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Georgia running back Kenny McIntosh (6) celebrates with quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) after a trick play where wide receiver Adonai Mitchell (5), caught a pass from McIntosh for a touchdown in the first quarter against Michigan during the Orange Bowl NCAA College Football Playoff semifinal game Dec. 31, 2021, at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.

Stay home or work sick? Omicron poses a conundrum
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As the raging omicron variant of COVID-19 infects workers across the nation, millions of those whose jobs don’t provide paid sick days are having to choose between their health and their paycheck.

While many companies instituted more robust sick leave policies at the beginning of the pandemic, some of those have since been scaled back with the rollout of the vaccines, even though omicron has managed to evade the shots. Meanwhile, the current labor shortage is adding to the pressure of workers having to decide whether to show up to their job sick if they can’t afford to stay home.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Daniel Schneider, professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “As staffing gets depleted because people are out sick, that means that those that are on the job have more to do and are even more reluctant to call in sick when they in turn get sick.”

Low-income hourly workers are especially vulnerable. Nearly 80% of all private sector workers get at least one paid sick day, according to a national compensation survey of employee benefits conducted in March by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But only 33% of workers whose wages are at the bottom 10% get paid sick leave, compared with 95% in the top 10%.

A survey this past fall of roughly 6,600 hourly low-wage workers conducted by Harvard’s Shift Project, which focuses on inequality, found that 65% of those workers who reported being sick in the last month said they went to work anyway. That’s lower than the 85% who showed up to work sick before the pandemic, but much higher than it should be in the middle of a public health crisis. Schneider says it could get worse because of omicron and the labor shortage.

What’s more, Schneider noted that the share of workers with paid sick leave before the pandemic barely budged during the pandemic — 50% versus 51% respectively. He further noted many of the working poor surveyed don’t even have $400 in emergency funds, and families will now be even more financially strapped with the expiration of the child tax credit, which had put a few hundred dollars in families’ pockets every month.

The Associated Press interviewed one worker who started a new job with the state of New Mexico last month and started experiencing COVID-like symptoms earlier in the week. The worker, who asked not to be named because it might jeopardize their employment, took a day off to get tested and two more days to wait for the results.

A supervisor called and told the worker they would qualify for paid sick days only if the COVID test turns out to be positive. If the test is negative, the worker will have to take the days without pay, since they haven’t accrued enough time for sick leave.

“I thought I was doing the right thing by protecting my co-workers,” said the worker, who is still awaiting the results and estimates it will cost $160 per day of work missed if they test negative. “Now I wish I just would’ve gone to work and not said anything.”

A Trader Joe’s worker in California, who also asked not to be named because they didn’t want to risk their job, said the company lets workers accrue paid time off that they can use for vacations or sick days. But once that time is used up, employees often feel like they can’t afford to take unpaid days.

“I think many people now come to work sick or with what they call ‘allergies’ because they feel they have no other choice,” the worker said.

Trader Joe’s offered hazard pay until last spring, and even paid time off if workers had COVID-related symptoms. But the worker said those benefits have ended. The company also no longer requires customers to wear masks in all of its stores.

Other companies are similarly curtailing sick time that they offered earlier in the pandemic. Kroger, the country’s biggest traditional grocery chain, is ending some benefits for unvaccinated salaried workers in an attempt to compel more of them to get the jab as COVID-19 cases rise again. Unvaccinated workers enrolled in Kroger’s health care plan will no longer be eligible to receive up to two weeks paid emergency leave if they become infected — a policy that was put into place last year when vaccines were unavailable.

Meanwhile, Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, is slashing pandemic-related paid leave in half — from two weeks to one — after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced isolation requirements for people who don’t have symptoms after they test positive.

Workers have received some relief from a growing number of states. In the last decade, 14 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws or ballot measures requiring employers to provide paid sick leave, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

On the federal front, however, the movement has stalled. Congress passed a law in the spring of 2020 requiring most employers to provide paid sick leave for employees with COVID-related illnesses. But the requirement expired on Dec. 31 of that same year. Congress later extended tax credits for employers who voluntarily provide paid sick leave, but the extension lapsed at the end of September, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

In November, the U.S. House passed a version of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan that would require employers to provide 20 days of paid leave for employees who are sick or caring for a family member. But the fate of that bill is uncertain in the Senate.

