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‘The last thing we need right now’: States, cities hemorrhage jobs

“These layoffs are happening as we speak,” Murphy said. “It’s not theoretical.”

Many of these municipal and state layoffs are disproportionately affecting black Americans, adding pressure on Congress to act as protests over racism and police brutality roil the country. The public sector employs a higher proportion of black workers than other U.S. industries do, and its decline explains in part Friday’s jobs report, which showed that while the unemployment rate declined overall, it continued to tick upward for black workers.

“African Americans tend to have those kinds of jobs that are the service jobs where they’re going into work and risking their lives every single day, and then going back home and risking their families’ lives,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union. The government “has historically been one of the most dependable employers of African Americans.”

“So those who are getting laid off disproportionately are African American, and they’re going to be hurt the most.”

Congress allocated $150 billion to state and local governments under the CARES Act in March, but officials were restricted in how they could spend it, permitted to use it only for coronavirus-related costs rather than to cover budget shortfalls due to a loss of tax and fee revenue. The National Governors Association, composed of both Democrats and Republicans, has for two months now been calling for an additional $500 billion in flexible aid and for a loosening of restrictions on the CARES Act funding, but lawmakers have yet to act.

House Democrats set aside at least $915 billion in state and local aid in the HEROES Act they passed in mid-May, only for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to dismiss it as a “laundry list of pet priorities.” More recently, McConnell told Fox News his chamber “may later do more” to help states by allocating aid but that he wants to wait and see how things are looking after more of them begin to open up. Some conservative lawmakers have made clear they have no interest in providing further aid, arguing that would simply reward primarily Democratic-led states that have, in their minds, mismanaged their budgets.

“We’re just seeing so much incompetence in blue state management, it’s going to be hard to make the case to any Republican that for some reason people in Utah should pay for Bill de Blasio’s incompetence,” said Stephen Moore, a conservative economist and outside adviser to the White House, referring to the mayor of New York City. He advocated instead for states to quickly reopen their doors so they can start collecting tax revenue.

In the meantime, negotiations on the Hill are essentially at a standstill.

“There’s no serious conversation happening,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who serves on the Appropriations Committee, said of state and local aid. “There should be, but Senate Republicans are slow-walking this process.”

“Maybe they’re trying to figure out what they want,” he added. “There doesn’t seem to be any consensus.”

Governors and mayors are urging Congress not to delay sending aid that is sorely needed. “The timeline is now,” said Teryn Zmuda, chief economist at the National Association of Counties.

Should layoffs continue on their current trajectory, they could lead to a dramatic cutback of essential services at a time when they are in greater demand than ever.

“You will see disaster occur if in fact there are continued layoffs in the public sector,” Saunders said, listing health, education and sanitation services as some that will see major cutbacks without additional aid.

And in many cases, the populations benefiting from those services are communities of color that the pandemic has already hit hardest.

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Pelosi Calls For Confederate Statues to be Removed From Halls of Congress

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on Wednesday called for the removal of Confederate statues from the halls of Congress.

The radical left wants to erase our history.

There is also a campaign to rename the military bases as radical leftists toppled statues in their push for a Marxist revolution.

Now Pelosi is pushing to remove nearly a half a dozen Confederate statues to be removed from the Capitol.

TRENDING: Antifa Releases List of Demands After Taking Over 6 Square Block Section in Seattle and Setting Up Armed Security Watch — List Includes Reparations and Ending Police Dept.

ABC News reported:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Wednesday called for the removal of nearly a dozen Confederate statues from the halls of Congress, throwing her weight behind efforts to take down the figures linked to racism and the Confederacy following the death of George Floyd.

In a new letter to the Joint Committee on the Library, a House-Senate panel that manages the National Statuary Hall Collection, Pelosi asked Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., to direct the Architect of the Capitol to “immediately” start removing 11 statues of men associated with the Confederacy from display in the Capitol complex.

The Confederate statues are displayed across the Capitol. Five figures, including statues of Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, the president and vice president of the Confederacy, are on display in Statuary Hall, on the House side of the Capitol. The other six Confederate statues stand in parts of the complex shared by both chambers.

“While I believe it is imperative that we never forget our history lest we repeat it, I also believe that there is no room for celebrating the violent bigotry of the men of the Confederacy in the hallowed halls of the United States Capitol or places of honor across the country,” Pelosi said in a letter obtained exclusively by ABC News.

“The statues in the Capitol should embody our highest ideals as Americans, expressing who we are and who we aspire to be as a nation,” Pelosi wrote on Wednesday. “Monuments to men who advocated cruelty and barbarism to achieve such a plainly racist end are a grotesque affront to these ideals.”

The Democrats unsuccessfully tried to remove the statues back in 2017 when they were in the minority.

The Democrats plant to introduce legislation to have the statues removed from the Capitol and sent to the Smithsonian — or sent back to the states that commissioned them.

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Trump to resume campaign rallies with June 19 event in Tulsa

The Tulsa rally next week will be held on Juneteenth, a national commemoration of the end of slavery in the U.S.

Trump’s last campaign rally was on March 2 in Charlotte, N.C. For the past three months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended against large gatherings of people, hindering the Trump campaign’s desire to hold events filled with dedicated supporters of the president.

POLITICO reported earlier this week that Trump advisers believe that the recent mass protests against police brutality in cities across the country will make it harder for liberals to criticize Trump rallies taking place.

The president did not mention any safety precautions or restrictions that the campaign would take during the upcoming events.

The resumption of Trump rallies contrasts with former Vice President Joe Biden’s approach to campaigning. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has largely been confined to his Delaware home during the pandemic.

