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Families Harmed By SoCal Gas Methane Leak Reach $1.8 Billion Settlement

From today’s NPR News Online:

Thousands of families sickened and forced from their Los Angeles homes after the nation’s largest-known natural gas leak have reached a settlement of up to $1.8 billion with a utility, attorneys said Monday.

The settlement with Southern California Gas Co. and its parent company, Sempra Energy, will compensate 35,000 plaintiffs from the 2015 blowout that took nearly four months to control.

The Aliso Canyon blowout led to the largest-known release of methane in U.S. history and was blamed for sickening thousands of residents who moved out of homes near the San Fernando Valley to escape a sulfurous stench and maladies including headaches, nausea and nose bleeds.

The plaintiffs alleged personal injury for their illnesses and property damage to their homes. SoCalGas spent more than $1 billion on the the blowout — with most going to temporarily relocate 8,000 families. The utility has faced more than 385 lawsuits on behalf of 48,000 people.

Plaintiffs alleged they suffered personal injury and property damage after a natural gas storage well failed and uncontrollably released nearly 100,000 tons of methane and other substances into the atmosphere over 118 days.

SoCalGas said it would record an after-tax charge of approximately $1.1 billion this month and expects total settlement payments of up to $1.85 billion. The agreement is subject to about 97% of plaintiffs accepting it and could be reduced if fewer agree.

Matt Pakucko, founder of Save Porter Ranch, issued a statement repeating his call for the permanent shutdown of the facility, where natural gas is stored beneath a mountain in vacant, old oil wells.

“You can’t put a price tag on human suffering,” he said. “SoCalGas’ devastating blowout will never be behind us until the Aliso Canyon storage facility is shut down and the danger it poses to the community is permanently eliminated. We are nowhere near a resolution.”

Read the complete story here.

How to Intervene When a Manager Is Gaslighting Their Employees

From today’s Harvard Business Review:

“We missed you at the leadership team meeting,” our executive vice president messaged me. “Your manager shared an excellent proposal. He said you weren’t available to present. Look forward to connecting soon.”

In our last one-on-one meeting, my manager had enthusiastically said that I, of course, should present the proposal I had labored over for weeks. I double-checked my inbox and texts for my requests to have that meeting invite sent to me. He had never responded. He went on to present the proposal without me.

Excluding me from meetings, keeping me off the list for company leadership programs, and telling me I was on track for a promotion — all while speaking negatively about my performance to his peers and senior leadership — were all red flags in my relationship with this manager. The gaslighting continued and intensified until the day I finally resigned.

Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where an individual tries to gain power and control over you. They will lie to you and intentionally set you up to fail. They will say and do things and later deny they ever happened. They will undermine you, manipulate you, and convince you that you are the problem. As in my case, at work, the “they” is often a manager who will abuse their position of power to gaslight their employees.

Organizations of all sizes are racing to develop their leaders, spending over $370 billion a year globally on leadership training. Yet research shows that almost 30% of bosses are toxic. Leadership training is only part of the solution — we need leaders to act and hold the managers who report to them accountable when they see gaslighting in action. Here are five things leaders can do when they suspect their managers are gaslighting employees.

Read the complete story here.

Texas Sues Biden Administration Over Transgender Worker Rights

From today’s Forbes Online:

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration on Monday, seeking to block enforcement of guidance focused on transgender workers and employment discrimination, which was released by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) last year, arguing that it is “unlawful” and “increases the scope of liability for all employers.”

The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court Northern District of Texas against Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chair Charlotte Burrows and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.

Paxton claims in the lawsuit that the EEOC violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which came under scrutiny in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year, Bostock v. Clayton County, in which the court found that Title VII protects employees against discrimination because they are gay or transgender, according to the Texas Tribune.

The EEOC guidance, released in June following that ruling, said that employers couldn’t stop employees from dressing according to their gender identity and transgender employees couldn’t be denied from entering bathrooms, locker rooms or showers that correspond with their gender identity, according to The Hill.

Paxton said in the lawsuit that the guidance “misstates the law, increasing the scope of liability for the State in its capacity as an employer” and “allows private individuals to sue their employers for violating EEOC’s interpretation of Title VII.”

Read the complete story here.

North Carolina voting rights ruling offers model of anti-racist jurisprudence

From today’s The Hill Online:

Last Friday a divided, three-judge panel of the North Carolina Superior Court handed a small victory to groups determined to protect voting rights. These rights are being eroded by state laws under the deceptive label of protecting “election integrity.” The court struck down North Carolina’s voter identification law because it had a disproportionate impact on minority groups and would make it harder for Black people to vote.

