With New York legalizing gay marriage, more and more children will be exposed to same-sex couples (much to the chagrin of conservatives). Here is great video of one little boy's reaction to seeing his first gay couple -- watch how he figures things out:

 

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This Year in Sex: We’re Living in the Future

Between the high-tech sex toys, transplanted uteri, lab-grown penises, and perils of hookup apps, 2014 sometimes sounded like a science fiction novel. But we can't forget the news about IUDs and STIs that came out this year, either.

This Year in Sex takes a look back at the news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, sexually transmitted infections, and other topics that captured our attention in 2014.

The HPV Vaccine Works, It Doesn’t Cause Promiscuity, and There’s an Even Better One Coming

HPV and its vaccine made headlines many times this year. The upsetting news is that two new studies came out suggesting that we had been underestimating the number of both HPV cases and cervical cancer, but as far as the vaccine itself was concerned, things were looking pretty good.

First, and most importantly, it appears to be working. A 2013 study found that despite the fact that only half of teen girls had gotten one dose of the vaccine—and fewer than a third had gotten the recommended three doses—the proportion of teen girls infected with the HPV strains that the vaccine addresses has dropped by 56 percent. This year, another study confirmed this success when it found that states with high rates of HPV vaccines have lower rates of cervical cancer, and vice versa.

Additional research this year should (though probably won’t) also put to rest the idea that giving young people the HPV vaccine encourages them to engage in sexual behavior. One study found that young women do not change their attitudes or behaviors toward safer sex if they get the shot, and the other showed that girls with the vaccine are no more likely to get pregnant or be tested positive for a sexually transmitted infection than their unvaccinated peers.

More good news: Last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new version of Gardasil, one of the two HPV vaccines on the market, which will protect against more strains of the virus. The original vaccine protected against strains 11 and 6, which cause most genital warts, and strains 16 and 18, which cause 70 percent of cervical cancer. The new vaccine, called Gardasil 9, will protect against these four strains in addition to five more cancer-causing strains—31, 33, 45, 52, and 58. Public health experts are hopeful that this added defense can prevent 90 percent of cervical, vulvar, vaginal, and anal cancers.

Wins and Losses for Those Who Want Condoms in Porn

Last year ended with a shutdown of filming—the third of its kind in 2013—in the porn industry after another actor was found to be HIV-positive. So it should be no surprise that this year included numerous rounds in the battle between producers who say no one wants to see condoms on film and public health experts who insist safer sex should start on set.

An effort to get California to pass a statewide law mandating condom use ultimately failed after facing a lot of opposition from porn company representatives, who threatened to take their business to a friendlier state, and porn stars who said it would force their industry underground and make their work more dangerous.

Defenders of the ban, however, did get an end-of-year victory this week when Measure B—a Los Angeles County ordinance requiring condoms on adult industry sets—was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. A lower court had formerly upheld the measure, though it has yet to be systematically enforced.

The IUD Gains Supporters and Users

The intrauterine device (IUD) was once one of the more popular methods of birth control available. Then one model, the Dalkon Shield, came on the market with numerous design flaws that caused many users to become infertile, even resulting in several deaths. Though the dangers were unique to Dalkon Shield, women and physicians became suspicious of all IUDs; for many years, very few women—and only those who had already had children—would use them for contraception. In the last few years, however, IUDs have started getting more attention as providers and public health experts note the safety of newer models and the unparalleled efficacy rates.

This year, the IUD gained even more supporters, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, which came out with a recommendation in October suggesting that IUDs be considered a first-line contraception for sexually active young people. Three months prior, research out of Colorado suggested that increasing the number of young women at Title X clinics using long-acting reversible contraceptives (which include both IUDs and implants) had led to lower than expected fertility rates among low-income women ages 15-to-24 in the state.

Other states, even conservative ones, decided this year that fixing the way Medicaid pays for IUDs—to make it possible to obtain one in a single visit, or even while still in the hospital after delivering a baby—could help prevent unintended pregnancies.

All of this support seems to be translating into increased use of the method. The National Survey of Family Growth found that 6.4 percent of contraceptive users were using an IUD in 2011-2013, compared to just 3.5 percent in the 2006-2010 survey.

Lab-Grown Penises and Transplanted Uteri

The future of reproductive health may include penises grown in a lab and babies born from transplanted uteri.