Since Memorial Day, Biden has exited his home more frequently, notably visiting protests in Wilmington, Del., and delivering a speech on race relations in Philadelphia. He also traveled to Houston on Monday to visit with the family of George Floyd, the African American man whose death at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis has led to the recent protests.

Biden is opening up a substantial lead on Trump in national polling, with the former vice president leading by an average of more than 8 percentage points, according to RealClear Politics.

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Former federal judge says push to dismiss Flynn case is abuse of power – The Denver Post

WASHINGTON — A former federal judge appointed to review the Justice Department’s motion to dismiss criminal charges against President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn said there was evidence of a “gross abuse” of prosecutorial power and that the request should be denied.

Former U.S. District Judge John Gleeson said in a filing Wednesday that the government “has engaged in highly irregular conduct to benefit a political ally of the President.” He urged the judge handling the case to deny the motion and argued that Flynn had committed perjury.

Gleeson was appointed by U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in a special role to weigh in on the case, but it will ultimately be up to Sullivan and potentially an appeals court whether to accept the Justice Department’s motion to drop the case.

Flynn pleaded guilty, as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, to lying to the FBI about conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the presidential transition period.

In January, Flynn filed court papers to withdraw his guilty plea, saying federal prosecutors had acted in “bad faith” and broken their end of the bargain when they sought prison time for him.

Initially, prosecutors said Flynn was entitled to avoid prison time because he had cooperated extensively with the government, but the relationship with the retired Army lieutenant general grew increasingly contentious in the months before he withdrew his plea, particularly after he hired a new set of lawyers who raised misconduct allegations against the government.

But the Justice Department filed a motion last month to dismiss the case, saying the FBI had insufficient basis to question Flynn in the first place and that statements he made during the interview were not material to the broader counterintelligence investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Officials have said they sought to dismiss the case in the interest of justice, upon the recommendation of a U.S. attorney who had been appointed by Attorney General William Barr to review the handling of the Flynn investigation.

Gleeson slammed the Justice Department’s motion to dismiss the case, saying the arguments from prosecutors were “riddled” with legal errors.

“The Government’s ostensible grounds for seeking dismissal are conclusively disproven by its own briefs filed earlier in this very proceeding,” Gleeson wrote. “They contradict and ignore this Court’s prior orders, which constitute law of the case. They are riddled with inexplicable and elementary errors of law and fact. And they depart from positions that the Government has taken in other cases.”

Sullivan also asked Gleeson to explore whether he should hold Flynn in “criminal contempt for perjury.”

As part of his plea, Flynn had to admit in court, under oath, that he lied to the FBI and violated federal law. It is a crime to lie under oath in court.

In the filing, Gleeson said it was clear that Flynn had committed perjury and should be punished but that it should be a factor considered at his sentencing, as opposed to additional charges being brought against him.

“This approach — rather than a separate prosecution for perjury or contempt — aligns with the Court’s intent to treat this case, and this Defendant, in the same way it would any other,” Gleeson wrote.

Gleeson was a federal judge in New York for more than two decades. Before becoming a judge, he had been a federal prosecutor and handled numerous high-profile cases, including the case against late Gambino crime family boss John Gotti. He’s been in private practice since 2016.

A federal appeals court is set to hear arguments Friday about Sullivan’s refusal to immediately dismiss the case. Flynn’s attorneys have asked the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to step in and force Sullivan to end to the case. They have also accused the judge of being biased, arguing he overstepped his authority when he did not immediately grant the Justice Department’s request to dismiss the case.

Sullivan has separately scheduled arguments on the dismissal motion for July 16.

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Top prosecutor overseeing Justice Department criminal division to depart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department’s top prosecutor overseeing its criminal division is leaving his post early next month, department officials announced on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO – Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski of the Criminal Division stands during a news conference to announce indictments against China’s Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, several of its subsidiaries and its chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, in a pair of cases accusing the company of everything from bank and wire fraud to obstructing justice and conspiring to steal trade secrets from T-Mobile US Inc., at the Justice Department in Washington, U.S., January 28, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski will step down on July 3, the department said. President Donald Trump nominated the former Kirkland & Ellis law partner to the top Justice Department post in the criminal division, and he was later confirmed by the Senate in July 2018.

In a farewell letter seen by Reuters, Benczkowski said that Brian Rabbitt will take over his job as acting assistant attorney general of the criminal division.

Rabbitt is currently the deputy assistant attorney general for the criminal division, and previously served as chief of staff to Attorney General William Barr.

“The decision to leave is my own and has been in the works for some time,” Benczkowski wrote, saying it was part of a transition plan that took root late last year.

“It has been a source of absolute pride to serve with you for the last two years,” he added.

In a statement, Barr praised Benczkowski for using data analytics as a tool to help the department root out fraud.

“One of his greatest contributions to the country were his efforts combating the nation’s opioid crisis.  His decision to use data analytics changed our approach and undoubtedly saved many lives,” Barr said.

Another major investigation overseen by Benczkowski that incorporated data analytics involved a $2.1 billion Medicare fraud takedown involving medically unnecessary genetic tests that was featured in a Reuters special report last year. [nL2N26G192]

In an interview with Reuters in 2019, Benczkowski said government was able to sniff out the fraud by spotting spikes in Medicare billings for genetic cancer testing.

More recently, he has been overseeing investigations into frauds tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Aurora Ellis

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Live Updates: Protests For Racial Justice : NPR

Max Metcalf (left) and Justin, who wouldn’t give his last name citing safety and employment concerns, say they are at a rally in Missoula, Mont., to protect protesters from violent agitators.

