With most Austinites still scrambling to find vaccines, Austin native James Kip used his background in tech to beat the system, get his elderly parents vaccinated and help thousands of Texans in the process.
The tech created a new avenue for overwhelmed Texans as the state began to receive record shipments of doses but millions were still left without appointments. The issue has given way to a new "full-time job," where people are left constantly refreshing vaccine providers' web pages—and those without the time or resources to do so are left without a vaccine.
That's where vaccine "scrapers" come into play. Like many residents across Texas, scrapers scan vaccination sites for appointments, but they do so on a much larger scale with technology. Automatic "bots" are programmed to look statewide, minute-by-minute for available vaccines and send alerts to members via phone or computer.
Kip created a network on communication platform Slack, the Texas Vaccine Updates, a month ago to give "refreshers" a break. A software engineer by day, Kip made the bot from home in about a week to get vaccines for his family. He soon realized there was a much greater need outside of his home.'
"I had no plans to make it public initially because it was just for me to get my parents vaccinated," Kip said. "I knew a lot of people before this were just sitting there all day refreshing the page. If they were older, usually what they were doing was calling each and every one of these pharmacies, so I knew there was a need for this alert system."
Kip posted on Reddit's Austin page that he had created the network for Texans in need of appointments in February. Now the channel has grown from around 1,000 users to nearly 10,000.
Covering everywhere from HEB, CVS and Randall's, the bots are everywhere, scanning locations statewide as quickly as possible. Once an appointment is found, the bot automatically alerts subscribers of appointment times and locations via Slack.
Kip said while more vaccines are shipping to the state, it's probably been even harder to get an appointment since his alerts launched. Slots could be taken up in as few as two seconds, Kip says.
"I think it's gotten harder, and I think the reason is now people kind of have their system set up and know which sites to check," Kip said. "I think the information spread faster than the vaccine and people found the places that had vaccines and just kept going."
While urban areas are constantly booked, Kip said that rural regions like West Texas are starting to have more openings. Austinites are often willing to travel several hours to get doses.
Despite Austin Public Health's best efforts, the department's limited doses a week have been unable to cut it for one of the nation's fastest-growing cities. To make matters worse, many have found APH's system to be riddled with backlog, glitches and miscommunications.
Kip said that he wishes state or local governments would have more effective centralized waitlists for those who qualify for the vaccine, and he feels like he and the community around Texas Vaccine Updates are doing the job for them.
"We have so many experts that it really feels like we are on a professional team," Kip said. "It feels like we're getting paid to do this because the state's not doing it. I kind of see it like we're working for the state and it's our responsibility to get these people vaccinated."
Since the "scrapers" were launched, Kip said that an entire community has been built to help Texans get vaccinated. According to Kip, a little under 200 developers have helped with the bots, some community organizers have joined and begun reaching out to older residents and volunteers stay on the site to help with any unanswered questions.
One volunteer, Sara Dubuque, has created another useful tool—a website designed to answer any and all Texas vaccine-related questions and give timely updates. Dubuque, who qualifies for the vaccine under group 1B, said that she decided to help out after a "magical" experience with the Slack bot.
"After sitting there for a couple of days watching things go by, I got an appointment and I thought, 'Well, that felt magical,'" Dubuque said. "I honestly couldn't believe it, and so I sort of immediately thought, 'Well this was great, how can I help?'"
Like the Slack channel, Dubuque's website has seen a cycle of volunteers who are grateful to get appointments and ready to help others get vaccinated too.
Lindsey Felix has seen both herself and her husband get vaccinated thanks to the bot. Felix said that it is inspiring to see the community fill in gaps where state and local governments are not.
"I think that it's just really heartening after a year where we've had to care about each other by staying away, being able to help and be a part of this feels really special and important," Felix said. "It is wonderful how hard we are all willing to work to keep each other safe."
While both groups are effective at giving people quick information and appointments, a big gap remains: Some of the most vulnerable populations in the community have a lack of internet access. Felix said that she has seen many seniors get turned away for being unable to make online appointments when she and her husband got vaccinated after qualifying.
"One thing we realized from the get-go is the system absolutely favors people who are able to sit in front of the computer all day," Felix said. "When (my husband) got his vaccine, it was really sad to see a pretty steady stream of seniors coming into the pharmacy and getting turned away because they're only handling people who have an appointment. That feels like such a huge missed opportunity."