This year, the first baby to grow in a transplanted uterus was born to a 36-year-old Swedish woman whose name is being withheld. The woman, like the nine others who began the trial, had functioning fallopian tubes but was born without a uterus. After she received a donor organ from a friend of the family, doctors put her on anti-rejection drugs immediately. She became pregnant using IVF and had a relatively uncomplicated pregnancy, though the baby was delivered at 32 weeks when she showed signs of preeclampsia.

The medical team who undertook the trial hailed this as great news for assisted reproductive technologies, but others have expressed worry that the procedure is too invasive for both the donor and the recipient. Two of the nine women in the original study had to have their donor uteruses removed.

Meanwhile, no one has yet to be given a lab-grown penis, but new research on rabbits publicized in October suggests that it’s just a few years off. The process starts with a donor organ that is first stripped of its cells, then seeded with two different types from the genitals of the intended recipient. By making the penis out of the recipient’s own cells, scientist say they are reducing the chance of organ rejection. The procedure was tested on 12 rabbits; all successfully tried to mate using their engineered penis, eight were able to ejaculate, and four impregnated their bunny partner.

Truvada Dominates HIV-Prevention Discussion

Truvada is a combination of two antiretroviral drug used to treat individuals who have HIV. When used daily in HIV-negative individuals, these drugs have been shown to prevent transmission of the virus. The FDA approved the use of Truvada as a form of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PREP) in 2011 and it has been gaining popularity ever since.

This year, both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization released guidelines suggesting that those at high risk of HIV infection—including injection users and men who have sex with men who are not in a monogamous relationship—consider using Truvada.

The method is highly effective. Studies have found that men who take it every day can reduce their risk of HIV infection by as much as 92 percent.

Still, some HIV advocates are concerned that those who choose Truvada—which can cost as much as $10,000 a year and needs to be taken every day—will stop using condoms, putting themselves and their partners at increased risk of other STIs, such as gonorrhea or syphilis.

The Dangers of Mixing Sex and Technology

The intersection between technology and sex got a little tricky this year as officials pointed to a dating app, Grindr, as being at least partially responsible for a syphilis outbreak; meanwhile, a jury in California found that an STI dating site called PositiveSingles had been sharing private information.

Grindr uses global positioning technology to help users meet other users nearby who are interested in getting together, presumably for sex. Grindr is marketed to men who have sex with men, but similar apps exist for heterosexual couples and women who have sex with women. This March, the popular app was at the center of an outbreak of syphilis in Onondaga County, New York.

A few months later, research in Los Angeles found that men who have sex with men who met partners on apps like Grindr had a 25 percent greater incidence of chlamydia and a 37 percent greater incidence of gonorrhea than those who met men in person at a bar, club, gym, private sex party, or even an online dating site. There was no difference in HIV rates or syphilis rates based on where men met.

The online dating sites, however, might pose another problem, at least according to a California jury that awarded 16.5 million dollars last month to a man who says the dating website PositiveSingles—which advertises itself as a place where people can meet other people living with STIs—violated consumer law and committed fraud by sharing information among many other niche websites owned by the same company. As the plaintiff’s attorney put it: “[my client] is not Black, gay, Christian or HIV positive and was unaware that [the] defendant was creating websites that focused on such traits that would include his profile, thus indicating that he was all of these things and more.”

Always a New Sex Toy

Finally, lest anyone worry that we will get bored heading into the new year, we take a look at the sex toys that emerged in the public eye in 2014. There’s the Svakom Gaga, a new vibrator introduced by a Chinese company that comes equipped with a camera and a USB port—plug it into your computer and star in your very own vulva video.

Of course, if you’re not ready for your close-up or you live far from your partner, you could instead turned to the OhMiBod, a vibrator that can be controlled from an iPhone via Bluetooth.

And, for the fitness buffs who aren’t satisfied knowing that they took their 10,000 steps a day, there is the kGoal, a U-shaped device that counts kegels. Women put one side of the device inside their vagina and the hook the other to their phones and are able to know exactly how many times they squeezed their pelvic floor muscles. Known as kegels, these exercises have been shown to help during childbirth, prevent or control urinary incontinence, and improve orgasms.

Image: Shutterstock

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How to Talk About Abortion on the Internet

How can pro-choice advocates change the cultural conversation that can help win policy victories? For starters, according to speakers at this year’s Rootscamp, don’t be afraid to say “abortion.”

How can pro-choice advocates change the cultural conversation that can help win policy victories? For starters, don’t be afraid to just say “abortion.”

At this year’s Rootscamp, a conference bringing together about 2,000 progressive activists and strategists, NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue and representatives from the viral content curation site Upworthy talked about their experiments with social media to figure out what would draw the most people into the conversation about reproductive freedom.

