For Some Workers Returning To GE Appliances, ‘It Feels Like A Hostage Situation’ Monday, Mar 30 2020 

It was a rally tailor-made for the age of social distancing.

On Saturday, a steady stream of cars driven by employees and supporters flowed through Appliance Park, flashers on, constantly honking and bearing signs asking GE Appliances and its parent company, Haier, to put their health over its wealth. Workers estimated nearly 2,000 people turned out.

While some large manufacturers around Louisville have closed up shop as coronavirus continues to spread, employees at GE Appliances headed were back at work Monday. For a week, the company had closed Appliance Park to make adjustments like adding Plexiglass dividers between work stations and to deep clean. There have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 there.

In a statement, Julie Wood from GE Appliances said employees’ health is a priority. She said those in the marketing and finance departments are able to work from home, though she could not say how many employees that includes.

But working from home is not an option for those on the manufacturing floors, who now harbor twin worries of safety and job security. That includes people like Alexandria, who works on refrigerator parts and asked not to use her last name in order to protect her job.

“It feels like a hostage situation, like we either come to work and probably get this or stay home and lose our jobs,” she said after Saturday’s rally.

Alexandria returned to work Monday morning. She was among the first to have her temperature checked before being allowed in. Despite some changes at the facility, she does not believe her work space, which was already cramped, is any safer now.

“They’re doing all these things because they’re so desperate to make their numbers,” she said. “They’re not even thinking, like, you know, how that’s gonna affect people. It’s terrifying, you know.”

She questioned how essential she and her coworkers are, considering the amount of goods she said are already stocked in the warehouse. Plus, she said she doesn’t think buying a fridge, dishwasher or laundry machines is a priority for most people, many of whom are out of work, these days.

Federal data from last week showed a huge spike in unemployment claims as businesses large and small struggle to stay afloat during the pandemic.

The union that represents 3,800 Appliance Park workers, IUE-CWA Local 83761, is asking for certain benefits for its members, including hazard pay, full compensation in the case of needing to quarantine and temporary lack of work status for those who must stay home to care for children. That last one would allow those workers to qualify for unemployment benefits.

So far, GE Appliances has not granted any of these requests. Wood, who works in corporate communications, said employees with child care or elder care issues should contact the company to have their case evaluated and a solution offered.

Kindre Batliner, with the union, said an official grievance was submitted to the company Sunday night, followed by an online petition that had nearly 1,000 digital signatures by Monday afternoon. She said a previous petition from last week, through which members requested information on GE Appliance’s COVID-19 protocol, received no response from the company.

Wood, with GE Appliances, did not immediately respond to follow-up questions about the grievance, or about how many employees did not come to work Monday.

Amina Elahi | wfpl.org

But GE Appliances wasn’t the only target of the rally-goers’ anger. Many held signs calling out Gov. Andy Beshear, who has become popular across the state for his response to the pandemic. Yet GE Appliances workers aren’t sure why he hasn’t called out their employer like others who have caught his attention.

After the rally on Saturday, Alexandria had a specific hope for what Beshear might say to GE Appliances. It was a phrase he’s repeated so much, it’s become a meme.

“‘You can’t be doing that, you know, you know who you are,’” she said. “Hopefully he says something like, you know, you have, like, a responsibility to your people to care about their health and safety.”

No such message came. Several reporters submitted questions to the governor about GE Appliances workers’ concerns, which Beshear responded to during his daily news conference on Saturday.

“We’ve been having conversations, both with GE and the union. We believe that their discussions are going to continue. We do know that the facility itself has made significant changes,” he said. “We also know that the workers aren’t necessarily satisfied with those changes. Ultimately, we need to get to a place where people feel safe going to work, and we hope that we can get to that point.”

When she arrived at work early Monday, what Alexandria found didn’t make her feel like they had reached that point. Her workspace has no protective barriers. She received cleaning spray, but no wipe to use it on sensitive equipment.

Earlier, she said there’s one way the situation could be resolved.

“I think it’s probably going to take people striking, honestly,” she said.

Texting from Appliance Park on Monday morning, Alexandria said she felt very stressed, like the company wasn’t taking employee concerns seriously. She didn’t have the vacation days to skip work today. But others did, and production was slow enough that she thinks lots of people didn’t show up. She wishes she could be one of them.

Stuck At Home, Book Lovers See Silver Lining In Home Deliveries Sunday, Mar 29 2020 

There’s no avoiding the fact that these are scary times. 

It’s natural to want to divert our attention, if only for a moment, towards fictional worlds. Sometimes, those worlds may be even scarier than our own. Or they may offer comfort, a place to go when the news looks bad. 

I know I do. In 2013, the Boston Marathon was bombed a few blocks from where I was attending journalism school. After long days reporting on the bombing and the ensuing manhunt for Emerson College’s radio station, I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for the first time.

As businesses all across Kentucky have closed their doors and the libraries are shuttered, some bookstores have found success through online sales and deliveries in keeping up the spirits of those social distancing at home.

For a certain kind of person — book lovers like myself — book deliveries and time combine to offer a silver lining.

