Friday, July 27, 2018

New York’s bereavement leave is a killer

At my place of work we offer a few days of paid leave to anyone who loses an immediate family member. For the most part, other employers follow suit. According the annual employee benefits study issued by the Society for Human Resource Managers, 88 percent of employers offer paid bereavement in their 2018 benefits packages. Other studies have found that employers typically allow between 3 to 5 days of such leave. Those companies are also considerate enough to grant flexible use of vacation and other personal time to extend the period of grief.  

New York lawmakers don’t think that’s enough.

At the end of the legislative session, the state legislature passed a bill, rather decisively (61-1 in the Senate), that will add paid bereavement to New York’s Paid Family Leave program that was launched earlier this year.

Not to be outdone by the other 2 states that mandate paid bereavement, New York took it to the extreme. Whereas Oregon has 5 days of bereavement and Illinois 10, the Empire State will offer 12 weeks.

Not 12 days.

12 weeks.

Someone will actually be allowed to take a full 3 months off and receive up to two-thirds of their weekly pay while doing so.

I guess I’ll be the bad guy and tell you that this sort of legislation is unconscionable.

Don’t get me wrong. Loss is difficult. I don’t know if we ever stop grieving. Every day I think about the babies that my wife and I lost in the womb – I can still see their heartbeats and their little bodies on the move. The emotions over their passing are still strong.

But, we can’t be so consumed by grief that we shut ourselves off from the whole world for 3 months. It’s not healthy.

Nor is this healthy for New York’s small business and non-profits.

Employers need to be able to plan on having their personnel. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly why they hired them….to work. Allowing someone to go off the grid for 3 months is not good for business, because they’ll be missing a key individual and you really can’t go out and hire a replacement because you have to keep the chair warm for the worker on leave.

The impact on a larger business like mine will be minimal. I have a big team and guys and gals here who are cross-trained so we can weather the absence of almost anyone here. But, most organizations don’t have more than 200 people on their payroll. Most of the employers in this state are small businesses and social service agencies with a fraction of that headcount. If they lose a critical worker for 3 months their output and quality will suffer -- and so will their customers.

Think about your neighborhood diner. What if your favorite cook was gone for 12 weeks? How often would you stop by for dinner?    

Or, think about your local “Y” or Boys and Girl Club. What would happen to their after school programs if key administrators disappeared for almost a whole semester?  

What if a small newspaper like this one lost a reporter for a quarter of the year – who could pick up the slack?

Mind you, most won’t take 12 weeks. A lot of folks want to be doing something so their mind isn’t on the loss. We press on.

But, remember those you’ve worked with who will abuse the new policy.

I guarantee you knew someone who took paid bereavement leave for a family member who was anything but a loved one, just so he could take time off. I’m sure you questioned how many grandmothers a young man could have when it seemed like he was taking off for funerals a little too often.

And, then, there are the people who don’t want to work at all. This is yet another in a long line of entitlements (once we take this from the private sector it’s no longer a benefit) that encourages people to do very little to get a lot. 12 weeks of family leave. 12 weeks of bereavement leave. Unfettered access to unemployment payments. There’s a reason why last fall there were 1,000 job openings in Orleans County and nearly a thousand county residents on unemployment -- people who don’t want to work will find ways not to as long as the state makes it comfortable.

Employers are up in arms about this. But, they – especially the non-profits who are supposed to be more caring -- keep that talk in their offices for fear of coming across as heartless to the public. They have to speak up. The bill is awaiting Governor Cuomo’s signature. Put a little pressure on him and maybe he will veto it or demand that they go back to the drawing board and take it down by 11 weeks. If not, a generous and abused bereavement system will become yet another of the many, many things killing the upstate economy.   

From the 30 July 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Thursday, July 26, 2018

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: DEC contest gets families into birdwatching

We’re almost at the halfway point of summer break and many parents are probably at their wits end, asking, “How do I keep my kids learning over the summer?” and “How do I get these kids out of the house?”

Well, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has just the fix.

Earlier this summer, the DEC launched a birding contest that will get them outdoors to find and learn about some of our feathered friends. Run through the state’s I Bird New York program, which was launched in 2017 and highlights the diverse avian life in the Empire State, the Beginners Birding Challenge is geared towards children 16 years of age and younger.

