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We have a lot to be thankful for in Alabama

Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh

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By Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh

This is always one of my favorite weeks of the year.  As we gather to give thanks for and with our loved ones, 396 years since the first Thanksgiving, this week also marks the 62nd annual National Farm-City Week.

It is only fitting that we celebrate both of these occasions at the same time.  After all, the early settlers came together to rejoice over a successful harvest that would sustain their colony.  The Thanksgiving experience certainly has changed over the years, but Farm-City week gets us back to our traditional roots.  We can sometimes lose sight of this in modern times, but farmers work diligently year-round to put food on our tables.  We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.  Without them, we could not enjoy our American way of life.

For some context, my brother and I were “the city cousins” growing up.  Our grandparents on both sides of the family were farmers; my dad’s parents were poultry farmers (really they called themselves “chicken farmers” back then) in Crenshaw County, and my mom’s parents grew soybeans, cotton, and peanuts and had a small herd of cattle near the line between Pike County and Bullock County.  We would spend our time at one of the two farms during the summer, on weekends, and for holidays.  However, unlike our cousins, we lived in the city because my parents moved to town so they could both teach school.  While we were fortunate enough to experience life both on and off the farm, most families only know one of the two lifestyles.

That’s why since 1955, this week has been designated as National Farm-City Week.  It is the time of year when we focus on increasing understanding between people on and off the farm.  You really do not know what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes until you have walked in them.  To that end, the Alabama Farm-City Committee does a tremendous job throughout the year providing educational programs and first-hand experiences to bridge the gap and increase understanding.

Even with these differences between farm and city life, rural and urban communities rely heavily on each other for their livelihood.  On one hand, farmers work diligently to produce high-quality food, fiber, and forest products for everyone to enjoy.  Getting these products from farms to homes across the state, country, and world requires cooperation with people across many industries and walks of life.  There are manufacturing and distribution aspects of agriculture, too.  Grocers, truck drivers, factory workers, computer scientists, bankers, veterinarians, chemists, salesmen, and various others all play vital roles in getting agriculture products from the farm into households worldwide.

The increased understanding that stems from Farm-City programs leads to better cooperation and a stronger economy.  This is a boon for families across our great state.  Overall, the positive effect that agriculture has on Alabama year-round is truly unparalleled.  While the most direct impact is reflected in this year’s Farm-City Week theme, ‘Agriculture: Food for Life,’ there are many lesser known “ag facts” that I would like to share.

For instance, farmland covers approximately a quarter of our state and forestland covers two-thirds.  This provides a significant benefit when it comes to ecosystem services.  Second, Alabama is home to around 43,000 farms, most of which are family owned and operated.  The influence goes way beyond these families, as nearly 600,000 Alabama jobs are dependent on agriculture.  Between agriculture, forestry, and related industries in Alabama, the annual economic impact is over seventy billion dollars.

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This does not even include the social benefits of agriculture in our state.  Alabama farmers are pillars of their local communities who are giving of their time, talent, and resources.  They practice a core belief of mine in all of their work: doing more with less.  From my personal experience, life on the farm builds character.  The scorching-hot summers I spent working in my grandparents’ chicken houses, my shoes caked with chicken litter as I bustled about trying to keep the chickens from killing each other, helped teach me the virtues of hard-work.  This has stuck with me throughout my life, and I am forever grateful for my time on the farm.

Which brings us back to Thanksgiving.  Let’s challenge ourselves this year.  We have so many things to be thankful for in Alabama.  But all we see in the news is negative.  Let’s count God’s blessings and highlight the things that we love about our state.

Most importantly, we still live in a state of God-fearing people.  We are also blessed to have an abundance of natural resources in Alabama.  We have the most navigable waterways in the country, allowing goods to flow in and out of the state.  We have a huge supply of coal that provides jobs for so many families and helps keep electricity rates low for everyone.  Our beautiful land and bodies of water make our state a premier destination for hunting and fishing.  Alabama is also blessed to have tremendous farmland, ranging from the dark fertile soil in the Black Belt to the bountiful Tennessee Valley.  The unemployment rate just hit an all-time low, and we are moving in the right direction with workforce development.  Our manufacturing sector is thriving, with new companies making Alabama home left and right.  And so, so much more.

We are truly blessed, and I am proud to call Alabama home.  Happy Thanksgiving and happy Farm-City Week!  Our state’s great farmers work hard so that we can focus on our families and enjoy cherished traditions this Thanksgiving Day.  So, if you see a farmer during the holiday season, be sure to thank them.  This week and throughout the year, we should be grateful for everything they do.  When you are saying your prayers, please ask God to continue blessing our farmers and our great state.

