Editorials from around New England:
Layoff notice law in need of an upgrade
The Connecticut Post
When a trio of Friendly's restaurants vanished from the Connecticut landscape in the spring, it was easier to notice than when most companies vanish or downsize.
Chances are, you hadn't been to Friendly's in a while (don't blame yourself for the company's woes). Had the chain followed the 1988 federal WARN Act to give workers a 60-day warning, you could have stopped in for one last Fribble.
Instead, unknowing staff apparently turned up for work that day to shuttered doors. It escaped exactly no one's notice that this was not friendly.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., provided a pretty good reason more companies should be less dismissive of the Workforce Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act.
Schumer ratted out Friendly's to U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta.
"I urge your agency to query the Friendly's Corporation and investigate the manner by which service workers were notified of layoffs. A request like this is a bare minimum appeal for workers who were shocked to arrive at their jobs and abruptly told to close up shop. Workers are expected to provide employers with an industry standard 'two-week notice' upon quitting. These same workers should trust that their employers adhere to the same kind of agreement. It's only fair," Schumer wrote.
Though Friendly's closed restaurants in Danbury, Southbury and Waterbury, we don't know what motivated Connecticut lawmakers to express interest in the WARN Act in recent weeks.
The Connecticut General Assembly's Office of Legislative Research issued a review of the status of the WARN Act in Connecticut. This is often an early step in the path to crafting legislation.
Connecticut lawmakers have little influence over the WARN Act, as it is federally regulated. As a result, companies sometimes ignore it completely.
Some companies — Bridgewater, for example — have followed the rules of late. Others, such as Toys R Us, do not play along.
There can be other consequences for companies that dodge the law. Greenwich-based Round Hill Investments reached a deal last year to purchase the manufacturer of Sky Bar and Clark candy bars and Necco wafers. Factory workers responded with a lawsuit seeking back pay covering the 60-day notice.
The law itself has more loopholes than most gun legislation. Some of this is reasonable. Firms fear vendors panicking upon learning of pending layoffs, for example.
But the act has a few motivations. One of course, is money. The Department of Labor would prefer to save on benefits by getting a head start on finding new jobs for employees.
Other reasons — which should guide the discussion — are anchored by the morality of treating people with dignity. Sending workers to jobs that no longer exist is no way to treat employees. It's no way to treat anyone.
So we encourage Schumer to work with colleagues to give the act more sting. Connecticut lawmakers should see what they can contribute as well. Here's a head start: Call it the Friendly's Law.
Apprentices key part of the answer to Maine's workforce problems
Portland Press Herald
With Maine facing a workforce shortage that is only going to get worse, employers can't afford to sit back and wait for good employees to come their way - they have to help produce them.
Many companies have already gotten the word. Roughly 115 employers are now taking part in the state Department of Labor's Apprenticeship Program, an increase of 40 percent in two years, the Portland Press Herald reported last week. Another 60 have applied and are awaiting approval.
Under the program, businesses having trouble finding qualified applicants recruit and hire apprentices, who work full time while also attending classroom sessions, often through a community college.
The state partially subsidizes training and education for the apprentices, who in return get on-the-job training and a nationally recognized certificate. They also get a foot in the door at a company that needs workers - state officials say 95 percent of apprentices end up working with the company that sponsored them.
The program in the past has been used mostly to train workers in blue-collar jobs such as construction, shipbuilding, plumbing and electrical work. But in a sign of just how widespread Maine's workforce shortage has become, more white-collar professions are using apprenticeships, including the health care and information technology sectors.
In one case, in a for-profit venture spun off the state program, apprentices make up the staff of a public relations agency, building the number of workers in that field. A similar initiative also is planned for the hospitality industry.
Some companies are already heavily invested in employee training. Cianbro Corp., for instance, has had its own training institute for over a decade.
And Bath Iron Works, which has been a participant in the state apprenticeship program, operates a training academy that has trained 700 workers since the beginning of the year; they plan to hire 1,000 more workers in 2020. Gardiner-based Everett J. Prescott Inc., which has 300 employees, has trained 50 workers through its apprenticeship program in the last 12 years.
But it is difficult for Maine's many small businesses to mimic those kinds of initiatives by themselves. That's where the state program comes in - officials say an apprenticeship program can be set up through the state for nearly any profession.
