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Supreme Court ruling allows plan for religious limits to Obamacare contraceptive coverage

From today’s NBC News Online:

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday cleared the way for the Trump administration to give the nation’s employers more leeway in refusing to provide free birth control for their workers under the Affordable Care Act.

The ruling is a victory for the administration’s plan to greatly expand the kinds of employers who can cite religious or moral objections in declining to include contraceptives in their health care plans. Up to 126,000 women nationwide would lose birth control coverage under President Donald Trump’s plan, the government estimated. Planned Parenthood said nearly nine in 10 women seek contraceptive care of some kind during their lifetimes.

The Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, gives the government authority to create the religious and moral objections, said Justice Clarence Thomas for the court’s 7-2 majority. The Department of Health and Human Services “has virtually unbridled discretion to decide what counts as preventive care and screenings,” and that same authority “leaves its discretion equally unchecked in other areas, including the ability to identify and create exemptions from its own guidelines,” he said.

In dissent, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor said the court in the past has struck a balance in religious freedom cases, so that the beliefs of some do not overwhelm the rights of others.

“Today for the first time, the court casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests in its zeal to secure religious rights to the nth degree” and “leaves women workers to fend for themselves” in seeking contraceptive services, they said.

Women’s groups condemned the ruling. The National Women’s Law Center said more than 61 million women get birth control coverage through Obamacare.

“The Supreme Court’s decision will leave their ability to receive this critical coverage at the whim of their employers and universities,” the group said. “This decision will disproportionately harm low-wage workers, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others who already face barriers to care.”

Read the complete article here.

The Supreme Court just handed down some truly awful news for voting rights

From today’s Vox News Online:

The Supreme Court handed down two briefunsigned orders on Friday concerning what restrictions states may place on absentee voting during the coronavirus pandemic. Though neither order is a final judgment — one grants a temporary stay of a lower court decision, the other denies expedited review of an important voting rights case — the practical impact of both orders is that voters in Alabama and Texas will find it harder to cast a ballot during the pandemic.

The Texas order is particularly ominous because it suggests that Texas will be able to apply election rules that ensure older, Republican-leaning voters have an easy time casting a ballot — while younger voters could be forced to risk infection in order to vote.

The Alabama case

The Alabama case is Merrill v. People First of Alabama. Alabama law allows anyone to cast an absentee ballot during the pandemic, but it also imposes certain restrictions on those voters. Among other things, absentee voters must provide a copy of their photo ID, and their ballot must be signed by either two witnesses or one notary public.

A lower court blocked these restrictions “for voters who cannot safely obtain the signatures of two witnesses or a notary public due to the COVID-19 pandemic” and “for absentee voters who are over the age of 65 or disabled and who cannot safely obtain a copy of their photo ID due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” But the Supreme Court stayed that lower court decision — ensuring that, at the very least, the restrictions will be in place for Alabama’s July 14 runoff primary election.

Notably, the Supreme Court’s order in Merrill was joined only by the Court’s five Republicans. All four Democratic appointees dissented. Neither side explained why they voted the way they did.

The Texas case

The Texas case, meanwhile, is Texas Democratic Party v. Abbott, and the stakes in that case are simply enormous.

Texas law permits voters over the age of 65 to request absentee ballots without difficulty. But most voters under the age of 65 are not allowed to vote absentee. During a pandemic election, that means older voters — a demographic that has historically favored Republicans over Democrats — will have a fairly easy time participating in the November election. But younger voters will likely have to risk infection at an in-person polling site if they wish to cast a ballot.

This arrangement is difficult to square with the 26th Amendment, which provides that “the right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.”

The Court’s order in Texas Democratic Party is subtle, but it most likely means that Texas will be able to deny or abridge the right to vote on account of age, at least during the November election.

