Welcome to my first newsletter! The past month has been busy, and I wanted to take some time to give you an update on life in the virtual Wilson Building. I was humbly sworn in as an At-Large Councilmember on January 2nd in front of a small group of socially distanced guests. This was a reminder of the challenges we face as a city, nation, and worldwide community from the threat of COVID-19.
While the public health emergency has changed our lives over the past ten months, there is hope on the horizon. Vaccines are being administered, with the District of Columbia leading the way in vaccination efficiency. We are constantly working with our partners at the Department of Health to improve the vaccination sign-up process and spread the word about the importance of the vaccine.
The Chief Financial Officer released a revenue estimate at the end of December projecting narrower deficits for fiscal year 2021 and the four-year financial plan, with a healthy projected surplus from the previous fiscal year, FY2020. However, the revenue estimate also illustrates how uneven the COVID-related economic fallout has been, hitting low-income and hourly wage-earners the hardest. The CFO will release another revenue estimate at the end of February, which will be the basis of the FY2022 budget that we will consider upon the Mayor’s submission on March 31st.
At our organizational meeting on January 4th, I was appointed to the Committees on Health, Government Operations and Facilities, Transportation and the Environment, and Labor and Workforce Development. I will also serve on the Subcommittee focused on Redistricting. I look forward to working with my colleagues on those committees to not only address the economic and health challenges posed by the pandemic, but to also be forward thinking about equitable recovery.
I decided to seek public office because I was frustrated with the status quo and felt that we needed more leaders to focus on making what appears to be impossible, possible. To push policies to make DC more equitable and sustainable for us all. And to make a reality the belief that your zip code should not determine your opportunity for success.
I’m honored to have the opportunity to do this work and to join with all of you in community towards this effort. The next couple of years will undoubtedly present challenges, but I know our commitment to help solve them is greater. I’m excited to get to work!
My First Bill Provides Resources to Expecting Mothers
On January 15, 2021, I introduced my first bill: B24-26, The Maternal Health Resources and Access Act of 2021.
According to data from the United Health Foundation, as of 2019 the maternal mortality rate in the District was 35.6 per 100,000 live births, compared with a national rate of 29.6. The rate for Black women is significantly higher: 71 deaths per 100,000 births, compared with 63.8 nationally. This contributes to a massive Black-White life expectancy gap in the city.
For me, this issue is personal, having experienced first-hand the impact of DC not having a hospital that provides obstetrics care east of North Capitol Street. It will be a priority of mine to reduce the maternal mortality rate, provide support for expecting mothers by including advocates in the delivery room, and expand our maternal health infrastructure to underserved areas of the District of Columbia.
The Maternal Health Resources and Access Act of 2021 builds upon legislation introduced in Council Period 23 in three ways. First, it establishes a pilot program for Medicaid reimbursements of doula services. Second, it requires a feasibility study to establish a birthing center east of the Anacostia River. And third, it provides transportation subsidies for rides to maternal health appointments for services including ridesharing.
The Maternal Health Resources and Access Act of 2021 was co-introduced by Councilmembers Mary M. Cheh, Brianne K. Nadeau, Janeese Lewis George, Elissa Silverman, Vincent C. Gray, Kenyan R. McDuffie, Charles Allen, and Robert C. White, Jr.
Last week I attended two hearings on issues that are incredibly important to me: D.C. Public Schools Reopening and the implementation of Paid Family Leave.
On Thursday, January 21, 2021 the Committee of the Whole convened an oversight roundtable on DCPS reopening. During this hearing, many parents, teachers, and community stakeholders expressed their thoughts, concerns, and desires about returning to in-person learning. The consensus was that there is a need for safety protocols, enhanced communication, and transparency from DCPS regarding in-person learning. Parents also expressed interest in outdoor learning and a desire for more information about options in place for this summer and upcoming year. Witnesses also brought awareness to the achievement gap and the social and emotional aspect of learning that students are missing during virtual learning.
I asked questions about vaccine distribution for in-person teachers and staff, protocols and communication, equity in the in-person learning models being offered across the system, and ongoing technology challenges. Chancellor Ferebee conveyed that DCPS will continue to take safety precautions with investments in both facilities and personal protective equipment, and through classroom configurations. DCPS has also made sure that all schools are equipped with CARES classrooms and have received technology updates with bandwidth and broadband wireless support. DCPS is confident that they will be able to serve students and ensure the safety of everyone that returns. I will continue pushing for data, transparency, and proactive communication. There will be upcoming roundtables to follow to examine the learning loss during this pandemic.