“‘I’m finally going to get to read Les Mis.’ ‘I’m finally going to get to read Proust.’” 

Kelly Estep, a co-owner of Carmichael’s Bookstore, said those are the kinds of things she’s been hearing in the last couple weeks.

The store itself is empty and quiet, besides the phone calls and occasional bustle of scouring walls of books for orders and bagging them up for Louisville delivery. Customers can also order curbside pickup, or place orders by standard mail.

Estep says they’ve had more online orders than usual. It’s probably not going to make up for the foot traffic the store would normally see. Still, it’s a way to keep working.

“We are going to do everything that we can do to keep books in peoples hands as long as we possibly can,” Estep said.

Carmichael’s delivered two books to my front porch last week, both by science fiction legend Ursula Le Guin. I’m almost finished with one, The Left Hand of Darkness, already. Set on the winter planet of Gethen, where sex and gender are alien concepts, the book’s characters face betrayal, malevolent bureaucracies, a prison camp thousands of miles across a distant glacier. But, importantly, they don’t face a novel coronavirus.

Estep says most people seem to be gravitating towards reading that is lighter than the news of the day, and ordering books that offer a bit of an escape. “Which is what reading does,” Estep said. “Reading takes us out of our world.”

That sense of comfort is part of what’s keeping Sarah Gardiner going. Gardiner opened Nanny Goat books in NULU in 2018. 

“Literature has always been one way that people can communicate over time and space and art in general and I think that will be a bigger focus in the coming weeks as people do remain in quarantine,” Gardiner said. 

Gardiner is currently in the process of opening a publishing house for under-represented writers, so she’s not selling books during the pandemic. But she is planning to host book and poetry readings online over the coming weeks.

“While the doctors are out there doing their thing I think it’s also important for the artists to help the other end of the spectrum and help with morale.”

Every business owner I talked to for this story said their stores are about more than selling books: they are fostering community in Louisville.

That’s what brought Brett Eugene Ralph back to Louisville to open Surface Noise, a bookstore and record shop on Baxter Avenue. It’s closed now, along with the rest of the state’s non-essential retail.

A few days before the store closed its doors,. I bought If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino, a weird, puzzle of a book about the places reading can take you, even if you can’t go anywhere. In it, Calvino says a library is like a great harbor, something you can return to safely “after circling the world from book to book.”

Ralph says moving the business online takes away the best parts of owning the store.

“I lived alone in the country for 20 years, the solitary life of the poet professor and I moved back to Louisville to immerse myself in the community,” Ralph said. “Letting go of that has been tough.”

But Ralph recognizes that everyone is making sacrifices to keep themselves and their neighbors healthy. Keeping the doors closed, for now, is how his store can do its part.

Here are a few Louisville independent book sellers you can support:

Carmichael’s Bookstore | Louisville’s Oldest Independent Bookstore

Nanny Goat Books on Facebook

Surface Noise on Instagram

Surface Noise on Discogs

McQuixote Books & Coffee on Facebook

mcquixote.com

Former Blackjewel Miners Reflect On Changes In Coal Country Saturday, Mar 28 2020 

67641296_2512779942105859_7105525295284748288_nOn a blistering August afternoon in Cumberland, Kentucky, David Pratt Jr. stood in the middle of a two-lane highway, holding a sign that read “COAL MINERS AND TRUCKERS AGAINST CORPORATE AMERICA.” A few yards away, his father, David Pratt Sr., who is graying but still muscular, leaned back in a lawn chair perched precariously on the crossties of a railroad. His eyes focused on the spot where the tracks disappeared around the bend and more than $1 million worth of coal idled in train cars. 

Since Junior was a boy, the two have job-hopped or taken pay cuts to work side by side underground. Junior tried to make sure his dad didn’t work too hard; Senior often challenged him, saying he was just as capable as the younger men. Now, they were together again, 20 days into a protest of their former employer, Blackjewel — once the nation’s sixth largest coal producer. In July, the company declared bankruptcy, laid off 1,700 coal miners, and clawed paychecks from their bank accounts.

The miners said they wouldn’t leave until they were given the money they were owed. About 400 in Kentucky couldn’t pay their bills. Utilities cut off services. Banks repossessed cars. Families moved to find other work. Junior had to leave often to care for his kids, but Senior and his wife, Wanda, stayed on the tracks until the bitter end — 59 days after the blockade began. 

Soon after they dispersed, the media, the public, and the lawmakers all moved on. A court battle between Blackjewel and the U.S. Department of Labor won the miners their pay, and the train chugged out of Cumberland, another chapter of Appalachia’s long labor rights history closed. I reported on the protest for months, and it felt like an unsatisfying ending: Miners still without work, mine land still degraded and abandoned, coal executives still multimillionaires. 

But the Pratts told me it was a turning point.

I met with them, along with their families, on a rainy February night at the Gordon Volunteer Fire Department in Letcher County, Kentucky. We huddled close on plastic folding chairs. Once in a while, a car came around the steep switchbacks crossing Pine Mountain, its headlights strobing through the windows of the dim and cavernous meeting hall like a coal miner’s headlamp. 

