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Empire Justice Press Release: 2017 Legislative Session


June 22, 2017

Contact:  Kristin Brown, 518-852-5766


A Bright Victory, But Much Left to be done for Low Income New Yorkers


“With so much accomplished in the state budget this year, some may have had a sense that there wasn’t much left to be done for the duration of the legislative session, but Empire Justice had no shortage of bills to advocate for in our effort to make the law work for all New Yorkers,” said Kristin Brown, Vice President for Policy and Government Relations.  “We achieved one notable win that will have a huge impact on disabled New Yorkers' access to disability benefits, but we were keenly disappointed by being unable to get legislation that would allow victims of wage theft to get paid what they are owed, and a bill that would have ensured that crime and domestic violence victims’ right to call 911 is not impeded in communities where there are local nuisance ordinances, passed in the Senate.  We came so close. It’s a shame New Yorkers will be without these critical protections until 2018.  We will definitely be pushing for these issues to be addressed in a Special Session if one occurs,” she said.

Health Records Access
Upon completion of the 2017 Legislative Session, the highlight of Empire Justice Center’s list of accomplished legislative priorities was the passage of A.7842 (Gottfried)/S.6078 (Valesky) in both houses. The bill was introduced and passed in the same legislative session.  Far too many disabled and medically fragile New Yorkers are unable to access their own health records because they cannot afford them – making the swift passage of A.7842 (Gottfried)/S.6078 (Valesky) a great victory for struggling or disabled New Yorkers.  The bill clarifies existing law, which requires health care providers to provide free records to indigent individuals, and simplifies and streamlines what is often a confusing and time consuming process in cases where people need their medical records to apply for necessary government programs, such as Social Security, certain veterans benefits, and disability-based Medicaid.  Without those records, New Yorkers are often denied help they desperately need.

“Low income disabled New Yorkers need to be able to obtain the health records critical to proving their eligibility for benefits,” said Louise Tarantino, Senior Staff Attorney.  “The passage of this legislation will enable countless disabled New Yorkers and veterans to better advocate for themselves, and facilitate the work of the statewide Disability Advocacy Program (DAP).  We applaud the legislature’s recognition that meaningful access to one’s own medical history is both reasonable and just, and especially thank Senator Valesky and Assembly Member Gottfried for their leadership on this issue.”

Crime Safety and Housing
Local nuisance ordinances often threaten the housing of Domestic violence victims and victims of crime if they call 911 for help too many times.  In a recent unanimous ruling, the Appellate Division of the Third Judicial Department declared the nuisance ordinance in Groton, NY unconstitutional because it undermines the tenants’ right to call 911, which is protected by our right to petition the government in the First Amendment.  This leaves municipalities across the state vulnerable to litigation over their existing nuisance ordinances, while wherever ordinances are still enforced tenants remain vulnerable to eviction, and landlords remain vulnerable to burdensome fines and revocation of their ability to rent the property.

The legislature had a chance to solve the nuisance ordinance problem across the state by finally passing A.2919 (Lavine)/S.405 (Robach), which addresses the problem by creating a statewide carve-out for crime and domestic violence victims.  Empire Justice greatly appreciates Assemblymember Lavine’s leadership on this bill in the Assembly, where it has passed four years straight, since its initial introduction.  This year, under Senator Robach’s leadership, the bill moved through both the Codes and Housing Committees, for the first time, but disappointingly, despite its unanimous passage in the Assembly, the bill stalled and the Senate, for the fourth year in a row has failed to pass this important bill. Given the critical nature of the bill, there is hope that it could still be taken up at a later date should the Legislature return to Albany before the end of 2017.

“Empire Justice Center is appalled that the Senate has again failed victims of domestic violence, crime victims, landlords, property owners and taxpayers who live in the many communities around the state that have harmful and illegal nuisance ordinances that penalize landlords and crime victims when someone calls 911 for help,” said Amy Schwartz-Wallace, Senior Attorney.  “This issue is even more critical now that the Third Department struck down the nuisance ordinance in Groton, NY in June 2017 as an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment right to petition the government.  The Senate’s inaction means that many New Yorkers will continue to be subject to unconstitutional violations of their basic rights as crime victims, landlords and property owners.  Taxpayers in these nuisance ordinance jurisdictions will be left to pick up the tab because their municipalities continue to be exposed to liability for having these improper laws on the books. This is one of those important issues that will need to be dealt with during a special session should one occur.  We appreciate the efforts of the bill’s sponsor, Senator Robach and look forward to working with him to ensure that this happens.”

Wage Theft
Wage theft is a widespread problem in New York State, which affects industries both upstate and downstate, including construction, agriculture, restaurants and dining, home health care, and many more, resulting in over $1 billion in stolen wages per year. This means New York State loses over $1 billion of valuable income that could be used to stimulate consumer spending, boost tax revenues, and keep people off of public assistance, but is instead being pocketed by unscrupulous employers – giving them a massive, unfair advantage over honest businesses.