Last month, the conservative United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit blocked a trial judge’s order that would have allowed younger Texans to vote absentee. Although this Fifth Circuit order is not the appeals court’s last word on this case, it is quite unlikely that the plaintiffs in Texas Democratic Party will prevail before the Fifth Circuit, which is among the most conservative courts in the country.

So those plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court to hear their case on an expedited basis. On Friday, the Supreme Court denied that request. As a practical matter, writes SCOTUSBlog’s Amy Howe, this refusal to expedite the Texas Democratic Party case “all but eliminated the prospect that the justices will weigh in on the merits of that dispute before the 2020 election in November.”

Thus, even if the Supreme Court ultimately does decide that Texas’s age discrimination violates the 26th Amendment, that decision will almost certainly come too late to benefit anyone in November.

Read the complete article here.

Unemployment and job growth show strong improvement, but coronavirus darkens the outlook

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

The U.S. economy added a larger-than-expected 4.8 million jobs in June despite the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, registering solid gains for the second straight month after suffering near-Great Depression losses in the spring, the government reported Thursday.

Reflecting the June increase, the nation’s unemployment level fell to 11.1% after hitting 13.3% in May and 14.7% in April.

While the back-to-back months of improving numbers offered a spot of hope, they may be an uncertain guide to the future. Coronavirus cases, as well as hospitalizations and infections among younger Americans, have been exploding in California and other states across the West and South.

As a result, many areas that were reopening for business, and thus beginning to call back workers, are reversing course and imposing restrictions again. “This report may be a kind of high point,” said Heidi Shierholz, a former Labor Department chief economist now at the Economic Policy Institute.

California’s employment numbers for June will be released July 17, and are likely to mirror the national trend, albeit at a weaker pace. The state’s jobless rate for May was 16.3%, little changed from April, as job creation lagged somewhat. Unemployment in Los Angeles County was 20.9% in May.

Even with the June gains, joblessness overall remains higher than at any time since the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ records began in 1948. Jobless rates dropped across the board, but disparities remain significant. Black unemployment was 15.4% compared with 14.5% for Latinos, 13.8% for Asians and 10.1% for white people. Unemployment for college graduates was down to 6.9% versus 12.1% for workers with only a high school education.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said the overall unemployment rate for the nation might actually be 1 percentage point higher than the 11.1% reported due to complications in survey collection. Misclassification of workers’ status had resulted in a much bigger undercount of the unemployed in the prior two months.

Read the complete article here.

Employer-Based Health Care, Meet Massive Unemployment from Pandemic

From today’s New York Times:

In the early months of 2020, Americans were engaged in the perennial election-year debate over how best to reform the nation’s health care system. As usual, the electorate was torn and confused. Polling indicated that a small majority of likely voters favored a new universal system that would cover everyone. But that support evaporated when it was made clear that any such overhaul would involve abolishing the private insurance market. At the time, nearly 160 million Americans received their health benefits through an employer, and the vast majority of them liked that coverage just fine — maybe not enough to sing about it, but enough to be wary of a potential replacement.

Then came the pandemic of the century. And the highest level of unemployment since the Great Recession. And the most concentrated wave of job loss in the nation’s history — more than 40 million Americans filed new unemployment claims between mid-March and late May. It will take time to ascertain the full impact of those losses on the nation’s health insurance rate, but an early survey from the Commonwealth Fund is not encouraging: 41 percent of those who lost a job (or whose spouse lost a job) because of the pandemic relied on that job for health insurance; 20 percent of those people have not managed to secure alternative coverage.

Nothing illuminates the problems with an employer-based health care system quite like massive unemployment in the middle of a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease outbreak. For one thing, uninsured people are less likely to seek medical care, making this coronavirus that much more difficult to contain. Also, people with chronic or immune-compromising medical conditions are particularly susceptible to this new contagion — which means the people most in need of employer-sponsored health benefits are the same ones who can least afford to return to work at the moment.

“The pandemic has amplified all the vulnerabilities in our health care system,” says Drew Altman, president of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, including “the uninsured, racial disparities, the crisis of unmanaged chronic conditions and the general lack of national planning.”

