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Your Taxes, Cash Flow and COVID-19 Crisis: an Interview With BOE Chair Malia Cohen

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A little over one year ago, members of the California Board of Equalization (BOE) unanimously selected Malia M. Cohen, former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, to chair the 141-year-old state agency.

Cohen made history when she became the first African-American woman elected to the Board of Equalization in November of 2018.  She is also the first Black woman to serve as chair of the Board of Equalization, the agency responsible for administering California’s $70 billion property tax system.

In her role, Cohen represents nearly 10 million constituents residing in 23 counties in Northern and Central California, extending from Del Norte County in the north to Santa Barbara County in the south.

She’s the youngest constitutional officer serving in California.

Our interview with Cohen is one of several we will have with state officials from all backgrounds. What they share with us will help keep African Americans in California up to speed with important news coming out of government that has direct impact on our lives, money, health and civil rights.

Our goal is to help close the information gap that exists between our community and other groups throughout our state.

California Black Media (CBM):  The coronavirus pandemic is clearly impacting the economy.  Just how bad is it?

Malia Cohen (MC):  It’s bad. The pandemic has turned all of our lives upside down.  Just this week, the governor announced that over 1.6 million Californians have filed for unemployment because of the pandemic.  Many more will file in the weeks to come.  State and local governments will lose revenue needed to maintain vital services.  It is a true financial crisis.

CBM:  How are our elected leaders responding to this financial crisis?

MC: Our African-American elected leaders in California’s Congressional delegation — Sen. Kamala Harris and congresswomen Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee, and Karen Bass — have been working overtime to provide financial assistance.  W are fortunate to have our own Congresswoman Maxine Waters serving as chair of the House Financial Services Committee and Congresswoman Karen Bass serving as the chair of the Congressional Legislative Black Caucus.  In the coming days, I look forward to working with these remarkable African American leaders to provide direct communication about financial relief for our community.  One way will be through telephone town halls and community press communications just like this.

CBM: What can be done to assist persons who are suffering financially as a result of the pandemic?

MC: Action has already been taken to delay the date for filing and payment of income taxes to the IRS and the California Franchise Tax Board.  The traditional tax day deadline of April 15 has been extended to July 15.  Individual taxpayers seeking information about their own filing requirements can call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040 and businesses can call 1-800-829-4933.  For the California Franchise Tax Board, taxpayers can call 1-800-852-5711.

CBM: What help is coming for a person who just needs money to live on?

MC: Congress also approved payments of up to $1,200 for individuals and $2,400 for married couples, and $500 for each qualifying child.  These funds will be sent to everyone who filed federal income taxes for either 2018 or 2019, and has an income under $75,000 for individuals and up to $150,000 for married couples.  These checks will be reduced by $5 for every $100 above the $75,000 and $150,000 thresholds.  Single filers with incomes over $99,000 and $198,000 for couples are not eligible.

CBM: How are the checks going to be distributed?

MC: They are going to be sent out via direct deposit to bank accounts.

CBM: What if the IRS does not have my direct deposit information, or if I have moved?

MC: According the IRS website, “In the coming weeks, Treasury plans to develop a web-based portal for individuals to provide their banking information to the IRS online, so that individuals can receive payments immediately as opposed to checks in the mail.”

CBM: What about folks who usually don’t file tax returns, and can they get a check?

MC: According to the IRS, the website irs.gov/coronavirus is going to publish information about how to file for these coronavirus economic impact checks even if you have not filed a tax return in 2018 or 2019.

CBM: Do you have any other suggestions for persons who need relief?

