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News brief: fighting in Ukraine, Student loans mismanaged, Amazon union votes

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Peace talks are set to resume today between Ukrainian and Russian officials.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

That's as Russia's invasion of its neighboring country enters its sixth week. Ukrainian leaders and their Western allies are skeptical of Russia's commitment to seek peace. Fierce fighting continues in many parts of the country.

MARTIN: Including near Kyiv, where NPR's Nathan Rott is this morning. Hi, Nate.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: In the last round of diplomatic talks, Nate, Russia promised to scale back, right? They said that they were going to reduce their troop presence around the capital city in particular. You're there. Is that happening?

ROTT: Yes and no. So Western intelligence agencies are saying they're seeing some of those troop movements here around Kyiv and in Chernihiv. That's a bit northeast of here. The governors in both oblasts - that's the Ukrainian equivalent of states - both said today that they are also seeing some of those troop movements, but they say other troops are digging in. And just about every Ukrainian you talk to here, you know, from politician to military medic to person walking their dog on the street, is highly skeptical that Russia's actually going to relieve pressure on either of these areas. I talked to a person yesterday who was with an aid convoy that got turned around in Chernihiv because of fighting. And there were two loud booms that we heard while in central Kyiv yesterday, though we're still waiting for confirmation to hear what was hit.

MARTIN: Even so, we do keep hearing these reports that, at least in some places, that Russia is sort of on its heels, right?

ROTT: Yeah. I mean, in Kyiv and in Chernihiv, they both suffered heavy losses. And, you know, we are hearing that the Ukrainians are being able to force Russian troops out of some of these areas, though they remain unsafe for civilians, for normal people, to return to. There were reports of a possible Ukrainian strike about 20 miles across the border in Russia overnight. The regional governor in Russia said it was an oil depot that was hit, though there's still a lot of details that need to be confirmed there. In southern Ukraine, the military is now saying it's retaking 11 towns in the Kherson region, which is near the Crimean peninsula. And today, it's in the south where we're going to be paying a lot of attention because that's where Mariupol is. That's the city that's been under siege for weeks where we've seen just horrific images. A major Red Cross convoy is trying to get into that city today to deliver humanitarian aid, to get more civilians out. But they've been waiting for assurances from both Ukraine and Russia that it's going to be safe to do so.

MARTIN: You've been talking to people in Kyiv. What's the sense there?

ROTT: You know, it's super interesting. Besides air raid warnings, the nights here are, like, ghostly silent. Curfews are in effect. There's no traffic on the streets. Buildings are keeping their lights off. So you're in this major city, but it's really quiet. During the day, there's more activity. People are out. Businesses are starting to open back up, and some people are coming back. I talked to a 26-year-old yesterday named Olgha Selho who said she'd just gotten back and that she's - it's been a little weird trying to adjust back to the life here.

OLGHA SELHO: When you leave, you understand in one way it's a war and you need to go somewhere. And then you came back. But it's still war and the action is different. So you need to get to know how to live again.

ROTT: So she's trying to learn how to live again. She does say it feels safer here. But, you know, as she said and as we've heard from everybody, it's hard to say anywhere is safe in Ukraine right now given that there are still Russian strikes happening all over.

MARTIN: Right. NPR's Nathan Rott reporting from Kyiv. Thank you so much, Nate.

ROTT: Yeah, thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: OK. Student loan payments can end up being a part of your life for a very long time. I know this from personal experience. NPR has done this investigation into federal loan programs and found that they are not exactly living up to their promises to borrowers.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, they specifically looked at programs designed to help eligible low-income students get affordable monthly payments and ultimately debt free. But the results of an exclusive NPR investigation point to years of mismanagement and mistakes by the Department of Education that have made it more difficult for borrowers to get their loans erased.

MARTIN: NPR's Cory Turner has led the investigation and joins us now. Hey, Cory.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, first off, just explain more about these particular repayment plans.

TURNER: Yeah, they fall under this umbrella - you've probably heard the term - income-driven repayment or IDR. IDR offers borrowers a smaller monthly payment that can change each year depending on income and family size, which means that truly low-income borrowers can end up with, you know, $5 payment or even an official $0 monthly payment. And then after 20 to 25 years, whatever's left of their student debts will be canceled.

MARTIN: So what did you find?

TURNER: So NPR obtained internal Education Department documents, including a review the department did back in 2016, right before the election, of its student loan servicers and how they were handling IDR. And it found that servicers had been making mistakes for years. For example, servicers are supposed to track IDR payments so they can obviously tell borrowers when they qualify for a debt cancellation. But this review found that several servicers didn't even have IDR payment counters, so it was up to borrowers to call and ask and trigger the servicer to manually go back through two decades of records.

MARTIN: Do the servicers at least have those records of qualifying payments?

