Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.
A third of all freight that moves in the United States moves by rail. That includes everything from cars to computer parts to corn. On Friday, those trains could stop in a national railroad worker strike.
Trucking companies say there is no way they could pick up the slack, and a rail strike would even cause problems for truckers who depend on rail to move shipping containers. This “intermodal” system underpins how America’s transportation system works.
Passenger services including commuter rails would also be affected in some places. Starting today, Amtrak says it will stop some long-distance runs to prevent passengers from starting on a journey and getting stuck. Transit services in Denver and New York said they do not expect to be interrupted even if there is a strike. The Maryland Department of Transportation’s MARC service to Washington, D.C., would be affected, as would California’s Metrolink, which serves Los Angeles and other communities.
There are 13 unions involved in the negotiations. 11 of them have reached a tentative agreement but the largest two unions have not. Those two unions represent 57,000 union workers covered under railroad union contracts. Even those who have come away with a tentative deal have not gotten approval from their membership.
Trains accounted for about 28% of total US freight movements, according to government data for 2020, making it the busiest mode after trucks. Half of that traffic moves bulk commodities — particularly food, energy, chemicals, metals and wood products — as well as automobiles and industrial parts. The other 50% consists mostly of shipping containers carrying smaller consumer goods.
Pay, of course, is one issue in these contract talks, but working conditions are a key sticking point. The Washington Post includes this passage:
The remaining two unions slated to strike are infuriated by the board’s lack of strong proposals related to certain working conditions that they say are “destroying the lives” of their members, such as facing penalties for taking any time off. Labor groups say engineers and conductors have been fired for going to routine doctor’s appointments or family members’ funerals and can be on call for 14 consecutive days without a break, for up to 12 hours. They are also afforded no sick days.
“We’re facing the potential of a strike because the railroad refuses to grant one single day of sick time,” said Ron Kaminkow, a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, one of the unions that has not reached an agreement. “It’s about the phone rings at 2 a.m. to be at work at 4 a.m. after just 10 hours of rest prior. It’s about not knowing when you’re coming home and being penalized with discipline up to firing if you need to go to the doctor.”
Farmers are worried that a rail strike would come at the start of the harvest season. Grain storage bins will run out of room fast if they can’t send farm products out on rail.
Even as Americans read Tuesday that the Consumer Price Index shows inflation is stalling, a national railroad strike would send prices on transported goods upward again.
New college rankings reignite fights over who’s in and who’s out
U.S. News and World Report just published its new college rankings. Since 1983, schools have jostled hard to make the list of best schools.
At the top of the list are all of the usual suspects:
You can also search the list by state and major metro areas.
As the latest rankings came out Monday, they faced mounting questions about the data that underlie them, the methods used to sort colleges and universities and the intense competition from other publications that churn out best-this and best-that lists in search of clicks from college-bound teenagers and parents.
Those data looked particularly suspect in July, when U.S. News bumped Columbia University from the lofty No. 2 perch among national universities to the hazy status of “unranked,” after questions were raised about accuracy of figures from the Ivy League school in New York. Columbia said in June it would not transmit data this year as it reviewed the matter.
U.S. News provides a guide on how to use these lists:
The rankings provide a good starting point for students trying to compare schools. The four overall rankings – National Universities, Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities and Regional Colleges – are based on factors that indicate academic quality, such graduation rates and faculty resources.
But the best school for each student, experts say, is one that will most completely meet his or her needs, which go beyond academics. This is why U.S. News offers dozens of more-focused rankings and lists to help prospective undergraduate students compare schools based on the qualities that matter most to them, such as ethnic diversity on campus and percent of students who live in university housing.
Chances are, there’s a ranking or list that’s relevant to you. For example, veterans can research the schools that are best-equipped to serve them; students interested in historically Black colleges and universities can explore the HBCU rankings; and international students can learn which schools already have a strong non-U.S. student community on campus.
Will states tax student loan forgiveness?
