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How are Texas businesses going to react to the forthcoming criminalization of abortion?

It’s too soon to say. Certainly too soon for most of them to say.

In overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court presented corporate America with a question that may prove uncomfortable for big companies headquartered in states such as Texas, where abortion has effectively been banned.

Several national companies — including Disney, Goldman Sachs, and Meta, the parent company of Facebook — reacted the Dobbs v Jackson ruling handed down Friday by announcing that they would reimburse the cost of employees who need to travel out of state to access abortion care. Companies including Apple, Amazon, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan, SalesForce, Bumble and Levi’s had already announced similar policies, in anticipation of such a ruling or after draconian restrictions on abortion were adopted by states such as Texas, which last year banned virtually all abortions after the six-week mark of pregnancy.

But many Houston companies have not been forthcoming about whether they will modify their benefits to help employees get access to reproductive health services.

“We do not have a comment on this issue,” said Kinder Morgan, contacted by the Houston Chronicle on Monday.

“We decline to contribute at this time,” said EOG Services, an oil and gas company.

“We have no comment on this,” said Hines, the real estate firm.

[…]

Experts say no Texas laws prohibit companies from paying for travel for abortion services. A 2017 state law limits the extent to which conventional insurance companies can cover elective abortion, but makes no mention of travel.

“I don’t see they currently have liability if they pay for travel expenses for a lawful, out-of-state abortion,” said Seth J. Chandler, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center.

Whether companies decide to pay for travel expenses may have something to do with how it will affect their ability to attract talent, Chandler said.

“There is an issue of how you would attract employees, if there is a type of health care they perceive they may need is illegal,” Chandler said. “One vehicle for companies to overcome that reluctance is to say, ‘We’ll pay for your travel.’”

It’s not clear to me that they wouldn’t face civil litigation under the vigilante provisions of SB8, but even if they don’t, the Handmaid’s Tale caucus of the legislature will be working to change that.

Several companies have already announced they would cover expenses for an employee who has to travel for an abortion, including Walt Disney Co., Meta and JPMorgan Chase.

Those companies could be punished under the “accomplice liability” section of Texas, which applies to all residents and, according to Cain, also businesses.

“So, it also not just goes after the doctors, but it’s going to be going after those giving rides, supporting it, procuring the means, assisting, anybody that is an accomplice to the procurement of an abortion is also then committing a crime,” the Republican said.

That of course is chief woman hater Briscoe Cain, who says in the story that prosecuting “abortion crimes” is one of his top priorities. Let’s get real, it’s his main driving force. If Briscoe Cain gets his way, a whole lot of people are going to go to jail. That’s the reality we’re in right now.

There are a couple of ways that businesses can respond. They can cower and submit to the likes of Cain, and throw a bunch of their employees under the bus in the process. They can get the hell out of Texas or not come here in the first place; I suspect some will do that, though it’s hard to say how many. Allowing some employees to not live here would be another variant of this. I hope we get some real data and not just anecdotes about that.

And of course, they can fight. They can support candidates who support abortion rights, and other things that SCOTUS and the radicals that are currently in power are threatening, like same sex marriage and LGBTQ rights. That would be a huge change on their part, because keeping their heads down and not offending the powers that be is always the easier road to take. But it has the potential to have by far the biggest effect. It’s a choice they have, that’s all I’m saying. Providing expenses for employees who have to travel out of state to get reproductive health care is a reasonable choice as a short-term stopgap. But there’s only so long that can work. They can’t avoid the choice forever.

Texas misses the train

Greg Abbott’s border hostage-taking has a cost.

The Mexican government said it intends to shift long-range plans to build a trade railway connection worth billions of dollars from Texas to New Mexico in the wake of Gov. Greg Abbott’s stepped-up border inspections last month, which were widely criticized as being financially damaging and may now leave a lasting impact on relations between Texas and its No. 1 trading partner.

Mexican Economy Minister Tatiana Clouthier said a planned rail and ports expansion — known as the T-MEC Corridor — to connect the Pacific port of Mazatlán to the Canadian city of Winnipeg would not use Texas, but instead the rail line would be routed along the far edge of West Texas up through Santa Teresa, N.M., about 20 miles west of downtown El Paso.

“We’re now not going to use Texas,” Clouthier said at a conference April 28 in Mexico City. “We can’t leave all the eggs in one basket and be hostages to someone who wants to use trade as a political tool.”

Clouthier was referring to what Mexican and U.S. officials and business leaders on both sides of the border have described as chaos generated by Abbott’s April 6 order requiring that all commercial trucks coming from Mexico to Texas go through “enhanced” safety inspections. Abbott said the move was necessary to crack down on human and drug smugglers.

Critics pushed back, saying the governor’s move was motivated by politics and noting that commercial trucks are already checked by U.S. federal authorities. They also noted that border security is a federal responsibility, and that while DPS officials can conduct vehicle safety inspections, they have no authority to conduct searches.

[…]

During a visit to Nuevo Leon, Mexico’s Foreign Minster Marcelo Ebrard told Milenio TV Sunday night that the stepped up inspections were “an extortion scheme, or rather it is extortion: I close the border and you have to sign whatever I say. That’s not a deal, a deal is when you and I are in agreement on something.”

Abbott’s office didn’t return a request for comment.

Jerry Pacheco, president of the Santa Teresa-based Border Industrial Association, called Clouthier’s announcement “a very positive step for New Mexico,” but cautioned that such a project will take years to complete and “anything can happen in that time.”

“I don’t think they’ve even gotten to finish a design yet,” Pacheco said. “So this is very much in the preliminary stages, but the very fact that we’re being discussed in the early stages is a positive thing. If this particular project doesn’t work out, there’ll be other projects that the Mexican government will have and they’ll speak favorably of New Mexico because they know we want to work with them in a constructive way.”

Pacheco said he’s already seen a sea change from the business community in Mexico and the United States.

“It’s been very interesting, but since Gov. Abbott’s truck inspections went away, our traffic numbers remain higher than normal in terms of northbound cargo shipments, which leads me to believe that what I thought would be a temporary fix is actually going to stick in the long term,” he said. Ciudad Juárez and El Paso business leaders “are referring to us now as a ‘very effective delivery route.’ ”

[…]

In many ways, Abbott’s inspections only boosted Santa Teresa, an already thriving community with a port of entry where companies also produce materials and components for factories in Mexico that assemble everything from computers, wind blades, consumer electronics and processed foods to automobiles and industrial equipment that they then ship back to U.S.-based businesses.

Industrial parks in Santa Teresa house big warehouses for products constantly crisscrossing the border, backed by a transportation network that includes an airport and railroad and distribution firms that manage the constant movement of goods in all directions. The entire industrial zone operates as one of the nation’s largest inland ports for truck-and-train transshipments across North America, although Laredo is the No. 1 crossing point for commercial rigs.

The Santa Teresa port has long offered a rapid alternative to congested border crossings in El Paso, where it generally takes two hours or more for northbound trucks to enter the U.S. In contrast, it takes it can less than 20 minutes in Santa Teresa, according to Pacheco.

“For businesses who haven’t used Santa Teresa Port of Entry, think of this alternative as a great, necessary idea,” said Franz Felhaber, president of Felhaber and Company Inc., a customs brokerage company that serves clients on both sides of the border.

I believe the technical term for all of this is “fuck around and find out”. Do things that are bad for business and business will look for opportunities elsewhere – that’s just Capitalism 101. I’m old enough to remember when Republicans cared about that sort of thing, but culture wars and identity have supplanted those values, so this is what we get.

Bloomberg News adds on:

It’s hard to quantify the economic impact of shifting a single rail line, it’s unclear what authority Mexico’s government has to dictate where the crossing would be, and the entire project is still in the very early stages and would take years to complete if it does come to fruition. And to be sure, Mexico has a history of announcing massive infrastructure projects that never get off the ground. But the minister’s comments underscore the frustration the government has with Abbott and the risk of jeopardizing a tight trading relationship.

Mexico is Texas’ largest trading partner, with more than $400 billion of goods crossing annually, everything from avocados that get turned into guacamole to chassis that get turned into pickup trucks. Exports from Texas are equivalent to 17% of the state’s economy, and about one-third of Texas exports go to Mexico.

The significance of the minister’s announcement is that “it’s not just necessarily them being hostile, but them taking a concrete step,” said Nitya Pandalai-Nayar, an economics professor at University of Texas at Austin. “Firms all over the country trade with Mexico, and many of them use Texas as the base for shipping to Mexico.”

You know the old joke about getting a donkey’s attention. Maybe this will get Greg Abbott’s.

Or maybe not. I have no doubt that Abbott and his minions will rabble-rouse over this – they’ll complain about “woke” companies and continue to throw billions of dollars at the border for the purpose of rounding up traffic violators and other misdemeanants, all for the purpose of ginning up the base. It’s been a successful electoral strategy for the most part (2018 being a notable exception), and they’re not going to change course now, or anytime soon without a strong reason to. That reason is, and can only be, losing a bunch of elections. The lesson that the business community needs to internalize is that the Republicans aren’t on their side any more. If they want their daddy’s Republican Party back, they need to get this current incarnation out of office. You and I know what they need to do, it’s just a matter of if they can figure it out. TPM, the Dallas Observer, Reform Austin, Daily Kos, the Current, and Dos Centavos have more.

You (probably) still have to get vaxxed if you work in Houston

I’m glad to see this, but there’s a huge question that this story doesn’t address, much less answer.

Local companies say they will maintain their vaccination policies despite last week’s Supreme Court ruling that struck down the Biden administration’s vaccination mandate for firms with more than 100 employees.

The Houston software company Hewlett Packard Enterprises, for example, said vaccinations are still required for employees to enter offices, work at clients’ sites, travel for business, or required for team members to enter work sites, work at third-party sites, and to travel or attend events on business. Those who decline to be vaccinated are required to work from home.

More than 90 percent of the company’s workforce is vaccinated, a company spokesperson said. The company has not yet decided whether to require booster shots.

[…]

The Houston chemical company LyondellBasell and CenterPoint, the Houston utility company, have not adopted vaccine mandates. They said they have COVID protocols in place and will continue to monitor them.

Corporate vaccine requirement increased the rate of vaccination among employees by 20 percent, according to a recent survey by the National Safety Council. The survey found 95 percent of workers at businesses with vaccine mandates were inoculated, compared to 75 percent among those at businesses without requirements.

At BakerRipley, employees are required to get vaccinated or tested weekly, the Houston charity said. Nearly 90 percent of its 1,200 employees are fully vaccinated.

Camden Property Trust, a national real estate company headquartered in Houston, put in vaccine requirements over the summer before Biden announced the mandate. Of its 746 Texas employees, 718, or about 96 percent, are vaccinated, said Ric Campo, CEO of Camden Property Trust said.

“We just had this discussion about safety and it’s about keeping teammates safe. We’ve done all the analysis and that’s what we think,” Campo said, “And once people had a rational discussion, and it wasn’t political, and it wasn’t ‘You do this or else’ people chose to vaccinate.”

The few who aren’t vaccinated must wear masks at work, Campo said.

Whether to require vaccinations is now in the hands of companies, said Seth J. Chandler, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center. It’s unlikely that Congress would pass new laws to give OSHA the authority that the Supreme Court says it now lacks to impose workplace vaccination requirements.

The story is about the effect of the SCOTUS ruling that blocked the Biden employer vaccination mandate. I’m happy that employers are mostly moving forward with whatever vaccine policies they already had in the works, but I have to ask: What about the state ban on such mandates? The original story line was that employers would be caught between conflicting orders, but that’s no longer the case. The thought that these employers are ignoring Abbott or have found a way around him is delightful, but how is it possible? What are their legal risks here? Is there a lawsuit against the Abbott’s order?