As dire as the crisis is, though, it’s also an opportunity to look at health care reform with fresh eyes — and to maybe, finally, rebuild the nation’s health care system in a way that works for all Americans, not just the wealthy and the well employed.

The first step will be acknowledging the problems of our current system. If American health care were its own country, it would be the fourth largest in the world by gross domestic product. The nation spends an average of $3.5 trillion per year on health care — more than Japan, Germany, France, China, the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada, Brazil, Spain and Australia combined — and still loses more people to preventable and treatable medical conditions than any of those countries do.

In other words, America has created the most expensive, least effective health care system in the modern world, and the most vulnerable Americans have been paying for that failure with their lives since long before the coronavirus came to town.

Read the complete article here.

CA Initiative to restore voting rights to parolees heads to November ballot

From the Sacramento Bee:

Voters will decide this November whether to restore voting rights for Californians on parole after state lawmakers approved a proposal Wednesday to place that question on the ballot.

On a 28-9 initial vote, the state Senate sent Assembly Constitutional Amendment 6 to the Nov. 3 ballot, opening a possibility for more than 40,000 formerly incarcerated residents to regain their voting ability before they finish their probationary period.

State Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, said ACA 6 would allow people on parole to reintegrate into and become a “contributing member to society.”

“People on parole are our family members, our colleagues, our neighbors, our friends,” Bradford said. “They go to work every day. They pay taxes. They do their part to successfully reintegrate themselves back into society, yet the stigma exists for them.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there’s been an emerging trend to lift voting restrictions on formerly incarcerated people, though policy shifts vary by state.

Maine and Vermont allow both parolees and currently incarcerated people to vote, while 16 states and D.C. only prohibit voting for those currently serving a sentence. Twenty-one states, including both conservative and liberal regions, revoke those rights both incarcerated people and those on parole, and may require payment of fees or fines before regranting that right. Another 11 states ban formerly incarcerated people from voting “indefinitely,” according to the conference.

“The removal of the right to vote is not based in an interest in public safety,” said Taina Vargas-Edmond, executive director of Initiate Justice, an advocacy group sponsoring the bill. “Rather, it is rooted in a punitive justice belief system that intentionally attempts to rob marginalized people of their political power.”

Dozens of other organizations — many focused on racial equity — and individuals also support the measure, including California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, and the American Civil Liberties Union of California.

Read the complete article here.

How COVID-19 turned a spotlight on weak worker rights in the U.S.

From today’s Harvard Gazette:

As the economy reopens after the COVID-19 shutdowns, businesses are taking a varied, often patchwork approach to ensuring health and safety for their workers, and much uncertainty persists regarding employers’ obligations and employees’ rights. The Gazette spoke with labor law experts Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program, and Benjamin Sachs, the Kestnbaum Professor of Labor and Industry at Harvard Law School (HLS), about how the pandemic has turned a spotlight on the lack of clear workplace protections in general, and in particular for women and people of color, who were disproportionately represented among those deemed essential. Block and Sachs recently co-authored a report urging that U.S. labor law be rebuilt from the ground up. On June 24, they will release the report “Worker Power and Voice in the Pandemic Response.”

Q&A: SHARON BLOCK AND BENJAMIN SACHS

GAZETTE: What do you think the COVID-19 crisis has revealed about working conditions in the United States?

BLOCK: What it has revealed is something that many of us have known for a long time, but it’s been revealed in a much more urgent way, and it is how tattered our social safety net is in this country. That plays out in in a number of ways: for example, how inadequate our supports for workers are in terms of unemployment insurance. Just look at the desperate circumstances now more than 40 million workers have found themselves in. That’s been the reality for many low-wage workers, not on a mass scale, but that’s been their lived experience, even throughout a time when we thought we were in an expanding economy. The other side that has been exposed is that for workers who have been deemed essential and have worked throughout this crisis, how little protection they have in the workplace to be able to stand up for themselves, to say that their conditions are unsafe and they’re not being paid adequately for the important work they’re doing. On all sides of the social safety net and the ability of low-wage workers to have a decent life, what we’re seeing in myriad ways is how the system has failed workers.