Their biggest finding was that phrases like “reproductive freedom” have their limits—if you’re talking about abortion, the presenters said, it’s best to come out and say so.

The staff of Upworthy, which partnered with NARAL to create a pro-reproductive rights vertical called Feminent Domain, ran tests on their content’s headlines, images, share text, and other factors to tease out what would resonate most with readers and inspire them to share with their networks, including people who might not necessarily identify with the pro-choice cause.

“The term ‘abortion’—can we just put it in a headline? Can we come out and say it? How will the Internet respond to that?” said Upworthy’s Patty Carnevale.

As it turned out, she said, “Being very direct with our audience about what we’re talking about really paid off.” Headlines that spoke more indirectly or euphemistically about abortion did much worse in their testing.

That jibes with other recent data showing huge payoffs from canvassers going door to door to directly share their own abortion stories with people, Hogue said.

“Voters, when you engage them at the door one one one, they don’t know what we mean when we don’t say what we mean,” Hogue said. “If I am talking about abortion and I want you to know what I’m talking about, I am going to say ‘abortion.’ It moves people because they feel like we are being direct with them.”

The other big finding was that in stories that hinge on emotion, compassion draws people in—especially people who think differently than the storyteller.

And snarky cleverness, though it may be therapeutic for embattled social justice writers and be a hit with the base, actually turns a lot of people off because it seems too “insidery” and not inclusive.

Other findings included that it’s OK to joke about abortion since humor is a release and a conversation-starter, and that while it’s fine to have political content, political references may not get more initial clicks; a headline referencing “a dude who hates abortions” did better than talking about an anti-choice “politician,” but less-electioneering terms like “conservative” work OK.

The presenters acknowledged that there’s a difference between online and offline activism, but said that they reinforce each other and have lessons for one another. And the online world is an integral part of culture, which has to change first in order to build political power.

“Politics is the most risk-averse sector that we have,” Hogue said. “One of my observations as a new leader was that we were never going to get the political will that we need if we didn’t actually tackle the cultural question.”

Image: Shutterstock

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Will the New Surgeon General Advocate for Women’s Health?

The surgeon general post could put Vivek Murthy in an ideal position to advocate for sensible, science-based reproductive health policy.

The U.S. Senate confirmed Vivek Murthy to serve as the next surgeon general on Monday by a 51-43 vote, filling a position that has been empty for 17 months.

His confirmation represents not only a victory for Democrats over the National Rifle Association (NRA), but also an opportunity—if Murthy takes it—to make a powerful case for science in women’s health. 

Republicans had blocked Murthy’s nomination to be the nation’s top spokesperson on public health since February, mostly because the NRA took issue with Murthy’s advocacy for gun control as a public health issue.

About 30,000 Americans are killed by guns annually, the highest number in the developed world and the equivalent of a large airline crash every three days.

Gun violence is a particular problem for Black women, according to a report from the Violence Policy Center. In 2012, 468 Black women were murdered by men, at a rate two and a half times higher than white women. More than half of those murders were committed with guns.

Murthy’s support for gun control could help protect women from domestic violence. He’s also spoken about the benefits of contraception to women’s health.

And while the political climate surrounding women’s health remains thorny, the surgeon general post could put Murthy in an ideal position to advocate for sensible, science-based reproductive health policy, Donna Barry, director of the Women’s Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress, told RH Reality Check.

“Prevention is a huge part of [the surgeon general]’s priority work, and sexual and reproductive health care is prevention,” Barry said.

The surgeon general’s historical role as the public health bully pulpit presents Murthy with a major opportunity, Barry said. Past surgeon generals spoke out about the dangers of smoking even when it was controversial, and Murthy could take a similar tack on women’s health.

“I think that because so much of our reproductive health care gets mired in politics rather than science, he will be a good spokesperson for the science,” Barry said.

Public figures willing to separate myth from fact on these issues would be crucial given coordinated anti-choice efforts to mislead legislators and courts on the science of abortion and contraception.

A push from Murthy in favor of HPV vaccinations would also be a boon for public health, Barry said. Not enough clinicians recommend the vaccine, but pressure from Murthy on his peers in the internal medicine field could help change that.

The Obama administration praised Murthy’s confirmation in a statement: “As ‘America’s Doctor,’ Vivek will hit the ground running to make sure every American has the information they need to keep themselves and their families safe.”

