Categories
National News

McConnell unmoved on debt limit, risking turmoil for Biden

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration has been enlisting one emissary after another to convince Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to help raise the federal debt limit.
It’s not working.
Despite the high-level conversations, including a call from Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the GOP leader is digging in and playing political hardball. He’s telling all who will listen that it’s up to the Democrats, who have narrow control of Congress, to take the unpopular vote over federal borrowing on their own.
McConnell’s stance is deepening a political standoff and risking turbulence in the financial markets that could ripple into the broader economy. His refusal to rally Republican votes leaves Democrats with only tough choices as they rush to ensure the nation does not default on any of its accumulated debt, which now stands at $28.4 trillion.
President Joe Biden and the Democratic leaders, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, spoke late Thursday. The White House said after the call that keeping the government running and ensuring the full faith and credit of the United States are bipartisan responsibilities.
“Any suggestion by Republicans that they will shirk their responsibility is indefensible,” the White House said.
While there is little doubt the Democrats will be able to avert a crisis and vote to allow additional borrowing, the path ahead is uncertain and potentially treacherous.
“We are working, there are a number of different options,” Schumer told reporters earlier this week at the Capitol. “We will do it because its imperative to do it. And Leader McConnell, as I said, is playing dangerous political games by not stepping up to the plate.”
The showdown is sparking a fiscal battle that is reminiscent, but different, from those that have set Washington and Wall Street on edge at times over the past decade. Unlike the brinksmanship of past battles, this one is unique in that there is no deal to be brokered — McConnell simply will not participate.
Late Wednesday, McConnell warned Yellen he is not changing his mind. “The leader repeated to Secretary Yellen what he has said publicly since July,” said McConnell spokesman Doug Andres. “They will have to raise the debt ceiling on their own and they have the tools to do it.”
It was a similar situation Tuesday when Hank Paulson, who was Treasury secretary in the Bush administration, paid McConnell a visit at the Capitol.
Lawmakers appear to have only a few weeks to devise a plan for approving the federal government’s debt limit before the U.S. Treasury is forced to delay or miss payments.
Stocks and bonds have been relatively calm recently, indicating investors expect Washington will ultimately reach a deal on the debt ceiling. The S&P 500 remains within 2% of its record set two weeks ago, and prices in the bond market are moving more on reports about the economy and inflation. But the ride could get bumpier in coming weeks.
Because they’re seen as the world’s safest possible investments, U.S. Treasury bills and bonds form the bedrock for financial markets. So a default on the U.S. debt would quickly cascade through markets around the world.
Treasury spokeswoman Lily Adams said in statement Thursday, “Secretary Yellen will continue to talk to Republicans and Democrats about the critical need to swiftly address the debt ceiling in a bipartisan manner, to avoid the catastrophic economic consequences of default.”
The debt limit caps the amount of money Treasury can borrow to keep the government running and pay its debts.
Once a routine task in Congress that brought grumbling from lawmakers but not high-stakes opposition, votes to increase or suspend the debt ceiling are now often contentious.
The debt ceiling vote became a political weapon in 2011, wielded by a new class of tea party Republicans eager to confront the Obama administration as the debt load ballooned during the Great Recession. Prolonged and heated discussions during that crisis risked a federal default, a first in the modern era, but eventually a deal was brokered to begin to curtail spending levels.
Democrats note that on three occasions during President Donald Trump’s presidency, they worked with a Republican-controlled Senate and White House to suspend the borrowing limit. They are insisting that Republicans reciprocate and share in what can be a politically unpopular vote that allows the government to not only promptly pay its bills but also to take on more debt.
But in McConnell’s view, if Democrats are going to go it alone to push Biden’s $3.5 trillion budget plan through Congress, they can use their majority to shoulder the debt limit vote.
According to Andres, McConnell told Yellen, “This is a unified Democrat government, engaging in a partisan reckless tax and spending spree.”
An Associated Press analysis of data from the U.S. Treasury shows that nearly 98% of the nation’s $28.4 trillion debt predates Biden’s inauguration in January. That includes about $7.8 trillion heaped onto the pile during Trump’s four-year presidency.
One option would be for Democrats to force the issue by holding a debt ceiling vote either on its own as part of a must-pass bill to keep the government funded past Oct. 1 — and try to make McConnell and the Republicans blink.
It would take 60 votes in the evenly divided Senate, 50-50, to overcome a Republican filibuster, but it’s not at all clear McConnell or any other GOP senators would break ranks to join Democrats.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., predicted McConnell will hold firm. “I think he is like that Missouri mule that just sat down in the mud and is not going to budge.”
If Republicans refuse to help, Democrats may need to take the more cumbersome route of amending their $3.5 billion budget resolution to include the debt ceiling. That vote would need just 51 votes for approval, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to cast the tie-breaking vote.
Yellen has been using “extraordinary measures” to conserve cash. But once those measures and cash on hand are fully exhausted, the U.S. will have to rely on incoming receipts to pay its obligations, forcing the Treasury to delay or miss payments. Yellen has projected that moment will arrive sometime in October.

