- Unemployment claims have spiked for the first time since early October, with 742,000 people filing last week. Over 20 million Americans are still collecting some kind of joblessness aid.
- Meanwhile, a new study found that more than 12 million Americans will lose their benefits the day after Christmas when federal unemployment programs are set to expire if Congress does not extend them.
- Congress is still at an impasse on another coronavirus relief bill.
- Meanwhile, large companies like Amazon and Walmart are not giving hazard pay to essential workers even as cases spike and both companies saw major quarterly profits increases.
The Department of Labor (DOL) reported Thursday that another 742,000 Americans filed for unemployment — the highest spike in claims since early October. According to experts, the new figures are a sign that the recent coronavirus spikes are slowing the economy and companies are cutting jobs.
While 742,000 is less than the millions of claims that were filed back in March and April, it is still more than three times higher than the 210,000 new claims that were filed each week for the first two months of the year before all the shutdowns.
Notably, that newly released number does not include every American who filed joblessness benefits in the last week. There are separate programs for federal workers and veterans, among others.
One of the largest is the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program for freelancers and self-employed people. This week, the DOL reported that the number of people who filed claims under that program had also increased from last week to just over 320,200.
Even then, those figures only represent claims filed in the course of the last week, not total unemployment. According to the most recent DOL data, at the end of last month, 20 million Americans were still out of work.
Benefits Expiring and Stalled Stimulus
Further complicating matters is the fact that the remaining federal benefits approved under the CARES Act are set to expire in mere weeks.
According to a new report from the progressive think tank The Century Foundation, more than half of those 20 million unemployed Americans — roughly 12 million — will lose their benefits entirely the day after Christmas if those programs are not renewed by Congress and President Donald Trump.
One of those programs is the PUA program, which The Century Foundation estimates would leave 7.3 million people without unemployment benefits. The other program is the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which allowed out of work Americans to collect benefits for an extra 13 weeks beyond the usual 26 weeks provided by states.
The loss of that program would leave another 4.6 million without benefits when it expires, the study estimates. Notably, the 12 million Americans who will lose their benefits on Dec. 26 is in addition to the estimated 4.4. million who will have already exhausted their CARES Act benefits before these programs expire.
While The Century Foundation did find that 2.9 million people who had been on the federal extended benefits would be eligible for state-level extended benefits once the deadline hits, states would have to pick up the tab for those benefits at a time when their funds are totally depleted and Congress has also not helped them since the CARES Act.
But after months of deadlock, the talks largely stalled ahead of the election and in the chaotic aftermath. While key Democrats are seeking to restart those talks this week with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who has said he wants to pass some kind of bill before the end of the year — it is unclear how the problems that existed for months throughout these negotiations will just go away.
Democrats have been pushing for one large, comprehensive bill worth about $2.2 trillion, and while in the lead up to the election the White House had agreed to a number very close to that, McConnell has refused to bring anything even remotely near that price to that to the floor.
Instead, he has continually pushed for a so-called “skinny” bill that would provide about $500 billion worth of funding.
In other words: despite the repeated abject failures by those in power to give Americans the help they have needed since March, it appears that Congress is still no closer to a deal.
“Congress is set to cut off 12 million Americans from the only thing holding them back from falling into financial wreckage and disaster,” Andrew Stettner, a co-author of The Century Foundation’s study told NPR, adding that Congress’ inability to come up with a deal comes “at a time when things are getting worse with the virus rather than better, making it harder and more dangerous for people to go back to work.”
Lack of Hazard Pay
To that point, it is not just Congress that’s giving American workers a lot of grief.
Even as the number of coronavirus cases are rising dramatically, retail workers have not been receiving hazard pay, even though major retailers have recently been seeing increased profit margins, and that trend is expected to continue as the holiday season approaches.
