Social Service Providers: "Leg Must Stay in Remote Session to Help Vulnerable New Yorkers"

Safe Horizon, Human Services Council, Community Service Society, FPWA, Osborne Assoc. release open letter to Gov + Leg to address COVID-19 related needs of vulnerable populations

NEW YORK, NY (04/20/2020) (readMedia)-- The same day that the NYS Legislature was previously scheduled to resume session, Michelle Jackson, Executive Director of the Human Services Council; Michael Polenberg, VP of Government Affairs for Safe Horizon; David R. Jones CEO of the Community Service Society; Tanya Krupat, Director at the Osborne Center for Justice Across Generations, The Osborne Association; and Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY held a press conference call urging the Legislature to commit to staying in remote session to address legislation relating to the COVID-19 crisis and longstanding inequities made plain by and exacerbated by the virus.

Listen here.

Last week, Senators James Skoufis, Gustavo Rivera, Brad Hoylman and Assemblymembers Ron Kim, Deborah Glick, and Catalina Cruz also called on the legislature to stay in remote session, joining the Drug Policy Alliance, Tenants PAC, and various good government groups. The providers also released an open letter (below) to Governor Andrew Cuomo, Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins outlining their concerns. The Albany Times Union, the New York Times, the Buffalo News, and Daily Gazette have all published editorials urging New York lawmakers to step up and continue to legislate remotely post-budget.

Both the Assembly and the Senate have passed resolutions and rules changes that will allow lawmakers to vote remotely on a limited or as needed basis, but neither house has specifically indicated exactly when session will resume.

"Democracy doesn't pause, it adapts just like other large, complex organizations in New York. If service providers with 1000+ staff can figure out how to move to remote systems and continue helping the most vulnerable populations, the 213 members of the Legislature can too. Public service is a matter of moral leadership, and New Yorkers need our elected representatives to commit to staying in public remote session now more than ever," said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY.

"The New York legislature must come back together for remote session to ensure that the communities they represent get necessary support during the COVID-19 pandemic and to plan recovery efforts. The Governor has not made necessary investments in the human services organizations millions of New Yorkers are relying on right now for lifesaving services, nor has the Governor included our frontline workers in the supply chain for personal protective equipment he has mandated. We need the legislature to support not only those workers, but the millions of New Yorkers suffering from this pandemic. There are a myriad of issues – from emergency funding for essential services to legislation to protect workers and families – that need to be addressed now. We should not be limiting the democratic process right now, as the voices of communities are needed now more than ever," said Michelle Jackson, the Acting Executive Director of the Human Services Council (HSC), a membership organization representing over 170 human services providers in New York.

HSC serves as a coordinating body, advocate, and intermediary between the human services sector and government so that their members focus on running their organizations and providing direct support to New Yorkers. HSC 's membership comprises nonprofits that serve New York's children, seniors, those experiencing homelessness, people with disabilities, survivors of violence, individuals who are incarcerated or otherwise involved in the justice system, immigrants, and individuals coping with substance abuse and other mental health and behavioral challenges. These human services nonprofits are deeply dedicated to their communities and the residents they serve and play an essential role in New York's COVID-19 response and recovery.

"In order to continue to offer a compassionate & effective response to New Yorkers impacted both by violence & abuse and by COVID-19, Safe Horizon has adjusted how we operate across New York City. In some cases, programs such as shelters and Child Advocacy Centers remain open; in other cases, Safe Horizon staff are reaching out telephonically to clients and representing them in virtual court proceedings. Whatever our service delivery model looks like during this pandemic, our dedication and commitment to our clients remains unwavering. We urge the New York State Legislature to similarly adapt as needed in order to pass critically important bills to keep New Yorkers safe and create paths to justice for victims. Our clients simply cannot wait another year for assistance," said Michael Polenberg, VP of Government Affairs for Safe Horizon.

Safe Horizon is the nation's largest non-profit service provider for victims of violence and abuse. Based entirely in New York City, staff continue to help children and adults find paths to safety and healing, even during the current health crisis. Some programs such as domestic violence shelters, overnight shelter and drop-in center for homeless youth, and Child Advocacy Centers are still open, albeit at reduced capacity. Staff in other programs are working remotely and are continuing to engage with clients on the phone, through an online chatline, and in virtual court proceedings. Last month, Safe Horizon 24-hour hotlines received 5,800 calls and 650 requests for shelter. In addition, the online chat service ( is responding to more clients than ever. To learn more go to

"We can't underestimate the dimensions of the COVID-19 crisis, especially the fact that the largest burdens will fall on the working poor and the most vulnerable among us," said David R. Jones, CSS President and CEO. "Now that the federal government has responded to this pandemic, and the gaps in relief are emerging, we need a fully-engaged State Legislature to be part of the process of restarting our economy, making sure those who are disproportionately impacted are not left out, and contributing ideas to how we restore confidence that New York is a safe. The technology exists for legislators to work remotely. We must take advantage of it to ensure that the voices and concerns of New Yorkers are represented."

"Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the Osborne Association has had to adapt the way we reach and support the 12,000 individuals we serve each year. We have found creative and effective ways to engage and assist children and families with loved ones incarcerated during a time of extreme anxiety, stress, and financial strain. Although we have been unable to enter the jails and prisons, the need to improve the conditions under which people are living, and to release aging incarcerated men and women, has never been more urgent. It has become clear that the legislature is the key to addressing this human rights emergency. We call on the legislature to reconvene (remotely) and pass bills such as the Elder Parole, HALT Solitary, and Visit Codification bills. These bills are especially important for families and communities of color, disproportionately targeted by the justice system and ravaged by COVID-19. We need our elected officials to return to session and further safeguard vulnerable communities at this particularly challenging time," said Liz Gaynes, CEO and President, the Osborne Association.

"At this critical time in our nation, it is imperative that New York State continue to lead the way in our response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Those most impacted by this health crisis- low income individuals and families, communities of color, and immigrants- must be fully represented by their elected officials in Albany and need swift action from the legislature to advance legislation that will provide economic relief and continued access to health care and income supports," said Jennifer Jones Austin, CEO and Executive Director of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.

In March, Common Cause/NY and Andrew Hoppin, the former and first ever Chief Information Officer for the NYS Senate, held a press conference call to provide guidance and technical expertise for how New York lawmakers can and should continue to function in virtual session.

Open Letter:

To: Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie & Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins,

From: The Human Services Council, the Community Service Society, Safe Horizon, the New York Immigration Coalition, Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, Catskill Mountain RiverKeeper, Buffalo Jewish Federation, Partnership for Public Good Buffalo,Osborne Association

New York is staring down the barrel of a sprawling crisis that has touched the lives of every New Yorker. We, as a state and nation, are in uncharted waters. From the North Country to Long Island, New Yorkers are grappling with ill loved ones, lost jobs, and the anxiety provoking uncertainty of this new normal. Now, more than ever, New Yorkers need strong moral leadership from all branches of government. And while the end may not be in sight, we must push forward on the road to recovery.

The Governor rightly remains laser-focused on triaging the public health emergency, therefore the State Legislature must step up and lead the state's immediate and long term response to the crisis unfolding in New Yorkers everyday lives. Countless New York state legislators entered public service with the moral imperative to serve their community. We implore you to let them.

That is why we are asking you to resume the people's business by continuing the legislative session remotely. April 1st has come and gone, and many New Yorkers have rent and bills to pay with little relief in sight. The numbers are stark- since mid-March over 242,000 New Yorkers have tested positive for COVID-19, 1.1 million have filed for unemployment, and the overwhelming majority are worried about their personal finances.

Meanwhile, our public infrastructure and the network of safety net services, from food pantries to the Department of Labor, are buckling under the exponential and uniform surge in demand as unemployment skyrockets, anxiety grows, and businesses shutter for the foreseeable future.

The State Legislature must deploy its legislative arsenal to ensure New Yorkers have continued access to health care and public benefits, are not evicted due to a positive diagnosis, and can vote safely for the remainder of 2020. New Yorkers are doing their part by staying home, adapting and stretching their capacity as parents become teachers and health care workers are asked to do the impossible- it is time the Legislature does the same.

We have faith in New York's resiliency, but this remains a collective effort. And while there is no question that the long term health, social and economic effects will be felt for years, you can act now to help New York survive, cope and, ultimately, rebuild.

Existing technologies and options for a remote legislature

Ten years ago the NYS Senate overhauled its technology systems to better allow legislators to work remotely-- implementing webmail, supporting smartphones and tablets for the first time, installing secure WiFi routers in District Offices, and modernizing many of the institution's legislative and constituent data and workflow management software applications so that they could be accessed outside of Albany, and publishing all of the Senate's spending and voting data on the Web. Part of the motivation at that time was to ensure that lawmakers-- and their constituents-- didn't need to be in Albany to know what was going on in Albany.

As a result, the NYS Senate is already well equipped to operate remotely, with full support for mobile devices and the ability to access and operate key information publishing, legislative research information and constituent service software applications from any web browser.

New remote meetings and legislative workflow management could readily be added by vendors like Granicus, Tallan, PrimeGov, and Propylon, and even more simply by adding affordable off-the-shelf tools such as Zoom to the legislature's existing in-house capabilities. Remote voting, given the bi-cameral nature of State legislatures, could require some custom work by the highly capable legislative IT organizations, but simplifying parliamentarian rules such as requiring the physical printing of bills may be the larger impediment than the technology to record votes remotely.