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Amid Minimum Wage Hikes in Many States, Labor Secretary Says Federal Rate ($7.25/hr) Should Stay Where It Is

A boost for many low-wage workers: As economist Ernie Tedeschi notes in The New York Times, a decade has passed since the federal minimum wage increased even a cent. But millions of minimum wage workers earn more than the $7.25 set by Congress. That’s because 29 states, plus Washington, D.C., have set their own minimum pay rates, some as high as $12 and scheduled to increase to $15. And a “true sea change” is happening at the local level, as some city and county governments set their own rates, Tedeschi writes. While a number of studies have found that increasing minimum wages can hurt workers who see their jobs or hours cut, Tedeschi points to new studies that suggest those downsides have been overstated. In any case, there will be more data to help clarify things, he writes, as the trend toward a locally-set wage floor continues. Colorado lawmakers have just passed a bill overturning that state’s ban on letting municipalities set their own local minimum wage, Route Fifty reports. Meanwhile, $7.25 an hour remains the minimum in 21 states. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta again told lawmakers last week that he opposes raising the federal minimum.

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Your brain on pollution: Air pollution causes dementia. That’s what some leading researchers of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions now believe they can say with confidence backed by a growing body of research, some of which was inspired by Aaron Reuben’s reporting on the topic in Mother Jones in 2015. Then, the link was a suspected one. Now it’s clear that one causes the other, Caleb Finch, leader of  the University of Southern California’s Air Pollution and Brain Disease research network told Reuben. A spot of hope: Better air quality–surprise!–improves health. One study looked at dozens of counties that were found, in the 2000s, to be in violation of new air quality rules and forced to quickly make improvements, and it compared disease rates there and in  counties that also had poor air quality but that escaped regulation under the new standards. As air quality improved, older people who lived there developed Alzheimer’s disease at lower rates.

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Disappearing act: A team of leading scientists from across the globe have issued a report warning that as many as 1 million species are on the brink of extinction and that the consequences for human health are dire, writes Darryl Fears of The Washington Post. The rate of extinction today is unprecedented, according to the report published by the United Nations. Its authors point to climate change threatening coral reefs that play a key role in supporting fisheries humans rely on, pesticides killing off pollinators that are essential to food production, land development eating away at wetlands worldwide and agriculture consuming as much as 75 percent of the world’s freshwater resources. They suggest there is time, though little, to reverse course. The authors make a hard sell based on the effects on humankind. Journalist Ben Goldfarb noted on Twitter what that suggests about the limits of our empathy: “A million species are going extinct — sucks for us!”

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A ‘victory for patients’: The FDA has announced it is ending a program that hid reports of medical device malfunctions and injuries from the public, including from doctors and hospitals using those devices. The decision follows an investigation by Christina Jewett of Kaiser Health News that found more than 1 million reports had been kept secret just since 2016 through a little-known “alternative summary reporting” system. That system had been in place for about 20 years. The FDA said it plans to open past reports to the public within weeks, Jewett writes.

  • Also: The FDA has looked the other way, more or less, as an industry has grown up around marketing amniotic stem cell injections, typically from donated birth tissue, as a cure-all for a range of conditions, from aching joints to Alzheimer’s disease, despite the lack of evidence that they work as advertised. An investigation by ProPublica and The New Yorker found an industry defined by “unscientific methods, deceptive marketing, price gouging and disregard for patients’ well-being.”
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At Boeing, an error and silence: Boeing planned for a key warning light in its redesigned 737 Max to be a standard safety feature. But most of the planes the company produced didn’t include the indicator meant to signal a disagreement in sensors that track which direction the plane is pointing. When the company realized its error, The New York Times reports, it conducted an assessment and determined that the missing indicator didn’t compromise safety, so it did not alert the FAA or its customers. At least, not until after a Lion Air flight crashed into the Java Sea in October killing 189 people. The company and the FAA then issued public notices, but they did not indicate that the light was meant to be a standard safety feature, David Gelles and Natalie Kitroeff write. The FAA deemed the omission to be an issue of “low risk.” Then a second 737 Max crashed in Ethiopia, killing 157 people. While it’s not clear if the warning light could have prevented the crashes, the indicator was intended to provide information to pilots about a problem with the anti-stall system that is at the center of both investigations.

  • Also: Boeing plans to replace 900 inspectors with technology that can inspect its aircraft with less human oversight, but the FAA hasn’t signed off on the change, which has plenty of critics, USA Today reports. –– Barclays downgraded Boeing shares this week after a survey of airline passengers found that many will avoid flying on the Max 737, CNBC reports.
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Guilty verdicts in opioid conspiracy: Five former managers of opioid maker Insys, including co-founder John. N. Kapoor, each face up to 20 years in prison after a federal jury convicted them of conspiracy to boost profits through illegal marketing and prescribing of the opioid drug Subsys, Joseph Walker of The Wall Street Journal writes. During the trial, a physician testified that Insys payoffs to doctors worked. Gavin Awerbuch, who has pleaded guilt to health care fraud, said he prescribed the drug to people he knew were abusing it and to patients who didn’t need it. And Insys paid him $138,000 over about 18 months. “I wanted to keep my numbers up in terms of the Subsys prescriptions,” he said.

  • Also: McKesson Corp. has agreed to pay $37 million over five years to West Virginia to settle a lawsuit alleging that the company fueled the opioid crisis by failing to flag problematic orders of narcotics, bringing the total that state has collected from drug distributors to $84 million, The Washington Post reports. West Virginia had the highest overdose rate of any state as of 2017. –– Tens of thousands of patients at a large drug recovery program in Texas and Louisiana over the years were required to work in warehouses and at oil refineries and other businesses without pay, according to an investigation by Reveal of the Center for Investigative Reporting.
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Safety rollback for offshore rigs: Nine years ago, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers and caused oil–about 4 million barrels–to spill into the Gulf of Mexico over several weeks. Now the Trump administration is taking steps to undo some of the key safety regulations put in place following that tragedy, which the industry considered onerous. The rollback is not as severe as it could be, according to The Washington Post editorial board. But it’s significant, requiring less testing of blowout prevention devices and an easing of safety reporting requirements, according to The New York Times.

  • Also: Texas Packing Company in San Angelo faces proposed penalties of $615,640 after federal inspectors found the company failed to properly maintain a large ammonia refrigeration unit and exposed workers to releases of hazardous chemicals. –– DDG Construction Services faces proposed penalties of $98,693 for failing to provide proper fall protection to workers at a commercial construction site in Springfield, Missouri.

Chelsea Conaboy is a FairWarning contributor and freelance writer and editor specializing in health care. Find more of her work at chelseaconaboy.com.