Categories
National News

Job market disconnect raises concerns over economic recovery

The gulf between record job openings and a lack of people taking those jobs is forcing Wall Street to reassess the pace of the economic recovery.
Jobs were gutted during the pandemic and employment growth has been a closely watched gauge for investors. Increasing employment eventually results in increased consumer spending, which is the biggest driver of economic growth. Without the former, analysts have said, it will take longer than expected for the economy to operate at some semblance of a pre-pandemic normal.
“That time horizon keeps getting extended,” said Rob Haworth, senior investment strategist at U.S. Bank Wealth Management.
The Labor Department has reported that job openings reached 10.9 million in July, the most on record dating to 2000. Yet, there were roughly 8.7 million people considered unemployed during that same month, which is the biggest gap of its kind between available jobs and the unemployed since the Labor Department started keeping track of job openings in 2000.
Typically, the gap is much wider the other way, with more people unemployed then there are job openings.
Rising COVID-19 cases are one of the biggest culprits driving the jobs divide. People are hesitant to head back to work because of health concerns as the highly contagious delta variant spreads, analysts have said. Many are also concerned about childcare as schools open for a new year with a high level of unpredictability because of the virus.
More than 22 million jobs were lost through March and April of 2020 when the pandemic prompted widespread business shutdowns. Roughly 16.8 million of those jobs have returned through July of 2021 in a seemingly swift recovery, but the employment crisis still remains more severe than the recessions of 1974, 1981, 1990 and 2001 were at their worst, according to Ross Mayfield, investment strategist at Baird.
“The developments in the labor market are among the more important in the world today,” Mayfield said, in a note to investors. “A lagging recovery will keep the Federal Reserve on the sidelines, but also limit economic growth.”
The Federal Reserve is also closely watching the recovery in the jobs market. The central bank has made it a priority to maintain its policy to keep interest rates low until it is satisfied with the jobs recovery. That has left investors torn between balancing the benefit of a sluggish jobs recovery that prolongs low interest rates with the damage to longer term growth if the economy continues struggling to make a full recovery.
The inability to get back to some semblance of a full staff means that many companies, particularly in the services sector, can’t take full advantage of increases in consumer demand. Hotels, for example, have trouble meeting any increase in demand if they don’t have the full staff to service paying guests.
The divide between job openings and people taking those jobs has also prompted companies to raise wages and offer bonuses. Those higher wages have raised concerns from analysts that wage inflation could add to already increasing inflation and crimp the broader recovery.
“Lots of firms are coming out and we’re starting to see some bearish forecasts,” said Katie Nixon, chief investment officer at Northern Trust Wealth Management. “We’re now seeing some strategists sort of take their foot off the accelerator.”

