Places: Midas Auto Shop, New Paltz, NY

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Autism Action Day in Albany

In an effort to pass a package of bills aimed at assisting New Yorkers with autism and developmental disabilities, Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara joined with autism advocates and presented the first Autism Action Award, to Sara Mae Hickey, owner of a cafe that employs autistic adults at the first Autism Action Day.

Santabarbara unveiled the five point package of legislation aimed at increasing job opportunities, providing independent housing options, improving access to information, assisting in communication, and creating a centralized resource location in New York for people with autism.

“About 1 in 68 children in the United States are living with autism, and at some point it will be 1 in 68 adults,” Santabarbara said. “We need to turn awareness into action, and Autism Action day is an opportunity to do that.”

Santabarbara presented the first Autism Action Award to Sara Mae Hickey, 25, owner and operator of Puzzles bakery and cafe in Schenectady, NY. Puzzles bakery is unique in that its employees work in an integrated environment, employing adults with and without developmental disabilities. Its business model speaks to one of the most important needs for adults with autism; employment.

“What Puzzles does is it fosters awareness and understanding within the community,” Hickey said. “People come in and they learn about autism and our cause.”

Hickey, a 25 year old Schenectady resident, came up with the idea for Puzzles during her time at the Clinton Global Initiative, whose mission is to turn ideas into action. Hickey recognized the need for employment opportunities for adults with autism. Providing this employment for autistic adults helps foster their independence and give them a chance to engage in their communities. She spent the past two years working to open the restaurant until they opened about a year ago.

According to Hickey, the first Puzzles bakery and cafe is getting global attention. “Everyday I get letters and emails asking me to open up more locations. I’ve heard from Ohio, California, and even New Zealand. I have a list of 600 applicants who want a job right now.”

The demand for employment for autistic adults is staggering. “We need more people to step up and create opportunities for people with disabilities,” Hickey said. “I was honestly surprised that the name Puzzles wasn’t already taken.”

The next step for Hickey is to open more locations in the Schenectady area, and eventually franchise, so that more communities across the United States and the world can open businesses with the Puzzles model.

Assemblyman Santabarbara organized Autism Action day in order to introduce a series of bills that will bring attention to the needs of the developmentally disabled population in New York.

The first bill would create a statewide Autism Spectrum Disorder Advisory Board (A. 8635) to implement the rest of the Autism Action plan. The second bill, (A.5141), would add communication support to the existing vocational rehab centers in New York to improve employment outcomes for those with autism.

The third bill would address the overwhelming housing issue for those New Yorkers with autism, by providing an interest free loan to families in order to build apartments on their property for their family members with autism (A.8696). The fourth bill will work to make access to information and technology easier for those with autism, by ensuring that devices have appropriate software (A.8708).

Finally, the fifth bill, (A.8389) would mandate a first-of-its-kind standardized autism ID card to help people with autism communicate with law enforcement and first responders in emergency situations.

The events of Autism Action day were greeted with support from local autism advocates, including Schenectady ARC, Liberty ARC, the Autism Society of the Greater Capitol Region, and the New York State Association of Community and Residential Agencies (NYSACRA).

Santabarbara, whose 14 year old son Michael is autistic, added, “We must do everything we can to provide those affected by autism with the support and resources needed to help engage the community on their own terms. Now is the time and this is the day to take action.”

NY’s Labor Unions breathing a sigh of relief

Five of the most influential labor unions in New York are celebrating what could be a short-term victory. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association came down Tuesday to a deadlocked 4-4 vote along liberal and conservative lines. The case threatened to block the ability of public-sector unions from collecting “agency” fees from employees who choose not to join the unions that represent their place of work.

A decision to disallow these fees would have gone against the state law of 23 states and the District of Columbia, reducing the funds for union activities such as lobbying and collective bargaining.

The case is the first decided by the high court since Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, highlighting the effects of decision-making with an incomplete bench.

The split decision preserves organized labor’s ability, for now, to collect agency fees. New York’s chapter of the Civil Service Employees Association emphasized the short term shelf life of this union victory.

“The Friedrichs case is symptomatic of this trend toward a lack of economic fairness and imbalance that is like a cancer on our society,” said CSEA President Danny Donohue. “Friedrichs sought to overturn a long-standing law of the land for the self-interest of some individuals, but only at the expense of the greater community good.”

The litigation was brought to the courts by the Center for Individual Rights, a libertarian group representing the plaintiff teachers. It moved quickly through the court system. and could be heard again when there is a full bench.