According to The New York Times, Amazon — which stopped its $2-an-hour hazard-pay raise for workers earlier this year — has said it was not planning any new hazard pay bumps. The world’s second-largest retailer made this decision despite the fact that it has thrived during the pandemic, reporting last month that its quarterly profit had increased by nearly 200%.
Amazon has also been subject to much criticism over its treatment of essential retail workers during the pandemic. Among other issues, there have been numerous outbreaks at Amazon warehouse facilities, some of which have been fined as recently as last month for pandemic workplace safety violations.
Meanwhile, the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, also reported a significant increase in quarterly sales this week. While the company said it had paid a series of special cash bonuses to employees throughout the pandemic, it also has not raised wages for workers who are on the frontlines endangering their lives.
Those two companies are not alone: many other large corporations like Lowes and Kroger have also come under fire for refusing to give their employees hazard pay while enjoying high profits. Experts have said that many of these companies can afford to share their earnings, but instead, many are reportedly helping out wealthy shareholders through stock buybacks.
While some lawmakers have tried to step in and help compensate retail workers, efforts to provide hazard pay both in the stimulus bills and in separate legislation have failed.
States Take Action
Notably, some states have been rolling out programs to help their unemployed residents and fill the void left by Congress.
On Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) launched a new online training platform that will provide access to nearly 4,000 online courses and programs to provide New Yorkers with new skills and certificates to advance their careers at no cost.
The tool will specifically focus on training up people for jobs growing, in-demand economic sectors like manufacturing, technology, and health care.
“This new training platform will be key in this effort by ensuring unemployed and underemployed New Yorkers are not left behind by providing access to the resources and training they need to get back on their feet,” Cuomo said in a press release announcing the launch.
While many cheered the new program as a helpful long-term solution to the unemployment crisis, others noted that it will do little to help people in the short term if the federal unemployment benefits expire, underscoring the need for another coronavirus relief bill immediately.
See what others are saying: (NPR) (The New York Times) (The Associated Press)
FDA Finds Violations and Unsanitary Conditions at Emergent J&J Plant as Lawmakers Open Investigations
- The Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday that it found numerous safety violations at Emergent Biosolutions, the Baltimore manufacturing plant responsible for ruining more than 15 million Johnson & Johnson Vaccines.
- The FDA said it watched security footage of employees ignoring cross-contamination protocols and improperly handling medical waste. It also found brown and black residue on the floors and walls of the plant, respectively.
- Separately, top House Democrats launched an investigation into how Emergent won contracts to manufacture two COVID-19 vaccines and whether or not those contracts were the result of an improper relationship between the plant and a former Trump administration official.
- Democrats are also investigating Emergent’s role as the country’s only provider of the anthrax vaccine in the Strategic National Stockpile.
The FDA’s Unforgiving Report
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a damning inspection report Wednesday on Emergent Biosolutions, the Baltimore manufacturing plant that ruined 15 million Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines.
Among a multitude of violations, inspectors workers hadn’t been properly trained. They also found that medical waste had been improperly handled, saying “such waste was transported through the warehouse before disposal and has the potential to contaminate the warehouse and adjacent areas.”
For example, it found that employees had used their gloved hands to put waste into bags, that they drug the waste through hallways, and that they even allowed it to touch walls.
Made worse was the fact that the FDA found peeling paint on the walls of several sensitive work areas, with inspectors noting that they found paint flecks all along the floors around the walls. As the agency reported, that peeling — as well as additional wall damage — “impacts the firms’ ability to adequately clean and disinfect the area.”
Moreover, inspectors said they found an unknown brown residue attached to the walls, as well as a black residue on the floor.
Through reviewing security footage, inspectors said workers repeatedly failed to follow procedures that were meant to prevent vaccine cross-contamination.
Notably, that backs up information that had been previously reported, particularly that those 15 million Johnson & Johnson vaccines were ruined because of cross-contamination with AstraZeneca’s vaccine. That said, it’s important to note that none of those vaccines were ever distributed to the public because the FDA never gave the plant approval to do so.
