When Child Welfare Cases Police Women in Their Homes

In the fast-gentrifying neighborhood of Harlem, you could sort most families into two categories, according to Joyce McMillan. There are those who have never given a thought to the idea that a government agency might threaten to remove their child. And then there are those who live with the fear that one wrong move could mean a child protective investigator will come knocking. If you’re wealthy and white, you likely fall in the first category. And if you’re poor and of color, chances are that you or someone close to you has experienced the terror of a child welfare investigation launched on dubious grounds.  

Over her years as a family advocate in the New York City neighborhood, McMillan, who founded the Parent Legislative Action Network, has heard many of these stories: teachers reporting families when kids are showing up late to school; emergency room doctors who don’t give poor parents the benefit of the doubt; vengeful ex-boyfriends making false allegations. That’s why when Covid-19 hit, McMillan posted a flier on every floor of a Harlem family shelter with the message to call her if child protective services knocked. She figured that with the city shut down, parents being investigated for child maltreatment would feel more scared and alone than ever.

But what McMillan has instead found is closer to a collective sigh of relief when it comes to child protective services. Parents who were already being investigated were pleased when much of the scrutiny moved out of their homes and online. One parent told her, “They’re not opening my refrigerator. They’re not opening my dresser drawers. They’re not strip-searching my children and they’re not asking me to take their clothes off for the camera, because that would be child pornography.” Other parents who have lived with the fear of future investigation say less contact with teachers means less worry that they’re going to be accused of mistreatment for “frivolous” reasons, says McMillan.

Data suggests parents are not imagining the change. Ever since schools around the country closed and children have sheltered at home, there has been a steep drop in calls to child maltreatment hotlines. One analysis estimates a drop of more than 200,000 allegations of child maltreatment in the U.S. reported in March and April over previous years. In New York City, child abuse reports dipped by 51% compared to the same eight-week period last year, according to the New York Times.

For kids experiencing real abuse, the closures and home confinement during coronavirus can mean danger if their cases aren’t investigated. Some ER doctors have said they are seeing fewer children, but more severe pediatric injuries linked to child abuse. And research has linked child mistreatment to heightened stress and economic hardship — two things rampant during this time of pandemic and protest. With families sheltering out of sight of teachers and other professionals who are legally mandated to report their suspicions, child advocates fear that mistreatment is going undetected and unreported.

“The risk to children increases when contact with mandated reporters, such as teachers and health care providers decreases,” Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark told the BronxTimes.

But there’s another side to this story: Some parents living in neighborhoods with historically high rates of child welfare investigations say the dramatic dip in maltreatment reports feels more like the pollution lifting — a much-needed respite from the intense and relentless surveillance of low-income moms, and especially those who are black and Latinx.

“I’ve been speaking to families and they’re saying they aren’t under the scrutiny of teachers,” says McMillan. “It’s feeling like a relief. We’ve been celebrating and ramping up the campaign around why mandated reporting is not necessary.”

McMillan likens the pre-lockdown tactics to the aggressive policing of young black and Latinx men, only for women, and in the most private of spaces: their own homes. “We’re casting a really wide net and shaking down families, and if we’re lucky, we find something,” she says.

Tips or “reports” to child maltreatment hotlines are how cities identify which children may not be safe at home. Anyone can make a report, but most come from teachers and other professionals who work with children and are required by law to report suspicions of abuse or neglect. For parents who are the subjects of these tips, the ensuing 60-day child welfare investigation can be a blunt, invasive instrument, one that involves unannounced home visits, body checks of kids, and interviews with a family’s teachers and neighbors. But the majority of tips and reports are never substantiated: Fewer than one in five of children investigated are found to be victims of abuse and neglect.

These allegations are not distributed equally by race and class. One study estimates that only 10% of Asian children and 23% of white children will experience a child welfare investigation before age 18. For African-American children, that percentage blows up to more than half, or 53%. In New York City, even among community districts with similar poverty rates, neighborhoods with higher concentrations of black and Latinx residents had, overall, higher rates of investigation, one analysis found. Nor does casting such a wide net come cheap. Philadelphia spends upward of $81 million in investigations alone.

Sam Chafee, a spokesman for New York City’s Administration of Child Services, said his agency is “very aware of and concerned about” racial bias in his own agency, and in other child services agencies across the U.S. He said his own staff members participate in implicit bias training, but that other individuals who are mandated to report suspicions of abuse should also be required to undergo training “so that reports to the SCR [Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse] are objective and result in help for children when truly needed.”

Like McMillan, Chris Gottlieb, co-director of NYU School of Law Family Defense Clinic, suspects that mandated reporting may do more harm than good. With so few reports substantiated, says Gottlieb, cities are “misdirecting resources away from the small percentage of cases where there is serious abuse, and away from what they should be used for, which is much-needed services like housing and health care.”

She’d like to see research comparing whether harm to children actually increased while children sheltered with their parents. “I think this could be a test where the numbers end up showing that we don’t need the mandated reporter system at all.”

Proponents of mandated reporting point to the cases of abuse that go undetected, and say it is preferable to err on the side of caution rather than allow children to suffer. Without mandated reporting, they fear, no one person will feel the responsibility to alert authorities to a child’s potential abuse or neglect. The question for advocates like Gottlieb is: How many of those unreported cases are actually solved by the current system, relative to the harm done by investigations.

“In neighborhoods that are inundated with Children’s Services, you get to the tipping point where it’s generally understood that this is a government authority that comes into a neighborhood and abuses its authority,” says Gottlieb. In these neighborhoods, the acronym of the child welfare organization, ACS, can be so well-known that it is batted around in schoolyard chatter as a threatening force akin to the police, Gottlieb adds. “People see Children’s Services as dangerous threats to their family.”