In so doing, it offered an example of the important role state courts can play in an era when conservatives dominate the federal judiciary. More important, it offered a model of anti-racist jurisprudence.

The court’s decision resurrected an older and often demeaned theory of discrimination and gave the lie to the United State Supreme Court’s recently expressed view that voter identification requirements are nothing more than “mere inconveniences” inevitably associated with any voting scheme.

It echoed Justice Elena Kagan’s argument that “racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history. Indeed, the problem of voting discrimination has become worse …Weaken the Voting Rights Act, and predictable consequences follow: yet a further generation of voter suppression laws.”

The North Carolina voter identification law proves the accuracy of Kagan’s prediction: The weakening of the Voting Rights Act has allowed voter suppression laws to flourish.

Indeed, the Supreme Court has provided what The New Republic’s Matt Ford calls “a blank check for Republican state lawmakers: So long as they invoke voter fraud and don’t say anything too egregious, the Supreme Court will have their back.”

Moreover, the court has erected procedural and evidentiary hurdles that make it harder to challenge those Republican efforts.

As law professor Jamelia Morgan explains, federal court voting rights decisions have demonstrated “increasing reluctance to accept circumstantial evidence of discriminatory intent. Stated differently, these courts have declined to draw the inference that the challenged electoral policy or practice, when combined with historical and social factors, deprive minority individuals of the right to vote on account of race, and in some cases have required an evidentiary showing amounting to express discriminatory intent.”

Fortunately, the North Carolina court took a different path, insisting that what it called a “sensitive inquiry into such circumstantial and direct evidence of intent” is precisely what is required in the highly charged area of voting rights.

Read the complete story here.

New rules on extreme heat means more air conditioning and breaks for workers

From today’s Business Insider:

The Biden administration announced Monday that it is beginning work on a new workplace regulation to address safety during extreme heat events, a process that will likely take years to move through the slow-churning federal bureaucracy, but could eventually impact millions of people who must work in increasingly high temperatures.

In practical terms, a federal heat workplace standard — as sought for years now by organized labor and Democratic legislators — could change day-to-day life for people who work not just outside, on farms and on construction sites, but in warehouses shipping goods for online shoppers. Employers could be required to offer more shade and more air conditioning, as well as additional breaks and opportunities to hydrate.

Since 2010, at least 384 people have died from extreme heat exposure on the job, according to a recent report by NPR and Columbia Journalism Investigations. Over the past 30 years, the rate of heat-related worker deaths has doubled.

It’s only getting worse. This summer was the hottest on record, and it was lethal. At a farm in Oregon, Sebastian Francisco Perez, a 38-year-old migrant worker who had just come from Guatemala, was found lying in a field, motionless, at the end of his shift. It was 107 degrees that day.

Despite the rising death toll, there is currently no federal regulation that deals specifically with threats to worker safety posed by heat. In October, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will initiate a process that aims to change that. 

“Rising temperatures pose an imminent threat to millions of American workers exposed to the elements,” President Joe Biden said in a statement announcing an “all-of-government effort to protect workers” and others from extreme heat.

Read the complete story here.

How Democrats could actually pass “For the People” voting rights bill

From today’s The Guardian Online:

The bill, the Freedom to Vote Act, has been described as a “compromise”, hashed out over the summer by a group of Senate Democrats after Republicans filibustered an earlier version of it. But while the bill does get rid of some key things from the initial version, it still is pretty expansive. It would require states to offer at least 15 days of early voting, along with same-day registration, as well as automatic and online registration. It would enshrine new protections for local election officials and poll workers amid growing concerns about intimidation and partisan interference in their work. And it sets new criteria that states have to follow when they draw electoral districts to curb the practice of severely manipulating districts for partisan gain.

We’ve been here before. It’s no secret that the bill is probably dead on arrival in the US Senate as long as the filibuster, the rule that requires 60 votes to advance legislation, remains in place. A handful of Democrats, led by Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have vocally supported keeping the measure in place.

As I read through the cascade of statements praising the new bill, I was struck by how many of them coupled their enthusiasm with calls to eliminate the filibuster. It was a grim recognition of the quagmire Democrats have confronted since taking control of Congress in January: voting reform is impossible while the filibuster is in place.

Despite the huge obstacle that the filibuster still poses, I do think this new bill is significant. First, it shows that Democrats aren’t willing to let voting reform go; by coming back so quickly with a new bill, they’re signaling that they are prepared to force a fight over the filibuster.