President Joe Biden says the federal government will not count student loan forgiveness as federal income for the sake of figuring taxes. But, depending on where you live, your state may see things differently. The North Carolina Department of Revenue, for example, just posted a note that says:
As part of the American Rescue Plan, Congress enacted Section 108(f)(5) of the Internal Revenue Code to expand the types of student loan forgiveness that would not be treated as taxable income for purposes of federal income tax.
The North Carolina General Assembly did not adopt Section 108(f)(5) of the IRC for purposes of the state income tax. Therefore, student loan forgiveness excluded pursuant to IRC 108(f)(5) is currently considered taxable income in North Carolina.
North Carolina is not alone. Arkansas, Minnesota, Mississippi and Wisconsin may tax student loan forgiveness too.
9 million people over age 50 will qualify for student loan forgiveness
A lot of the news coverage about student loan forgiveness has focused on young people who can’t buy homes or launch their lives the way they want to because they are saddled with student debt. But 9 million Americans over age 50 will benefit from loan forgiveness, too.
I had dinner with a teacher last week who ran up student loans to get her master’s degree after years on the job.
CNN says, “20% of the roughly 43 million federal student loan borrowers” are over age 50.
The number of older borrowers with student loan debt has been on the rise. About 1.6 million more borrowers over the age of 50 have federal student loan debt now than in 2017, according to federal student loan data.
The push for evidence that college educations provide a return on investment
Inside Higher Ed takes an unvarnished look at how the Biden student debt forgiveness plan calls into question how valuable some college experiences really are compared to their price tag. To put this into context journalists know, we all could name some schools that provide a journalism education that will nearly guarantee the graduate will land a job that they could not have gotten without a degree, and we all know of some schools that produce graduates who leave school with next to no work experience.
The Georgetown center found that more than half the students at 1,233 different postsecondary institutions—30 percent of the nation’s colleges—earn less 10 years after enrolling than someone with only a high school diploma.
Many Americans have come to realize they have been shortchanged. A survey conducted by Strada Education Network and Gallup found that only about a quarter (26 percent) of working American adults who attended college strongly agree that what they learned is relevant to their careers and their daily lives. And large numbers of people with college degrees—41 percent of recent grads and a third of all college grads—report being underemployed, stuck in jobs that don’t ask them to use the skills and knowledge they learned in college.
To rectify this situation, colleges and universities must do a better job of teaching in-demand skills that students need, and employers seek. Institutions of higher education must help learners from the moment they step foot on campus make informed decisions about their career aspirations.
You can find local angles by following the leads Inside Higher Ed provides here:
But most importantly, colleges must be transparent about the payoffs—or lack thereof—for all their academic majors and degree programs. The University of Texas system, the California Community Colleges system, the State University System of Florida and the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard publish valuable student debt and/or salary information for graduates of different colleges and majors that can help learners make informed choices about courses of study and careers so they can maximize their educational return on investment. This sort of detailed data, along with local and regional internship and job postings and growth trends for various industries and professions, should be a standard feature at all colleges and universities.
FDA schedules hearing on over-the-counter birth control pills
Nov. 18 might prove to be an important date for the future of how Americans purchase birth control pills. The Food and Drug Administration will consider whether to approve over-the-counter sales of a medication produced by pharmaceutical company Perrigo.
Why is America lowering flags for the queen?
President Biden ordered flags over federal buildings to be lowered in honor of Queen Elizabeth until Monday evening (sunset on the day of the queen’s interment). The president has that authority as part of the U.S. Flag Code, which says, “In the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries, the flag is to be displayed at half-staff according to Presidential instructions or orders, or in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law.”
In some cases, the Flag Code prescribes how long American flags should be lowered:
The flag shall be flown at half-staff 30 days from the death of the President or a former President; 10 days from the day of death of the Vice President, the Chief Justice or a retired Chief Justice of the United States, or the Speaker of the House of Representatives; from the day of death until interment of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a Secretary of an executive or military department, a former Vice President, or the Governor of a State, territory, or possession; and on the day of death and the following day for a Member of Congress.
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