Before the pandemic, some parents worried constantly about their children getting hurt in the schoolyard only to have a teacher or doctor point the finger at them, says Nancy Fortunato, senior parent leader at Rise, an organization for parents with child welfare involvement. Fortunato knows one mother who, after enduring multiple investigations, began photographing her children each morning before they left for school so she had proof that they left her care unharmed. Another mother she knows lost her job for chronic lateness while trying to comply with the many service referrals by a child welfare investigator.

These parents, like parents everywhere, are now facing a cocktail of pandemic-related struggles: job loss, homeschooling children with disabilities, anxiety, depression, isolation, and loneliness. Many are also struggling with issues related to poverty, such as homelessness. But the stakes of showing their stress are different.

These last few months, as the smartphones of middle- and upper-class parents have flooded with reassuring articles about how it’s important to take it easy when it comes to remote schooling and to be gentle on yourself and your kids, Jessica Marcus has been charting a very different message sent to the low-income parents she works with. In what she fears may be the beginnings of a disturbing trend, Marcus, a supervising attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, says her office has seen a handful of new clients who say when they called their children’s schools asking for help accessing the internet or securing devices for remote learning, the schools reported them to child protective services on suspicions of educational neglect. “Our clients find that when they ask for help, instead of help they get a report,” says Marcus.

The threat of child removal prevents many families from going to child care workers who might help them connect to crucial resources. While many child welfare systems have allocated more of their budgets to providing supports to stabilize vulnerable families, what is known as “foster care prevention,” advocates say the threat of monitoring and family break-up motivates parents to keep their distance.

Like Marcus, New York City parent advocates interviewed for this story all know parents who say teachers have directly or indirectly threatened to notify child welfare services for issues related to remote learning, like if a parent doesn’t turn the camera on during a class meeting. Nonetheless, they say that with school moved online, the monitoring of their parenting now is a whisper of what it once was.

Fortunato, who has herself been investigated, cautions parents not to get too comfortable with the quiet. “You always have to dot your I’s and cross your T’s, because tomorrow, when kids go back to school, child welfare will start knocking on people’s doors. …Those kids that didn’t do remote learning as they should, that’s educational neglect. Those kids that didn’t go see their doctors, that’s medical neglect.”

In an alternate future envisioned by Gottlieb, community members may be more empathetic after months of living through a pandemic —  and then national racial justice protests.

The litmus test, Gottlieb says: “When things reopen, will a teacher who sees a child coming to school in dirty clothes be as quick to pick up the phone, or will they reach out to the parent and say: Are you having trouble with quarters for the laundry machine? Can we help you?”

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Amid Protest and Pandemic, Urban Parks Show Their Worth

During this extraordinary time in America’s cities — weeks of coronavirus lockdowns followed by mass protests against police violence and racial inequality — one theme runs through the twinned crises: the power and value of public spaces.

The nation’s parks experienced a surge of use during the pandemic that closed stores and businesses and kept so many Americans isolated in private. Since March, when coronavirus restrictions in the U.S. were enforced en masse, still-open city park facilities saw soaring numbers of visitors. Popular trails in Dallas, which tracks visitors, saw usage climb from 30% to 75% in march. In Minneapolis, during the still-cold month of March, trails experienced summertime levels of usage. Erie, Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle State Park saw visitor numbers jump 165% year-over-year during the third week of March.

“Parks are the most valuable resource in the city at this point,” says J. Nicholas Williams, director of the Parks, Recreation and Youth Development Department in Oakland, which has also seen an uptick in visitors in the last few months.

Then came the protests over the killing of George Floyd on May 25, triggering a wave of mass demonstrations that, in venues such as Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., and Cal Anderson Park in Seattle, are using these same public spaces as stages for protest. That, too, is part of the critical role they play in urban life.

“The thing I tell people about parks and public spaces is they can be platforms for equity, and the events of the last week in America show the public realm is the essential platform for equity,” says James Hardy, Akron, Ohio’s deputy mayor for integrated development, who focuses on parks and public space. “It’s especially evident when the press and disregarded members of our community need these spaces to communicate truth to power.”

But amid this rediscovery of the value of parks, steep budget cuts now loom: City tax revenue is drying up, the need to provide additional protective gear for staff is expensive, and funds from special permits and fees, from athletic events to large outdoor concerts, may be small or non-existent during this socially distanced summer. The ongoing protests against police brutality and inequality both highlight the importance of public space for civil action and engagement and likely add to repair and maintenance costs.

A survey from the National Recreation and Park Association in mid-April of more than 300 park commissioners found half had been asked to make budget cuts this year between 10% and 20%, and many have already instituted hiring freezes or laid off part-time and seasonal staff. New York City faces a $61.3 million cut in its park budget. Coming shortfalls may mean delayed maintenance, shelved plans and deteriorating facilities.

“This is a critical time for public space, perhaps more than we’ve seen in past decades,” says Bridget Marquis, director of the Civic Commons Learning Network, a national nonprofit initiative focused on public spaces. “We’re seeing the gaps and how we’ve let them erode in many places.”

According to Parks and the Pandemic, a report issued last month by the Trust for Public Land, cities are repurposing this open space in ways that aid the civic response to the coronavirus. Toledo, Ohio’s botanical garden, for example, has been transformed into a Covid-19 test site. The report also highlights how the coronavirus, and the nation’s response to it, has accelerated existing divides and inequality. Despite big investments in signature parks like the reconstructed Brooklyn Waterfront or the $100 million expansion of Klyde Warren Park in downtown Dallas, a widespread lack of equitable access to green space remains. That gap stands to widen further with Covid-related budget cuts.