The contest has the participant find 10 common birds and then note where, when and in what habitat it was seen. The birds they are to look for are house sparrows, American robins, European starlings, northern cardinals, black-capped chickadees, mourning doves, red-tailed hawks, red-wing blackbirds, mallard ducks, and northern mockingbirds. All of them are easily recognized, so it’s a manageable science project for the kids.

The only bird that might give one fits is the mockingbird. I don’t consider them especially common and they definitely aren’t in my stomping grounds in eastern Niagara County and southern Allegany County.

My daughter has had her eyes peeled and ears open for more than a month now with no luck in finding one. She’ll find one one of these days, but, I’m in no rush (I know of some nesting sites I could drive her to)…the thrill of the search is exciting for her. When she finds that lone standout she’ll be so excited.

The young birdwatchers must fill out an official form which can be downloaded here:

It has to be completed by September 15 th and the form must be in the DEC’s hands by September 30 th. All of the kids who find all 10 birds will receive from the DEC a completion certificate and an official I BIRD NY bracelet.

Participants will also be entered into a random drawing for a pair of binoculars or a spotting telescope.Those are some excellent prizes that will certainly inspire the young winner to do more birdwatching.

If you’d like to make this birdwatching exercise a family affair, the state is also running the I Bird NY Experienced Birder Challenge.

To complete the challenge, birders must find at least 10 of 50 listed bird species that are less common than those the kids are looking for. All participants in this challenge will receive a special certificate, bracelet, and be entered into a drawing for a spotting scope. Those entries must be received by September 30 th .‎ Not only is the Experienced version open to adults, but kids can take part in it, too. So, if they dominate the Beginners challenge, they can tackle this one as well.

The Experienced Birder Challenge can be downloaded here:

The list of applicable bird species is here:

Take of advantage of these birdwatching contests this summer. There are plenty of rewards to be had: You get to spend time outdoors…with your family…who will learn about the environment…and you might even win some really cool prizes by doing so.

From the 26 July 2018 All WNY News

Thursday, July 19, 2018

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: What are those tiny pink flowers in your lawn?

Dry summers like this one, when mowings are few and far between, reveal some interesting plants in our lawns that otherwise might be taken down by mower blades.

One that immediately comes to mind is the very small, pink flower that has been adorning Western New York lawns over the past week or so and will continue to do so for another two weeks. It’s especially noticeable this year when the dainty petals add a little bit of color to otherwise sunburned lawns.

Those wee wildflowers have an easy name to remember. What’s easier calling a pink-colored flower a pink?

The type you are most likely to see is the Deptford pink, named after Deptford, England where this invasive species defined the landscape. Back in the 1500s and 1600s, Deptford was a rural community just outside of London. These small flowers filled the fields and meadows there, making for a sea of brilliant color in the summer months.

Those days are long gone as Deptford is now an industrialized commercial district of London, one that is overpopulated (so much so that realtors say the community is “not for the faint of heart”) and almost totally devoid of the green space that centuries ago defined the community as an easy-living alternative to urban London.

Things have become so bad in the United Kingdom for this once-abundant plant that it is now listed as endangered there. 

Luckily, these beautiful flowers were saved from total destruction by being brought to the New World in the 1700s. No one knows for sure if it was accidentally or on purpose. Regardless, they have staked claim to the almost the entire United States and can be found in lawns, fields, roadsides, and “waste areas” (places being reclaimed by Mother Nature, such as brownfields).

It’s one of those invasive species you can welcome. It doesn’t grow in great abundance; it doesn’t choke out native plants; and, they are nice to look at.

It all comes down to that pretty little flower, which is no more than a third of an inch in width. They will often bloom when the plant reaches an inch or two in height, sporting a 5-petal star shaped flower that is brilliant pink. If you get down to ground level and give it a closer look, you will notice small white dots all over it.  If allowed to flourish, the plant will grow to heights of 10 to 15 inches.

The color pink actually got its name from this flower.

It was long thought that the scalloped edges of the flowers looked like they were “pinked,” a process by which tailors and seamstresses cut zigzags into clothing to prevent fraying. That process is now accomplished by pinking shears, introduced in 1931, but prior to that it was done with much effort by hand. In old English, dating back to the 1300s, pink came about as a verb meaning, in essence, to pierce or stab.

After comparing the petal’s edges to clothing affected by that process, the name pink was given to the plants. Then, from there, it was the name given to their brilliant color because everyone in old England was familiar with plant. We’re talking the days before Crayons, color swatches, and all that good stuff, so it was easy to anoint a name to a color, especially an intense one, based on something familiar.