MC: Yes.  Please remember to file for the California Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Young Child Tax Credit if you or your family are eligible.  Here’s how to file.  If you have taxable earned income under $30,000, you can file and receive up to $240 if you have no children.  If you have one child, the credit could be as high as $1,605.  If you have three or more children, the credit rises to $2,982.  In California, a taxpayer files Franchise Tax Board Form 3514 California Earned Income Tax Credit along with your state income tax return.  To get a copy of Form 3514, go to the Franchise Tax Board website, ftb.ca.gov.  Click on “Forms” in the top right of the website. Then, under “Get forms, instructions, and publications” click “Online.”  On the next page, where it says “Form Number and/or Keywords” type in 3514.  That will take you to the form for filing the California Earned Income Tax Credit.

Also, you may qualify for the federal IRS Earned Income Tax Credit. To qualify, you must file an income tax return with the IRS (Form 1040), and also be within income guidelines.   If you have children, you attached  “Schedule EIC” to your Form 1040.  To get more information, go to the IRS website, irs.gov, click on “Credits and Deductions” at the top of the page. Then click on “Earned Income Credit (EITC).”

CBM: What about financial assistance for small businesses?

MC: Congress just passed a $349 billion paycheck protection program, which provides loans to small businesses to help them keep their workers on payroll.  This is one way to help businesses so that they do not have to lay off their employees.  Every eligible small business should consider taking advantage of this program.

CBM: Where can people get information about this program?

MC: Go to the website treasury.gov/cares and click on “Assistance for Small Business.”

CBM: What if I run a small business and can’t get together my California Sales Tax filing because of the governor’s stay-at-home order?

MC:  Businesses affected by the coronavirus can request relief of interest or penalties or request an extension for filing a return by going to the California Department of Tax and Fee’s website: CDTFA.ca.gov.  Go to the “Alert!” banner at the top of the page, and click on “Learn more” after the sentence, “CDTFA is able to make it easier for taxpayers to request relief.”  Or, taxpayers can call: 1-800-400-7115.

CBM: Will taxpayers still have to pay their property taxes on April 10th?

MC: The April 10th deadline is fixed in statute.  Only San Francisco has extended the deadline to May 4 due to the shelter-in-place order in effect in San Francisco.  Local county tax collectors can relieve penalties and interests if they determine that failure to make timely payment is due to reasonable cause and circumstances beyond the taxpayer’s control. Taxpayers would have to file for relief of penalties and interest with their county tax collector. I certainly hope that tax collectors are willing to grant relief to all who are impacted by the coronavirus and the stay-at-home orders.

CBM: How do we contact you if we need help?

MC: We are always eager to help. Call and leave me a message at 415-557-3000 or email me at MaliaCohen@boe.ca.gov and we will get back to you as soon as we can.  My website at www.boe.ca.gov/Cohen has many helpful resources or you can follow me on Facebook or sign up for my newsletter to receive updates.

Note: Complex tax laws and concepts were discussed in this interview. It may not address every situation and is not considered written advice. Changes in law or regulations may have occurred since the time this news release was written. If there is a conflict between the text of this news release and the law, decisions will be based upon the law and not this news release.

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Bay Area

California’s New COVID Plan Includes Faith Community, Public Health Leaders

Pointing out that California has one of the lowest COVID-19 death rates in the country, Governor Gavin Newsom added that the SMARTER plan will also focus on preparing the state in the event that there is a similar crisis in the future. Ensuring that the plan is equitable and addresses the needs of Californians of all backgrounds is a priority as well, he emphasized.

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Pastor Sam Casey is the executive director, Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement (COPE). Americaspromise.org photo.
Pastor Sam Casey is the executive director, Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement (COPE). Americaspromise.org photo.

By Tanu Henry, California Black Media

Black faith and public health leaders are hailing Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new COVID response plan.

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled the proposal designed to be more strategic, nimble and sustainable than it is reactive. California is the first in the nation to transition the Coronavirus crisis from a pandemic to an endemic.

Newsom made the announcement three days after he lifted the statewide indoor mask mandate.

Dubbed the SMARTER Plan, an acronym that stands for Shots, Masks, Awareness, Readiness, Testing and Rx, the state’s new COVID response plan will focus on precautionary measures and interventions rather than broad mandates on masking, sheltering in place or shutdowns.

