost of funding a right to counsel. But the report, undertaken for the New York City Bar Association (NYCBA) and conducted pro bono by Stout Risius Ross, Inc., a global financial advisory firm, concludes that, in addition to keeping 5,200 families out of the city’s costly shelter system, a citywide right to counsel would not only offset the cost of counsel, it would save New York City an additional $320 million each year.

The study estimates that providing counsel to eligible New Yorkers would cost $191 million annually. Savings would come from reducing shelters costs ($251 million) and preserving regulated, affordable apartments that would otherwise convert to higher cost, market rate rentals following evictions ($250 million). An additional $9 million would be saved by eliminating city services that are often tapped because of evictions, such as emergency room care and law enforcement.

The report also points to other less quantifiable savings that flow to society when its most vulnerable citizens keep a roof over their heads, including savings in public education, juvenile justice services, public assistance benefits – such as unemployment insurance when the loss of a home results in the loss of a job – and reductions in the public cost of enforcing rent laws and housing codes.

Evictions have decreased significantly in the last year thanks to the unprecedented commitment made by Mayor de Blasio, Speaker Mark-Viverito and the City Council to increase funding for civil legal services to prevent evictions, protect tenants from landlord harassment and help safeguard and secure the rights of the poor and disenfranchised. The progress they have made is extraordinary. But funding can easily be eliminated by a future administration, while a law on the books would be far more difficult to take away. The NYCBA report gives us a compelling new reason to codify the right to counsel and send a bold message that in New York City the lives, the homes and the families of our most vulnerable residents matter.

Guaranteeing a right to counsel for tenants who face eviction would foster equality, prevent homelessness and give a fighting chance to low-income New Yorkers who increasingly face displacement from their homes and communities. The NYCBA report now demonstrates definitively that it would also be cost-effective for the city’s bottom line. New York City has led the nation by significantly increasing funding for legal help for tenants facing eviction. The city should now take the next logical step and pass this trailblazing bill.

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Personal Finances: Facts and Fixes

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Mario Gutierrez blog card2In an effort to encourage Americans to establish and maintain healthy financial habits, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in 2004 officially recognizing April as National Financial Literacy Month. Over ten years later, those poor fiscal habits are still a challenge for many people, from every economic rung on the ladder. As a financial counselor I see the consequences of these bad habits every day. A lack of knowledge about financial matters is the root cause of many poor decisions about credit, saving money, investing, banking, and many other issues that seriously threaten the financial stability and well-being of individuals and their families. So, in honor of Financial Literacy Month 2016, my colleagues on the Financial Counseling team at NYLAG are pleased to highlight some facts about how well (or not so well) Americans are managing their personal finances these days, as well as suggested “fixes” that can help you overcome these common obstacles to better financial health.

Fact: Only 40% of U.S. households report good or excellent progress in meeting their savings needs.

Most U.S. families are struggling to reach their financial goals. This might mean not saving enough for the family vacation and charging the flight on a credit card. For NYLAG’s clients, it can often mean not having enough for the cheaper monthly metro card and paying for a more expensive weekly unlimited or a pay-per-ride card, or taking out illegal payday loans.

Fix: Whether on your own or with a financial counselor, you can identify obstacles and create a plan (and a budget!) to guide you. In many cases it starts with a look back to where your money is being spent, and then identifying expenses that can be cut, maximizing your income, and taking advantage of income-support benefits. Keeping your goal front and center is crucial.

Fact: 64% of Americans do not have enough cash to handle a $1,000 emergency.

Most people can recall the exact moment when they fell into their debt spiral, and it is very often when an emergency hits. Without savings on hand, you will have to either borrow money from friends and family or use your credit card.

Fix: It’s simple. Start by creating an emergency fund, and stick to it. One of the major determinants of financial security is the ability to consistently save a portion of your income. Start with whatever amount you can afford – $50 or $5 a month – and increase the contributions as you grow your income and optimize your budget.

Fact: One in four student loan borrowers are either in delinquency or default on their student loans.

Student loan debt passed the $1 trillion mark in 2012 – exceeding both credit card and auto loan debt. If you are not in default, but still struggling to keep up, you have a few options. You might be able to resolve a delinquency with a deferment or forbearance if you qualify, which are ways to temporarily pause monthly payments. You might even qualify for an income-driven repayment plan where your payment will be determined by your discretionary income. For tools and resources, go to www.studentloans.gov and https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/.

Fix: Once your federal student loan is in default, your options are limited. You must either rehabilitate the loan or consolidate it out of default with a new loan. Though servicers are supposed to thoroughly explain your options, you can also speak with an impartial financial counselor or professional. In addition, access the U.S. Department of Education’s special portal developed for students in default atwww.myeddebt.ed.gov.