Nick Mott/Montana Public Radio


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Nick Mott/Montana Public Radio

Max Metcalf (left) and Justin, who wouldn’t give his last name citing safety and employment concerns, say they are at a rally in Missoula, Mont., to protect protesters from violent agitators.

Nick Mott/Montana Public Radio

Justin and his buddies look like they’re from a special ops team: they’re wearing military-style vests and carrying assault weapons. But they aren’t military and they aren’t police.

“I see myself as a concerned citizen who happens to be armed,” he says.

They won’t give their last names, citing safety and job security. But on a recent evening they are standing watch over about 200 protesters at a rally over the death of George Floyd in Missoula, Mont. They say they’re here to keep things peaceful. Missoula hasn’t seen any rioting or looting associated with a week’s worth of protests, but if someone incites violence, the men plan to enter the crowd and grab them. They carry handguns and assault weapons in case someone starts shooting, they say.

“I’m not going to bring fists to a gunfight, man,” Justin says.

They say they want to protect demonstrators, but there’s also rumors that busloads of antifa activists are coming to incite riots in small towns and cities across the country. That’s why a man named Calvin is here holding an AR-15. He says he isn’t a counterprotester.

“I’m not racist, I have zero problems with people protesting and I support it 100%,” he says. “But I don’t support my town getting burned down.”

Wyoming, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and other states have seen armed people responding to antifa rumors. But the rumors have been widely debunked.

“We have no credible intelligence that that is true,” said Missoula City Police Chief Jaeson White in a video posted to Twitter. “We firmly believe that it has been rumor and speculation.”

Calvin (right), who wouldn’t give his last name citing safety, is concerned about debunked rumors that antifa activists are coming to a rally in Missoula, Mont.

Nick Mott/Montana Public Radio


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Nick Mott/Montana Public Radio

Calvin (right), who wouldn’t give his last name citing safety, is concerned about debunked rumors that antifa activists are coming to a rally in Missoula, Mont.

Nick Mott/Montana Public Radio

But the rumors are having real consequences. Some organizers have canceled protests over the presence of armed men and women. On social media, people are posting photos of vans or school buses they believe are carrying antifa activists.

“We do see people sharing these messages out of fear,” says Joan Donovan, an expert on media manipulation, online extremism and disinformation campaigns at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “The idea of an outside force coming in and invading your small town in particular does feel threatening.”

However, antifa, a loose network of left-wing activists who sometimes violently confront fascists and white supremacists, is more of a movement than a well-oiled organization.

“Antifa operates as a designation similar to the way someone might describe themselves as a punk rocker,” Donovan says.

Still, Donovan says there’s been a lot of disinformation coming out about antifa in recent days, including from President Donald Trump and his attorney general, William Barr. Both assert the movement is behind the violence at rallies across the country, and Trump threatened to list antifa as a domestic terrorist organization.

NPR has reviewed court documents of 51 individuals facing federal charges in connection with the unrest. As of Tuesday morning, none is alleged to have links to the antifa movement.

“You also have a right-wing media ecosystem that is pushing this narrative,” Donovan says.

On social media, Twitter has confirmed at least one white nationalist group created a fake antifa account to spread false rumors. Activists suspect there are several more. The origins of the rumor that busloads of antifa activists are coming to small towns and cities is still unclear, but armed people showing up at demonstrations such as the one in Missoula worry protesters like Erin Giefer.

“The presence of guns and people who have a military getup and camo swarming the area makes me feel unsafe,” she says. “What if somebody does shoot, or one of these cars backfire and then someone starts shooting. That has far more potential for violence and recklessness than anything else.”

A few organizers and protesters have said they welcome offers of protection. But the majority are deeply skeptical. They believe the people with guns are trying to hijack the narrative, trying to make protesters appear more dangerous than they are, or intimidate them from exercising their First Amendment rights.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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As protests rage, more Democrats want Biden to pick woman of color as VP

We break down how decades of drug policy have fueled the crisis in policing that’s unfolding today.

Demings, who surfaced nationally this year as a House impeachment manager of President Donald Trump, has focused on police tactics she believes must change, such as outlawing neck restraints. Harris, who on Monday announced a sweeping police reform bill in Washington, cited her own experiences as a prosecutor when calling for independent investigations into police misconduct and a national standard for when officers can use force. She contends it’s too easy for officers to argue in court that it was “reasonable” to use force, and instead they should have to prove that it was “necessary.”

The poll examined the importance to Democrats of Biden selecting a vice presidential nominee who has experience as a prosecutor or in law enforcement. It found that Democrats place slightly more stock in a candidate with experience in law enforcement, 46 percent, than a background in the more narrowly defined role of prosecutor, 41 percent. It did not test whether Democrats view either of the job categories as a positive or negative.

Other African American women under consideration include former national security adviser Susan Rice and Stacey Abrams, a former Democratic state House leader in Georgia who narrowly lost a race for governor in 2018.

While the priority of picking a woman of color has grown among Democrats, more voters overall, 48 percent, view it as generally unimportant.

Consistent with past surveys, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts remains the best-known contender. Warren (40 percent unfavorable to 39 percent favorable) and Harris (34 percent unfavorable to 33 percent favorable) are slightly under water among all voters.

Abrams, Demings and Bottoms remain far less known nationally, with 35 percent, 64 percent and 65 percent, respectively, of voters saying they’ve not heard of them.