“We believe this case is too significant to let a split decision stand and we will file a petition for re-hearing with the Supreme Court,” Terence Pell, president of the CIR, said in a statement

According to the CIR, the plaintiff teachers in the case object to paying fees to a union with whom their political opinions do not align. They claim being forced to fund the union as a condition of employment in a public school is unconstitutional.

The Friedrichs case is not the only challenge to labor unions making its way through the courts. Last year, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner issued an executive order banning labor unions from seeking agency fees, citing union participation in politics as a breach of First Amendment rights. In anticipation of legal repercussions, the Rauner filed a federal lawsuit on the issue, hoping to see it brought to the Supreme Court.

Labor unions in New York have come out in support for the ruling, but not forgetting the continuing fight ahead of them.

“The ruling is a defeat for anti-union, conservative forces whose goal is to bankrupt unions and dilute their political influence,” said Frederick Kowal, president of the United University Professions, which represents faculty and stuff on SUNY campuses. “But organized labor cannot rest, knowing full well that the same anti-union factions that brought Friedrichs before the high court have other cases in the pipeline to challenge unions.”

The Friedrichs case, like others against labor unions, have continually been ruled against in lower courts. According to Stephen Madarasz, spokesman for CSEA, “agency fees have been the law of the land for more than 40 years.”

Madarasz says “unbridled greed and self interest” are at the heart of these anti-union cases.

“Attacks on the rights of working people are being funded by the Koch brothers and other corporate entities,” Madarasz said. “It works under the divide and conquer mentality. We need people working together to fight against these attacks.”

The New York Public Employees Federation, representing scientific and technical employees in New York, issued a statement in reaction to this week’s ruling: “While the labor movement in the U.S. is breathing a collective sigh of relief this morning, it doesn’t change the fact that there are more such cases waiting to be heard and threats to unions are still very real.”

Teachers unions in New York warned of the corporate interests threatening the strength of labor unions, and emphasized the Supreme Court’s importance for the rights of all Americans, especially those who work.

“The union victory in the Friedrich’s case demonstrates the critical importance of the Supreme Court,” said Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers. “The corporate interests that created and backed the Friedrichs case will continue their efforts to undermine unions, working people, and the country’s middle class.”

“Today’s court ruling is a blow to the corporate, anti-worker groups behind Friedrichs who wish to deny worker the strong voice on the job they need and deserve,” read a statement by New York State United Teachers.


Published at Legislative Gazette, Albany NY.

NY’s labor unions breathing a sigh of relief

President Obama Takes Action to Fill the Supreme Court

President Obama announced today his next nominee to the Supreme Court of the United States, current D.C. court of appeals Chief Judge Merrick B. Garland.

Garland, a graduate of Harvard law school, was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the D.C. court of appeals in 1997, approved by a 76-23 vote margin. Since 2013, he has served as the chief judge on that court, which most consider the most important appellate court in the nation.

Born and raised in Illinois, Garland said that being nominated by the President, “a fellow chicagoan, is an honor.”

After graduating law school, Garland clerked for Second Circuit Judge Henry Friendly, and later worked for Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. After a short stint in private law doing pro bono work, Garland accepted a job as a federal prosecutor under President George H.W. Bush. He then joined the Department of Justice, working under the Attorney General.

During this time, Garland oversaw some of the most significant prosecutions in the 1990’s, including his arduous work on the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. Garland moved to Oklahoma in the days following the attack, and led the investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators.

When Garland was appointed to the D.C. circuit court, his nomination was met with overwhelming bipartisan support from senators and lawmakers. He is known for being a “meticulous judge with a knack for building consensus, playing it straight, and deciding every case based on what the law requires,” according to a press release.

Garland has said “the role of the court is to apply the law to the facts of the case before it- not to legislate, no to arrogate to itself the executive power, not to hand down advisory opinions on the issues of the day.”

Garland became choked up during the nomination announcement today in the rose garden, comparing the honor of being nominated only to that of when his wife, Lynn, agreed to marry him. Garland and his wife of nearly 30 years have two daughters together, Becky and Jessie.

The nomination comes amid Republican claims that the next justice to the Supreme Court should be nominated by the president elect chosen later this year. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell reiterated his vow not to consider a nominee chosen by President Obama. “It’s about a principle and not a person… it seems President Obama made this nomination not with the intent with seeing a nominee confirmed, but in order to politicize it for the purposes of the election.”

President Obama addressed the partisan issue during his nomination speech this morning, saying “To suggest that someone as qualified and respected as Merrick Garland doesn’t even deserve a hearing, let alone an up or down vote, to join an institution as important as our Supreme Court, when two- thirds of Americans believe otherwise, that would be unprecedented.”