“We can’t do a patchwork sort of thing. It has to be holistic. It has to be meaningful,” said Josephine Kalipeni, executive director at Family Values @ Work, a national network of 27 state and local coalitions helping to advocate for such policies as paid sick days.

The U.S. is one of only 11 countries worldwide without any federal mandate for paid sick leave, according to a 2020 study by the World Policy Analysis Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

On the flipside are small business owners like Dawn Crawley, CEO of House Cleaning Heroes, who can’t afford to pay workers when they are out sick. But Crawley is trying to help in other ways. She recently drove one cleaner who didn’t have a car to a nearby testing site. She later bought the cleaner some medicine, orange juice and oranges.

“If they are out, I try to give them money but at the same time my company has got to survive,” Crawley said. “If the company goes under, no one has work.”

Even when paid sick leave is available, workers aren’t always made aware of it.

Ingrid Vilorio, who works at a Jack in the Box restaurant in Castro Valley, California, started feeling sick last March and soon tested positive for COVID. Vilorio alerted a supervisor, who didn’t tell her she was eligible for paid sick leave — as well as supplemental COVID leave — under California law.

Vilorio said her doctor told her to take 15 days off, but she decided to take just 10 because she had bills to pay. Months later, a co-worker told Vilorio she was owed sick pay for the time she was off. Working through Fight for $15, a group that works to unionize fast food workers, Vilorio and her colleagues reported the restaurant to the county health department. Shortly after that, she was given back pay.

But Vilorio, who speaks Spanish, said through a translator that problems persist. Workers are still getting sick, she said, and are often afraid to speak up.

“Without our health, we can’t work,” she said. “We’re told that we’re front line workers, but we’re not treated like it.”

Winona church gathers to honor late pastor who died in fatal shooting last year
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Members of Starrville Methodist Church cried and shared hugs as they united at the same location their pastor was shot and killed last year.

After a Sunday memorial service honoring late Pastor Mark Allen McWilliams, members of the church broke ground for a tree that will be planted in his honor.

On Jan. 3, 2021, McWilliams was preparing for church service that Sunday morning when he was fatally shot by his own gun, which had been wrested away from him by a suspect who hid from police inside the church in Winona overnight.

Just over a year later, the church, which has remained open, gathered for the anniversary of the “unimaginable tragedy.”

Linda Parrott, member of the church for shortly over a year, received many heartfelt hugs at the service. She said she was on her way to church the day McWilliams was shot and killed. After hearing what happened and seeing police vehicles outside, she said she was in disbelief and shock.

“I went home and... just crying,” Parrott said. She reached out to her friend and the pastor’s wife, Rosemary McWilliams, who she said couldn’t think to do anything.

“[Rosemary] said she could not come back to this church because of what had happened. ... She is having a very, very difficult time with this,” Parrott said.

The late pastor was first buried at the Winona Cemetery, but has since been moved to Frankston to be closer for his wife to visit.

“I remember the last words he said behind the pulpit were, ‘Maybe I may not even be here next Sunday.’ I don’t know if he had a premonition or what. He always encouraged us to pray,” Parrott said.

She said what happened was a tragedy but thinking of where he is now in heaven brings positivity. However, she said she has taken her pastor’s death really hard.

“My husband [Billy] and I both, we just loved him and love Rosemary,” Parrott said with tears in her eyes. “There’s not any special words that I can give you that would truly describe what a man of God that he was.”

A year later, the church now has new leadership. On the first Sunday of March last year, Paul Bolding stepped in to fill the late pastor’s role after visiting a few times to help with music and preaching. He said the number of people who attend the church has not been affected because of what happened, but COVID-19 has. There are currently about 40 members who attend.

“Rosemary walked in here two days after watching her husband died and she said this,” Bolding said, as he read a statement Rosemary said last year at the funeral service.

“You have said, ‘I will take what the enemy has meant for evil into good,’ and I hope you turn it into good for this church, for the community, for churches across the country, for Christianity, for the next generation. Lord, you are so good,” were the words Rosemary McWilliams said at her husband’s funeral service.

At Sunday’s memorial service, a member of the church stood at the front door to welcome those who entered. Since the tragedy that happened on the church’s grounds, Bolding said the members of the congregation are very close and tight knit, possibly because of what happened, he said.

“At the moment that Mark was standing there and the bullets began to pierce his skin, God is saying that he is being made into the image of God quicker,” said Bolding to the congregation in his sermon.