Among Democrats, Warren continues to have the highest net favorability rating, at positive 56 percent. Harris’ net favorability rose to positive 47 percent among Democrats, an increase of 7 percentage points from polling in early May.

Voters of color were instrumental in rescuing Biden’s campaign after big early losses. Polls taken throughout the spring have shown that black voters in battleground states would be more enthusiastic about supporting Biden if he were running alongside a black woman.

“That would be the true recognition by Vice President Biden that the African American community in general and African American women in particular are, in fact, the backbone of the Democratic party,” said Michael Nutter, a Democratic National Committee member and the former mayor of Philadelphia. “It would seem to me that the Democratic Party would be a tremendously powerful and energetic ticket with Vice President Biden and a woman of color,” added Nutter, referring to the combination as a “dynamic duo” for Democrats.

Even before the protests, some party officials and activists were suggesting that the importance of elevating a black leader had grown when the coronavirus pandemic put millions more people out of work and highlighted the disparities in cases and deaths among people of color.

“Before Covid, people were (saying), ‘We’ve gotta get rid of Trump at all costs. Now you douse them with gasoline and say, ‘We’ve gotta get rid of Trump at all costs’ and they’re sitting in a packed house next to their family members who are dying,” said Minyon Moore, a former top campaign official for Hillary Clinton in 2016 who participated in the vice presidential selection process.

“You’ve got to make sure that voting is still a priority in their minds and their hearts … So, this election is very different. There’s no guarantee we’re going to be rushing to the polls.”

Encouraging people to vote will take a ticket and a plan that excites and inspires people of color, Moore added.

“This is not about race,” she said. “This is about, ‘It is OK for me to invest in me? It is OK for me to want to see someone who looks like me?’”

The survey of 1,992 registered voters was conducted June 6 and 7 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points. The subsamples have higher margins of error.

Morning Consult is a nonpartisan media and technology company that provides data-driven research and insights on politics, policy and business strategy.

More details on the poll and its methodology can be found in these two documents: Toplines / Crosstabs

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Special Report: Pandemic exposes systemic staffing problems at U.S. nursing homes

(Reuters) – One night in April, as coronavirus swept through the Hammonton Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare, Robyn Esaw, a double amputee, signaled for help with her bedpan. She said she hit the bedside button that turns on a red hallway light. None of the few remaining staff showed up – and one of them turned the light off. Esaw only got help, eventually, by wheeling herself to the nursing station and yelling.

National Guard soldiers walk in a group outside of the Hammonton Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare one of numerous nursing homes to have staffing shortages during the national outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Hammonton, New Jersey, U.S., May 19, 2020. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

On another night in another room of the New Jersey home, Barbara Grimes noticed her roommate sitting in a puddle of urine, which seeped into a wound on her tailbone. No one checked on the roommate for three hours. The woman, Grimes said, had given up on calling for help.

That same month, Hammonton staffers moved David Paul and another man into a room last occupied by two residents infected with the coronavirus, one of whom later died of COVID-19. The floors were still dirty, the bathroom littered with trash, Paul said. Paul and the other man, he said, soon tested positive themselves, and his roommate died. In all, the Hammonton outbreak resulted in 238 infections and 39 deaths, state data shows.

“You cannot live here and really believe that these people care about you,” said Esaw, 70, who has lived in the home for nine years and knows Grimes and Paul well.

Nursing homes worldwide, filled with elderly residents who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, have suffered a harrowing toll in the pandemic. 

Special ReportIn shielding its hospitals from COVID-19, Britain left many of the weakest exposed

In the United States, longstanding problems with staffing shortages and chronic turnover have left nursing homes especially exposed. An estimated 40% of the country’s more than 100,000 COVID-19 deaths are connected to long-term care facilities such as nursing homes or assisted-living centers, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation tally.

About a quarter of nursing homes responding to a recent federal survey reported shortages of direct-care staff during at least one of the last two weeks in May, according to a Reuters analysis of survey data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

A separate Reuters analysis of federal nursing home data shows that, before the virus hit, about four in 10 homes nationwide would not have met the minimum staffing regulations in California, which has among the highest standards in a nation where some states have few or no requirements for nursing staff levels. About 70% of U.S. nursing homes would fail to meet a stricter staffing standard advocated by some experts, the analysis showed.

The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare and deepened these historical staffing problems, according to interviews with nearly two dozen nursing home workers and residents nationwide. Nursing home staffers are quitting in large numbers, these workers said, because of illness fears and what they described as a slipshod emergency response by management.

As outbreaks hit homes nationwide, administrators often sought to downplay the danger, 17 workers at eight homes run by eight different companies told Reuters. Managers hid the severity of outbreaks, the workers said, in part because they were desperate to retain staff who were scared and disillusioned with poor working conditions and pay as low as $11 per hour. Some managers pressured sick or infected workers to show up, said five workers at four facilities.

At Hammonton Center, overworked nursing assistants have regularly had to bathe, clean and feed as many as 30 residents by themselves, far more than usual. Staffing on two occasions was so thin that nursing assistants found residents who had been dead for several hours in rooms no one had time to check, two Hammonton employees said.

Centers Health Care, which runs the facility, declined to comment on most accounts of residents and workers cited in this report. It denied any lapse of care at the home. The company disputed the contention that residents were not discovered for hours after they died.

Reports of overwhelmed staff extend far beyond Hammonton. At Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley in Littleton, Massachusetts, so many staff had quit or called in sick that managers left a teenage nursing-assistant trainee on a shift caring for nearly 30 dementia patients, said a current worker and a former worker. Part way through the shift, one more nursing assistant was assigned to help her in response to staff complaints, the workers said.