Categories
National News

Small agency, big job: Biden tasks OSHA with vaccine mandate

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t make many headlines. Charged with keeping America’s workplaces safe, it usually busies itself with tasks such as setting and enforcing standards for goggles, hardhats and ladders.
But President Joe Biden this month threw the tiny Labor Department agency into the raging national debate over federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The president directed OSHA to write a rule requiring employers with at least 100 workers to force employees to get vaccinated or produce weekly test results showing they are virus free.
The assignment is sure to test an understaffed agency that has struggled to defend its authority in court. And the legal challenges to Biden’s vaccine mandate will be unrelenting: Republican governors and others call it an egregious example of government overreach. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster vowed to fight the mandate “to the gates of hell.”
“There are going to be some long days and nights for the folks who are drafting this rule,” says labor lawyer Aaron Gelb, a partner in the Chicago office of Conn Maciel Carey. “It’s an interesting time to be an OSHA lawyer for sure.”
When Congress created OSHA 50 years ago to police workplace safety, 38 workers were dying on the job every day. Now that figure is closer to 15 — even though the American workforce is has more than doubled in the interim. OSHA writes rules designed to protect workers from dangers such as toxic chemicals, rickety scaffolding and cave-ins at construction sites.
“The hazard in this case is the infectious worker,” says epidemiologist David Michaels, OSHA director in the Obama administration. “This rule will tell employers: You have to take steps to make sure potentially infectious workers don’t come into the workplace.”
OSHA will use its power under a 1970 law to issue an expedited rule – called an “emergency temporary standard” or ETS — and bypass its own cumbersome rulemaking process, which typically takes nearly eight years from beginning to end, according to a 2012 study by the Government Accountability Office. To fast-track the rule, OSHA must show that it is acting to protect workers from a “grave danger.”
The mandate the White House announced this month will cover 80 million employees — nearly two-thirds of the private sector workforce. Employers that don’t comply could face penalties of up to $13,600 per violation.
Businesses are anxious to see how OSHA handles questions like: Which vaccines and tests are acceptable and which aren’t? How should employers handle requests from employees who seek exemptions on medical or religious grounds? Who’s going to pay for the testing? Some employers won’t be happy if they have to foot the bill for employees who refuse free vaccinations.
Once it’s out, the rule would take effect in 29 states where OSHA has jurisdiction, according to a primer by the law firm Fisher Phillips. Other states such as California and North Carolina that have their own federally approved workplace safety agencies would have up to 30 days to adopt equivalent measures. The OSHA rule would last six months, after which it must be replaced by a permanent measure.
“There are going to be legal challenges brought to whatever rule,” attorney Gelb said. “OSHA is going to really devote time and effort to drafting a rule that will survive those legal challenges.” He predicts the rule won’t be published in the Federal Register until November.
The agency is already often stretched thin. Even including what OSHA calls its “partners” at state workplace safety agencies, there are only 1,850 inspectors to oversee 130 million workers at 8 million workplaces. “It is not helpful to have a critical agency like this understaffed, particularly because of moments like this,” says Celine McNicholas, director of government affairs at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.
Until June, when it issued a COVID-related ETS covering the health care industry, OSHA hadn’t implemented an emergency rule since 1983. Overall, it has issued 10. But courts have overturned four and partially blocked a fifth, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Michaels, now a professor of public health at George Washington University, says the “grave danger” is obvious in a country battling a pandemic that has killed more than 650,000 Americans. “OSHA’s plan very clearly fits those requirements,” he says. “And I’m not worried about a court saying it doesn’t.”
Many employers may welcome the mandate. They wanted to require vaccines but feared alienating their workers who resist being coerced into getting inoculated. “Most employers in my view should greet this with relief,” says McNicholas, former special counsel at the National Labor Relations Board. “This gives them a roadmap of exactly what they need to do.”
Then again, at a time when companies are posting job openings faster than applicants can fill them, some big employers fear losing vaccine-resistant employees to smaller businesses that aren’t covered by the mandate. “It may actually help these smaller businesses who are struggling to attract employees,” says Nicholas Hulse, a Fisher Phillips labor lawyer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Hulse says the mandate is “going to be difficult to enforce.” OSHA, he says, likely will rely less on its own inspectors uncovering violations and more on complaints from insiders — workers who grow “frustrated either with the employer for not implementing it or with fellow employees who are not following the mandate.”
Former OSHA chief Michaels calls Biden’s mandate “a very good first step. But we need more.” He wants to see the rules expanded to smaller employers. “Until we stop this, losing hundreds of people every day to this disease, we’ll never get back to any sort of normalcy,” he says.
More than 175 million Americans are fully vaccinated. But 80 million of those eligible for inoculation haven’t yet received their first shot, the White House says.
The Biden administration is also requiring vaccinations for federal workers and contractors and for 17 million healthcare workers. Those initiatives plus the vaccination or testing mandate for big employers should add 12 million to the ranks of the vaccinated by March 2022, Goldman Sachs estimates.
“Most employers will voluntarily meet the standards because that’s what they do with all OSHA rules,” Michaels says. “Large employers in particular, they have (human resources) teams, they have attorneys who tell them: ‘This is what the law says and this is what we have to do’ … I think most employers are going to do the right thing here, and we’ll see very high levels of compliance pretty quickly.”

