GM Strike 2019

 

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On September 15th, nearly 50,000 members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) launched a strike, walking out of over 50 General Motors facilities.  Workers say GM continues to deny employees’ demands for fair conditions and compensation despite leading the company to record profits following bankruptcy and a federal bailout.  The nearly 50,000 full-time and temporary workers represented by the UAW make up about half of its workforce.GM workers say they are pushing for a more equitable contract that will guarantee better wages for new hires, stronger health-care benefits and more job security. Workers are forgoing their paychecks during the strike, though the UAW will pay them $250 a week from its strike fund.

GM has made over $30 billion in the past six years, since recovering from its 2009 bankruptcy.  Although they received profit-sharing checks that totaled $52,500 for the same period, workers want pay raises that will show up year after year.  They gave up cost-of-living pay raises and made other concessions to keep the company afloat during its 2009 bankruptcy, and now they want to be repaid. Longtime workers have received only two raises since 2010.  Workers hired after 2007 still make less than older workers, and the union wants to erase that gap.

The company is facing a global auto sales slowdown and also says health care costs are too high, and it wants to cut labor costs so they are closer to U.S. factories owned by foreign competitors. Senior GM workers now make around $30 per hour, but with benefits, it adds up to $63 per hour.  Total labor costs run an average of $50 per hour at the foreign plants.  The car giant has moved to close a handful of production facilities in the United States in recent years despite strong profitability margins.  GM made $8.1 billion in profit after taxes last year but announced the closure of four factories, scuttling thousands of jobs.  GM says it has offered to make $7 billion in investments and create 5,400 jobs, including introducing electric trucks, opening a battery cell manufacturing site and investing in eight existing facilities.

The strike has effectively halted GM’s production in the US and just a day after the strike, GM responded with a letter announcing they had cut off health insurance for the nearly 50,000 people on picket lines across the country.  GM spokesman David Barnas said the decision to cut workers’ health care was a standard practice during stoppages, likening it to the cessation of worker paychecks.  A spokesperson for the UAW stated that they would cover the striker’s health-care fees under COBRA in the interim from the pool of money it keeps for strikes.  Employee dental and vision plans will not be covered during the strike.

The effects of the strike have been felt quickly, when GM dismissed 1,200 workers from an assembly plant in Ontario, Canada just three days after the strike started.  GM has said the temporary layoffs were the result of parts shortages in the United States because of the strike. The factory had produced full-size pickup trucks.  Analysts say GM could be losing as much as $50 million to $100 million a day from the stoppage.

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Felicity Huffman Sentenced In College Admissions Scandal

 

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U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani sentenced actress Felicity Huffman to two weeks in prison for paying $15,000 to get her daughter into college by having someone correct her answers on the SATs.  Huffman also received a $30,000 fine and 250 hours of community service.  She had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. Her lawyers asked for no jail time, one year of probation, 250 hours of community service and a $20,000 fine.  Her sentence likely means other parents who’ve pleaded guilty in the nation’s college admissions scandal will spend time behind bars. It could also mean that others who made significantly larger payments will end up with more lenient prison terms than prosecutors say are fair.

During Huffman’s sentence she told the courtroom she was deeply ashamed.  Judge Indira Talwani said, “Ultimately, you knew it was fraud, it was not an impulsive act.  Trying to be a good mother doesn’t excuse this.”  Talwani added that the sentence she handed down was “the right sentence here,” but also told Huffman “You can rebuild your life after this,” the judge said. “You’ve paid your dues.”  Huffman will report to prison in six weeks, on October 25. Where she’ll serve her sentence has not been announced and will ultimately be decided by the Bureau of Prisons.

Fifty-two people have been charged as part of the college admissions bribery scandal known as “Varsity Blues.”   Of the 52 people charged in the scandal, 35 are parents.  Fifteen, including Huffman, have pleaded guilty in deals with prosecutors, while 19, including actress Lori Loughlin, have pleaded not guilty and are preparing for trial.  Rick Singer, the mastermind of the nationwide college admissions scandal, was paid to have cheat on their children’s SAT or ACT while others paid substantially more to get their children falsely tagged as athletic recruits as a way into prestigious schools.  Huffman is the first parent to be sentenced and prosecutors sought one month prison time for Huffman.  Prosecutors are pushing for longer sentences for other defendants — more than three years in some cases.