Second, Democrats are showing Republicans that they are willing to make concessions in their signature piece of legislation. They dropped a provision from the earlier version that would have required officials to send absentee ballot applications to all registered voters. They also got rid of a provision that would have required every state to set up independent commissions to draw districts. The new legislation also allows states to require identification to vote while also setting up a process for people who lack ID to vote. These will all up the ante on Republicans to negotiate in good faith.

Third, it’s significant that Manchin played an active role in crafting the bill and is now the one shopping it around to get Republican support. That support seems unlikely (“It is a solution in search of a problem, and we will not be supporting that,” Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, said on Tuesday). If Manchin is unable to personally persuade Republicans to sign on, despite the concessions from Democrats, it will only increase pressure on him to revise his stance on the filibuster.

Joe Biden also has indicated a new willingness to pressure reluctant Democrats on their filibuster position.

Read the complete story here.

CFPB Finds That Income Share Agreements Are Credit Products

From today’s Mondaq News Online:

On September 7, 2021, the CFPB announced that it had entered into a  consent order with an education finance nonprofit (“nonprofit”) in connection with the nonprofit’s offering of income share agreements (“ISAs”). In the consent order, the CFPB asserted that ISAs are extensions of credit covered by the Consumer Financial Protection Act and the Truth in Lending Act (“TILA”) as well as TILA’s requirements with respect to “private education loans.” Because the CFPB asserts in the consent order that it views the nonprofit’s ISAs as credit, the CFPB takes the position that they are also subject to numerous other federal consumer financial protection laws that impose requirements and restrictions on student loan products. This consent order has significant implications for those in the ISA market, as it indicates how the CFPB views re-characterization for ISAs and similar products.

Most ISAs are agreements under which students are provided education funding on the condition that the student pay an agreed-upon percentage of the student’s future income over a defined, post-graduation timeframe. Many ISAs do not require customers to pay anything until their income exceeds a contractually defined floor. A percentage of income exceeding that floor is paid to the ISA provider as an investment return-potentially subject to a cap on overall payments depending on the terms of the specific ISA at issue. Under many common ISA structures, it is conceivable that some customers ultimately will pay nothing in the defined, post-graduation timeframe and, therefore, will see the ISA expire without any payment obligation; other customers will pay an amount less than the funding originally provided; and a final set of customers will pay amounts exceeding the original funding (though, as noted, frequently subject to a total payment cap). While most ISAs provide educational funding, similar products exist to provide funding to consumers, small businesses, and even professional athletes.

Given their structure, ISA providers have generally taken the position that ISAs are not credit and, therefore, are not subject to the requirements of many federal consumer financial protection laws. With this settlement, the CFPB appears to reject that position. The consent order summarily states that the nonprofit’s “ISAs are credit under the CFPA because they grant consumers the right ‘to defer payment of a debt, incur debt and defer its payment, or purchase property or services and defer payment for such purchase.'” In a statement on the settlement, Acting CFPB Director Dave Uejio said, “[t]he ISA industry has tried to evade oversight by claiming that its products are not loans . . . [b]ut regardless of the name on the label, these products are credit and have to comply with federal consumer protections. The ISA industry cannot pretend that core consumer protection laws do not apply to their products.”

Read the complete story here.

California steps into national fight over ballot restrictions, voting rights

From today’s San Diego Union-Tribune:

Earlier this year, state Sen. Tom Umberg pointed to an often-overlooked confluence of events amid discussion about California’s efforts to make it easier to vote in 2020 — something typically thought to favor Democrats.

“Democrats lost four seats (in Congress) this past election and we had the highest voter turnout since 1952,” the Santa Ana Democrat said. “I think more people voting, irrespective of what happened to Democrats, is a good thing for democracy.”

Lots of Republicans in other state legislatures aren’t buying that and launched a methodical drive to restrict voting access not long after the 2020 votes were officially tallied — along with seeking to overturn the results in some states where then-President Donald Trump lost.

There are a lot of reasons why Republicans gained some California congressional seats last year, just as there were when they lost several in 2018. How much — or how little — California’s voting rules had to do with that is open to debate. But greater access didn’t seem to hinder them.

Umberg’s comments came in February as the Legislature was passing his bill to extend last year’s California vote-by-mail system to special elections this year, which includes the Sept. 14 recall election for Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The bill was drafted long before it was certain the recall would qualify and there already were two other special elections scheduled to fill legislative vacancies, according to The Associated Press.

