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Thousands of Workers Say Their Jobs Are Unsafe as COVID-19 Cases Spike

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  • 1.5 million people filed for unemployment last week, though continuing claims fell by nearly 1 million.
  • But as the labor market stabilizes and more communities reopen, thousands of workers have filed complaints with the government alleging their workplaces are not safe to be in during the pandemic.
  • Workplace safety has become a major issue that is expected to grow as reopenings continue, especially because there are no enforceable federal laws that require employers to protect their workers during the pandemic.
  • Meanwhile, the U.S. hit 2 million cases of coronavirus, and at least 20 states have reported increases in their numbers.

Concerns Over Worker Safety

Another 1.5 million people filed for unemployment, the government reported Thursday, marking the continued trend of decreasing claims over the last few weeks.

Perhaps even more notably, the number of continuing claims, which counts how many people filed two weeks in a row, fell to 20.9 million from 21.3 million last week. Economists now say that continuing claims are a better economic marker of how the U.S. labor market is doing as the pandemic continues.

The lower numbers are, at least in part, a reflection of the widespread reopenings that have taken place over the last several weeks. But as reopenings continuing and the number of people going back to work rises, so do the concerns about workplace safety in the pandemic.

Those concerns are due to one major reason: the fact that there are no rules for pandemic-related workplace safety on the federal level.

The federal government has issued guidelines for employers that reopen, but like the federal guidelines for states that reopen, they are not mandatory or enforceable.

While governors in some states have put worker protections in place under executive orders, there have been growing numbers of people who say they do not feel safe at their jobs and have filed formal complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

According to the official government data, OSHA has received thousands of workplace safety complaints related to COVID-19 over the last few months. Those complaints have risen significantly since states started reopening.

At the end of April, before states started reopening, OSHA reported just over 3,000 claims were filed at the federal level and 7,800 at the state level. But as of Wednesday, federal claims jumped to over 5,000 while state claims nearly doubled to more than 12,430.

With the growing claims, labor activists and unions have started putting more pressure on the government. In mid-May, the AFL-CIO, which one of the largest labor unions in the country, announced that it was suing OSHA to get it to implement mandatory national safety requirements during the pandemic.

At the same time, Republican congress members have been trying to pass legislation that would protect employers from being sued by their workers if they catch the virus— and idea that President Donald Trump has also said he supports.

Huge Spikes in States Reopening

But as states push forward with their reopenings, labor advocates are worried that without a codified national law the situation will only get worse, especially given massive spikes in coronavirus cases that have been reported in numerous states in recent days.

On Wednesday, the U.S. officially hit two million confirmed cases, and according to reports, new infections are now increasing in at least 20 states.

South Carolina, which had reopened most businesses by the end of last month, is now reporting more daily cases than ever— even higher than the state’s previous peak in April.

Florida, which was one of the first states to ease restrictions and has implemented one of the broadest reopenings, is also seeing a surge. On Saturday, more people in the state tested positive for COVID-19 than any other day in the past two months.

One of the biggest new hotspots is Arizona, where cases have increased 115% since its stay-at-home order ended on May 15. This week, the state also reported an average of over 1,000 new cases every day, making it the highest per capita infection growth rate in the U.S.

On Tuesday, Arizona’s health department said that only a quarter of the state’s ICU beds were available, which promoted the state’s health director to direct hospitals to activate coronavirus emergency plans for the first time since March. 

But Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has refused to put restrictions back in place, and the executive order he signed that lifted restrictions explicitly prohibits local officials from putting further restrictions in place to curb the virus in places where there are large outbreaks.

Ducey has also repeatedly claimed that the rise in cases is due to the increased number of tests that the state was administering— a claim disputed by numerous health experts.

“It’s very clear that it’s a real increase in community spread,” Will Humble, the executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association told KJZZ. “It’s not some artifact of additional testing.”

Humble’s remarks were also echoed Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who told the Post that positive test rates are outpacing the increased testing, which suggests Arizona’s enhanced testing is not the cause of the spike.

Ducey, however, is not the only governor that has made the argument about increased testing contributing to a rise in cases. Leaders in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Texas, and several other states have prompted similar claims in the last few weeks.  

