Court orders state to provide students the technology they need

SANTA FE—First Judicial District Court Judge Matthew Wilson ordered the state to provide computers and high-speed internet access to the thousands of “at-risk” students who lack these necessary tools to access remote learning now and post pandemic. The ruling came during a hearing in the landmark Yazzie/Martinez education case on a Yazzie plaintiff motion addressing technology gaps among the state’s students.

At the hearing, Judge Wilson said, “The court ruled that defendants must comply with their duty to provide an adequate education and may not conserve financial resources at the expense of our constitution.” 

Wilson added, “Children who are lacking access to internet and technology for remote learning are not getting much of an education, if at all, let alone one that is sufficient to make them college and career ready.”

“Lack of access has been catastrophic for far too many New Mexican families because of the state’s failure to address the technology gaps, especially for Native students and students living in rural areas,” said Preston Sanchez an attorney representing the Yazzie plaintiffs who argued the plaintiffs’ motion in court today. “Thousands of students are being denied their constitutionally required education sufficient to become college and career ready. Many are getting no education at all. The state has to be accountable to New Mexico’s students and families and make access to their education a priority.”

The court ordered the state to immediately:

  • Determine which at-risk students and their teachers do not have a dedicated digital device and immediately provide one or ensure that one is provided to each of these students and their teachers. 
  • Determine which at-risk students do not have access to high-speed internet that will allow them to work from home and immediately provide them with access to a high-speed service and when necessary, transportation to access it.
  • Provide school districts with funding for sufficient qualified IT staff to support and maintain digital devices, cellular hotspots, and community Wi-Fi locations, and other remote learning needs.

In 2018, in the Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit, the court ordered the state to provide a sufficient education to all public school students. The state was required to immediately direct resources to remedy the failures in its education system, because the court recognized students—especially Native students, English language learners, students from low-income families, and students with disabilities—would be irreparably harmed if the state did not act swiftly.

The court noted that access to technology, including computers and related infrastructure, is essential to a sufficient education.

“This is a great day for New Mexico’s children,” said Melissa Candelaria, a senior attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which represents the Yazzie plaintiffs. “The judge’s ruling comes as a huge relief to so many families. Our children deserve a gold standard education but they cannot even participate in school without access to technology. Many students are not back at school and internet services are unavailable, especially in rural districts and districts serving predominantly Native American students. Even when students come back into the physical classroom, technology will continue to be a necessity.” 

According to the PED, nearly 50 percent of public school students will continue remote learning for the remainder of the school year. Many Native American students will continue remote learning per tribal public health orders to keep their communities safe.

An estimated 23 percent of the New Mexico population lack broadband internet service. An estimated 80 percent of Native Americans living on tribal lands in New Mexico do not have internet services at all.       

“There are far too many students in New Mexico who have not had access to education for an entire year,” said Alisa Diehl, a senior attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “It is simply unacceptable that the state allow them to continue to fall even further behind. The state needs to take action immediately to make sure New Mexico’s students get the education they need and deserve.”

A video on the difficulties New Mexico students have accessing education because of technology can be found here: https://youtu.be/H-i7JW7xKLg

The motion can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Yazzie-Tech-Motion-With-Exhibits-1-6-Final.2020-12-15.pdf

New exhibits from the Yazzie plaintiffs can be found here:
http://nmpovertylaw.org/yazzie-notice-of-additional-exhibits-with-exhibits/

The final ruling in the lawsuit can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/D-101-CV-2014-00793-Final-Judgment-and-Order-NCJ-1.pdf

Settlement agreement ensures child care assistance is more accessible to NM families

ALBUQUERQUE—Today, the New Mexico Early Childhood Education and Care Department and several New Mexican parents and OLÉ—a non-profit, grassroots member organization of working families—announced that they have come to a settlement agreement that will expand access to the state’s child care assistance program and require it to be more responsive to parents’ needs. The parents and OLÉ are represented by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.                                  

The settlement agreement resolves a 2018 lawsuit filed during the previous administration that alleged the New Mexico Children Youth and Families Department, which then housed child care assistance services, was denying child care assistance to eligible families.      