Fact: Medical bankruptcy is the number-one cause of personal bankruptcy in the U.S.

Unfortunately, the threat of medical debt doesn’t seem to be subsiding. Americans pay three times more for medical debt than they do for bank and credit-card debt combined. Even with more people covered by some form of insurance, medical debt is still stymieing progress toward achieving financial goals.

Fix: Ensure that any upcoming procedures are covered under your insurance plan (See this blog by NYLAG colleague Debra Wolf for helpful tips on dealing with insurance providers.) If you have a high-deductible insurance plan, make sure that you have at least the amount of the deductible saved in your emergency fund. You might want to consider low-deductible insurance plans, but be ready to pay more in monthly premiums.

We advise many of our clients to ask for a discount before securing services. In fact, many local, government-funded hospitals offer a sliding scale for services and procedures. For the uninsured, utilize community health centers and other free or low-cost programs and services.

Fact: An estimated 825,000 adults in New York City lack even a basic checking account.

Banking is a crucial pathway to financial inclusion and security. It provides a platform for effectively managing your money. Without access to affordable banking products you are robbed of the benefits of the formal banking system and are often forced into more expensive and less secure alternatives.

Fix: There has been a lot of progress in making bank accounts accessible for low-income Americans. You still need to watch out for the fees, but banks are now offering more options and there’s a proliferation of free online bank accounts. New Yorkers can take advantage of the Take It To The Bank search tool, created by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer and endorsed by NYLAG. With it, consumers can enter certain parameters and receive a list of banks that offer accounts that match those features, such as no minimum balance requirements, unlimited free transactions, and acceptance of IDNYC, the municipal ID card.

April isn’t over quite yet, so we still have a little time to mark the occasion by making ourselves a promise to become more educated about our financial lives. Personal finances can be tricky and intimidating, but with the right resources and support, everyone can move closer to financial stability and achieve the goals they set for many seasons to come.

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When Your Medical Claim Is Denied

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Photo of Debra WolfI work with low-income patients living with cancer, vulnerable people whose life circumstances make it particularly challenging to deal with health insurance issues. The truth is, though, that this complex world is difficult for most of us to navigate — and never more so than when a medical claim is denied. But before I describe how understanding the system can make all the difference – a little background will help.

Whether you are insured through an employer or union group policy, a privately purchased policy or one of the policies available through the Affordable Care Act, you will have a written plan outlining your benefits, coverage limits and the appeals process – and you need to read it. You must also know whether your policy is an HMO, which allows only in-network doctors, or one that allows for out-of-network doctors which may be at a much reduced reimbursement rate. With an HMO, you generally have a co-payment and sometimes a deductible or coinsurance and that is the extent of your financial responsibility if your doctor is in network; with other policies, your out of network doctor can usually bill you directly for any amount not paid for by your insurance.

Whatever plan you have, all policies can still limit certain coverage. This might include the number of physical therapy visits or home nursing visits allowed per year. If your policy requires pre-authorization, and most do for major medical procedures and radiology such as CT Scans and MRIs, make sure either you or your doctor’s office check with your insurance company to confirm that the procedure is approved. If you have an HMO, make sure all your doctors are in network and if you are having surgery, make sure all doctors involved, such as your anesthesiologist, are in network.

Even when you understand in advance the limits of your coverage, claims are sometimes denied. Your insurance company is required to provide an Explanation of Benefit, called an EOB, for each claim reviewed. The EOB outlines the amount paid by your insurance, your required contribution and, if not paying, the reasons for denial. It’s important to read every EOB to make sure your claim has been properly paid and if not, the reasons for the denial.

When a claim is denied, your first step should be to call the insurance company to discuss.  There are many reasons a claim may be denied  ̶  often the insurance company  just needs more documentation from your doctor’s office to approve.  Sometimes claims are denied for administrative reasons that are easy to fix. Make sure to keep track of every call or letter, writing down the date and who you spoke with at your insurance company.

Know Your Rights

If you do owe for a claim that was denied, or you feel your insurance company paid an improper amount, you have the right to appeal. You will receive written notice about how to appeal. Be sure to read them and note what the deadlines are, as they are very strict.

paper workHealth plans and insurance companies have to tell you very specifically why they’ve decided to deny a claim. You also have the right to request a full copy of your insurance file prior to the appeal to see how they reached their decision. This includes the claim reviewer’s notes, reports of doctors who reviewed your claim and all other relevant documents.