Categories
National News

GOP prosecutors threaten lawsuits over vaccine requirement

Two dozen Republican attorneys general warned the White House on Thursday of impending legal action if a proposed coronavirus vaccine requirement for as many as 100 million Americans goes into effect.
“Your plan is disastrous and counterproductive,” the prosecutors, led by Attorney General Alan Wilson of South Carolina, wrote in a letter sent to President Joe Biden. “If your Administration does not alter its course, the undersigned state Attorneys General will seek every available legal option to hold you accountable and uphold the rule of law.”
The letter is the latest GOP opposition to sweeping new federal vaccine requirements for private-sector employees, health care workers and federal contractors announced by Biden earlier this month. The requirement, to be enacted through a rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is part of an all-out effort to curb the surging COVID-19 delta variant.
The OSHA rule, which covers nearly two-thirds of the private sector workforce, would last six months, after which it must be replaced by a permanent measure. Employers that don’t comply could face penalties of up to $13,600 per violation.
Once it’s out, the rule would take effect in 29 states where OSHA has jurisdiction, according to a primer by the law firm Fisher Phillips. Other states like California and North Carolina that have their own federally approved workplace safety agencies would have up to 30 days to adopt equivalent measures.
Republican leaders — and some union chiefs, too — have said that Biden was going too far in trying to muscle private companies and workers. One of the first to speak out was Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina, who said on Twitter that his state would fight to “the gates of hell to protect the liberty and livelihood of every South Carolinian.”
Writing to Biden that the vaccine “edict is also illegal,” Wilson warned that courts have fully upheld only one of 10 emergency temporary OSHA standards in recent decades
The prosecutors also cautioned that the “edict is unlikely to win hearts and minds — it will simply drive further skepticism” over vaccines.
“Your vaccine mandate represents not only a threat to individual liberty, but a public health disaster that will displace vulnerable workers and exacerbate a nationwide hospital staffing crisis, with severe consequences for all Americans,” they write.
In lieu of vaccine or weekly testing requirements, the prosecutors proposed that some companies could have employees work remotely, rather than report in person.
In addition to Wilson in South Carolina, the letter was signed by attorneys general in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Categories
National News

NY governor vows to fight lawsuit over vaccine mandate

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York Gov. Kathy Hochul vowed this week to fight a lawsuit launched by a group of Christian health care practitioners who argue that New York’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for many health care workers is unconstitutional because it lacks a religious exemption.
A federal judge temporarily blocked the state Tuesday from enforcing any part of its mandate that prohibits religious exemptions for healthcare workers. The court will hold arguments in coming weeks.
The judge’s order means healthcare workers must still get vaccinated before Sept. 27 — but for now, they can ask for religious exemptions.
Hochul said Wednesday she’s not aware of any major religious group that has prohibited adherents from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Everyone from the Pope on down is encouraging people to get vaccinated,” she said, referring to Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
The nurses, doctors and other New York health care workers in the lawsuit say they don’t want to be forced to take any vaccine that employs aborted fetus cell lines in their testing, development or production.
Fetal cell lines were used during research and development of the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines, and during production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Thomas More Society senior counsel Stephen Crampton, who’s representing the anonymous group of nurses, doctors and other health care workers, said he’s confident the courts will find that people have a right to refuse the vaccine on religious grounds, even if they are part of a religious group that is endorsing the shots.
“My sincere religious convictions may not be 100% the same as the leader of my church or my denomination,” Crampton said. “And the law respects that and it should.”
New York has a long history of requiring health care workers to be immunized against diseases that pose a major public health threat, including measles, mumps and rubella. Schoolchildren are required to be vaccinated against many diseases, too.
The state doesn’t offer religious exemptions for vaccination requirements for schoolchildren or health care workers and has argued it isn’t obligated to do so for the COVID-19 vaccine, either. Courts have agreed states don’t have to offer a religious exemption for childhood immunization.
Students at colleges and universities, however, can be exempt from New York’s vaccine mandates if they hold “genuine and sincere religious beliefs which are contrary to the practices herein required.” New York also has a religious exemption for a requirement to vaccinate infants born to a mother with Hepatitis B.
The use of human cell lines is commonplace in the manufacture of vaccines including rubella, chickenpox, shingles and Hepatitis A. For decades, researchers have multiplied cells from a handful of legally aborted fetuses from the 1960s to produce human cell lines that provide cell cultures used to grow vaccines. Those cell lines are also used to make drugs treating rheumatoid arthritis and cystic fibrosis.
Religious leaders have disagreed over the issue: the Vatican issued guidance saying it’s morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines developed or tested using cell lines originating from aborted fetuses when alternative vaccines aren’t available.
When asked whether the health care practitioners have received other vaccines, Crampton said the group isn’t “anti-vax” in general.
Hochul, a Democrat, said getting vaccinated is the “most beautiful way” for individuals in healing professions to demonstrate their passion and concern for others.
Seven other states besides New York don’t offer a religious exemption for school and childcare immunization requirements, according to the Immunization Action Coalition. Some have removed exemptions in recent years over concern about outbreaks of once-contained diseases: Maine’s sweeping law removed both religious and personal belief exemptions.
The Thomas More Society is a national not-for-profit law firm that describes its mission as “restoring respect in law for life, family and religious liberty.” Last year, the law firm represented two Catholic priests and three Orthodox Jews who successfully overturned then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s attendance limits for houses of worship during the pandemic.
New York is now averaging around 5,200 new cases of COVID-19 per day, up from a low of around 300 per day in late June.
On Sunday, a federal judge in New York City rejected a similar lawsuit lodged by Long Island nurses who argued the lack of a religious exemption violated their constitutional rights.