So I did some googling. While Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee urged businesses to sue Abbott over this order, as far as I can tell none have done so yet. Maybe they were waiting to see what happened with the federal mandate first. On the question of what Abbott’s order actually means, I found some interesting writing. For example:

The Order provides enforcement via fines. Specifically, non-compliant entities may be fined up to $1,000 per offense, while jail time is specifically excluded as a penalty. The Order’s language makes no exception for health-care providers such as hospitals and other related entities.

The Order also contemplates its own sunset upon the passage of overlapping legislation. Specifically, in the Order, Governor Abbot states that he is “adding this issue to the agenda” for an upcoming session of the Texas legislature, and that he “will rescind this [Order] upon the effective date of such legislation[.]”

Notably, the Order contradicts both the Governor’s own statements on the rights of private businesses within the state, and legal consensus regarding the ability of employers to mandate vaccinations in most cases. For example, in August, Governor Abbot issued an executive order banning public and governmental entities from enacting vaccine mandates, but explicitly left private entities to make their own decisions regarding the matter. At that time, a spokesman for the Governor’s office also commented that private businesses would be left to make their own decisions regarding the matter. The Order essentially closes that loophole.

The Order also contravenes existing legal precedent within the state regarding employer vaccine mandates. For example, in June 2021, the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Texas dismissed a lawsuit by 117 employees of Houston Methodist Hospital; who claimed Methodist’s policy requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 amounted to wrongful termination under the law, because the vaccine(s) are “experimental and dangerous.” Bridges v. Houston Methodist Hosp., CV H-21-1774, 2021 WL 2399994, at *1 (S.D. Tex. June 12, 2021). In no uncertain terms, the Order squarely contradicts the holding in Bridges.

[…]

The immediate impact of the Order on businesses who implemented vaccine mandates is unclear—especially in light of conflicting Federal mandates. For example, Texas-based Southwest Airlines and American Airlines have stated publicly that—regardless of the Order—they will continue to implement plans requiring employees be vaccinated, citing federal mandates for contractors and the forthcoming OSHA rule for private business with 100 or more employees. While nothing is certain, it is somewhat likely that OSHA rules and regulations would preempt the Order. But Texas businesses with fewer than 100 employees would still be subject to the Order, or future, related State legislation.

Regardless, in light of the Order’s language, any Texas business entity that previously required employees or customers be vaccinated should seek counsel and reexamine its accompanying policies or risk non-compliance with the Order. At a minimum, Texas businesses should—for now—consider adding exemption language to vaccine policies that mimic the Order’s “personal conscience” and “prior recovery from COVID-19” carve outs.

The fact that the order only calls for what appears to be a modest fine (though that may depend on how an “offense” is counted; if it’s per employee, that would quickly add up) and conflicts with an existing federal court ruling may be the reason for the lack of action on it. Here’s more:

Additional questions loom, such as whether the governor’s Order exceeds his authority – his prior Executive Orders regarding vaccinations and so-called vaccine passports governed only public employers and private companies who were receiving state funds. Additional uncertainties include likely legal challenges to the Order; possible conflicts with federal law; and how and to what extent EO-40 will be enforced. It is also unclear to what extent, if any, the State will actually enforce EO-40, which provides for fines of up to $1,000 per violation.

Companies with employees in Texas who have already begun requiring vaccinations can take a relatively low risk approach to dealing with the governor’s Order by modifying their policies to provide accommodations to employees who object to being vaccinated on the basis of “personal conscience” (which is not defined in EO-40) and for “prior recovery from COVID-19.” These practices can be modified as new federal rules are issued and/or legal challenges play out. Other options for responding the Order are discussed in more detail below.

[…]

EO-40 departs from the governor’s prior orders in other ways. The Vaccine Passport Ban prohibits state agencies from adopting policies or requiring proof of vaccination as a condition of receiving services. In a notable contrast, EO-40 does not expressly forbid proof of vaccination as a condition of employment. Instead, it specifically forbids an entity from “compelling receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine.” By aiming squarely on the act of receiving a vaccination as opposed to policies requiring proof of vaccination, the Order gives rise to more ambiguity. In other words, employers may argue that they are not “compelling receipt” of a vaccine so long as that they do not intend to strap an employee down to a chair and force a vaccine needle into a worker’s arm, which they do not. Instead, that worker always has a choice: they can refuse to get vaccinated, but the consequence is that they will lose their job. Thus, another question is whether employer policies requiring vaccination as a condition of employment would be considered coercive enough to be deemed a violation of EO-40’s bar on compelling receipt of a COVID-19 vaccination.

In a larger context, considering the Texas’ at-will employment environment and the narrow availability of a “wrongful termination” cause of action in Texas, it is not clear that an employer “compels” an individual to be vaccinated by making it a condition of employment.

That last bit was a key component of that Methodist vaccine lawsuit. My interpretation of all this – and you lawyers out there, feel free to tell me why I’m wrong – is that businesses that want to get their employees vaccinated see a way forward, and so far the state hasn’t tried to make an example out of anyone. Abbott’s order was primarily about politics and his need to appear maximally troglodytic for the primary. If he scares a few businesses into abandoning any pro-vaccination plans, so much the better, but the point was to make the order. Optics come first, and on that score Abbott got what he wanted. The details don’t matter. Very much on brand for him, in other words.

A loaf of bread, a gallon of milk, a few Bitcoins

Not on my shopping list, sorry.

Be sure to add Bitcoin to your grocery list.

Coin Cloud, a Las-Vegas based digital currency machine company, is making it convenient to access some of the most popular cryptocurrencies by placing a number of its kiosks in some Houston H-E-B stores.

The machines work similarly to an ATM, except rather than withdrawing cash, customers deposit cash to buy and sell more than 30 cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Ethereum, Dogecoin, Litecoin, several US dollar stablecoins and numerous DeFi tokens. Customers can also utilize Coin Cloud’s free mobile wallet to manage, store, buy or sell from anywhere in the world.

The company has kiosks in 47 U.S. states and Brazil, and now H-E-B marks its 2,000th kiosk location. The move is part of Coin Cloud’s expansion strategy to stay ahead of the growing popularity of digital currencies, which are often called tokens.

These are not the first Bitcoin ATMs to be found in Houston. Perhaps the difference here is that these allow you to deal in other cryptocurrencies. Lord knows I was dying for a place to cash in my Dogecoins. Anyway, there’s an interactive map you can use to find one of these things near you, if for some reason you need it.

(Note: this story was from a couple of months ago. I pulled it out of the drafts because why not. Has anyone seen one of these?)

The Hollywood (mostly non-) response to SB8

Of interest.

In May 2021, Texas governor Greg Abbott signed into law SB8, also known as the Texas Heartbeat Act. It’s the latest, and most contested, challenge to the 1973 Supreme Court decision made in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the United States. Since Abbott’s adoption of the law, which allows any private citizen to sue someone who performs or aids and abets an abortion once “cardiac activity” can be detected, the current Supreme Court has denied a motion to block the act from going into effect; the White House is reportedly preparing to sue Texas; Abbott has signed a Senate bill that requires physicians providing abortion-inducing drugs up to seven weeks into a pregnancy to report such doings at the risk of possible jail time; and everyone from HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver to The Satanic Temple has argued against the law.

But Hollywood has been relatively quiet on the matter. While the Texas law inspired some outcry from names like The Wire’s David Simon, Boyhood’s Patricia Arquette, and her sister, Ratched’s Rosanna Arquette, as well as scattered refusals to film in the state, the response hasn’t been nearly as urgent as it was in 2019, when Georgia had its own “fetal heartbeat” bill.

Back then, Disney CEO Bob Iger told Reuters that if that bill became law, it would be “very difficult” to produce films and TV series there. “I rather doubt we will,” he added. When asked about it during that summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, Mark Pedowitz—president of the CW, a channel that’s a subsidiary of WarnerMedia and CBS Entertainment Group and that has a history of airing shows filmed in Georgia—was similarly responsive. “Anybody who interferes with people’s right to make medical choices, I am solely against,” he said. “If the law is passed, I am certain we’ll have discussions with both studios about what to do and what not to do in terms of where Georgia sits.”

Why, then, has the Texas bill not catalyzed the same level of fervor? Simple: “Texas is not a production hub on par with Georgia,” television producer and writer Amy Berg says via email.

Berg, who was interviewed by Vanity Fair in 2019 about her decision to call for a boycott then—and, judging from her Twitter feed, is no fan of the Texas law either—continues that “even Louisiana and New Mexico have traditionally been more film-friendly. Perhaps that’s why boycotting Texas isn’t something that comes to mind immediately as a vehicle for expressing outrage or inducing meaningful change.”

There’s more to it than that, and as with Stacey Abrams’ plea for businesses to not boycott Georgia following the passage of its recent voter suppression law, there are concerns that any such action would just hurt small businesses and people without power, while being welcomed by the state’s Republican leaders who’d be happy to be in opposition to Hollywood types. You can feel however you want to about this, but I think we can all agree that this is a complex question and that people can approach it in good faith from different angles.

More on the Abbott max anti-vaxx order

Businesses will face a choice that they would rather not have to face.

Companies doing business in Texas face new and complicated challenges after Gov. Greg Abbott this week banned COVID-19 vaccine mandates for all entities in the state — including private businesses — for employees or customers.

The ramifications for businesses could begin as soon as Friday, when companies that enter into contract work with the federal government will be required to have all employees vaccinated under orders from the White House.

This conflicts with Abbott’s ban on vaccine mandates, putting the many Texas businesses that receive federal contracts in a tough position: Comply with federal law and violate Abbott’s ban, or comply with Abbott and turn down business from the federal government.

[…]

“This harms Texans directly,” Karen Vladeck, an employment lawyer in Austin, said of the new order from Abbott. “I just think it wasn’t well thought out.”

Abbott’s office did not reply to a request for comment.

On top of prohibiting any entity in Texas from requiring vaccinations, Abbott’s order also lists several expanded exemptions. Vladeck and other employment lawyers said that this adds to the vaccine dilemma facing businesses in Texas. Under Abbott’s new rule, people may opt out of a vaccine requirement for medical reasons, including if they prove they have had COVID-19 in the past, despite scientists widely agreeing that this does not protect people against contracting the virus.

“The executive order’s medical reason language is a bit strange because usually you exempt people for medical reasons if they have a severe allergic reaction to a vaccine,” said Elizabeth Sepper, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Abbott’s order is “meant to cover people who don’t want to get the vaccine because they believe, quite wrongly, that they’re completely protected by already having COVID.”

Abbott’s rule also allows people to opt out of a vaccine requirement if they prove they hold a deep personal belief against getting jabbed.

Any entity that fails to comply with Abbott’s rule could receive up to a $1,000 fine.

Abbott’s Monday order is a reversal from his position in August, when the Pfizer vaccine received final approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. At the time, Abbott’s spokesperson said that businesses had the option of mandating vaccination for employees and “private businesses don’t need government running their business.”

“It’s all about company choice in Texas, except now it’s come to something that they don’t like what the companies are choosing,” Vladeck said. “It puts a big burden on employers.”

See here for the background. So far, businesses that are also federal contractors, including airlines and companies like IBM, will ignore Abbott’s order, while others are awaiting the OSHA rules before making a decision. Multiple business groups, the same organizations that often turn to the state for a legislative solution to local ordinances they don’t like, harshly criticized Abbott’s order for making their lives more difficult. Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee released a statement encouraging businesses that want to be able to get their employees vaccinated to file a lawsuit against Abbott over the order. And in the end, even wingnut talk radio hosts weren’t impressed by Abbott’s order. It’s almost as if he were a weak, gutless leader.

