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New York's Paid Sick Leave Bill May Serve As Model For U.S.

Saki Knafo   |   March 29, 2013    3:00 PM ET

NEW YORK -- When Juana Alvarez's 14-year-old daughter contracted a blood infection five years ago, Alvarez took her daughter to the hospital, leaving her newborn baby at home with her husband, Abel. Abel took two days off from his pizzeria job to stay home with the baby, a decision that ended up costing him his job: His employer was one of many around the country that deny sick days to their employees.

Abel now works at another pizzeria that also does not offer paid sick days -- but after years of campaigning on the part of workers and activists, that is set to change. On Friday, Alvarez joined dozens on the steps of City Hall to cheer on Christine Quinn, speaker of the City Council, as she announced that lawmakers, liberal activists and labor and business leaders in New York have reached a deal on a bill that will require all businesses in New York City to let workers take sick days. Advocates are saying the measure could have reverberations around the nation, as other communities are inspired to enact similar changes.

"What it shows to workers is that, in the end, it's people just like you who can make a difference," said Ellen Bravo, the director of Family Values @ Work, a network of coalitions striving for paid sick days and paid family leave in 20 states.

Referring to the bill's broad backing by union leaders and nonunion workers, activists, small-business owners and celebrity supporters like Gloria Steinem, Bravo added, "The change we need is change we can win when we stick together."

Starting in April 2014, New York will require business with 20 or more employees to provide five paid sick days to their workers, and business that don't reach the size limit will be required to offer unpaid sick leave. On October 1, 2015, the list of employers required to grant paid sick days will expand to include those with 15 or more workers. Although Mayor Bloomberg is expected to veto the bill, the proposal has enough support in the council to become law.

The New York City deal comes on the heels of similar bills in Portland, Ore., and Philadelphia, Penn., where the city councils approved a paid sick leave proposal earlier this month. Lawmakers in Massachusetts and Vermont are also considering versions of the legislation, and advocates are hopeful that the New York announcement could galvanize workers in the fight for paid sick leave nationwide.

For years, Quinn, the frontrunner in New York's mayoral race, refused to bring the paid sick leave bill to a vote, but her resistance became a liability in her electoral bid, activists and observers say.

Bravo cited Gloria Steinem's threat to withdraw her endorsement of Quinn as a key factor in Quinn's reversal. She also mentioned the support of small-business owners, which helped undercut the pro-business arguments of large corporations.

Quinn, for her part, insisted she always liked the bill. "The question was never a question of 'if,' only a question of 'when' and 'how'," she said at City hall.

After years of discussion, she said, businesses and workers had finally arrived at "a good, strong, and sensible piece of legislation that recognizes the needs of everyday New Yorkers and the realities that our struggling small businesses face."

Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU, the nation's largest property-services union, was among several leaders at City Hall who portrayed the bill as an important signal to legislators around the country. "We are telling not only New York but the nation that the time is now to take care of our workers and to help working people," he said.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Hilary Klein, the director of strategic campaigns for Make The Road New York, one of the main advocacy organizations behind the push for the legislation, argued that the victory reflected a "rising tide of support for workers' rights and economic justice in general."

She cited the Occupy movement, the growing number of organizing efforts by fast-food and retail workers, and President Obama's inaugural address, in which he called on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00 an hour.

Marianne Bellesorte, leader of the Philadelphia Healthy Families and Workplaces Coalition, a prominent backer of the paid sick leave bill in Philadelphia's city council, said she thinks the news from New York could help persuade Philadelphia Mayor Nutter to sign the legislation.

Back in 2011, Nutter vetoed an earlier version of the bill. Since then, support for the measure has grown considerably. Bellesorte described New York's announcement as evidence of an important shift in momentum.

"We're very excited about what's been happening in New York," she said. "We hope that Mayor Nutter can really take the lead on earned sick days here Philadelphia."

Klein said she hopes this latest milestone will inspire other workers to join the movement for paid sick leave around the country. "Ideally, it gets to the point where it becomes national legislation," she said.

Alvarez hopes so, too. "I have a lot of family members in Los Angeles, Minnesota, Las Vegas," she said in Spanish, "and really, I would love for them to have this protection as well."

For Low-Wage Workers, On-Call Shifts Present Barriers To A Better Life

Saki Knafo   |   March 13, 2013    1:02 PM ET

Antonio Ware describes fashion as something he simply can't do without.

"It's like water," he said recently. "It's like eating. It's something I just can't turn off."

He'd like to get a degree from a fashion school, maybe launch his own styling business. But on a recent Friday he could pursue none of these plans. Instead, he waited at his workplace, a Banana Republic in Manhattan, to see if his managers would need him that afternoon.

They didn't, so just before noon he took the subway home. With nothing better to do, he swept up his apartment. "If they'd told me ahead of time that they didn't need me, I could have made better use of that time," he said.