Although the groups are still working on reaching the older population, Kip said that the most important thing they've spread is useful and reliable information.
"I think what people want more than a vaccine is just information," Kip said. "It's just so hard to get accurate information and to have clear and straight-to-the-point data, and that's what this community helps with."
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It's been a few weeks since a viral TikTok revealed poor working conditions at the Montopolis Dollar Tree in southeast Austin, and employee Maggie Lopez is still feeling its effects.
Lopez was filmed working alone at the location May 1 in a since-deleted video that saw 2.9 million views and over 450,000 likes.
In the video, stacked boxes littered the floor, shelves were left unstocked and a leaky, broken air conditioning unit welcomed customers into the understaffed storefront.
@trishmartinez32#x_bazan06#fyp#fypシ#tiktok#friends#like#comment#4upage#4u#share#viralvideo#trending#wow#4upageシ♬ original sound - Patricia Martinez
Lopez, who now works at the dollar store's Springdale location, says she was left with the aftermath of a 90-hour workweek, lost wages and a mystery illness after the store closed a few days later.
"Nobody ever told me... that there was no air conditioning. They didn't tell me there was danger of getting robbed," Lopez told Austonia. "Nobody said anything... they didn't care."
The location didn't shut its doors because of the TikTok exposure: instead, an AC unit specialist doing routine maintenance found employees working in extreme heat and said it was too hot for employees to continue working.
"To operate a business, you have to have your temperature within a certain parameter," Ikaika, the specialist who didn't disclose his full name to protect his job, told Austonia. "As soon as you walk in, you start sweating... it's not good at all."
Lopez said working in 90+ degree heat became the norm in her two months at the location as air conditioning units remained broken for months before the closure. She added some employees, including her former manager and several customers, passed out in the store due to the heat. But she said company leadership remained unresponsive.
Lopez said she sent her district manager, Veronica Oyervides, screenshots of 90+ degree temperatures inside the store. (Maggie Lopez)
Four days after the air conditioning repairman told employees they should no longer keep working at the store, Lopez said her district manager, Veronica Oyervides, was asking her to come back in to prep the location for reopening. Lopez worked May 8 in the shuttered store prepping it for a reopening, which has yet to happen. Oyervides has declined to comment.
Ever since she started working in the deteriorating Dollar Tree, Lopez said she often wakes up with nosebleeds. She said she's constantly thirsty, her hands shake, and she's experiencing headaches and mood swings—symptoms she believes are due to long-term exposure to mold.
Former assistant manager Linnea Bradley told Austonia she has been hospitalized with symptoms linked to heat and stress after working at the store.
"We are sick and corporate does not give a shit," Lopez said. "What kind of damage did these stupid units do to our bodies?"
Lopez hasn't sought care for her symptoms. She says she makes $13.50 an hour and doesn't have health insurance.
Former employees have more complaints than just the heat: Lopez said that personal safety became a concern in the understaffed store. Catherine, a former employee who wished to only reveal her first name, said she's witnessed large-scale theft and instances of mismanagement in her months as a stocker at the location.
"They have no security, no cameras... they don't want you to have anything in writing," Catherine told Austonia. "It's just complete chaos."
Catherine said that she and other hourly employees were given zero hours for weeks on end as managers, who work on salary, were left to run the store alone from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day. She said some managers became so desperate they were hiring homeless people to help stock shelves in exchange for a drink and a bite to eat.
While Catherine (top, middle) often had zero-hour weekly schedules, Martinez, who was paid on salary, worked back-to-back 90-hour workweeks. (Catherine) (Claire Partain)
"They actually did have people willing to work, they just refused to give them hours," Catherine said. "I'm not understanding whether Dollar Tree wants to go under... are they doing this as a tax break?"
Other Austin Dollar Tree locations have reported similar issues. Former manager Jonathan Martinez, who says he was supposed to work 45 hours a week, says he was racking up 90+ hour workweeks and sleeping in the store as he shouldered both the Montopolis and William Cannon locations while his newborn baby was in the ICU in March.
