Advocates Call on City, County to Protect Most Vulnerable During COVID-19 Outbreak

Education, health, housing, justice addressed by list of demands

Austin EMS Employees Association president Selena Xie.

Advocates from a large group of local social justice and advocacy organizations are calling on city and county leaders to step up and help those most marginalized in the community amid the escalating coronavirus outbreak.

In a letter addressed to Austin Mayor Steve Adler and the City Council, the Travis County Commissioners Court, and other officials, the groups offer a comprehensive list of demands that target public education, welfare, housing, worker, immigrant, and disability rights, medical services, childcare, elder care, law enforcement, courts, and jails. (The complete list of demands is included below this post; the full letter can be viewed here.)

Among their recommendations, the groups urge city officials to take a “firm stance” on social distancing to help slow the spread of COVID-19 – not only banning public gatherings (as the city has done for 250 or more people) but following the lead of New York and Chicago by limiting operations and hours of business like bars and restaurants to keep those most susceptible among us safe.

“We know from other major cities that Austin’s community outbreaks are more likely to occur within our most vulnerable populations,” said Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Employees Association, during a (virtual) press conference Monday morning, March 16. “Given that we face an unprecedented situation with the COVID-19 pandemic, community advocates believe it warrants an unprecedented, swift, and necessary response from local and county authorities with the power to save and protect as many of the most vulnerable people as possible.”

With ICUs already at limited capacity, Xie expects critical care transports to increase and urges local leaders to ensure patient treatment supplies like respirators, IV medication pumps, updated ventilators, and portable ultrasound units are well stocked – equipment medical services “don’t have enough of right now,” said Xie.

The crisis is especially daunting for those in overcrowded jails, prisons, and immigrant detention centers, the groups stress. “We know that medical care is less than adequate and there are many deaths in these facilities every year, and in times of crisis, conditions of confinement only worsen,” said Claudia Muñoz, acting executive co-director at Grassroots Leadership.

Immigrants should be able to receive health care regardless of status and be protected from interaction with federal enforcement when accessing those services, Muñoz said. In an effort to decarcerate, organizations also recommend law enforcement limit instances of taking people into custody and should maximize use of cite and release for as many offenses as possible. They’re calling on the courts to reduce activity as well, including suspending Class C misdemeanor cases and probation, parole, and pre-trial meetings.(Since Friday, Travis County courts have begun to suspend many ongoing proceedings.)

As low-wage workers will be among the hardest hit by COVID-19 workplace disruptions, the organizations offer steps that can be taken by city officials and businesses to help working class employees. They say the city should partner with local philanthropic institutions and employers to establish a fund for workers who become unemployed or underemployed due to strained wages.

“We deeply need urgent action [from philanthropic groups] to fend off the impending economic crisis...by creating funds that support hourly wage workers and those working in the domestic and service industries as well as supportive actions to aid the businesses that employ the workers, so when the pandemic passes our people and our city’s livelihood is sustained,” said Kandace Vallejo with Youth Rise Texas.

While a city-wide paid sick leave policy is still under attack from right-wing state leaders, advocacy groups are urging businesses to implement mandatory paid sick leave and expand unemployment insurance eligibility; stop all city construction work; and require all non-essential government employees to work from home. On the housing front, the groups encourage halting water, gas, internet, and phone shut-offs; suspending evictions (commercial and residential) and court proceedings, and passing a rent control ordinance. (Travis County has halted residential evictions; Austin Energy is suspending water and power shut-offs due to unpaid bills and is working with those who've recently been disconnected to restore their service; call 512-494-9400 if you need help.)

“We are asking local elected officials to take bold, decisive steps to do everything in their power to make sure that the most vulnerable workers in our community have the ability to protect themselves from the spread of COVID-19, by making it possible for them to stay home without risking their ability to meet the basic needs of their families,” said Ana Gonzalez with the Workers Defense Project.

The list also includes a recommendation to review the legality of levying a temporary tax on large corporations and wealthy community members to fund initiatives aimed at mitigating the impact of COVID-19.


Demands

Both the City of Austin and Travis County must declare a state of emergency

Public Education

● Implement aggressive public education about the illness, how it spreads, prevention best practices, where and how to seek testing, the appropriate time to call 911, go to the ER, doctor or urgent care, and the safest mode of transportation.

