16 year olds and up: Be a Poll Worker – Shortages Threaten Elections

Published in RINews Today on October 6, 2020

With spikes in COVID-19 cases occurring across the nation, causing concerns about the safety or health risk to workers staffing polling sites, AARP announces a new initiative to recruit persons of all ages for the upcoming presidential election to work the polling sites.  AARP along with the Association of Young Americans (AYA), Power the Polls (POP), and New Leaders Council (NLC) are working to ensure that in-person voting is still an accessible and safe option at the polls.   

“There is an urgent need for more poll workers this election, including people 50-plus and younger voters. We need to ensure that in-person voting is still an accessible and safe option,” said Nancy LeaMond, AARP EVP and Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer. “We will encourage all AARP members to communicate with their younger family and friends around the importance of voting and how to participate as a poll worker,” says LeaMond.

According to Pew Research Center analysis of government data, “Older People Account for Large Shares of Poll Workers and Voters in U.S. General Elections,” published on April 6, 2020, nearly six-in-ten (58%) poll workers were ages 61 and up in 2018 and 56% in 2016. Many communities faced poll worker shortages prior to the pandemic. The 2016 U.S. Election Assistance Commission found that two-thirds of jurisdictions already had a difficult time recruiting enough poll workers on Election Day.

A Call for Poll Workers 

“The poll worker shortage is an urgent issue, and we’re on the clock,” states Scott Duncombe, Power of Poll’s Co-Director. “This unprecedented shortage threatens our democracy, puts our older population at risk, and disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color. This is a historic moment for first-time poll workers to sign up to protect their communities, their neighbors, and their democracy. We will keep working until there are enough poll workers and volunteers to keep polling sites open, staffed, efficient, and functioning. We must do everything we can to ensure this upcoming election is safe, fair, and accessible,” he says.

Adds Ben Brown, AYA’s Founder, “Poll workers play a critical but often overlooked role in ensuring safe elections. The pandemic has hampered recruiting efforts for poll workers, who tend to be repeat workers, and fewer poll workers means longer lines, delays, and more confusion on Election Day,” said Ben Brown, Founder of Association of Young Americans. ““

Clare Bresnahan English, NLC’s President and CEO, notes “Poll workers are the essential workers of our democratic process. All voters should feel safe and welcome when they participate in the upcoming election.”  He observes that that this intergenerational collaboration with AARP and Power the Polls allows for the recruitment of young poll workers whose identities reflect the community in which they serve.”

The Power the Polls initiative is also working with local organizations and partners to help election officials provide the necessary PPE to keep poll workers and voters safe. For more information, reach out to your local officials through workelections.com  

In August, AARP launched “Protect Voters 50+,” a comprehensive voter engagement campaign to support and protect Americans 50-plus as they vote in the 2020 elections. The campaign will help Americans over 50 votes safely, whether at home or in person. The “Protect Voters 50+” campaign will provide people with the information they need about this year’s elections, including video voters’ guides, issue briefings, direct mail, text messaging, social media and paid media.

In the Trenches…at the Polling Sites

Last month, over 2,000 persons voted at Pawtucket’s 26 polling sites, over 4,000 chose to vote by mail ballots, says Ken McGill, the City’s Registrar for over 17 years.  He estimates that it was almost triple the number of votes cast at a primary. 

Looking back, McGill says it was a struggle to get enough workers to man Pawtucket’s polling sites during the September primary.” Many of our veteran poll workers, especially those with health issues, opted out because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. 

But with Rhode Island allowing 16-year-olds to work at the polls, McGill plans to continue reaching out to youngsters to serve as election officials at the polls. 

According to McGill, like the primary Pawtucket polling officials continue to follow social distancing guidelines at the upcoming presidential election to be held on Tuesday, November 3, 2020.  Only a certain number of voters will be allowed into the polling site at the same time. Hand sanitizer are readily available for use by both poll workers and voters. All poll workers will be required to wear masks and voters are encouraged to also wear masks to stop the spread of COVID-19.  Also, at every poll, a person will be assigned to wipe down the booths after use and to clean and disinfect the site throughout the day and to ensure that voters are social distancing from one another.  