CYFD and plaintiffs began the process of addressing the issues raised in the lawsuit and entered into an initial settlement agreement in spring 2019. After Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and the New Mexico State Legislature created the Early Childhood Education and Care Department in 2019, the Child Care Services Bureau was consolidated along with all other early childhood programs into the new department. ECECD became the responding agency to the lawsuit following the department’s official launch in July 2020 and has committed to working with NMCLP and OLÉ to fully address the issues identified in families’ lawsuit.

“This settlement reflects the child care system that parents are building with Secretary Groginsky for all New Mexicans,” said Alma Martell, a parent leader from OLÉ.  “It makes an early education more affordable to more parents and makes the process of getting state assistance to pay for preschool much easier, kinder, and more like what we expect of a high-quality early education system.”

“It’s clear that Secretary Groginsky and the department are committed to expanding access and making child care assistance work for New Mexican families,” said Tim Davis, an attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “The department has sought out and listened carefully to parents, and the improvements to the program reflect that collaboration and the reality of working families. The department has made changes that are truly groundbreaking and acknowledge that quality affordable child care is a bridge to opportunity for families and their children.” 

“ECECD is committed to ensuring that every eligible family in New Mexico can receive child care assistance in a fair, equitable, and transparent manner,” said ECECD Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky. “Access to high quality early childhood education is critical to the development of our young children and vital to the economic stability of our families. In the nine months since our department officially launched, we have worked to change regulations to make it easier for families to apply for assistance, waived all parent co-pays until July 2022, and continue to seek ways to expand eligibility for child care assistance for families in our state.” 

The terms outlined in the settlement agreement include:

  • Maintaining eligibility for families with incomes at or below 250% of the federal poverty level unless the department reduces eligibility through a rulemaking process with public input.
  • By August 2021, or sooner, ECECD will ensure that participating families know when and why a change is made to their child care assistance case. Notices will also clearly explain why child care assistance is denied or terminated and will provide information on how to appeal the decision. ECECD has already taken major steps to comply with this requirement.
  • By December 31, 2021, ECECD will make the final updates to its child care assistance regulations so families receive correct information about their benefits during the application process, which will increase access to child care with minimal administrative burdens.
  • ECECD will train all staff on the changes and the changes to the notices, which has already begun and will continue as ECECD fulfills its obligations under the settlement.
  • For three years, ECECD will hold meetings with participating families and follow up meetings with the plaintiffs to discuss the feedback, and any potential remedial next steps.     
  • ECECD will not be required to pay any attorney fees, so long as it remains compliant with the terms of the settlement.

The settlement agreement builds upon other recent important changes that ECECD made to the child care assistance program that expand access, including giving benefits to parents looking for work, streamlining income determinations, increasing eligibility to families with incomes up to 250% of the federal poverty level, ending the exclusion of graduate students, and no longer forcing parents to pursue child support from an absent parent in order to qualify for assistance.

Currently one-in-three New Mexican families qualify for free or reduced child care tuition through ECECD’s child care assistance services. Families can learn about eligibility and apply for assistance at: https://eligibility.ececd.state.nm.us/eligibility/public/home.page?dswid=-4195

The settlement agreement can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/torres-v-jacobson-proposed-second-amended-stipulated-order-2021-04-22/

Pursuing child support no longer required to qualify for child care assistance

Barriers finally removed after years of advocacy

ALBUQUERQUE—Many more families now qualify for New Mexico’s Child Care Assistance Program after the elimination of multiple unnecessary eligibility requirements. The program provides help with the costs of child care for parents and guardians who are working or in school. The Early Childhood Education and Care Department released the new rules, which became effective yesterday, after workers and worker’s rights groups lobbied New Mexico agencies for years to eliminate barriers to the program. 

Notably, the new rules no longer force parents to pursue child support from the child’s other parent in order to qualify for assistance. Most parents, faced with fruitlessly antagonizing coparents—who sometimes were their former abusers—choose to simply forgo much needed childcare along with employment and work opportunities. 