There’s still a lot of investment in renewables in Texas

Good to know.

Four months after the failure of the Texas electric grid sparked a backlash against clean power, investors and developers have decided just what the state needs: more renewable energy. Much more.

Texas is on pace to have as much green-power development in coming years as the next three states combined, according to the American Clean Power Association, a Washington-based trade group. Projects totaling 15 gigawatts — equal to the total electrical capacity of Finland in 2019 — are under construction or in advanced development, more than double three years ago. That’s according to data from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or Ercot, the state’s grid operator.

All told, the forthcoming wind, solar and battery-storage projects are worth an estimated $20 billion to $25 billion, the American Clean Power Association said.

[…]

The amount of renewable energy in the Ercot queue in May was much higher than the same month in any of the past three years. That massive growth is driven by jumps in solar farms and battery storage that outweigh a drop in the amount of wind power in the queue.

New utility-scale solar installations in Texas totaled 3.3 gigawatts last year, nearly matching the 3.5 gigawatts of new wind, according to BloombergNEF. The research group projects more than double the amount of new utility-scale solar and 4.2 gigawatts of new wind there this year.

Republicans bashed renewable energy during and after the storm, even as the state’s grid operator said that frozen instruments at gas, coal and even nuclear plants were the main reason for the blackouts. “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Texas governor Greg Abbott told Sean Hannity on Fox News in the midst of the freeze. He went on to blame wind and solar power and said fossil fuel plants are necessary for baseline power.

Several renewable developers said new laws that targeted clean power projects would force them to rethink building in Texas. A group including big power companies, Amazon.com Inc. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. sent letters to Abbott and lawmakers in April, writing that proposed new laws would chill investment in the state.

Perhaps that letter had an effect, for as the story notes we managed to make it through this session without any explicitly anti-renewables bills passing. (Not that the Republicans didn’t try, mind you.) There are still issues with the grid’s capacity to handle more output from renewables, but maybe the investors are assuming some of those problems will work themselves out. I note in the story’s graphic that the amount being invested in battery storage is way higher than it used to be, so maybe that has an effect as well. In any event, we are still investing in renewable energy here. Let’s hope we don’t screw it up.

What are the limits on limiting vaccination requirements?

News item #1: Carnival will require COVID vaccinations for all passengers cruising from Galveston:

Carnival Cruise Line today announced plans to begin cruising from the Port of Galveston on July 3.

Cruises will be open to customers who are fully vaccinated, meaning that they can show proof that they received their final dose of vaccine at least 14 days before the cruise begins.

“The current CDC requirements for cruising with a guest base that is unvaccinated will make it very dificult to deliver the experience our guests expect, especially given the large number of families with younger children who sail with us,” Christine Duffy, president of Carnival, said in a press release. “As a result, our alternative is to operate our ships from the U.S. during the month of July with vaccinated guests.”

The Carnival Vista will begin operations on July 3, followed by the Carnival Breeze on July 15.

On the one hand, that sounds not only eminently sensible – I mean, cruise ships are often called “floating petri dishes”, and I say that as someone who has enjoyed going on a couple of cruises – it’s something that the cruise industry itself may see as existential. Who would want to put themselves in an extremely enclosed space with hundreds if not thousands of possibly virus-shedding people if they didn’t have to? Who would want to work under those conditions? If there’s one activity that scores near the top of the scale on “non-essential services” and “high-risk for COVID spread”, it’s going on a cruise. Who in their right mind would not want to encourage, if not outright mandate, cruise passengers being vaccinated before getting on board?

Hold that thought while we note news items #2, As Carnival requires vaccines for cruisers, Abbott to sign ban on ‘vaccine passports’.

Texas businesses cannot require their customers to prove their COVID-19 vaccine status under a bill soon to be signed by Gov. Greg Abbott.

The measure, Senate Bill 968, outlaws so-called “vaccine passports” and prevents businesses from asking consumers to show their vaccine cards to receive services. Abbott had issued a similar executive order in April, though that applied only to state agencies and other organizations that receive public funding.

“I’m signing a law today that prohibits any business operating in Texas from requiring vaccine passports or any vaccine information,” Abbott tweeted Monday. “Texas is open 100 percent without any restrictions or limitations or requirements.”

The Senate approved the measure unanimously in April, and the House passed it by a vote of 146-2 in May. Because it earned two-thirds support in both chambers, the bill will take effect immediately after Abbott signs it.

Any business that does not comply with the law “is not eligible to receive a grant or enter into a contract payable with state funds.” State agencies may also “require compliance … as a condition for a license, permit, or other state authorization necessary for conducting business in this state.”

It should be noted that SB968 is a much larger bill that has to do with disaster preparedness and response – it has sections on things like personal protection equipment contracts, a disease prevention information system, wellness checks for medically fragile individuals, and more – so while it does impose this restriction on “vaccine passports”, it’s very much not just about that.

That said, the answer to my rhetorical question is “Republican governors”. Florida’s top madman Ron DeSantis imposed a similar ban on cruise ships that depart from that state. As the story notes, the cruise industry operates in multiple states and in international waters – the ships themselves fly under various foreign flags. Also, too, the specific term “vaccine passports” is basically meaningless now, no such thing currently exists. But one way or another, we have an irresistible force careening into an immovable object. Something is going to have to give, and unless one side or the other backs down, it will surely be up to the federal courts to sort this out. In the meantime, if you yearn to party on the high seas again, check the fine print on your cruise contracts. The Press and the Trib have more.

UPDATE: One more thing to consider:

In other words, this is more hot air than anything else. Still likely to be fought out in court, but the stakes may not be as high as you think.

Two arguments against Abbott’s rollback of extended unemployment insurance

It’s bad economic policy.

“I’m still nervous that we’re bowing out of this program before the labor market is fully healed,” said Dietrich Vollrath, an economics professor at the University of Houston. “The bad consequences of doing too much is limited,” he said, “but the bad consequences of doing too little can really be detrimental.”

About 800,000 Texans were receiving federal jobless assistance at the end of April, according to the most recent data. Nearly half of them — the self-employed or other gig economy workers — will lose all of their benefits at the end of June, when the governor is ending the additional aid. The rest will see a steep drop in their weekly checks.

[…]

While the Texas economy has largely rebounded from the height of the pandemic, when the unemployment rate topped 12 percent, companies across the state are still firing employees at two to three times the normal rate, according to Vollrath. He said that’s a sign the recovery remains fragile.

Labor experts already have some preliminary findings on the impacts of increased benefits during the pandemic. Economists at Yale University found that the $600 unemployment checks approved early on under the Trump administration did not significantly deter unemployed people from reentering the workforce.

Belinda Román, an assistant economics professor at St. Mary’s University, said ending the payments could backfire and instead drive people further into poverty. If it does work, she said, it may force at least some people into underpaid jobs that they have decided are no longer worth the time or health risk.

“My perspective is, pay better and that probably incentivizes a lot of people to come to work,” she said.

See here for the background. Those $600 checks also largely kept the economy from cratering a year ago. Taking away this benefit now, when the economy is still in recovery and lots of people are still not vaccinated and being cautious about going out, will mostly have the effect of making people who are already on the economic margins even poorer.

Also, too, there are other reasons why some businesses are having problems hiring.

Britt Philyaw, executive director of the Heard That Foundation, a Dallas non-profit that provides support for hospitality workers, said she doesn’t know of anyone who has turned down restaurant jobs to stay on unemployment.

“I find it really disturbing some of the things that I’ve seen on social media. I don’t like that the labor shortage is being politicized and how it is being said that people are lazy or they’re making more money on unemployment. I don’t think it’s the truth. The people we’ve worked with throughout the pandemic who were on unemployment and got their stimulus checks were not making ends meet,” she said.

What the pandemic did, in her opinion, was highlight the instability of restaurant jobs. The quirks of service industry work like tips and irregular schedules are often draws for many people in the industry, but they were cast in a different light when the pandemic hit, Philyaw said. Suddenly the things that were once perks of the business were no longer worth sacrificing health insurance, predictable pay and stability for.

“Something that is desperately lacking from the conversation is the fact that 70% of the population that works in the industry are women, some of them single with kids. I think that should be a huge part of the conversation,” Philyaw said.

The service industry labor market was already tight before the pandemic, and with even more jobs than there are workers, Philyaw said employees have the ability to be choosy about who they do go work for, which is making it even harder for employers, some of whom are offering sign-on bonuses and raising wages to attract new hires.

“People in front-of-house and back-of-house [of restaurants] are shopping around,” she said. “And they’re looking for things they value like, ‘Am I going to work in a safe environment? Am I going to work in an environment where I’m not going to be harassed or bullied or forced to work for free?’ So there’s just a lot of things at play, but I really don’t think it’s as simple as the stories that grab the most attention.”

For Andrea Winn, a long-time restaurant industry professional who’s held server, sommelier and wine director positions at Dallas restaurants like Bolsa and Abacus, the decision to leave the restaurant industry came when the downtown Dallas restaurant she was working at reopened over the summer and management did not adhere to capacity limits, mask mandates and other safety protocols.

She took a full-time job as a wine and beer buyer for Whole Foods, stepping away from the industry she loved and had worked in since completing her degree in history and getting out of a desk job she loathed. It wasn’t easy to leave the dining room — she was saying goodbye to higher pay, flexible hours and the ability to travel when she wanted — but the benefits outweighed the cons, she said.

“I have a job now [at Whole Foods] where I am guaranteed a certain amount of hours every week, I know how much I’m going to get paid, and I have health insurance and sick time. The sick time was a really big thing because working in restaurants, unless you are really sick, you are expected to work sick. You’re looked down upon, and your schedule will be threatened if you don’t [work],” Winn said.

There is a common perception that restaurant workers are young, uneducated and in the industry out of necessity, Winn said, and such thinking makes it easy to believe that the shortage of workers is due to an unwillingness to work. But the reality is the industry is made up of seasoned professionals like her who sought out restaurant and bar careers and are now choosing to pursue careers that offer a better quality of life, she said.

Some jobs are better than others. People who have kids at home and no child care available don’t have a lot of options right now. Making them desperate doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.

Of course business groups want Abbott to cut off unemployment payments

Completely on brand.

The Texas Association of Business and more than three dozen other business groups are pushing Gov. Greg Abbott to cut the additional $300 in federal benefits currently going to unemployed Texans.

Nearly 1 million Texans remained unemployed and dependent upon benefit payments for income in March.

In GOP-led states, rescinding the extra pay is considered a way to force workers back into the job market to address labor shortages as the economy recovers from the COIVD-19 pandemic.

GOP governors in at least 16 states have announced plans to cut benefits: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming.

“Employers believe that supplemental [unemployment] benefit payments from Washington is disincentivizing work and resulting in many good Texas jobs going unfilled,” the Texas business association and 38 chambers of commerce and business associations wrote in a letter to the governor and the Texas Workforce Commission, the agency that oversees jobless benefits.

“With COVID-19 on the decline and job openings on the rise, we believe it is time for Texas leaders and the Texas Workforce Commission to re-examine unemployment benefits, unemployment insurance work-search requirements and Texas’s role in federal supplemental unemployment benefits,” the letter said.

[…]

Critics of the decision to cut the additional unemployment pay argue it would hurt people who can’t work because they’re sick, caring for a person with COVID-19 or can’t find adequate childcare.

In response to Montana’s decision to rescind the benefit, worker advocacy group National Employment Law Project’s executive director Rebecca Dixon said return-to-work bonuses “can become a tool to coerce workers to accept substandard jobs, rather than enabling workers to pursue quality jobs that provide financial security.”