It’s possible that the report also describes the event that specifically led to the vaccine cross-contamination, as it mentions that through security footage, it watched an employee travel from one area of the plant where one vaccine was being made, to another area of the plant where the other vaccine was being made — all without that employee changing their protective gear.
With that finding, the FDA said Emergent didn’t properly investigate its workers’ movements as a potential cause of contamination. More broadly, it also noted that even after the plant was made aware of the contamination, it only performed routine cleaning and didn’t take further decontamination steps.
Congress Investigates Emergent’s Role in Winning Vaccine Contracts
Alongside the FDA’s recent report, top House Democrats have now launched an investigation into how Emergent won several multi-million dollar contracts.
Those lawmakers are specifically looking into what role Dr. Robert Kadlec played in helping the company obtain the contract and if it was influenced by Kadlec’s previous role as a consultant for Emergent.
Kadlec was the assistant secretary for preparedness and response under former President Donald Trump, and as this group of Democrats alleges, Kadlec “appears to have pushed for this award despite indications that Emergent did not have the ability to reliably fulfill the contract.”
Those Democrats went on to say that after Kadlec’s confirmation, Emergent obtained millions in contracts from his agency — including some that “were awarded without competitive bidding.” In fact, the Trump administration ultimately awarded $628 million to the plant, even though it had fallen short on federal investigations.
Emergent also reportedly tried to encourage oversight of the stockpile to be shifted from the CDC to an office under Kadlec’s control.
“We are concerned by the costs to taxpayers and the potential impact on our nation’s vaccination efforts caused by Emergent’s failed attempts to manufacture these vaccines,” the Democrats said.
Congress Investigates Emergent’s Role as Sole Anthrax Provider
It doesn’t end there. Those lawmakers are also looking into Emergent’s role as the country’s sole provider of the anthrax vaccine in the Strategic National Stockpile.
“Emergent has raised the government purchasing price of the anthrax vaccine by 800% since acquiring the drug in 1998,” they said. “As a result, through most of the last decade, nearly half of the SNS’s budget has been spent purchasing Emergent’s anthrax vaccine.”
When Emergent acquired that anthrax vaccine license in 1998, the vaccine was selling for about $3.35 a dose. Today, it’s over $30.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Wall Street Journal) (CNBC)
Ohio Police Fatally Shoot Black Teenage Girl
- Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl, was fatally shot by a Columbus police officer Tuesday afternoon.
- Police released body camera footage that appears to show Bryant lunging at two other women with a knife before the officer opened fire.
- Members of Bryant’s family disputed parts of the police department’s version of events, including Bryant’s aunt, who said the teen called police and was trying to defend herself from people who had come to her foster and threatened her with physical assault.
- The incident came just before a Minnesota jury convicted former officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, exacerbating frustrations over repeated police killings of Black people in America.
Ma’Khia Bryant Shot by Police
Columbus police shot and killed a Black teenage girl Tuesday, shortly before the verdict against Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd, adding tension to existing conversations about excessive use of force from police against Black people.
The girl was identified as 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant by a spokesperson for Franklin County Children’s Services, who said she had been in foster care.
During a news conference late Tuesday night, Columbus police said the shooting happened after they received a 911 call around 4:30 from someone who said that women were trying to stab them before hanging up.
The law enforcement officials also played segments of body camera footage from the officer who fired the shots, which they said showed the victim lunging at two others with a knife.
In the graphic video, the officer is seen getting out of his car as Bryant appears to chase someone who falls onto the sidewalk. She then lunges at another person, and the officer yells “get down” three times before quickly firing at least four shots at the teenager.
Bryant collapses on the ground, and the bodycam video shows a knife next to her as officers attempt CPR. People at the scene immediately start screaming, and one man can be heard yelling, “You didn’t have to shoot her! She’s just a kid, man!”
“She had a knife,” the officer responds. “She just went at her.”