The Pratts’ lives have changed drastically. David Sr. is on the road for weeks at a time, driving for a trucking company, and David Jr. and his wife work at the local community college while getting their nursing degrees, earning $7.25 an hour. With the COVID-19 pandemic and temporary closure of the school, however, their lives have once more been thrown into chaos. Wanda and Wendy are currently staying home, while Junior has taken the navigator’s seat beside his dad. 

Despite the economic hardships, neither man is angry. Senior said the Blackjewel protest “proved to the younger generation that there’s things that can be done,” and he rejects the notion that he lost anything. “All it done was open another door up,” he said. 

As we talked late into the evening, Senior gazed proudly at his son. “People don’t like it, but this is the biggest blessing that ever happened to us, to my family. It stopped him,” he said. “That’s it. He’s the last of the Pratts going into the coal mines. His son will probably never go in. And to me, that’s worth every penny.”

Growing Up Coal

David Pratt Sr. was born in 1962 in a coal camp in Vicco, Kentucky, to a long line of coal miners who spent most of their lives underground. He started mining at age 17, making $11.75 an hour — about $42 an hour today. “Big money,” Senior told me, eyes wide. “And money was hard to come by.” He liked the work: It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop or a rat scamper a mile away. If you turned off your headlamp, it was so dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. And he liked the camaraderie. “You’d help your worst enemy in a coal mine,” he said. 

The first time Junior went to work with his dad, he was only eight. “I instantly fell in love with it,” he said. “The environment, the people.” As he rode the rail car like a roller coaster, he decided he’d be a coal miner, just like his dad and his papaw. 

69698629_10157900405537345_2960431471489187840_oSydney Boles

David Pratt. Jr. and Wendy Pratt have transitioned to nursing careers since the Blackjewel bankruptcy.

While Junior was in high school, his father was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkins Lymphoma and given three months to live. Senior said his itch to get back underground kept him alive. On his trips to chemotherapy, he drove past an exhaust fan where treated air escaped a mine. “It’s just like [when] you go home and you smell your mama’s house,” he said. The same company gave him his job back in 2007, after six years away as he fought the disease. “It felt good that they had enough respect for me to do that for me,” he said. 

Senior wanted his son to get an education, but Junior dropped out of community college and got a job underground for $17 an hour instead. Senior was was hot with anger, but he said deep down, he knew it would happen. “Coal mining is bred into you,” he told me.

From the time the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company laid tracks across eastern Kentucky in 1911, the region’s economy was tied to the fortunes of the black rock and the whims of the coal barons who controlled it. Companies built coal towns, like the one Senior was raised in, and used a scrip economy — money they created that could only be used at their stores — to keep workers beholden to them. Throughout the century, miners unionized to win shorter workdays, higher pay, and safer working conditions, but they faced threats and violence from the government and coal companies.

By the time Junior got underground, the industry was changing. A glut of cheap natural gas and federal subsidies for renewable energy in the last decade made coal a less desirable source of energy, and mechanization in the mining industry meant companies needed fewer employees. Miners have told me they would regularly go into each shift prepared to be laid off by the end of it.  

New safety regulations and procedures were increasingly at odds with the practices of Senior’s generation — they took care of things themselves. So if his men said there was a problem, Senior fixed it himself, instead of alerting authorities. When bosses started recommending the men wear bulky respirators to protect them from black lung, he declined to do so. He couldn’t spit tobacco through a respirator. 

Wavering Trust

Black lung disease, or coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, takes root when tiny particles of coal and rock dust get lodged in the networks of lung tissue, restricting the flow of oxygen. The disease can be fatal; there is no cure. People who suffer from it have told me it is like drowning on dry land. 

A 2018 investigation by NPR found that rates of the most severe forms of black lung disease are far more prevalent than experts previously believed. Epidemiologists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report one in five experienced central Appalachian coal miners has some stage of black lung. Miners working as roof bolters — installing supports in the rock that keep mines from caving in — are the most likely to get sick

Both Junior and Senior worked as roof bolters for most of their careers. Senior doesn’t want to say if he has black lung, and Junior is worried that eventually, he may see the effects of his work in the coal mines. He thinks he got out in enough time — unlike the majority of his family. 

“My papaw had it,” he said, looking at his father.

Senior jumped in: “His daddy.”

“My uncles,” Junior said. “I think my papaws on both sides had it.” 

“Yep, we lost James on account of that,” Senior said. 

Junior finished for him. “About every male in our family that worked in the mine had it.”

Senior isn’t angry or sad when he talks about the disease, and doesn’t place blame on the coal companies or regulators, despite the fact that the companies and regulators clearly hold some of the blame. “Nobody held a gun to my head. I understood the consequences.” He told me he had a choice to go into mining: He could have been a logger, or worked in a restaurant “flipping burgers,” or gone to college and moved away. 