This is a lousy idea for the reasons stated above, and also because the states that have jumped on this bandwagon are among the worst at getting people vaccinated. Texas fits comfortably in that group, and yes there is a strong correlation to Republican-ness, since Republicans are less likely to want to get vaccinated, and as the people in charge are less likely to expend much effort to get vaccines to the lower-income, mostly people of color, that they’re now demanding go back to crappy jobs. As it is practically our state’s motto that the interests of bidness come first, I’m sure this will happen in short order. You already know what I’m going to say about that, so let’s just stipulate and move on.

UPDATE: Even faster than I expected.

Governor Greg Abbott said Monday that Texas will end federal pandemic-related unemployment assistance, effective June 26. This includes the $300 weekly unemployment supplement from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program.

“The Texas economy is thriving and employers are hiring in communities throughout the state,” Abbott wrote in a letter to the Department of Labor. “In fact, the amount of job openings in Texas is far greater than the number of Texans looking for employment, making these unemployment benefits no longer necessary.”

These guys sure got their money’s worth, didn’t they? The Trib has more.

Griddy files for bankruptcy

Live by market disruption

Griddy Energy, a California-based retail power company, filed for bankruptcy on Monday citing financial woes brought on by the power crisis in February.

Griddy’s business model exposes consumers to the wholesale market, which in normal times could mean savings, but when the grid crashed many customers had exorbitantly high bills in the thousands.

The power company’s Chief Executive Officer Michael Fallquist said the bankruptcy plan would provide financial relief to it’s customers, and also took aim at The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, the state’s grid manager.

“Prior to Winter Storm Uri, Griddy was a thriving business with more than 29,000 customers who saved more than $17 million dollars since 2017. The actions of ERCOT destroyed our business and caused financial harm to our customers,” Fallquist saod. “Our bankruptcy plan, if confirmed, provides relief for our former customers who were unable to pay their electricity bills resulting from the unprecedented prices.”

Two weeks ago, ERCOT barred Griddy from participating in the state’s wholesale power markets, effectively shutting down the company.

See here and here for some background. This doesn’t mean Griddy is going away, just that it’s working through some tough times. It also apparently means that may of their customers may be off the hook for the ridiculous prices they had been charged.

Griddy’s approximately 29,000 customers were charged $29 million for energy during the winter storm, according to court documents. The wholesale electricity retailer, which has recently been forced out of the market, charged a $9.99 monthly fee and, in turn, passed along wholesale prices to customers.

When wholesale energy bill prices skyrocketed during the storm as temperatures plunged below freezing, Griddy customers were subject to the same costs with no buffer. Some reported bills over $15,000. Most Texas customers were shielded from the rising prices because they pay a fixed rate for electricity, although they could see prices increase in the near future to offset the added costs incurred by the power companies.

Houston-based Griddy’s Chapter 11 filing outlines a plan to wipe out its former customers’ debt during the company’s liquidation if approved in bankruptcy court.

“Our bankruptcy plan, if confirmed, provides relief for our former customers who were unable to pay their electricity bills resulting from the unprecedented prices,” Griddy CEO Michael Fallquist said in a statement on its website. He emphasized Griddy did not profit from increased prices and only made money off of the fixed monthly membership fees.

However, thousands of dollars have already been automatically drained from customer’s bank accounts and charged to their credit cards.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement that Griddy and his office are “engaged in ongoing good faith negotiations to attempt to address additional relief for those Griddy customers who have already paid their storm-related energy bills.”

Not perfect, but it’s a start. Here’s the longer version of the Chron story for more.

We should be vaccinating grocery workers

The only disagreement I have with this is that we should have more broadly classified “essential workers” from the beginning, and it should include more people who do not have the ability to work from home.

Nearly a year into the pandemic, Ryan’s experience that day reflects the challenges that grocery store workers across Texas are facing in their stores every day. For months, workers have risked their health to keep shorthanded grocery stores open, all while dealing with increased hours and customers refusing to wear masks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices urged states to include front-line essential workers in Phase 1B of vaccine allocation. But Texas decided not to include any essential employees like grocery store workers in the state’s current vaccine priority groups. Without any guarantee of vaccine prioritization, grocery workers now find themselves overwhelmed and continually exposed to the virus with no end in sight.

[…]

Back in April, when people made a rush for essential supplies like toilet paper and soap, Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted a message of support for grocery store workers, saying that “everyone across our state appreciates your hard work to help Texans respond to the #coronavirus.” Since then, workers say they have felt forgotten and abandoned by the state government.

In December, the Texas Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel, in charge of designating each population currently eligible to receive vaccinations, decided against including front-line essential workers in Phase 1B. The Department of State Health Services said that the panel wanted to reserve vaccine doses for those at the highest risk of death, which includes people over 65 and anyone over 16 with a chronic medical condition that puts them at higher risk.

At least 8 million Texans currently qualify for Phase 1A or 1B of vaccine allocation, but the state has received fewer than 4 million doses thus far. The panel is currently considering potential priority groups for Phase 1C of vaccine rollout, and its decision will depend on epidemiological data about virus transmission, according to DSHS Director of Media Relations Chris Van Deusen.

However, at least 11 states and the District of Columbia followed CDC recommendations by deciding to put front-line essential workers, including grocery store employees, in the their latest rounds of vaccine allocation, according to The Washington Post. New York allowed grocery workers to start getting the vaccine last month. Arkansas has also started vaccinating teachers and educators in the first round of essential workers to receive doses, and the state plans to expand distribution to other essential workers later this month.

“You feel like you don’t matter when your own state goes against every recommendation that there is out there,” said Dawn Hand, who works at a Kroger in Houston. “Why don’t we matter? What’s your answer to that?”

I personally feel that prioritizing people who had to do in-person work, as some states have done, was the better choice than making group 1B open to the over 65 crowd, and I say that even knowing quite a few people who have gotten their vaccine as a result of that choice. Big employers, like grocery stores and big-box retail – plus all of their delivery workers – could have been brought in to help distribute and administer the shots. This would target people who are clearly at risk, and as the story notes would also have helped with the equity problem. Another group of essential workers that should have been prioritized are meatpacking plant employees, who have not only been extremely hard-hit by COVID (due in large part to the inhumane practices of their employers) but are also lower-income, often non-English-speaking people who are harder to reach for the vaccine. In their case, I’d want to send clinicians to their locations, and use whatever threats and incentives are needed to make sure their bosses give them the time and space to get vaccinated. We could still do all of this in round 3, but I don’t blame any one of these folks for thinking that they were left behind.

Bar owners still mad at Abbott

Can’t blame them, but the situation is complicated.

As Gov. Greg Abbott outlined his latest reopening plan this week, bar owner Greg Barrineau watched in disbelief. Abbott, who announced that Texas restaurants could expand dine-in service to 75% capacity, said bars must remain closed.

“Some bars and their associations have offered some very helpful ideas,” Abbott said of reopening, “and we will continue to work with them on that process.”

But Barrineau, who has laid off his 12 staff members and suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses at Drink Texas, a bar with locations in San Antonio and Boerne, said that assertion of collaboration is “insanity — he doesn’t care about small businesses.”

Michael Klein, the head of Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance, which represents thousands of bars, said that Abbott’s statement about working together was “incorrect,” carefully choosing his words. The TBNA laid out a six-point plan to reopen in August, but Klein said the governor, whom he referred to strictly as “anti-business Abbott,” has not responded to the plan.

“We’ve never heard back from them,” Klein said. “We believe that he is disingenuous.”

Abbott’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

While restaurant owners applauded Abbott’s move to allow them to increase operations, Klein said Thursday’s ruling was “completely unacceptable” for many bars and other facilities where alcohol sales make up more than half of the revenue. It could leave 30% of Texas bars and 39% of distilleries permanently closed within six months, industry leaders said.

[…]

Spread from conventional bars and nightclubs has been widely documented throughout the U.S., and infectious disease experts caution going inside establishments that don’t follow social distancing protocols.

Kristin Mondy, chief of the infectious disease division in the University of Texas at Austin’s medical school, said there is increased risk in spreading the virus if strangers mingle in a tight, closed space, especially as drinking could cause bar customers to loosen their inhibitions.

Klein said the industry’s plan would reduce those issues by complying with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requirements.

Some of the requirements in TBNA’s plan include ensuring all patrons are seated at their own tables, barring dance floors and mingling among groups, requiring face masks for all servers and customers when not at their tables, and conducting temperature checks upon entry. Mondy said these procedures could help as long as mask-wearing and social distancing are enforced.

[…]

Cord Switzer, who has helped run Fredericksburg Winery for almost 25 years with his family, said he has been able to technically and legally become a food server — but no one that comes is actually eating the food. That’s not why they go to a winery, he said.

“It makes no sense to me,” Switzer said. “We have never been interested in being in the food service business. We have no intent of doing that in the future, but it was our only choice.”

Switzer started wine tastings on Saturday for the first time in two months and hopes to begin recouping his losses after making 30% of last year’s revenue. But he doesn’t understand the governor’s categorization, and industry advocates share Switzer’s confusion.

“Texas winery owners continue to be perplexed by Governor Abbott’s steadfast refusal to recognize that the lion’s share of Texas alcohol manufacturer’s tasting rooms have little, if anything, in common with bars and nightclubs,” said Patrick Whitehead, the president of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association, in an email. “Governor Abbott’s arbitrary, and frankly unfair, act of lumping our tasting rooms into the category of bars is like a surgeon operating with a chainsaw rather [than] a scalpel.”

Switzer’s money troubles are not unique; nearly half of distilleries surveyed by the Texas Whiskey Association have experienced revenue losses greater than 60%. Spence Whelan, the head of the association, which represents distilleries across Texas, said continued restrictions could be disastrous for the industry, which normally relies on a big fourth quarter in holiday sales to stay afloat. This fall, with little or no visitors, that could be wiped out. Under Texas law, whiskey distilleries cannot ship or deliver whiskey directly to customers, nor can they sell more than two bottles of whiskey per person.

At the very least, Whelan said, those rules should be relaxed. Many places don’t want to open yet anyway, and there are other ways to bring in money. He said the industry has sent more than 15,000 letters to the governor’s office asking to waive those restrictions and has received no response.

Let’s acknowledge that bars are a high-risk environment for COVID-19, and the reopening of bars in May was a significant contributor to the subsequent outbreaks that swept the state in June and July. We should also acknowledge that there’s evidence that the reopening of restaurants, even at lower capacities, is also a risk factor in spreading COVID-19. The bar owners’ complaint – and wineries’, and distilleries’, and craft breweries’ – is that Abbott has been particularly rigid about how these risks are categorized, and has been unresponsive to any input that would allow these entities to operate in a lower-risk fashion.

I have a lot of sympathy for these complaints. Some bars have been able to reopen by creative interpretation of the 51% rule, by incorporating to-go service, and by a recent rule change that lets them have food trucks on their premises. But this doesn’t work for every bar, it imposes extra costs on them, and it doesn’t change the fundamental nature of their business. The only good thing that may come out of it is the expanded allowance for to-go service, and maybe if we’re very lucky a broader rethinking of our antiquated regulatory scheme for alcohol. I don’t know how effective the risk-mitigation strategies that have been proposed by the various industry groups would be, but we could study them and try the ones that comply with known best practices. We could surely let the places that have ample outdoor space like wineries and craft breweries with beer gardens take advantage of those spaces (to some extent we already are permitting this), and we could make allowances for those that have large and well-ventilated indoor spaces where social distancing would work. And, you know, Abbott and Dan Patrick could put a little pressure on the two Republican Senators to support a relief bill in Congress that included funds for bars and other places that rely heavily on alcohol sales (such as music halls) that just can’t be allowed to reopen right now. Abbott has done none of this, and as noted in the story has been repeatedly unwilling to engage in any discussion about it.