The vast majority of more than 40 nurses and nursing assistants at the Life Care home have quit since April, six current and former workers told Reuters. Twenty-six people died, according to federal data, including a nursing assistant. The outbreak caused 87 confirmed infections, the data show.

The rapid staff exodus left residents without the most basic care, the workers said. “These are people who all need to be changed. They’re incontinent. A lot of them need help eating,” said Lisa Harmon, a nurse who supervises weekend shifts. “There’s only so much one person can do.”

Tim Killian, a spokesman for the home’s owner, Life Care Centers of America Inc – one of the nation’s largest operators – acknowledged that a large portion of the Massachusetts home’s staff quit under “extremely challenging” conditions. He said facility leaders could not recall a teenager being assigned to care for dementia patients alone.

Echoing other industry advocates, Killian said nursing homes have generally reacted well to an unprecedented challenge, despite little government help. The U.S. government has taken heavy criticism for being slow to react to nationwide shortages of protective gear and testing kits.

“It’s just ridiculous to think that nursing homes, absent direct and substantial government support, could manage a global pandemic,” Killian said.

‘HIDING IT FROM US’

Staffing had long been a problem at the Massachusetts Life Care home, with nursing assistants often caring for too many residents, workers said. The shortages became a crisis in the outbreak, they said, as management failed to provide protective gear or to communicate how the virus was spreading.

In March, veteran nursing assistant Patti Galvan noticed residents getting fevers and coughing. She brought her own mask, but a manager told her not to wear it, saying it wouldn’t prevent infection. Other workers said management told them to remove masks they brought from home because they would cause other workers to ask for protective equipment the facility could not provide.

Killian acknowledged protective-gear shortages, which created “tension” between management and workers, but said administrators were powerless to solve nationwide supply problems.

Staffers started getting sick and staying home, but managers “weren’t taking it seriously,” said Galvan.

“They were just hiding it from us,” said Galvan, who left more than two months ago after getting flu-like symptoms and has no plans to return. “If they were honest with us, and were more caring and more responsible, they wouldn’t have lost us all.”

Galvan had worked at the facility for three decades.

Amy Lamontagne, the facility’s executive director, said management never withheld information. “There was no secret-keeping,” she said.

Killian said management couldn’t inform staff about coronavirus infections until it had confirmed test results or, when testing wasn’t available, a formal diagnosis from a nearby hospital.

Colleen Lelievre, a nurse who still works at the facility, said testing wasn’t needed to recognize the unusual number of residents with COVID-19 symptoms in March. But management, she said, never leveled with the staff about why so many residents were being hospitalized.

As more workers quit or called in sick, those who remained regularly worked 80- to 90-hour weeks, said Harmon, the weekend nursing supervisor. Physical- and occupational-therapy assistants filled in for nursing assistants.

The depleted staff couldn’t bathe and feed every resident, workers said. In a dementia unit, workers were unable to keep residents from wandering into hallways and other patients’ rooms, potentially spreading infection. Staff had no time to sit with dying residents, said Harmon, who sometimes left her phone with them so they could call relatives in their final hours.

Despite these conditions, the facility reported no staff shortages in response to the government’s nursing-home survey. Killian said the facility had no shortages in late May because the number of residents had declined to the point where the home was “fully staffed” with many fewer workers. Lamontagne said the 120-bed facility now has 65 residents.

Overall, 192 of Life Care’s more than 200 nursing homes responded to the federal survey, and about 29% of those reported staff shortages, according to the Reuters analysis.

Harmon and Lelievre said the Massachusetts home still has far fewer staff than it needs. The facility has very few nursing assistants, Lelievre said on Saturday, making it nearly impossible for staff to safely move some residents out of their beds, which often requires two people.

Lamontagne, the executive director, had a different take: “We’re doing fine with our staffing,” she said.

Several workers questioned why the facility wasn’t more prepared, since its owner had, weeks before, managed the site of one of the first major U.S. outbreaks, at the Life Care facility in Kirkland, Washington – with 45 deaths linked to the home, according to local public health authorities.

“They didn’t have any plan,” said John De Mesa, a nursing assistant who said he contracted the virus in March.

Killian said the gap between the Washington and Massachusetts outbreaks gave the company little time to act on lessons learned.

In late March and early April – as many Life Care residents were hospitalized – the Massachusetts National Guard came to the home to administer tests. Administrators brought in corporate staff and workers from a nearby Life Care facility to give the appearance of a fully staffed home around the time of the Guard visit, Harmon and Lelievre said. Most of the added staff left within a week, they said.

Killian dismissed the contention that the extra staff were deployed for appearances, saying all staffing decisions aim to improve care.

The home told workers they could not get tested along with residents, staffers said. The state at the time, in early April, was restricting testing in nursing homes to residents only.

After workers complained about the lack of testing, management sent a text message to the staff on April 5.

“We encourage you to direct any questions or concerns about your health to your personal physician,” read the message, which was reviewed by Reuters.

Some workers sought out their own testing. Life Care did not test workers until mid-May, Harmon and Lelievre said. Staff had to bill their insurers for the tests, they said. Those with no insurance had to pay upfront and seek reimbursement from Life Care.

Thirty-four workers at the facility had tested positive by the end of May, according to federal data. Those who became ill with COVID-19 were not paid for their time away, Harmon and Lelievre said. Killian said sick workers could use accrued paid time off.

HISTORY OF STAFFING PROBLEMS

Insufficient staffing and frequent turnover have caused quality-of-care problems at nursing homes for decades, studies and government inquiries have shown.