American employers are increasingly taking advantage of a still-weak job market to subject employees to unpredictable schedules, making it difficult for workers to make plans outside their jobs. In a recent survey of more than 400 New York City retail workers, researchers with the City University of New York and an advocacy group called the Retail Action Project found that only 17 percent of workers had a set schedule; 70 percent said they were apprised of their schedules no more than a week ahead of time.

Like many retailers nationally, Gap Inc., the parent company of Banana Republic and Old Navy among others, has what are known as "on-call shifts," requiring workers to make themselves available for work on as little as two hours' notice. According to Stephanie Luce, a professor at the City University of New York and one of the authors of the survey, on-call shifts are part of a broader, global trend.

"Retailers are trying to find new ways to compete with one another," she said. "If you can fine-tune employees' schedules to make sure that they're just there at the time that you need them, that's a way to make money and increase profits."

Luce said the rise of on-call shifts is related to the increasing popularity of cutting down on workers' hours, including the hiring of more and more part-time workers. The cutthroat climate of globalization helped bring about those measures, she said, and the recession made them even more common.

"Now there's a huge pool of unemployed workers, so it's even easier for companies to say, 'We're going to hire five times as many workers as we need and just have them be available for on-call,'" she said.

A spokesperson for Gap Inc. declined to comment on the practice.

Government data backs up at least one of the researchers' key contentions: Predictable, full-time work is hard to find. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of retail employees working part-time –- not by choice -- spiked during the recession, from 644,000 in 2006 to 1.5 million in 2010.

As the economy gropes its way toward recovery, employment in the retail trade has increased; on Friday, the BLS reported that retailers have added 252,000 jobs in the past 12 months. Yet many of these workers say they still aren't working nearly enough. "You rarely get more than 30 hours a week," said Amy Crawford, 56, a one-time interior designer who now works at Protein Bar, a growing quick-service restaurant chain in Chicago.

Yana Walton, a spokesperson for the Retail Action Project, said that the use of on-call shifts is particularly widespread among "mid-tier" national companies like Urban Outfitters, American Eagle, and Abercrombie & Fitch. In their efforts to cut labor costs, many of these companies monitor sales and customer flow on an hour-by-hour basis.

They also use scheduling software linked to sites like Weather.com, so they can cut back on staff at a moment's notice if it looks likes rain or snow. "They don't want anybody that they don't need there for even 15 minutes," Walton said.

A spokesperson for the National Retail Federation said the group did not have anyone available to discuss these strategies on Wednesday morning. Last year, Ellen Davis, senior vice president of the group, told a reporter for the North Jersey Record that most retail industry employees work full time, and those who work part time often do so by choice.

But as Walton pointed out to The Huffington Post, those who choose to work part-time often do so in order to raise children, go to school, or take a second job, pursuits made more difficult when employers subject workers to unpredictable schedules.

Although there are no laws on the books that prohibit the use of on-call shifts, a coalition of advocacy groups in New York City wants to change that. The Just Hours Campaign, which includes the Retail Action Project, is drafting legislation aimed at curbing the practice. It intends to introduce the bill to the New York City Council.

Last fall, the coalition organized a protest of on-call shifts and other controversial scheduling practices in New York. In a statement released at the time, Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, applauded stores like Macy’s, Bloomingdales and H&M for signing contracts that ensured predictable hours. "Companies can both respect workers’ lives and be enormously profitable at the same time," he said.

Ware said he has applied to work at both H&M and Bloomingdales. "If they would take me, I would jump right on that boat," he said.

In the meantime, he's working about 20 hours a week at Banana Republic, making $10.23 an hour as a "visual merchandising specialist." On the recent Friday, that meant touching up the store's mannequins and making sure they were dressed appropriately for their respective sections -- low-heeled shoes and sober colors in the business-themed area, six-inch heels and a dash of glamour in evening wear.

He also organized shoes on the display rack, placing the most enticing pairs on the most prominent shelves. And he waged another battle in his unending war on tangled necklaces.

Last fall, Ware took a few classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology, but he said the cost of tuition and his inadequate work hours compelled him to drop out in December.

Though he feels he deserves more than what he earns, he's adamant that he loves what he does. "When I think of fashion, I think of a woman's first prom, a mother attending her child's first wedding," he said. "Special moments like that make you feel like you have a hand in people's life."

He wishes his company was similarly concerned about the hand it has in shaping the lives of people like him. "It would be nice if more retailers had a little more respect for their workers," he said.

'If People Earn $9, They Get Comfortable'

Saki Knafo   |   February 22, 2013    6:01 PM ET

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- If President Barack Obama succeeds in raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour, Abby Charles, a baker at a branch of the Mrs. Fields Cookies franchise, will see her hourly pay go up by $1.50.