His son, who is 30 now, sees things a little differently. Coal mining is the most accessible way to make a living wage, even if the industry is unstable (Junior skittered between nine different companies in the 10 years he worked underground). Unemployment is higher in many eastern Kentucky counties than in the rest of the country. Recently, industrial parks and renewable energy projects have been pitched as solutions, but many have not yet materialized: Funding hasn’t come through, strip-mined land is unsuitable for building, or market dynamics changed. It’s hard for residents to place any faith in sustainable economic development ideas. 

The Pratts’ trust in coal companies has wavered, too. In the winter of 2018-2019, both were working for Blackjewel in a mine near Cumberland. It was -6 degrees outside, but with the airflow, it felt closer to -12. Water leaked in the entryway, and spray that went up liquid clattered to the ground as ice. Junior got wet trying to fix the leak. He remembers coughing, struggling to breathe, and then nothing. His men found him lying face-down in the entryway, and he was taken out in an ambulance. Senior was a mile down the road at an extension of the same mine. “They didn’t even call me,” he said. It felt like a slap in the face. “They didn’t care. They had no respect.”

Courtesy of the Pratt family

David Pratt Sr. walks with a grandchild.

In Our Blood

Junior and Senior spend more time with their families now that they have new careers. Senior makes about half what he did working for Blackjewel, but he’s above ground to see the sun rise for the first time in 40 years. 

Most mornings, at least until the coronavirus hit, Junior and his wife, Wendy, dropped off their children at her parents’ house and headed to Southeast Community and Technical College in Cumberland, less than a mile from the site of the months-long protest. They worked minimum wage jobs scanning documents in the art department while they waited to find out if they got into nursing school. When the school closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the couple found themselves once more out of a job. 

The number of people employed in coal mining in Appalachia has dropped most years since the 1980s. Many families leave in search of other work, and some, like Senior, have become truck drivers. Junior’s decision to go into nursing makes him an outlier, but he is not alone in seeking further education. Many former miners enter job training programs — some of which have questionable results or lead workers to jobs that are likely to vanish due to offshoring or automation. 

Courtesy of the Pratt family

David Pratt, Jr., front right, was a leader in the summer, 2019 coal train blockade.

Blackjewel’s bankruptcy was just one of eight major coal company bankruptcies last year, despite President Donald Trump’s attempts to prop up the struggling industry. Both of the Pratts voted for Trump in the 2016 election, and plan to do so in 2020; they’re still worried about the ripple effects of coal’s decline in Appalachia. “This economy around here is solely based off of mining,” Junior said. “I mean, as bad as I hate to say that, it is.”

Both men repeatedly told me coal mining was in their blood, but they were glad to be leaving it behind. I asked how they could hold both of those things simultaneously.

Senior gestured behind him. His granddaughters, baby Willow and 6-year-old Arieunna, were dozing on their mother’s and grandmother’s laps. 

Cadien, who is 8, practiced his baseball swing with a stick he’d found in the fireplace. Cadien would probably never be a coal miner, Senior said. 

“That right over there justifies everything. That’s what this whole mess has done. There’s going to be something better for him.”

 

 

This story was published in collaboration with Southerly, an independent, nonprofit media organization that covers ecology, justice, and culture in the American South. 

Cash-Strapped Kentucky Braces For The Unknown During Coronavirus Tuesday, Mar 24 2020 

With Kentucky’s economy slowing to a trickle during the coronavirus pandemic, the state’s already cash-strapped coffers and services are going to take a big hit.

The outbreak presents a massive challenge, both for Kentuckians who rely on state programs and for lawmakers currently trying to finalize a two-year state budget to possibly pass out of the legislature on Thursday.

Kentucky’s two-year revenue growth was already predicted to be lackluster before the pandemic and the state is facing several financial pressures from the growing prison population, Medicaid costs and struggling pension systems, among others.

Now lawmakers will have to wrangle with a crisis that not only demands more public health funding to fight the outbreak but also drains the treasury of much-need tax revenue.

Jason Bailey is the executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a progressive think-tank. He says the state’s income and sales taxes — which account for about 75% of state revenues — are already taking a hit as people stop spending money or lose jobs.

“People are not spending money at restaurants, they’re not going to stores to spend money, nobody’s buying a new car right now. There’s all these things that people normally spend money on that they’ll just stop or cut back dramatically,” Bailey said.

Kentucky’s “rainy day fund” — a savings account intended for emergencies — is one of the lowest in the nation when compared to the amount of money the state spends each year.

Though state lawmakers have put more money in to the account in recent years, it still only accounts for about four days’ worth of operating costs, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.

Meanwhile local health departments, the front line of Kentucky’s coronavirus response, have suffered years of budget cuts and massive increases in their pension costs, leading to a drop in staffing around the state.

Before coronavirus, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear heralded a budget proposal that promised raises for teachers and state employees, hiring more social workers and an end to years of cuts to Kentucky’s higher education institutions.

Though many of his proposals were sure to change when the Republican-led legislature put together its own versions of the budget, Beshear recognized in a recent press conference that during the coronavirus epidemic he has had put his agenda on hold.

“I was very proud to put forth a budget where for the first time in twelve years we were making real investments,” Beshear said. “We are at the point where we’re going to have to get through this coronavirus and see what investments we can make at that point, but we are at a different time.”