Empire Justice Center had high hopes throughout the legislative session to pass the Securing Wages Earned Against Theft (SWEAT) bill, but both the Senate and Assembly were unable to deliver passage of this legislation this year, though the Assembly did pass the bill last year and was poised to pass it again and some progress was made on this important issue in the Senate as well. We appreciate the efforts of sponsors Senator Peralta and Assembly Member Rosenthal and look forward to fighting for the passage of SWEAT next year.

“SWEAT is a common sense bill designed to fight against the wage theft epidemic in New York State.  SWEAT gives employees a better chance to collect stolen wages, levels the playing field for honest businesses to compete fairly in the market, and improves the state's ability to pursue unpaid payroll taxes and penalties associated with stolen wages,” said Elizabeth Koo, Staff Attorney with Empire Justice Center's Workers' Rights Project.  “Wage theft costs hard-working New Yorkers and the state over a billion dollars each year.  Without stronger enforcement mechanisms, scofflaw employers will continue to commit wage theft and devastate New York's communities and economy,” she said.

Driver’s Licenses for New York State Residents
Empire Justice Center looks forward to next year’s legislative session to work with members of both houses and the Governor to pass legislation that will allow all New York State residents to obtain a driver’s license regardless of immigration status.  This legislation would increase safety on the roads by ensuring all those who drive have proper training and certification.

“An estimated 752,000 immigrants around the state are needlessly unable to obtain a driver’s license.  A.4050 (Moya) is important because it’s a practical solution to matters of public safety,” said Prathiba Desai, Immigrant Rights Staff Attorney.  “It will make roads safer, decrease insurance costs, increase revenue for the state, and provide a verifiable identity document for all New Yorkers.  We will continue to support this legislation and the Green Light NY coalition of organizations working hard to enhance the lives of New York residents.”

Child Care
“Although we were disappointed with the budget’s $7 million cut in funding to child care subsidies, we are hopeful that the passage of A.7726-a (Jaffee)/S.5929-a (Avella), a bill establishing a child care task force, is a signal that next year, New York will find the funds necessary to meet the need for affordable, high-quality child care for low income working families,” said Susan Antos, Senior Attorney.  “We thank the Legislative Women’s Caucus, the Women of Color Task Force of the Black, Hispanic, Puerto Rican and Asian Legislative Caucus; Assembly Member Ellen Jaffee and Senator Tony Avella for their leadership in establishing a path to long- term solutions.  We hope that the Governor signs the bill and supports the work of the task force.”

Homelessness Prevention
Empire Justice Center strongly supports Assembly Member Andrew Hevesi’s Home Stability Support proposal (A.8178), which would create a new statewide rent supplement for families and individuals who are eligible for public assistance and facing eviction, homelessness or loss of housing due to domestic violence or hazardous living conditions. 

This bill is a good first step, but without support from Senate Leadership and Governor Cuomo, the bill cannot come to fruition. Meanwhile, the homelessness crisis will continue to worsen.  Empire Justice believes that Home Stability Support is a key piece of the solution for preventing and reducing homelessness, which would also save the State money by reducing evictions and the need for homeless shelters and services.  “Home Stability Support has garnered wide support across the state from advocates and legislators of both parties,” said Ray Burke, Staff Attorney.  “New York State is struggling with a statewide epidemic of homelessness.  There are currently 150,000 homeless children in the state, and the problem is only getting worse.  Nationwide, homelessness decreased by 11% between 2007 and 2015 while New York State saw its homeless population increase by an alarming 41%.  Home Stability Support sought to reverse this trend.  Frankly, we spend far more on emergency housing services and other costs associated with homelessness than we would by simply keeping people in their homes. Empire Justice looks forward to continuing to build support for this important proposal.”

Orders of Protection
Orders of protection for domestic violence victims are used to help keep victims and their families safe.  In order for them to be effective, domestic violence victims need to receive them in their native language.  Empire Justice was pleased that the final enacted 2017-2018 budget included a provision to ensure that translated orders of protection are available in the top ten most common languages by region.

“We won a great victory this session when the State Budget included critical language removing language access barriers in orders of protection.  This success will directly benefit some of our state’s most marginalized families at the very time they need clear and understandable information about their rights and obligations under an order of protection,” said Amy Schwartz-Wallace, Senior Attorney.  “However, inexplicably, the Office of Court Administration program bill providing the economic safety net of temporary spousal support to married victims of domestic violence in orders of protection never made it out of committee in the Senate despite enjoying broad and unqualified support from Empire Justice Center, the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York, the New York State Bar Association, the New York State Unified Court System and others.  This bill overwhelmingly passed the Assembly in March,” she said.        

For more information about our 2017 State Legislative Priorities, please visit our website: www.empirejustice.org.

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Empire Justice Center is a statewide, multi-issue, multi-strategy, public interest law firm focused on changing the systems in which poor and low income families live.  Empire Justice protects and strengthens the legal rights of people in New York State who are poor, disabled or disenfranchised through systems change advocacy, training and support to other advocates and organizations, and high quality direct civil legal representation.  Empire Justice has offices in Albany, Rochester, Westchester and on Long Island.