As she took a break from rolling out the dough for a batch of pigs-in-a-blanket on Friday afternoon, Charles seemed to take umbrage at the news that the president's proposal has inspired heated debate. "More is always better," she said bluntly.

The Atlantic Center shopping mall where Charles works is in the middle of Brooklyn, the most populous borough of New York City. It's precisely the sort of place that typifies the changes that have beset the American economy in recent decades, as higher-paying manufacturing jobs have been traded in for low-wage, service-sector work. Here, in the Chuck E. Cheese and the McDonald's and the Target, people work for minimum wage or slightly above it, earning paychecks that often don't stretch far enough to cover their bills.

As low-wage workers at Atlantic Center absorbed the prospect of a raise, they said they looked forward to the relief and comfort that an extra $50 at the end of the week would bring, even as they acknowledged they'd still be left facing financial challenges.

"It probably won't help you move into a place in Manhattan," said Larry Shields, the manager at the Mrs. Fields shop. "But it will help."

Charles said she'd use the money to buy more groceries and take her daughter to a movie now and then. "Everything you want to get done costs money," she said.

Around the corner and down the hall, Joy Holder, the owner of a small beauty shop, said she hoped wages would stay the same. "A minimum-wage increase causes you to hire less," she said, giving voice to an argument often advanced in recent days by those who say they support small businesses and oppose Obama's plan.

Holder dismissed the suggestion that people could use the wage increase to buy better food, pay for better day-care for their kids and in general improve the quality of their lives -- perhaps in ways that would make them better workers.

"The ideal is that," she said. "The ideal is that they're getting better. But that's not the reality. Human nature is what it is."

Holder's is the rare small business that rents space in the mall: She employs just three workers and does much of the hands-on work herself. As she spoke, she used a razor blade to shape a client's eyebrows into perfect peaks.

The presence of the razor did not dissuade the client, Ganeza Walls, from taking exception to Holder's views. "Everything is getting expensive. You got Con Edison, you got cable, you got car insurance. How you gonna survive on $7.25?" she asked, referring to the current federal minimum wage.

Holder replied that the government should lower the cost of college education to make it easier for people to get good-paying jobs. "If people earn $9, they get comfortable," she said. "They say, 'I don't need to go to college, I don't need to look for a better job.'"

Walls disagreed. You can get comfortable on $12 an hour, she said. Not nine.

Back at the cookie shop, Shields, the manager, said he didn't think a wage hike would hurt business. The store's owner gives employees raises every six months anyway, Shields said. "He don't mind, but he follows the government guidelines."

Shields said he started at minimum wage about five years ago and gradually got to the point where he now makes $12 an hour, so he knows from first-hand experience how much a difference even a small raise can make. "If you run out of bread, you can buy bread," he said. "You can get the top-shelf cereal instead of the bottom-shelf cereal."

He also pointed out that if wages go up, more people might actually have the money to spend on treats like cookies.

"Right now, a lot of people come in here and see the prices and can't afford it," he said.

Friday Links: Gun Control

Saki Knafo   |   February 15, 2013    3:20 PM ET

Mayor Mike Bloomberg is going head to head with the NRA in Illinois.

MoveOn.org is jumping into the fray in Ohio.

And as my colleague Christina Wilkie reports, the NRA has branded Obama's State of the Union speech fraudulent manipulation.

According to Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president, universal background checks are "a universal failure."

Other prominent gun guys disagree.

Valentine's Day At The Gun Range: 'We Wanted Gun-Shaped Chocolates But Godiva Doesn't Do That'

Saki Knafo   |   February 14, 2013    4:48 PM ET

Last weekend, employees of the Godiva company gave out chocolate bars at a gun range in Texas.

"They came out and set up a table, and allowed people to preorder chocolate-covered strawberries," said Brandy Liss, the chief executive of the Arms Room, an indoor range outside of Houston. "We wanted to have chocolates in the shape of guns but Godiva doesn't do that, so it didn't go over as well as we hoped."

Valentine's Day 2012 was more successful, said Liss. "We allowed people to bring in stuffed animals or a letter that maybe an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend gave them, and they could use it as a target. It was really popular."

This week, gun ranges around the country are competing with florists and lingerie shops for the opportunity to spice up love lives. In Ohio, Black Wing Center is giving out pink shotgun shells. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, Bill's Gun Shop and Range is offering a free machine-gun shoot. In Las Vegas, the capital of deep, abiding love, the Guns and Ammo Garage is advertising free marriage-vow renewals by a "Pistol Packing Preacher."

Gun ranges hope that these events will appeal to women, a segment of the population that the entire gun industry covets. Over the last few decades, as more and more rural areas have given way to development and interest in hunting has declined, the gun industry has looked for creative ways to market their products year-round. Marketing to women has become a common way to increase gun-range clientele.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a prominent gun-industry trade association and lobbying group that happens to be based in Newtown, Conn., the site of the elementary school shooting massacre in December, offers consulting services to ranges.