The above is the opinion of Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh, the President of the Alabama Public Service Commission. Opinions expressed do not represent the position of the Public Service Commission or its other commissioners. 

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Opinion | What this pandemic reveals about public education

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I love public education employees.  They are the most resourceful group of people you could ever meet.  They have to be.  These employees work in an atmosphere of politics and nepotism. They suffer through Legislators and administrators that create policies for them even though many of these policy makers have never worked in a school a day in their lives.  Because of this, school-based employees have had to learn to MacGyver their way through each and every day.

These employees do this because they know what’s at stake; The future of the 51 million students who attend our public schools as well as the future of our country that one day those students will run.

Recently being made aware of a new piece of federal legislation that could impact the lives of public education employees, I did a quick survey of all my friends that work in that sector. I foundthat a large portion of them are not aware of this new law.

You see, they are working hard trying to ensure that students are fed, that packets of school work are assembled, and that the digital divide, which this pandemic has now thrust into the spotlight, is addressed as best it can be.

They are busy trying to MacGyver their way through a pandemic that education policy does not address, yet they are still expected to somehow provide continuity in teaching and learning.

But at what cost? How much will our students actually benefitfrom these weeks of taped and spliced together hybrids of online and paper and pencil learning, and is that greater than the sacrifices our employees’ may ultimately make?

How much responsibility should school districts share in making sure the most vulnerable in our communities are fed?  Under a pandemic and amidst shelter in place orders, at what point do schools step back and local governments and other agencies step up?

I think these are just a few of the questions that are being asked by those in position to educate public school employees about their rights under the new FFCRA, and they just don’t have the answers. So they are saying very little, fearful that what little societal infrastructure public education can provide during this pandemic will fall apart.

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Lacking any universal definition of what public education is today and what its responsibilities truly are, public education employees are expected to be and do it all. With a smile on their faces.  Because it’s “for the children”.  The rest will be sorted out later.

Well, this pandemic has thrust this topic to the forefront. It’s time to sort it out.  It’s time to recognize public school employees as employees, not martyrs or miracle workers, or folks with big hearts that are willing to sacrifice it all.

They are employees, and in the United States employees have rights.

In that vain, public education employees, you need to know what your rights are so that you can decide what is right for you and your families.

If you are being asked to work in a building and you feel that you cannot or should not be doing it, if you cannot work (telework included) due to childcare issues, if you or a family member are sick with COVID-19, or you take care of anyone that is in a high risk category, there are now some federal job protections for you.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) contains several provisions that will provide meaningful assistance to school district employees. It took effect April 2, 2020, and will end on December 31, 2020.

The FFCRA provides two types of leave for employees impacted by COVID-19: Emergency Paid Sick Leave and Emergency Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) Leave.

First, let’s talk about the Emergency Paid Sick Leave.

It provides 10 days of paid sick leave to an employee who is unable to work or telework if:

1. The employee is subject to a federal, state or local quarantine or isolation order related to COVID -19;
2. The employee has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19;
3. The employee is experiencing symptoms and is seeking a medical diagnosis;
4. The employee is caring for someone described above;
5. The employee is caring for the employee’s child if the school or place of care for the child is closed, or if the childcare provider of the child is unavailable due to COVID-19 precautions.
6. The employee is experiencing any other substantially similar condition specified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of Labor.

How much it pays:

If an employee is unable to work due to the conditions described in 1-3, the employee is entitled to their regular rate or the applicable minimum wage, whichever is higher, up to $511 per day over a 2-week period.

If an employee is unable to work due to the conditions described in 4 or 6, such as a lack of child care, the employee is entitled to pay at 2/3 their regular rate or 2/3 the applicable minimum wage, whichever is higher, up to $200 per day for 2 weeks.

If an employee is unable to work due to the conditions described in 5 the employee is entitled to pay at 2/3 their regular rate or 2/3 the applicable minimum wage, whichever is higher, up to $200 per day for 12 weeks.

If the employee is part-time, the employee is entitled to be paid for a number of hours equal to the number of hours that the employee works, on average, in a 2 week period.

All full-time and part-time school system employees are covered by the Emergency Paid Sick Leave and are eligible for the two weeks of emergency paid sick leave if they meet one of the six criteria listed above.

Now let’s discuss the Emergency FMLA Leave.