So, the next time you see one of these sprites in your backyard, don’t pick it, even though you might consider it to be a weed because it looks out of place with a manicured lawn. Pinks are interesting – they’re attractive, they have a neat history, and back home in their motherland they are on the decline. Let them thrive here – go pink.   

From the 19 July 2018 All WNY News

New York needs more forest rangers

If you visited the Adirondacks in recent years you were likely overwhelmed by the crowds.

Perhaps you planned on hiking one of the 46 high peaks -- such as Marcy and Colden – or even lesser mountains elsewhere in the Park (like Bald/Rondaxe) and quickly realized that everyone and his brother had the same idea. It’s not uncommon in the summer to see cars overflowing from designated parking areas and lining the roads for sometimes hundreds of yards.

You might have turned around and searched out trails less traveled or maybe you joined the masses on their ascent. If you chose the latter, you were likely taken aback by the throngs on the summit. Each one of those cars likely held a family or a group of friends, meaning dozens, and sometimes hundreds, were tackling the climb at once. It wasn’t what you expected going to the Adirondacks -- you went there because you wanted to get away from civilization.  

Where are all these people coming from -- haven’t we been told that the computers forced everyone indoors and away from Mother Nature?

The opposite has occurred. The power of social media – the shared experience, the photographs, the desire to beat the Joneses – has driven people outdoors to see what their friends saw and do what they did. Every time someone shares on Instagram a picture of the view from say, Mount Haystack, it’s incentive to join in the fun.

This is not just anecdotal, not just a feel that things are busy in the wilderness. It’s real. In the 10 years ending 2015, foot traffic at Cascade alone more than doubled from 16,000 hikers a year to 33,000. Over that same period, Van Hoevenberg saw a 62 percent increase in hikers – 53,500 people climbed the peak in 2015. Those are just two trails!

Because of that, many areas of the Park -- and the infrastructure and the environment -- are facing serious overuse.

Look at parking. Last fall, in advance of the Columbus Day crush, as a means to curtail dangerous and destructive roadside parking and traffic jams the Department of Environmental Conservation announced that hikers would not be allowed to use the parking areas for Cascade, Porter and Pitchoff Mountains. They were forced to park at Mount Van Hoevenberg which had unsuspecting hikers add another 4 miles round-trip to their hikes.

That was just one weekend, a symptom of a greater crisis. A study found that 35 parking lots in the High Peaks were designed to hold fewer than 1,000 cars yet frequently had more than 2,000 trying to park in them on any given day in the summer.

This surge in hikers has led to an environmental nightmare. The unsuspecting are trampling alpine plants that took decades to restore. Trash and human waste are being left along the trails. Animals are being harassed. Nuisance bears are being trained. The very definition of wilderness has been eroding along with the trails that lead into it.

Not only is the Park itself facing overuse, but so are the men and women who are trying to manage the people, places, plants, and peaks. We have too few forest rangers to handle all of those concerns.

Today, there are 137 forest rangers responsible for 4.9 million acres of DEC-administered lands. Back in 1970, there were 140 forest rangers and only 3.5 million total acres of DEC land. So, over the past half century, the number of forest rangers has slightly declined while the DEC has acquired roughly 30 percent more land and – using the Adirondacks as an example – a few million more users.  

In 2012, NYS rangers patrolled 2,600 interior miles on foot in the High Peaks. 4 years later, that number was down by nearly a third. That’s because of the lack of manpower and changing conditions. Forest rangers are now required to focus on parking and traffic control and trail clean-up, instead of doing what they were hired to do – that is, protect the environment and the people using it. Too few men and women are able to save the trails and endangered species or educate hikers on where to go, how to dress, and what to look for.

That last part has led to something of a public health crisis. A lot of those Facebook users looking to work their way into the Adirondack 46ers club aren’t experienced or competent outdoorspeople. They don’t have the right clothing, footwear, shelter, food, or water, which puts them at risk. Somebody has to save them and the overworked rangers are. Rangers completed 62 search-and-rescue incidents in the High Peaks in 2012. By 2016, there were 98. Putting such hard works on so few puts the rangers at risk as well as those they are trying to save.  

The rangers and countless Adirondacks organizations have tried hard to get the state to add more rangers. But, it’s fallen on deaf ears. Another budget session came and went in Albany and neither Governor Cuomo or DEC Commissioner Seggos saw the need to add to the payroll.