"Research in the late eighties underscored that leisure-time pursuits on the upswing in participation were those that could be enjoyed by husbands and wives as well as by girlfriends and boyfriends," Doug Painter, a former NSSF executive, wrote in a history of the organization.

Liss' range in Texas didn't work with the NSSF on its Valentine's Day promotions, but it did team up with the organization on another program partly designed to increase female gun-ownership. Five times a year, the range holds the First Shots event, where instructors trained by the NSSF try to engage lapsed and first-time shooters.

The program helped introduce thousands to shooting at ranges around the country, according to the NSSF website. Ranges that sign up for the program receive a "complete advertising package," targets and ammo, safety literature, consulting services and other resources. Although reliable statistics on the gun industry are hard to come by, Painter said women are among "the fastest growing segments in hunting and the shooting sports."

The NSSF and participating ranges say the First Shots program is hugely popular with women. "We have more women than men, and we have moms getting their kids involved," said Liss. "Those women will come back in and continue shooting and some will continue to take lessons."

Critics of the gun industry point out that the Newtown massacre was committed with guns stolen from a woman -– one who lived just miles from the NSSF headquarters. Liss insists that women have no reason to fear firearms, but she wasn't always so sure. Years ago, when she was living alone with her kids, her father gave her a gun. "I took out all the bullets and put it on the top of my closet," she said. "When my dad came over, he said, 'If somebody breaks in are you going to say, 'Hold on while I get my step stool?'"

Liss says she no longer worries about her son, now 15, or her daughter, 6, finding her firearms. "They're so educated and they have a full understanding of guns and they know exactly what to do with them," she said.

Asked what she'd say to a women who wants to buy a gun but has a child with a mental illness or behavioral problems, she said, "It's the parents' responsibility to keep those firearms locked up."

Gun Industry Actually Encouraged By State Of The Union Speech, Observers Say

Saki Knafo   |   February 13, 2013    5:44 PM ET

The president's emotional tribute to victims of gun violence won accolades from gun-control supporters on Tuesday night, but gun-industry observers said that the people who make and sell guns are unlikely to feel threatened by President Barack Obama's performance.

"He chose to use the gun issue as the emotional crescendo of his speech in a way that I thought was pretty detached from specifics, " said Paul M. Barrett, an editor at Bloomberg Business Week and the author of "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun."

"It was almost a concession that what he's hoping for is to get lawmakers to commit themselves one way or another -- that he's hoping to receive political credit for having pushed certain ideas. But he did not display any confidence that he's going to accomplish anything. "

Obama repeatedly invoked the familiar names of gun-violence victims, insisting that they deserved a vote on a variety of proposals, but he didn't go into great detail about what those proposals would entail.

He mentioned that senators from both parties have been working to improve the background-check system, and alluded to the possibility of a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. But he stopped short of exhorting Congress to vote one way or the other.

Richard Feldman, a former leader of the gun industry and the founder of the Independent Firearm Owners Association, said he expected the president to spend more time on guns than he did.

"I believe the president is facing a realization that what he'd like and what is in the realm of possibility are different things," he said.

With conservative Republicans controlling the House, Obama's more ambitious gun-control proposals face an enormous challenge, if not an insurmountable one. "Being a practical individual he's going to pay more and more attention to what he can achieve and not to what he can't achieve," Feldman speculated. "That's what an intelligent political operative does."

Feldman said he was disappointed that the president didn't spend more time discussing more of those ostensibly achievable goals, like launching a campaign to increase public awareness of how to safely handle guns.

Feldman would have liked Obama to talk more about the possibility of requiring mandatory background checks at gun shows, he said. Despite the fact that leaders of the National Rifle Association have come out against this idea, Feldman, who has an acrimonious history with the group's leadership and is particularly critical of the NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, said he thinks it falls into the achievable category. Citing recent polls of NRA members, he said, "It's not the NRA that's opposed to it, it's the NRA leadership."

Joe Tartaro, the editor of Gun Week magazine, criticized the theatricality of the performance, especially the presence of dozens of gun-violence victims in the crowd. "If he were doing an honest job, the president would have had civilians who saved themselves with guns," he said.

But he said he wasn't at all worried about the speech. "I thought it was interesting that he was focusing very narrowly on, 'Let's have a vote,'" he said. "It suggested that he can't get everything he wants, and if he doesn't get it, it won't be his fault."

It wouldn't be unreasonable to wonder whether gun makers were actually disappointed that the tone of the speech wasn't more confrontational. In the past, sales have shot up when gun buyers have felt that their ability to buy certain weapons may be in jeopardy.

