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Clause in labor agreement for Nebraska prison workers requires union to oppose certain bills

LINCOLN — The state’s much-heralded labor agreement with state prison workers last week came with one unusual condition:

The union agreed to oppose any bill proposed in the Nebraska Legislature related to “classification and compensation” of the security workers who staff state prisons and other secure facilities, such as the Lincoln Regional Center and the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers.

If any such bills were passed by the Legislature, the labor agreement — which raised starting pay for prison corporals to $20 an hour — would be “null and void,” according to the clause, which was in the first paragraph of the “Letter of Agreement” between the state and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88.

An attorney for the union, Gary Young of Lincoln, said that while the clause was unusual, the union, as well as the state, were seeking to be “done” with a long-festering problem of poor compensation for corrections officers and other state security staff.

“It is an unusual clause, but it’s an unusual situation,” he said.

Over the past few years, corrections staff have been calling for increased pay and raises for longevity as turnover rose to over 30%, vacant posts required more and more overtime, and state workers left for better-paying jobs at county jails.

Some corrections officers were working multiple 16-hour shifts a week to fill mandated jobs. The state was forced to drive officers from Omaha to prisons in Tecumseh and Lincoln, and to declare “staffing emergencies” at those prisons so it could change from 8-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts, which require fewer workers.

The labor agreement announced Friday — which is currently undergoing a ratification vote by union members — was the culmination of months and months of requests, by prison workers as well as state legislators, to take action.

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“We were trying to solve the problem by negotiating in good faith, and the Governor’s Office and his administration didn’t want to cut a deal with us and then have the Legislature come back and do something different,” Young said. “They wanted to know, understandably, that this was done.”

Jason Jackson, the chief negotiator for Gov. Pete Ricketts, said one of the bills pending in the Legislature, Legislative Bill 109, is “incompatible” with the wage increases negotiated.

The labor agreement, Jackson said, “is a better deal for corrections officers, but the uncertainty surrounding LB 109 had to be resolved before we could plan for the future.”

“We hope the Legislature will support this agreement by voting against LB 109,” he said.

State Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln, who had prioritized LB 109 this year as a way to achieve increased salaries by creating new classifications of corrections staff, said it seemed unusual that her proposal was specifically named in the agreement. But she said it’s been her priority all along to get better compensation for corrections staff, and if the union thinks the new labor agreement will do that, she will back off on her bill.

“If it helps them get fair pay, fair benefits, fair hours and stabilizes the workforce, that’s OK by me,” she said.

Another state lawmaker who has pushed hard for better pay, Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, said he’s not drafting any legislation on corrections salaries given the labor agreement.

“We need to give that an opportunity to be successful,” he said.

Young, the union lawyer, added that the pressure exerted by state lawmakers undoubtedly aided the union in its effort to improve compensation.

A lawyer who specializes in labor contracts, John Corrigan of Omaha, said the clause that requires the corrections officers union to oppose pending legislation isn’t completely novel.

Corrigan said that years ago, while he was negotiating a labor agreement for Omaha firefighters with the City of Omaha, the union agreed to not finance a lawsuit being pursued by a group of paramedics.

Gaining a broader labor agreement, he said, was more important to the union.

“We wanted to settle a contract,” he said.

Vaping, smoking age in Nebraska increases to 19 on Jan. 1, with federal age of 21 by summer

LINCOLN — Eighteen-year-olds who smoke or vape in Nebraska have until midnight New Year’s Eve to stock up on supplies.

Starting Wednesday, a new state law will push the legal age for buying and using cigarettes and vaping products to 19.

But that new legal age will be short-lived. A federal law boosted the age to 21, with enforcement beginning this summer. That age matches the legal age for buying alcohol. Nineteen states already have set the smoking age at 21.

The federal change was tucked into a major defense spending bill signed by President Donald Trump just before Christmas. Enforcement of that law will begin 90 days after federal regulations are updated, a process that can take up to six months.

In the meantime, one Nebraska lawmaker plans a renewed push to ban vaping indoors and another will seek to apply state tobacco taxes to vaping products.

State Sen. Dan Quick of Grand Island originally proposed to add vapes to the existing statewide smoking ban in Legislative Bill 149, the same bill that raised the legal age. But he agreed to drop the indoor vaping provision to smooth the way for the age increase.

“My big thing last year was to get it out of the hands of our children,” he said. “We’re going to have a whole generation of kids addicted to nicotine.”

Since the legislative session ended, more than 2,500 people nationwide have been hospitalized with lung diseases linked to vaping products. Fifty-four people in 27 states have died, including one in Nebraska.

National studies have revealed that roughly one in four high school students report using vaping products, up from about one in 10 three years ago.