Categories
National News

California recall could boost Newsom’s clout for 2022

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The recall election that once threatened to derail California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s political future has instead given it new life, offering a rare midterm vote of confidence that could fuel an ambitious legislative agenda featuring new coronavirus vaccine mandates, housing for the homeless and health insurance for people living in the country illegally.
Nearly 64% of voters in the recall election voted to keep Newsom in office, according to early returns, giving him a larger margin of victory so far compared to his 2018 election.
On Wednesday, one day after surviving the recall that a few months ago had him sweating, Newsom indicated he planned to go even bigger in 2022 as he heads into his reelection campaign.
“When you face a recall … it sharpens your focus about time,” Newsom said. “Things that you may have looked at on the horizon and said, ‘You know over the next two, three years, we want to get this done,’ you start looking very differently and say, ‘What’s possible in the next two to three months?'”
Newsom was not afraid to take big swings in his first term, often eschewing the moderate tendencies of some of his predecessors. While he hasn’t always satisfied the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party, he has relished governing what he calls a “nation state” given its status as the nation’s most populous.
In his first three years in office, Newsom signed legislation that allowed college athletes to get paid, gave free lunch to every public school student and issued executive orders aiming to ban the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035 and end all oil extraction in the state by 2045.
This year, he has already issued orders requiring all of the state’s roughly 2.2 million health care workers to get vaccinated to keep their jobs. He’s also required all state workers and public school teachers and staff to either get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.
President Joe Biden has already ordered large employers to require their workers be vaccinated. But some Democrats in California’s Legislature want to go further by applying that standard to companies with fewer than 100 employees and to schoolchildren old enough to be immunized.
State Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, a Democrat from Oakland who is preparing to introduce vaccine verification legislation, said the Newsom campaign didn’t hold back from saying “vaccine mandate” in campaign ads.
“And the voters responded to it. I see that, I think my fellow legislators see that,” she said. “We can’t be intimidated by a very small group that live in baseless conspiracy theories.”
Some local governments are already doing this. San Francisco requires proof of full vaccination for a host of indoor activities, including dining inside and visiting the gym. Los Angeles County will implement a similar policy for customers and workers at bars and nightclubs starting next month. The Los Angeles Unified School District will soon require all eligible students to be inoculated.
Newsom said Wednesday that he supports those decisions and urged other local governments to do the same thing but he’s satisfied with local rules right now, though he said there are “conversations” happening about a statewide vaccine mandate for public school students.
The pandemic has also intensified efforts to increase the number of people who have health insurance in California for primary and preventive care. The UC Berkeley Labor Center estimates nearly 3.2 million Californians won’t have health insurance next year, the largest percentage of them immigrants who are living in the country illegally.
Newsom’s budget this year offers government-funded health insurance to low-income adults 50 and over who are living in the country illegally, but some Democrats want him to expand coverage to all low-income adults, regardless of their immigration status.
“I believe this year was a significant down payment for us to work toward universal coverage,” said Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, a Democrat from Fresno who chairs the budget subcommittee that oversees health care spending.
Newsom indicated Wednesday that he plans to renew his focus on housing the homeless. He devoted his entire 2020 State of the State address to that issue, but the pandemic soon hit and quickly shifted his focus to public health. Still, Newsom pointed to his administration getting 6,000 housing units for the homeless online in only five-and-a-half months, a remarkable pace made possible by the urgency of the pandemic.
He added: “That’s now focused my energy to say what more can we do in that space with that same sense of urgency on climate change, on issues of affordability of housing?”
Advancing those issues will require reaching consensus among Democrats who dominate the state Legislature, a task that’s not as easy as California’s progressive reputation would suggest.
But Michael Bustamante, a Democratic consultant who worked for former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis during the recall campaign that led to his 2003 ouster, said Newsom should not hold back.
“When you have a near-death experience, it seems to me that people tend to become far more appreciative of the life that they have,” he said. Newsom “almost has nothing to lose and everything to gain by thinking big, by being aggressive.”