On Friday, January 22, 2021, I attended my first roundtable as a member of the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, which examined the District’s Paid Family Leave program on the 6-month anniversary of its launch. Hearing from public witnesses who had finally utilized the program – to take time to care for a terminally ill parent or to be home with a new infant – was a powerful reminder of the critical support this program provides. No one should face a total loss of income to take time to heal, bond with an infant, or assist a seriously ill family member.
As with any new program, the hearing made clear that we have room for improvement when it comes to making Paid Family Leave stronger and more accessible. Witnesses shared that more robust wage replacement, simplicity in online claim submission, and awareness of the program among medical providers would be beneficial. Further, data from the Department of Employment Services indicates an under-utilization of the medical leave option, which provides two weeks to recover from an illness; it also revealed that leave claims submitted by African-American claimants were denied at higher rates than other groups. When I asked about these disparities, DOES Director Morris-Hughes pledged targeted outreach, advertising and education efforts to ensure that workers in all sectors and wards of the city are aware of their leave options – and how to successfully apply for them. I look forward to working with my Council colleagues to build upon our program’s solid foundation to address these issues.
As I mentioned, the District of Columbia is currently vaccinating individuals based on the District’s Tier plan. We are currently in Phase 1B Tier 2, which includes law enforcement, public safety workers, staffers in K-12 educational settings, residents 65 years of age and older, individuals in congregate cate settings, and others who qualify. Vaccination slots become available weekly and residents in zip codes with high rates of COVID-19 infection are prioritized for vaccination appointments before opening up appointments to the general population.
We did hear concerns from childcare workers who have not been given the same priority as K-12 education staffers. I reached out to the City Administrator about this, and here’s what I was told:
First and foremost, childcare workers have not been excluded from the Phase 1B priority group to which they were assigned, nor have independent school staff or grocery workers. The Department of Health decided to break up the priority group into smaller subgroups due to its large size relative to the small supply of vaccine. DC receives a supply of vaccine doses from the federal government each week, and right now we are only averaging 8-9,000 doses per week. We have nearly 400,000 workers in Phase 1A & 1B groups. At the current rate of supply, if we only vaccinated essential populations in that group and no one else, it would take nearly a year. However, the vast majority of our doses are going to seniors. DOH hopes to open vaccine appointments to other subgroups in 1B within the first 2 weeks of February, but this may change due to vaccine supply.
There are two ways that you can stay up to date on vaccination information: sign up for e-mail or text alerts, and visit http://vaccinate.dc.gov. General information on COVID-19 and the District of Columbia’s response can be found at https://coronavirus.dc.gov.
Performance Oversight and Budget
Performance Oversight is a really interesting time of the year for the Council. This is when the Council schedules many hearings to learn about agencies’ performance over the previous fiscal year. It might sound boring, but the nerd in me loves it! It’s an opportunity for in-depth assessment of how programs work or need improvement, it’s a chance to dive deep into data, and it helps inform priorities for the budget and for further legislation.
Between February 3, 2021 and March 19, 2021, each committee will bring in agencies under their purview for a hearing. Agencies will be asked to submit answers to pre-hearing questions, which informs the conversation, and the members of the Council then dig deeper into issues they find interesting or concerning. We also perform oversight on the progress of implementation of legislation in these hearings as well. It’s great for transparency and accountability.
Then on March 31, 2021 the Mayor submits her proposed FY2022 budget, along with an FY2021 supplemental budget to the Council. The Council then has 70 days to make adjustments and approve a budget. Currently, the CFO is projecting a $143 million deficit in the FY2021 budget, which is our current fiscal year, and a deficit of $152.8 million in FY2022. If these numbers hold, the Council may need to make some difficult decisions.
My priorities for the budget include supports to mitigate learning loss, charting the future of our early childcare system, mental health supports, prioritizing public transportation, reducing violent crime, and providing stability for those who are housing insecure.
You can find the schedule for performance oversight and budget hearings here. This will also provide information on how you can submit testimony and make your voice heard.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service at Capital Area Food Bank
The team and I headed to the Capital Area Food Bank to help provide food to those in need. Capital Area Food Bank partners with over 450 nonprofit organizations in the D.C. metro region to provide 30 million meals to nearly 500,000 residents every year. The District’s food insecurity rate was estimated to be 16 percent in September, up from 10.6 percent prior to the pandemic according to the Food Security Report produced by the DC Food Policy Council. We were proud to help construct and pack boxes full of food and assist members of our community.
Please check out some of our photos here.
(Councilmember Henderson and Staff volunteer at the Capital Area Food Bank.)
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