TURNER: Well, that's another problem from this report. It says that those $0 payments that we talked about were, quote, "not adequately tracked." Now, remember, for those lowest income borrowers, loan cancellation after 20 years isn't just a perk, Rachel. For many, it is a lifeline. So servicers not always giving borrowers credit for those payments means some people could be delayed on the path to forgiveness or even derailed completely. Late yesterday, I ran my findings by the top two members on the House Education Committee, and in a rare show of bipartisanship, they both used the same word, calling it a mess. Here's Democrat Bobby Scott and Republican Virginia Foxx.

BOBBY SCOTT: We knew there was a mess. We had no idea it was this bad. If you've made qualifying payments, you need to get credit for them.

VIRGINIA FOXX: The department could have avoided this mess if the department had done its job.

MARTIN: Ouch.

TURNER: And, Rachel, by its job, Foxx says the department never actually gave servicers clear, consistent guidance on how to manage IDR.

MARTIN: I imagine you've reached out to the Department of Education. What have they said?

TURNER: I have. The department did not respond in time to our request for comment. But, you know, they're in a tough spot because the first IDR plan was created back in the mid-'90s. So the current administration did not create this problem. The question for the Biden administration, though, is how do you try to address a problem that's been building for more than two decades? The good news here is there - some big, forward-looking changes have already been made or are in the works. Those won't do anything for borrowers who've been hurt by IDR's past problems. That's something the department's going to want to look at as it decides when or whether to restart student loan payments.

MARTIN: NPR education correspondent Cory Turner. Cory, thanks for this.

TURNER: You're welcome, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Not one but two Amazon union elections hang in the balance in two different parts of the country.

MARTINEZ: On Staten Island in New York, workers voted on whether to join an independent union. It was started by a former Amazon employee fired from the company a couple years ago. The count is not quite complete, but the yes votes have the lead. In a do-over election in Bessemer, Ala., workers have voted no to joining a well-established national union. But there are hundreds of challenge ballots that have yet to be resolved.

MARTIN: NPR's Andrea Hsu is following all this. Hey, Andrea.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

MARTIN: So some suspense in these votes. Just explain where we're at right now.

HSU: Well, in Bessemer, they finished counting the votes yesterday, but it was close. And there are more than 400 challenge ballots. You know, these are ballots from workers whose eligibility may be questioned by one side or the other. So there's going to be a hearing to determine if any of those can be counted, but we may not get a final result for weeks. Now on Staten Island, the counting resumes this morning. And as of last night, the yes votes had a pretty sizable lead. But there are still a couple of boxes of ballots left to count.

MARTIN: So that would be a big deal if the Staten Island facility actually votes to approve a union, right? Explain the consequences.

HSU: Yes. Yes, a huge deal. No Amazon facility, Rachel, in the U.S. is unionized. And what's especially notable is that unlike the campaign in Alabama, which, as we said, was backed by a national union, the one in Staten Island is truly a grassroots operation. They call themselves the Amazon Labor Union. And its leader is this guy Christian Smalls. He's in his early 30s. He was working at the Staten Island warehouse when COVID hit. And around this time two years ago, he organized a walkout over safety concerns after some co-workers caught the virus. He was fired that same day. Now, Amazon said he had violated COVID safety protocols. He'd been asked to quarantine because of an exposure to COVID, but he showed up for the walkout. So then he launched this upstart union drive, which he financed through GoFundMe. He got some of his co-workers on board, and their thinking was that as insiders with access to the workforce, they might have better success than an outside group.

MARTIN: So what do they want? What are the organizers asking for in particular?

HSU: Well, a whole range of things like longer lunch breaks, better health plans and higher wages. You know, on Staten Island, the pay starts at $18.25 an hour. But it's New York. It's an expensive place to live. And Smalls has said that a lot of workers take on second jobs to earn enough for themselves and their families, and some even rely on public assistance.

MARTIN: It's interesting, though, in this moment, right? It's not just Amazon. I mean, there are other big-name companies that are going through similar union efforts.

HSU: Yeah, it's bubbling up in a lot of places. And one place that we're watching closely is Starbucks. There's been a wave of organizing among workers at its stores. You know, these Starbucks elections have been tiny compared to the Amazon ones because they're store by store. So there might only be 20-some votes. But their campaign is spreading really fast. Nine stores have unionized so far, and more than 180 stores in more than two dozen states have sought union elections with more added every day. And what I'm hearing from workers is they want more money. They want more respect from the companies that they helped make profitable through the pandemic. Meanwhile, you know, the companies like Amazon and Starbucks, they point to the recent raises they've given workers and the great benefits they offer. Like at Amazon, health insurance is offered on day one, right off the bat, to new full-time employees. So the companies are saying, we've done this without unions all these years, and we don't need them now.

MARTIN: OK. NPR's Andrea Hsu reporting on two important union votes at two different Amazon facilities in the country, Bessemer, Ala., and Staten Island in New York. Andrea, thanks. We appreciate your reporting on this.

HSU: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.