But the state program is so popular that the maximum reimbursement to employers has been cut by more than half; it needs more funding, as do training programs in general. (Gov. Mills originally proposed a $19 million workforce development bond be put before Maine voters; a pared-down version to fund career and technical centers was rejected - at least for the time being - by Republicans last week.)
Apprenticeships and other training programs aren't the only answer to Maine's workforce problems. For employers struggling to find workers amid strict competition, increasing wages must be on the table.
And Maine absolutely has to attract more working-age people. If not, there simply won't be enough workers to fill open positions, even if every native-born Mainer stays here to work.
But when employers commit to training their own workers, it can pull new people into the workforce, and it can allow others to move up to better-paying jobs.
It can reshape Maine's workforce, little by little, for the better.
Raiding military for wall sets a terrible precedent
President Donald Trump is going to get his wall on our nation's border with Mexico -- or at least some sections of replacement fencing -- even if he has to stick it to the U.S. military to secure the funds for his vanity project.
On Wednesday, the day after the Pentagon began to inform members of Congress about previously approved military projects that would be put on hold, perhaps indefinitely, the White House released a list of the efforts that would see funding diverted to the wall. You know, the one that Trump had long said Mexico would pay to construct. As it turns out, proposed military projects in 23 states, three U.S. territories and in 20 countries will actually be raided to build that wall.
Though one might be quick to point out that such a move is an obvious unconstitutional usurpation of Congress' power of the purse, the current Supreme Court, with five of the nine justices having been appointed by Republican presidents, has already shown that it probably wouldn't see things that way. Sadly.
So Trump will be able to campaign for re-election touting his big, beautiful wall while our nation's military suffers as a consequence. Seems an awfully strange definition of making America great, doesn't it?
Because our president is unable ever to admit that he may be wrong, about anything under the sun, and is consequently unable to change course, even when doing so would make the most sense, Trump, still fixated on the need for a wall, declared an emergency at the border early this year. It's that declaration, and the Supreme Court's acquiescence with a previous maneuver to divert military funds to wall construction, that has paved the way for the newest move. But just because the high court may well deem the move constitutional does not mean that it's right. This court, as currently constituted, is made up of a majority of right-wing ideologues, with Chief Justice John Roberts, no one's idea of a centrist, the de facto swing vote on the Republican-leaning court. When the rubber meets the road, it's politics, not jurisprudence, that too often takes precedence.
Trump's use of emergency powers sets a terrible standard. Imagine, some years down the line, that there's a Democrat in the White House and that the Supreme Court has a majority of Democratic-appointed justices. What would stop that president from declaring climate change a national emergency and diverting funds that had been otherwise appropriated to remediate the danger from carbon and methane emissions? Or suppose the president decided that income inequality was an emergency and moved to act on that score?
In our government, which is a system of divided powers, Congress, not our nation's chief executive, decides how taxpayer money is spent. But in the mind of would-be King Donald, such constitutional niceties just get in the way and keep him from winning. Or something like that.
Even if the military loses as a result.
A reckoning is coming for PBMs
Earlier this month, a Medicare recipient with drug coverage filled a prescription at a Concord branch of a major pharmacy chain. The pharmacist, one of many with heart, soul and concern for customers, ran the numbers and pointed out that it would be $80 cheaper if the patient paid for the drug out-of-pocket instead of using her insurance co-pay.
Until recently, pharmacists were banned from alerting customers to such savings by contracts with pharmacy benefit management companies. Untold millions were secretly siphoned away from unwitting patients by the legal, but deceitful, tactic.
A bill passed by Congress last year freed pharmacies from PBM gag orders.
"Multiple reports have exposed how this egregious practice has harmed consumers, such as one customer who used his insurance to pay $129 for a drug when he could have paid $18 out of pocket," Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a sponsor of the bill, told colleagues.
Now several states, including Ohio, have gone to court to recover money needlessly paid to PBMs, who kept the bulk of the money spent by customers its contracts kept in the dark. A study of 9.5 million prescription drug claims by researchers at the University of Southern California found that "2.2 million - or 23 percent - overpaid for their prescription because their co-pay was more than the cost of the drug."