“Immediately, when his heart stopped, he was with the Lord. Unimaginable. Unimaginable tragedy. But God is so thorough, he made a way in every detail. Mark is praising God with all his heart, free from any encumbrance whatsoever. He’s now getting a glimpse of what eternity is going to be like,” he said.

Bolding said there was a forgiveness service last year, where every person at the church got to walk through forgiveness if they chose to. He said they keep forgiving.

“We believe the light of Christ overcomes the darkness. These were very dark days. Last year on the third was a very dark day, but all the people that were there that day have already proved that God’s light overcomes the darkness, and that can happen everywhere if you just get in with Jesus in the light and get out of the darkness,” Bolding said.

The tree that will be planted in honor of McWilliams is being donated by Breedlove Nursery and is an October Glory Maple that turns orange and bright red in the fall. The tree will grow 40 to 50 feet, said Bolding, and will be proof of new life, which he called God’s plan. After breaking ground where the tree will be planted, the congregation sang “Amazing Grace” and said a prayer.

State Financial Crimes Intelligence Center opens in East Texas
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TYLER — The new Financial Crimes Intelligence Center, which will work to coordinate law enforcement investigations involving credit card skimmers, has officially opened in Tyler.

The statewide center was created by a bill of the 87th Legislature.

A partnership between the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations and the Smith County District Attorney’s Office will allow the operation of the Financial Crimes Intelligence Center.

“Card skimming at gas pumps is a rapidly growing problem in Texas,” state Rep. Mary Ann Perez, who authored the legislation, said in a statement. “I am humbled to see (the legislation) come together and make a positive impact in our state. Card skimming affects all Texans — chances are you or someone you know has been skimmed at least once.”

Skimmer investigations with law enforcement agencies will be coordinated and assisted by the Financial Crimes Intelligence Center, according to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations.

Center investigation officers will form relationships with financial institutions, credit and debit card issuers, payment card networks and merchants, according to the department. Training on identifying and combating credit card fraud for law enforcement officers and industry also will be developed and provided by the center.

“The Financial Crimes Intelligence Center is a huge step forward in law enforcement for the protection of Texas citizens,” Smith County District Attorney Jacob Putman said in a statement. “The Smith County District Attorney’s Office is grateful to TDLR and the Legislature for recognizing the need to stop organized crime and fraud at our gas pumps and payment terminals. This new center will help keep our citizens safe in Smith County and across the state and enable law enforcement to work effectively statewide.”

The regulation of motor fuel metering and quality collection of consumer complaints and merchant reports related to credit card skimmers are all handled by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations.

The Tyler Police Department and Smith County DA’s office have actively investigated and prosecuted people involved in credit card fraud related to gas pump skimmers, according to the department.

Daily operations at the Financial Crimes Intelligence Center will be run by the Smith County DA’s office, and reimbursements for operating expenses will be given to Smith County by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations.

“The FCIC’s sworn investigators are highly experienced, have statewide jurisdiction and can take the investigative lead in any case where that’s appropriate,” said Adam Colby, the center’s chief intelligence coordinator. “We expect the center to be fully operational in late January, but we’re already working cases around the state and assisting law enforcement and private sector investigators around the country.”

Heavy rain, tornadoes sweep through Houston area
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HOUSTON — At least two tornadoes touched down in the Houston area over the weekend as storms brought high winds and heavy rains, damaging homes and businesses and causing flooding.

Most of the damage from the storms that came through Saturday night was in Harris, Montgomery and Liberty counties, according to National Weather Service officials.

An EF1, which has estimated wind speeds of 73 miles per hour to 112 miles per hour, was confirmed to have touched down in Humble, while an EFO was confirmed in Montgomery, said National Weather Service lead forecaster Brian Kyle. An EFO has estimated winds of 40 miles per hour to 72 miles per hour.

He said officials were still surveying damage to in a couple of other areas to determine if there were other tornadoes as well.

In Humble, located just north of Houston, the metal roof from a business crashed into a road, hitting a couple of homes, KTRK-TV reported.

Robert Andrews told the television station that the roof barely missed the bedroom where he was sleeping.

“It was a massive sound. They always say, ‘It sounds like a freight train,’ and you’re like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ That sounded like a freight train hitting a brick wall,” Andrews said.