And Nebraska communities have taken action. The Omaha City Council passed a tax on vaping products, while Lincoln and Grand Island have banned vaping along with smoking in public places and workplaces.

Quick said he plans to introduce legislation in the coming legislative session that would ban indoor vaping statewide, like the indoor smoking ban. He is optimistic about its chances this year.

But Sarah Linden, who runs Generation V and is president of the Nebraska Vape Vendors Association, said she will fight efforts to ban vaping indoors. She said there is no evidence that secondhand vapor is harmful, as opposed to secondhand smoke.

She said such laws make vaping seem dangerous and discourage people from taking up electronic cigarettes and other vaping products to stop smoking tobacco. She argued that vaping is 95% safer than smoking.

“Smoking kills people and we know that,” Linden said. “There’s people that are probably going to die from smoking that could have switched.”

Quick disputed the idea that secondhand vaping is not dangerous. He said some studies do indicate concerns and argued that people should not have to be exposed to vapor when they go out to a restaurant or a movie theater.

“We should have as much right as the person vaping,” he said.

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Quick and Linden found common ground on the law increasing the vaping age to 19, however. Linden said it was a reasonable step to keep vaping products away from high school-age youths, while allowing adults to make their own choices.

She also said that she could support higher penalties for selling vaping products to minors and that she favors limits on the amount of nicotine in vapes, which would affect the heavily marketed and high-nicotine Juuls. Teens like the high-nicotine products for the buzz they produce, she said.

But Linden opposes any proposal that would increase taxes on vapes. She argued that the state does not charge such taxes on nicotine replacement products, such as nicotine gums and patches, which are used to help people stop smoking.

Currently, consumers pay sales taxes on vaping products but not the tax charged on tobacco products.

That could change under LB 710, proposed by Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha in the last legislative session. The bill remains in the Revenue Committee and will carry over to the new legislative session. Among other things, the measure would subject vaping products to a tax equal to 65% of the selling price.

Cavanaugh said she plans to pursue a vaping tax in 2020. She said vaping is different from nicotine gums and patches.

“Vaping products are not smoking cessation products,” she said. “They are addictive and cause serious health hazards.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect age for the Nebraska vaping law.

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U.S. says airstrikes on militia in Iraq sent clear warning to Iran

The U.S. airstrikes on five bases in Iraq and Syria used by an Iranian-backed militia sent a warning to Iran that President Donald Trump's patience has its limits.

"One of the things that we want to emphasize is that this was a defensive action that was designed to protect American forces and American citizens in Iraq," Brian Hook, the State Department's Iran envoy, said Monday. "We're also working on the mission set of restoring deterrence against Iranian aggression."

Sunday's rare direct strike on an Iranian proxy came at an especially tense time and held the potential for escalation. The U.S. and Iran are locked in a standoff over the Trump administration's crippling economic offensive against Tehran — meant to force it to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal Washington has abandoned — and the Islamic Republic's suspected reprisals.

Rocket assaults on or near Iraqi installations that host American troops and personnel have occurred since the fall, and Pentagon officials have expressed increasing concern about Iranian involvement. An American contractor was killed in such an attack on Friday, and several U.S. service personnel were wounded.

"They took a strike at an American facility," Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said Monday on "Fox and Friends." "President Trump's been pretty darn patient, and he's made clear at the same time that when Americans' lives were at risk we would respond, and that's what the Department of Defense did yesterday."

Iraq has the potential to be a military flashpoint between the U.S. and Iran. U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq to fight Islamic State militants amid thousands of Iranian-backed Shiite militias controlled by officials in Baghdad sympathetic to Tehran.

Iran condemned the attack on the Kata'ib Hezbollah militia's bases as "an aggression against Iraqi soil and a clear example of terrorism," the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported, quoting Abbas Mousavi, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Vowing revenge, Kata'ib Hezbollah said in a statement, "Let Trump know that he will pay dearly in Iraq and the countries where his criminal forces are present."

Iraq's Parliament speaker, Mohammed Al-Halbousi, also denounced the raid as a violation of his country's sovereignty, even as he urged all parties to display restraint and stressed a commitment to protect "multinational forces who are on the ground at the invitation" of the Iraqi government. The coalition was deployed in 2014 to crush the Islamic State and roll back its conquests in Iraq and Syria.

Kata'ib Hezbollah's parent group reported that 25 fighters were killed and 51 were wounded. The militia nominally falls under the command of the Iraqi armed forces and fought the Islamic State alongside the Iraqi army and the U.S.-led coalition. But it has also been armed by Iran and is assisting it in ferrying arms to Syria, where it is propping up President Bashar Assad's troops.

There has been no reaction from Syria to the strikes.

Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper flew to Florida on Sunday to brief Trump on activities of the previous three days. Attacks on bases used by coalition forces in Iraq have threatened American forces and have been going on for weeks.

Esper said U.S. F-15 jets attacked five targets, three in western Iraq and two in eastern Syria that were either command and control facilities or weapons caches. "The strikes were successful, the pilots and aircraft returned back to base safely," he said.

Esper didn't rule out additional actions in the region.

"We will take additional actions as necessary to ensure that we act in our own self-defense and we deter other bad behavior from militia groups," he said.

Would-be influencer wants to cancel 'OK boomer' for 2020

NEW YORK — Either loudly sing your own praises or don't in the new year, but let's leave the humblebrag behind, along with a few other oversaturated, cloying or just plain silly cultural quirks that deserve to say goodbye.

Among them are pop-up shops, cancel culture and the ever-present "OK boomer" retort on social media. With much ado about something, here's our annual Over It list of things we shouldn't take with us into 2020:


Is it the end of the line for influencers? Greg Petro, writing for Forbes.com, declared in November: "Consumers, especially younger ones, are losing trust in paid influencers and looking instead to organic grassroots communities where their like-minded peers are sharing content and commentary about brands and products they actually love." Rock on, Greg! Side note, exactly how many followers does one need to score an influencer gig? Asking for a friend.


Wearing two timepieces has been around since the 18th century dandy and his double pocket watches, intended to culturally elevate as opposed to making sure he was really, really on time. Later, Marlon Brando pulled off the two-wrist tango but, you know, he was Brando. Celebs have caught on, Chris Pratt, Johnny Depp and Drake included. These days it's all about the digital add-on, plus a statement piece. Can you see our side eyes?


Firstly, huge thanks for your out-of-office responses. Those are gold, but please stop asking for receipts. Learn to live with the suspense like the rest of us as to when we read or do not read your missives, either email, text or otherwise. The same goes for when we most likely do or perchance do not delete said missives at our convenience. Our inbox. Our rules. Keep your curiosity and aggressive email tactics to yourself.


For the truly humble, we appreciate you. For the passive-aggressive, not so much. Merriam-Webster sums up the humblebrag nicely: "To make a seemingly modest, self-critical, or casual statement or reference that is meant to draw attention to one's admirable or impressive qualities or achievement." Just own yourself. The dictionary titans say the term has been around since 2002. It was later popularized by the comedian, TV producer and writer Harris Wittels, who died in 2015.


There's one for ketchup. There's one for ice cream. There's one for "Friends." There are tons with the sole mission of selling you merch, as opposed to selling you merch while also being mildly entertaining. The Business of Fashion notes that Amazon and other digital disrupters have contributed to traditional retailers closing thousands of stores. The prime but empty real estate is up for grabs on shortterm leases for ever-rotating tenants. Pop-ups are now a "strategy" on both ends, from commercial land barons to the sellers of goods, luxury to goofy. Some aren't mad about it. We're all popped out.


There's nothing wrong with calling out bad behavior, a bad person or bad practices, especially those that are truly threatening and make people feel unsafe. There is most definitely something wrong with the mob mentality that swirls on social media unchecked. The cancel culture is often stoked by sheeple with no interest in drilling down to truths. Mean for mean's sake or 100% willing to gulp gossip is not cool. We say, think before you cancel.


Once upon a time in Memeland there was an older dude who trashed Millennials and Gen-Zers for Peter Pan syndrome. For that, younger folks have declared 2019 the year of "OK, boomer," as in Baby Boomer. Not that the yoots and their pejorative for intransigence, intolerance and tech phobia among their elders is entirely wrong, mind you. It's just time to calm down a bit. The phrase "OK, boomer" has a richer history. As the legend goes, it surfaced on Reddit in 2009 and on 4chan in 2015. According to the Boston Globe, TikTok videos with the "OkBoomer" tag have been watched more than 44 million times.


Everybody is looking for feedback of all kinds, all the time. Don't be so needy! Just send the toilet brush. Your survey doesn't just take "a minute." You have all the reviews you need. If we had something to say, we'd say it. We're putting the incessant requests for service and purchase reviews and surveys high on the annoying list alongside the onslaught of robocalls.


It's your anniversary. It's your wife's birthday. We get it. You're married or you have an otherwise significant other and you want your social media world to know all about how you feel about the big day, the big event, so you post a pic, and your words go something like this: "To my angel spouse, the perfect love of my life. You complete me." The reality at home might be more like this: "If you eat my leftovers, I will end you!" Or maybe true love is alive and flourishing. Love is grand, but in the words of 4-year-olds the world over: "Ewwwww." In the words of cynical grown-ups, "Get a room!"