Twenty-seven states, including Arizona, have already eliminated this requirement because it is burdensome for families, costly to administer, and is not in the best interests of the parent and child.

 “I am happy to see the Early Childhood Education and Care Department take concerns of New Mexico parents so seriously,” said Karina Pizaro who is a member of OLÉ. “These regulation changes mean that so many more families are going to be able to apply for childcare and not be left with the extra struggles on top of having to take care of their family.”

Other changes to New Mexico’s Child Care Assistance Program that make child care assistance more accessible include:

  • Parents can now submit applications electronically instead of only in-person. 
  • Other forms of assistance, like TANF, child support, and unemployment no longer count as income in the application.
  • Graduate school now satisfies the education requirement. 
  • Waiving copays during health emergencies.
  • Parents already participating in the program can now communicate changes in child care needs to ECECD by phone. 
  • Parents will no longer be subject to a mid-year recertification process or investigated for overpayment unless there is substantiated fraud.

“Before the pandemic, I would have to take time off of work to go in person to the office to apply for childcare assistance, go back multiple times if I was missing paperwork, and lose wages in the process. It’s amazing that families can apply for childcare assistance safely without having to expose their family to potential Covid-19 risks and without the potential of losing wages, “ said Karina Pizarro, parent and child care teacher with OLÉ.

“One of the best ways to help hard-working parents keep their jobs and stay in school is by providing help with the exorbitant costs of child care,” said Tim Davis with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “ECECD’s new rules make it possible for more low-income parents to work or go to school while providing their children with a safe place to learn and grow. We hope other state agencies will follow its example and take a look at how they can remove barriers to participation.  We thank Secretary Groginsky for her leadership and collaborative efforts with the community.”

Virtual Rally on State Paid Sick Leave

ALBUQUERQUE, NM—Join workers, community members, union members and allies for a virtual rally with State Legislators on March 2 at 6:30 p.m. to discuss why hard working New Mexicans need earned paid sick leave.

Únete a trabajadores, miembros de la comunidad y aliados en un mitin virtual con legisladores estatales este 2 de marzo a las 6:30 de la tarde. Para hablar sobre la importancia de que los trabajadores en Nuevo México tengan días de enfermedad pagados.

The rally will focus on HB 20 Healthy Workplaces Act, which when passed, would allow workers statewide to earn paid sick leave to care for themselves and their loved ones when sick.

Hablaremos sobre la propuesta HB 20, la Ley de Lugares de Trabajo Saludables, que, de ser aprobada, permitirá que los trabajadores en todo el estado tengan derecho a días de enfermedad pagados que podrán usar cuando se enfermen o para cuidar de sus seres queridos enfermos.

Habrá interpretación al español

WHAT:       Paid Sick Leave Virtual Rally

Register at https://www.mobilize.us/nm-wfp/event/376576/ 

WHO:        

  • Frontline workers who need paid sick leave
  • Public health leaders
  • AARP
  • State Legislators 

WHEN:      Tuesday, March 2, 2021 at 6:30 p.m.

WHERE: The rally will be live streamed on Facebook in Spanish on the @ElCentrodeIgualdadyDerechos page and in English on the @NMWFP and @OLENewmexico pages

The rally was organized by Center for Civic Policy, El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, New Mexico Center on Law & Poverty, New Mexico Working Families Party, New Mexico Voices for Children, OLÉ, Somos Un Pueblo Unido and United Food and Commercial Workers.  

Yazzie plaintiffs ask court to order state to provide students computers and internet access

SANTA FE—Yazzie plaintiffs in the landmark Yazzie/Martinez education lawsuit asked the First Judicial District Court today to order the State of New Mexico to provide computers and high-speed internet access to the thousands of “at-risk” students who lack these necessary tools for remote learning. 

“Many children in New Mexico, especially those in rural districts and districts serving predominantly Native American students, don’t have computers or high-speed internet access and have been effectively denied access to public education since the pandemic started, worsening existing education inequities,” said Melissa Candelaria, a senior attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which represents the Yazzie plaintiffs.