SACHS: I would just add how weak the protections are for workers who stand up and demand safe, healthy, and fair working conditions, and how easy it is to fire workers who do that. It has also shown how badly broken our system of labor law is, which is to say that our system doesn’t give workers a voice so that the only recourse workers have is to take to the streets, and how little opportunity they have for an institutional structure of communication and demand-making. The other thing that Sharon and I would like to stress is how the crisis is being borne disproportionately by workers of color and women, which is another failing of our labor market and our system of labor law.

GAZETTE: Why are workers of color and women bearing the brunt of the coronavirus crisis? What role do the labor market and the labor law system play in it?

BLOCK: This is the result of the broken safety net we have. These are workers who are deemed essential, but the law has not treated as essential. They don’t have basic rights or the law doesn’t adequately address their situation. For lots of low-wage workers who are in these essential industries, the current labor law is particularly broken. They really have almost no real access to being able to act collectively and have the law recognize that and thereby give them power to affect their situation at work. As Ben said, they are predominantly workers of color and women, and that’s a big piece of why this pandemic has hit them so hard. We’re really seeing this connection that a lot of people intuitively knew, but hopefully more people understand now, which is that it is hard to separate economic issues and public health issues and issues of physical well-being. It’s not an accident that most people who are getting sick are poor or paid low wages.

Read the complete article here.

Why a Rotting Green Bay Boardwalk May Help Solve America’s Jobs Crisis

From today’s New York Times:

The governor of Pennsylvania wants to hire unemployed workers to help the state track the spread of the coronavirus in the fall. City Council members in Austin, Texas, voted to pay people to help with projects like preparing land for fire season. And Green Bay, Wis., hopes to pay the out-of-work to fix a decades-old rotted boardwalk in a major recreation area.

Across the country, state and local officials are considering ways to directly hire their out-of-work constituents, hoping that they can pay them to clean up parks, assist in conservation efforts and form the backbone of the public health response to the virus.

The programs so far are likely to allow for only a small number of jobs, in some cases just a handful. But local officials say they are hopeful the idea can persuade other areas to try similar efforts and, more important, elicit additional funding from Congress to support local job creation.

The effort is aimed at helping communities deal with an unemployment crisis more severe than what the nation faced at the worst moment of the Great Depression. Tens of million of workers have lost their jobs since mid-March, when the pandemic forced consumers into their homes and shut down most businesses. New unemployment claims have topped one million for 13 straight weeks.

So far, lawmakers and governors have mostly pushed for policies that will ensure Americans can go back to the jobs they held before the pandemic. The federal government allocated $660 billion for forgivable loans to businesses that agreed to keep workers on the payroll. Republican lawmakers have said they are interested in providing bonuses to people who return to work in lieu of extending expanded unemployment benefits, which are set to expire on July 31. And states have pushed to quickly reopen workplaces so that employees can regain a paycheck.

Read the complete article here.

Iowa’s GOP governor pledges to restore voting rights to some felons

From today’s Reuters News Service:

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds has committed to restoring voting rights to those with past felony convictions, according to a Radio Iowa report, potentially expanding the electorate in a state that could be competitive in the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Most U.S. states restrict voting for some people with felony convictions, but Iowa is the last state where felons are barred from voting even after serving their sentences, unless they successfully apply to the governor for restoration.

The rule disenfranchised 2.2% of Iowa’s voting-age population and 9.8% of African Americans in 2016, according to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that works on criminal justice.

Reynolds, a Republican, made the pledge on Tuesday, a day after she met with Black Lives Matter activists, who have held demonstrations in several Iowa cities since the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis last month.