Most nursing-home revenue comes from Medicaid and Medicare, the federal health programs for the poor and elderly. The fixed payments, some researchers say, incentivize companies operating on thin margins to cut staffing to the bone. Industry lobbyists have long sought higher reimbursements, which they argue haven’t kept pace with costs.

The American Health Care Association, an industry trade group, testified before Congress twice last year and requested help in attracting workers. Since the pandemic hit, the group has asked state officials for help recruiting nurses from less-impacted regions, as New York City hospitals did. “Just like hospitals, we called for help,” the group said in a statement.

“In our case, nobody listened for months.”

The federal government conducted its nursing home survey last month to seek data on staff and equipment shortages during the pandemic. At least 3,200 nursing homes – 23% of the 13,600 facilities that submitted data – reported staffing shortages in late May, according to the Reuters analysis. About 2,000 facilities did not respond to the survey.

U.S. regulators set few standards for nursing-home staffing, requiring only the presence of a registered nurse for one eight-hour shift and a licensed nurse, with a lower-level credential, in the building at all times.

At least two-thirds of states, including California, set minimum-staffing standards for nursing care, though the requirements vary widely and often contain loopholes. Some, including Indiana and Virginia, have no minimum standards for direct-care nursing staff.

California requires its 1,200 nursing homes to provide 3.5 hours of daily direct care, part of a 2017 law setting some of the highest standards nationally. If applied nationwide, about 37% of nursing homes would fail to meet that requirement, according to the Reuters analysis, which examined federal data on staffing during the last quarter of 2019 for nearly 15,000 nursing homes.

About a third of California homes don’t meet the state’s own staffing standards because regulators last year granted them exemptions from requirements for overall staffing or for certain positions. The state said it granted some waivers because of workforce shortages.

Annual turnover of nursing staff at homes in California – among the few states that track that data – has increased from 44% in 2014 to 53% in 2018.

Some researchers believe California’s requirements don’t go far enough. Charlene Harrington – a nursing professor emerita at University of California, San Francisco, who has studied nursing-home staffing shortages – advocates for 4.1 hours of per-patient direct care. She cites a 2001 federal study that concluded quality of care can decline below that level. At least 70% of nursing homes nationwide would fail to meet that higher bar, the Reuters analysis shows.

Some scholars and industry advocates blame staffing problems on systemic weaknesses in U.S. nursing-home funding.

“No one wants to pay the taxes for them, even though they’re all of our grannies, or mothers,” said Vincent Mor, a professor at Brown University’s school of public health, who has studied nursing home quality and staffing.

Some experts blame nursing home owners, mostly for-profit companies, for skimping on staff to make more money. Harrington, the UCSF nursing professor, called industry complaints about government funding “nonsense,” arguing that major companies would leave the business if it were unprofitable.

IN THE DARK

When outbreaks hit, some nursing home managers pressured sick workers to show up unless they had a positive coronavirus test, or to return to work before the recommended self-quarantine period, five workers at four facilities said.

Nursing assistant Gabby Niziolek, 20, said she started feeling sick in late March during a shift at Plaza Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Some co-workers had started feeling ill, she said, and she noticed residents losing their appetite and turning a pallid color.

When she asked to leave, her manager told her to finish her shift, Niziolek said. The next day, after she got tested, she said she was told to return to work while awaiting results. When the results came back positive, Niziolek’s boss asked if she was showing symptoms. She said she was, and stayed home.

“If you’re positive and you don’t have symptoms, they still want you to work,” Niziolek said.

Plaza Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center did not respond to requests for comment.

Residents and staff at New Jersey’s Hammonton Center were kept in the dark for weeks about the extent of the facility’s outbreak, said three residents and six staffers.

As illness spread in late March, managers told workers that the sudden jump in residents with fevers, appetite loss and shortness of breath stemmed from cases of “aspiration pneumonia,” a condition that usually isn’t caused by an infectious disease. Weeks later, managers said that residents who had been hospitalized tested positive for the coronavirus.

Workers weren’t informed at the start of shifts that they would be working on hallways filled with residents believed to be infected, staffers said.

Home operator Centers Health Care said it couldn’t be sure that symptomatic residents had the virus until testing became more widely available in April.

A nursing assistant who was among the first to test positive for the virus said she reported the diagnosis to her supervisor and told several co-workers, as her doctor had advised. Five days later, when she was at home sick, a manager called to chastise her for telling co-workers, she said.

Centers Health Care said in a statement that its staff are “working tirelessly around the clock.” The company said staffing shortages are an industry-wide issue, but that it has ensured it meets state minimum staffing requirements during the pandemic by redeploying staff as needed within its network of facilities. The company declined to detail its staffing levels.

Hammonton nurses and aides said that about half of the facility’s direct-care staff have left, and that the facility replaced some with workers from temporary staffing agencies.

Hammonton Center reported some staff shortages to the government, as did about half of the 38 Centers Health Care homes that responded to the survey, according to the Reuters analysis of the data.

Slideshow (23 Images)

Grimes, who has lived at Hammonton for six years, said she started noticing that her roommate had a “horrible cough” that kept getting worse. She told nurses about the condition, and her roommate was hospitalized in April. The woman later died, but Grimes said staff never told her the cause.

Grimes said she got moved to a separate wing for those who had not contracted the virus – but staff never explained, she said, whether her roommate had tested positive. Last month, after getting a second test, Grimes learned she was positive, though she said she only had a slight fever.

“We don’t know when somebody gets sick; we have to sniff it out like a bloodhound,” she said. “You can only guess what happened when that person is getting carried out on a gurney.”