The next parent to be sentenced in Boston federal court is Devin Sloane, CEO of Los Angeles-based waterTALENT.  He pleaded guilty to paying $250,000 to Singer’s sham nonprofit to falsely designate his son as a water polo player to gain acceptance into the University of Southern California. Prosecutors are seeking one year in prison for Sloane.  Sloane’s hearing is scheduling for September 24th.  Two days later, Stephen Semprevivo, a former executive at Cydcor, also based in Los Angeles, will be sentenced. He pleaded guilty to paying $400,000 to Singer to get his son admitted into Georgetown University as a fake tennis recruit.  Prosecutors have asked that Semprevio receive 15 months in prison.

Both upcoming cases will reveal whether the judge treats the recruiting scheme the same as the testing scam, and whether she comes down harder on parents who paid more to Singer.   Longer sentences could be in store for parents who participated in the recruitment scheme because it had a more “direct effect” on the admissions process than test tampering. Such parents, including Loughlin, accused of paying $500,000 to Singer, have argued they made “legitimate donations” to Singer’s nonprofit, which they said had a history of donating to colleges.

Prosecutors have argued parents who paid more money to Singer should receive longer prison terms.  An order by the judge released hours before Huffman’s sentencing could cap sentences at six months for parents regardless of their how much they paid.  Judge Talwani ruled against the government’s request to sentence defendants under the federal commercial bribery statute, which allows more severe sentences depending on the amount of money paid. Instead, all sentences will be based on fraud statute guidelines, which recommend six months or less in prison for the offense.

 

 

 

 

 

Sixth Vaping Death Prompts Congressional Hearing

 

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A 50-year-old Kansas woman became the sixth person in the USA to die of a vaping-related lung illness, an outbreak that has ramped up health concerns nationwide.  Kansas State Epidemiologist Farah Ahmed said in a statement that the unidentified patient had a history of underlying health issues and had been hospitalized with symptoms that progressed rapidly.  Dr. Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment said that the patient did have underlying health issues but nothing that would have foretold the fact that within a week after starting using e-cigarettes for the first time, she developed full-blown acute respiratory distress.  Doctors say it’s clear the vaping related lung illness is responsible for her rapid deterioration.

Kansas health officials noted six more cases associated with the outbreak, three patients confirmed with the illness and three cases under investigation.  Five previous vaping-related deaths were confirmed in California, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Oregon. After the Kansas fatality, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tallied six deaths and more than 450 possible cases of severe lung injury in 33 states and one jurisdiction.  The CDC confirmed that investigators narrowed their focus and that the additive vitamin E acetate is a chemical involved in many of the cases, but officials emphasized it is not in all of the cases being reviewed.

People with a history of vaping who experience lung injury symptoms should seek medical care, according to Kansas health officials.  Nationally, symptoms include shortness of breath, fever, cough, vomiting and diarrhea.  Other symptoms reported by some patients include headache, dizziness and chest pain.  Though many patients across the nation have been in their late teens, 20s or 30s, the Kansas death is a warning that older adults may be at particular risk.

Patients tend to arrive at the hospital short of breath and coughing. Many have also had fevers, general fatigue and gastrointestinal problems. It is not unusual for patients to be put into intensive care units, and on ventilators. All reported vaping nicotine, THC or a combination of the two in the days and weeks before falling ill.  The CDC has recommended people stay away from vaping devices while investigators work to pinpoint exactly what’s behind the illnesses.

The rapid and worrisome increase has now prompted a Congressional hearing on the matter, after a policy discussion on the matter.  The recent death has prompted the U.S. President to call for a ban on thousands of e-cigarette flavors in an effort to get people to give up e-cigarettes.  E-cigarette companies have been given years to gather and submit evidence their products are safe and effective ways to quit smoking traditional tobacco.  A federal judge has set a May 2020 deadline for companies to do so.

Dr. Norman said “God only knows what all is in there.  There should be a moratorium on the sale of these products until we know more.”  The American Lung Association also released a statement warning the public that e-cigarettes could cause irreversible lung damage.  “No one should use e-cigarettes or any other tobacco product,” Harold Wimmer, national president of the American Lung Association, wrote in the statement. “This message is even more urgent today following the increasing reports of vaping-related illnesses and deaths nationwide.”