Martinez kept extra clothes in this office after working seven-day weeks at two Dollar Tree locations. (Claire Partain)
Martinez said he slept on boxes as he juggled the job and visiting his newborn in the ICU. (Claire Partain)
Martinez said he slept on boxes as he juggled the job and visiting his newborn in the ICU. (Claire Partain)
"As long as the store stays open, there are corporate people getting bonuses," Martinez, who quit last week after receiving a $100 annual bonus, told Austonia. "Six months ago, when corporate people had a shitload of bonuses, that's when they upped the price (of everything in the store from $1 to $1.25)."
In the six months since Dollar Tree hiked its prices to $1.25, it's gained plenty of mostly negative national attention. In February, the Food and Drug Administration shut down an Arkansas distribution plant due to a massive rodent infestation, and several lawsuits have ensued. The company has also come under fire for selling allegedly expired over-the-counter medicine and its worker shortage at locations across the country.
One employee, who still works for Dollar Tree and wished to remain anonymous, said that they've seen or heard that many area locations are near their breaking point.
"I've seen the good, the bad, the bad to worse," they said. "And it's always a rinse repeat kind of thing... How many more (stores) will go? And what about the employees?"
"Every time I would tell (Oyervides) 'I'm just going to close, I can't stand it anymore,' she would say, 'No, no, no,'" Lopez said. "And I'd be so upset because why? They have my paycheck. It's just been mortifying... the most horrible year of my life."
Dollar Tree's regional director did not respond to requests for comment from Austonia.
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A group of environmentalists and other activist groups are calling on the city to withhold permits Tesla has requested, including for a battery cathode facility by the company’s headquarters near the Colorado River.
In a letter to Mayor Steve Adler and the rest of council, the groups say the manufacturing process will require a substantial amount of water and chemicals, and that as a result, a hazardous waste stream will form.
“Where will the toxic waste end up? How will Austin ensure that it doesn’t pollute the water?” the letter asks.
The groups, which include East Austin group PODER, the Texas Anti-Poverty Project, Hornsby Bend Alliance and others, demand that the city wait on permit approval until the company makes commitments to engage the community and protect the environment.
While building its own batteries could mean a significant reduction in production costs for the automaker, the groups say materials and processes involved in battery production have dangers. They pointed to Piedmont Lithium, a supplier for the facility, saying caution should be taken with battery production products to “avoid contamination of surface, ground and sewerage waters."
Last year, PODER launched an initiative known as the Colorado River Conservancy to protect the character of the river corridor. Paul DiFiore, manager of the initiative, talked about its aims to put protections in place for the riverfront neighborhoods. "That was the goal that Tesla maybe brought that to another level of urgency," DiFiore told Austonia.
The company has faced controversy with its environmental action before. Earlier this year, the company was fined $275,000 by the Environmental Protection Agency for high priority violations of pollution regulations at its Fremont, California plant.
The letter from environmental groups comes just as Tesla was booted from the E.S.G. index, which ranks companies for how they follow environmental, social and governance principles.
Yesterday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk pushed back against the index, calling it a “clear case of wacktivism.”
Exxon is rated top ten best in world for environment, social & governance (ESG) by S&P 500, while Tesla didn\u2019t make the list!\n\nESG is a scam. It has been weaponized by phony social justice warriors.— Elon Musk (@Elon Musk) 1652890157
Along with action on the cathode facility’s permits, the groups are also calling for collaborative work to remedy inequities in water access.
The letter describes how Tesla receives service from Austin Water, though the gigafactory is outside the boundaries of the service area. That’s because the Public Utility Commission granted Tesla a release from South West Water’s service, allowing them to instead turn to Austin Water for service.
Meanwhile, others in the surrounding area, like those in the Garden Valley neighborhood, rely on Aqua Texas Inc.—which has rates more than double that of Austin Water—for retail service. The neighborhood can receive wholesale service from Austin Water, however.
The groups point to this, along with other developments at the gigafactory—clearing large swaths of trees, filling in ponds and pouring acres of concrete for the factory—as a reason to enforce standards requiring companies to operate with social and environmental responsibility.
“If we do not raise the bar for the increasing number of corporations who wish to relocate to Austin or expand their presence, we risk losing precisely that which attracts people to live here in the first place: the clean, beautiful environment that is the foundation of our collective quality of life,” the letter states.
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