As they gather this week to try and finalize a two-year budget, Republican leaders of the legislature have called for a revision to official revenue estimates — the numbers that budget writers use to project how much money the state has to spend over the next two years.

Beshear said recently that the revised estimates would do little good while the economy is in flux.

“At this point, it would just be a guess and I don’t think anybody can predict where our economy will be as we come out of this,” Beshear said.

On Monday, Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said that budget writers need an updated revenue estimate in order to finalize the budget, which they are trying to pass by Thursday’s planned meeting of the full legislature.

“Those revenues will not be the same or even close to the same that they were projected,” Stivers said. “We know we are going to go into a downturn in our economy.”

Another issue lawmakers will consider when they reconvene on Thursday is whether to pass Senate Bill 150, a coronavirus relief bill that would allow workers to still receive benefits if they are shifted from full to part-time, expand staffing at the coronavirus hotline and expand telehealth to all heath care providers.

It would also give the governor the power to change some eligibility requirements for unemployment benefits, like waiving the seven-day waiting period and alter the look-back period used to determine how much money someone will receive.

Beshear has said he wants to extend unemployment benefits to independent contractors and self-employed workers, who don’t currently receive them.

On Sunday, Beshear said there had been 30 times as many applications for unemployment benefits this year as there had been by this time in 2019.

According to a recent Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting article, the U.S. Department of Labor data show that Kentucky’s unemployment trust fund is 57 percent funded — a little more than half of the money needed to make the maximum amount of payments. Only nine states have a lower solvency rate.

States can borrow money from the federal government to pay unemployment once their funds are depleted.

Louisville Call Centers Change Policies, Allow Some Remote Work Tuesday, Mar 24 2020 

Some employees at Chewy and Spectrum’s Louisville-based call centers will be allowed to work from home, in an effort to create social distance between the remaining employees. 

Both companies have been the subject of complaints filed to city health officials, and scrutiny in the media, including KyCIR. 

While call centers have not been ordered to close in Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear said he would take further action if the employers didn’t find a way to comply with social distancing guidelines. 

In a series of emails obtained by KyCIR, senior leadership at Chewy, the online pet supply retailer, stressed that the “health and safety of all Chewtopians is our top priority.” 

As such, the company has created a temporary paid leave policy that includes 100% paid time off for the first seven days of an illness and allows employees to be paid up to 60% of their base pay for longer absences.

Employees are being given supplies and sent to work from home in stages “if the nature of their roles allow,” the email said. Over 200 employees are already working remotely, and seats are being reassigned to add space between staffers that remain.

Additionally, all hourly Louisville call center employees are receiving a temporary raise of $1.50 an hour, through May 2, the email said.

In a statement, Diane Pelkey, the vice president of communications and PR for Chewy, said “the health, safety, and well-being of our team continues to be our top priority when servicing pet parents who are relying on us during this time to deliver their pet essentials.”

Pelkey say the company has worked “quickly and diligently” to adapt company policies to the changing situation, including “new and enhanced health benefits and flexible work policies, including work from home for a considerable portion of our pharmacy techs, increasing sanitation procedures in accordance with CDC guidelines, and social distancing.”

Spectrum, the internet and cable company, has given Louisville call center employees an additional three weeks paid leave for coronavirus-related needs, and has implemented a partial remote work policy, according to a letter sent from the executive vice president for customer operations and obtained by KyCIR.

“In response to the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in, for the next few weeks and maybe months, we will be enabling Remote Work options for a portion of our front-line agents,” the letter read. “This is being done to allow for greater social distancing in our centers.”

Remote work is being prioritized for those “at higher-risk from a health standpoint,” and then the option will be made available to employees based on tenure, performance, home infrastructure and agreement to the terms of a remote work assignment, the letter said. 

Employees will be sent home in waves over multiple weeks. 

In a statement, Spectrum said “continuing to maintain our operations, while applying the latest CDC guidelines, ensures we provide these vital communications which help flatten the curve and protect the country. We are reviewing our business and employee continuity plans daily, and will adjust accordingly.” 

Price Gouging Complaints Flood Kentucky Attorney General’s Office, But Details Scarce Tuesday, Mar 24 2020 

The Kentucky Attorney General’s office is investigating hundreds of complaints from consumers about alleged price gouging as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the state.

The office tallied 860 complaints by Monday afternoon, said Attorney General Daniel Cameron. 

The complaints have flooded into the office since Gov. Andy Beshear declared a state of emergency on March 6 and issued an order prohibiting price gouging the next day. 

In an interview Tuesday, Cameron said the complaints are primarily related to the sale of consumer food items, emergency and medical supplies. The alleged violators include brick and mortar shops and online retailers, but Cameron declined to provide details, citing ongoing investigations. He said his office has issued letters to some companies, but has yet to issue any fines.

Companies can face civil fines up to $25,000 for violating the state’s price gouging laws.

A company can be found in violation of the state’s price gouging laws if they are found to be selling a good or service for a price “which is grossly in excess of the price prior to the declaration” of a state of emergency.