In 2018, in the Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit, the court ordered the state to provide a sufficient education to all public school students.

The state was required to immediately direct resources to remedy the failures in its education system, because the court recognized students—especially Native students, English language learners, students from low-income families, and students with disabilities—would be irreparably harmed if the state did not act swiftly. 

The court noted that access to technology, including computers and related infrastructure, is essential to a sufficient education.  

An estimated 23 percent of the New Mexico population lacks broadband internet service. An estimated 80 percent of Native Americans living on tribal lands in New Mexico do not have internet services at all. 

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, lack of access has been catastrophic for far too many New Mexican families because of the state’s failure to address the technology gaps,”  said Alisa Diehl, a senior attorney with the Center. “The state has to be accountable to New Mexico’s students and families and make access to their education a priority.”

Diehl continued, “Had the state complied with the 2018 court order, many more students would be able to access remote learning right now. Unfortunately, the state has spent its time and resources trying to dismiss the lawsuit. Nine months into the pandemic, too many students have received little to no education at all. This is utterly unacceptable. The state needs to take action immediately to make sure New Mexico’s students get the education they need and deserve.”

The motion can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Yazzie-Tech-Motion-With-Exhibits-1-6-Final.2020-12-15.pdf

The final ruling in the lawsuit can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/D-101-CV-2014-00793-Final-Judgment-and-Order-NCJ-1.pdf

Attorneys for the Yazzie plaintiffs include Melissa Candelaria, Alisa Diehl of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, Preston Sanchez of ACLU-NM, and Dan Yohalem.

MEDIA ADVISORY Virtual rally on Albuquerque paid time off bill tomorrow

ALBUQUERQUE, NM—New Mexico State Legislators will join community organizations and allies to discuss Albuquerque’s proposed paid time off bill introduced by Albuquerque City Councilors Lan Sena and Pat Davis. Workers will share why having paid time off is crucial for their health and safety and the health of their families. Legislators will discuss the importance of paid sick leave and paid time off for hardworking families in New Mexico.

WHAT:      
Albuquerque Paid Time Off Virtual Rally

WHO:        
Supporters for Albuquerque Paid Time
City Councilor Lan Sena 
Senator Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez
Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino
Senator Andrés Romero
Representative Angelica Rubio
Representative Christine Trujillo
Representative Liz Thomson.

WHEN:      
Thursday, November 5, 2020 at 11:00 a.m.

WHERE:     
https://www.facebook.com/events/2801231766788399/

The rally was organized by Center for Civic Policy, El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, Enlace Comunitario, New Mexico Center on Law & Poverty, New Mexico Working Families Party, New Mexico Voices for Children, and OLÉ.

Bernalillo County paid leave law goes into effect       

ALBUQUERQUE, NM—An ordinance requiring employers in the unincorporated areas of Bernalillo County to provide workers paid leave goes into effect today. The law will help alleviate the serious challenges many workers face when forced to choose between a paycheck and the health of their families and community. 

Its implementation comes late for many working families who have needed paid time off to keep themselves and the community healthy before and during the ongoing pandemic. 

Bernalillo County’s Employee Wellness Act applies to any worker in the unincorporated areas of the county employed at least 56 hours per year by an employer with two or more employees. Workers can earn up to 28 hours of paid time off per year. Employees of larger employers will eventually be able to earn up to 56 hours of paid leave per year. The ordinance phases those additional hours in over the next two years.

The Bernalillo County Commission passed the ordinance in August 2019 after hours of public comment by workers and community members. The Commission delayed its implementation until today.

Details on the ordinance can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/factsheet-bernco-pto-ordinance-09-30-2020/

The following are reactions from workers and workers’ rights advocates.

Marian Méndez Cera, El CENTRO de Igualdad y Derechos Worker Rights Organizer
“Low-wage and immigrant workers have been working through the pandemic and kept our community running. By having paid time off, we are taking care of the most integral part of our economy, our workers. As we collectively face these challenges, it has become clear how interconnected we all are and it has shown that all workers are essential. Therefore, not only should paid sick leave be a fundamental human right so no worker has to make the decision of missing a day’s pay to tend to their health, but it should be part of our state’s public health plan to curb the spread of COVID-19.”

