Friday, September 15, 2017

Closing sheltered workshops will hurt the disabled

Last week, I hosted a plant tour at Confer Plastics for a half dozen clients of an agency that serves the mentally or physically handicapped by providing to them jobs and a variety of life services. This was the fourth such tour for the disabled in the past six months.

These agencies have been coming to our factory so we can help their counselors and team leaders educate their clients on the variety of jobs that are available across Western New York in regard to manufacturing, light assembly, warehousing and food processing. We expose them to the tasks involved, show them typical machinery and tools, and discuss the hard and soft skills needed in the workplace.

2017 has seen an increase in the number of these tours – and the need for them – because the disabled and their families have been placed in a difficult, if not dire, situation. Sheltered workshops, where disabled workers could secure consistent and productive employment under the guidance of trained and dedicated caretakers, are being phased out across the country.

Back in 1999, the US Supreme Court ruled that sheltered workshops segregate people, and in turn, violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. For the decade that followed the decision, there was little movement on it. But, since 2009, the US Department of Justice has been playing hardball with the states about this.

In response to the ruling and its enforcement, from 2012 to 2014 the Cuomo Administration developed a multi-pronged plan to bring about the demise of such worksites in the Empire State: The workshops had to incorporate those without disabilities into their employment (to the tune of 25 percent of the workforce) and become businesses instead of service agencies; existing disabled workers were grandfathered while new admissions into standard sheltered workshops weren’t allowed; and state funding of the workplaces was curtailed and ultimately fully cut.             

Now, disabled workers are scrambling to find career paths and employers that are a fit for them and vice versa.

It’s not a good time for these individuals. The men and women who have toured the plant are unsure of their future and are scared of leaving the people and places that they’ve known for so long and have grown so comfortable with and loving of.

Questions abound.

Will some of the disabled be able to handle the rigors of paced, competitive work and full shifts?

Will their new employers be as kind and understanding as those they’ll be leaving?

Do most businesses have the skill sets or personnel to manage those who need attention, help and encouragement?    

Will the number crunchers in larger corporations be able to accept lower productivity and special accommodations?

Will there be a network of public and private services in play that will get the disabled the transportation, support and training they need while entering the general workforce?

Many of their parents and providers are as uncomfortable as the workers and have had called for the Cuomo Administration to suspend the closure of workshops for fear that many of the disabled would not be able to find gainful employment and support in corporate America. They believe that the handicapped would then become unemployed for the long term and require day services while not having the chance to hold a sense of purpose and be productive to the economy and world as everyone aspires to.

I’ve seen the worried faces of and had heart-to-heart conversations with the workers and families who will be deeply affected by this change in the world as they know it. It breaks my heart.

While there may have been altruistic goals in shutting down sheltered workplaces (everyone should be able to work in a mainstream environment regardless of race, creed, or disability), the hard reality of the matter is that they are needed.

In an attempt to do good the government is only doing harm to the disabled. Those with special needs value their ability to have a job, to make and assemble things, to have an impact on society. But now, all of that will be taken away from far too many of them.

From the 18 September 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Hurricanes and the WNY economy

As Texas and Florida have been ravaged by hurricanes, most of us who choose to call Western New York “home” watch the news horrified yet revel in our decision to live in an area where the worst thing that can happen is a snow storm. We think that here -- 1,300 miles from Houston and 1,200 from Miami – we are safe and sound and fully protected from the hurricanes.

Sure, we might be from weather standpoint, but economically, we all will be feeling some pain.

It won’t be as great as that suffered by those having to replace their homes and worldly possessions, but we’ll be seeing our dollar shrink nonetheless, courtesy of the laws of supply and demand and the resulting price inflation.

It starts with plastics.

Those ubiquitous petrochemicals comprise or hold most everything consumers purchase, whether it’s a durable good, a beverage, a cleaning solution or packaged foods. Almost three-quarters of all the ethylene used to produce plastics is made in Texas along the Gulf of Mexico. The plastics corridor was right in Hurricane Harvey’s sights and two-thirds of the US ethylene production was shut down by flooding, damages, and outages. Industry experts don’t know when all the plants will be back online, nor do they know when the transportation infrastructure will be ready to handle those plants’ inputs and outputs.

Manufacturers who utilize Texas-made materials aren’t being very optimistic. The big boys like Newell Rubbermaid have cut back on 2017 earnings forecasts their while the little guys like Confer Plastics have warned their customers of pending supply and price issues (those plants damaged by hurricanes will have to recoup their losses somehow).

Plastic is everywhere. So, don’t be surprised if retail prices go up over the next six months for anything under the sun. And, if you work in any of the local automotive or healthcare factories or food and beverage processors that make things out of plastic, don’t be surprised when you see those machines being idled as supplies wane. 

Similarly, oil is refined in Texas, too, which is why prices at the pump are rising dramatically. In many locales across the northeast, gasoline prices have risen by 30 cents in the past few weeks and there seems to be no end in sight to the growth. For a typical WNY commuter that will be a few hundred dollars lost over the next twelve months if prices stick. According to Moody’s investment services, every penny increase in gasoline prices reduces consumer spending by $1 billion over the course of the year.        

Then there’s the issue of building supplies, their prices and overall supply.