Obama's election was a boon for the industry, and the looming legislative battle has been good for business, too. Feldman, who advised manufacturers as head of the American Shooting Sports Council in the 1990s, said that in the months before former President Bill Clinton signed the now expired assault weapons ban in 1994, gun companies could barely keep up with demand; Feldman himself encouraged them to work extra shifts and weekends.

A spokesperson for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a prominent gun-industry trade group that happens to be based in Newtown, Conn., did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But Barrett said he guessed the industry was "kind of indifferent" to the speech.

"The industry itself does not go out of its way provoke controversy or invite debate about stricter gun regulations," he said. "The industry benefits from that controversy because of the strange behavior of gun consumers in the United States, but you don't see the actual manufacturers retailers and distributers stirring that stuff up."

"That's the NRA's role," he added. "They leave that to the NRA and they can count on the NRA to do it."

Paul M. Barrett's Important Reporting On The Gun Industry

Saki Knafo   |   February 13, 2013    5:15 PM ET

My Kindle edition of Paul M. Barrett's "Glock" says I've only read 20 percent of the book, but I can already tell that this is a really important and enviable piece of reporting. For anyone interested in the gun debate, which is showing no signs of cooling off, what better resource than a recent book that tells the complex story of the gun industry through the vehicle of one controversial company and the strange and interesting people behind it.

The books opens with a harrowing description of a gunfight that resulted in the deaths of three FBI agents, and then turns to a portrait of Gaston Glock, the company's awkward, taciturn founder -- a man who had no particular interest in or knowledge guns and saw his indifference and ignorance as his greatest strength.

Former Gun Industry Insider Tells Companies To Step Up Their PR Game

Saki Knafo   |   February 12, 2013    1:18 PM ET

A grandfather killed his former daughter-in-law and another woman on Monday morning in Wilmington, Delaware, before dying in a shootout with the police. Three blocks away, a former gun-industry executive was boarding a train.

The executive, Bill Wohl, was a public relations specialist at Remington Arms between 1992 and 1996. I interviewed him yesterday for a piece about the gun industry's expectations for the State of the Union Address, and that's when he told me that he happened to be three blocks from the courthouse when the shots rang out earlier that day. "I don't think there's any question that there needs to be a change in this country," he said. "The question is what kind of change needs to happen."

To start with, he suggested that the industry could do more to improve its image. "If you go back and take a look at the situation in the United States ten, fifteen years ago about the challenges of drunk driving, I think you can see that the alcohol industry had a similar problem," he said. "What did those companies do? They got together uniformly* and supported a very strong effort through Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Students Against Drunk Driving and created an awareness that drinking and driving is a bad thing. The pressures that threatened them with regulations eased off and they got very good marks for the work they did."

"Now the gun companies are facing a moment of extraordinary pressure and the question is: are they representing themselves or are they leaving that to the NRA?"

The answer is that the gun industry has largely avoided communicating with the mainstream media in the wake of the Newtown shooting. The NRA, meanwhile, has engaged in a number of controversial PR efforts.

Last month, Wohl wrote a column in PR Week criticizing Wayne LaPierre's decision to blame Hollywood and videogames, and to call for more guns in schools. "The result: the NRA was painted as extremist, its leaders as out of touch, and some groups even blamed mass shootings on the NRA," he wrote.

*It's worth noting that the alcohol industry hasn't always marched in lockstep when it comes to promoting safety.

'I'm Sure I'll Be Down There Tomorrow Looking At The Devastation Again'

Lila Shapiro   |   February 8, 2013    2:50 PM ET

Pedro Correa survived the last storm, Hurricane Sandy, by clinging to the roof of a floating house.

He'd stayed behind on his block in Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, to pump water out of his basement as the sea swept in. A few days after that storm, he came to the tough decision that he and his family weren't going to rebuild the seaside home that he'd poured his lifesavings into over the last half decade.

On Friday, as he sat in his family's rental apartment on higher ground, he sounded like he was finally beginning to appreciate the benefits of that choice. "I really don't have a care in the world now," he said. "We're gonna sit home and relax and enjoy the snow. Maybe go sledding. "

More than three months after hundreds of people stayed home to ride out what proved to be the most deadly storm in the borough's recent memory, Staten Island is bracing for yet another storm.

This time, according to a press release from the National Weather Service, "there is no significant threat to life." Although the weather service is predicting possible beach erosion in the Rockaways and flooding of some shore roads and basements, its press release describes the potential flood levels as "moderate."

Even so, residents of the most vulnerable areas have moved out of harm's way and remain nervous. Sue Somma, a resident of Oakwood Beach who has been staying with family farther inland, said she was dreading going back to her house Friday to collect her winter clothes. "We keep saying, we're gonna go back because our conditions are tough right now where we are, but my daughter is terrified and I'm not very peaceful about it either," she said. "But it's not something we can really put off much longer."