It allows an employee to take up to 12 weeks of leave if the employee is unable to work or telework due to a need for leave to take care of the employee’s child if the school or place of child care has been closed, or if the child care provider is unavailable due to a public health emergency.

How much it pays:

The first 10 days (2 weeks) of leave may be unpaid, except that an employee may choose to use the new emergency sick leave (as identified above) or any other accrued paid leave.

The remaining 10 weeks of FMLA leave provided by this law will be paid at 2/3rds of the employee’s regular rate, up to a maximum payment of $200 per day ($10,000 total).

Emergency FMLA applies to any full-time or part-time employee who have been on the payroll for 30 calendar days.

Another important fact for employees who lack childcare or are caring for an ill child:

Employees in those circumstances can combine both emergency leaves. Here how combining the two may work:

• Weeks 1-2 – Emergency Paid Sick Leave at 67% regular salary up to $200/day

• Weeks 3-12 – Emergency FMLA Leave at 67% regular salary up to $200/day

In the case of lack of childcare, an employee may choose to use accrued leave and emergency paid sick leave together in order to make 100% of his or her salary for that period of time up to two weeks.

Remember it is illegal for an employer to discharge, discipline, or otherwise discriminate against an employee taking leave.

If you feel you need to use one or both emergency leave options, please notify your organization for further guidance.  If you are not a member of an organization contact your supervisor to obtain the proper paperwork.

I am not advocating for or against utilizing the FFCRA, but I will say this:  IF these MacGyvered forms of distance learning do get shut down due to the fact that public school employeesexercised their legal rights, parents don’t worry, we can make up any time in the classroom that may have been lost.

How?

The easiest and cheapest way to do this would be to end high stakes testing.

Think about it. Most school systems spend weeks after spring break doing test prep and high stakes testing.  If schools are able to go back into session in August (which I PRAY is the case!) then they could use the first four weeks to make up what was lost and omit the high stakes testing at the end of the year. This is a slightly altered version of a suggestion made by Dr. Eric Mackey, Alabama’s State Superintendent.

Let’s not aid the destruction of public education by buying into the false narratives that these last few weeks of school arecritical and must continue at all costs, that the sky is falling if we don’t get our children behind a digital device, and that our schools are solely responsible for the care and feeding of our students.  Instead let’s recognize how out of focus our vision has become concerning our expectations of public education and public education employees, and let’s begin a discussion asking parents, communities, and community leaders what their responsibilities are when it comes to our children and youth.

Public Ed can come back from this better and stronger, but only if we take action to correct the inequities and misguided policies that this pandemic has thrust onto the National stage.

Finally, to our public school employees, please take this time to care for yourself and your families. We will need you more than ever once our school doors reopen.

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Love in the time of the coronavirus

Bradley Byrne

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Like many of you I “attended” Palm Sunday worship online. It was strange not to be there at St. James Fairhope physically for the Liturgy of the Palms to gather outside for prayers and walk into the church together with our palms singing “All Glory, Laud and Honor.”

I heard the words of the Passion according to St. Matthew but wasn’t there to see the faces and expressions of the readers. We said prayers for those afflicted by the disease and those caring for them. We also said the right words for the Offering, the Eucharist, and the Peace, but there was no Offering or Eucharist, and we couldn’t physically greet one another with the words, “The Peace of the Lord be always with you; And also with you.”

Worship is more than just words. It’s the act of coming together as God’s people to worship Him, sing hymns, pray, hear God’s Word, and be one body. We did it apart last Sunday and will do it this Sunday for Easter. It’s strange but necessary.

When I was a teenager there was a novel and movie called Love Story. It had one of the dumbest lines I’ve ever heard: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Love means frequently having to say you’re sorry, whether or not you caused another’s trouble or hurt.

Over a million people worldwide are confirmed to have COVID-19. Tens of thousands have died from it. I’m very sorry for them, their family members, and loved ones. I’m sorry so many on the front lines are working long hours, exposing themselves to danger, and that so many have lost their jobs as we practice social distancing.

All that could drive many to depression, anti-social behavior, and self-destructive acts. To avoid that we all must help one another, just as we do down here during hurricanes, except at a physical distance. And it doesn’t do any good – in fact it’s harmful – to play the blame game. While there will be a time to assess the culpability of the Chinese government, rhetoric or discrimination against Asian Americans is irrational, harmful, and just plain wrong.