But there’s some cautious hope here, too: This convergence of crises could ultimately help convince local leaders and the public to reconsider the importance of public space, and even see parks as part of a broader plan for economic and social recovery.

“We’re optimistic and excited around the top-to-bottom interest in this issue,” says Benita Hussain, director of the Trust for Public Land’s 10-Minute Walk campaign. “There are challenges, but there is a lot of hope, because the will politically to make public space and parks remain a priority is there.”

Hussain leads the Trust for Public Land’s signature initiative, which calls for making sure every American is within a 10-minute walk to a public park or green space. That goal is far from being realized, with 100 million Americans, and 27 million children, lacking such access. In some cities — such as Charlotte, Oklahoma City, and Mesa, Arizona —  less than half of residents live that close to a public recreation facility.

“We haven’t been investing in civic infrastructure, parks, and trails,” says Marquis. “I hate to say there’s a silver lining to Covid-19, but it’s a time to recognize what we prioritize in this country. I hope part of the legacy will be an equitable and resilient investment strategy in the public realm.”

It’s not hard to find examples of the public’s new appetite for public space in the midst of a pandemic. While so many places to congregate have closed or changed, parks and public spaces still provide places to relax and decompress while maintaining social distance.

“The Covid-19 response, while clearly necessary, created a huge burden of cabin fever, loneliness, anxiety, stress, and personal loss,” Howard Frumkin, professor emeritus of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington School of Public Health, told the report’s authors.

Before the coronavirus crisis hit, park finances were on the upswing, according to Charlie McCabe, a city parks researcher with the Trust for Public Land. Public funding for city parks hit roughly $8 billion nationwide in 2019, a slight increase from the last few years, as the robust pre-pandemic economy allowed some cities to invest in improving and reconstructing parks, McCabe says, spending money on newly popular amenities such as dog parks and splash pads, as well as recreation and senior centers.  

This resurgence was long delayed: After increasing 15% between 2003 and 2007, city spending on parks plummeted 22% as the Great Recession arrived in 2008, according to the NRPA. Spending was slow to recover. By 2013, parks represented just 1.9% of local government spending, down from 2.2% in 2000.

Coronavirus has forced city park departments to respond to fast-changing public health rules and needs. In addition to opening up trails, adapting space to social distancing, and converting golf courses to parks, a third of park and recreation departments are also offering emergency services, says Kevin Roth, vice president of research, evaluation, and technology at the NRPA. This includes converting recreation centers to shelters, delivering meals, setting up testing sites, and providing day care to children of first responders and health care workers.

“It’s really quite challenging now,” says McCabe. “Many amenities, especially the ones that have been invested in heavily in recent years, have closed due to concerns over close contact, while parks have needed to quickly adapt to provide enough access to walk and bike on trails and open fields, which often get crowded.

Hussain says many park departments are cutting costs by engaging citizens to help; Rochester, New York, has instituted a pack-in pack-out trash policy, similar to what’s seen at national parks. There’s also a legislative push in Congress to get the Great American Outdoors Act, which would add $900 million annually to the Land and Water Conservation Fund and help address the maintenance backlog for the nation’s parks.*

Demonstrators observe a moment of silence during a protest over the killing of George Floyd by in Brooklyn’s McCarren Park on June 3. (Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Still other park advocates and staff see this moment of crisis as the right time to make the case for parks as key parts of larger economic recovery, and community investment plans, especially commercial corridors hard hit by both the pandemic and damage during ongoing protests. It’s not just savvy political thinking, but a smart way to integrate smaller, community-focused green space in neighborhood-level development.

In Detroit, where the city faces a $348 million budget shortfall over the next 16 months, park officials point to the ongoing Strategic Neighborhood Fund, a public-private initiative focused on building up commercial corridors across the city, as a model that can help make parks part of broader initiatives. The program, which has made parks and streetscape improvements pillars of the process, aims to make green spaces part of inclusive economic development; that may mean including parks in housing programs, and looking beyond traditional standalone “trees and recreation” thinking to figuring out how parks can fit into larger projects.

“The city just emerged from bankruptcy five years ago, so we’ve been doing economic recovery here ever since,” says Alexa Bush, a design director for Detroit.

Akron’s newly created Office of Integrated Development also focuses on making parks part of larger investments in neighborhoods and civic infrastructure. Hardy, the city’s deputy mayor for integrated development, says that parks programs by themselves can struggle to get funding but fare better when included in larger programs about job access and the quality of public space.

Despite facing an estimated 20% decrease in municipal funding this year, Akron plans to focus on projects and priorities in traditionally redlined and lower-income neighborhoods first, says Hardy. It’s all about being strategic and prioritizing the places that need it the most. Parks, community centers, and libraries are always the easiest to eliminate, Hardy says; he cautions that policymakers desperately need to do the opposite, doubling or tripling investments in public space. He fears that city leaders may look at the protests of the last week and see parks as a thing to cut, to limit the liability that comes from mass civic action. That mindset will only deepen the inequality.

“Part of the reason people have been protesting is disinvestment in public spaces to begin with, especially in black neighborhoods,” he says. “Parks and park access are part of the large narrative of racism and discrimination against African Americans.”

To the extent possible, Akron is trying to say no to cuts, and view recreation as an essential public service. That’s a paradigm shift, and one that, post-Covid, park managers hope becomes standard practice.

“Parks are as important as roads and bridges, they’re not something to get to later,” Hardy says. “They’re where people from different backgrounds come together and find themselves on equal footing. They’re essential to the American experiment, and this is a great opportunity to make that argument.”   

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story did not accurately describe this legislation.