“This has been a remarkable two years for everyone. No one has been immune from the stress and travails, the heartache and devastation. But many of us have shared those burdens disproportionately, unequally,” said Newsom. “Those issues are all part and parcel of the consciousness that brings us to this moment.

The governor was speaking at a warehouse in Fontana that the state set up to handle logistics during the pandemic.

Pointing out that California has one of the lowest COVID-19 death rates in the country, Newsom added that the SMARTER plan will also focus on preparing the state in the event that there is a similar crisis in the future. Ensuring that the plan is equitable and addresses the needs of Californians of all backgrounds is a priority as well, he emphasized.

“We are moving away from a crisis mindset to living with this virus,” said Newsom. “We have come to understand what was not understood at the beginning of this crisis: that there is no ending.

“We have a more prescriptive details and strategies to continue those efforts in partnership with 800 community-based organizations, 200 mobile clinic sites, in partnership with our state-owned testing labs, in partnership with our schools and faith-based leaders,” he added.

According to the governor’s office, over 70 million COVID vaccines have been administered in the state. About 80% of Californians have received one dose and about 70% are fully vaccinated.

Sam Casey, executive director of Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement (COPE) and pastor of New Life Christian Church in Fontana, says he has been involved in the fight against COVID since the onset of the pandemic.

“We engaged in testing, bringing greater awareness as well as making sure some of the most marginalized communities had access to not only testing but more importantly vaccination,” he said.

“We are still engaged in that fight that’s relevant to the SMARTER plan,” Casey continued. “We’ve helped individuals get shots in their arms. We’ve presented some 75,000 N95 masks to our congregations and communities. We have passed out some 15,000 COVID tests and continue to create greater awareness in our communities.”

Dr. Jerry Abraham, director of Kedran Vaccines in South Los Angeles, runs a health center that provides COVID-19 inoculation to people in neighborhoods that have been historically underserved.

“We continue to see a continued decline in infection rates, in hospitalizations and in deaths — and that’s really exciting,” said Abraham, speaking at a press briefing for the African American press organized by VaccinateAll58, the California Department of Public Health’s COVID-19 response program.

Although about 82,000 Californians have died from COVID-related causes and more than 8 million have been diagnosed with the disease, Abraham says he’s hopeful about entering this next phase of the state’s response.

“We are really in this transition period from pandemic to endemic, and there really is this new conversation about learning to live with COVID. That is how we are going to go about our business and how we are going to go about staying in business and staying in school, going to church – all of these things are a part our strategy to move forward.”

Abraham encouraged people to continue to be vigilant, wear masks when necessary, and take steps to protect themselves and the people they love.

Black Californians, who make up about 6% of the state’s population, currently account for about 7% of confirmed deaths from COVID and more than 5% of all cases.

Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren, who is African American, welcomed the governor to her city and thanked him for leading the fight against COVID.

“California has led the nation’s fight against COVID-19 with early, robust, public health measures that have helped to save countless lives,” she said. “In Fontana, we remain focused and ready to adopt to the evolving pandemic.”

Keeping incidents of COVID low in the state, will require the participation of everyone, said Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the UC San Francisco.

“California’s success in this next phase of the pandemic depends on our focus on those who have borne the brunt throughout: essential workers, older adults, Latino, Black, and Pacific Islander communities, and those with more limited resources,” she said. “The equitable response is the smarter response, and I hope the plans outlined here receive sustained attention and investment,” Bibbens-Domingo said.

Andy Slavitt, former senior advisor for COVID-19 Response in the Biden Administration, says Newsom’s post-pandemic strategy should be a model for states around the country.

“California’s SMARTER plan should represent a turning point in managing the pandemic from taking whatever the virus brings us to being prepared to manage whatever challenges come next,” he said.