Congress and President Trump put aside our differences, however temporarily, to overwhelmingly pass the CARES Act, pumping over $2 trillion into our economy in a bold move to cushion the economic effects of social distancing and pay for the health care and research to defeat this disease. I and my staff are working around the clock to get information to our constituents about the disease itself and these new government programs. And, as we hear needs, we take them directly to those in charge of providing help. We aren’t on the front lines caring for the sick, but we have a supportive role to play and are determined to do our part.

During Sunday’s online service, I remembered that love isn’t a sugary, sentimental thing. It often involves sacrifice. It’s not that sacrificial for me to miss being physically in church, though I felt I was missing something. That something is a small thing compared with risking the spread of this disease.

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And, listening to the Passion narrative, I remembered what real sacrifice, the ultimate sacrifice, really is. And why did Jesus do it? Because He loved us that much. It wasn’t just the physical agony, but more painful to him, taking on all our sins to himself, all our collective denial of and disobedience to God. He said “I and the Father are one” and then allowed Himself to be separated from God as He took on all our sins. No wonder he cried out at that moment, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But God did not leave Jesus to death, for the Resurrection was three days away.

God has not forsaken us. To care for us, he requires each of us to love and take care of one another. Right now, in part that means we must be apart from one another, and for many to suffer economically and perhaps even emotionally. Let’s all be more attuned and sensitive, and helpful, to one another.

Good Friday isn’t good because Jesus was killed but because He rose again. It may seem dark now, but the light of Easter morning is just around the corner.

The last verse of an old French Easter carol called Now The Green Blade Riseth says, “When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain, thy touch can call us back to life again, fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been: Love is come again like wheat that springeth green”.

Spring is here. So is love. Pass it on.

 

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Opinion | Dr. King’s legacy lives on 52 years later

David Person

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On April 4, 1968, I was watching the little black and white television in our living room when the newscaster said that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. My tears flowed freely. Even though I was only 4, I knew that his death was a tragedy, especially for little black boys like me.

My parents and I lived on Chicago’s Southside in a yellow, three-story apartment building at the corner of 91st and Throop St. Three floors, three apartments, each one running the full length of the building with a huge picture window in the living room. Daylight streamed through ours as I watched the newscast through my tears, riveted by sorrow and fear.

King was my hero, a man who courageously stood for justice and peace, even when threatened with violence. He was an eloquent preacher, whose soaring lines and velvet tones even captivated little children. And he was a father who, like my own, had tried to explain the nonsensical evil of racism to his child.

Yolanda, the oldest of the King children, had wanted to go to Fun Town, an amusement park in Atlanta. He had to explain to her that Fun Town was only open to white children. Chicago also had a Fun Town, but because it was in the black community – 95th and Stony Island Ave. – I don’t recall it being off-limits to me and other African-American children.

But the Chicago of the 1960s wasn’t that different from the Jim Crow South. Black families who tried to move into white neighborhoods were run out. The dividing lines were stark and clear. In fact, I only saw white Chicagoans while watching the news or when shopping downtown.

Northern segregation had a profoundly negative economic impact on black Chicago. It was so bad that three years before his assassination, King and his family actually moved to Chicago to apply his civil rights strategies to slums, low-wage jobs and overcrowded schools.

When he led a march through Marquette Park, a notoriously all-white enclave on the Southside, someone hit him in the back of the head with a rock. “I have seen many demonstrations in the South,” King said. “But I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today.”

King’s Chicago experiences undoubtedly shaped my reaction when I learned of his death. I know that because my father was a news junkie, politically aware, and what we used to call a “race man” – meaning that he identified as a black man more than as an American or even a Christian. He also was a card-carrying Republican, but of the Eisenhower type, not Goldwater or Nixon. So he and my mother admired Dr. King, and passed that admiration on to me.

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And I retain it today, 52 years after his assassination. In fact, it’s grown stronger and deeper through the years.

My favorite King quote comes from his sermon “Loving Your Enemies,” preached at Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in 1957: “Within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls ‘the image of God,’ you begin to love him in spite of – no matter what he does, you see God’s image there.”

King was an expert in having enemies. He had more than his fair share, including whoever actually killed him. (The King family believes that convicted King assassin James Earl Ray was framed. Dr. William F. Pepper’s book “An Act of State” explains why.)
But what King undoubtedly knew, and what his killers failed to fathom, is that while prophets die, their dreams or prophecies live on. And true prophets always will be validated by history and time.

Which is why I expect Dr. King’s legacy to outlive all of us.