● Actively dispel racist, xenophobic assumptions about the disease through educating the public on how the virus is spread, the data on who is affected, as well as the countries most impacted so far.

● Utilize all channels of communication to ensure that relevant, up-to-date information is available to the public, including websites, email, texting, social media, 311 (including mobile app notifications), neighborhood contacts teams, community liaisons, public radio, postal service, etc.

● Provide facility-based plans for infection and spread prevention, and treatment & quarantine procedures.

● Ensure public education is available in all languages, abilities and modes of comprehension.

● Ensure communications are distributed to citizens in hard copies and mailings not only electronic to ensure community members lacking digital access receive critical notices/information.

Welfare Guarantees

● Halt all water, gas, internet, phone, and utility shut offs.

● Provide residents with a utility payment grace period following the lifting of this state of emergency.

● Restore water, gas, and power to residents that have had it shut off for the duration of the emergency.

● Make emergency food stamps accessible to people in need across the city by supplementing the SNAP program.

● Partner with local philanthropic institutions & employers to establish a fund for all workers that become unemployed or underemployed due to the outbreak to reduce the strain of lost wages.

● Ensure access to food and medicines for low income/vulnerable persons, including eldery, differently-abled, and those with medical conditions that put them at higher risk, and people experiencing homelessness.

● Review the legality of levying a temporary tax on large corporations and wealthy community members to fund initiatives aimed at mitigating the impact of COVID-19.

Housing

● Suspend eviction court proceedings.

● Upon declaring a state of emergency, pass a rent control ordinance to minimize housing instability and moves during the pandemic.

● Halt code enforcement on homeowners.

● Ensure low-income multifamily properties, especially properties which house senior Austinites and Austinites with disabilities, have adequate coronavirus public health signage.

● Provide landlords guidance on cleaning and sanitizing protocols to reduce outbreaks at their properties.

● Provide hand sanitizer stations to all properties that are focused on housing low-income seniors and persons with disabilities.

● Require hotel operators to open a portion of their open rooms to people experiencing homelessness and provide resources to assist with sanitation services.

● Provide healthy, safe environments for those experiencing homelessness to self-quarantine if recommended or required by officials.

Worker Rights

● Require all non-essential government employees to work-from-home immediately.

● Ensure that all essential government personnel who need to continue to work are provided with adequate personal protective equipment so that they may keep themselves and other individuals they may come in contact with safe.

● Ensure childcare is available for all essential government personnel.

● Urge businesses to implement emergency paid sick leave measures to alleviate any economic pressures that may prevent sick employees from staying home.

● Review the legality of establishing emergency paid sick leave requirements for private businesses in areas subject to emergency declarations.

● Encourage local businesses to apply for the Shared Work Program, to participate in Unemployment Insurance in the event of temporary layoffs with a return-to-work date, and to expand unemployment insurance eligibility in any other way possible allowed under state or federal law.

● If employers already do provide paid sick to their employees, local governments should recommend that such employers temporarily waive any doctor’s note requirements, especially if such employers do not also provide their employers with health insurance, so that barriers to healthcare access do not prevent sick employees from staying home.

● Identify and request any state or federal funds that can be used for emergency paid-sick leave by those whose employer does not provide paid-sick leave.

● Halt all city construction so that workers rest and protect their well being on paid sick leave.

● Encourage water, soap, and hand sanitizer to be available at all job sites.

Medical Care

● Create a 24-hour free hotline with access to medical personnel with interpretation services available.

● Provide emergency services personnel with an adequate supply of healthcare equipment, including medication pumps, ventilators, thermometers, and ultrasounds.

● Ensure access to medical care for all people, regardless of immigration status.

● Actively protect noncitizens seeking medical care from interactions with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).

● Ensure adequate protective measures for health care and sanitation workers.

● Establish drive-thru testing centers.

● Require the presence of basic sanitation measures (soap and water) for all building trades.

● Enlist medical schools and university research programs to assist with testing.

Emergency Services

● Provide all emergency services personnel with sufficient sanitizing products and one-page information sheets about COVID-19, for both their own use and to provide to people they encounter on the job

● Ensure all emergency services personnel and other officials who interact with the public have access to sufficient testing and education about the virus for themselves, and other prompt medical care if needed

● Ensure all emergency services personnel are aware that they should not report to work if they themselves are feeling any symptoms and that any leave will be fully compensated

● Release to the public the existing plan for each law enforcement agency for how it plans to assist the public with combatting COVID-19 and with the steps it is taking to ensure the health and safety of the community and all officers.