Prices that are more than 10 percent higher than they were before a state of emergency is declared may be in violation of the law.

The law also includes certain categories for services subject to price gouging enforcement. They include consumer food items; goods or services used for emergency cleanup; emergency supplies; medical supplies; home heating oil; building materials; housing; transportation, freight, and storage services; and gasoline or other motor fuels.

Cameron said his office is taking an “all hands on deck” approach to investigating price gouging complaints, even pulling in staff attorneys who don’t regularly focus on consumer matters.

“This office is responsible for upholding the safety of the people of the state,” he said. “We stand ready to do so.”

State law mandates price gouging orders can only remain in effect for 15-day increments and can only be extended for three additional 15-day increments.

Cameron declined to say if additional extensions would be needed presently, and said those conversations would be had when the time comes.

The state’s price gouging laws were cemented in statute in 2004, and can only be enacted by the governor. Since 2008, online state records show the law has been put into effect 19 times — but they nearly always come in response to severe weather. In fact, Beshear’s two most recent orders — the original order, and an extension last week — are the only instances in which price gouging prohibitions were put in place for something other than weather incidents.

Cameron also warned of scams during the pandemic, especially those from people posing as government officials connected to the Centers for Disease Control or UNICEF.

“There are folks that are trying to take advantage of the moment by passing themselves off as legitimate entities,” he said.

He also said his office is paying attention to predatory lending practices.

“You do everything you can to be vigilant, to make sure [people] are not being defrauded in this uncertain moment,” he said. “We are standing the gap.”

Residents can file a complaint with the Attorney General’s office online here or call 1-888-432-9257.

Anxiety In Appalachian Coal Country: First The Mines Closed, Then Came Coronavirus Monday, Mar 23 2020 

As the economic fallout from the coronavirus continues to reshape our lives, small-town business owners are worried about the future. Whitesburg, Kentucky —  a town already struggling from the decline in the coal industry — is grappling with a new and serious challenge as the effort to contain the disease brings deep economic pain. 

The Appalachian Regional Commission still considers Letcher County, where Whitesburg is located, and many of the surrounding counties, “distressed” because of high unemployment, high poverty rates, and low per-capita income. Much of that distress came from a decline in coal jobs: There were fewer than 100 coal miners in Letcher County in 2017, down from 13,000 in 2009.

Despite the challenges, Whitesburg is a fabulous town. I know because I live there. It’s got lots of public art. There’s a great walking trail right along the river, a community kitchen, more live music than you could shake a stick at. And it’s full of people who are passionate about building a diverse and sustainable community, who have worked diligently for years to create a thriving downtown.

All of that is to say, Whitesburg is fragile. And the economic fallout from the coronavirus is likely to destabilize this place, and places like it, harder and faster than it might in larger cities. 

In order to limit community spread of coronavirus, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear banned dine-in service at all Kentucky restaurants, effective 5 p.m. on Monday, March 16. 

To see how the ban is going to impact local restaurants, I walk down the street to Heritage Kitchen, my go-to spot for lunch. 

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Heritage Kitchen was empty Tuesday as staff reacted to a ban on dine-in service.

It was eerily quiet. Chairs were up on tables. Server Amber Bailey fixes herself a cup of coffee and we sit six feet apart to talk about what this meant for her. 

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” Bailey says. “My boyfriend has a full-time job. But I have a lot of friends who work in the restaurant industry, you know, waitresses and bartenders, and they don’t have anybody else. So I’m more worried for them than I am for myself.”

Brad Shepherd owns Heritage. “Our primary business has always been the dine-in,” he says. “We’ve always done some take-out and delivery, but that’s all supplemental to the dine-in.”

Shepherd plans to stay open for take-out and delivery for one month and re-evaluate, but he’s worried if the crisis goes on longer than that, he’ll have to shut down. Even by the end of that month, he says, he’ll be dipping into his own savings to keep the restaurant afloat. Just like Amber Bailey, Shepherd isn’t just worried for himself. 

“It really does take all of us to create a sense of a vibrant business atmosphere,” he said. “So losing any one of us permanently would be a devastating blow.”

Ripple Effects

“I don’t foresee every business making it through this,” said Alison Davis, Executive Director of the Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky at the University of Kentucky. Her organization has helped rural coal-reliant communities transition away from fossil fuels, and prepare for crises like natural disasters. When we’ve tried to prepare communities to be resilient after disasters, this is not the kind of disaster we’ve tried to prepare communities for,” Davis says.  

Uncertainty remains regarding how or whether the coronavirus crisis will overwhelm hospitals, and what the economic fallout will be from extended forced closures of many American industries. But most projections look serious. A recent white paper from the MITRE Corp., a not-for-profit company that advises the federal government on national security matters, warned that the rapid rate of new cases in the U.S. could require 90 percent isolation of the public in order to stop the spread of the virus. 

Still, Davis says, rural communities have real strengths they can build on right now. “It is the local people right now who are determining their chance of success post this disease,” she said. “I get excited because I know some of these communities, they have really rallied. It is, we have been together, we know each other, we know our strengths, we know our formal and informal leaders. We’re going to figure something out.”