Categories
National News

Polis, 1st openly gay governor elected, marries in Colorado

BOULDER, Colo. (AP) — Colorado’s Jared Polis, who became the first openly gay man in the United States to be elected governor in 2018, has married his longtime partner and first gentleman Marlon Reis, a writer and animal welfare advocate.
Polis, 46, and Reis, 40, were married in a traditional Jewish ceremony attended by family and friends in Boulder on Wednesday, the governor’s office said. Rabbi Tirzah Firestone officiated.
They have been together for 18 years and have two children, a 7-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl. The family lives in Boulder.
Polis, a Democrat, and Reis were engaged in December as Reis was preparing to be hospitalized after contracting COVID-19. Reis was released from the hospital after two days. Polis also caught the coronavirus but had only mild symptoms.
“The greatest lesson we have learned over the past eighteen months is that life as we know it can change in an instant,” the couple said in a statement. “We are thankful for the health and wellbeing of our family and friends, and the opportunity to celebrate our life together as a married couple.”

Categories
National News

Body composting a ‘green’ alternative to burial, cremation

LAFAYETTE, Colo. (AP) — In a suburban Denver warehouse tucked between an auto repair shop and a computer recycling business, Seth Viddal is dealing with life and death.
He and one of his employees have built a “vessel” they hope will usher in a more environmentally friendly era of mortuary science that includes the natural organic reduction of human remains, also known as body composting.
“It’s a natural process where the body is returned to an elemental level over a short period of time,” said Viddal, who likened the practice to backyard composting of food scraps and yard waste. “This is the same process but done with a human body inside of a vessel, and in our case, in a controlled environment.”
On Sept. 7, Colorado became the second state after Washington to allow human body composting. Oregon will allow the practice beginning next July. In Washington, the three businesses licensed to compost human remains have transformed at least 85 bodies since the law took effect in May 2020, and more than 900 people have signed up for the service as natural funerals become more popular.
Viddal, who co-owns The Natural Funeral in Lafayette, lobbied the Colorado Legislature for the option and started building a prototype vessel in an industrial area soon after the bipartisan bill was signed into law.
Based on a design being used in Washington, the insulated wooden box is about 7 feet long (2 meters), 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep, lined with waterproof roofing material and packed with wood chips and straw. Two large spool wheels on either end allow it to be rolled across the floor, providing the oxygenation, agitation and absorption required for a body to compost.
Viddal calls the process an “exciting ecological option,” and in death, he also sees life.
“Composting itself is a very living function and it’s performed by living organisms. … There are billions of microbial, living things in our digestive tracts and just contained in our body. And when our one life ceases, the life of those microbes does not cease,” he said.
After about three months, the vessel is opened and the “soil” is filtered for medical devices like prosthetics, pacemakers or joint replacements. The remaining large bones are then pulverized and returned to the vessel for another three months of composting. Teeth are removed to prevent contamination from mercury in fillings.
The vessel must reach 131 degrees Fahrenheit (55 Celsius) for 72 continuous hours to kill any bacteria and pathogens. The high temperature occurs naturally during the breakdown of the body in an enclosed box.
In six months, the body, wood chips and straw will transform into enough soil to fill the bed of a pickup truck. Family members can keep the soil to spread in their yards, but Colorado law forbids selling it and using it commercially to grow food for human consumption and only allows licensed funeral homes and crematories to compost human bodies.