Police officials said Bryant was taken to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead. Notably, they did not identify the officer who shot her, though they did say he would be pulled off patrol duty while the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation conducts an inquiry.
Some of Bryant’s family members contradicted elements of the police report. Her aunt, Hazel Bryant, told The Daily Beast that adult women had come to the foster home and started an altercation with her niece, who called the police.
Hazel claimed that Ma’Khia grabbed the knife to defend herself and was fending off a physical assault when the police arrived. She also told a local outlet that the teenager had dropped the knife before she was shot, but the slow-motion capture of the video shown by the police appears to show the knife in her hand at the time.
Protests & Response
According to local reports, shortly after the shooting, a group of roughly 60 people gathered at the site to demonstrate but dispersed around 10 p.m. Others protesters also took the streets of downtown, with many gathering in front of the Columbus Police Department headquarters.
The shooting quickly sparked a widespread response on social media and #MKhiaBryant became a trending Twitter hashtag. Many argued that the shooting, which coincided so closely with the Chauvin verdict, shows that single instances of police accountability do not change systemic problems.
“The emotional contrast between the #DerekChauvinVerdict and the killing of #MaKhiaBryant is exactly why we must not use small wins to justify the end of large fights!” tweeted Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP. “We must stay steadfast in our pursuit of #PoliceAccountability WE NEED #PoliceReformNOW”
Other users also condemned the officer for immediately shooting Bryant instead of trying to de-escalate the situation or use other tactics like a Taser. Some asserted that if police can arrest white men who commit mass shootings without killing them, they can do the same for a Black teenager with a knife.
“In a world where the police can safely apprehend white male mass shooters. I would really like to know why a trained police officer assumed that the only way to deescalate a fight, where a 16 year old black girl had a knife, was to immediately shoot her dead,” one user wrote.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Daily Beast) (The Columbus Dispatch)
USDA Extends Free Meals for All Students Through June 2022
- The U.S Department of Agriculture will extend free meals for kids at schools and daycare facilities through the 2021-2022 school year.
- The move will bring much-needed relief to families across the country as an estimated 12 million children are experiencing food insecurity amid the coronavirus pandemic.
- The extension also gives schools time to prepare and improve their current meal distribution systems without having to scramble to process a massive influx of free lunch applications at the start of the year.
USDA Call for Free Lunch Extension
The U.S Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday that it will extend free meals for children at schools and daycare facilities through the 2021-2022 school year.
In the early days of COVID-19 last March, the USDA implemented Child Nutrition waivers that cut through barriers to allow kids to eat free even outside of normal school settings and meal times.
Those waivers also allowed schools the flexibility to adapt their own programs to better meet the needs of their families. For instance, they allowed parents to do a curbside pickup of multiple days of food at once for students learning from home, even without the student being present. In many cases, they allowed for meals to be dropped off at a student’s home if they continue to learn virtually part- or full-time.
The USDA even increased the school’s meal reimbursement budgets to allow for healthier options and cover bigger costs that came due to added transportation and labor, as well as pandemic-related supply shortages for to-go boxes, Personal Protective Equipment, and more.
These waivers were only supposed to last until Sept. 30, which left a ton of families uncertain about what to do after that as many continue to struggle financially.
Helps Remove Extra Burdens
Now, the extension will bring much-needed relief to families across the country because according to the USDA, an estimated 12 million kids are experiencing food insecurity amid the coronavirus pandemic.
While celebrating more free meals for students, school nutrition groups have also pointed to the fact that this gives schools time to prepare and improve their current meal distribution systems after the surge in need this current school term.
Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association, the trade group for school food-service manufacturers and professionals, told The Washington Post, “Schools aren’t going to have to scramble to collect applications from families that are eligible.
“At the start of every school year, this is a huge task for administrators to collect and process the applications, a task made bigger because during the pandemic there are more families eligible who may never have applied before.”
It also means fewer “touch points” like keypads that take pin numbers to prove free meal eligibility.