Schools

● Follow the lead of Houston, Katy, Corpus Christi and other ISDs and suspend all AISD and other college and university classes until further notice.

● Provide nutritious meal pick-up and delivery options for low-income student families.

● Maintain personnel at schools to allow students that need food and a place to be continued access.

● Continue bus service to and from schools for those students that need access.

● Ensure that hand sanitizer is available on all active school buses.

● Allow for inter-agency staffing of schools and child care centers for the duration of closures (allowing for other human services workers including social workers, therapists, to be accessible in community hubs, etc).

Childcare

● Create a fund to ensure childcare options for Parents/Caregivers/Guardians who are affected by COVID_19 and are unable to provide childcare.

● Work with Texas Workforce Commission to ensure families with childcare subsidies are not negatively impacted/do not lose access to care due to changes in their employment related to COVID-19.

Elder Care

● Provide on-site clinic hours ensuring access to testing and medical care.

● Create a fund to ensure eldercare options for Caregivers/Guardians who are affected by COVID-19 and are unable to provide eldercare.

● Provide timely testing and treatment at nursing homes for the elder and the caregivers.

● Encourage neighbors to check on their elderly neighbors who don’t have family or close friends nearby.

Disability Rights

● Immediately suspend or waive lengthy and restrictive processes and procedures for people requiring personal assistance.

● Implement rapid response solutions to fill real or anticipated gaps in health, safety, dignity, and independent living services and supports for people with disabilities.

Public Transportation

● Modify public transportation schedules to reduce rider density.

● Suspend fare collections to assist with the cost of transportation for essential workers.

● Prioritize ensuring availability of MetroAcess for riders with disabilities.

● Ensure that public transportation workers and drivers have access to adequate health protections.

● Ensure that public transportation has a regular and transparent cleaning and sanitizing schedule.

● Ensure that hand sanitizer is available on all public transportation.

● Work with rideshare and taxi companies to provide free transportation to doctor offices and hospitals during this time.

● Ensure the wellbeing of these drivers.

Public Events

● Suspend all mass gatherings and reevaluate weekly.

● Cancel/postpone scheduled public hearings and meetings until conditions are safe for the public to be present and provide comment.

● Delay action on non-emergency response items requiring a public vote, opportunities for public comment and/or community engagement given the public’s inability to participate under current health advisories and closures that prevent participation.

Shelters and Unsheltered People

● Establish shelter requirements to ensure that:

○ Beds/mats are at least 3 feet apart on all sides ○ All clients sleep head-to-toe ○ Temporary barriers exist between beds, such as curtains, if possible ○ A separate bathroom is available for sick people with COVID-19 symptoms, if possible, and ○ Health screenings are available to all shelter occupants.

● For all sheltered and unsheltered people, provide access to hydration, tissues, and plastic bags for the proper disposal of used tissues.

● Portable bathrooms and hand sanitizer should be provided at large homeless camps.

● For all sheltered and unsheltered people with respiratory symptoms, (cough, fever, excessive sneezing), provide surgical masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

● Halt displacement of encampments for unsheltered people experiencing homelessness.

● Provide temporary shelter space to accommodate all currently unsheltered people.

● Create a fund to ensure that these requirements are met, adequate resources are provided for direct service providers managing the homeless response system, and direct service employees are protected.

● Medical co-pays, hospital bills, and other expenses should be waived for testing and treatment in order to encourage medical care.

● Clear protocol for staff at shelters and folks in shelters of steps to take if someone is infected, how to contain it.

Jails

● Provide on-site education (via one-pager or posters) about the illness, how it spreads, and best safety practices inside jail as well as protocol for those potentially infected including those incarcerated as well as jail workers.

● Immediately release everyone currently incarcerated pre-trial unless there is clear evidence that release would present an unreasonable risk to the physical safety of the community.

● Immediately release all elderly people regardless of conviction status unless there is clear evidence that release would present an unreasonable risk to the physical safety of the community.

● Immediately release populations that the CDC (Center for Disease Control) has classified as vulnerable (those with asthma, cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes) unless there is clear evidence that release would present an unreasonable risk to the physical safety of the community.