Uncertain Future

Back at Heritage Kitchen, server Amber Bailey is already thinking about how to support her community. “If we end up shutting our doors here, then I can help some of my other friends who may have little ones where their daycares are gone.”

Projections show unemployment in rural Kentucky already skyrocketing, and it’s only going to get worse: According to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, the Cabinet for Education and Workforce Development received about 23,600 unemployment claims in just three days, up from about 2,000 in a typical week. 

Bailey still has hours. And she still knows exactly how I like my burger when I call to order takeout. But across the street, downtown pub Streetside has laid off its servers indefinitely. 

Coronavirus Cancellations Deplete Purses of Louisville Hotels, Airbnbs Saturday, Mar 21 2020 

The coronavirus pandemic has struck hard at Louisville hotels and Airbnb’s.

At the Brown Hotel, Director of Operations Volker Wellmann said an unprecedented number of events have been cancelled, and business is at a standstill. Some of the hotel’s 200 employees have been laid off, but no floors have been closed, he said.

Wellmann declined to reveal how much the Brown Hotel lost in room cancellations. He has talked with other hotel staff and based on those discussions, he believes the industry is averaging occupancy of around 17%.

“We’re already going through the motions of, ‘How do we get out of this quickly?’” Wellmann said of the Brown Hotel management. “We need to be somewhat frugal, but we’re going to stay productive. There’s a lot of work to be done here and we’re attacking this on a very, glass half-full kind of approach.”

More than a dozen hotels, including the Omni, Seelbach and Galt House, did not return requests for comment. Louisville Hotel Association President and Marriott Louisville General Manager David Greene did not respond to requests for comment.

A press release from the American Hotel and Lodging Association estimates 37,025 hotel industry workers have lost their jobs in Kentucky because of the coronavirus. Many hotels and Airbnb hosts rely on guests traveling for the Kentucky Derby, which has been postponed until September.

Key Source Properties CEO Jonathan Klunk owns more than 65 short term rental and bed & breakfast units in Louisville. Klunk said Key Source lost around $200,000 in room cancellations just this week, and he expects more cancellations are ahead. The group says it has discounted rooms offered to essential travelers, medical staff and people self-isolating.

Ben Botkins, Founder of Parkside Bikes and co-owner of the Bed & Bike Airbnb, said all reservations for his business have been cancelled. Botkins stressed that his situation is not as dire as others — he expects some of his tenants who work in restaurants are facing worse situations, and will be unable to pay rent. But he still faces property taxes and a mortgage.

Three months, he said, could be the difference between being comfy and being broke.

“I was expectant for everyone to be happy [this time of year]…I don’t know what to do,” Botkins said. “We can only hold on for so long, and something’s going to have to give.”

Remote Work, Social Distancing Not Offered To Some Workers Thursday, Mar 19 2020 

Bars and restaurants are closed. Schools are shuttered. Several major corporations, like Ford, have suspended operations. Others, like Humana, have allowed many employees to work from home. 

Even Kentucky’s sacred trifecta — church, basketball games and horse races — have all been canceled or postponed for the foreseeable future.

But for many, going to work is the only option, despite growing fears about coronavirus. 

One woman, who asked not to be named to protect her job, works at a call center for Chewy, the pet supply brand, in Newburg. She said up to 300 employees pass through the cramped space in the course of a day. 

“We are crammed in there like sardines,” she said. “All our desks are about three feet wide, and so we all sit so close together because our call center is so tiny. You’re just constantly surrounded by people, and everyone is anxious.”

She said Chewy is experiencing increased demand as more people switch to online ordering for things they otherwise would have picked up in person. The company is offering additional overtime, which she said many employees are taking advantage of to earn more money — “because they’re all expecting to get coronavirus.”

Chewy provides up to two weeks paid time off, she said, depending on how much you work. 

She hopes the company will find a way for employees to work remotely, because she isn’t financially prepared to go without a paycheck if she can’t work. She earns $13.50 an hour, and spends a lot of her paycheck on rent and medications. 

“I would not be able to pay my bills,” she said. “I have no idea what I would do. And the fear right now is, nobody’s really hiring.”

She said she’s particularly in the hole this month. She preemptively stocked up on over-the-counter cold medicine, in case she gets coronavirus.

Chewy did not respond to request for comment. But according to documents reviewed by KyCIR, Chewy is allowing employees who have to miss work due to coronavirus-related issues, like school closures, to take unpaid time off without losing points in the attendance system. The call center has also added an additional cleaning person, and the company’s health insurance policy has waived co-pays for telehealth visits. 

Other call center employees are facing similar decisions. At a Spectrum call center in Louisville, one employee said people are frustrated by a lack of communication from the corporate headquarters. So far, the plan is to keep everyone — which this employee said is up to 500 people in the course of a day — working in the call center as usual.

This employee, who asked not to be named to protect their job, said they understood why it was important for Spectrum customers to be able to get help with any internet or cable issues during a time like this. But they hoped the company would find a way to let them do their jobs from home.

