National News

Back-to-school sticker shock

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-07-30 09:52

The annual back-to-school spendathon is almost here. And for public-school parents, it’s going to be pricey.

Huntington Bank is out with its annual "backpack index," which tracks the cost of school supplies. The bad news: elementary school kids will need $642 in extras this year, middle-school kids will spend an additional $918, and high school students will get hit up for an additional $1,284.

Those estimates translate to an 11 percent jump, 20 percent jump, and 5 percent jump, respectively.

The biggest bumps are expected to come from higher standardized-testing fees, and fees for things like school trips, music classes and sports, according to Huntington. Many middle-school kids will also need a graphing calculator, which can run nearly $130.

Huntington didn’t include laptops or tablets in its index. But many parents will be facing extra costs for those, as well.

Since Huntington started tracking the cost of school supplies in 2007, the bank estimates they have increased 83 percent for elementary school students, 73 percent for middle school students and 44 percent for high school students.

Here’s a guide, from the group, on what you can expect this year.

Sierra Leone Doctor Who Led The Fight Against Ebola Dies

NPR News - Wed, 2014-07-30 09:46

Hailed as a "national hero," Dr. Sheik Umar Khan had treated more than 100 Ebola patients before catching the virus himself last week.

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Some Loyal Foursquare Users Are Checking Out After Swarm Spinoff

NPR News - Wed, 2014-07-30 09:12

The company's move to break its app in two is costing it the users who loved Foursquare the most. "Why do I need two apps when I had one that provided both services?" asked one user.

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U.S. Issues Travel Restrictions On Venezuelan Officials

NPR News - Wed, 2014-07-30 08:06

The U.S. did not name the officials but said they have been responsible or complicit in perpetrating human rights abuses against the Venezuelan people.

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Desk Desk Evolution

NPR News - Wed, 2014-07-30 07:13

The changing workspace in the Age of Deskovery.

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WATCH: Video Shows Women Narrowly Escape Death On Railroad Tracks

NPR News - Wed, 2014-07-30 06:06

The 14,000-ton freight train could not come to a stop. But the women laid down between the rails and survived.

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NLRB says McDonald's can be considered joint-employer

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-07-30 06:00

McDonald’s could be held liable for wage-and-hour violations, and for obstructing union organizing, at its thousands of franchise restaurants across the country.

The National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel has ruled that McDonald’s can be considered a "joint-employer" along with its franchise owners in labor-law complaints, because the parent company plays a significant role in employment practices for fast-food workers at the franchisee-operated stores, which constitute 90 percent of the chain’s restaurants.

If upheld in subsequent NLRB proceedings (and further legal appeals, should there be any, by McDonald’s and its franchisees), the ruling could mean McDonald’s is legally responsible when franchise owners shortchange workers or lay them off after they protest for higher wages. The theory is that McDonald’s in part determines wage levels, work rules and scheduling patterns via the contracts it sets with franchisees, as well as the labor-management software and guidance it provides to maximize store-profitability.

Complaints about worker treatment in the ongoing campaign for $15-an-hour pay at fast-food restaurants, and for union representation, have been brought by the advocacy group Fast Food Forward, which is supported by the Service Employees International Union.

There are also class-action lawsuits being pursued in three states (California, New York and Michigan) over alleged violations by McDonald’s and its franchise owners. A lawyer for the class-action plaintiffs in California, Michael Rubin at Altshuler Berzon in San Francisco, said the NLRB ruling would strengthen those cases, which are also based on ‘joint-employer’ claims.

Meanwhile, a federal court in California has held Wal-Mart to be a joint-employer of temporary warehouse workers in a class-action lawsuit based on a similar argument — that Wal-Mart controls the employment conditions in the supply chain in which subcontractors and temporary staffing agencies operate.

Christine Owens of the National Employment Law Project says the NLRB and some courts are acknowledging the increasing use of contingent and temporary workers in the corporate ecosystem that many large corporations create around them.

These recent interpretations of U.S. labor law, says Owens, may be “catching up with how the economy is changing. So many working people are no longer employed by the company that appears to be the main employer. There’s more than one employer really calling the shots.”

McDonald’s has vowed to fight the NLRB ruling, saying its franchisees set wages and working conditions. A statement from the company says the decision "goes against decades of established law regarding the franchise model in the United States."

Groups representing restaurant owners and franchisees have also blasted the decision, saying it jeopardizes the franchising system.

But former Penn State labor-law professor Ellen Dannin, author of "Taking Back the Workers’ Law," isn’t so sure.

“People seemed a little over the top” in their reactions to the NLRB general counsel’s determination, she said. “Just because the general counsel has issued a complaint doesn’t necessarily lead to the kinds of problems that they’re worried about.”