Although the Staten Island Advance is reporting that at least one coastal community is a "ghost town," Correa and others said they know of people who have returned home to the shoreline. "They just finished rebuilding," he said. "I'm sure I'll be down there tomorrow looking at the devastation again."

Correa said he was particularly concerned about an elderly woman who lives in one of the few surviving homes on his old block. He did not know where she planned to ride out the storm this time, and said he couldn't reach her because she doesn't have a phone. Workers for the city's recovery program installed her home's new heater in the basement, he said.

"The block has no protection from the sea now, so if they only get a couple of feet of storm surge, the heater's done."

A spokesman for New York City did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Tina Downer, one of Correa's former neighbors, said she already heard reports of flooding in the area, during this morning's high tide. Downer has no plans to return to her former home: Earlier this week, she and other residents were relieved to learn that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is supporting a plan to buy out owners of the most damaged properties along the New York shoreline. "If there were another flooding condition, it's not going to be easy to get out," she said. "That's why the buyout is so important."

Teddy Atlas, a former boxer who runs the Theodore Atlas Foundation, a local charity, said he and his team just finished putting a new roof on the home of a family that had been living without heat since November.

"There's an old saying in boxing, 'If you kill the head, the body will follow," he said. "These storms have been pounding at these people's bodies for so many rounds now, it starts to break you down mentally as well."

Do You Support Drones? Most Americans Do, But It's Complicated

Saki Knafo   |   February 7, 2013    4:51 PM ET

Say the government planned on launching an attack on al Qaeda militants in Yemen. The joint chiefs of staff predict that American soldiers will die. Would you support the mission?

What if the government used drones instead of troops? No Americans would die, but innocent foreigners would. Could you get behind that?

James Walsh, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina, posed versions of these questions to people who participated in a recent internet survey.

Although participants generally said they'd support a drone attack in which no innocent lives were lost, they were much less likely to support either of the hypothetical scenarios described above -- a land attack with American military casualties or a drone attack with civilian ones.

In fact, the death of civilians was just as significant in causing support to plummet as the possibility of American military casualties.

"We know from a huge amount of research that U.S. military casualties are the most consistent factor that reduce support for use of force," he said. "But when the government uses drones, they're not going to kill American soldiers, so the question becomes, 'Who are they going to kill?' The salience of the discussion of civilian casualties might be greater."

The discussion of civilian casualties and the other costs (and benefits) of drone warfare is at the forefront this week as John O. Brennan, the architect of the government's drone program and President Barack Obama's nominee to take over the CIA, faces questions at a Senate confirmation hearing in Washington. The program is prompting difficult questions about the complexities of this new form of warfare.

Should we feel safer knowing that the government is using this technology? Should we be worried about how these killings affect America's international standing? And what about the use of drones to kill U.S. citizens identified as suspected terrorists?

In the fall of 2011, the Obama administration used drones to kill three Americans living in Yemen, including Anwar al-Awlaki, said to be a high-level al Qaeda operative, and his 16-year-old son. A Justice Department paper explaining the legal rationale for those killings leaked this week, adding fodder to the debate.

In an email to The Huffington Post, a reader from New Mexico said his brother was born in the same town as al-Awlaki.

"I voted for Mr. Obama, twice," he wrote, "and feel he's in a much better position than I to judge what's necessary to protect our country. He's privy to an incredible amount of information, that I will never see or even read, that would help him make what must be, hopefully, a hard decision.

"But, I have to admit, it just seems wrong," he added. (The reader did not consent to having his name used in the story.) "In a time of war, is it permissible to assassinate traitors? How do we know he's a traitor? Shouldn't evidence proving someone's guilt still need to be presented to a jury, before a decision is made? Doesn't one have the right to face their accusers?"

"If I have to give a quick yes or no answer, it's no, we should not be killing American citizens without a trial and the opportunity to defend themselves in a court of law."

As the media continues to shine light on the program, polls suggest that more and more Americans will take a similarly critical position. Because drones are so new, polling data on American public opinion is scarce, but the available research paints a complicated picture. It shows that Americans support the idea of drones, but only to a point.

When asked to consider factors like collateral damage or the possibility that drones could be used to kill Americans, respondents' support drops considerably.

In a HuffPost/YouGov survey launched last month, 59 percent said they approve of the Obama administration using drones to kill high-level terrorism suspects overseas. Eighteen percent disapprove, and 24 percent said they aren't sure.

Asked about the Obama administration's practice of using drones to kill high-level terrorism suspects who happened to be American citizens, only 44 percent of participants in the same survey said they approve, compared with 26 percent who disapprove. The "not sure" category grew to 30 percent.

A new survey by Farleigh Dickinson University seems also suggests that Americans widely condemn the use of drones against U.S. citizens.