Reporting by Chris Kirkham and Benjamin Lesser; Editing by Janet Roberts and Brian Thevenot

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Interior to push drilling in Florida waters after November election

That plan also included an expansion of offshore drilling in California, a move that would escalate the ongoing battles between the state and the administration over environmental issues since Trump took office. The people did not know whether the final proposal will include that section of coastline as well.

“Whatever is decided is expected to come out within two to three weeks of the election,” said one person who has had recent discussions with Interior officials about the issue and who agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity. The eastern Gulf is the “golden trophy” for the industry because it could be producing oil within 10 years using existing infrastructure from the Gulf’s western portion, the person said.

A second person who recently spoke to Interior officials said they had predicted that the plan would probably come out after the Nov. 3 election but before Trump’s current term ends in January. The timing was driven partly by the sensitive politics in Florida, but also because Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was conducting reviews to ensure it was legally defensible, the person said.

Two people who work in the energy industry said they had heard a similar timeline from agency officials several months ago for releasing the plan, which has been under development since the early days of the Trump administration.

“It’s a given that new acreage will become available when the politics of reelection are behind [Trump],” said one person in the industry, who described the eastern Gulf of Mexico as “the prize acreage.”

Interior did not answer specific questions about when it might release the proposal. The agency has been mostly silent on the plan’s future after Bernhardt in April 2019 said it was “indefinitely” delaying releasing its offshore drilling proposal, following a court ruling that upheld an Obama-era ban on drilling in certain Arctic coastal areas — a decision that blew a hole in the department‘s plans to also include that area in the new plan.

Once Interior releases the plan proposal, it will take public comment before implementing a final version.

The Trump administration’s efforts to open up additional stretches of shoreline to oil and gas production have run into opposition from both Republican and Democratic governors of coastal states. Former Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had initially issued a draft plan to open the eastern Gulf once the current federal drilling moratorium ends in 2022 — but then walked that back in 2018, when he promised Florida’s then-governor, Republican Rick Scott, that the state’s coasts would remain off-limits. (Scott is now a U.S. senator.)

Interior’s drive to open up more areas to drilling is currently facing market headwinds. Oil producers have slashed their 2020 budgets amid a cash crunch brought on by low oil prices from the coronavirus pandemic, and U.S. production has declined by about 2 million barrels per day from record levels seen in March. New deepwater offshore drilling projects, which often cost billions of dollars to bring online, have also fallen out of favor with many companies in the industry, which has in recent years focused on developing onshore shale fields.

But with 3.6 billion technically recoverable barrels of oil and 11.5 trillion cubic feet of gas estimated to sit beneath the sea floor off Florida’s west coast, large, well-financed companies would probably be interested in lease sales for eastern Gulf acreage, especially if they faced little competition for the new acres, one of the industry sources added.

“They’d watch and think, ‘It’s ridiculous we haven’t purchased [leases] for dimes on the dollars,’” the person said.

The offshore drilling plan, details of which remained closely guarded, has been developed by Bernhardt, Deputy Secretary Kate MacGregor and acting Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Casey Hammond, the people familiar with the proposal said. Details around the timing could still change before its release, they added.

But such a plan would face opposition from Florida’s lawmakers. Scott and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio introduced the Florida Shores Protection and Fairness Act earlier this year to extend the eastern Gulf’s existing drilling moratorium by 10 years. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not called the bill up for debate.

Florida lawmakers in recent weeks have taken their concerns directly to Trump, who last year declared himself an official state resident. They have also spoken to Senate leadership on possibly including Rubio and Scott’s bill in upcoming legislation, according to one Senate aide who requested anonymity to discuss the negotiations.

“It’s something we’re actively working on,” the aide said. “This is the one issue in Florida that every person agrees on.”

But opening up the waters off Florida has been a long-held goal of major companies in the industry who have spent years amassing politically-connected allies.

Interior documents obtained by POLITICO show lobbyists, including former Louisiana GOP Sen. David Vitter, requesting in March 2018 that the agency open Florida’s waters for exploration. Three months after Interior released its draft leasing plan in 2018, former Interior Assistant Deputy Secretary Todd Willens forwarded to Joe Balash, Interior’s then-assistant secretary for lands and minerals, a letter of introduction for Vitter sent from former GOP Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg, another lawmaker-turned-lobbyist at the political strategy and consulting firm Mercury LLC.

“He [Vitter] doesn’t know his way around DOI yet and I offered to help,” Rehberg wrote in his March 2018 email.

Vitter’s message to Interior contained a letter from EnVen Energy Ventures, a Houston-based company focused on oil production in the Gulf of Mexico. In it, EnVen Executive Vice President Nick Gibbens asked for access to federal waters in the eastern portion of the Gulf now off limits for drilling.

“While we respect that Florida’s economy relies heavily on tourism, oil and gas platforms and rigs 20 miles from the coastline would not be visible to tourists,” the EnVen letter says.

Interior did not directly answer POLITICO’s specific questions on the timing of the release of its offshore drilling proposal, or what regions it would include. Tracey Moriarty, spokesperson for Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, pointed to the agency’s January 2018 draft plan written during Zinke’s tenure that had sought to open virtually all the U.S. coastline for oil and gas exploration.

That plan had drawn widespread criticism, and had included possible lease sales in the eastern Gulf of Mexico in 2023 and 2024, after the expiration of the current moratorium on drilling in the region.

The Trump administration also considered reopening federal waters off California to new drilling, according to documents POLITICO obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The waters off California’s southern coast contain 5.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil, according to a BOEM estimate.