“It’s needlessly reckless” to force people to choose between a paycheck or their health, they said.

“In all the years that I’ve worked here, as much as I’ve heard people bash the cable company, they’ve always been a fantastic place to work,” they said. “This is the first time it’s felt like employees are being pushed to the wayside.”

The company has provided hand sanitizer, and the regular cleaning crews have been more thorough than usual. For now, they said, that’s the best they can hope for.

“It would take someone getting diagnosed or the state stepping in and saying, ‘these types of businesses have to close and have to come up with other options by this date.’”

In a statement, Spectrum said they are working to provide internet, phone and TV services to customers, “including critical institutions like hospitals, first responders and government facilities. During this time, continuing to maintain our operations, while applying the latest CDC guidelines, ensures we provide these vital communications which help flatten the curve and protect the country.”

Some businesses aren’t just hanging on during the coronavirus — they’re actually expanding. And these are not jobs that can be done from home. 

As more people turn to online shopping, Amazon is hiring 4,500 workers in Kentucky and Indiana, including at least 550 in the Louisville area. The company is hiring 100,000 nationwide And they’re incentivizing employees to come to work despite coronavirus fears: They’ve upped pay by $2 an hour, to at least $17, through April, and are offering unlimited unpaid time off through the end of March. Employees diagnosed with coronavirus, or required to self-quarantine, will receive up to two weeks paid time off, as well. 

At the UPS Worldport, Louisville’s biggest private employer, employees are needed at work, pandemic or not. 

“UPS is continuing to move shipments that are saving lives and livelihoods,” the company said in an emailed statement. “In spite of what’s happening globally, the everyday person still has real needs that need to be served and UPS is doing that.”

The company has enhanced cleaning and added additional employee shuttles to encourage social distancing, according to the statement. UPS also helped start the One Louisville: COVID-19 Response Fund that Mayor Greg Fischer announced Wednesday. 

But some employees say little has actually changed to make them feel more safe at work during coronavirus. 

“They’re doing the absolute minimum right now,” said one employee. “I don’t think social distancing has been a priority. If they need us to work — they need to be taking general safety precautions.”

This 20-year-old employee, who didn’t want to be named to protect his job, works at UPS as part of the Metro College program, through which students at the University of Louisville or Jefferson Community and Technical College get tuition reimbursement in exchange for working third shift at UPS. 

Even though U of L has closed for the semester, he has to work through June 1 to get the tuition reimbursement. He said otherwise, he’d be home in northern Kentucky right now, taking his online classes and preparing to ride out the pandemic with his family. 

According to a letter he received from UPS and provided to KyCIR, the company “has no plans to shut down operations.”

“If an employee were to become ill with the virus, we would notify co-workers to seek medical treatment and clean the area in which they work, following CDC and OSHA guidelines,” the letter said. 

He’s concerned because he has no time off saved up, and if he needs to self-quarantine, he’d need to get a doctor’s note to get the time off. 

“I wonder how easy that would be to get,” he said, “or even if it would be the smartest thing as a healthy, young person to go out and chase after a doctor’s note when other people need those services more.”

But, he said, you have to see the silver lining in things. Many of his friends work in the food service industry. Despite his concerns about the close quarters and cleanliness at UPS, at least he’s still getting paid. 

Ohio Valley Automakers Hit Brakes To Limit Coronavirus Transmission Wednesday, Mar 18 2020 

Automakers across the Ohio Valley are temporarily closing their plants in response to the coronavirus pandemic. That includes the big three U.S. automakers — Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler — and Toyota.  

In a release, GM said it will be suspending manufacturing in North America due to market conditions and to deep clean facilities. The closures are expected to last until about the end of the month. From there production will be re-evaluated on a week-to-week basis.

United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble agreed with the GM decision, saying in the statement that the suspension of work will help protect the health and safety of the union’s members. “This will give us time to review best practices and to prevent the spread of this disease,” Gamble said.

Ford, which operates six manufacturing facilities in the Ohio Valley, is also suspending operation until about the end of the month. 

Todd Dunn, president of UAW Local 862 in Kentucky, said Ford is working on a long-term plan for workers to practice social distancing and keep workers safe.  

Kentucky is home to GM’s Corvette plant in Bowling Green, which employs about 1,400 people, and a Ford facility in Louisville which employs about 4,000 people assembling the Ford Escape and Lincoln Corsair. Dunn said he supports the decision to temporarily shut down. 

“They’re going to come in and try to clean as much as possible, deep clean areas,” he said. “Hard part is you can’t get everything.”  

Toyota said in a statement that it will temporarily suspend production at all of its plants in North America from March 23 to the 24.

Toyota’s facility in Georgetown, Kentucky, is Toyota’s largest vehicle manufacturing plant in the world, and employs more than 8,000 people. The company also has a facility in Putnam County, West Virginia, which employs about 550 people. The manufacturing facility in Georgetown, Kentucky, will also cancel Saturday production. 

The temporary suspension of production will likely have significant ripple effects well beyond those directly employed, as dozens of regional companies supply parts and services for the automakers.  

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