By a 2-to-1 margin, according to a university press release, American voters said they think it's illegal for the government to deploy drones against its own citizens living abroad.

Just 24 percent say it is legal, agreeing with the position taken by the United States Attorney's Office and the Obama administration.

“The public clearly makes an assumption very different from that of the Obama administration or Mr. Brennan: The public thinks targeting American citizens abroad is out of bounds,” Peter Woolley, professor of political science at Farleigh Dickinson University, said in the statement.

To get a more detailed picture of how people feel about drones, the Huffington Post reached out to readers living in Utah, Iowa, Oregon and New Mexico -- four of the states represented by senators who sent Obama a letter asking for a legal justification of the drone strikes.

Of the 180 who responded, many took a hard stance either for or against the program. But some expressed ambivalence. "I am sad every time I hear of innocent people killed during a drone attack," wrote Dick Heimer, a retired high school principal from Sheffield, Iowa. "The term "collateral damage" is obscene. But I had uncles serve in World War II, older friends serve in Korea, a brother and classmates serve in Viet Nam, and kids from my hometown serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I know from their experiences that innocent people die during a war. It's the nature of the stupidity of war."

Staten Island Greets Cuomo's Proposal To Buy Homes Destroyed By Sandy With Relief, Skepticism

Saki Knafo   |   February 4, 2013    3:28 PM ET

Three weeks after Hurricane Sandy destroyed his home, Joe Monte stood up at a meeting of Staten Island storm survivors and implored them to give up on any hopes of rebuilding. "I personally don't want no bleach, no sheetrock, that's not what we're here for," he said. "That area was meant for doing what it did a hundred years ago: to take water."

Monte was talking about Oakwood Beach, a neighborhood that sustained terrible damage in the storm, and the meeting marked the first attempt by Monte and other residents to rally their neighbors around the idea of getting the government to pay pre-market value for their destroyed and damaged houses.

Some in the crowd were skeptical that the government would deliver that help, but on Monday, The New York Times reported that Gov. Andrew Cuomo supports the idea.

Monte said he wasn't suprised. "There's nothing else you can do down there," he said. The neighborhood was built on marshland and has flooded repeatedly over the years. "Nature's taking it back," Monte said.

According to The New York Times, Cuomo would be willing to spend as much as $400 million to purchase homes destroyed by Sandy throughout the state. If the federal government approves of the plan, the homes would then be demolished and the land would revert back to undeveloped coastline.

Over the last 20 years, as smaller storms have repeatedly battered the homes of Oakwood Beach, residents have complained that officials have been slow to respond. For decades, the Army Corps of Engineers has been researching a long-term solution for the neighborhood and other parts of the Staten Island waterfront, but the study has proceeded in fits and starts, with federal funding occasionally drying up.

Meantime, residents like Monte have come to believe that the only solution is getting out. "If a storm comes between now and whenever, it could be worse than it was with Sandy," he said.

Monte, who owned a construction company for two decades, spent 11 years renovating his Oakwood Beach home, which he described as an investment for his retirement.

Yet unlike some residents, he expressed no ambivalence about the prospect of leaving. "I can't stand looking at the place," he said. "I avoid it as much as possible."

What worries Monte is the timing of the government's plan. If the buyout doesn't happen soon, he said, he'll be hard-pressed to shoulder the double burden of the mortgage on the house that he fled and the rent at the Brooklyn apartment where he and his family took refuge.

"How do you pay mortgage and pay rent at the same time?" he said. "If they aren't wrapped in six months to a year at most, do we fall into another foreclosure situation like we had three or four years ago? What do we do here?"

Another Oakwood Beach resident, Pedro Correa, who rode out the storm on a floating roof, echoed Monte's concerns about timing. "There's still a long road," he said. "The federal government has to approve the plan. There's nothing set in stone."

At the meeting back in November, Correa was one of the skeptics who expressed doubt that the government would come to the neighborhood's rescue, and he still has trouble believing the government will make good on such an expensive proposal.

"I did the math," he said. "There are 161 houses in the neighborhood. It comes out to $50 million total. I don't feel confident they're going to pay $50 million."

Unlike Monte, Correa found himself returning again and again to the ruins of his home, which the storm swept into marsh. For a while he entertained the possibility that he could somehow rebuild it. But he gave up that dream many weeks ago, and on Friday, workers built a road through the marsh and pulled out the last of the remains.

"I think that was a big closure for us," he said. "There's nothing to go back to now. I can't put on waders and go through the stuff. It's over now."

Obama Campaigns For Gun Control In Minnesota

Saki Knafo   |   February 4, 2013    9:51 AM ET

Obama's off to Minnesota today to campaign for his gun control proposals there. According to AP, "His visit to the Minneapolis Police Department's Special Operations Center will mark the first time Obama has campaigned on his controversial proposals outside of Washington.