As RH Reality Check has reported, Murthy’s nomination isn’t the first time the NRA has used its lobbying muscle to block an Obama nominee. The group’s opposition to a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals nominee finally helped push Senate Democrats to change the filibuster rules for nominations.

Without that change, which let the Senate confirm nominees with a simple majority instead of 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, Murthy and the other nominations would have had a much more difficult time being confirmed.

Image: John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum/Youtube

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Here They Are: The Vincent Rue Emails the Texas Attorney General Didn’t Want You to See

The emails show Texas’s key consultant putting words into the mouths of the state’s so-called expert witnesses, attempting to persuade them to selectively exclude data that did not match his anti-choice bias, and, in one case, walking extremely close to the line of outright ghostwriting what were supposed to be independent reports.

To view the full False Witnesses gallery, click here.

This summer, as the Texas attorney general fought to uphold the sweeping anti-choice laws that threatened to shutter most of that state’s abortion clinics, lawyers for the clinics figured out that there was a puppet master pulling the invisible strings attached to many of the state’s so-called expert witnesses.

Vincent M. Rue, a discredited anti-choice activist who has been derided by judges around the country, was not only raking in money as a “consultant” to the state during this litigation; he was actually drafting and altering the written reports of the experts he’d helped the state hire to defend its regressive laws.

The clinics’ lawyers demanded that the state hand over emails between Rue and the other experts. But the state fought that request, claiming that Rue’s correspondence was exempt from Texas’ otherwise broad laws that allow the public access to state documents.

And well might they have wanted to keep these emails secret, because as RH Reality Check has found, their contents are deeply embarrassing to the attorney general, to Rue, and to three of the experts with whom he was corresponding.

The emails (view them here) show Texas’ key consultant putting words into the mouths of these experts, attempting to persuade them to selectively exclude data that did not match his anti-choice bias, and, in one case, walking extremely close to the line of outright ghostwriting what were supposed to be independent reports.

One of the experts whose correspondence with Rue we have obtained is Deborah Kitz, of Broshar Consulting, a Pennsylvania-based company that focuses on advising clients about ambulatory surgical facilities.

“Vince – I see that ‘my’ report that you returned to me yesterday references my review of an expert report from a Dr. Layne-Farrar,” Kitz wrote in a June 20, 2014 email to Rue. “I have not ever seen such a report. To what does that refer?”

Rue had not stopped at including references to a paper that Kitz had not ever seen into her expert report. He had added her digital signature to the document.

“For the future, to protect all concerned, please do not attach my signature to any report until I send an email providing an ‘OK to sign,’” Kitz wrote.

Kitz told RH Reality Check that she had “no comment” for this story. Rue did not return our email seeking his comments, but in an email reply to Kitz on the same day, he sought to reassure her that he had attached Kitz’s signature to the altered report as part of his “quick edits” and that he would “never submit any work product without your explicit authorization.”

An exchange from a week later shows Rue trying to persuade another expert to leave out data that undermined the state’s anti-choice case.

On June 27, 2014, Peter Uhlenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, sent Rue his revised expert report, having added a few paragraphs at Rue’s suggestion.

However, Uhlenberg declined to follow all of Rue’s guidance.

“I did not comment on the increasing share of abortions occurring in ASCs [ambulatory surgical centers], because the share dropped in 2012,” Uhlenberg explained. “I think that could be used against us.”

Rue replied later that day, with a suggestion that is difficult not to interpret as prompting Uhlenberg to exclude relevant data and produce a dishonest report.

“Perhaps you could avoid using 2012 data as it has not been uploaded yet to the DSHS [Department of State Health Services] website?” Rue wrote. “What do you think?”

Uhlenberg did not reply to our emailed request for comment.

These emails are further evidence of the role Rue plays in states that are seeking to pass or defend anti-choice laws. RH Reality Check earlier reported that documents we obtained from Alaska show Rue acting as the point person when it came to chasing down overdue payments to the experts he coordinates.

Fresh in these emails, however, is the public’s ability to see exactly how Rue has effectively shaped and directed what these experts say—and, equally important, what they leave out.

Based on these emails, it is difficult to maintain any pretense that Rue and his coterie of experts can provide objective testimony. These emails make clear that he is an anti-choice activist who has been able to further his quest on the taxpayer dime.

Sofia Resnick contributed to this report.

Image: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops/Youtube

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Six States to Watch for Anti-Choice Laws in 2015

Republican gains in state legislatures with once-even partisan splits, along with one state's amendment meant to open the flood gates for abortion restrictions, could spawn a spate of anti-choice legislation in 2015.