But both public health experts and current data puts those claims in serious contention.

According to NPR, cellphone data collected by the Gleam Project suggest that “people in the U.S. are moving around at a level that’s up to about two-thirds of what it was before shutdown rules were implemented. This supports the idea that the new increases are real, not just a result of more testing.”

Governors Push Ahead

However, governors all across the country are still pushing ahead with easing more restrictions, including in some of the largest hotspots.

In Texas, where total cases shot up by one-third over the last two weeks, Gov. Greg Abbott still said he plans to move ahead with his plan reopen basically all businesses that have not already reopened by the end of the week.

When Texas set new records for coronavirus hospitalizations on three consecutive days this week, Abbott said the spike in cases is expected and “largely the result of isolated hot spots in nursing homes, jails, and meat packing plants.” 

But local health officials have said that is not true, and that there is a clear link between Abbott’s early and broad reopening. 

Other states are also pressing ahead with new openings despite significant rising cases.

In Arkansas infections rose by one third in a week and hospitalizations have also gone up nearly 90% since Memorial Day.

Despite that, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said on Wednesday he is still going to go ahead with phase two reopenings, arguing that the surges were not tied to his easing restrictions.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (The Washington Post) (Politico)

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Florida Cracks Down on “Vaccine Tourism”

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  • Florida is now requiring that people show proof of either full-time or part-time residency in the state in order to get vaccinated against COVID-19. 
  • The state has been hit with “vaccine tourism” as many people, predominantly wealthy individuals, fly to the state from other parts of the U.S. and abroad just to get the shot. 
  • So far, nearly 41,000 of the 1.3 million doses administered in Florida went to out-of-staters, though it is unclear if all those people were tourists or if this figure includes some part-time residents.

Florida Requires Proof of Residency

Florida is cracking down on “vaccine tourism” and requiring that people show proof of either full-time or part-time residency in the state in order to get a COVID-19 shot.

Previously the state was allowing anyone 65 and older, including non-residents, to get the vaccine. This resulted in people flying to the Sunshine State from across the U.S. and abroad just for the purpose of receiving it. 

According to state data, nearly 41,000 of the 1.3 million doses Florida has administered have gone to out-of-staters. It is unclear if all these out-of-staters are tourists or if this figure includes some part-time residents. 

Now, people must show a form of identification like a driver’s license or mortgage payment to receive it. Exceptions will be made for healthcare workers. 

Vaccine Supply Continues to Be Limited

Wealthy people in particular were quick to schedule travel plans to Florida for this reason. According to the Wall Street Journal, there was an influx of Canadians booking private jets to Florida. Some were looking to book flights there and back on the same day, leaving just enough time for them to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. 

Meanwhile, people in Florida and across the country are waiting in long lines and struggling to book appointments on glitching websites to get their shots. Vaccine supply continues to be incredibly limited and not everyone in high-risk groups have received them.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said this rule is not made to impact snowbirds, people who live in Florida during the winter to escape cold weather up north. 

“They go to doctors here or whatever, that’s fine, DeSantis said, according to CNN. “What we don’t want is tourists, foreigners. We want to put seniors first, but we obviously want to put people that live here first in line.”

See what others are saying: (Wall Street Journal) (CNN) (Travel + Leisure)

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Amanda Gorman Wows the Nation With “The Hill We Climb”

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  • Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old poet, impressed the nation when she read “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration, making her the youngest inaugural poet in the nation’s history.
  • Gorman’s said the Jan. 6 attack on the nation’s Capitol inspired her to focus on a message of hope, community, and healing in her poem.
  • Big names like Oprah Winfrey, Anderson Cooper, Barack Obama, and Lin-Manuel Miranda have all praised her work.

Amanda Gorman Becomes Youngest Inaugural Poet

Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman wowed the nation on Wednesday as she spoke of healing, unity, hope, and what it means to be American while reading her poem, “The Hill We Climb.”

At 22-years-old Gorman is the youngest inaugural poet in the nation’s history. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she was the youth poet laureate of Los Angeles in 2014 at the age of 16. She then became the first national youth poet laureate in 2017. 

Now, her books are topping Amazon’s Best Sellers list and they are not even scheduled to be released until the fall.