Why Minnesota? AP points out that it's a blue state where people have been studying ways to reduce gun violence for some time.

In recent years, Republicans in the Minnesota legislature have worked to expand gun rights, according to MinnPost. But Democrats now control both houses of the legislature and the governor's office.

Meanwhile, in DC, the Senate is getting ready to move on its own gun control bill.

According to an aide to Sen. Harry Reid (D- Nev.), via the Wall Street Journal, there's "a growing sense within Democratic ranks that some of the president's most ambitious goals--particularly the call for new bans on certain types of military-style guns often described as assault weapons--may be unrealistic."

Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, is seen as a strong gun-rights supporter, and has criticized the idea of an assault weapons ban in the past.

Sandy Hook Parent: Assault Weapon Right 'Second To The Right Of My Son To His Life'

Saki Knafo   |   January 30, 2013   10:53 PM ET

Dave Wheeler, whose son Benjamin died at Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14, quoted a founding father at a public hearing in Newtown, Conn., on Wednesday. "Thomas Jefferson described our inalienable rights as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," Wheeler said. "I do no think the order of those important words was haphazard and casual. The liberty of any person to own a military assault weapon and high-capacity magazine and to keep them in their home is second to the right of my son to his life."

Wheeler was one of more than 100 parents, police officers, clergy members and Newtown residents who spoke at the fourth and final public hearing held by the Connecticut legislature's Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence and Children's Safety. While the first three hearings covered school safety, gun violence and mental health, respectively, Wednesday's hearing provided an opportunity to address any of those subjects.

As with the earlier hearing on gun violence, opinions were mixed on whether the legislature should pass stricter gun control measures, like a ban on semi-automatic weapons or high-capacity magazines. But none of the speakers whose children died in the shooting opposed such measures, and some vehemently argued in favor of them.

"I tried to think of a reason why we would need guns and weapons like that for hunting, and the only thing I could think of is maybe deer management," said Neil Heslin whose 6-year-old son Jesse was a victim. "I ask that we ban those weapons and I ask that we look more into mental health, education and the people who have those weapons. There should be strict background checks."

"I am a gun owner, Rachel enjoyed shooting as well," said Peter Paradis, whose 29-year-old daughter Rachel died at the school. "We don't need 30-round clips to kill a deer, we don't need AR-style rifles to go target shooting. We need action."

The hearing was held in a crowded auditorium of Newtown High School, where President Barack Obama met with the families of victims days after the attack. John McKinney, a Republican state senator whose district includes Newtown, moderated the remarks. He asked that the audience refrain from applauding -- a request that was ignored.

Some speakers received standing ovations, and even those who spoke against gun control were applauded. "Military weapons and weapons with high-capacity magazines can help in repelling a home assault," said Casey Khan, a Newtown parent and former Marine. "While on its face it may seem ridiculous" to own such weapons in a wealthy place like Newtown, he said, "it is not ridiculous for those who live amidst the dangers of the inner-cities and along the Mexican border."

"I too was a military member," said Eric Paradis, who spoke after Khan. "I know these weapons do not belong in our homes. They do belong in our armories as part of our well-regulated militias.

"We can't let the gun lobbies corporate interests decide our path for us," Paradis added.

The hearing was held on a day when former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), NRA head Wayne LaPierre, and other high-profile figures in the gun debate spoke at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington.

The Newtown hearing, along with parents of Sandy Hook students, featured Brian Shimer, an emergency medical technician and a first responder, who insisted that "neither the size of the magazine nor the style of the rifle will affect the actions of the evil."

Bill Begg, an emergency room doctor who tended to the bodies of victims, choked up while urging the legislators to ban assault weapons and to refrain from cutting funds for mental health services. "Twenty years in the E.R., I never broke a tear," he said. "But this has affected me."

Halfway through the meeting, scheduled to end at midnight, the legislators turned the microphone over to any members of the community who wanted to speak. By then, the scheduled speakers had already suggested a wide range of measures, from tightening the existing gun-control laws to helping police monitor the activities of people deemed potentially dangerous.

"I just want you to thank you for coming to us," said Richard Marato, whose daughter survived the shooting. "Our society is so saturated with guns and violence I don't think any one thing can help."

The task force is expected to deliver its proposals to the legislature for a vote in February. Recordings of each of the hearings are available on The Connecticut Network's website.

Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly spelled Brian Shimer's last name as Chalmers.

Guns Discussed In Bipartisan Hearing At Newtown High School Tonight

Saki Knafo   |   January 30, 2013    6:17 PM ET

The Connecticut legislature's bipartisan task force on gun violence and school safety is holding the last of four public hearings tonight at Newtown High School.

The Connecticut Network is livestreaming the event.

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