Newsom said the state will also be analyzing wastewater to track the evolution of the virus.

“As we enter the next phase of the pandemic, the state is better equipped than ever to protect Californians from COVID-19 with smart strategies that save lives and advance our ongoing recovery,” said Newsom.

“Building on proven tools – rooted in science and data – that have been honed over the past two years, we’re keeping our guard up with a focus on continued readiness, awareness and flexibility to adapt to the evolving pandemic. As we have throughout the pandemic, the state will continue applying the lessons we’ve learned about the virus to keep California moving forward.”

Aldon Thomas Stiles contributed to this report.

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Bay Area

County prepares to update long-term plans to meet needs and state mandates

Marin must plan for future population growth by state law, right along with the other 57 counties in California and all the state’s cities and towns. As part of the next required planning cycle, the County is eager to increase fair housing opportunities for people of all income levels, races and backgrounds.

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The Housing Element update is intended to help the County achieve an adequate supply of decent, safe, and affordable housing for residents living in unincorporated areas.
The Housing Element update is intended to help the County achieve an adequate supply of decent, safe, and affordable housing for residents living in unincorporated areas.

Marin County is in the midst of updating its Housing and Safety Elements, plans to accommodate future housing needs and address climate change. Starting this month, staff from the Marin County Community Development Agency (CDA) is seeking input on sites to accommodate the growing housing need in the unincorporated areas of the County. An online public meeting is set for Jan. 20 to go over the process and gather feedback.

The Housing Element update gives the County a chance to make marked progress with racial and social equity. Lower-income residents in the local workforce struggle to find suitable affordable housing close to their Marin jobs. Almost two-thirds of Marin workers commute in from other counties because of local high housing costs, and that takes a toll on traffic, the environment, and quality of life for everyone.

Marin must plan for future population growth by state law, right along with the other 57 counties in California and all the state’s cities and towns. As part of the next required planning cycle, the County is eager to increase fair housing opportunities for people of all income levels, races and backgrounds.

A master list of all potential new housing locations under consideration in unincorporated Marin was released during the online public meeting Jan. 20.

In spring 2021, the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) set by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) directed Marin to plan for 3,569 new housing units in unincorporated areas during the eight-year cycle that begins in 2023. Those must be distributed among all income categories, from very low to above moderate.

Parcels have been identified as potential housing sites in all areas of the unincorporated County. Land owned by schools, houses of worship, businesses, nonprofits, and the county government is all open for consideration. While housing is allowed in almost all local zoning districts, including commercial, the update to the Housing Element does not exclude potential changes to the maximum density under the existing zoning.

“Public feedback will be a key component of the plan’s development,” said Jillian Nameth Zeiger, a CDA senior planner. “We are introducing the full range of possibilities and asking people their thoughts about meeting the RHNA goal by using these properties. No major decisions have been made at this point. It will be a challenge to meet the allocation, and we want to collect as much public feedback as possible.”

CDA plans to document the feedback and summarize it when the Housing Element update is brought back to the Marin County Board of Supervisors and Planning Commissioners in early March. The Housing Element, along with the accompanying Safety Element, needs to be completed by the end of 2022 so it can be submitted to the State of California for approval.

Zeiger said the shortage of affordable housing has grown more pronounced since the state approved Marin’s last Housing Element update in January 2014. The local median home price has risen from approximately $1.2 million in 2017 to more than $1.6 million in 2021. During the same span, few housing units for the lowest income levels have been constructed.

With the Housing Element update, the intent is to achieve an adequate supply of decent, safe, and affordable housing for residents in unincorporated areas, including individuals, families, retirees, and special-needs populations. One of the major changes to the new Housing Element requirement includes meeting new steps to ensure fair housing and address historical patterns of segregation. Accordingly, the next Housing Element will include an assessment of fair housing to address barriers to fair housing choice and will identify sites and programs that provide housing opportunity for lower-income families and individuals near high quality schools, employment opportunities, and public transportation.