 

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Opinion | Jobs to move America

Patricia Todd

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Before COVID-19 swept the country, public officials celebrated Alabama’s 2.7 percent unemployment rate: it was a record low for our state, and lower than the national average. But statistics never tell the full story. Were the jobs Alabamians working good ones? With paid sick, family, and medical leave to protect workers from COVID-19? Were people working more than one job to make ends meet?

As we reckon with a pandemic and pending economic recession of a magnitude difficult to comprehend, Alabama needs to start looking beyond unemployment rates to ask some soul-searching questions. As industry after industry demands huge public bailouts, the South’s history of offering big corporate giveaways represents a glaring example of why public subsidies should only be on the table if public officials put people and workers first.

Corporate subsidies, in the form of economic tax incentives, have become a popular tool that cities and states use to lure companies to a specific location. The fight over where Amazon would set up its second headquarters — cities raced to provide the most attractive incentive packages, offering billions of our public dollars to sweeten the deal — put a spotlight on the problems with these subsidies. Even after national outrage over the bidding war for Amazon, economic development specialists and elected officials continued to tell us that these subsidies were critical to creating jobs and growing the economy. Cities and states like Alabama still compete aggressively to bring corporations to our backyards, using our public dollars as bait. Promises of subsidies include abatement of income and property taxes, infrastructure development, workforce training, and sometimes cash. But the problem that COVID-19 has brought into sharp relief is that promises made are not always promises delivered. What’s worse, many of these promises weren’t good enough to begin with.

In Alabama, we celebrate the ribbon cutting of a new manufacturer breaking ground on a new plant and announcing new jobs that will be created. Yet, rarely are we told how much the state or municipality paid to the corporation to bring those jobs to the area or given details about the return on investment. Now that COVID-19 is shutting down production at manufacturing plants across our state, leaving many workers high and dry, it’s time to ask how our public dollars can be most effectively invested in private companies to ensure the outcomes we need.

Corporate subsidies have cost Alabama over $3.5 billion dollars over the past decade. The public has no information on how money was spent — or what we got for it. These subsidies do not require corporations to commit to providing a living wage; any paid sick, family, or medical leave; or hiring goals for marginalized communities. Most taxpayers don’t even know where to look for the information. This story holds true across the South.

Alabamians, like many of our Southern neighbors, cannot afford any loss of revenue. According to Alabama Possible, our state’s poverty rate is 18.9 percent, making us the 6th poorest state in the country. Our education system, mental health services, and public infrastructure are in dire need of funding. The National Center for Education Statistics ranks Alabama last in math, reading, and science. We also rank at the bottom in teacher pay, infrastructure, and access to health care. As a result, we lack the services and infrastructure needed to support working families through a crisis like COVID-19.

Why? For decades, our state has siphoned money from these critical public services and social infrastructure to provide corporations with handsome tax incentives in exchange for little more than a handshake deal. Our state is lining the pockets of corporate CEOs, not workers and communities.

COVID-19 makes it clear that Southerners deserve a better deal.

Which is why Jobs to Move America is building a research-action program, headquartered in Birmingham, to win sunshine and accountability policies in the South. We believe that together, we can turn the tide on endless and unaccountable corporate giveaways. We can demand limits on incentives and institute requirements that companies receiving our precious public dollars provide a living wage, benefits, a safe work environment free of racism and gender discrimination, and hiring preferences for marginalized and underrepresented communities. We can also demand a public accountability report about every company that receives subsidies so that Southerners can scrutinize whether their public dollars are actually doing public good.

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To get there, we need to understand and document all the public dollars that our state has given away. We’ll write reports about that spending, we’ll dig into the consequences of corporate giveaways on our communities and workers. We’ll work in coalition with community-based organizations and social justice groups, like Alabama Arise, to educate public officials and community leaders about the impact of these subsidies. And eventually, we’ll win legislation that ensures our public dollars create the kind of return on investment that we believe in: good jobs and healthy communities.

Do Mercedes, Amazon and Walmart really need generous tax subsidies to operate business as usual? The clear answer is no. It is time to get our priorities in order and take care of our own people — instead of corporate shareholders.


Patricia Todd is the Southern Director at Jobs to Move America. Patricia has socially and professionally advocated for public policies relevant to social justice, education, HIV/AIDS, and a wide range of issues affect the entire Birmingham community for over twenty years. Patricia was elected to the Alabama Legislature as the State Representative for House District 54 in November of 2006 as the first openly gay elected official in Alabama’s history. She retired from the legislature in 2018.

 

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