Republican gains in state legislatures with once-even partisan splits, along with one state’s amendment meant to open the flood gates for abortion restrictions, could spawn a spate of anti-choice legislation in 2015—one that could include radical 20-week abortion bans, misinformed fetal pain laws, and onerous legal requirements for abortion care providers.

Many state legislators pre-filed bills in the weeks and months before the kickoff of the 2015 legislative sessions, while in some states lawmakers wait until after the new year.

RH Reality Check reporters have sifted through anti-choice proposals that have been pre-filed over the past couple of months, as well as public comments outlining agendas for anti-choice state lawmakers in 2015, to compile a list of six states shaping up to be focal points in the battle for reproductive rights—with many of these legislatures ready and willing to propose laws that have been struck down by various courts as unconstitutional.

This anticipated onslaught of anti-choice bills comes as the soon-to-be GOP-controlled U.S. Senate eyes a national ban on all abortions after 20 weeks.

Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager for the Guttmacher Institute, told RH Reality Check that moves by congressional Republicans to restrict abortion on the federal level will likely be mirrored by lawmakers on the state level.

“Whatever we see on the federal level, specifically the 20-week abortion ban, we will see at the state level,” Nash said. “This is a fairly symbiotic relationship between the states and Congress, and the type of abortion restrictions that are in play in Congress will also be in play at the state level.”

Because there have been so many restrictions on abortion and reproductive rights passed in Republican-controlled state legislatures in recent years, Nash said that lawmakers will look for ways to make restrictions even more burdensome on women and providers.

“We are expecting a lot of the same types of restrictions that we’ve seen over the past couple of years,” she said. “The issue is that so many restrictions have passed in such a short amount of time that what we’re seeing now are states looking to make their existing restrictions worse.”

South Carolina

In their first opportunity to pre-file bills for the 2015 session, South Carolina lawmakers submitted at least eight anti-choice bills to be taken up; among them, a fetal pain ban, a medication abortion ban, and an admitting privileges law. All eight bills were introduced by only three state senators, and the state legislature has already indicated it will try to push through a series of extreme anti-choice laws in an attempt to “see which gets the most traction” among the state legislature’s anti-choice majority.

Missouri

State lawmakers in Missouri introduced more legislation to restrict reproductive rights in 2014 than lawmakers in any other state. More than 30 bills to restrict reproductive rights were put forward by Missouri’s collection of influential anti-choice policymakers. The legislature did not hold votes on most of the bills, but lawmakers passed a bill to extend the state’s mandatory waiting period for women seeking an abortion. The Republican majorities in both the state house and senate were able to override Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto, increasing the waiting period for abortions from 24 to 72 hours. Despite the protests of reproductive rights advocates, lawmakers have already pre-filed more than half a dozen bills to restrict reproductive rights in 2015. In recent months most of the public and media attention in the state has been focused on Ferguson, but in January, state lawmakers may pull that attention to Jefferson City and a coordinated campaign to ram through laws meant to chip away at reproductive rights.

New Mexico

State lawmakers nationwide have passed legislation to restrict access to reproductive health care, but in New Mexico, attempts to restrict women’s access to health services have gained little traction. Consequently, reproductive health-care clinics in the state have provided care for more and more women from surrounding states, where access to abortion has been severely limited. However, a Republican governor with an increasing national profile and a newly elected Republican majority in the state house leaves the future of New Mexico’s reproductive rights in doubt. Bills to change the laws governing parental notification of minors seeking abortion care will likely be introduced, and other bills to increase restrictions on abortion access are possible. If advocates are hoping to prevent possible restrictions on reproductive rights from becoming law, they will have to look to the Democratic majority in the state senate.

Tennessee

Voters in Tennessee on Election Day approved an amendment to the state’s constitution that will allow state lawmakers to pass and implement legislation restricting abortion. State lawmakers have already pre-filed legislation to restrict reproductive rights in the state, while a recent public opinion survey found that Tennessee residents are divided on how many restrictions should be placed on reproductive rights. With significant majorities in both the state house and senate, Tennessee Republican lawmakers will likely introduce several bills to restrict reproductive rights in the state thanks to the passage of Amendment 1. Gov. Bill Haslam (R) supported the constitutional amendment, and has expressed willingness to sign most bills to restricting reproductive rights.