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden became a fan of Gorman after watching her give a reading at the Library of Congress. She then suggested that Gorman be a part of the ceremony. 

“Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped That even as we tired, we tried,” Gorman recited during inauguration. “That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious. Not because we will never again know defeat but because we will never again sow division.”

Like President Biden, Gorman has struggled with a speech impediment and has been open about her experience overcoming it. She actually used poetry as a tool to correct it. First, she used it as a way of expressing herself without having to speak. Then she used it to bring her poems to life.

“Once I arrived at the point in my life in high school, where I said, ‘you know what? Writing my poems on the page isn’t enough for me,” she told CBS News. “I have to give them breath, and life, I have to perform them as I am.’ That was the moment that I was able to grow past my speech impediment.”

What Inspired “The Hill We Climb”

Gorman said the inaugural committee gave her freedom and flexibility when it came to choosing what to write about. She was well on her way before the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Those events then influenced her writing. 

“It energized me even more to believe that much more firmly in a message of hope, community and healing. I felt like that was the type of poem that I needed to write and it was the type of poem that the country and the world needed to hear,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.  

That message came across clearly and the insurrection was depicted in part of “The Hill We Climb.”

“It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it. We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it, would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy and this effort very nearly succeeded,” she said. “But while democracy can be periodically delayed it can never be permanently defeated. In this truth, in this faith we trust. For while we have our eyes on the future history has its eyes on us.”

Nation Impressed by Gorman

“Wow…Wow, I just, wow you’re awesome,” Cooper said when closing his interview with her. “I am so transfixed.” 

Lin-Manuel Miranda also cheered Gorman on. “The Hill We Climb” notably references a line of scripture that appears in a “Hamilton” song. Gorman also said she used to sing the song “Aaron Burr, Sir” to help her say her R sounds and correct her speech impediment. 

“I have never been prouder to see another young woman rise!” Oprah Winfrey wrote. “Brava Brava Amanda Gorman! Maya Angelou is cheering—and so am I.”

Winfrey also gave Gorman a ring with a caged bird on it—a reference to the famous Angelou poem— which Gorman wore during the inauguration. 

Actor Mark Ruffalo joined the onslaught of praise, saying that her words will lead the nation. 

Former President Barack Obama echoed that idea as well, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Gorman promised to run for president one day. 

See what others are saying: (CBS News) (New York Times) (Los Angeles Times)

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SAT Drops Subject Tests and Optional Essay Section

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  • The College Board will discontinue SAT subject tests effective immediately and will scrap the optional essay section in June. 
  • The organization cited the coronavirus pandemic as part of the reason for accelerating these changes.
  • Regarding subject tests, the College Board said the other half of the decision rested on the fact that Advanced Placement tests are now more accessible to low-income students and students of color, making subject tests unnecessary. 
  • It also said it plans to launch a digital version of the SAT in the near future, despite failing to implement such a plan last year after a previous announcement.

College Board Ends Subject Tests and Optional Essay

College Board announced Tuesday that it will scrap the SAT’s optional essay section, as well as subject tests.

Officials at the organization cited the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the reason for these changes, saying is has “accelerated a process already underway at the College Board to simplify our work and reduce demands on students.”

The decision was also made in part because Advanced Placement tests, which College Board also administers, are now available to more low-income students and students of color. Thus, College Board has said this makes SAT subject tests unnecessary. 

While subject tests will be phased out for international students, they have been discontinued effective immediately in the U.S. 

Regarding the optional essay, College Board said high school students are now able to express their writing skills in a variety of ways, a factor which has made the essay section less necessary.

With several exceptions, it will be discontinued in June.

The Board Will Implement an Online SAT Test

In its announcement, College Board also said it plans to launch a revised version of the SAT that’s aimed at making it “more flexible” and “streamlined” for students to take the test online.

In April 2020, College Board announced it would be launching a digital SAT test in the fall if schools didn’t reopen. The College Board then backtracked on its plans for a digital test in June, before many schools even decided they would remain closed.

According to College Board, technological challenges led to the decision to postpone that plan.

For now, no other details about the current plan have been released, though more are expected to be revealed in April. 

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NPR) (The New York Times)

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