Dannin also expressed skepticism that the ruling, linking McDonald’s more directly to labor relationships and conditions at its franchises, will necessarily make union organizing against chains like McDonald’s any easier. 

We have a tag for "Sharknado" stories

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-07-30 06:00

It's hard to imagine where the two circles of "Marketplace coverage" and "Sharknado" intersect on a venn diagram. But overlap they do, and in suprisingly relevant ways.

That's because the SyFy network's made-for-tv movie is something of a phenomenon from a financial perspective. With a relatively small budget — around $1-2 million — it grew from a disappointing first airing to internet sensation to big screen flick

"Everybody asks, you know, why did this happen?" says director Anthony C. Ferrante. "You can't ask why; it's 'Sharknado.' It's a movie about sharks and a tornado, and it just hit everybody's sweet spot for whatever reason this summer."

It didn't hit a sweet spot for actor Ian Ziering initially. That is, until health insurance came into play.

Ziering was reluctant to star in the original film, but when his wife urged him to consider the union health insurance he would be eligible for by doing the movie, he reconsidered.

With a pregnant wife, Ziering put down his reservations about the cheesy script, and picked up a shark chainsaw.

So it turns out Sharknado isn't just a story about a tornado dropping sharks from the sky.

It's about financial success, crowdsourced marketing and health care. Go figure.

By the way, Sharknado 2 premieres Wednesday.

U.S. Economy Rebounds In Spring With GDP Expanding At 4 Percent Rate

NPR News - Wed, 2014-07-30 05:03

The news from the Commerce Department comes after the economy shrank at a 2.1 percent rate in the first quarter of the year. The numbers raise hope for continued growth in the second half of 2014.

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Gaza Conflict: Shell Strikes U.N. School, Killing Up To 19 Who Sought Shelter

NPR News - Wed, 2014-07-30 04:04

One U.N. official said this was a "breaking point." The conflict, now going into its 23rd day, shows no sign of abating. The death toll in Gaza has now surpassed 1,200.

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Q&A: Michelle Rhee On Teacher Tenure Challenges

NPR News - Wed, 2014-07-30 04:03

Vergara v. California dealt a serious blow to teacher tenure and seniority laws in that state. And anti-tenure groups say their movement is spreading.

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PODCAST: Video game lobby

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-07-30 03:00

First up, more on the latest GDP report, which showed a strong 4% growth in the 2nd quarter. Plus, a key ruling against McDonald's gives hope to those looking to force the company's franchisees to raise their wages to $15 an hour. Also, the latest lobbying force to hit Washington comes from an unexpected source: gamers. 

UCLA Floods As Water Main Break Dumps Up To 10 Million Gallons

NPR News - Wed, 2014-07-30 03:00

It took officials about four hours to figure out which valve needed to be closed. By then, parts of the UCLA campus were deluged, with some staircases looking like waterfalls.

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Video game lobby answers 'call of duty' on the Hill

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-07-30 02:00

Meet the voice of  video game makers on Capitol Hill:  Erik Huey.

A "Donkey Kong" champion and "Madden" addict, he's now chief lobbyist for the Entertainment Software Association, the main trade group for the gaming business in Washington.

“I feel like Mario the fix-it man, the plumber, making sure things flow correctly. But I think more often than not, I feel like Sonic the Hedgehog, running around with frenetic energy," he says.

Huey and his staff have just finished discussing a plan to highlight gaming industry jobs in congressional districts. 

Now, Huey is off to the corridors of Capitol Hill, first to visit Rep. Joe Garcia, then Rep. Jim McGovern.

Members of Congress listen to Huey. The Center for Responsive Politics says the Entertainment Software Association spent almost $5.5 million on lobbying in 2013. 

“That’s pretty serious lobbying money,” says Viveca Novak, a spokeswoman for the Center.

Scrolling through spending reports, Novak says there was a spike in the video game lobby’s spending as Congress considered a bill mandating research into whether violent video games cause actual violence.   

“Almost half of their reports in 2013 mentioned the Violent Content Research Act. It’s clearly something they were very concerned about,” says Novak.

The bill is now stalled in the Senate.

The video game industry has lobbied on online piracy and privacy, too. And it's not just relying on shoe leather. The lobbyists are trying to get gamers to help make their case online. But it’s not easy. 

“It’s a little bit like herding cats with a dog in the room,” says Andrew Rasiej, the founder of  Personal Democracy Media, and chairman of an annual conference on politics and technology.

(Courtesy:OpenSecrets.org)

Gamers don’t always support the tech lobby’s positions. Still, Erik Huey says his association has organized about 600,000 gamers into a group called the Video Game Voters Network.