The consequences of noncompliance with housing requirements could be stiff. If a jurisdiction does not meet its goals, it becomes ineligible for state funding to serve local transportation needs and may be subject to statewide streamlining rules, which allow for housing development with limited public review process. California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) has a new division that is designed to enforce accountability with plans to meet housing needs.

Related initiatives under the fair housing program include the Restrictive Covenants Project, which aims to inform and educate Marin residents of the history and significance of government policies and programs that were intentionally discriminatory and helped create segregated areas.

CDA staff is engaging in community discussions, speaking at local homeowners associations meetings and design review boards. Trusted community-based organizations, elected officials, and other advocates will help convey messaging about the Housing Element update during the engagement process. Questions and comments can be emailed to staff and phone inquiries can be made to (415) 473-6269. Regular updates can be found on the Housing and Safety Elements update webpage.

Many residents live near town limits or city limits and might be interested in plans brewing across the nearby border. For that reason, there is a new website that includes news about Housing Element updates in all of Marin’s municipalities.

Check out housingelementsmarin.org to learn more.

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Bay Area

Oakland Healthcare Unions Denounce CDC and California’s New Guidelines

While federal and California state guidelines now allow healthcare workers who test positive for COVID-19 to return to work without quarantining as long as they are asymptomatic until at least February 1, it’s unclear what this will mean for several Oakland healthcare facilities.

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Oakland Highland Hospital screening tent at the emergency entrance on July 5, 2021. Photo by Zack Haber.
Oakland Highland Hospital screening tent at the emergency entrance on July 5, 2021. Photo by Zack Haber.

By Zack Haber

Two unions representing healthcare professionals have denounced recent moves by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and The California Department of Public Health that have eased, or in some cases temporarily eliminated, quarantining guidelines for those who have tested positive for COVID-19 or been directly exposed to the virus.

“Part of why there’s this rise in transmission is that people aren’t quite well and they’re able to come out and mingle with the public,” said Zenei Triunfo-Cortez in an interview. Triunfo-Cortez has worked as a registered nurse for 42 years, and she’s the president of National Nurses United (NNU), a registered nurses’ union with over 175,000 members.

On December 22 of last year, as news that the CDC was considering shortening their COVID-19 quarantine duration guidelines from 10 days to five days was spreading, the NNU published an open letter to the director of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, that urged her to maintain the 10-day quarantine period.

“Weakening COVID-19 guidance now, in the face of what could be the most devastating COVID-19 surge yet,” the letter reads, “will only result in further transmission, illness and death.”

On December 23, the CDC changed their guidelines for healthcare workers. To address staffing shortages, the new guidelines stated that medical facilities could have both vaccinated and unvaccinated healthcare workers who test positive for the virus return to their jobs immediately without quarantining in certain crisis situations as long as they were either asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic.

On December 27, the CDC changed their guidelines for the rest of the population, shortening the quarantining period from 10 to five days. The new guidelines stated that as long as a COVID-positive person has no symptoms or their symptoms are resolving and they don’t have a fever, they can end their quarantine on the sixth day.

“The change is motivated by science demonstrating that the majority of [COVID-19] transmission occurs early in the course of the illness,” reads a statement from the CDC about the reduced quarantine guideline, “generally in the 1-2 days prior to onset of symptoms and 2-3 days after.”

In their letter, the NNU pointed to the extremely contagious Omicron variant, and warned “Now is not the time to relax protections.” They mentioned pressure from businesses to maintain profits “without regard for science or the health of employees or the public” as the primary motivation for shortening the quarantine time. The letter included a link to a story about Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian asking the CDC to consider such a change.

Data from Alameda County, and California show that after the Omicron variant of COVID-19 began to become widespread in mid-December, local and statewide cases surged. By late December, average daily case rates were higher than they ever had been before.