Nick Domings, a spokesperson for Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, says that the Secretary has made it her top priority to make voting convenient, safe and secure for the upcoming presidential election. “During the pandemic, that means providing options for casting a ballot that ensure no voter must risk their health to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Rhode Islanders can choose to either vote from home with a mail ballot, vote early in-person at their city or town hall, or vote at a polling place on Election Day,” he says.  

Secretary Gorbea has sent registered voters a mail ballot application for the November 3 general election.  But for those voters who wish to cast their ballot in-person, either early at their city/town hall or at a polling place, know that facilities will be thoroughly sanitized, single-use pens will be utilized and poll workers will be wearing personal protective equipment, notes Domings. 

Domings recommends that Rhode Island voters check the location of their polling place on vote.ri.gov, as some may have changed due to the pandemic.

Becoming a Poll Worker

“Because our older citizens are most at risk for serious complications from COVID-19, there is a definite need for poll workers this year. This is a great opportunity for young people to see how our democracy works up close. If you or someone you know wants to be a poll worker, contact your local board of canvassers or call the Board of Elections at 401-222-2345,” suggests Domings. 

Bill Protects Nursing Home Residents, Providers

Published in the Pawtucket Times on June 1, 2020

This month, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) throw a bill in the legislative hopper to slow the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in nursing homes. It’s a common-sense legislative proposal and needed.

A recently released Kaiser Family Foundation study reported, “COVID-19 has had a disproportionate effect on people who reside or work in long-term care facilities, including the 1.3 million individuals in nursing homes; 800,000 in assisted living facilities; 75,000 in intermediate care facilities; and 3 million people who work in skilled nursing or residential care facilities.”

Combatting COVID-19 in Congregate Settings

With COVID-19 quickly spreading throughout the nation’s nursing homes and intermediate care facilities, Casey and Whitehouse’s legislative proposal, S. 3768, The Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act, seeks to provide needed resources to facilities to protect frail residents and staff. Residents in these facilities are among the most vulnerable because of their age and underlying medical conditions. According to an analysis conducted by Gregg Girvan for the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, as of May 22, in the 39 states that currently report such figures, 43 percent of all COVID-19 deaths have taken place in nursing homes and assisted living facilities

As more than 20,000 nursing homes residents and workers have died due to COVID-19, according to the latest reports, on May 19, 2020, Casey and Whitehouse introduced S.3768 to help states, nursing homes and intermediate care facilities put the brakes on the spreading of the deadly COVID-19. The legislative proposal, with 14 Democratic cosponsors (including Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed}, would help states implement strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in congregate settings, including through the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing and to support nursing home workers with premium pay, overtime and other essential benefits.

S. 3768 was referred to Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. As of March 30, 2020, a Congressional Budget Office cost estimate or this measure has not been received.

Days after the introduction of 25-page Senate legislative proposal, a House version (H.R. 6972) was introduced by Rep. Ana G. Eshoo (D-CA), cosponsored by Reps. Janice D. Schakowsky (D-IL), Donna E. Shalala (D-FL), Madeleine Dean (D-PA), Seth Moulton (D-MA) and David N. Cicilline (D-RI). The House bill was referred to House Energy and Commerce

“This virus spares no state, no county, no facility. The unprecedented crisis unfolding in our Nation’s nursing homes demands an immediate, extraordinary response. Reports indicate nursing home residents and workers account for roughly 1 in 4 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States,” said Casey, who serves as Ranking Member of the U.S Senate Special Committee on Aging, in a statement announcing the bill’s introduction. “The Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act would provide $20 billion in emergency funding [for staffing, testing, Personal Protective Equipment, etc.] to devise a sorely needed national, coordinated response to stem the spread of this terrible virus in nursing homes and intermediate care facilities,” notes Casey.

According to Casey, the Senate bill would also require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop guidance on cohorting best practices, including on how to safeguard resident rights. It would also instruct HHS to collect and publish data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in nursing homes and intermediate care facilities, and finally fund surge teams of nurses, aides, and other critical staff to fill in at facilities where multiple residents and staff members have been infected.