Several states expanded the use of mail ballots last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, including some that sent a ballot to every registered voter whether they requested it or not, as California did. That was opposed by Trump and many Republicans, contending it was designed to boost Democratic prospects.

Regardless, the mail-ballot system was widely viewed as a success last year, not just because of turnout, but because it gave everyone an automatic option to skip voting in person during the coronavirus pandemic. There were still polling places available and opportunities for early voting in addition to the mail ballots. That will be the case next month.

In February, the COVID-19 outbreak was lingering, but appeared to be winding down when the Umberg bill was passed. Now the action seems prescient, given the pandemic resurgence with the Delta variant.

California is such a blue state that Democrats would seem certain to dominate regardless of how accessible voting is here. The national balance of power lies mostly in red states where political and demographic trends aren’t favoring the GOP, such as Georgia. And those are the states where voting laws are becoming more restrictive.

California’s accessible mode of voting may not be threatened, but the state is entering the fight over restrictive laws elsewhere. On Monday, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced he was joining nearly two dozen other attorneys general in filing an amicus brief supporting a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit challenging a new Georgia law passed as Senate Bill 202.

Read the complete story here.

Families Of Undocumented Workers Lost On 9/11 Search For Closure

From today’s NPR News Online:

For a brief moment, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Teresa Garcia thought she’d seen a ghost.

She was in her office in midtown Manhattan, watching the news of the attacks on the World Trade Center, when he walked in.

“He was covered with dust. All white dust. And we couldn’t even recognize him,” Garcia says, recalling that day. “But he talked to my coworker and he said ‘Esperanza.’ And she said, ‘Chino, is that you?’ “

Garcia works at Asociacion Tepeyac de New York, a non-profit that assists mostly Latino immigrants with English language skills, legal aid and tax assistance.

The man who walked in, Chino, was an undocumented immigrant. Garcia is using only nickname to protect his identity. He had been heading over to start his shift at a restaurant at one of the towers, when the first plane hit. In shock, he made his way to Asociacion Tepeyac, to see Garcia and her colleague Esperanza Chacon.

“He came over to her (Esperanza),” Garcias says, “and he embraced her, and they started crying.”

Little by little, dozens of workers started filing into Tepeyac’s offices, looking for comfort among friends. But what stood out were those who were missing, their friends who worked as cooks and cleaners, at or near the World Trade Center.

The workers who’d gathered at Tepeyac started compiling a list, which in the next few days grew to 700 missing people. Almost all immigrants, many undocumented.

That list was important. In order to get financial or medical aid, New Yorkers or their families had to prove they worked at or near ground zero and that they were affected by the attack. Knowing who was there also would allow families to mourn, to bring closure.

Read the complete story here.

Pres. Biden to require federal workers and contractors to get vaccinated

From today’s New York Times:

President Biden on Thursday will sign executive orders requiring the vast majority of federal workers and contractors who do business with the government to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. They are part of an aggressive new plan that will also put pressure on private businesses, states and schools to enact stricter vaccination and testing policies as the Delta variant continues its spread across the United States.

The mandate will apply to employees of the executive branch, including the White House and all federal agencies and members of the armed services — a work force that numbers more than four million — but not to those who work for Congress or the federal court system, according to a person familiar with the plan.

The spread of the highly infectious variant had pushed the country’s daily average caseload over 150,000 for the first time since late January, overwhelming hospitals in hard-hit areas and killing roughly 1,500 people a day. The surge has alarmed Mr. Biden and his top health advisers, who see mass vaccination as the only way to bring the pandemic under control.

Mr. Biden, who was briefed by his team of coronavirus advisers on Wednesday afternoon, is set to deliver a speech at 5 p.m. Eastern that will address about six areas where his administration can encourage — or, at this point, push — more eligible Americans to receive vaccines.

Mr. Biden had already pushed federal workers to get vaccinated by announcing that those who refused would have to undergo regular coronavirus testing. But the surge, coupled with last month’s decision by the Food and Drug Administration to grant full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to those 16 and older, has made him decide to take more aggressive steps, eliminating the option of testing, the officials said.

At least one federal workers’ union has already indicated that the new requirements should be subject to the bargaining process. On Thursday, the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal-worker union, stopped short of offering full-throated support for Mr. Biden’s plan.

“Put simply, workers deserve a voice in their working conditions,” Everett Kelley, the union’s president, said in a statement. We expect to bargain over this change prior to implementation, and we urge everyone who is able to get vaccinated as soon as they can do so.”

Read the complete story here.