“It accomplishes the conversion of the body back into a very beneficial substance — soil, earth,” said Viddal, who envisions building more than 50 body composting vessels.
The Natural Funeral charges $7,900 for body composting, compared with $2,200 for flame cremation, and Viddal notes that a traditional burial and service in the Denver area can run well north of $10,000. The company has not yet composted any bodies, but several people have signed up and paid for the service.
AJ Killeen, 40, of Boulder, has already expressed interest in having his body composted when he dies, even though he is relatively young.
After a car accident a couple years ago, a doctor discovered Killeen had a heart condition. That got Killeen thinking about what would happen to his body after he dies, and composting seemed like a natural fit.
“It’s what’s going to happen anyway, right? I mean, we’re all going to turn to dust, basically. So this is just a little more natural,” he said. “They’re going to control the humidity. They’re going to control the soil amendments and hopefully some worms and some mushrooms find a good home in me for a few months. And, you know, at the other end of it, I’ll be just a few bags of dirt.”
Killeen, who manages commercial real estate, said his concern for the environment played a large role in considering the option. Flame cremation burns fossil fuels that can contribute to climate change, and the process also releases toxic, mercury-laden fumes into the atmosphere. Traditional burial takes up space in a cemetery that will use additional resources to keep the plot constantly watered and mowed.
“I always joke that I hope I expire on trash day if that’s just easier for my family,” said Killeen, who composts food scraps and yard waste through the city’s collection program.
Killeen is among a growing number of people considering more natural funeral options, especially since the pandemic began, and he thinks the option will become more accepted once people get over “the ick factor.”
The Colorado Catholic Conference, a group of bishops aimed at molding public policy, opposed the bill, saying body composting “does not promote human dignity.” Some rabbis also are against body composting because they say it violates Jewish religious law. Other opponents are concerned there is not enough research on whether the compost contaminates soil and there is no way to prevent people from using it in home vegetable gardens.
“We don’t know what they’re going to do with it if they take it all home,” said Stacey Kleinman, a board member of the Colorado Funeral Directors Association. They helped craft the legislation, but the group’s stance is neutral.
Even with the opposition, several states are considering the option as Americans become more open to afterlife alternatives.
According to a Choice Mutual Insurance Agency survey of 1,500 Americans this summer, when many were burying loved ones killed by the coronavirus, 21% said the pandemic changed how they want their body disposed of. Traditional burial and cremation remained the front-runners, but 11% said they would opt for burial involving natural decomposition without a casket. Only 4% said they would choose that option in a similar survey conducted in 2020.
Choice Mutual, which specializes in burial insurance, did not specifically ask about body composting, but the survey highlights an increased interest in more natural and environmentally friendly options.
Micah Truman, CEO and founder of Return Home south of Seattle, runs an 11,500-square-foot (1,068-square-meter) facility that includes 74 vessels. So far, his company has composted 16 bodies in what he describes as an “extremely precise scientific operation” that takes only 60 days.
Truman said that because the composting option is so new, “it’s really a matter of changing hearts and minds right now.” But he has been surprised by how many young people are interested, including someone who recently signed up their 8-year-old child.
“Our young people are going to teach us how to die better. It’s been really powerful for us,” Truman said. “I think what’s happened is that the younger generation really genuinely understands that we have to make sure that our Earth can stay whole.”