7 Dead in Texas Shooting Spree

 

 

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A gunman killed seven people and injured 22 others on Saturday in the city of Odessa in western Texas.  Police have identified the gunman as 36-year-old Seth Ator and say he went on the rampage just hours after he was fired from his trucking job. Police say the massacre began after an officer pulled Ator over for failing to use a turn signal. He then reportedly opened fire using an AR-15-style weapon before speeding away. Soon after, he began shooting randomly at residents and motorists as he drove between the cities of Odessa and Midland.

During a press conference the day after the shooting, FBI special agent Christopher Combs identified the shooter and gave more details into the timeline of the shooting.  Combs said that Ator showed up to work enraged and was then fired from his job at Journey Oilfield Services.  Police say the firing led to both him and his employer calling the cops on each other because they were having a disagreement over the firing.  By the time police arrived to calm down the situation, the soon-to-be mass killer was gone.  Combs said 15 minutes later, Ator made a second call to the FBI national tip line.  “It was frankly rambling statements about some of the atrocities he felt he had gone through. He did not make a threat during that phone call. He ended that phone call. After that phone call, we initiated all of our law enforcement procedures trying to figure out who he was, where he was. Unfortunately, it was only 15 minutes before the trooper was engaged.”

The shooting spree began on Aug. 31st at 3:17 p.m. during a traffic stop on Interstate 20, where a Texas state trooper was shot while attempting to stop a Honda over a failure to signal a left turn.  Ator continued into Odessa, Texas, and shot another person on the Interstate.  In Odessa, he abandoned the Honda, hijacked a United States Postal Service truck, killing the postal worker and continued to drive and shoot people before police cornered him in a movie theater parking lot.  Ator was killed in the shootout with police in the parking lot of a Cinergy movie theater.  Ator killed seven people, ranging in age from 15 to 57.  Twenty-two others were hospitalized for injuries.  Among the injured are three police: a Texas state trooper, a Midland police officer, and an Odessa police officer. The youngest victim is a wounded 17-month-old child who is expected to recover.

The shooting spree lasted roughly an hour, with the gunmen shooting people at random as they walked through their front yards, walked through parking lots and went about their day.  Police say the gunmen drove in no particular pattern, doubling back from Odessa to Midland, spraying people with bullets as he drove.  During the frenzied hour, dispatchers and officers guided EMT to a growing number of locations as the calls kept coming in.  Ator’s vehicle switch only added to the confusion as the police in both communities scrambling to head to the scene of each call in hopes of stopping the shooter.  At one point during the chaos, officers believed they had two shooters due to the vehicle switch and multiple locations and officers requested that the Midland area be shut down immediately.

On September 1, the FBI said it was executing a search warrant at the suspect’s house, located about 20 minutes west of Odessa. Authorities say Ator lived alone, except for a small dog, in western Ector County in a metal shack that lacked electricity, plumbing, a floor and even furniture.  Police say in January 2014, Ator failed a national criminal background check when he tried to purchase a gun.  The system flagged him as ineligible because of a prior local court determination that he was mentally unfit.  According to law enforcement officials, Ator subsequently bought the gun used in the shooting via a private sale, without having to go through a background check.

A neighbor said that well before his killing spree he had yelled at her while carrying a big rifle. She also said he sometimes shot animals from his roof, about which she had complained to police, but they never responded to her complaint.  Police never visited Ator’s home because they couldn’t find the property on GPS maps.  Another neighbor said that her family had lived near Ator for the past five months and were afraid of him, due to his nighttime rabbit shooting and banging on their door early one morning.

All seven victims from the shooting have now been identified: 29-year-old Mary Granados, the postal worker who was killed when the gunman hijacked her postal truck; 57-year-old Rodolfo Arco was shot on his way home from work; 30-year-old Kameron brown was an army vet who served in Afghanistan; 40-year-old Joe Griffith, a resident in Odessa; 25-year-old Edwin Peregrino, a graduate of Perryton High School; 35-year-old Raul Garcia of El Paso and 15-year-old Leilah Hernandez who was shot outside of a car dealership.