Texas

The state capitol building in Austin remained quiet during 2014, as the bicameral Texas legislature was out of session. It’s difficult to predict the impact the 84th Texas legislature will have on reproductive rights when state lawmakers return to Austin for the 2015 session. The 2013 session saw dozens of bills designed to restrict reproductive rights in a variety of ways. The battle over reproductive rights in the Lone Star State culminated in the debate over SB 5 and state Sen. Wendy Davis (D) filibustering the bill for 11 hours. Davis was joined by thousands of protesters both in and outside of the capitol building. The policy and political priorities of the newly elected Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) are still unclear. However, it’s clear that Texas will once again play an outsized role in the continued effort by Republican-controlled state legislatures to turn back the clock on reproductive rights.

Wisconsin

While legislative battles over workers’ rights and Republican-led cuts to the state’s social safety net may play the most prominent role in Wisconsin’s upcoming legislative session, there may be significant attempts to roll back reproductive rights in Wisconsin. Lawmakers introduced several anti-choice bills during the 2014 legislative session. A bill that requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital was signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker (R), but a U.S. federal court blocked the law from taking effect. The Wisconsin Right to Life will lobby anti-choice lawmakers in 2015 to introduce several bills to restrict reproductive rights. Among the anti-choice bills highest on their list of priorities is a ban on abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation.

Image: Shutterstock

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Walmart Guilty of Illegally Intimidating Workers, Judge Rules

The decision from a National Labor Relations Board ordered the retail giant to stop retaliating against workers who want to join a union.

Walmart managers in California illegally disciplined employees for going on strike and threatened to close a store if its employees joined an advocacy group working for higher wages, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) administrative law judge ruled.

The decision, made public last week, involved a complaint filed with the NLRB by Our Walmart, a union-backed group of Walmart employees that claimed that officials at Walmart stores in Placerville and Richmond, California, had intimidated workers in violation of federal labor laws.

The Our Walmart organization is affiliated with the United Food and Commercial Workers union and has organized a string of protests against Walmart over the past three years, pointing to a host of bad labor practices.

Most recently, on Black Friday, Our Walmart sponsored protests at Walmart stores across the country, calling for a $15 base wage for workers, more full-time jobs, and an end to what it says is illegal intimidation and dismissals.

Walmart is the number one employer of Latinos, Blacks, and the elderly nationwide, and while people of color made up 39 percent of Walmart’s U.S. workforce in 2014, only 29 percent of Walmart management is comprised of people of color.

NLRB administrative law judge Geoffrey Carter found that a Walmart manager had illegally intimated workers by telling employees that coworkers returning from a one-day strike would have to look for a new job, as reported by the New York Times.

Carter also reportedly ruled that one Walmart manager had engaged in unlawful intimidation when he told an Our Walmart supporter who had a rope tied around his waist in order to pull a heavy load of merchandise, “If it was up to me, I would put that rope around your neck.”

Federal labor law prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for supporting a union and from making intimidating statements that discourage workers from backing a union.

Carter ordered Walmart to stop intimidating workers in Richmond, California, and to remove any reference to disciplinary write-ups ordered because employees had gone on strike.

Walmart is reportedly appealing the NLRB decision.

The retail giant is no stranger to labor and employment disputes and has a history of aggressively fighting them in court. In 2011, the retail giant claimed victory when, after years of litigation, the Roberts Court revoked class-action certification from what would have been one of the largest gender bias lawsuits of its kind.

At the time of the decision, more than 1.5 million female Walmart workers claimed the retailer unlawfully discriminated against them when it came to their pay and promotions thanks to a corporate culture that enabled stereotyping of female workers.

The Supreme Court rejected these claims, holding that the women didn’t have enough in common to justify hearing their claims against Walmart together as one case, and ordered the litigation returned to the lower courts. That litigation is ongoing.

Image: Ken Wolter / Shutterstock.com

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Quality Early Education Requires Quality Pay for Teachers

Federal early child-care and education policies must require states to raise caretaker and teacher salaries, or else qualified workers will continue to struggle, earn less than they deserve for this vital work and leave the field, while the children—at their most critical development stage—will receive lower quality care.

At age 25, Rita Carvajal of Brooklyn, New York opened her home day-care business after an injury found her wanting a job that would allow her to work from home and with children. She became licensed with the New York City Health Department, completed the required training, and lived on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as she recruited enough children to cover her expenses. Today, nearly five years later, she and two employees care for about ten children, teaching them phonics, social skills, recycling, basic astronomy, healthy eating, and much more, Carvajal says. While she considers herself lucky, it’s still a struggle to earn as much as she needs to cover her expenses, including her employees’ $10 hourly wage, about the national average for the job. She cannot charge parents more than the ballpark $350 each week, lest she lose clients.