“COVID-19 poses an immediate threat to the more than 1.3 million Americans, including more than 7,000 Rhode Islanders, who live in nursing homes,” says Whitehouse, noting that frontline staff across the nation are “doing heroic work under very challenging circumstances.”

“We need to get vastly more personal protective equipment and tests to nursing homes, which care for the patients who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Our legislation would also help states fund surge teams, sending additional staff reinforcements to facilities where they are needed to care for patients and prevent infection,” adds Whitehouse.

Before S. 3768 was officially introduced, in early March, Washington, DC-based AARP announced its support for the Senate proposal. “AARP supports the draft of the Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act that would help protect the health and save the lives of people in nursing homes and other facilities by supporting testing, personal protective equipment, staffing and more,” said Megan O’Reilly, Vice President of Government Affairs for AARP. “The proposal would also improve public transparency and help protect the rights of residents and their families, adds O’Reilly, calling on Congress “to act immediately to stem the loss of life and slow the spread of the virus.”

In the House Chamber, Rhode Island’s Cicilline, a member of the House Democratic Leadership as Chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, has also pushed for Congressional funding to stop the spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes. The fifth term Congressman has called for additional funding for the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund in the next package for congregate care facilities, including nursing homes. He also signed a letter to HHS Secretary Azar and Administrator Verma, of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), urging that HHS and the CMS to ensure that a significant portion of the newly allocated $25 billion for testing in the recently passed CARES Act be utilized for testing in nursing homes and other congregate living facilities.

State-wide Efforts to Combat COVID-19 in Nursing Homes

With Governor Gina Raimondo declaring a state of emergency on March 9, 2020, with the COVID-19 arriving in Rhode Island, the deadly pandemic virus spread quickly throughout the state’s nursing homes. At press time, it has been reported that 75 percent of all related COVID-19 deaths are in nursing homes.

According to Joseph Wendelken, Public Information’s Officer for the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH), the state moved quickly to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the community and in nursing homes. He stated: “We curtailed and then prohibited visiting early on, and we have been doing extensive testing in every assisted living facility in the state. We are doing cyclical testing, meaning that we are continually testing all residents in all homes on a rotating basis. We are giving tailored infection control guidance to specific homes, and we are helping them procure additional PPE.”

Adds Wendelken, RIDOH has established two COVID-19 Specialty Nursing Homes [at Oak Hill Center in Pawtucket and Oakland Grove Health Care Center in Woonsocket] to be a COVID-19 Specialty Nursing Home. “These are centralized facilities to accept patients who are being discharged from the hospital and who are COVID-19 positive but no longer require acute-level care. This strategy allows COVID-19 positive patients leaving the hospital to receive specialized rehabilitation and step-down, post-acute care while reserving hospital beds for patients who need acute-level care,” he said.

On Smith Hill, the Rhode Island House Republican Caucus has recently called for members of the House Committee on Oversight to meet to address the increasing COVID-19 death rate in the state’s nursing and assisted living facilities.

Putting Politics Aside…

With less than 156 days until the upcoming 2020 Presidential election, will S. 3768 reach the Senate floor for a vote. Since the beginning of 2019, more than 350 House-passed bills—including hundreds that have bipartisan support—have been buried by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) in his legislative graveyard. With no Republican Senators supporting Casey and Whitehouse’s COVID-19 bill, will it even reach the Senate floor for a vote?

It’s time for McConnell, who has called himself the “grim reaper” of Democratic legislation, to lay down his deadly scythe, making the safety of millions of residents who reside in the nation’s 15,583 skilled nursing facilities a legislative priority. The GOP Senator from Kentucky, who is in a close Senate race with Democratic opponent Amy McGrath, might consider putting politics aside during a raging COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the nation to work with Senate Democrats to protect frail residents and nursing home staff. Kentucky voters might view protecting residents against COVID a bipartisan issue.