"Clawbacks" earned by overcharging patients are just one of the sins of an industry that evolved in the 1990s as middlemen between pharmaceutical manufacturers, insurers, employers and plan beneficiaries. They have become, it seems, akin to lampreys, the parasitic eel-like fish with rasping mouths that attach to their piscine victims and suck their blood, weakening but not killing them.
It's long past time for pharmacy management companies like CVS Caremark, Express Scripts and OptumRx to justify their existence. A significant percentage of the health care industry say they offer no benefit at all to patients or health care providers. We agree and believe that if light is shed on the financial machinations of the industry it will become clear that PBMs add no value to the world's most expensive health care system.
At the national level, and in state after state, a reckoning is coming.
In New Hampshire, the effort has taken the form of the PBM Accountability Project. The bipartisan group includes Concord Mayor Jim Bouley, Franklin Mayor Tony Giunta, representatives of the state's unions, health care advocacy organizations, municipal governments, think tanks, taxpayer groups and employers.
One of the project's first tasks is to determine whether, like New Jersey, New Hampshire should adopt a reverse-auction model for contracts with pharmacy management firms. Under that model, states, or presumably smaller entities that provide benefits, not insurers or PBMs, create a drug formulary that must be covered, and PBM management companies bid to administer the drug plan. Presumably, competition will result in lower prices, though with only three major players we aren't optimistic.
Spokespeople for New Hampshire's accountability project claim the change could save the state $10 million per year under its contract with the PBM ExpressScripts.
We support the PBM Project's quest for transparency and all efforts to end profiteering and price gouging by every component of America's needlessly expensive health care system.
Governor should be more forthcoming
IGT, the multinational producer of slot machines, says it has about 1,000 jobs in Rhode Island paying an average of $100,000 a year. The state would be insane to let those jobs go if it had an affordable way to keep them here.
Gov. Gina Raimondo says a new no-bid, $1-billion, 20-year deal with IGT will protect those jobs. Even so, her pact — soon to be the subject of General Assembly hearings — requires a thorough vetting.
It is incumbent on the governor to provide as much information as possible to demonstrate why the Assembly should override the state's bidding law, which was established to protect the taxpayers from unfair insider deals. Since she is the one who wants to break the rules, she should be forthcoming about the provenance and details of her pact.
This is especially true given her unusually close political ties to IGT. Donald Sweitzer, the company's former chairman, and now its $7,500-per-month State House lobbyist, is one of her most important political allies, a nationally renowned Democratic fundraiser and insider who could make her future in national politics. Late last year, after she was named chair of the Democratic Governor's Association — a position widely regarded as a stepping stone to a presidential run — Ms. Raimondo made Mr. Sweitzer her right-hand man in the organization.
That relationship is now the subject of a Rhode Island Ethics Commission probe.
In light of all this, openness will be essential to secure the public's trust.
But as Katherine Gregg reported in her Political Scene column on Sept. 2 ("Off-limits state records shield Raimondo's IGT decision-making"), the administration has not been very responsive to The Providence Journal's open-records request for documents.
On July 15, The Journal requested "all communications to and from IGT and the governor's staff, Department of Revenue and Lottery staff — and their consultants — since January 1, 2019 ... that relate to the proposed extension of the IGT contract."
The governor waited until the very last day permitted to respond to the request. Then, what she provided was extremely limited and cast little light on the issue. (It included an already widely covered press release.) She decided to withhold a whopping 95 documents relating to the deal, "as they are not deemed public," according to Kim Ahern, the governor's deputy legal counsel.
There was no itemization of the withheld documents, which would have at least provided the public with the names, dates and, in some cases, subject lines on withheld documents and emails. The administration said that the material constituted "internal communications" protected from public scrutiny.
This is not a new approach for an administration that covers its tracks on deals. In May, The Journal was compelled to file a formal complaint with Attorney General Peter Neronha after the governor, on similar grounds, withheld documents related to her decision to extend the contract of Deloitte Consulting. Deloitte, you might remember, supplied Rhode Island with the notoriously problem-plagued UHIP public-assistance computer system, projected to cost state and federal taxpayers $656 million over 10 years. The public is still waiting for Mr. Neronha to act.
It's the people's government. It's the people's money. Since openness is essential to a properly functioning system of self-government, Governor Raimondo would be wise to be more forthcoming about the details of her extraordinarily costly deals.