Maybe it’s time they heard this message from the rest of the state. Many of us here in Western New York go there with family and friends, so we need to speak up. The Adirondacks belong to all of us. The Park is a public asset that should be enjoyed, safely and naturally. In order for that to happen we need more rangers.   

From the 23 July 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, July 13, 2018

Small town America: Big time poverty

There is a food pantry at Zion Lutheran Church in Gasport that is open once per month. On any given distribution day 20 to 35 families (encompassing 80 to 130 people) use the service. That’s a substantial number, given how small Gasport is. The Census Bureau says the population within the hamlet proper is just over 1,200 people. That means, if all those individuals hail from the immediate area, 7 to 11 percent of area residents rely on the charity to get by.   

If you tell those numbers to anyone, and specifically Gasportians, it’s met with amazement. They’ll claim that Gasport doesn’t look like it’s saddled with poverty and that they don’t really know anyone in need.

That’s the problem with poverty. It sneaks up on you. It often doesn’t look like it should and appears in places you’d least expect.

That’s especially the case in rural and small town America.

We all know the inner-cities are impoverished. It grabs the attention of the press, academia, and policymakers. And, it grabs of disproportionate amount of money and energy in the war on poverty.

Rural poverty, on the other hand, remains under the radar. You almost never hear about it on the nightly news and it’s even rarer yet to hear an elected official cast a spotlight on it. 

Maybe it’s because it’s less noticeable than it is in the big city. Rural poverty is less centralized and more spread-out through a given community with low-income families living next door to middle or high income folks. You don’t get that in cities where social classes tend to be segregated.

Maybe it’s because it’s fly-over country. The population centers, for better or worse, dictate thought and public policy throughout America. Everything outside of the likes of Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami is meaningless to powerbrokers. We see that here in the Empire State in spades – New York City lawmakers determine what happens across the state, much to the detriment of upstate.

Regardless of why it’s ignored, it’s a problem nonetheless and, as many will find surprising, one greater than that of the cities.

In urban locales, 13 percent of the population is considered impoverished while 16 percent of rural and small town Americans are.  

That accounts for 8 million Americans living below the poverty line in towns identical to those where this newspaper is circulated.

Worse yet, of those 8 million people, a majority of them are children. While you may not know their circumstances in the home, it’s more than likely you know many of those kids. They could be your neighbors.  

As the president of the board of the local Boy Scout council which serves eastern Niagara and the GLOW counties, I tell people all the time that we not a social club for boys, but rather a social service organization. Our duty is to deliver education and development to children, in need and out of need, to help them rise above any obstacles in their lives and prepare them for careers and parenting.

When one looks at how the youth served by our council are besieged by poverty, you’ll understand my social service designation.

In Medina, 12 percent of the population under the age of 18 lives below the poverty line while in Batavia that rate is 29 percent. In Geneseo it’s 31 percent and in Albion it’s 37 percent.

Or, on a more macro scale, consider the poverty rate for minors in each of the counties under our jurisdiction: Wyoming (17 percent), Niagara (18 percent), Livingston (19 percent), Genesee (20 percent), and Orleans (25 percent).

Basically, 1-out-of-every-5 or 1-out-of-every-4 kids are impoverished in this region. 

That’s why our local school districts have so many free or discounted breakfast and lunch programs. In order to best utilize the wonderful public resources that our public schools offer, the children there need to be nourished or it’s all for naught.

That’s why food pantries are tested to their limits. 35 families at Gasport’s food pantry? That’s a lot. But it pales in comparison to the mobile food pantry that used to be in Medina – 200 to 300 families used to line up at a time. It’s no wonder so many pantries can’t keep up.

That’s why Medicaid and other public health programs over so heavily utilized – and, in turn, heavily-taxed – in upstate New York. Medicaid is a burden on our property and sales taxes because so many families are forced to utilize the program.

Most people wouldn’t expect such abject poverty in God’s Country. I don’t care if they’re visiting from a suburb or living right here in the epicenter. The unparalleled beauty of the fields, forests, and hills seem to do a fine job in hiding the fact that are some truly ugly circumstances plaguing our rural communities and economies.

It’s time we brought this out of hiding and did our best as a people to initiate the policies, locally and nationally, to bring opportunity and prosperity to those who have been deprived of hope for far too long.

From the 16 July 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News