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Cleaning Workers Fight Coronavirus, at Their Own Risk

Earlier this month, as coronavirus infections surged in Seattle, the downtown office building where Lilliana works started to empty out. Employees were heeding the call to work from home to limit the transmission of the disease.

But Lilliana had to keep showing up: A day porter for a local property services contractor, she vacuums the floors, empties the trash, and wipes down surfaces at a multi-tenant commercial property. (She asked CityLab not to use her name because she didn’t want to risk losing her job.)

Now Lilliana’s job comes with the pressure of protecting others as well as herself from Covid-19. Half a mile from where an Amazon employee tested positive for the virus earlier this month — eliciting a company-wide office shutdown — she isn’t confident that she had the tools to do it.

“My supervisor says, ‘Everything is like normal, wear your gloves and wash your hands,’” she said. “But personally, I think that the priority is the tenants. I wish we had more information.”

America’s 4.4 million janitors and domestic workers are on the frontlines of the fight to “flatten the curve,” scrubbing down surfaces where pathogens might live. A predominantly immigrant workforce, these workers report to large institutions, third-party service contractors, and domestic labor platforms. Many domestic workers, especially, are self-employed; they’re caring not only for a house but for the elderly or young people inside it. Virtually all of them hustled to meet the booming sanitation demands amid a rapidly evolving pandemic. And now, some of them are feeling the economic burden in a shifting job market.

As coronavirus infections lit up communities throughout the U.S., the demand for cleaning workers has grown. Offices, schools, transit systems, malls, restaurants and other businesses are now seeking anti-viral scrub-downs, and help-wanted ads for cleaners are projected to spike 75% in March compared to the same time last year on the jobs platform ZipRecruiter. On Snagajob, another online jobs posting marketplace, cleaning jobs doubled in the last two weeks, as did applicants who said they were looking for cleaning jobs, according Mathieu Stevenson, the company’s CEO.

But being a cleaner — and especially a new or inexpert one — comes with risks that this pandemic could magnify. Already these workers handle corrosive chemicals, haul heavy objects, and come into contact with potentially infectious garbage. Now they are contending with the presence of a dangerous coronavirus on the surfaces they’re cleaning, and some say that they aren’t being provided with adequate training or personal protective equipment. Lilliana says she’s been provided with gloves and eye protection, but with N-95 respirators in short supply globally, her crew is working without them. “We’ve gotten nothing,” Lilliana said. She wishes that she and her colleagues had face masks, hand sanitizer, and better health-care resources to protect their own immune systems as their jobs turn into what she describes as “constant disinfection.”

Some workers worry that the materials they’re now being asked to use might be risky. Albina Kalabic, a janitor who cleans one of Amazon’s office buildings in Seattle, said that her colleagues experienced skin and eye irritations from a powerful hospital-grade disinfectant sprayed by a special cleaning crew that serviced the property as a precaution. Virex, a cleaning agent that has become the industry’s weapon of choice to fight coronavirus, can also cause rashes and burns.

Asked for comment, an Amazon spokesperson stated that products in use contracted janitorial staff are not new and are being mixed and applied in compliance with federal standards. “Safety is a top priority for Amazon, both with our own employees the employees of our service providers, such as janitorial staff,” she said.

Meanwhile, as Americans are scrubbing their own kitchen counters and doorknobs, commercial cleaning operations are becoming more labor-intensive. “It used to be that my job was to just clean one floor, and starting this week, it’s going to be double,” said Amir Kalabic, Amina’s husband, who is also a janitor at Amazon. “It’s becoming a quantity job, instead of a quality job.”

Some large West Coast employers, including Microsoft, Google, and Facebook, have promised to pay their entire workforce, from janitor to engineers, for the duration of the Covid-19 crisis, regardless of whether or not they’re working. But not all are so lucky. The policy at Alliance Building Services, a contractor that supplies more than 750 janitors to properties around Seattle, is for employees to use regular vacation or sick days in case they fall ill with the novel coronavirus. The company has also forgone extra training or protective equipment for employees.

“It’s just a flu — a very contagious, fast-spreading flu — but it’s just a flu, so it’s easy to kill,” said Scott Smith, the principal of the company.

In a sense, he’s right, epidemiologists say: Like the coronaviruses that cause the common cold and seasonal influenza, the novel coronavirus that brings on Covid-19 is vulnerable to such standard interventions as soap, water, bleach, UV light, and alcohol-based cleaners. But once the virus gets transmitted, Covid-19 appears to have a far higher mortality rate than the seasonal flu, especially for older people or those with compromised immune systems.

Should they contract the virus, lower-income immigrant workers may also be among the most vulnerable populations, because they often struggle to access medical care and public health information in their own language, and may lack the financial resources to stock up on food and medicines. As immigration enforcement agencies continue to make arrests during the Covid-19 crisis, some immigrants may avoid hospitals or government-affiliated institutions entirely.

The Kalabics and Cepeda have some measure of occupational defense — all three are members of the SEIU, a labor union for service workers across the U.S. But lots of cleaning professionals aren’t. Domestic workers and housekeepers, many of them immigrants and most of them women, are largely self-employed. Some are now being asked to work in potentially high-risk homes with few protections.

“These families or homeowners are not putting in their request for a cleaner as, ‘I just recently started having symptoms and I’m staying home because I may have the coronavirus,’” said Rocío Alejandra Ávila, the National Domestic Worker Alliance’s California State Policy Director and Staff Attorney. “They’re in self-quarantine, so they’re all frantic, and they don’t want to do it themselves. But the person coming in is not getting a heads up.”

