News Release

Year in review: public health, voters’ rights and consumer protection wins in 2020

U.S. PIRG and its state affiliates worked throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to improve health, safety and well-being
For Immediate Release

DENVER – Between a global pandemic, raging wildfires and severe hurricanes, 2020 has been a chaotic and difficult year. Hundreds of thousands of Americans lost their lives and millions took ill. But we persevered, as our community members, friends and family made sacrifices, both large and small. Through it all, U.S. PIRG has advocated on behalf of the public interest.

“There’s never been a more important time to advocate for, defend and enhance policies that protect Americans’ safety and well-being,” said U.S. PIRG President Faye Park. “From our homes instead of offices, with the support of our thousands of members, we worked to keep decision makers across the country focused on public health, the environment, consumer protections and voting rights.”

Here are some 2020 highlights of U.S. PIRG’s and its affiliates’ work for the public interest:

PRICE GOUGING:

U.S. PIRG demanded online marketplaces, lawmakers take steps to stop price gouging.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a rash of price gouging on crucial medical and cleaning supplies. Since February, U.S. PIRG has partnered with more than 370 officials in 45 states to demand that major online marketplaces take steps to prevent unfair pricing. Now, 37 states, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia have statutes that target price gouging during an emergency. More than 267,000 Americans signed a petition by U.S. PIRG calling on Amazon to protect consumers from price gouging.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, leading a group of 33 attorneys general, wrote a letter in March calling on top online marketplaces to crack down on price gouging. An analysis by U.S. PIRG Education Fund had revealed significant price hikes on Amazon’s platform. 

In Massachusetts, MASSPIRG testified in support of a proposal to make permanent emergency price gouging regulations implemented after the COVID-19 pandemic began. The new regulations prohibit the selling of goods or services necessary for the health, safety or welfare of the public for an unconscionably high price during a declared statewide or national emergency.

Attorney General Phil Weiser and 26 Colorado legislators signed a CoPIRG-organized letter that called on the country’s top online marketplaces to crack down on price gouging amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. In response to unscrupulous online sellers, Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill giving the AG greater ability to protect Coloradans from price gouging.

Following pressure from CALPIRG, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 1196 into law to protect Californians. The bill closed a loophole that allowed new sellers to substantially increase the prices of essential items such as face masks and hand sanitizer. 

CONSUMER PROTECTION:

No corporate immunity included in year-end COVID-19 relief package.

The $900 billion stimulus package passed by Congress in late December to relieve struggling Americans did not include a liability shield that would have protected corporations from COVID-related lawsuits. The U.S. PIRG Federal Consumer Program advocated against including corporate liability in the stimulus package. The program’s senior director Ed Mierzwinski got op-eds run in prominent publications to help sway public opinion.

Consumer advocates sued the CFPB to stop the Trump administration from giving the financial industry illegal influence over consumer protection policy.

Democracy Forward, representing U.S. PIRG and others, sued the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) for unlawfully creating and operating a task force stacked with finance industry-aligned members that lacked sufficient transparency — in violation of federal law. Court proceedings will resume on Jan. 6, 2021.

U.S. PIRG reported on car loan problems amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group produced a report about the sharp increase in consumer complaints to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) regarding vehicle loans and leases during the pandemic. The analysis suggested that consumers face abusive and deceptive practices from the automobile lending industry. The report called on policymakers to guarantee access to loan relief programs; ban repossessions, debt collection and negative credit reporting during the pandemic; and permanently protect consumers from predatory loans.

California created a new statewide consumer protection watchdog agency.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill creating a new consumer protection watchdog in California, the Department of Financial Protection and Innovation (DFPI). The law will put the existing Department of Business Oversight into the new agency, which will have expanded oversight of companies, including debt collectors and credit reporting agencies.

PennPIRG helped delay the end of the statewide moratorium on utility shutoffs.

PennPIRG defended tens of thousands of vulnerable Pennsylvania residents and businesses from having their utilities shut off during the pandemic. In all, more than 800,000 Pennsylvanians and 45,000 PA businesses were vulnerable to these shutoffs going into 2021. PennPIRG prompted legislators to devise bills to use CARES Act funding to help protect at-risk utility customers and delay the end of the statewide moratorium on utility shutoffs. 

CLIMATE CHANGE:

Denver passed an initiative raising $36 million for critical climate solutions.