So this is both a legitimate set of concerns by members of a significant sector of the Texas economy, and a real opportunity for Democrats going forward. Dems don’t need to pander or reverse course on their properly-held principles about minimizing COVID risk. They just need to be willing to consider the various risk-mitigation strategies that have been proposed, and to continue to push for a response from Congress that truly addresses the broad economic pain that much of the country is still experiencing. Good policy is so often good politics, and the opportunity to do both here is enormous.

RIP, Luby’s

The end of an era.

Looks like the days of LuAnn platters are coming to an end. Luby’s board of directors has “approved and adopted a plan of liquidation and dissolution,” the company announced.

The plan will need to be approved by the company’s shareholders. A date for that vote was not included in today’s announcement.

Previously, Luby’s stated it would seek a sale of its assets that would pay off its debts and generate money for its stockholders. Following the liquidation plan will generate between $92 million and $123 million, according to the company’s estimates. That represents between $3 and $4 per share of its stock (approximately 30.7 million shares outstanding).

“This plan of liquidation is the next logical step in the company’s previously announced plan to maximize value of the company through the sale of its operations and assets,” Gerald Bodzy and Randolph Read, co-chairmen of the special committee responsible for the decision, said in a statement. “Our stockholders have expressed their support for seeking alternatives to continuing to operate the company’s restaurants in their current form, and we believe the plan of liquidation will allow the company to accomplish that task in the most efficient manner.”

Ultimately, the company intends to converts all of its assets into cash, resolve its debts, and then file a certificate of dissolution. Its stock (NYSE: LUB) would be delisted from the New York Stock Exchange at that point or possibly sooner according to the exchange’s rules.

While a slim possibility exists that a buyer could be found that would keep the Houston-based cafeteria chain whole — Luby’s also owns Fuddrucker’s — the more likely plan seems to be that the restaurants will close and the company’s real estate holdings and other assets will be sold. Still, the company argues that a buyer who might preserve the restaurants is possible.

I assume Fuddrucker’s will continue as an entity, just owned by some other conglomerate. As for Luby’s, well, as someone said, tastes changed but Luby’s didn’t. Life is like that sometimes, unfortunately. I don’t have the emotional attachment to the place that natives do, but I sure do know some folks that are broken up about this. Texas Monthly, Houstonia, and the Chron have more.

Coronavirus and delivery workers

There’s a very obvious answer for this.

Couriers delivering online orders of household essentials have become a lifeline for Houstonians hunkering down at home to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

But a growing number of workers responsible for getting packages to consumers are falling sick, leaving those remaining on the job worried for their lives.

“When I’m walking into work, it’s nerve-wracking,” said a truck driver for FedEx Freight in Cypress who wished to remain anonymous because the worker feared retaliation from the company. “I don’t want to miss work because I’m a single parent, but I’m afraid I’m gonna catch something.”

Package delivery workers have been thrust into the front lines of the global fight against the coronavirus as millions of Americans under stay-at-home orders turn to online shopping to get canned goods, medicine and household supplies. Workers who fulfill these online orders and deliver them say they are risking their lives to ensure consumers’ home shelves are well-stocked.

At least 24 package workers in the Houston area — including 19 Amazon, three UPS and two FedEx workers — have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to internal company communication obtained by the Chronicle, interviews with employees and media reports. COVID-19 is the respiratory illness caused by the new strain of coronavirus.

Representatives of Amazon, FedEx and UPS declined to disclose the number of employee cases, citing company policies and employee privacy concerns. Each of the companies insisted they are taking steps to protect workers.

This story would have been a lot more useful if we had any idea how many total employees we were talking about, so we could compare the rate of infection of this group of people to the Harris County population as a whole. (Which, to be sure, we are undercounting, but it’s the best we can do.) I don’t say this to cast any doubt on the seriousness of the problem or to downplay the concerns of the workers, but because knowing where the virus is more prevalent is valuable and can help with the fight against it. Identifying and isolating localized hot spots is going to be a key part of the next phase of mitigating this pandemic. Everything we can learn that will move that forward is huge.

The glaringly obvious point to make here is that workers like these who have no choice but to be out in public are exactly the people that we need realtime, universal testing for. The scariest thing about this virus is that you can’t tell who has it, and anyone (yourself included) could be out there spreading it without knowing it. But if we can test for it, that goes a long way towards ensuring the safety of the people who cannot socially distance themselves. If you have to show up somewhere to work, you need and deserve to know that everyone else who is there with you is virus-free. The fact that I have to point this out more than a month into this pandemic is just mind-boggling, and as clear a sign of the federal government’s complete unpreparedness and failure to respond that you can get. It’s beyond appalling that the people we are all counting on to keep us fed, healthy, safe, and otherwise taken care of cannot be cared for themselves in this most basic way. I don’t know what else there is to say.

The looming unemployment insurance crisis

Can we please not make the same egregious mistakes as last time?

As businesses across the state close to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the mass layoffs that have followed could quickly drain the state fund that pays unemployment claims.

The state has less than six months of reserves to pay unemployment insurance at recession-level rates, according to U.S. Department of Labor data from the second quarter of 2019, the most recent available. That’s well below the federally recommended level of one year, and the seventh-lowest reserve level among states.

Between Sunday and Wednesday, Texas received more than 61,500 first-time unemployment insurance claims, according to the Texas Workforce Commission, more than four times the filings during a similar period in 2019. The avalanche of claims slowed and crashed the state’s unemployment benefits websites this week, before the workforce commission made upgrades deal with the spike in traffic.

Nearly 30 percent of the unemployment insurance applications, or nearly 18,000, were from the Houston region, according to the TWC data. Shutdowns have hit the local economy hard. People who work at local theaters and event venues were “99 percent unemployed in a matter of days,” said Hany Khalil, the executive director of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, which works with unions across the Houston region.

[…]

The reason Texas has one of the lowest reserves in the nation to pay for unemployment benefits is because the program is funded through taxes on employers, which in Texas, are very low. Texas taxes the employer for the first $9,000 of an employee’s annual wages, compared to the national average of the first $18,900, according to Labor Department data.

“Texas loves their low taxes on employers, so it’s not surprising that the fund is in trouble,” said Maurice Emsellem, a program director at the National Employment Law Project. “A lot of states are not in great shape right now.”

We basically went through the same thing in 2009, during the height of the recession induced by the financial crisis. The cause was the same – nobody in charge, especially not then-Governor Rick Perry, wanted to increase the amount being collected for unemployment insurance. In fact, Perry suspended the collection of unemployment insurance payments as a way to help businesses, at the later expense of helping the workers who lost their jobs. To make matters worse, Perry later declined to take federal stimulus money to help with unemployment insurance, which of course meant that the unemployment insurance tax levied on businesses had to be jacked up later on. Someone should boil this down to a PowerPoint presentation, call it What Not To Do During A Big Unemployment Spike, and make sure Perry’s face is on every slide.

This time around, we have a Republican in the White House, so federal money to the state is not considered dirty by the Republicans in charge, so when we are offered money now to bolster our unemployment insurance program, we’ll probably take it. I’m sure it will still come with ridiculous and insulting strings attached, like drug testing – we can’t get tested for coronavirus, but there’s always room to pee in a cup to see if you’ve been smoking weed – but that will be a fight for another day. In the meantime, there’s still ten billion or so in the Rainy Day Fund, in case anyone thinks it might be a good idea to tap into that as a way to bridge the gap rather than make who knows how many people suffer. Crazy talk, I know. All I’m saying is, we’ve been through this sort of crappy time before. I’m old enough to remember it. Let’s see if we learned anything from the last time.

Distilling more hand sanitizer

Well done.

Even before the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020, hand sanitizer was one of the first items to fly off the shelves during the spread of the novel coronavirus, and is still nowhere to be seen at local stores. Luckily, the Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) just relaxed its rules to make it easier — and faster — for distilleries to produce their own hand sanitizer products.

The latest distillery entering the field is Grateful Dane Distilling, which makes rum in Bellaire. On March 21, from 1 to 5 p.m., owner Ian Mook will be giving away two bottles of hand sanitizer for every bottle of rum purchased, as well as selling the hand sanitizer separately, at cost.

“I knew there was a shortage and I knew I had the ability to manufacture this,” says Mook. He added, once the regulations were lifted, “it only made sense for me to start making this.”

Making hand sanitizer is a pretty seamless process for a distiller. Alcohol is composed of a bunch of different chemicals; when crafting spirits, most boil off the still to make a food-grade product, leaving just ethanol—that’s what we drink. But the other chemicals, such as acetone and methanol, are the very elements needed for hand sanitizer.

“It’s normally a byproduct that most distilleries just throw out,” says Mook. “It’s not worth the time or effort to even manufacture something like that, but we live in strange times.”

Just add glycerol, hydrogen peroxide and distilled water, and voilà. It doesn’t affect the rum production at all.

They have some one-ounce bottles available today, between one and five PM. See here for more information. I for one salute their initiative.

Where have all the Christmas tree farmers gone?

They’re not growing them like they used to.

Across the U.S., Christmas tree farmers are getting out of the business. Illinois lost dozens of farmers in recent years, dropping from 212 growers in 2012 to 182 farmers in 2017, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture census data.

James Farmer, an Indiana University professor who led a study that looked at farmers in the Hoosier state, said younger farmers aren’t taking the place of those who are retiring. Most growers in Indiana have plans to stop growing or planting trees in the next five years, Farmer said.

“The average farmer was 64 years old. A lot of folks get into Christmas tree farming and start planting trees when they are older. Most of them have smaller operations. But by the time they hit their mid-70s, they get out,” Farmer said.

The physical demands of tree farming can discourage growers from continuing the business, as can the amount of time it takes to turn a profit. About 30 percent of Indiana farmers reported revenues of $10,000 or less in 2017, the study found. And selling Christmas trees is a part-time endeavor for most growers.

[…]

Christmas tree farmers have also been hit by another competitor. Artificial trees sales have been steadily increasing, with 24 million purchased last year compared to about 21 million purchased in 2017, according to data by the National Christmas Tree Association.

“In the last few years, they have taken over a large percentage of the market. It’s hurt us more than we realized,” said Doug Hundley, a seasonal spokesman for the association.

Last year, the average price of a live Christmas tree was $78, and the average cost of an artificial one was $104, according to the 2018 consumer report by the association.

Older consumers who no longer have children living in the household tend to shift to artificial trees or don’t put one up, Hundley said. But there is demand from younger families who drive to farms to pick and cut their own tree. According to the association, 28 percent of the live Christmas trees purchased in 2018 were bought at farms.

“We think sales increase is coming from millennials,” Hundley said.

Hey, something millennials aren’t being blamed for – nice. This was a wire story from the Chicago Tribune, so I went looking to see if Texas Christmas tree farmers are making the same complaints. Far as I can tell, they’re doing fine, though there have been some tree supply shortages, which can be blamed on retirements, the 2008 recession, and hemp. Make a note to get your tree earlier next year, to mitigate against these risks.

Buc-ee’s is going national

The WaPo has a look at our famous highway rest stop’s growing ambitions.

Its fans say few things are more Texas than the chain of massive convenience stores with the disposition of an amusement park. Among its 38 stores, customers can find a whole wall dedicated to Icees. Seasoned nuts are roasted on site, and there’s a homemade fudge bar and a massive beef jerky display. The travel centers can have as many as 120 fueling stations but don’t allow 18-wheelers. And the bathrooms are high-tech and famously pristine.

Its legions of die-hard fans include Cody Esser, who visited 33 Texas stores in three days for his Impulsive Traveler Guy blog. “I’ve traveled all throughout the United States and into Canada, and I’ve never seen anything as big as Buc-ee’s,” he said.