Laws created to keep workers healthy rarely apply to self-employed cleaners who primarily care for private homes; for example, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) excludes them entirely from its protections. Advocates say this exemption is a product of discrimination against the black women who dominated the domestic workforce when many labor laws were first drafted in the 1930s. “There are currently no standards in place to make sure domestic workers aren’t coming to work when it might endanger their health,” said Julie Kashen, the senior policy advisor for the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

These gaps became clear during California’s fire season last year, when many housekeepers showed up to clean houses in mandatory evacuation areas. They had been asked to stay to take care of clients’ pets, or were left behind as an oversight — their clients just hadn’t told them to stay home. Advocates are pushing new legislation that would include domestic workers in California’s OSHA protections, says Kimberly Alvarenga, the director of the California Domestic Workers Coalition. Because the legislature has suspended its session amid the Covid-19 emergency, however, a resolution may be far off.

If domestic workers get sick, many will also find it harder to take time off, which introduces a risk of infecting the families they care for, or the families they leave at home. Of the 2.5 million domestic workers in the country, 82% do not have sick leave, said Kashen; worker’s compensation coverage is slim, and varies by state, and unemployment insurance is nonexistent.

“Domestic workers hold the economy up on a day-to-day basis: They make it so that everybody else gets to go to work,” said Alvarenga. “At this moment, they’re on the front lines of this, in terms of economic impact. And there are no safety nets for them.”

Some gig economy platforms that help cleaning workers book jobs are offering additional measures and protections during the Covid-19 emergency. Ariel Rothbard, a spokesperson for TaskRabbit, said that the company has sent emails to all users with WHO’s coronavirus prevention recommendations, and “advised them to prioritize their health, in order to keep our TaskRabbit community safe.” Snagajob has upped its mandatory training for cleaners to include coronavirus precautions, said Stevenson.

TaskRabbit and Snagajob are also waiving normal penalties for canceling a job within 24 hours of a booking. Snagajob’s Stevenson said that he also planned to permanently remove the requirement that workers provide a doctor’s note if they’re sick, or risk negative ratings on the app. “This is a group of workers for whom health care is not always readily accessible,” he said; a constant reality that the current crisis only made starker.

Stevenson says that they’re looking into providing free weekly coronavirus testing to all workers on the platform, to provide peace of mind to employers and employees. (That could prove difficult, given the current lack of testing availability in the U.S.) Handy, another such platform, did not respond to requests for comment.

Self-employed domestic workers are also facing unique financial challenges as coronavirus bears down. For one, most must provide their own cleaning supplies, and as the stakes of disinfection are raised, Ávila says employers have been asking their cleaners for more potent and specific products — yet another added cost they have to take on themselves.

Anabel Garcia, a house cleaner and landscaper who lives in Santa Rosa, California, said through a Spanish interpreter that she has entered homes without knowing if they contain sick residents. While only one of her clients has asked for (and provided) extra-strength cleaning supplies, she says that the burden of buying gloves and face masks has fallen on her alone.

But that burden may be soon be replaced by another one: Garcia’s jobs for the next week have mostly been canceled. For even as demand for disinfection initially surged, domestic work opportunities are likely to shrink as more people shelter in place, and offices, schools, and large institutional spaces shutter. Cleaners who are part of the Facebook group House Cleaning, Laundry, and More Tips are already reporting waning demand, with clients canceling shifts last-minute for fear of catching the illness or because they are no longer able to afford the service. Some cleaners themselves chose not to show up to a house for fear of being a vector for disease.

“Now that this crisis is happening and hitting everybody, domestic workers and other low wage immigrant workers are going to feel it the worst,” said Alvarenga. “They don’t have anybody to take care of their children, they don’t have the ability to access a lot of the rental assistance programming because of their [immigration] status, and they don’t have access to unemployment insurance.”

A special elite of cleaning workers are getting extra training to face the pandemic. Nik Lahiri, the owner of California-based Essel Environmental Engineering and Staffing, has been relying on Craigslist to recruit hundreds of new employees to serve on hazmat crews for the surge in demand for building disinfections that he foresees in the coming months. New hires undergo three to five days of intensive training, and usually come with some previous experience of cleaning up after natural disasters or viral outbreaks.

“When the rest of the world is losing their minds, houses and jobs, that’s when people rely on us to come through,” Lahiri said. “It’s our duty to have people ready that are properly trained and aren’t just picked up off the street.”

Changes may be coming for some unionized workers. Amid the outbreak, David Huerta, the president of SEIU West, a chapter representing about 23,000 janitors among many other service professionals up and down the West Coast, said that the national organization is currently bargaining with employers and will soon present a list of demands for workers, including access to health care, paid time-off and information, training, and proper safety equipment.

“This is going to be a huge challenge, keeping up with every workplace, every property, every apartment complex, everyone,” said Huerta. “We never really realize how important cleaning is until we realize that there’s an epidemic out there that’s just beginning to spread.”

And while cleaners themselves are proud to be part of the solution to this public health crisis, they don’t want to be erased, said Cepeda. “We’re trying to keep this virus out of the buildings and keep all the people safe,” she said. “But I’m a human being. We want to feel safe too.”

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Why Norway Is Banning its Residents From Their Own Vacation Homes

Don’t even think about socially isolating from coronavirus in a vacation home. This was the message from Norway’s government this weekend, as the global coronavirus pandemic started to spread across the country. Prime Minister Erna Solberg spoke Saturday to order urbanites holed up in rural cabins to return to their regular homes in the cities. On Monday, the government doubled down, warning that anyone not staying at their home address faced a fine of 20,000 Norwegian Crowns ($1,952) or 15 days in jail.

The penalties are harsh, but there is reasoning behind them. Summer houses are extremely common across Scandinavia, while the permanent population of many rural areas is small and often thinly spread. Picturesque areas such as Hallingdal, a mountain valley halfway between Norway’s two largest cities, have wildly fluctuating populations, with only 21,000 residents in winter but 120,000 in summer.

Small-town mayors have been warning that if large numbers of people decamp to their municipalities from Oslo and Bergen and then fall ill, things could get ugly. Not only would the virus be likely to spread faster, but local hospital facilities might be unable to deal with the volume of sick patients. City-dwellers are thus much better off staying home where hospital beds and health care will be more widely available if needed, the argument goes.

This message may resonate with people in other parts of the world, where rural facilities also typically have far more limited capacity. Few other countries are likely to see population fluctuations from summer homes quite as dramatic as Norway’s, so the risks may not be quite as high. But if enough people relocate from their current homes to socially isolate in more pastoral settings, local governments’ capacity to plan for treatment will be affected. It’s at least worth thinking about what your health-care options might be before you set off.

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How Ride-Hailing Companies Can Use Their Powers to Do Good

Dear Ride-Hailing Companies: As someone who has spent my career working on how to move people through cities, I have some advice about how to use your powers for good.

For ride-hailing companies, this is a time of reflection and strategic realignment. The two biggest U.S. players, Uber and Lyft, have gone public and are facing pressure to become profitable. This is looking harder when not just New York City but also Seattle and Los Angeles have recognized the full extent of the hardships faced by your drivers and are working to ensure they make a fair wage. On top of that, human drivers aren’t disappearing in favor of driverless cars as soon as some thought they would a few years ago. Even the federal government, which traditionally left for-hire regulation to local and, controversially, state governments, is now interested in setting some ground rules for you.  

Your companies are starting to reflect this new environment. Uber did three rounds of layoffs and has a new(ish) CEO. You’re becoming more multi-modal, incorporating bikes and scooters and integrating better with public transit. You are hiring more staffers with transportation and government bona fides.

Cynically, this could be seen as window dressing. But I’m not cynical. I’ll take this as a sign that you now know your long-term success lies in deepening your transportation expertise and better aligning with what cities really need to succeed. You recognize that success requires becoming the real partners of cities that you say you want to be.

Here’s how to use your powers for good.

Solve problems cities really have

You were right. Taxi service in many cities ranged from pretty good to awful. Even public transit, biking, and walking devotees sometimes need a ride, and you improved that experience. Promises of ending private-car ownership were premature. Yes, some people, like me, were able to give up their cars and still have a way to get a sick kid to the doctor or an outdoorsy spouse to the mountains, thanks to ride-hailing and car share. But this is mostly because I already live in a walkable city, in a neighborhood with good public transit.

So, let’s work on a different problem, closely aligned with cities’ needs. Big, dense cities require high-capacity buses and trains to move people efficiently. They don’t need people opting for a private ride when there’s a good public option. Even shared rides are too inefficient. Integrating your ride-hailing apps with public transit and shared bike and scooter options were good moves. What can you do to make public transit or other high-efficiency modes work better?

Smaller cities and suburbs might be an even bigger opportunity. Can you set up shared rides suburbanites will actually use to get to commuter rail instead of driving two miles and parking? Working with multiple smaller governments takes time, but communities not dense enough for quality traditional public transit are a real opportunity, and so are places dominated by a large institutions, such as college towns that are faced with growing populations and limited parking. You are doing some of this. Making it sustainable is really hard. Don’t stop trying!

Mitigate the problems you’re exacerbating for cities

Last year, more U.S. cyclists and pedestrians were killed in traffic than in any year since 1990. Congestion is a systemic problem in many cities and an acute problem, occurring at specific times and places in most. In Manhattan, 30 percent of traffic is from ride-hail vehicles. In downtown San Francisco, it’s 20 to 26 percent of traffic.

Trying to deflect responsibility for congestion by pointing out other causes misses the point. Instead of pointing elsewhere or trying to make the speculative case that you’ll somehow actually decrease congestion, raise your hand and say what you can do to make it better.

One way is to get serious about double-parked cars. You should direct your drivers to stop where they won’t double-park, such as in a loading zone. Where there aren’t enough loading zones, partner with cities to create more, and establish robust monitoring and incentives to ensure your vehicles use them. This requires behavior change, but fortunately you are the masters of nudges. You’re already optimizing for better pickup points, especially for shared rides. Projects like this are underway in places like Washington, D.C., Vancouver and Boston. Do more of this!

Solve important problems

It’s hard for an agency official worrying about bus speeds to feel kinship with you when you are developing an on-demand helicopter service. Helping people get their food delivery faster might matter for your business, but to most of us this sounds frivolous. Instead, tell cities how you can keep your cars from obstructing bus travel.  

Become credible advocates for progressive transportation policy

There have been times, such as when you supported the push for congestion pricing in New York State, when you advocated for progressive transportation policy. Improve your effectiveness and credibility as progressive voices in transportation by doing the right thing on matters already within your control—like right-sizing your fleets. Regulations shouldn’t be needed to get you to stop adding more drivers to your platform than you need. Regulation also shouldn’t be needed to get you to provide good wheelchair-accessible service. You could improve street safety and air quality by phasing out huge SUVs. Your policy teams likely have long lists of what they would like to do within your companies. Listen to and empower them.

Play nice

Being a partner requires trust. Earn this. Enough with your publicity firms fighting cities. Enough running to state or provincial legislatures asking them to take away cities’ authority over their streets. Enough misleading emails to drivers and customers. Enough litigation.

Use your powers for good

I’ve followed you closely for a long time now. Your people are smart and most of them want to do the right thing. I can’t wait to see you apply that ambition and talent to the serious, but solvable, problems facing cities. That’s the long game.