 

 

 

 

 

34 Dead in California Diving Boat Fire

 

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The U.S. Coast Guard has recovered all but one body after a commercial diving boat named the Conception, caught fire in the early hours of Monday morning off the coast of Santa Cruz Island in Southern California. The only survivors were five crew members of the 75-foot vessel who were sleeping on or above deck.  All 33 passengers and one crew member sleeping below deck at the time of the fire were killed in horrific disaster.  Authorities have yet to determine the cause of the fire.

The boat and company, Truth Aquatics Inc., are well-known in the tight-knit Southern California diving community, which is now reeling from the horrific maritime tragedy that killed teenagers, families, veteran divers, and one crew member, who were wrapping up a three-day scuba diving trip.  Divers were inspecting the ship’s wreckage with plans to raise it from the ocean floor, but that process may be complicated by forecast high winds in the coming days.

The surviving crew members told a harrowing story of their frantic attempts to save the passengers trapped below deck in a bunk room already engulfed in flames.  One member of the crew told of hearing a noise from his bunk on the wheelhouse deck of the Conception and that when he opened the door of the wheelhouse, he saw flames erupting from the galley area but never heard smoke alarms.  He told investigators he tried to get down a ladder but flames had engulfed the ladder.

Scrambling, the other crew members jumped from the bridge of the boat to the main deck. One person broke their leg doing so. They then rushed to the galley’s double doors to try and reach the passengers below, but the fire was already too intense.

At around 3:15 a.m., the captain made a frantic mayday call to authorities, telling them that the boat was engulfed, 33 people couldn’t escape, and “there’s no escape hatch for any of the people on board.”  At that point, due to heat, flames, and smoke, the crew had to jump from the boat.  Two crew members swam to the back of the Conception to get the inflatable skiff, then collected the others and made it to a nearby fishing boat, the Grape Escape.

Shirley Hansen, owner of the Grape Escape, said that she and her husband awoke at 3:30 a.m. to “horrific pounding” and a group of distraught, wet men, some injured and just in their underwear.  Once on the Hansen’s boat, the men tried to call 911 for rescue and two crew members then took the dinghy boat back to the Conception to try and rescue any survivors but there were none.  The Hansen’s said you could hear explosions from the engulfed diving boat every couple of minutes.

Officials have been looking at the dive boat’s maintenance and inspection records, which the Coast Guard said were up to date, and trying to understand if the 34 victims who had been sleeping in rows of narrow bunks even had a chance to escape.  Officials are using advanced DNA technology to identify the victims.  None of the names of the dead, who ranged in age from 17 to 60, have been publicly released by authorities but friends and family have confirmed who was on the boat.  Among the victims were a family of five, a teacher and his daughter, and a diving instructor and marine biologist.

 

5th Death Linked to Vaping

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Five deaths in the US have been linked to vaping as health officials continue to grapple with the dangers of e-cigarette use and the exact cause of the deaths.  All five died after developing a severe lung illness that is believed to be linked to vaping.  The exact cause of the deaths and the dangers of vaping still remain unclear but are being investigated on both the federal and state level.

More than 450 possible cases of respiratory illnesses have been reported in 33 states after use of e-cigarette products, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  The average age of those with the illness is 19, which is not surprising considering of the almost 10 million vapers in the US, nearly half of those are under 35, with 18-24-year-olds the most regular users.

Those who have suffered from the lung illness reported experiencing coughing, chest pain or shortness of breath before their health deteriorated to the point of respiratory failure and they needed to be hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Respiratory failure is where your body either can’t break down oxygen, produce carbon dioxide, or both. The result is that your lungs stop working and breathing becomes difficult.  Other reported symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, fever and weight loss. Many victims have ended up with acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening condition in which fluid builds up in the lungs and prevents the oxygen people’s bodies need to function from circulating in the bloodstream.

Those affected used a number of different devices from vaporizers to smaller e-cigarettes and a variety of different brands of liquids and cartridges.  Health officials recently said many cases involved products that contained THC, the mind-altering substance in marijuana.  The FDA has now collected over 120 samples to test for different chemicals, including nicotine, cannabinoids, additives and pesticides.