Now hoping to capitalize on the cultlike devotion it has inspired at home, Buc-ee’s is in the midst of a multistate expansion. It recently broke ground in Alabama and soon will have stops in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas.

“Texans held on for so long until they realized there’s a market elsewhere,” said travel blogger Brandi Perry of Columbia, Miss. “We’re begging for one in Mississippi.”

It’s the reliability that keeps people coming back, said Buc-ee’s general counsel, Jeff Nadalo. They come knowing that each store is “clean, friendly and in stock,” 24/7, no matter what.

Other than a few regional differences — such as a wider selection of fishing gear at Gulf Coast stores — Buc-ee’s is “insanely brand consistent,” Esser said.

“If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.”

[…]

Buc-ee’s has a strict employee dress code: no visible body piercings or tattoos, “unnatural” dyed hair, open-toed shoes or torn or faded clothing. Employees say they’re expected to arrive not even a minute late (with three strikes, you’re fired); to keep their phones in lockers and only take one break during their shift for a “moment,” which is less than 10 minutes to eat lunch and use the restroom. There isn’t any seating inside Buc-ee’s, which may keep customers cycling through quickly but can be difficult for employees who stand for as many as 10 hours straight.

Full-time employees qualify for health and dental insurance, a 401(k) retirement plan and three weeks of vacation. At the Loxley location, Buc-ee’s advertised the starting entry-level salary at $14 an hour — almost twice the state’s minimum wage.

“We want people who are clearly happy to be working there so that comes across to the customer when the customer walks in,” Nadalo said.

A current cashier, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for job security, has worked at a Buc-ee’s store in northeast Texas for a few months but is already looking for a different job. She works full time and says the $13-an-hour pay is higher than most jobs where she lives.

She understood the expectations when she sat for the job interview, she said, but she didn’t realize how strenuous the job would be without being allowed to take a break.

“Until you get in there and experience [it], it just blows your brain,” she said. “You just don’t expect it to be quite so hard-line. You expect some kind of human compassion, I guess.”

She said in-store cameras are used to monitor employees. Signs that read, “Don’t forget who pays you,” are posted behind the register. Managers encourage employees to report one another for infractions. It feels as though they are constantly being watched, she said.

“Going to the bathroom is a hassle,” she said. “I’ve asked sometime to go to the bathroom, and it’s been a couple hours before I’m allowed to go.”

Nadalo disputed the employee’s claim regarding workplace conditions.

“We comply with all state and federal laws regarding breaks,” he said.

See here for more on the opening of the first non-Texas Buc-ee’s, in Alabama. More construction in Alabama, and in Florida, is ongoing. I skipped some bits about the campaign contribution controversy from 2014, and the chain’s remarkable non-presence on social media, which was news to me, to focus on its treatment of employees. Buc-ee’s is justly lauded for its pay, and its benefits package is good, too. For that kind of work, they’re much better than, say, WalMart or an Amazon fulfillment center. Doesn’t mean they couldn’t do better, though, and the reporting above clearly shows that. I hope as they continue to expand, and draw some stronger competition – I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed several other longstanding rest stops on the highways around here upping their game – they continue to improve as a place to work.

Schlitterbahn sold

End of an era, as another iconic family-owned Texas business is sold to a non-Texas firm.

Schlitterbahn Waterparks and Resorts — which has dealt with a gruesome death, indictments and financial troubles in recent years — is selling a chunk of its holdings.

Ohio-based Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. has an agreement with the owners of Schlitterbahn to purchase the company’s New Braunfels park and resort property as well as their Galveston park for $261 million, subject to certain adjustments.

“It’s important to know that Cedar Fair values Schlitterbahn’s character and brand promise,” the Henry family — Schlitterbahn’s owners — said in a statement. “They have committed to not only keeping Schlitterbahn awesome but helping us grow!”

Richard Zimmerman, Cedar Fair’s president and CEO, said the company is “very excited about the opportunity to bring these two award-winning Texas water parks into the Cedar Fair family.”

“These properties represent new markets for us with attractive demographics in the growing Central Texas region, and they align with our strategy to identify compelling opportunities to accelerate our growth and profitability,” he said in a statement.

That’s Schlitterbahn and Whataburger all in the same week, y’all. As we know, the Schlitterbahn has had some trouble in recent years, though at least the criminal charges that were filed have been dismissed. It sounds like the family had been looking to sell for awhile, as they were having cash flow problems that caused some planned new parks to not happen. They are retaining the South Padre park, which will be rebranded. I hope the new owners can get everything back to its old glory, and I hope the Henry family can get themselves back on their feet. The Current has more.

Whata lot of angst

I’ve lived in Texas a long time, but I wasn’t born here. As such, news like this doesn’t hit me the way it hits some other folks.

Chicago-based BDT Capital Partners said Friday it’s agreed to acquire a majority stake in Whataburger.

The burger chain will remain headquartered in San Antonio, and the groups will “begin exploring expansion plans,” they said in a statement.

Whataburger’s founders, the Dobson family, will keep a minority position in the company. President and CEO Preston Atkinson and Chairman Tom Dobson will retain their seats on the board but retire from daily operations.

Both will turn to running Las Aguilas, an investment company launched by the Dobson family in 2011 that focuses on real estate and philanthropy.

The decision “is both exciting and bittersweet” for the family, Tom Dobson said.

“Whataburger has been the heart and soul of our family legacy for nearly 70 years, but we feel really good about the partnership with BDT,” he said.

The news that Whatburger had been “exploring options” came out about a month ago, and it’s fair to say that it caused some anxiety among the faithful. None of what did happen sounds apocalyptic to me, but then I just never fully acculturated the way some other prominent immigrants have.

My wife and kids are coping as best they can, thanks for asking. We will get through this, y’all. I promise. Texas Monthly, the Rivard Report, and the Current have more.

Texas versus AirBnB update

From last week:

The Texas Comptroller’s office said Tuesday it’s reviewing the inclusion of Airbnb on a list of companies that boycott Israel and are banned from doing business with the state after the company announced a change to its policy for listings in the West Bank.

The home-sharing company said in a statement that it’s reversing a plan announced this November to remove about 200 rental listings from the territory, whose ownership is disputed by Palestinians. The company said it will donate the profits to humanitarian aid groups.

“Airbnb has never boycotted Israel, Israeli businesses, or the more than 20,000 Israeli hosts who are active on the Airbnb platform,” the company said in the statement. “We have always sought to bring people together and will continue to work with our community to achieve this goal.”

The company’s decision to delist the properties had prompted the state last month to blacklist it in keeping with a 2017 law that bans state agencies from contracting with or investing in companies that boycott Israel. The law was touted by Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott, as a way to show solidarity with Israel.

See here for the background. As I’ve said before, governments base policy decisions on who they do and don’t want to do business with all the time, so this policy is in and of itself not remarkable. It’s dumb and misguided, but not unusual. It’s also led to some other consequences.

Texas state agencies are beginning to divest nearly $72 million worth of stock in a company said to be boycotting Israel — the first financial move after a year-old law that bars Texas agencies from investing in such companies.

Two major state pension funds — the Employees Retirement System of Texas and Texas Permanent School Fund —own $68 million and about $4 million, respectively, worth of stock in DNB ASA, a Norwegian financial services company, officials said, though the company has denied it boycotts Israel.

[…]

The Comptroller’s office, upon the advice of two contracted consulting groups, identified four companies as having boycotted Israel, though all of them deny that they engage in any punitive ban.

Employees Retirement System spokeswoman Mary Jane Wardlow said the fund began divesting March 1, 2018, when it had about $68 million invested in DNB, and as of early April had divested about half that amount. Divestment should be complete by June, Wardlow said.

The Texas Permanent School Fund did not respond to a request for information on its divestment.

The state has no direct holdings in any of the other three companies on its divestment list, according to notifications to the state obtained by Hearst Newspapers.

Two of the six state agencies affected by the law —Texas County and District Retirement System and Texas Municipal Retirement System — had indirect investments in DNB, records show.

And three of the six state agencies affected by the law — the Employees Retirement System of Texas, Texas Municipal Retirement System and Teacher Retirement System of Texas — had indirect investments in Airbnb. (The only agency to disclose how much, ERS, had about $460,000-worth.)

But the law doesn’t require state governmental entities to divest from indirect holdings. It only requires them to send letters to the managers of the investment fund in question and request that they remove blacklisted companies from the fund or create a similar fund without those companies.

If the manager can’t come up with a fund with “substantially the same management fees and same level of investment risk and anticipated return,” the law requires no further action.

I mean, I don’t think this was a good idea, but if you do, then this is what you signed up for.

No backsies for Chick-fil-A in San Antonio

Since I mentioned there would be a re-vote, I figured you’d want to know how it went.

By a 6-5 margin, San Antonio’s City Council on Thursday narrowly rejected a proposal from mayoral contender Greg Brockhouse to revisit a controversial decision last month to remove Chick-fil-A from an airport contract because of its “legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior.”

Brockhouse forced the issue by using a procedural move under Robert’s Rules of Order to revive the Chick-fil-A debate. With dozens of supporters standing in the council chambers, Brockhouse proposed revisiting the Chick-fil-A decision at the next meeting.

“I consider this opportunity today to be a defining moment for this council,” Brockhouse said in introducing the proposal, which he first broached last week.

All the members who voted against the contract last month voted in favor of Brockhouse’s effort, save one: Councilman Art Hall. He said once the council makes a decision, it should stick to it, swinging the vote.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, who abstained from the first vote, approved Brockhouse’s effort, as did Councilman Manny Pelaez, who said he regretted his original comments about Chick-fil-A’s record.

Nirenberg, who has framed the issue in business terms, said before the vote that no business operating within the law is barred from operating in San Antonio. He proposed having a discussion about the city’s contracting process to ensure it operates under the full compliance of local, state and federal laws.

See here and here for the background. And now you have something else to think about this weekend, since I’m sure we could all use a change of topic by now. The Rivard Report has more.

Chick-fil-A follies, part 2

Noted for the record.

Best mugshot ever

The city of San Antonio voted 6-4 in late March to exclude Chick-fil-A from its renovation of the airport food court offerings due to the company’s “legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior.”

Shortly after the city’s decision, public outcry in Buffalo, N.Y., led to a concessions company nixing the brand from its plans for the nearby Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

Chick-fil-A told Buffalo news station KBKW recent coverage of the company drives an inaccurate narrative about their brand. “More than 145,000 people from different backgrounds and beliefs represent the Chick-fil-A brand. We embrace all people, regardless of religion, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity,” the statement said.

Earlier this week, the city of San Jose, Calif., voted unanimously to settle the debate in an entirely different way — by flying rainbow and pride flags in front of Chick-fil-A locations both inside and outside of the airport.

On Thursday, the San Antonio city council will reconsider its previous vote. Councilman Greg Brockhouse said the city’s decision to exclude Chick-fil-A “embarrassed” the city, KTSA reported.

“Every day the Chick-fil-A removal decision is allowed to stand hurts our reputation nationwide as a welcoming and inclusive city. It sends a message we are anti-faith and we cannot stand by without speaking the truth and standing up for our principles,” he said.

See here for the background. I don’t know what the city of San Antonio is going to do at this point. There’s certainly a practical argument to be made that they have more to lose than to gain by picking this fight. But like Pete Buttigieg, I think there’s a lot of value in highlighting the moral bankruptcy of anti-gay animus, especially from Christian conservatives. Let the Chick-fil-As and their enablers explain why they choose to discriminate. Also, Greg Brockhouse can go jump into a vat of dipping sauce. Anyway, we’ll see what happens.