Often the first appeal is submitted through your doctor’s office so be sure to talk to your medical team. In your written appeal, document the reasons you disagree with the insurance company and always include medical records and a letter from your treating doctor. Your insurance company must conduct a full and fair review of its decision and, if urgent, they must expedite this process.

If your insurance company denies the appeal, you can request an external review. This means that independent medical professionals with no financial stake in the claim make the decision. If the external reviewer overturns your insurer’s denial, your insurer must give you the payments or services you requested in your claim. If you believe your insurance company is acting improperly or in violation of the policy terms, you may also file a complaint with the New York Department of Financial Services or, if not in New York, with your state insurance department.

The good news is that many denied claims that are appealed or sent for an external review are finally allowed coverage. If you draw on all the resources available to you, and have adequate medical support for your claim, you stand a good chance of having your claim paid.

Here are some resources in New York State to assist you with health insurance disputes or questions:

The NY Health Plan Marketplace Consumer Assistance Line:  1.855.355.5777 or nationally, https://www.healthcare.gov/

New York Department of Financial Services
Consumer Hotline: (800) 342-3736 (Monday through Friday, 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM).
Local calls can be made to (212) 480-6400.
(The website has a link to file a complaint and they are often very helpful in resolving issues with your insurer.)

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Guest Blog: The Eviction Epidemic in our Midst

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Guest Matt Desmond blog cardEven in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. They used to draw crowds. Eviction riots erupted during the Depression, even though the number of poor families who faced eviction each year was a fraction of what it is today. A New York Times account of community resistance to the eviction of three Bronx families in February 1932 observed, “Probably because of the cold, the crowd numbered only 1,000.” Sometimes neighbors confronted the marshals directly, sitting on the evicted family’s furniture to prevent its removal or moving the family back in despite the judge’s orders. The marshals themselves were ambivalent about carrying out evictions. It wasn’t why they carried a badge and a gun.

These days, there are sheriff squads whose full-time job is to carry out eviction and foreclosure orders. There are moving companies specializing in evictions, their crews working all day, every weekday. There are hundreds of data-mining companies that sell landlords tenant screening reports listing past evictions and court filings. These days, housing courts swell, forcing commissioners to settle cases in hallways or makeshift offices crammed with old desks and broken file cabinets—and most tenants don’t even show up. Low-income families have grown used to the rumble of moving trucks, the early-morning knocks at the door, the belongings lining the curb.

Families have watched their incomes stagnate, or even fall, while their housing costs have soared. Today, the majority of poor renting families in America spend over half of their income on housing, and at least one in four dedicates over 70 percent to paying the rent and keeping the lights on. Millions of Americans are evicted every year because they can’t make rent. In Milwaukee, a city of fewer than 105,000 renter households, landlords evict roughly 16,000 adults and children each year. That’s sixteen families evicted through the court system daily. But there are other ways, cheaper and quicker ways, for landlords to remove a family than through court order. Some landlords pay tenants a couple hundred dollars to leave by the end of the week. Some take off the front door. Nearly half of all forced moves experienced by renting families in Milwaukee are “informal evictions” that take place in the shadow of the law. If you count all forms of involuntary displacement—formal and informal evictions, landlord foreclosures, building condemnations—you discover that between 2009 and 2011 more than 1 in 8 Milwaukee renters experienced a forced move.

There is nothing special about Milwaukee when it comes to eviction. The numbers are similar in Kansas City, Cleveland, Chicago, and other cities. In 2013, 1 in 8 poor renting families nationwide were unable to pay all of their rent, and a similar number thought it was likely they would be evicted soon.

Eviction’s fallout is severe. Losing a home sends families to shelters, abandoned houses, and the street. It invites depression and illness, compels families to move into degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods, uproots communities, and harms children. Eviction reveals people’s vulnerability and desperation, as well as their ingenuity and guts.

Fewer and fewer families can afford a roof over their head. This is among the most urgent and pressing issues facing America today, and acknowledging the breadth and depth of the problem changes the way we look at poverty. For decades, we’ve focused mainly on jobs, public assistance, parenting, and mass incarceration. No one can deny the importance of these issues, but something fundamental is missing. We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty. Not everyone living in a distressed neighborhood is associated with gang members, parole officers, employers, social workers, or pastors. But nearly all of them have a landlord.

This blog is an excerpt adapted from EVICTED: Poverty and Profit in the American City Copyright © 2016 by Matthew Desmond. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Mr Desmond will appear at a book launch in New York City on Wednesday, March 9, 6:30 PM, hosted by the Right to Council NYC Coalition, of which NYLAG is a member, and The Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University.

Author photo by Michael Kienitz.

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