Denver voters approved a .25% sales tax increase to raise $36 million a year for climate solutions. CoPIRG played a crucial role in the campaign reaching thousands of voters to encourage them to vote “yes.” The campaign culminated in late October with a “Yes on 2A” Facebook live event. 

PUBLIC HEALTH:

U.S. PIRG organized healthcare professionals to sign a letter calling for all 50 states to get their priorities straight, shut down for a second time over the summer.

In July, the Public Health Campaign organized an open letter to America’s decision makers on behalf of 1,400 health professionals across the country, calling on the country’s decision makers to shut the country down to suppress COVID-19 and save lives. 

About 40 top economists signed a letter calling on U.S. decision makers to shut down based on public health guidelines.

U.S. PIRG’s Public Health and New Economy campaigns organized economists and financial experts to call for a stop to all non-essential economic activity and coordinate a national response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter argued that failing to take action would cause lost businesses and livelihoods in communities across the nation and thousands of unnecessary deaths, and, unfortunately, was proven accurate in ensuing months.

More than 100 mayors signed a letter calling for coordination and distribution of medical supplies.

Cities, towns and counties across the country were slammed by the novel coronavirus pandemic. In April, a lack of centralized federal leadership made it difficult for local leaders to purchase and distribute medical equipment, including personal protective equipment and ventilators. U.S. PIRG organized mayors from across the country to make their voices heard by sending a letter to Donald Trump calling for stronger federal leadership to fight the pandemic.

U.S. PIRG hosted a panel of medical experts to discuss the vaccine rollout.

As word of a second viable COVID-19 vaccine became public, U.S. PIRG hosted a panel discussion with health experts from across the country to discuss how states and cities were planning to distribute the shots that eventually could stifle the pandemic. Numerous policy makers attended via Zoom. 

Public Health Campaigns Director Matt Wellington: antibiotic resistance podcaster. 

A joint project of U.S. PIRG and the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center, the monthly “Superbugs Unplugged” podcast dove into the critical health threat of antibiotic resistance. The pod focuses on driving factors, including antibiotic use in agriculture and human health care, challenges and opportunities in R&D, and more.

U.S. PIRG reported on PPE shortages in nursing homes, calling on governors to collaborate on getting COVID supplies.

As thousands of nursing homes nationwide dealt with horrific shortages of PPE supplies, U.S. PIRG released a report that called on governors to join consortiums to buy COVID supplies in concert with other states, to reduce competition, increase buying power and reduce prices. 

BEYOND PLASTICS:

New Jersey passed the strongest ban on single-use plastics in the nation; Maryland became the first state to put a polystyrene foam ban into effect.

In a win for wildlife and waterways, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed the strongest single-use plastics ban in the nation into law. Before the law passed, New Jersey PIRG spent two years canvassing to ban polystyrene products, knocking on more than 150,000 doors and talking to tens of thousands of New Jersey residents. These efforts helped build massive public support for a statewide ban on plastics pollution. The state team also delivered more than 25,000 petition signatures in favor of the ban.

Over the summer, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker rescinded the emergency order he issued in March, which suspended the use of reusable bags in stores and froze the ban on single use plastic bags in the 139 cities and towns that had passed such prohibitions. MASSPIRG had been clamoring for this rescission and welcomed the news.

Washington joined a growing list of states that have banned plastic shopping bags, and Maryland became the first state to put a ban on polystyrene foam food containers into effect. 

University of California campuses will start phasing-out single-use plastics.

University of California campuses started a transition away from plastic bags in retail and dining locations . The plan is to eliminate non-essential plastic from campus by 2030. CALPIRG Students worked closely with the university president’s office in crafting the new policy.

BIG MONEY OUT: 

Baltimore established the Citizens’ Election Fund and Commission. 

Maryland PIRG's Emily Scarr was chair of the Baltimore County Fair Elections Coalition that worked with the County Executive to move the county one step closer to establishing a small donor campaign finance system. Maryland PIRG worked to educate voters and build a robust coalition to help pass a small donor campaign finance ballot initiative. It passed with strong support and Maryland PIRG is now working to introduce legislation to implement the program.

SAFE VOTING:

Illinois, Maryland, California, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania won safe voting victories.

With the threat of COVID-19 weighing down heavily on this year’s election, U.S. PIRG advocated to make broad, safe participation in the November election possible. Across the country, state governments passed legislation to expand mail-in and absentee ballots to ensure voting was accessible and safe for everyone in their states.