Eric Griego, NM Working Families State Director 
“During this difficult time when essential workers are struggling to survive and stay healthy, we hope our state and local leaders take their lead from the people on the front lines, not corporate lobbyists. The county ordinance provides minimal leave to those risking their own health to keep our economy going, and the current law should be improved, not delayed or diminished.”

Andrea Serrano, Organizers in the Land of Enchantment (OLÉ) Executive Director 
“We are happy that the County Commission has chosen not to further delay the implementation of the Bernalillo County paid time off ordinance. This ordinance will provide some relief for workers, however, this bill only covers the unincorporated parts of Bernalillo County, leaving out the majority of the population in the metropolitan area. The reality is all workers need paid sick leave—especially now. COVID-19 has hit our communities of color hard and Bernalillo County’s hardworking families need and deserve paid sick leave.The City of Albuquerque and the State of New Mexico need to step up and focus on a strong paid sick leave bill that will incorporate every worker, not just the few.”

Stephanie Welch, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty Workers’ Rights Director
“No one should have to choose between a paycheck and their health and safety. The Bernalillo County ordinance guarantees some paid time off for some workers. This is a start. All New Mexicans need the security of knowing they can take time off from work to care for themselves or their families and still get paid.”

Former owners of Kellys Brew Pub to pay servers $1,375,000 to settle wage theft lawsuit

ALBUQUERQUE—After a public hearing today, a court approved a class action settlement agreement that requires the former owners of Kellys Brew Pub and Restaurant to pay servers over a million dollars. Second Judicial District Court Judge Benjamin Chavez approved the settlement. 

The judge ruled in July 2019 that the former owners of Kellys violated Albuquerque’s minimum wage ordinance.

The former owners will pay one million of the agreed upon amount within 30 days. All parties agreed to additional time for the former owners to pay the remaining $375,000 and for the plaintiffs to investigate the former owners’ assets.

“This is money that should have been in our hands in the first place. It was ours. We earned it,” said Bianca Garcia, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “If that money had never been taken from us, it could have made differences in where some of us are today. Those funds may have helped someone pay off a student loan. Buy a car. Move to a better situation. Support a family. But it was deliberately kept from us. We will continue to fight for what is rightfully ours.”

Under Albuquerque’s minimum wage ordinance, if employers fail to pay workers their full wage, they must pay triple the wages that were withheld as well as attorneys’ fees. The business and the business owners, executives, and officers can be liable. 

In his July 2019 ruling, Judge Chavez determined that because Kellys failed to follow the rules for paying the tipped minimum wage, the former owners owed their employees the full minimum wage for those hours worked. 

Sixteen servers, represented by Youtz & Valdez, P.C. and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, brought the class action lawsuit, Atyani v. Bonfantine, in April 2016 on behalf of about 150 former servers who worked at Kellys from 2013 to 2016. The lawsuit contends that after city voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative in 2012 raising the Albuquerque minimum wage, Dennis and Janice Bonfantine “settled on an unlawful response to the wage increase: servers would pay for it themselves, out of their tips.” 

“Workers have the right to a fair and legal wage. This includes people who work for tips” said Stephanie Welch, director of workers’ rights at the Center. “Albuquerque has a strong law that holds employers accountable, whether or not there is a pandemic. Employers should know that if they don’t pay their employees a legal wage, they can be sued and end up paying much more in damages than if they had just paid their employees fairly.”

Kellys required servers to pay their employers cash each shift, calculated at two percent of their total daily sales, plus three dollars per hour they worked on the clock. After making these required payments to their employer, servers sometimes owed more in cash than they had actually earned in cash tips during the shift. When this happened, servers were required to pay the difference from their wallets or their paychecks. 

To defend against these claims, the Bonfantines argued that the Albuquerque minimum wage was invalid because it was increased through a voter initiative that put a summary of the wage increase on the 2012 ballot rather than the entire ordinance. In May 2017, the Second District Court rejected this argument, ruling that any challenge to how the 2012 election was conducted must have been made right after the election.