Texas versus AirBnB

This is one to watch.

Texas is adding short-term-rental site Airbnb to a list of companies that cannot receive state investments because it disallows Israeli-owned rentals in the disputed West Bank.

Airbnb is the only American-based company on Texas’ anti-Israel boycott list, which includes a Norwegian financial services group, a British wholesale co-op and a Norwegian insurance company.

Texas is making it “very clear that our state stands with Israel and its people against those wishing to undermine Israel’s economy and the wellbeing of its people,” said a statement from state Comptroller Glenn Hegar’s office.

In November, Airbnb said it would remove about 200 listings in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It cited a variety of factors for its decision, including whether listings inside an occupied territory had a direct connection to a larger regional dispute.

“We unequivocally reject and oppose the BDS movement and are disappointed by the decision,” Airbnb said in a statement. “There are over 20,000 Airbnb hosts in Israel who open their doors and showcase the best of Israeli hospitality to guests from around the world.”

In addition to the West Bank, Airbnb also said it has removed listings in the disputed territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Airbnb has about 20,000 Israeli hosts who’ve welcomed more than 1 million visitors, including 4,700 Texans in 2018, the company said.

Texas’ move was praised by Christians United For Israel, the public policy arm of the nation’s largest pro-Israel organization. It likened the so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which seeks to “end international support for Israel’s suppression of Palestinians,” to “terrorists” and “hostile nations.”

[…]

Democratic critics of laws cracking down on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement are increasingly skeptical of Israel’s policies and see such laws as an infringement on free speech. In January, Florida added Airbnb to a list of companies that it defines as boycotting Israel. The same month, a bill to crack down on the BDS movement was blocked by Democrats in the Senate.

The backlash against Airbnb comes as the company is reportedly preparing for an IPO sometime in 2019.

I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds here, so let me sum up: The Lege passed a law in 2017 that created this policy and led to AirBnB’s blacklisting. The push for this has largely come from the Christian far-right fringe, with radical clerics like John Hagee in San Antonio as the main cheerleaders. The author of that bill, Rep. Phil King, has filed another bill that intends to clarify that the law applies to companies and not individuals. One possible reason for that is that there has already been a lawsuit filed, by a speech pathologist in Pflugerville who lost her job with Pflugerville ISD over her support for BDS. The current law is broad enough that it may well be vulnerable to litigation on free speech grounds. AirBnB has 90 days to respond to the Comptroller’s actions, so if a lawsuit is to come of this, it’ll happen after that. Got it? Good.

Buc-ee’s comes to Alabama

Tomorrow, the world.

Texas road stop institution Buc-ee’s has opened a store in Alabama, its first location outside the Lone Star State.

Despite chilly weather, more than 100 people were lined up outside the Baldwin County store when it opened at 6 a.m. Monday. They were eager to experience a Buc-ee’s supersized gas station and convenience store, renowned for its cartoon beaver logo, clean bathrooms and clever billboards. Some die-hard Buc-ee’s fans drove hours to get to the store opening, said Jeff Nadalo, Buc-ee’s general counsel.

“It was packed and very busy all day,” Nadalo said. “I think a lot of people had heard what Buc-ee’s was about from friends and family who had been and were familiar with the experience.”

The 52,000-square-foot store, in Robertsdale, features 124 fueling stations and the “biggest, most pristine bathrooms the state of Alabama has ever seen,” a Buc-ee’s press release crowed. The store, has a similar layout to the new Buc-ee’s in Katy, except the Alabama location doesn’t have a car wash, Nadalo said.

[…]

Since it was founded in 1982, Buc-ee’s has mostly stuck to its Texas roots, operating 34 stores across the Lone Star State. A couple of years ago, the Lake Jackson company began looking to expand across the southeastern U.S., which shares a similar customer profile to Texas, Nadalo said.

“We’re taking the great experience that is Buc-ee’s to other states,” Nadalo said. “We felt it was something that would work well, certainly in Alabama, and we think it’ll be well-received in Florida.”

We first heard about this almost three years ago, though at the time they were aiming for Louisiana. It’s on I-10, so if you’re driving to Florida (where Buc-ee’s plans future expansions), you’ll see the familiar signs. Less familiar was this:

A lawsuit claims that Buc-ee’s illegally priced gasoline when it opened its first Alabama travel center last month along Interstate 10 in Baldwin County.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court by Oasis Travel Center LLC, alleges that the Lake Jackson, Texas-based company violated the 35-year-old Alabama Motor Fuel Marketing Act, and demands that the company halt its pricing strategies while the case is pending.

The law, passed in 1984, prohibits big oil companies from selling gasoline to the public for less than it costs to buy and transport it to a retail outlet.

Similar lawsuits, over the years, have been filed in Alabama against big-box retailers like Costco and Murphy Oil Corp., which operates Walmart gas stations.

“We contend Buc-ee’s, when it opened up two weeks ago, it opened at prices for regular unleaded and other grades at below costs as defined under the Alabama law,” said H. Dean Mooty, a Montgomery-based attorney who has represented smaller-sized convenience stores in similar cases.

The lawsuit specifically cites several dates when Buc-ee’s posted a price of regular gasoline under what state law allows. Among the dates cited is Buc-ee’s Jan. 21 opener, when regular gasoline was sold at a rounded price of $1.80 per gallon.

Oops. You really are not in Texas any more, y’all. As for the rest of us, enjoy the beaver nuggets and the clean bathrooms while you can.

Hitch-ing a ride

I’m kind of fascinated by this story about another ridesharing app/service.

High-tech hitchhiking has arrived in Texas.

Austin startup Hitch offers a ride-sharing service connecting people driving between Houston and Austin with people needing rides.

“Over 10,000 cars make trips every day just between Austin and Houston, and 90 percent of them have just one occupant — the driver,” CEO Kush Singh said in a news release.

Here’s how it works: Someone with a 2003-or-newer vehicle who is planning to drive between Houston and Austin downloads the “Hitch – Regional Ridesharing” app and registers as a driver. After a background and driving record check, which can take up to 24 hours, the drivers are authorized to pick up passengers.

Those needing a ride will enter a virtual queue and then proceed to a physical Hitch pickup location, which will be a public place like a coffee shop along the route. Riders are ID verified using scanned driver licenses and facial recognition,  and they must have a valid credit card on file with Hitch.

Drivers simply pull over at a Hitch pickup location and then collect the next person in line. They can pick up multiple riders — with each person allowed one typical-sized suitcase and a small personal item — and the middle seat is never occupied.

The concept is simple enough, and I can see some appeal for both drivers and riders. I have no idea if there’s enough demand on either side of that equation to sustain this, but that’s not my problem. If you want to try this for yourself, be careful about how you search for it, as there are other apps called Hitch out there. I found this particular app in the Google Play store on my Android phone. It had a 2.6 average rating, with five one-star reviews out of eight total. Megabus tickets are pretty cheap, y’all. I’m just saying.

Now how much would you pay for that emergency room visit?

Guess higher, and it is a guess because who knows what you’ll wind up getting charged for it.

Fifteen months after Texas enacted a law to bring transparency to the state’s for-profit free-standing emergency rooms, many of the facilities continue to send mixed messages about insurance coverage that could expose unsuspecting patients to surprise medical bills.

A Houston Chronicle review of websites representing the 52 free-standing emergency rooms in the Houston area shows a pattern in which many of the facilities prominently advertise that they “accept” all major private insurance. Some even list the insurers’ names and logos.

But often tucked under pull-down tabs or at the bottom of the page is a notice that the facilities are outside the networks of those insurers, followed by a reassurance that under the Texas insurance code, network status does not matter in emergency treatment, implying patients needn’t worry about coverage.

What the websites fail to disclose is that out-of-network status can result in insurance reimbursements far below the charges, leaving patients on the hook for the remainder of the bill — sometimes thousands of dollars.

“The word ‘accept’ means something very different to them than to the consumer, and they know that when they write their websites,” said Stacey Pogue, senior health policy analyst at the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities. “They do not tell the rest of the story.”

For example, many of the Houston-area facilities advertise that they accept Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, the state’s largest insurer. But the Chronicle’s review found that only five — about 10 percent — are in that insurer’s network.

Those findings are consistent with a statewide report by AARP Texas, to be released Monday at a state Senate committee hearing, that found 77 percent of the state’s 215 free-standing emergency rooms said they “take” or “accept” Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurance, but were out-of-network.

Free-standing emergency rooms defend their websites, describing concerns raised by advocacy groups and Texas lawmakers as manufactured outrage.

“I don’t see a problem with saying they ‘accept,’” said Dr. Carrie de Moor, CEO of Code 3 Emergency Partners, a Frisco-based network of free-standing emergency rooms, urgent care clinics and a telemedicine program. She insisted that patients understand that accepting someone’s insurance is different from being in that company’s network.

It may seem like a hair-splitting distinction, but it can carry high costs, health policy experts said.

Obvious point #1: It’s ridiculous that we live in a society where basic medical needs, including emergency care, are not met. It’s utterly scandalous that prior to the Affordable Care Act, there were thousands upon thousands of bankruptcies caused every year by medical issues. Plenty of other countries have figured this out. Our standard of medical care is no better than theirs. It’s just more expensive.

Obvious point #2: For those who believe in the power of the free market, why is it that medical services, especially those tied to emergency and hospital care, are so utterly opaque when it comes to their pricing? Think of all the other goods and services you buy. In nearly all of them, you know up front how much it’s going to cost. That is universally untrue for the vast majority of medical services, from basics like painkillers and bandages to anaesthesia and specialist fees to higher-end products like EKGs and colonoscopies. There’s no such thing as a free market with unknowable prices. You want to move towards something like a free market in health care, fix that.

Will Amazon ruin Christmas trees?

Maybe!

Amazon this year launched a new service to deliver full-sized, fresh Christmas trees to customers’ homes, betting that lots of people will prefer convenience over experience. The mega-etailer has shown time and time again that it can change consumer buying habits and longtime traditions, and that is making purveyors of fresh Christmas trees around Houston nervous.

Devine said he was flabbergasted that Amazon would try to break into the business. Shortly after Amazon began selling trees, Devine said, he burned his Amazon Prime card and swore to never buy anything from the online retailer again.

“Amazon has just gone too far with this, coming after our livelihood,” Devine said. “They’re going to hurt small, independent nurseries like us. We rely a lot on tree sales.”

Amazon isn’t the first retailer to ship Christmas trees direct to consumers. Specialty retailers, such as Williams-Sonoma and Hammacher Schlemmer, have delivered fresh Christmas trees for years, while Home Depot, which sells 2.5 million Christmas trees a year, started shipping trees in 2014. Third-party retailers have sold Christmas trees through Amazon.com for some time.

But Amazon’s direct entry into the market raises the threat to Christmas tree lots to a new level. Over the years, Amazon’s relentless drive into new markets has wiped out book stores, sellers of toys and electronics and long list of other retailers. When Amazon bought Whole Foods last year, the $13.7 billion acquisition sent a shock wave throughout the grocery industry, ushering in a new era of e-commerce.

Today, most major grocers in Houston offer online ordering, curbside pickup and home delivery of groceries. H-E-B, Kroger and Walmart are investing heavily in new technologies to compete with Amazon.

[…]

Tree farms, where Houstonians can cut down their own trees, said they’re not that worried about Amazon. Many farms host activities such as photo shoots with Santa and Christmas light shows, which Amazon can’t match online.

Larry and Mary Emerson have sold Christmas trees at Dewberry Farms since 2009. The husband-and-wife owners have planted nearly 17,000 Cypress and Blue Ice trees on some 20 acres on their farm in Brookshire, just 10 miles from a new 1-million-square-foot distribution facility where Amazon’s trees will be shipped.