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There’s No App for Getting People Out of Their Cars

Fewer concepts are trendier in urban mobility circles right now than the idea of “Mobility as a Service” (MaaS). Boosters of the concept hail it as a means of weaning commuters off privately owned automobiles via technology platforms that allow them to easily book and plan trips across an array of urban transportation services—including transit, bikeshare, ride hail, e-scooters, and more. If you can make MaaS platforms painless to use, the story goes, people will happily ditch private cars, leaving our cities cleaner and safer.

That’s a laudable goal. But is technology alone capable of achieving it? Without the support of a mix of policy carrots and sticks, it’s hard to see how.

To understand why, please join me in a quick thought experiment. Think of a friend who drives herself to and from work every day (this shouldn’t be difficult; more than three of every four Americans do) but who could feasibly switch to another mode if she chose to.

Got someone in mind? Good.

Now, which of these four options would be most likely to compel your friend to stop driving to work? 1) Doubling the frequency of public transit in her city; 2) creating new protected bike lanes for the length of her commute; 3) doubling the cost of parking permits at home and work; or 4) launching a new app that lets her plan and pay for trips across all available transportation services (other than driving).

I’ve asked this question to many of my own friends. Their choices vary, but I have yet to meet anyone who picks the fourth option.

It’s not that MaaS apps like Transit App, Whim, or Berlin’s Jelbi aren’t helpful in nudging people away from driving—they are. It’s annoying to have to flip between apps to find the cheapest or most convenient way to get between two places; by removing that hassle, MaaS platforms lower one barrier to living a car-free lifestyle.

The problem is that this particular barrier isn’t the highest one. After all, seamlessly choosing across transit, e-scooter, and bikeshare isn’t that helpful if the bus only runs once an hour, or you have to ride that scooter or bike on a street shared with cars and trucks zooming by at 45 miles per hour.

“You can’t create the mode shift cities are looking for without repurposing infrastructure,” says Jeff Marootian, director of the District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation, which has been adding dedicated bike lanes and micromobiltiy corrals in the nation’s capital. He supports the MaaS goal of reduced car dependence—but “technology alone won’t get us to [the vision of] MaaS.”

Still, most MaaS discussions to date revolve around the technology, not the asphalt and rails that these mobility services rest upon. One framework attempts to define levels of MaaS sophistication, culminating in Level 6, where “inputs and outputs of any journey will help feed and derive other dynamic interfaces.” The model makes no mention of transit service levels or street infrastructure. Neither does the description of MaaS offered by the MaaS Alliance, an industry-supported advocacy group, though it does note the “new business models” MaaS could launch. Indeed, it’s understandable why software and logistics companies might see more market potential in integrated mobility platforms than in new bike lanes or expanded transit service. Such incentives may explain some of MaaS’s technocentrism.

Politics also nudges MaaS conversations toward technical solutions. After all, no one “loses” when it becomes easier to travel across urban transport services; drivers’ commutes are unaffected. That wouldn’t be the case if public officials took a step like the third choice above: removing subsidies for workplace parking. Such a move would be a powerful MaaS enabler—making car trips more expensive implicitly makes other modes relatively cheaper—but it would likely be a tough sell for an elected official.

The first option, increasing transit frequency, has a different but comparable problem: It requires new taxpayer funding. But the experience of Seattle suggests how powerful an effect transit expansion can have on vehicle ownership, a key MaaS goal.  

In 2008, Seattle voters approved $17.8 billion in transit funding, followed by an additional $53 billion in 2016. That allowed the city to make huge upgrades in transit service. The share of households living within a 10-minute walk of 10-minute transit service rose from 25 percent in 2015 to 67 percent in 2018. Transit ridership has swelled since, and the newest census data shows that Seattle posted the single biggest drop in the share of households owning a car among the 50 largest American cities this decade, from 84.3 percent in 2010 to 81.2 percent in 2018. While acknowledging that causation is hard to prove, Benjamin de la Pena, chief of strategy and innovation at the Seattle Department of Transportation, says he “certainly believe[s] there’s a strong correlation between the increased provision of transit and the decline in car ownership.”

Few metro areas can marshal the billions of dollars Seattle invested over the past decade. But there are plenty of cheaper policy options that can nudge people away from cars. Cities can construct the kinds of protected bike lanes and dedicated micromobility parking that D.C.’s Marootian referenced, and they can follow the lead of New York and San Francisco by closing central thoroughfares to personal vehicles while leaving them open to other modes. Transit agencies can remove policies that prevent riders from bringing bikes on board trains and subways, and they can build micromobility parking at their stations. Cities could even raise revenue through their MaaS strategy: Suddenly doubling parking costs may be politically infeasible, but a gentle upward drift in the price of resident parking permits might not be.

And, of course, cities can support the MaaS technology platforms that bring together all the various modes and services. Indeed, these services could entice people on the margins to leave their car parked in the driveway, and one day they might accommodate fleets of autonomous shuttles and taxis that futurists anticipate. But we should be realistic: Without supportive policies and investment decisions, the smartest MaaS technology in the world won’t be able to liberate cities from our reliance on automobility.  

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A Micromobility Experiment in Pittsburgh Aims to Get People Out of Their Cars

Last October, a few weeks before thousands of white-collar urban transit professionals descended for a convention of their own, Pittsburgh hosted a different type of transportation summit. Dubbed MobiliT, it convened city officials, transit technologists, and civil society-types with everyday Pittsburgh residents.

Each person in the last group brought some type of mobility challenge unmet by Pittsburgh’s current bus, light rail, and bikeshare offerings. Some were single mothers traveling with multiple kids. Others were service workers with shifts in the wee hours of the morning. A few were ex-offenders who’d lost their driver’s licenses, working construction jobs in different parts of town. (All received a living wage in compensation for attending.)