“Is it worth it all?” Carvajal said in an interview with RH Reality Check. “Can I really live off this?

Thousands of early child-care providers and educators ask themselves the same questions each day as they care for and educate nearly 12.5 million children under age five. They will soon care for millions more under two new federal initiatives set in place within the past month: a $1 billion initiative announced Wednesday to provide public and private grants to states to expand their pre-kindergarten programs, which is part of a $75 billion package called Preschool for All to create universal pre-K education for 4-year-old children, and the reauthorization of the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG), a block of funds totaling $5.3 billion for early child-care centers and schools for children ages 1-to-4 nationwide. These federal initiatives will allow states to allocate more funds to further train caretakers and teachers, to improve and enforce safety and health standards, to provide new education materials, and to create more vouchers for low-income families to enroll their children in early childhood programs.

But amid the cheering for these laws and the progress they represent, one critical element of quality childhood education remains noticeably absent from the conversation: funding to pay much more to teacher and caretakers, some of the lowest-paid workers in the country. Federal early child-care and education policies must require states to raise caretaker and teacher salaries, or else qualified workers will continue to struggle, earn less than they deserve for this vital work, or leave the field, while the children—at their most critical development stage—will receive lower-quality care.

“One major part of having a quality child-care program is the teachers, and if you don’t offer a very lucrative or fair salary for them, then do you not get the best teachers,” said Marivic Q., an administrator of an early learning center of preschool and pre-K in New York City, with a staff of 30 teachers and more than 200 students between the ages of 2 and 5. “They have to include salary for teachers when they’re thinking of how to help communities have a healthy child-care program.

The nation’s early child-care workforce of about 2.3 million, nearly all women, is one of the lowest-paid in the country despite the critical importance of the work. Workers earn only slightly more than fast-food cooks, with average wages of $15.11 and $10.33 an hour, respectively. These wages have remained low over time, even with increasing research on the importance of early childhood education and care in child development. Twenty years ago, a full-time child-care worker earned an average of $19,680 each year, slightly more than the 2011 income of $19,098. Pre-kindergarten teachers—who care for children from age four until they enter kindergarten—have earned a bit more, taking in about 15 percent more in 2013 than in 1997, but still only 60 percent of a kindergarten teacher’s average salary.

These low wages are mostly explained with some history, science, and gender bias. Americans have only recently begun to understand the developmental and neurological effects of trained child-care and education on children ages 1-to-5, thanks to increasing research, explains Marcy Whitebook, director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at University of California Berkeley and the author of a recent study about low wages in the early childhood workforce. This early education has been linked to better behavior, academic performance, and higher wages later in life.

Yet the education system remains stuck in the past, structuring itself completely on children in school from kindergarten through high school. No state yet requires preschool and pre-K for all children. “We have a 21st century understanding of the early years and the sensitivity of children to adults in their environment,” Whitebook said, “but a 19th century system. We’re spending the most when kids are older and the least on kids at the period of time when the brain is so exquisitely responsive to its environment. And the opportunity that exists in the first few years, there’s nothing else like it.”

Our education system has also created a false dichotomy between early childhood “caregiving” and education, viewing time spent with children ages 1 through 5 as simple babysitting, but time spent in kindergarten and beyond as education. Thus, federal and state education policies have largely ignored pre-K and early childhood programs. Children, Whitebook said, “are learning at all times; care and education is bound together. In [child-care] centers providing caregiving, you’re facilitating learning, and in educating, you have to provide caregiving.” If our policies viewed early child care as education, those caretakers would be treated as K-12 teachers, including in funding.

Federal policymakers, while they have approved new initiatives, still dismiss early child care as a public necessity worth substantially financing like K-12 education, and still largely consider it a private arrangement that each family—especially mothers—figures out individually. As a result, families spend an increasingly enormous amount on child care: Parents spent about 89 percent more in 2011 than they did in 1997. Poor families spend nearly four times as much of their monthly income than families at or above the poverty line (30 percent compared with 8 percent). Families with a monthly income of $4,500 or more per week spent $163 on child care and education, but families in poverty paid an average of $93 per week. Most of that money goes toward rising child care and pre-K centers’ expenses, including certifications, rent, material costs, and teacher trainings, and it varies depending on location and cost of living.

“Imagine if all parents had to pay for a K-12 education,” Whitebook said. 