The Emersons sell between 2,000 and 2,500 Christmas trees a year, ranging in price from $40 to $300. Tree sales are down a little from last year, but the farm is still doing well, Emerson said, declining to give specifics. Dewberry Farms attracts as many as 100,000 visitors a year to its fall pumpkin patch, Christmas tree farm and attractions, like big slides, a carousel and petting zoo.

“Our customers, they’re not just looking for trees,” Mary Emerson said. “They’re looking for tradition.”

I’m the wrong person to ask about this. I grew up with an artificial tree, and we buy our tree at Lowe’s every year. I figure when the kids are grown, we’ll just get something smaller. If we wind up getting that from Amazon, it won’t be a net loss for the tree farmers, since we were never their customers to begin with. Does tradition matter, and if so how much? I will note that there are still some independent bookstores out there, and they do the sort of in-person amenities that the tree farmers do to stay in business, so there’s at least some hope.

Rural counties and AirBnB

It’s working well for them.

Texans running Airbnb rentals in rural counties earned $20.6 million in supplemental income in the last 12 months with 169,000 guests, according to a new report from the hospitality company.

These results represent a growth rate double that of urban counties, the report added, citing a trend of more guests wanting to visit more than just Texas’ big cities.

The company said that while the Texas hotel industry is booming, most of this growth is concentrated in the four major metro areas, making Airbnb sometimes the only lodging option outside of these cities and suburbs.

You can see a copy of that report here. As CultureMap Austin notes, some of the biggest beneficiaries are counties in the Hill Country, which makes sense. I’m happy for these rural counties, but none of this changes my mind about the need for cities to be able to regulate AirBnB locally. AirBnB my be having a significant and mostly positive effect in some parts of the state, but it will have an even bigger impact of a more-unknown effect on those cities. At the very least, let’s not pre-emptively foreclose on any tools that cities will need to manage their own interests.

The power to pay more for electricity

Deregulation really does create jobs.

When Texas deregulated electricity markets 16 years ago, the Public Utility Commission created the website Power to Choose to help consumers through the power buying experience. But what was promoted as an easy, free way for Texans to pick electricity providers has turned into a such a complex and confounding experience that it is spawning a cottage industry to help consumers navigate the scores of companies and hundreds of plans available.

At least five companies in Texas are providing both free and paid services aimed at helping consumers in Houston and other deregulated markets decipher confusing electricity offers such as free nights and weekends, multi-tiered pricing plans, and credits for high electricity use.

The companies have built computer algorithms that try to ferret out the best deals based on factors such as past electricity consumption, home size, and the number of people living there. In some cases, it’s just a matter of plugging in your monthly electricity into a website calculator. Others provide more comprehensive services, charging a monthly fee to advise customers which plan will save them the most money and then monitor the market so if prices fall, consumers can switch.

This kind of hand-holding is akin to car buying services, which save customers the time, energy and aggravation researching models, doing comparison shopping and negotiating prices. But unlike cars, there’s no difference in the electricity provided by different retailers, making the emergence of these power buying services a sure sign of the complexity of the system.

“The third party guys demonstrate the consumer is getting ripped off by the Power to Choose artificial configuration that the Public Utility Commission has rammed down the throat of Texas consumers,” said Ed Hirs, energy economist at the University of Houston.

The Public Utility Commission recently recognized the shortcomings of Power to Choose, with chairman DeAnn Walker criticizing retail electric providers for misleading pricing plans. Those plans offer rock-bottom rates at 1,000 kilowatt hours, but if consumers use just one kilowatt hour more, the price per kilowatt hour can jump as much as 10 times.

[…]

Jesson Bradshaw, a power industry veteran, saw an opportunity when his friends and family asked him which company they should sign up with for electricity. He sent them to Power to Choose, but he quickly heard complaints.

“I saw how confusing it was,” said Bradshaw, who worked as a power trader and owned the retail power company Amigo Energy until he sold it to Just Energy in 2011.

Four years ago, he and a partner launched the buying service Energy Ogre. The company charges customers $10 each month to find the lowest price plan and monitor rates to see if it makes sense to switch mid-contract. It doesn’t take commissions from power providers.

Bradshaw said his business is not exactly popular among the retail providers, many of which bet that customers won’t shop for better rates when contracts expire.

“They don’t like us informing the customer,” he said. “ If there is a better rate, we move them. We don’t care which provider.”

Mark Axford of Sugar Land signed up with Energy Ogre about three years ago. Axford said the company switches electricity providers at least once a year and makes sure Axford and his wife do not get hit with penalties. The monthly fee is well worth it, he said.

If you want to save, you have to shop, said Axford. “But who has the time to keep shopping for electricity?”

The trade association for retail electricity providers in Texas said it recognizes that the buying services may help customers sort through offers. But it’s important to note, said Julia Rathgeber, president of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, that these companies are not subject to oversight by the Public Utility Commission. It’s still up to consumers to decide whether plans are right for them, she said.

Got that? If you’re paying too much for electricity, it’s your own damn fault. Never mind how confusing or time consuming the shopping process is. There’s no reason I can think of why the state couldn’t provide, for free, the kind of easy, at-your-fingertips information that these entrepreneurs have done. Why wouldn’t we want to do that, if the goal of deregulation was to lower prices for consumers? The answer to that is left as an exercise for the reader. In the meantime, here’s the sidebar that tells you how to find the best deal for yourself:

MORE INFORMATION
Companies that help consumers find the best power deals:

Texas Power Guide

Website: TexasPowerGuide.com

Awesome Power Texas

Website: AwesomePowerTexas.com

Geek Your Rate

Website: GeekYourRate.com

Energy Ogre

Website: EnergyOgre.com

Real Simple Energy

Website: RealSimpleEnergy.com

You might also want to go back and look at some guest posts my friend Dan Wallach wrote about picking power plans. Good luck.

Buc-ee’s wins in court

That was quick.

After about six hours of deliberation, a jury in Houston found Tuesday that Choke Canyon company’s alligator logo violated state and federal trademark law, infringing on the pre-established Buc-ee’s beaver mark established by the popular Texas road stop chain.

“It’s absolutely not about a beaver versus an alligator,” said Jeff Nadalo, general counsel for Buc-ee’s Ltd. “There are more than 10 similarities between the two marks that we presented to the jury in this case.”

[…]

The judge asked the lawyers to meet and try to hammer out an injunction on how to deal of trademarked materials that violate the jury’s finding.

The damages phase of the trial remains pending.

See here for the background, and here for a later version of the story. Six hours of deliberation for a week-long trial is pretty darned quick. I may have been skeptical based on my view of the two logos, but I wasn’t there in court and neither were you. We’ll see what the damages look like.

Beaver v alligator

It’s a roadside rest stop animal logo legal smackdown, and it’s off to the jury.

Buc-ee’s, a popular chain of Texas pit stops, fought hard to build its reputation and wants a San Antonio-based competitor to stop “riding its coattails” by using a logo that confuses highway travelers into pulling off at a rival business, the company’s lawyer told jurors in his closing statement Monday in Houston.

“We don’t want to put Choke Canyon out of business,” said Buc-ee’s lawyer, Tracy Richardson, poised between poster boards displaying similarly colored T-shirts, beer koozies and plastic grocery bags with the animal logos from the two rival chains. Buc-ee’s just wants Choke Canyon’s owner to curtail what it views as an unfair ad campaign: “We just want him to stop using the logo.”

Richardson and the lead attorney for Choke Canyon offered closing pitches to jurors before they began deliberations Monday afternoon, following a week of testimony about the dueling roadside travel centers in a federal trademark case before U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison. The jury of three women and nine men will resume deliberations Tuesday.

The lawsuit brought by mega-chain Buc-ee’s claims that Choke Canyon’s alligator logo, posed against a circular yellow backdrop, is too similar to the buck-toothed beaver that is synonymous with its 33 gas stops. The Buc-ee’s chain, headquartered in Lake Jackson, also contends that Choke Canyon illegally mimicked its in store offerings, including friendly service, ample stock and plentiful, clean bathrooms.

[…]

[Defense attorney Charles] Hanor said the two trademarks are quite different, as are the offerings. The alligator is advertising a chain that specializes in barbecue, he told jurors, noting that Buc-ee’s only complained in court about its road stop competitor when Choke Canyon sought to open a chain in New Braunfels, where Buc-ee’s also had operations.

Trademark law doesn’t give either company a hold on any one attribute of their logo. Instead, the jury will consider the strength of Buc-ee’s logo, the similarity between the two logos and the stores’ product lines and whether Choke Canyon set out to or actually did confuse customers with the overlap.

It’s a balancing act, the judge explained in his directions to the jury. The goals of trademark law are to protect the public from being misled, to protect the rights of businesses to identify themselves in public and to protect the public interest in fair competition, Ellison said.

See here for some background. Earlier stories from the trial are here, here, and here. As I said when news of the lawsuit first appeared, I think Buc-ee’s is stretching it here. Maybe it’s because I’ve never seen a Choke Canyon, but I don’t see how a reasonable person could confuse the two. That’s up to twelve jurors here in Houston to decide. I wish them luck.

No Amazon HQ2 for Houston

Never really expected that we’d be a top contender, to be honest.

Amazon ruled out Houston as a candidate for its $5 billion second headquarters on Thursday, delivering a blow to local leaders who had hoped to lure the Seattle tech giant to a four-mile stretch between downtown and the Texas Medical Center.

The largest U.S. online retailer whittled down more than 200 proposals from North America cities to just 20, eliminating Houston but keeping the city’s longtime rivals Austin and Dallas on its short list.

Amazon’s decision marks a setback for local leaders including the Greater Houston Partnership, which led an effort last fall to pitch the city as an attractive market for the company to set down stakes.

“I believe this is a wake-up call for Houston,” GHP CEO Bob Harvey said in a statement. “While there has been growing momentum in the innovation space over the last couple of years, this is a clear indication that we have much more work to do as a region to grow our digital economy.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called Amazon’s decision ” disappointing and heartbreaking.:

But, he added, “It serves as a wake-up call that we must move at a much quicker pace. The city is well positioned, but it’s also is an indication that there is a lot of work that still needs to be done.”

[…]

In his statement Thursday, Harvey said Houston should focus on developing the Innovation Corridor and its technology sector further. He also said Houston should move forward with the proposed Houston Data Science Institute, a data center recently announced by the University of Houston.

“While we are the number one market in the country for STEM talent, we need to bolster our pipeline of digital tech talent that is relevant to tomorrow’s digital economy,” Harvey said. “This means working with our higher education partners across the region to develop and invest in programs that will produce the talent we need to succeed.”

But economists warned that Houston would rank low on Amazon’s wish list in the nationwide bidding war for a campus that could bring 50,000 jobs, saying the city lacked a robust public transportation system. Only 2 percent of the local population takes public transportation to work, according to Census data.

See here and here for some background. On the one hand, it’s always a bummer to miss out. On the other hand, I wasn’t excited at the thought of giving zillions of dollars in incentives and tax breaks to a behemoth like Amazon as deal-sweeteners. There’s too much of that going on already. Doing things like developing the Innovation Corridor and building a Data Science Institute, that’s fine and worthwhile as investments. And let’s be sure not to overlook the feedback about our public transportation infrastructure. Imagine where we could have been if we’d had a Congressional delegation that was unanimous in its support of of more robust transit system. We’ll have an opportunity to support that at the ballot box this November. If we’re serious about wanting to be more competitive with the cities we lost out to, we need to put our money where our mouths are. The Trib, Texas Monthly (which is very skeptical of the chase to lure in Amazon), Swamplot, and the Dallas Observer have more.