At the time, Pittsburgh was on the cusp of launching its first dockless electric bikes, recalls Karina Ricks, the city’s director of transportation, as well as thinking about how to bring dockless electric scooters to its hilly and narrow streets. But hearing from those residents was an affirmation for Ricks that the introduction of a few hundred so-called micromobility devices was not going to make the answer for everyone. “We know that Razors on steroids are not a safe way for a mom to take her kids to school,“ she said. “So while we still wanted them, we also wanted to be able to provide something else to improve that situation.”

Ricks also wanted to do far more to shrink her city’s carbon footprint. Vehicles have overtaken other sectors of the economy as the top source of greenhouse gas emissions, and scientists say that the timeline for averting catastrophic global warming is short.

That knowledge, and the stories at MobiliT, helped seed Ricks’ idea for what is now the Pittsburgh Micromobility Collective, a self-organized, private consortium that aims to bring a range of “new mobility” services across the city. Led by the dockless bike and scooter startup Spin, the group also includes Zipcar, Ford Mobility, Waze, the scooter parking solution Swiftmile, and the Transit app. Earlier this year, the companies collaborated in response to a request for proposals from Ricks’ department, which called for a complement of car-free transportation options that customers can access and book through a single platform.

Their winning plan, which was one of five submissions, envisions “mobility hubs” clustered near transit stops throughout Pittsburgh. There, travelers would find some combination of bike-share stations, Zipcar vehicles, Waze carpool pickup spots, and parked and charged e-bikes and scooters from Spin to rent. The Transit app would handle route planning and ticketing services to customers, and Ford Mobility would feed data analytics back to the city.

In other cities and other contexts, these companies might be competitors—Zipcar vying for the same trips as Spin; Ford vying for the same trip data as Waze. But each player also recognizes that not all customers are a fit for every mode, said Ben Bear, the chief business officer at Spin. And in this case, they’re aligned around at least one common goal: reducing the 56 percent of commuters in Pittsburgh who drive alone. “This is definitely an experiment to see how we all coalesce, and we don’t know all the answers yet,” Bear said. “But we’re all trying to get people out of single-occupancy cars and personal vehicles.” (In Ford’s case, the company sees an urban market opportunity.)

In return for their cooperation toward this goal, Pittsburgh also is creating certain incentives to encourage these companies to join forces. For one, the city is keeping other mobility competitors out of play for the time being, according to Ricks. And two, her department will work closely with the collective to remove obstacles to their success on the street. “It’s often not a money issue,” she said. “More often, it’s access to parking spaces or operating rights issue that’s the barrier.” That’s the sort of stuff that the city can help negotiate or arrange in order to bring more options to a wider cut of the population.

In late September, the Mobility Collective held its first meeting with the city, the Port Authority of Allegheny County (the mass transit operator in Pittsburgh), and other stakeholder groups to discuss which neighborhoods would make choice destinations for early pilot projects, which could roll out as soon as 2020.

Outside of downtown and university campuses—coveted markets for mobility companies—Ricks pointed to a few communities of potential interest, including Larimer, a historically African American area that is unique in Pittsburgh for its relatively flat topography, and Hazelwood, which is close to employment centers but has poor pedestrian connections to public transit. Each neighborhood has its unique profile and set of challenges; the collective-based approach is supposed to allow the city to experiment.

“It lets us see what people are choosing once they’re given these different offerings,” Ricks said. “They might commute to their day jobs using a micromobility option or Waze carpool, but for weekend grocery shopping, they might use car share.” In neighborhoods where single parents proliferate, the city may also consider bringing a jitney-like service into the fold, she added.

A chart from the Pittsburgh Mobility Collective’s winning bid illustrates the relationship between various transportation modes and the types and lengths of trips their customers might be making. (Spin)

The idea behind the bundled service model is known in industry jargon as “mobility as a service.” Born in Helsinki and gaining popularity in the U.S. and Europe, the MaaS concept is that a single, digital platform that offered seamless, universal access to car-free transportation could become a viable substitute to personal vehicles. In separate bids to become that one-stop mobility shop, ride-hailing bigwigs Uber and Lyft have both recently acquired or experimented with bike, scooter, and car rental services, and redesigned their apps to supply such multi-modal trips. (Some observers worry that they’re becoming “walled gardens” in the process, a concern that came to the fore in a recent dispute between Lyft and the Transit app.) Los Angeles is busy developing an open-source software platform designed to host an ecosystem of mobility companies.  

But Pittsburgh’s invitation for multiple companies to develop an integrated system seems to be unique in the landscape. “It’s a first-of-its-kind consortium—the first big group to service the micromobility needs of a big city together,” said Colin Roche, the co-founder and CEO of Swiftmile. On the plus side for the city, it may avoid getting stuck with a single provider. On the down side, there may be risk of competitive interests preventing the players from cooperating down the road.

In Ricks’ mind, the moment has arrived for a bold move on the city’s part. Pittsburgh has learned the hard way that being the first city to welcome emerging mobility companies isn’t always best for residents. A few years ago, it made national headlines for a clash with Uber over whether the company was living up to certain civic promises as it tested autonomous vehicles in town. With dockless scooters and bikes, the city waited a little longer than others to fold them in. This way, Pittsburgh has a clearer idea of what it wants to accomplish, said Ricks.

New and untested as her collective approach may be, Ricks believes that when it comes to shrinking carbon footprints, big ideas will win the day. The time has passed for incrementalism, even if there are bumps in the road. “We’re all a little scared,” she said. “But we’re in it together.”

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