When a congressman recently made disparaging remarks about gaming, Huey says thousands of group members responded.

“Four thousand constituents calling in — that’s quite powerful,” he says.

Huey says when it works, the Video Game Voters Network can be a potent weapon. Most other lobbyists don’t have such an active, online base that's used to combat. Or, at least virtual combat.

Drop in uninsured is a mixed blessing for hospitals

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-07-30 02:00

Some of the big, urban hospitals around the country – the "safety net" hospitals that serve the poor – are getting hit with a dose of good news.

Under the Affordable Care Act, the number of uninsured patients is dropping sharply. Hospitals like Our Lady of Lourdes in Camden, New Jersey, are now spending millions less on providing charity care.

William Castro is one of thousands of patients Lourdes had treated for free. A car accident in 2010 left him suffering with chronic back pain. 

“You know what it is... you’re a grown man and it’s so bad you have to take hot showers, you are crying at night,” says Castro.

Without health insurance, Castro made monthly visits to the hospitals where doctors scribbled out prescriptions.

The 46-year-old says he struggled to scrape up the money to buy his meds.

“You are talking about $300-$350 a month. And a person that’s not able to work... can you imagine, having zero? Needing this medication, and have to count on your family, loved ones, friends... then next month you have to do it all over again?” he says.

Now on Medicaid, Castro has his prescriptions covered – no co-pays – and is hoping to enroll in a pain management course.

One by one, Lourdes CEO Alexander Hatala has watched his uninsured patient population fall from 8.5 percent of patients last year to 3 percent.

That’s a $3.5 million of savings at the Camden hospital.

“$3.5 million can make a difference between breaking even or operating in the red,” Hatala says.

What’s happening in Camden is happening around the country – at least for hospitals in states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare.

This summer the Colorado Hospital Association – looking at stats from 30 states – found a 30 percent jump in Medicaid charges, and a 30 percent drop in charity care costs.

That puts hospitals on track to save billions this year.

“Yeah, there’s more money. But it also comes with a caveat,” says Ellen Kugler, Executive Director of the National Association of Urban Hospitals. “There are a number of federal cuts coming and many more that are coming.”

Federal, state, and local government funding currently covers about 65 percent of charity care costs. Under the ACA, the plan has been to reduce that funding  - at least at the federal level - as more Americans gain insurance coverage.

In this new landscape, the Urban Institute’s Teresa Coughlin says these hospitals will now have to fight to keep their newly-insured patients: “Do they have contracts with [insurers]? Are they able to retain patients who became newly insured and still continue to come to their facility? Or will they go elsewhere now that they have a choice?”

Coughlin says some of these hospitals are considered second-tier facilities, and to keep their doors open, they must build relationships with insurers and convince consumers they offer excellent service for a fair price. 

A whole new world, says Coughlin - a world where not all safety net hospitals may survive.

What the time of day says about your earnings report

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-07-30 02:00

Humana is among the companies reporting its quarterly numbers on Wednesday as earnings season continues. The health insurance giant always releases its earnings before the markets open. Whole Foods reports the same day, but the grocery chain always waits until after the closing bell.

If you've ever wondered why companies go one way or the other, it's worth noting the Securities and Exchange Commission doesn’t care what time of day companies report their quarterly earnings.

So it comes down to factors like: what’s the best time to put the CEO on the phone with investors and analysts?  

"Some people are morning people and some people are afternoon people," says Jeff Morgan, president of the National Investor Relations Institute. He adds that once a company picks a time, it sticks. "We want to be sure that whatever we do every quarter, we do the same thing the next quarter, so that there’s not anybody wondering why we’re making changes."

A recent study found that 66 percent of companies hold earnings calls at the same time every quarter. Co-author Elizabeth Demers, an associate professor of accounting at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, says executives should avoid afternoon calls, when they might be hungry and cranky.

"What we find is that as the tone of the calls becomes more negative, the share price returns are also more negative," Demers says. "In other words, the stock price responds to the negativity that's being emitted on the calls." 

Demers says size matters, too; a lot of small companies reporting earnings have to take whatever slot they can get. 

NCAA Head-Injury Settlement Includes $70 Million Medical Fund

NPR News - Wed, 2014-07-30 01:58

The NCAA has settled a class-action lawsuit over its head injury policies, pending approval. Supporters laud a $70 million fund for medical monitoring; others say there's no money for injured players.

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After War's Deadliest Day, Another U.N. School In Gaza Gets Hit

NPR News - Wed, 2014-07-30 01:30

A U.N. spokesman said Israeli tank shells hit the school Wednesday, killing 15 Palestinians and wounding 90. The agency is housing scores of people displaced by the fighting in schools across Gaza.

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