Social Security – the Third Rail in Politics

Published in RINewsToday.com on May 17, 2020

As Congress begins to hammer out the fifth coronavirus stimulus package to continue its efforts to jump start the nation’s economy, President Donald Trump warns he will not sign any bill that does not include a payroll tax cut.

“We’re not doing anything without a payroll tax cut,” President Trump said at a two-hour “virtual town hall” event hosted by Fox News, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. According to Nielson Media Research, nearly 4 million viewers tuned into this the town hall, titled “America Together: Returning to Work,” on May 3rd, that focused on COVID-19 and the reopening of the nation’s economy.

Aging advocates and Democratic lawmakers charge that President Trump is using the virus pandemic as an excuse to slash payroll contributions, Social Security’s dedicated funding. Cutting the Social Security payroll taxes would reduce the amount of money withheld from employee paychecks, increasing their take-home pay. Republican lawmakers see it as a much-needed relief for hurting Americans. And so it goes…

Payroll Tax Cuts: Reducing Social Security’s Financial Stability

The Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) quickly released a statement warning that removing the payroll tax by a provision in the next COVID-19 stimulus package will ensure the fiscal insolvency of Social Security. 64 million Americans depend on Social Security benefits in their retirement years.

“President Trump set off alarm bells for America’s seniors and their advocates by insisting once again on eliminating Social Security payroll taxes – both employer and worker contributions. The President even threatened to hold hostage the next phase of badly needed Coronavirus relief legislation unless he gets his reckless payroll tax cuts. Make no mistake: by pushing to cut off the program’s funding stream, President Trump is taking the first step toward dismantling Social

“While we agree that providing tax relief to middle class Americans is an important consideration as we respond to the coronavirus pandemic, we do not believe that cutting, eliminating or deferring the Social Security payroll tax is an appropriate way to accomplish this goal, says Richtman, reminding the president in a letter that Social Security is an earned benefit fully funded by the contributions of workers throughout their working lives.

He pointed out that a payroll tax cut is an assault on that fundamental idea, equally true even if the funds are replaced by general revenues from the Treasury.

In his correspondence, Richtman suggests that a payroll tax cut should not be viewed as an economic stimulus because it leaves out large segments of the population. “Large numbers of federal, state and local government workers do not pay into Social Security, and therefore would not benefit from the payroll tax cut. Ironically, the senior population, those who are directly affected by taking their money from the trust fund, will not see a single dime of relief since most of them are not working,” he notes.

Richtman identified alternatives to the payroll tax cut that he believes would be more targeted and effective to fire up an economy slowed by the spread of the coronavirus. “Another one-time payment by the federal government can put money in the hands of taxpayers quickly, and the Making Work Pay Tax Credit can be passed by Congress rapidly as can an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. Spending in other programs that directly help those who lose employment as a result of the virus can be the most targeted relief of all,” he suggests.

“In light of the recent Social Security Trustees report, it is clear that Social Security needs more revenue – not less,” observes Richtman, who served as a former staff director of the Senate Special Aging Committee.

While Democratic lawmakers push for strengthening and expanding the Social Security Program, GOP lawmakers are signaling their opposition to risking political capital on supporting the effort to cut the payroll tax. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the Senate Finance Committee chair, responded, when asked by Politico, if he supports the tax cut, “Right now, not much.”

“I’m going to give it due consideration, if I can see a strong group of people who think it’s the right thing to do,” added Grassley, whose Senate committee oversees federal tax policy.

Although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) is not ruling out payroll tax cuts, he is focusing his efforts to put liability protections provisions in the next major stimulus package to protect businesses against virus-related lawsuits from workers, stockholders, and consumers.

Political insiders consider Social Security to be the “third rail of a nations politics.” Wikipedia states that this metaphor comes from the high-voltage third rail in some electric railway systems. Stepping on it usually results in electrocution and the use of the term in the political arena refers to “political death.”

Can President Trump politically survive, keeping his loyal voter base, if he steps on the “third rail” by continuing his efforts to cut payroll taxes, some say seen as pushing the Social Security program toward fiscal insolvency? When the dust settles after the upcoming November 2020 elections, we’ll see if the older voters consider Social Security an untouchable program.