Reynolds told reporters she was consulting with “various groups,” but would issue an executive order on voting rights for felons before the November election, Radio Iowa reported.

She did not go into detail about the terms of the order, and her office did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Earlier this month, Reynolds signed a bill that would require felons to pay financial damages owed as part of their sentence, as well as serving their prison time, before regaining the right to vote.

A similar rule on financial obligations in Florida was struck down by a federal court last month, after voting rights groups argued it constituted a poll tax. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has appealed the ruling.

Read the complete article here.

In landmark case, Supreme Court rules federal civil rights law protects LGBTQ workers from job discrimination

From today’s NBC News:

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that existing federal law forbids job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or transgender status, a major victory for advocates of gay rights and for the nascent transgender rights movement — and a surprising one from an increasingly conservative court.

By a vote of 6-3, the court said Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it illegal for employers to discriminate because of a person’s sex, among other factors, also covers sexual orientation and transgender status. It upheld rulings from lower courts that said sexual orientation discrimination was a form of sex discrimination.

Equally surprising was that the decision was written by President Donald Trump’s first Supreme Court appointee, Neil Gorsuch, who was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and the court’s four more liberal members to form a majority.

“An employer who fired an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex,” Gorsuch wrote for the court. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”

“Those who adopted the Civil Rights Act might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result,” he wrote, adding, “But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands. Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit.”

Across the nation, 21 states have their own laws prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Seven more provide that protection only to public employees. Those laws remain in force, but Monday’s ruling means federal law now provides similar protection for LGBTQ employees in the rest of the country.

Gay and transgender rights groups considered the case a highly significant one, even more important than the fight to get the right to marry, because nearly every LGBTQ adult has or needs a job. They conceded that sexual orientation was not on the minds of anyone in Congress when the civil rights law was passed. But they said when an employer fires a male employee for dating men, but not a female employee who dates men, that violates the law.

Read the complete article here.

In Fine Print, Airlines Make It Harder to Fight for Passenger Rights

From today’s New York Times:

As air travel reopens and flight bookings begin to creep up, AvGeeks — aviation geeks — and others may notice some new legalese in the fine print when they buy plane tickets. More and more carriers are adding clauses that require passengers to settle disputes with the airline in private arbitration, rather than in court, and bar passengers from starting or joining class-action lawsuits.

In early April, American Airlines updated its contract of carriage, a standard industry document that outlines the legal responsibilities of a ticket holder and an airline, with a class-action waiver. British Airways followed in late May, adding a class-action waiver and binding arbitration agreement in the terms and conditions of Executive Club, its loyalty program, for residents of the United States and Canada. British Airways notified members by email.

“What the airline is saying is: If you ever have a dispute with us, the only way you can pursue this is in private,” said Deborah Hensler, Ph.D., a professor of law at Stanford Law School. “These types of agreements are usually an effort to prevent people from having an effective way of challenging a company on what might arguably be a legal violation.”

The timing hardly seems coincidental. Airlines of all sizes are being sued for withholding billions of dollars from passengers whose flights were canceled because of Covid-19. American Airlines was named in a class-action lawsuit in April; a similar one was filed against British Airways in early May. Also in April, separate but similar class actions were filed against the low-cost carriers Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines, both of which had “No Class Action” clauses in their contracts of carriage before the coronavirus was declared a pandemic.

These lawsuits have more than 100 class members and seek more than $5 million in combined claims. All claim that the airlines are either breaching their own contracts of carriage — which usually codifies a passenger’s right to a cash refund when a flight is canceled — or sidestepping a Department of Transportation policy that requires airlines to give refunds when flights to, from or within the United States are canceled. Or both.

In a statement, a spokesman for American Airlines said the new class-action waiver is meant to “ensure that customers have an avenue to pursue and resolve disputes with us, including by filing an individual lawsuit. We remain committed to resolving issues customer-by-customer when they arise.”

Read the complete article here.