Rising early child-care costs have forced an increasing number of parents to stay home with their children, even if they’d rather work, because it is cheaper to stay home. Of the nation’s families that receive public subsidies for child care, nearly all do so because caretakers are in school or working full-time. Universal pre-K programs have been lauded for providing breathing room for parents of 4-year-olds, allowing those parents to work full-time and save on child care.

Americans also tend to view child care as a task anyone, especially women, can take on, one that does not require special education, training, or skill. As such, they believe it does not require higher wages. But early childhood educators with degrees in early childhood development create higher-quality programs and greater “student achievement.” Marivic says her teachers were required to obtain master’s degrees in education, and they are all certified.

“In our program, it’s not babysitting,” Marivic said. “We’re preparing [the kids] for college. What they’re getting in public schools, that’s what we’re doing, too. But while they want the same quality from us, the salaries at public schools have been boosted, but ours only a little bit.”

Policymakers nationwide have also failed to streamline services under CCDBG and other laws, so each state determines its own funding schemes. Much of a child-care worker or educator’s pay depends on where they work. About half of the nation’s early childhood educators and caretakers were paid by a relative or a non-relative to care for the children in private homes, and a quarter work in public or private child-care centers sponsored by schools, religious, or civic organizations. About 28 percent of the early child-care workforce work as independent contractors, licensed and funded by their state to care for children in their home through CCDBG and other public funds. Family child-care workers do not earn overtime or receive benefits, and states only pay a flat rate per child per week in the home—workers lose pay if a child stays home due to weather, sickness, or other conditions.

Meanwhile, more than 1.3 million children attended state-funded pre-K in 2011, but far more children were eligible—the disparity is most likely due to past cuts of more than $548 million across the 40 states that offer pre-K.

Advocates and policymakers have recognized the importance of quality in early childhood education and care by prioritizing funding for training, licensing, safety requirements, and classroom resources in the CCDBG and other policies.

Therein lies the rub: Higher worker and educator wages would drastically improve the quality of early child care and education. Low wages reduce quality by creating insecurity, stress, and employee turnover.

“Some teachers say, why am I required to do so much work, but I only make so much?” Marivic said. “It’s stressful, the children can feel it. This is a second home, imagine a home with a dysfunctional family. Imagine it in a classroom. And we say, we can’t do anything about it. We say, if you stay [in the job] it’s because you love the kids. Just be ready for an emotional salary, not an monetary salary.”

Of the nation’s childhood caretakers and educators, 97 percent are women, and about two-thirds are mothers themselves. Many struggle to cover rent, food, and other expenses. About 46 percent of child-care workers rely on public assistance through food stamps, Medicaid, and other subsidies. In one comprehensive study of early child-care educators in one state, about 73 percent stated they worried about paying their monthly bills and about half worried about their families’ having enough food to eat. An increasing number have college degrees specializing in education and early childhood, and must repay student loans. Many workers and educators ultimately leave the industry, and turnover is high—between 25 to 40 percent. One-third of all workers that leave the industry do so because of the low wages.

Stress for caretakers creates stress for children, which results in lower-quality programs. Extensive psychological and clinical research has shown that young children are completely affected by their caretakers’ mental health and high turnover. Young children require attachment, routine, and continuity to developmentally thrive, and stress-fueled interactions and revolving caretakers results in impaired memory, immune system, and behavioral development. “When you’re stressed, you show it,” Carvajal said. “It’s in your voice and in your body language, and children pick up on everything.” In programs where caretakers and teachers earned more and feel more secure in their job, children actually perform better on exams and retain more information.

“When you’re sitting with a group of children and you’re thinking, how am I going to pay my rent?” Whitebook said. “That distracts you a little. Children essentially end up having a mediocre experience when they could having a fabulous experience.”

Marivic and other administrators struggle to attract and retain candidates with early childhood education training and experience when those candidates might also teach in other pre-K programs or in public schools where they can earn a greater income. “A lot of teachers apply, but when they see the salary … whoosh. We’re trying to get the best, but if we cannot offer the same salary [as kindergarten jobs], we cannot get the best people.”

Higher wages would attract a more educated and well-trained workforce to the work and, more importantly, would keep them there. Highly paid teachers are also more likely to have professional working conditions with improved training, better equipment, on-the-job support, and most importantly, they have greater economic security in their own life.

“If we valued these jobs, workers would be paid like they would in other jobs,” Whitebook said. “It’s a matter of economic justice.”

Image: Shutterstock

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