Categories
National News

Outbreaks strand some students at home with minimal learning

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Within his first week back at school after a year and a half, 7-year-old Ben Medlin was exposed to a classmate with COVID-19, and he was sent home, along with 7,000 other students in the district, for 14 days of quarantine.
Not much learning went on in Ben’s home.
On some days last week, the second-grader was given no work by his teachers. On others, he was done by 9:30 a.m., his daily assignments consisting of solving 10 math problems or punctuating four sentences, according to his mother.
“It was very much just thrown together and very, very, very easy work,” Kenan Medlin said.
As coronavirus outbreaks driven by the delta variant lead districts around the U.S. to abruptly shut down or send large numbers of children into quarantine at home, some students are getting minimal schooling.
Despite billions of dollars in federal money at their disposal to prepare for new outbreaks and develop contingency plans, some governors, education departments and local school boards have been caught flat-footed.
Also, some school systems have been handcuffed by state laws or policies aimed at keeping students in classrooms and strongly discouraging or restricting a return to remote learning.
The disruptions — and the risk that youngsters will fall further behind academically — have been unsettling for parents and educators alike.
The school board in Ben’s district in Union County, outside Charlotte, relented on Monday and voted to allow most of its quarantining students to return to the classroom as long as they aren’t known to be infected or have no symptoms. On Wednesday, the state’s top health official threatened legal action against the district unless it returns to stricter quarantine procedures.
Union County school officials said they are not offering virtual instruction but are contacting parents of affected children to help them line up tutors or other help for their youngsters. One in 6 students in the mask-optional district were quarantined last week.
In the rural district of Wellington, Kansas, students got a week off from schoolwork when a COVID-19 outbreak struck. Instead of going online, the district decided to add 10 minutes to each day to make up for the lost time when it reopened on Tuesday. Masks also are required now.
Districts in Kansas risk losing funding if they offer online or hybrid learning for more than 40 hours per student per year.
In Georgia, Ware County’s 6,000-student district halted schooling altogether for three weeks in mid-August. The district said it was unreasonable for teachers to have to offer virtual and in-person instruction at the same time. It also cited a lack of internet service in some rural areas.
In Missouri, the Board of Education rescinded a rule in July that allowed school districts to offer hybrid and remote instruction for months at a time. Districts that close entirely because of COVID-19 outbreaks, as eight small rural school systems have done this year, now are limited to 36 hours of alternative instruction, such as Zoom classes. After that, they have to make up the time later.
The U.S. Education Department said Tuesday that states and school districts should have policies to ensure continued access to “high-quality and rigorous learning” in the event COVID-19 cases keep students from attending school.
The Illinois State Board of Education recently passed a resolution forcing districts to make remote instruction available to quarantined students.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said laws restricting virtual instruction are short-sighted. She noted that some of these states have no mask or vaccine requirements either.
“It is just crazy because this is a pandemic still, and as much as we had all hoped that it would be over, delta has made clear that it is not over,” she said.
In North Carolina, state health officials in July eliminated the requirement that districts provide remote learning for quarantining students, saying virtual options are “not supported by current evidence or are no longer needed due to the lower rates of community transmission and increased rates of vaccination.”
In the meantime, parents are left with some difficult decisions to make.
Medlin on Thursday pulled her two children out of school and plans to home-school them as she did last year.
Emily Goss, another Union County parent, said she likewise is planning to home-school her 5-year-old kindergartener after he was put under quarantine six days into the school year with no remote learning option in place.
“He’s supposed to be playing outside, riding bikes and learning how to make new friends, and he’s wondering what’s going to happen to him. That’s not how childhood is supposed to be, and it’s just heartbreaking,” she said. “We can’t do this all year.”

Categories
National News

Study: Childhood obesity in U.S. accelerated during pandemic

NEW YORK (AP) — A new study ties the COVID-19 pandemic to an “alarming” increase in obesity in U.S. children and teenagers.
Childhood obesity has been increasing for decades, but the new work suggests an acceleration last year — especially in those who already were obese when the pandemic started.
The results signal a “profound increase in weight gain for kids” and are “substantial and alarming,” said one of the study’s authors, Dr. Alyson Goodman of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s also a sign of a vicious cycle. The pandemic appears to be worsening the nation’s longstanding obesity epidemic, and obesity can put people at risk for more severe illness after coronavirus infection.
The CDC on Thursday released the study, which is the largest yet to look at obesity trends during the pandemic.
It found:
—An estimated 22% of children and teens were obese last August, up from 19% a year earlier.
—Before the pandemic, children who were a healthy weight were gaining an average of 3.4 pounds a year. That rose to 5.4 pounds during the pandemic.
—For kids who were moderately obese, expected weight gain rose from 6.5 pounds a year before the pandemic to 12 pounds after the pandemic began.
—For severely obese kids, expected annual weight gain went from 8.8 pounds to 14.6 pounds.
The rate of obesity increased most dramatically in kids ages 6 to 11, who are more dependent on their parents and may have been more affected when schools suspended in-person classes, the researchers said.
The research was based on a review of the medical records of more than 432,000 kids and teens, ages of 2 to 19, who were weighed and measured at least twice before the pandemic and at least once early in the pandemic.
Some limitations: It only included children who got care before and during the pandemic, the researchers said. And it also did not offer a look at how obesity trends may have differed between racial and ethnic groups.
Earlier this week, the CDC said the number of states in which at least 35% of residents are obese increased last year by four.
Delaware, Iowa, Ohio and Texas joined the list. In 2019, there were 12 states — Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia.
Those results was based on surveys where adults described their own height and weight, and are not as accurate as medical records.