● Provide soap, CDC-recommended hand sanitizer, medical care, comprehensive sanitation and cleaning of facilities and other safety measures free of charge as recommended by the CDC for those who remain incarcerated.

● Immediately release persons in the jail who are within 6 months of completing their sentence unless there is clear evidence that release would present an unreasonable risk to the physical safety of the community.

● Instruct Courts to review all prison sentences with a release date within 5 years. Anyone elderly, medically vulnerable, or who does not pose a significant risk to the community shall be flagged for immediate release to the board of pardons and parole, and the governor.

● Immediate review of risk factor and reconsideration for release for all remaining incarcerated people regardless of conviction status.

● Eliminate medical co-pays for COVID-19 related services.

● Immediately release all pregnant jailed persons and ensure that any incarceraed pregnant person has access to reproductive healthcare they need, including abortion.

● Provide on-site testing free of charge for any person prior to being booked into the jail.

● Prevent any personnel, guards, supervisors, etc. from coming into the jail/holding facilities if they have undergone air travel in the recent three weeks.

● Halt all detainee work ‘programs’.

Law Enforcement

● Limit contacts, stops, and warrant enforcement to situations where there is a reasonable imminent concern for public or family safety.

● Limit instances of taking people into custody, and taking a person into custody should be a last resort.

● Maximize use of cite and release for as many offenses as possible within a jurisdiction’s policies.

● Even when necessary to place a person under arrest, have all arrestees screened by a medical provider for possible COVID-19 exposure before the person is taken to the local jail/booking facility in order to limit/prevent the potential spread of COVID-19.

Judges & Courts

● Suspend operations of courts handling Class C misdemeanor cases.

● Default to noncustodial sentences wherever possible, including resolutions that avoid immigration detention where outbreak potential is highest.

● Decline to issue “failure to appear” warrants or “bench warrants”.

● If requested by defense counsel, agree to waive clients’ appearance for status court dates (for people both in and out of custody).

● Cancel all probation, parole and pretrial meetings, court-ordered classes, and in-person drug testing, collection of court debt, and modify all reporting conditions to phone-reporting.

● Cancel probation or parole revocation hearings based on technical violations upon request of defense counsel and release those held in custody pending hearings on signature bonds.

● Ensure that people in custody receive a constitutionally-mandated speedy trial.

● Direct any failures to comply with local quarantine orders to the civil court system, not the criminal court system.

● Press prosecutors for a public health/COVID-19-informed justification for any actions/requests that would bring folks into courthouses, jails, and prisons. Ensure those justifications are on the record for public scrutiny.

● Extend unlimited paid sick leave to all employees that work at the courthouse.

Pretrial, Probation & Parole

● Suspend all probation, parole and pretrial meetings, court-ordered classes, and in-person drug testing.

● Modify reporting conditions to phone-reporting wherever possible.

● Limit use of electronic monitoring and home confinement.

● Ensure electronic monitoring and home confinement conditions allow people to seek medical help and care for family members.

Prosecutors

● Decline criminal charges whenever possible and divert to public health, community, and civil court solutions with return date 6 months out.

● For charges not declined, reduce as many as possible to citations or non-warrant, non-arrest charges, and make the return date 6 months out.

● Agree to the release of people from custody without bail or in-person check-in with pretrial services.

● Refuse to ask the court to issue “failure to appear” warrants or, “bench warrants” and agree to jointly waive the appearance of people who are out-of-custody.

● Work with defense attorneys and courts to ensure that people in custody receive a constitutionally-mandated speedy trial.

● Default to noncustodial sentences wherever possible, including resolutions that avoid immigration detention where outbreak potential is highest.

● Direct any failures to comply with local quarantine orders to the civil court system, not the criminal court system.

● Provide a public health/COVID-19-informed justification for any actions/requests that would bring folks into courthouses, jails, and prisons. Ensure those justifications are on the record for public scrutiny.

● Extend paid sick leave to all employees, including those with temporary/part-time employment status.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

coronavirus, COVID-19, Grassroots Leadership, Claudia Muñoz, Austin Travis County EMS Employees, ATCEMSEA, SELENA XIE, Youth Rise Texas, Kandace Vallejo, Workers Defense Project, Ana Gonzalez

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