TRANSFORM TRANSPORTATION: 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order requiring 100% zero-emission vehicles by 2035; New Jersey passed the largest EV rebate.

This represents the United States’ most ambitious vehicle electrification state policy and will go a long way toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the country’s largest source: transportation. CALPIRG and its sister organization Environment California have been key players in the Golden State’s transition to electric vehicles.

New Jersey made it easier for residents to buy an electric vehicle (EV) by providing a largest-in-the-nation rebate of up to $5,000. U.S. PIRG’s transportation campaign has worked closely with sister organization Environment New Jersey on promoting EVs in the Garden State.

RIGHT TO REPAIR: 

U.S. PIRG successfully pressured medical equipment manufacturers to help hospitals repair ventilators to save lives from COVID-19. 

U.S. PIRG called on ventilator manufacturers to release all the service information needed for biomedical technicians to repair that equipment. In April, GE responded to public outcry for ventilator repair information to be posted online. Similarly, ventilator manufacturers Fisher & Paykel, Zoll and Medtronic responded soon after U.S. PIRG requests to make repair information accessible to hospitals. 

MAKE IT TOXIC FREE:

California passed groundbreaking legislation to keep toxic chemicals out of cosmetics.

It’s been more than 80 years since the U.S. Congress last regulated cosmetics. CALPIRG co-sponsored the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act to create oversight for the cosmetic industry and protect public health. Gov. Newsom signed it into law, banning 12 highly toxic ingredients, including mercury and formaldehyde, from use in personal care products sold in California.

Baltimore, Philadelphia restricted toxic herbicides, pesticides.

Starting in 2019, Maryland PIRG canvassers began knocking on doors in Baltimore City and meeting with members of the city health committee to build support for a bill regulating toxic pesticides. On Nov. 16, 2020, the Baltimore City Council passed a bill with comprehensive restrictions on pesticides. The bill limits the use of chlorpyrifos, neonicotinoids and glyphosate (the main ingredient in the popular weed killer Roundup). 

In Philadelphia, city parks and other public spaces throughout Philadelphia will be a lot safer after the city council banned the use of toxic herbicides on municipal property. The banned herbicides include glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s product RoundUp. 

Maryland restricted the use of chemical flame retardants. 

For more than a decade, Maryland PIRG has led efforts to restrict toxic flame retardants in Maryland because they do not provide fire safety and put our health at risk. In May, the state imposed restrictions, but we need a stronger policy. In the past year, Maryland PIRG worked with Sen. Guy Guzzone, Del. Bonnie Cullison, NRDC and the Professional Fire Fighters of Maryland to comprehensively ban flame retardant chemicals from children's products, mattresses and furniture. 

END THE NICOTINE TRAP:

Massachusetts, California took aim at youth tobacco use, banning flavored tobacco products.

After a surge of e-cigarette products aimed at younger consumers, U.S. PIRG called on policy makers to protect young people from lifelong addiction to tobacco. To stop the nicotine trap, U.S. PIRG advocated to end sales of flavored e-cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products.  

After MASSPIRG advocated for a ban on flavored tobacco products, Massachusetts became the first state to prohibit the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, menthol cigarettes and chewing tobacco. It was a major step to protect youth because 80 percent of young people who have used tobacco started with a flavored product. 

CALPIRG also advocated for a ban on flavored tobacco and California passed its own flavored tobacco ban over the summer.

GET THE LEAD OUT: 

San Diego took a major step toward getting the lead out of school drinking water.

U.S. PIRG and its sister organization Environment America have worked with state and local officials across the country to get the lead out of the country’s drinking water. U.S. PIRG’s state affiliate, CALPIRG, worked with San Diego’s school board for two years to develop and enhance its plans to prevent lead contamination by replacing water fountains.

TAKE OUR POWER BACK: 

Increased transparency and public participation in Illinois’ energy system.

The Illinois Commerce Commission agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by Illinois PIRG Education Fund and GlidePath that alleged it deliberately excluded select consumer advocates and industry experts from its NextGrid Study process, while allowing the utilities ComEd and Ameren to fund, shape and approve a report designed to influence Illinois’ energy policy.

Major contribution to Illinois’ utility policy debate.

Illinois PIRG’s Guaranteed Profits, Broken Promises report exposed that utility giant ComEd reaped record profits and its customers were paying 37 percent higher electricity delivery rates while the utility under-delivered on its promises to its customers and the public.

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