National / International News
The European Central Bank last night applied new financial restrictions on Greece, with analysts seeing this as a move to remind Greece who holds the purse-strings. At stake is Greece's membership in the Euro-zone, and more widely, the stability of the global financial system. More on that. And anyone who uses the internet should pay attention to what at first blush may seem like a minor bureaucratic shift in Washington. The FCC chairman today will circulate a proposal to reclassify internet providers. Regulators regard them as "information services," but FCC chairman Tom Wheeler wants to call them "telecommunications" companies. Those little words have weight in the debate over network neutrality. Plus, some will see the next story as a charming development. For others, it's a new sign society is going to hades in a handbasket. People going online to get ordained so they can officiate at a wedding.
More and more students are pursuing higher education, either by attending a two- or four-year college. But the growth in the demand for college diplomas has affected the wealthy different than the poor. A new study found that only a fifth of the students from the poorest families finished college by age 24, while nearly all of the richest students did.
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This year’s flu season is relatively severe, with the annual flu vaccine only about 25 percent effective against the main flu strains that are circulating, according to the Centers for Disease Control. There are outbreaks of measles and meningitis around the country, not to mention the common cold.
And in workplaces across the country, millions of people continue to show up sick, infecting coworkers and customers. A survey by AARP published in December 2013 found that 52 percent of adults go to work or school 'most of the time' when they are sick; another 20 percent go 'sometimes.'
The Obama Administration is pushing hard for Congress to pass legislation—the Healthy Families Act—that would guarantee workers could earn up to seven days of paid sick leave per year. Some cities and states already mandate that paid sick leave be provided by some or all employers—to be used by a sick employee, and sometimes also to care for a sick family member, such as a child or elderly relative. But Republican lawmakers are unlikely to pass any such new labor mandates on employers in this Congress.
Health-policy advocates point out that Americans often have close direct contact with those sick workers who are least likely to get paid sick leave. For instance, says Alina Salganicoff, head of Women's Health Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, “people who work in the restaurant industry have very low rates of paid sick leave”—the rate is 24 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just 47 percent of retail workers get paid sick leave.
Salganicoff says if these workers do call in sick, they lose a day or more in wages, and risk being fired.
Showing up sick and underperforming at work, or even damaging equipment or products because of diminished capacity or the effects of medication, is known as ‘presenteeism’ in HR-parlance. The Centers for Disease Control reports lost productivity from illness costs employers $225 billion annually; and it cites data from the Harvard Business Review that the cost of presenteeism is $150 billion or higher.
Workers at the top of the income scale—especially managers and other professionals—are most likely to get paid sick leave. The rate is 84 percent among the top quartile (top 25 percent) of income-earners. The rate of paid sick leave is 30 percent for those in the bottom quartile of earners.
Kate Black is getting married and wants her brother-in-law, Matthew Carrigan, to officiate. So the two of them are perched on a small couch in a slightly cheesy Manhattan hotel, searching the Internet for a church.
"So we have universal life church, getordained.org," Black reads from the Google search results.
They settle on the Universal Life Church Monastery—a website that has ordained everyone from Conan O'Brien to Joan Rivers.
There are no questions about your beliefs. The only real limitation is age.
"Are you over 13?" asks Black. "I am," says Carrigan.
The entire process takes less than two minutes.
"Welcome Matthew Charles Carrigan to the worldwide congregation of the Universal Life Church ministers!" Black reads from the laptop screen.
"Almost everything we do is by Internet," says ULC Monastery's founder George Freeman. He says more than a thousand people of all faiths—atheists included—are ordained through their website each day, and hundreds also order "church supplies," which are mailed out of the Monastery's offices in a squat office building in a Seattle warehouse district.
This is how the nonprofit pays for what Freeman says is a one- or two- million dollar operating budget: selling wallet credentials, certificates, letters of good standing and other goods. Some are souvenirs, but many are also supposed to function as documentation to convince higher legal powers of the church's legitimacy. A "marriage laws" section of the website gives recommendations for each state. For example: "Certification of ordination may be required in the form of certificate, wallet card, or letter of good standing.”
But this is where the quick and easy process becomes more difficult. "It should be a simple process," says Freeman. "But unfortunately the state has its requirements, and they're all different."
"Some of these websites, they lead people to believe they can perform weddings in all states," says Bob Rains, emeritus professor at the Dickinson School of Law at the Pennsylvania State University. "And that's just not true."
The question of who is allowed to solemnize a marriage is primarily a matter of state law, according to Rains, and the state laws are an odd patchwork. In Alaska, an officer of the Salvation Army is allowed, as Rains noted in a 2010 law journal article, "Marriage in the Time of Internet Ministers: I Now Pronounce You Married, But Who Am I To Do So?" While states typically have a provision that allows ministers to perform marriages, both the language of the law and its interpretation, varies. Both Rains and the Universal Life Church monastery direct prospective couples to speak with their county clerk, because the requirements can differ not just by state, but by county.
But the bigger problem, according to Rains, isn't what counties may require in order to grant a marriage license, but what could happen years later. "Typically, just like a divorce, this is going to come up when a marriage has hit the skids," says Rains. When there is a dispute—over property or alimony, for instance—one member of an ostensibly-married couple may call the validity of their marriage into question, and the findings may not conform to that of the county official who granted the original license.
For this reason, Rains has two simple pieces of advice for anyone considering being married by a minister ordained online:
"Number one: You should not take legal advice off the Internet," he says.
And second, if you have any doubts about whether the way you intend to get married is legal, the time to figure that out is now—before you get married.
The Federal Communications Commission is considering new rules to regulate the Internet. The proposal by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler would reclassify Internet service providers (ISPs) as telecommunications services, as opposed to information services.
That seemingly small change would allow the FCC to regulate ISPs and enforce so-called net-neutrality rules.
The FCC is honing in on three areas of oversight: the blocking of access to any content, the 'throttling' of Internet traffic (slowing it down for reasons other than what may be technically necessary to maintain a network's operations), and paid prioritization (in which providers may favor some Internet traffic over others by creating 'fast lanes' for websites and services that can pay for them).
The FCC is proposing banning all of those practices.
"The day before the rules, and the day after: they're probably going to look pretty similar," at least for consumers, says Doug Drake, a telecom policy analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
For Internet providers, though, the adoption of the new rules could lead to a lot of uncertainty as lawsuits are sure to follow, Drake says. And he says they could lead to a number of unintended consequences as reclassifiying ISPs as telecommunications companies throws into question othe contracts that were agreed to on the premise that they are information companies.
"Companies like AT&T and Verizon have already stated very explicitly that they're going to sue," says Kevin Werbach, a former FCC counsel in the Clinton administration who is now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
One of the key legal arguments to expect in the months to come, according to Werbach, is that the FCC previously said a company can either be a telecommunications service or an information service, but not both. ISPs may argue that they are elements of both and that the FCC must prove that they are not information companies before it can reclassify them, says Werbach.
"It's very unlikely that the legal issues will be resolved in less than a year or two," Werbach says.
And the lawsuits may not just challenge the new rules themselves. They could challenge how those rules are implemented, says David Farber, a former chief technologist at the FCC.
"Special interest groups will come and say: you can't not do this because it's in the rules," says Farber, referring to the discretion senior FCC officials say they have in deciding which elements of a law that now applies to telecommunications companies it will impose on Internet service providers.
Lobbying and lawsuits may force the FCC to impose new restrictions it hadn't planned on, says Farber, who opposes the new classification proposal.