They also recently identified a common contaminant in some of the cannabis products used by patients across the country — an oil derived from vitamin E.  It remains unclear whether this is the cause or one of the causes of the illnesses.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement that advised against using electronic cigarettes while it investigates the issue.   The agency also said people should stop buying vaporizers, cartridges and liquids off the street or modifying vaping products bought legally.

New York Health officials have focusing their investigation on Vitamin E acetate after they found high levels of it in nearly all of the cannabis-containing vapes tested.  At least one vape containing both cannabis and vitamin E has been linked to every patient who submitted products for testing, the New York health department said.  Vitamin E isn’t known to be harmful if ingested as a vitamin supplement, but it could be dangerous if inhaled because of its “oil-like” properties. It has not been approved as an additive for New York’s medical marijuana program.

Federal health officials are warning that vitamin E is likely only one piece of the puzzle. The CDC is running its own tests on more than 100 samples for vitamin E, pesticides, opioids, poisons and other toxins.  “No one substance or compound, including vitamin E acetate, has been identified in all the samples tested,” Zeller said. “The samples we’re continuing to evaluate show a mix of results.”

Judge Orders Johnson & Johnson To Pay $572 Million In Opioid Crisis

 

 

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Oklahoma Judge Thad Balkman has found that Johnson & Johnson helped fuel the state’s opioid crisis, and ordered the pharma giant to pay over half a billion dollars — $572 million. It’s the first major ruling against a drug company as part of the opioid epidemic, which has led to hundreds of thousands of overdose deaths around the country.  The decision is the first to hold a drugmaker culpable for the fallout of the liberal opioid dispensing that began in the late 1990s which led to a nationwide epidemic of overdose deaths and addiction.

More than 400,000 people in the US have died of overdoses from painkillers, heroin and illegal fentanyl since 1999.  In Oklahoma, more than 6,000 people have died of painkiller overdoses since 2000, the state charged in court papers, as the number of opioid prescriptions dispensed by pharmacies reached 479 every hour in 2017.  Johnson & Johnson’s products — a prescription opioid pill and a fentanyl skin patch sold by its subsidiary, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, were a small part of the painkillers consumed in Oklahoma.  Two other companies it owned had grown, processed and supplied 60 percent of the ingredients in painkillers sold by most drug companies in the US.

The decision has been hailed as a victory but the damages are much lower than the $17 billion Oklahoma had sought in the case.  Balkman did not give the state everything it sought, the state attorneys asked for $17.5 billion over 30 years for treatment, emergency care, law enforcement, social services and other addiction-related needs.  Judge Balkman concluded it would cost $572 million to address the crisis in the first year based on the state’s plan. He said the state did not provide “sufficient evidence” of the time and money needed to respond after that.

There are about 2,000 lawsuits in 40 other states against opioid manufacturers and distributors that are pending around the country.  A massive federal lawsuit brought by almost 2,000 cities, counties and Native American tribes is scheduled to begin in October.  The ruling in the first state case to go to trial could influence both sides’ strategies in the months and years to come.

Moments after the judge ruled, Johnson & Johnson, which has denied wrongdoing, said it would appeal. Company attorney Sabrina Strong said at a news conference, “We are disappointed and disagree with the judge’s decision. We believe it is flawed.  We have sympathy for those who suffer from opioid use disorder but Johnson & Johnson did not cause the opioid abuse crisis here in Oklahoma or anywhere in this country.”

Oklahoma settled in March with Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of OxyContin, accepting $270 million from the company and its owners, the Sackler family, who were not named as defendants in the lawsuit. Most of that will go to a treatment and research center at Oklahoma State University, although the federal government is seeking a portion of the money. In May, two days before the trial began, the state settled with Teva Pharmaceuticals, an Israeli-based manufacturer of generic drugs, for $85 million.  The Sackler family has also offered to settle the more than 2,000 lawsuits against them for their role in the opioid crisis for $10 billion to $12 billion which includes $3 billion from the Sackler family fortune. The deal was reportedly discussed last week by Purdue’s lawyers and includes a plan for Purdue to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy before restructuring into a for-profit “public benefit trust” that would allegedly serve the many plaintiffs suing the company. The Sackler family would also relinquish ownership of Purdue under the deal.