There will be considerable repair and rebuild underway in Texas. As I write this, Irma has not yet hit Florida, but if the forecasts hold true, there will be devastation. You’re talking about two incredibly-populated states having to fix what happened. Harvey alone is likely responsible for $30 billion in property damages. That’s a lot of lumber – in a lumber market that has already seen prices jump by 31 percent this year because of America’s little trade war with Canada. Another 30 percent due to the hurricanes would not be unexpected.

Then, having access to building supplies is another issue. Rebuilding will affect the macro and the micro in ways you’d never expect.

I always use an anecdote from Hurricane Katrina to make that point. Back then, we were making gazebos at the factory that had smoke windows on them so those inside that gazebo had some privacy. After Katrina we had to suspend their production for a couple of months because we couldn’t get the smoke windows. Why? Building codes require homes along the coast to have smoke colored windows near ground level so sea turtles don’t go towards lights at night thinking it’s the sun.

That’s peculiar cause and effect that you will be happen in various ways and with a wide variety of products after the water settles in Texas and Florida.

What will we be looking at in regard to overall inflation? The higher gas prices have already accounted for a half-a-percent of inflation nationally. Over the 12 months will consumers see all goods and services rise by a whopping 5 or 6 cents on the dollar or more? That’s certainly foreseeable given that just over 2 has been the norm for our economy in recent years. 

There’s an obvious domino effect – and a wide-ranging one at that -- when it comes to natural disasters. We may be far away from the epicenter of the damage, but we will still see our dollars float away, even here in WNY.  

From the 11 September 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, August 31, 2017

How the mental health system fails the sickest – and the public

I didn’t know Megan Dix, but felt like I did.

Her friends and family all to a person say Dix was a great daughter, wife, mother and coworker. That’s what made the Lyndonville mom’s murder so unsettling – she was any one of us; a good-natured, high-character person always trying to do her best for those around her.

It was sickening how she was cut down randomly for no logical reason whatsoever a week short of her 34th birthday. It reminds you how short our life is on this planet, because anything -- and this proves anything -- can happen to you or someone you love.

Likewise, I didn’t know Holly Colino (the suspect in Dix’s murder) but felt like I could have.

While we all don’t know people who could coldly kill like Colino had been alleged to, there’s a good chance we know someone battling mental illness like she has been.

You wouldn’t know that, though, because it’s almost become taboo for anyone battling it (or caring for someone with it) to talk about it, for fear of embarrassment or ostracization. It comes in many forms, from body image issues to depression to schizophrenia and it is more common than many think – in any given year, almost 1 in 5 American adults battles mental illness. 

That doesn’t and shouldn’t give Colino a free pass for what she may have done. I, for one, am against all (dis)qualifiers for guilt of murder and rape; if some committed a heinous act while insane or feeble of mind, they’re just as guilty in my book as someone who knew better (and who’s to say that the insane person didn’t know better?).

But, this is just another in a long line of cases where society failed people like Colino and, in turn, innocents like Dix. By abandoning the ill, we’ve put others in harm’s way.

How did no one address Colino’s serious mental health issues with all of the warning signs that were out there?

If you feel like peering into the mind of a confused soul, check out Colino’s Facebook page, Blogger posts, and YouTube videos. They are incoherent, dangerous, and frightening. And they are all screaming for help.

How did that go unchecked? We have countless government agents who mine social media for terrorists. We have a federal artificial intelligence system that scans emails and the internet for threats. Facebook users regularly turn-in to administrators others who post overly-political or allegedly-hateful comments.

Yet, none of those powers or people raised a flag and said, “get this girl some help” or “lock her up.” There were Facebook users who even interacted with her unsafely who failed to inform authorities of the bizarre behavior and threats they experienced.

And, more so, where was society for the good of Colino and the greater good of the population?

It all starts with getting people the help they need, even if it requires being institutionalized or hospitalized.

In the 1970s it became the in-thing to close institutions once known as “insane asylums” due to a rash of such organizations mistreating their patients and the continued development of psychiatric drugs (never mind that those drugs create their own problems).

Sure, there were plenty of real world examples of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” but many hospitals did wonders in helping get people cured or giving them a consistent, comfortable environment in which they could manage their illnesses and their lives.

There are still some psychiatric institutions in operation, but far too few. Mental health experts say there is a 95 percent decline in mental hospital beds since 1960, even though there are many more people who deserve that level of help.

And help is what they need. Help. Safety. Comfort. Rehabilitation. Asylum.

Yet, they haven’t been getting it nor will they anytime soon.

Our modern medical system treats mental illness like the so-called redheaded stepchild. New hospitals and health campuses are being erected across the country at spectacular rates and they are being handsomely funded by taxpayer dollars, but the focus is always on physical health. No one is interested in making multi-bed facilities for the mentally ill.

That’s too bad, because people like Holly Colino are being ignored. A just and moral society takes care of the people who need it, even if they don’t seem to be exactly like one of us.

When we abandon that calling, when it comes to hard cases like hers or the infamous Adam Lanza we inadvertently put innocents like Megan Dix or the little kids who were gunned down at Sandy Hook in harm’s way. When it comes to the better cases, we are robbing the ill of the best mainstream existence possible. 

Help the sick and you help society.  

Ignore them, and you hurt them….and potentially every one of us.

From the 04 Sept 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers