Oil bust forces Texas H-1B visa holders to exit country

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Twenty thousand workers have been laid off this year in the oil and gas industry across the country as the price of oil has slumped. The cutbacks are especially hard for foreign workers here on what are known as H-1B visas. For them, getting laid off doesn’t just mean leaving the office, it means leaving the country.

Scottish-born Graeme Slaven loves living in Katy, Texas.

“We like the fact that it’s easy to make friends here, we like the fact that the education system is fantastic,” Slaven said. “We enjoy being able to live in a house that for the same price back in the U.K. would be about a third or a quarter of the size.”

Slaven had survived several rounds of layoffs at the oil and gas security company where he worked for seven years. When his bosses called him into their office a few weeks ago, he wasn’t surprised. “I wasn’t in shock then, I could read the situation,” he said.

 The same thing had happened to a lot of the friends he met at his local golf club. In just a few months, he saw his entire expat community shrink.

“I actually got to the point where I couldn’t face going to any more going-away parties,” Slaven said. “They were happening with increasing regularity.”

Before getting a pink slip, Slaven was in line to get a green card. He owns a home, his sons play on local soccer teams. His youngest, Niall, who’s 9, has lived here since he was a toddler. “There are only, like, two people that I know in Scotland,” he said.

Slaven and his expat friends used to play golf at the Willow Fork Country Club.

“Every Friday during Lent we had fish and chips, and we had a big crowd that showed up for that,” club manager Richard Rowell said. “You know, if an Englishman tells you the fish and chips are pretty good, you have a thumbs up.”

The exodus of foreign oil workers has hit the club pretty hard in the last few months.

“Eighty to 100 families have relocated to their home country primarily because of job changes and changes in the economy,” Rowell said.

Graeme Slaven has a type of visa called an H-1B. Eighty-five thousand of them are allotted every year to professional workers through quotas to different countries.

Immigration attorney Ken Harder said once a foreign worker is laid off, they have few legal options.

“Much like Capt. Kirk might be beamed up by Scotty, in theory, when an H-1B worker is terminated from employment, he should vaporize and disappear,” Harder said.

Harder’s firm has seen the impact of low oil and gas prices directly.

“I would say since 8 a.m. on January 4th, the first business day this year, we’ve been furiously busy dealing with inquiries both from companies that need to downsize, as well as individuals who have been or are about to be downsized, so it’s been a real profound issue given the local economy here in Houston these last few months,” Harder said.

Slaven has a slim margin of hope. If he can find another employer willing to sponsor him, he can stay — but he knows that’s unlikely.

“The best-case scenario is a miracle,” Slaven said, “that somebody else is interested in employing me. The chances of that at this point in time are slim.”

A quick search on a job board turns up just a few companies willing to sponsor H-1B visas. Most of those companies are in IT, which is not a field Slaven has experience in.

Right now he’s trying to figure out a way to stay in the U.S. until the end of the school year, before he moves his family back to Scotland — a move he’s trying desperately to avoid.

Why This Small Coffee Business Doesn’t Need to Compete on Price

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Every coffee company has an angle.

Folgers made it fast. Nabob made it romantic. Starbucks made it hip. And today, artisanal coffee is making it expensive. But how do you convince someone to pay a lot more for their coffee? The answer is actually pretty simple: all you need to do is tell a story.

We sat down with Helen Schafer, owner of Tiny House Coffee Roasters, to find out more.

In this interview, you’ll…

  • Find out how a great story can help you charge more for your products
  • Discover an easy way to tell your story (without an advertising budget)
  • Learn about product positioning and why it’s your key to boosting sales

Check out the full interview below:

Want to hear more? Listen to the rest of episode six now.

Lessons For Sale: A New Marketplace for Teachers

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Think of it as Etsy for educators. That’s how CEO Adam Freed says some people describe it.

“You can buy so much on Teachers Pay Teachers,” Freed says. “You can find worksheets and activities that are supplementary curriculum…. You can find supplies you’d use in your classroom like cool posters or new ways to tag books for different levels of readers in your classroom,” he says.

Teaching has always been more of a challenge than most non-teachers realize. San Antonio first grade teacher Reagan Tunstall says with state and district requirements changing almost every year, teachers feel endless pressure to keep their material fresh.

“All of the extra things that we need to do – planning for the next week – all happen in the evenings and it takes away that precious family time,” Tunstall says. “So, I think when the state changes things – which they often do…it’s more of a time stealer. We’re planning what we’re doing next and when things are unfamiliar it just takes longer to make sure that we’re hitting all of those objectives and expectations for every student. So, it can be very difficult especially when the year is in full swing and we’re already filling that time crunch.”

Tunstall says she thought ‘I should be compensated for this work.’ She says it was frustrating that all the work that went into planning was used just once.

“In the end, I upload everything. The basic idea is that it’s based on about 10 cents a page but really it kind of depends on the content and the time spent. As a teacher I know budgets are tight so I try to price it very affordably,” Tunstall explains. “Just knowing that other teachers are using it is a huge, just amazing fulfilling feeling, so that’s really what I get out of it.”

If a student buys an essay online, it’s considered cheating. But fourth grade teacher Nina Gufstason says buying lesson plans online isn’t cutting corners.

“It’s definitely different, because you are paying for someone’s ideas,” she says. “I think you’re working smarter not harder. And I think that is where teachers need to move – is to work with each other and not just depend on having to do everything themselves.”

Gufstason says the days are long, she gets to school at 7:15 a.m. and leaves around 7:15 p.m. And the lesson plans are not the only thing on her plate.

“The number one thing is my students and making sure that they’re, you know, taken care of and they’re learning and they’re having fun,” she says. “And so if I can use other people’s great ideas and make that happen, that’s what I should do.”

Gustafson says being a fourth grade teacher comes with a lot of challenges, long hours, rowdy kids, and big messes. But the best part, she says, is knowing that other teachers have your back.

Could Texas Ever Pass Canada’s No Tampon Sales Tax Law?

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No taxation with menstruation – that’s what 75,000 Canadians said in a petition to lobby the federal government to remove sales tax from feminine hygiene products. Jill Pieback led the movement from Toronto.

“We launched a campaign on January 26th with a goal of getting 50,000 signatures,” she says.

Along the way, they had a problem familiar to many women’s rights activists.

“The problem that we were facing in Canada is that there is no gender parity in our government,” Pieback says. “And this tax was so symbolic of so many other laws in Canada that have been made without considering women in this country.”

The petition was successful. The country’s government approved the tax exemption in a unanimous vote. In Texas, the state collects more than half a million dollars from taxes on feminine hygiene product every year. Steve Hanabutt is the president of Sales Tax Specialists in Plano.

“Currently the law says that any over the counter drugs that is required to be labeled with a drugs facts panel is going to be exempt from sales tax,” he says.

That means contact solution, laxatives and painkillers are exempt. Not to mention, groceries. Ann Dunkleburg is an associate director at the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin.

“That comes very close to having the same rationale or even food for the reasons that you wouldn’t want to put a sales tax on it,” Dunkleburg says. “But because of the sort of ‘good old boy’ nature of our history here, those things have never been considered for exemption before.”

So will Texas ever pass a law like Canada – lifting what some have called a ‘tampon tax?’

“I think, that it could eventually and it probably will eventually, but frankly it might not be the highest priority,” she says. “I think you know we had a hard time getting some important legislation about the ability of state employees to express milk at work or breastfeed, so it’s not as easy despite the fact that in 2015 we would think these things would be easier to do.”

Some activists are wondering if it might actually be easier to lobby feminine hygiene companies to sell kits – say a box of pads or tampons along with a bottle of pain reliever. If it has to have medical ingredients listed on the box, it would be tax exempt in the state of Texas.

Girls Summer Camp In Texas To Open Despite Recent Flooding

Photo_10_2067374_Salinas_Camp_Flood.2 versions of this story, one for the Texas Standard and one for NPR

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This Sunday, 150 girls ages 6-16 will say goodbye to their parents, grab their trunks, and move into their summer cabins at Rocky River Ranch. The 50-year-old camp is a place preserved in time. When alumni drop off their little sisters and daughters, director Shanna Watson asks them if anything looks different.

“I always like to ask that question to alumni that come because we’ve done a lot of work but always in the effort to keep it the same,” she says.

But after the Memorial Day floods, the camp’s riverbank is unrecognizable. Dozens of giant sycamore trees are turned on their sides, rocks and debris from houses upstream litter the once pristine view. And the view is not the only thing the camp lost.

“We had moved all of our kayaks up here because that’s what we do when it’s gonna flood and they’re usually safe up here on this hill, and we had like a storage shed that had our paddles and our life jackets and all of our rappelling equipment and like the whole shed is gone, not like a little rubber maid, it was a real wooden shed,” Watson explains.

Counselor Maddie Hammil and her coworkers are brainstorming how they’ll make up for not being able to use the river this year.

“It’s going to be pretty hard but we’re just going to have to explain that camp is going to be a little different this year,” Hammil says. “Just like we rotate through some of the programs we do in the evenings – we’re going to have to rotate through some of the classes, including classes up at the pool, so they’ll still be able to get in the water if that’s what they have their hearts set on, and like a ton of other beautiful places on camp.

Meanwhile, volunteers are busy chopping up the dead trees and separating the brush from the debris. Bailey Rainey is clearing the way for a new campfire.

“So campfire is how we end each session here at camp,” Rainey says. “It’s always been the perfect view of the river, and the rocks, it’s almost a sacred place on camp, so I feel blessed to be able to clean the area that’s going to be that place again because the old one is not so much there anymore.”

Director Shanna Watson says even though the river is now swollen, dangerous and will be off-limits, so far, they’ve had no cancellations

“What our hope is that they will realize you know camp is amazing no matter what activities you’re doing,” Watson says. “You know the activities are a tool for the bigger part of camp, that’s what we’re going to focus on, the relationships and growing independent girls and we feel comfortable we can do that, even without the river activities.”

The goal is for the girls to love camp anyway. That way they’ll come back next year and experience the river the way their moms and sisters did before them.

Texas Has A Retirement Home for Pets

4848281540_d5e2a5727a_bGet the full story on the Texas Standard

If you go to the Stevenson Companion Animal Life Care Center at Texas A&M, you’ll be greeted by a posse of dogs. Their queen bee, a 10 year old Boston Terrier named Patty. She has short little legs and an irresistibly smooshed face. She was running in circles around my legs.

I could tell Patty had something to tell me about her pet retirement, but I needed an interpreter, vet technician Janet Broadhead:

“Well she didn’t have much say so in the matter and she really liked her daddy because he took her everywhere it seems like especially drive thrus and only fed her people food so when she came here she didn’t really like it too much because she had to eat dog food and she had different handlers,” Broadhead says. “And then as time went on she’s learned to really like it and adjust to all the different people and the routine just like everyone else, I think she’d really say she really likes it now.”

The Stevenson Center runs on kibble and routine – you have to have a strict schedule to take care of the 34 animals at the center: dogs, cats and even a llama. Assistant Director Ellie Greenbaum says was started by Dr. Ned Ellet in 1993.

“He was the head of the small animal clinic here at the college of veterinary medicine for many years and he wanted someplace for people who didn’t’ have family of friends that could or would care for their pets,” Greenbaum says. “He wanted to create a home-like environment where they could send their pets and it would benefit the pets and the college of veterinary medicine.”

To enroll Patty in the program, her owner left her an endowment of at least 50 thousand dollars. Unlike a shelter that would try to get her adopted, Patty will stay at this sanctuary for the rest of her life, being cared for by people like Lauren Schwerdfeger.

“Patty is a hoot, she definitely has some character,” she says.

When the 9-to-5 staff goes home,Schwerdfeger and three other veterinary students take turns giving the animals food and medicine. In exchange for taking care of the more than two dozen pets, she gets free housing at the center and a scholarship, not to mention some valuable practice.

“There are so many things that go on here in the center that I’ll be sitting in class one day, for example this past year we were touching in physiology about diabetes and cushings and immediately my mind went to specific dogs that we have here that I know have these conditions,”Schwerdfeger says. “And immediately I’m starting to think, oh that makes sense, I’ve seen them, they do drink more than the other dogs, oh they do, this is the medication they’re on, that makes sense, you know, physiologically, why that would be working like that.”

All the animals here have one thing in common: they were absolutely adored by their humans. And the pets clearly loved their humans back. Greenbaum explains they go through a little grieving period when they first come to stay, but it always turns out okay.

“These animals have all come to live in a place where they’re still loved and well cared for and it’s what their owners wanted. So it’s a happy story,” Greenbaum says.

Right now there are more than 500 animals enrolled to enter the center in the future.

Texas Slashes Film and Video Game Incentives, Everyone Loses

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The entertainment industry was shocked when state legislators slashed $63 million from the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program from the state’s budget. It’s a program that was created in 2008 to attract businesses by giving companies grants for hiring Texas workers to develop film, TV, commercial or video game projects in the state. Now, the film and video game industries are trying to figure out what went wrong – and they’re pointing fingers.

It’s a cautionary tale of what happens when two sides just can’t agree. At least that’s how Bill Hammond sees it. He leads the Texas Association of Business.

“I think it’s a cautionary tale when one side refused to negotiate in good faith,” Hammond says.

Since 2008, the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program has given entertainment companies about $150 million in grants if they hire Texas workers. But in the last couple of years, there’s been a problem brewing: the film industry didn’t want to be grouped in with video games in the state budget. They argued the two industries are just so different.

Barbara Morgan is the executive director of the Austin Film Festival.

“I think there are also very different, I mean, places that are creating those games, it’s not as overt as when someone is here shooting in the middle of the street,” Morgan says. “But with gaming it’s different – those are usually done inside office buildings and created in a small environment.”

But separating the incentive program would have meant that the video game industry would have had to fight for money on its own. Jennifer Bullard directs a yearly video game conference in Austin.

“I thought it was a pointless exercise, one of those situations where we should try to get the pie and then figure out how to divide it up, rather than try to divide nothing,” Bullard says.

In politics, we’re used to hearing about the eleventh-hour backroom deal. Not here. Neither side could agree – and Bill Hammond says their very public disagreement made them lose support in the legislature.

“At that point there was a lack of support in the legislature and that combined with some criticisms with incentives across the board form the so-called tea party legislators, the support tragically evaporated,” he says.

The two-year budget deal reached by legislative negotiators includes $32 million for the incentive program. That’s about a third of the program’s current funding and less than half of what the governor asked for.

One thing both sides can agree on, these cuts will be devastating to both industries.

Barbara Morgan says you won’t see big series like “American Crime” shooting in Texas anymore.

“As long as Louisiana and New Mexico and Georgia keep pouring money into the film industry it will hurt us if we don’t have budgets that can compete,” she says.

Jennifer Bullard says this is a step backward for one of the fastest growing industries in the state.

“Everyone is disappointed quite frankly, very upset and discouraged,” Bullard says. “This was an incentive program that showed that Texas cared about game development and this just sends a really clear message that they don’t care about game developers.”

For now, video games and the film industry will share a much diminished incentive program and a sense of disappointment.