“We encourage every employee who is a victim of wage theft to come forward,” said Shane Youtz, an attorney at Youtz & Valdez, P.C. “You deserve to collect every dollar you worked for and are owed.“

Attorneys on the case are Stephanie Welch and Sovereign Hager of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and Shane Youtz and James Montalbano of Youtz & Valdez, P.C.

The settlement agreement approved today can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/atyani-v-bonfantine-settlement-agreement-final-and-approved-2020-09-29/

The order on Atyani v. Bonfantine can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/case-law-summary-judgement-order-atyani-v-bonfantine-2019-07-12/

The Atyani v. Bonfantine complaint can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/complaint-kellys-final-2016-04-28-filed

Yazzie/Martinez plaintiffs present education plan to Legislative Finance Committee Friday

SANTA FE—On Friday, August 28, counsel for families, students, and school districts in the landmark Yazzie/Martinez education lawsuit will urge the state to develop and implement a comprehensive plan for overhauling New Mexico’s education system. Plaintiffs’ counsel will also share an assessment of deficiencies in the educational system. 

Detailed recommendations for how to reform the education system have been developed by hundreds of parents, families, tribal leaders, and educational experts and supported by research as detailed in the Transform Education NM platform for educational equity and a tribal remedy framework endorsed by New Mexico’s Pueblos, Tribes and Nations.

WHAT: 
LFC hearing on Yazzie and Martinez v. New Mexico plaintiffs plan to improve educational outcomes

WHO:
Counsel for Yazzie plaintiffs

  • Daniel Yohalem
  • Preston Sanchez, ACLU-NM
  • Melissa Candelaria, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty
  • Alisa Diehl, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty

Counsel for Martinez plaintiffs

  • Ernest Herrera, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund 

WHEN: 
Friday, August 28, 2020 at 10:00 a.m.

REMOTE ACCESS:
Webcast live at www.nmlegis.gov

Court blocks attempt to end lawsuit on food and Medicaid assistance


LAS CRUCES—A federal district judge ruled today that the New Mexico Human Services Department must continue to comply with a court order requiring it to fix systemic problems with processing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid applications. 

Judge Kenneth John Gonzales wrote in his order, “New Mexicans, now more than ever, rely on the timely and accurate processing of SNAP and Medicaid applications to obtain much needed help.” 

“This pandemic continues to ravage families’ health and their ability to work,” said Teague Gonzalez, director of Public Benefits at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which is representing the plaintiffs in the case. “It’s crucial that HSD comply with the law and remove unnecessary barriers to food and healthcare assistance.”

The long-running Hatten-Gonzales lawsuit was originally filed in 1989. While some progress has been made, the court requires a case review to determine if HSD has addressed entrenched problems in administering food and medical assistance. 

In 2016, HSD whistleblowers testified that there was a statewide policy of falsifying information on emergency benefits applications so the agency could pass federal audits and deadlines. This illegal policy resulted in thousands of New Mexican families going without the food assistance they needed.

In 2018, a case review found ongoing errors in the processing of food and medical assistance cases.

In its order, the court found HSD’s request to end the court’s oversight of fixes to the problems “premature” and “counterproductive” and “threatens to set back the progress the parties have made to this point.” 

The judge ordered a case file review of Medicaid and SNAP applications to continue and that parties engage in good faith negotiations. 

“We were surprised that the state’s counsel thought it appropriate to file this motion right now when so many New Mexicans have even more need for help,” said the Center’s Gonzalez. “We will continue our efforts to ensure New Mexicans can access food and healthcare assistance in close coordination with the court appointed Special Master and HSD.”

Judge Kenneth Gonzales’s order can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/hatten-gonzales-v-scrase-order-staying-termination-of-consent-decree-2020-08-21/

The jointly developed corrective action plan can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/hatten-gonzales-v-scrace-joint-motion-to-approve-two-corrective-action-plans-2019-07-10/