Hospitalizations also rose sharply. Then cases and hospitalizations continued to rise through early January and have continued to rise. At the time of publication, information on recent COVID-19 deaths is unclear as the county and the state are updating that data.

“It’s stressful because some of our co-workers might be coming into work sick,” said Sonya Allen-Smith in an interview on January 7 about working under the new guidelines. She’s been an X-ray technologist at a Kaiser Permanente facility in Oakland for 13 years and is a member of the SEIU UHW union for healthcare workers.

“We think about if we’re going to take it home to our families,” she said. “My husband’s immune system is compromised. If I bring it home to him, he definitely will not make it.”

The Oakland Post obtained a flow chart Kaiser e-mailed to their employees on January 7 that guided them through the quarantine process the company required them to enter into if they tested positive for COVID-19.

It showed Kaiser employees had to quarantine for five days and could return on the sixth day if they tested negative for the virus with an antigen test. Allen-Smith said she felt the quarantine period was too short.

“We’re not giving people enough time to heal or recover,” Allen-Smith said. “Weakening the guidelines is not going to stop the staff shortage. It may increase it because people will spread it.”

In an e-mail, Kaiser Permanente’s media team wrote that they’re “implementing CDC and CDHP guidance and isolation with considerations to vaccination status and staffing levels.” It also stated that “all employees coming back or continuing to work, wear the appropriate PPE and follow all infection prevention measures.”

On January 8, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) decided to temporarily adopt the guidance for healthcare workers the CDC had released on December 23 to address staffing shortages at healthcare facilities.

“From January 8, 2022 until February 1, 2022, healthcare professionals who test positive for [COVID-19] and are asymptomatic,” reads their statement announcing the new guidelines, ”may return to work immediately without isolation and without testing.”

The statement also said such returning employees would have to wear N95 masks while working and that these new guidelines could again change as information becomes available.

Both the NNU and the SEIU-UHW unions immediately denounced CDHP’s decision.

“For healthcare workers on the frontline it is very disappointing to see the State of California bypass common sense safety measures,” said Gabe Montoya, an emergency room technician, in a statement SEIU-UHW released. “No patient wants to be cared for by someone who has COVID-19 or was just exposed to it.”

While federal and California state guidelines now allow healthcare workers who test positive for COVID-19 to return to work without quarantining as long as they are asymptomatic until at least February 1, it’s unclear what this will mean for several Oakland healthcare facilities.

When asked for a statement about their Bay Area healthcare facilities, Sutter Health’s media team wrote an email stating: “Consistent with CDC contingency tiered guidelines released in late December, and in response to critical staffing conditions, we have revised our process for how employees who work at patient care sites return after they have been sick with symptoms consistent with COVID-19. It’s important to note that symptomatic employees are not returning to work until their symptoms improve.”

When asked directly if asymptomatic COVID positive employees were currently returning to work, Sutter Health’s media team did not respond.

When asked about their current COVID-19 quarantine policies, Alameda Health System’s media and communications manager Eleanor Ajala wrote “Alameda Health System is reviewing guidance” and that they planned to attend a meeting with the state to discuss the issue.

On January 11, Allen-Smith said she hadn’t heard of any change to Kaiser Permanente’s quarantine policy, but that she knows three co-workers sick with COVID-19 who had just returned after five-day quarantines.

In an e-mail, Kaiser Permanente’s media team wrote that to address staffing shortages they were “employing traveling nurses, adjusting elective and non-urgent surgeries and procedures as needed, and offering our industry-leading telehealth capabilities in addition to in-person care.”

The media team did not directly answer when asked if Kaiser was allowing asymptomatic COVID positive employees to return to the job at Bay Area healthcare facilities.

Allen-Smith is unhappy about the guidelines changing and is unsure if Kaiser’s policy will further change in the near future due to CDHP’s recent announcement.

“A lot of us are confused and sad and just don’t feel safe in the workplace,” she said.

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