However, many industry analysts have cast doubt on whether the administration would seek to open up California’s federal waters to new drilling beyond the modest footprint it now has. Coastal drilling has long been unpopular in the state since a massive 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara — the third largest spill in U.S. history, and one factor that led President Richard Nixon to create the Environmental Protection Agency.

But a late-2018 briefing plan that BOEM head Walter Cruickshank gave to Balash described the benefits of opening up at least the southern coast of California to new drilling.

“Currently, California imports nearly 60% of its crude oil refinery input whereas 10 years ago imports only comprised 45% of refinery input,” according to presentation notes dated November 2018. “Production offshore California could replace imports and reduce California’s dependence on foreign oil.”

Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat and staunch opponent of the fossil fuel industry, said in an interview that Zinke had repeatedly brought up possible leases around the Santa Barbara Ship Channel.

“I did have some conversations with Ryan Zinke and he kept coming back to the Santa Barbara Ship Channel,” Huffman said in an interview. “As much as he acknowledged that the West Coast was a heavy lift, he always left room for something in Santa Barbara.”

Zinke did not reply to questions.

Exxon and other companies still produce oil in the area. But the drilling industry would be unlikely to test the waters in a state that has been vocally against new oil and gas drilling and has set up regulations that would make it more difficult to do so, several people in the industry said.

“Nobody wants to do business in California. My God, that would be torturous,” one industry person said. “I would see this as something to antagonize Democrats and to create leverage to open up other acres.”

Kevin Slagle, spokesperson for the Western States Petroleum Association, a trade group that includes Exxon, Chevron, Shell and other companies, concurred.

“Our members are not champing at the bit for offshore exploration and production in the West,” Slagle said.

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Judge who reviewed full Mueller report asks DOJ about ‘merits’ of redactions

The federal judge who reviewed the full, unredacted report by special counsel Robert Mueller said he has questions about the reasoning for the Justice Department’s redactions and ordered the agency to provide the court with answers.

“Having reviewed the unredacted version of the Mueller Report, the Court cannot assess the merits of certain redactions without further representations from the Department,” Judge Reggie Walton said in a court order this week.

Walton, an appointee of President George W. Bush, said earlier this year that he had “grave concerns about the objectivity of the process that preceded the public release of the redacted version of the Mueller Report” and its “impacts on the Justice Department’s subsequent justifications” that its redactions of the report were authorized under the Freedom of Information Act. The Justice Department has consistently said it did not improperly conceal anything in the report.

The judge said in early March that he agreed with the Electronic Privacy Information Center and BuzzFeed, which sued for the report in its entirety under the Freedom of Information Act, that Attorney General William Barr had “dubiously handled the public release” of the Mueller report. And in late March, the Justice Department handed over a full, unredacted copy of Mueller’s report on Russian interference,

Walton said Monday that he “must discuss the substance of the redactions” with the Justice Department, but that the conversation “cannot occur remotely due to the lack of a secure connection between the Court and the Department necessary to avoid disclosure of the redacted information” and cannot immediately occur in-person due to social-distancing guidelines issued by D.C. District Court Chief Judge Beryl Howell related to the coronavirus pandemic.

The judge vacated the status conference that was scheduled for next week and instead ordered DOJ lawyers to appear before the court for an ex parte hearing on July 20 “to address the Court’s questions regarding certain redactions of the Mueller Report.”

Mueller’s report, released in April 2019, noted his investigation “identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign” and that Russia interfered in a “weeping and systematic fashion.” But the special counsel “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

On the issue of possible obstruction of justice, Mueller said he “determined not to apply an approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the president committed crimes” but that, “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Barr and then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein concluded that Trump had not obstructed justice.

In March, Walton said, “The speed by which Attorney General Barr released to the public the summary of Special Counsel Mueller’s principal conclusions, coupled with the fact that Attorney General Barr failed to provide a thorough representation of the findings set forth in the Mueller Report, causes the Court to question whether Attorney General Barr’s intent was to create a one-sided narrative about the Mueller Report.”

The judge added that it was “a narrative that is clearly in some respects substantively at odds with the redacted version of the Mueller Report.”

But DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec pushed back a couple of days later, calling the court’s assertions “contrary to the facts.”

“The original redactions in the public report were made by Department attorneys, in consultation with senior members of Special Counsel Mueller’s team, prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Offices, and members of the Intelligence Community,” Kupec said. “In response to FOIA requests, the entire report was then reviewed by career attorneys, including different career attorneys with expertise in FOIA cases — a process in which the Attorney General played no role. There is no basis to question the work or good faith of any of these career Department lawyers.”

Kupec said the Justice Department “stands by” the work of the DOJ officials who made the redaction decisions and defended Barr’s “efforts to provide as much transparency as possible in connection with the Special Counsel’s confidential report.”

During a May 2019 news conference after the report’s release, Mueller offered some cover to Barr in explaining what transpired behind the scenes during the Justice Department’s redaction process.

“At one point in time, I requested that certain portions of the report be released,” Mueller said. “The attorney general preferred to make the entire report public all at once. We appreciate that the attorney general made the report largely public, and I certainly do not question the attorney general’s good faith in that decision.”

Walton isn’t the only one who has sought more information on the Mueller report, as the Democrat-led House Judiciary Committee has sued for access to the redacted grand jury information in the report, as well as the grand jury testimony underpinning the investigation, as part of what they say is an inquiry into impeachable offenses committed by Trump. The Justice Department has appealed to the Supreme Court in an effort to block the unredacted Mueller report from being handed over to the congressional committee.