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Friday, August 30, 2013

What to watch: Are wage pressures building?

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

Barring unpleasant events in Syria on Friday — admittedly, a big caveat — most of Wall Street will be on their way to the Hamptons by noon, if they haven't gone earlier.

But the Labor Day weekend is a good time to think about labor, and what will happen when the nation gets back to work.

A true wage/price spiral — inflation — needs both rising prices and rising wages. If you ask for a job now, your boss will say, "I hear Wendy's is hiring." Wages rise only when there are fewer people looking for jobs.

But much of the nation's workers have lost money to inflation in the past decade, and pressure to raise wages is building. Fast-food workers are demonstrating to increase their wages to $15 an hour. Three Democratic congressmen have introduced a bill to push the minimum wage to $10 an hour, up from its current $7.25.

WAGES: Low-paid workers are losing ground to inflation

While a $15-an-hour minimum wage is highly unlikely, and a $10 minimum wage is also unlikely, both reflect wage pressure. Friday, the Bureau of Economic Analysis will release its figures on personal income, a problematic series that will give a rough idea of whether people are seeing an increase in wages and salaries.

Next week is the closely watched jobs report. No one is expecting a big reduction in the unemployment rate, currently 7.4%. But if wages start to rise and unemployment starts to fall, the Federal Reserve will reduce its bond-buying program and let interest rates rise — in other words, it will take away the punchbowl just as the party gets started.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Low-paid workers are marching for fairness

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

Fast-food workers are leading contingents of low-paid workers across the country who are banding together to demand higher pay. Wal-Mart, warehouse and car wash employees are among those taking part.

Low-wage workers across the country are clocking out and rising up.

Fast-food employees plan a day of nationwide strikes today to demand higher pay in the largest of a series of industry protests that have rippled across the USA since last fall.

In the pre-Labor Day walkout, workers in at least 58 cities will picket restaurants such as McDonald's, Burger King and KFC during peak lunch hours, calling for $15-an hour-pay and the right to form a union without fear of retaliation. The event is also intended to roughly coincide with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a protest as much about economic justice as civil rights.

At a ceremony Wednesday commemorating the march, President Obama said that many of its goals have been achieved — but not economic opportunity for all Americans.

"For over a decade, working Americans of all races have seen their wages and incomes stagnate, even as corporate profits soar, even as the pay of a fortunate few explodes," he said. Obama has called for raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9, but the measure has stalled in Congress.

The wave of fast-food demonstrations comes as low-wage jobs dominate employment growth in the 4-year-old recovery, and as more adults find themselves aging inpositions that used to be career stepping-stones for teenagers. The trend has strained the nation's social safety net: More than a quarter of Americans earning less than $15 an hour receive one or more social services, such as food stamps and Medicaid, says the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Nearly 48 million people receive food stamps, more than in any year of the 2007-09 recession.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Nissan vows self-driving cars by 2020

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

It's building a test track to develop them in Japan

Nissan said Tuesday that it will have multiple "commercially viable" self-driving vehicles ready for sale by 2020. It becomes the first major automaker to make such a pledge.

It says it is working with major universities including MIT, Stanford, Oxford, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Tokyo on the technology. Work also is underway on a special-purpose test track in Japan that Nissan says features "real townscapes."

And in Irvine, Calif.,today it is showed off for the first time a specially outfitted electric Nissan Leaf that can drive itself. The Leaf is equipped with laser scanners, all-around video monitors, as well as advanced artificial intelligence and actuators.

Nissan said its goals for autonomous driving cars are "realistic prices for consumers," and availability of self-driving technology across its model range "within two vehicle generations."

"In 2007 I pledged that by 2010, Nissan would mass market a zero-emission vehicle," said Nissan and Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn in a statement. "Today, the Nissan Leaf is the best-selling electric vehicle in history. Now I am committing to be ready to introduce a new ground-breaking technology, Autonomous Drive, by 2020, and we are on track to realize it."

Other automakers have also indicated they are working on similar. Audi and Toyota, for instance, showed cars with self-driving features at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year. They could be next to set a date for marketing the technology. But the best-known autonomous vehicles so far are not from a car company but from Google, which has pioneered testing of self-driving cars in Nevada in the past couple of years.

Nissan's autonomous driving technology is an extension of what it calls "Safety Shield," its various systems that monitor a 360-degree view around a vehicle, gives warnings to the driver and takes action if the driver does has not react.

The most advanced application to date is with the new 2014 Q50 sedan from Nissan luxury division Infiniti. It makes first use of advanced technology that allows it to essentially drive itself on a highway. The Q50 has a system that keeps the vehicle driving in its lane on freeways. Coupled with an adaptive cruise control that maintains a set distance from other cars and brakes if the car ahead -- or the car ahead of that one -- slows, it allows drivers to take their hands off the wheel.

Walmart to offer same-sex domestic benefits

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

Walmart to offer health insurance and other benefits to domestic partners with no questions asked.

In what the largest U.S. gay rights group calls a "historic move," Walmart told employees Monday that it would extend its health and other benefits to "domestic partners" of employees, including partners of the same sex.

The largest U.S. employer made the announcement quietly in a postcard it sent to employees that listed five other changes in benefits, including a new vision plan.

Research by the Human Rights Campaign shows 62% of Fortune 500 companies already offer domestic partner benefits. But the Supreme Court's June decision overturning part of a federal law that denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex partners has heightened attention on same-sex benefits.

The move comes as other employers are changing coverage to be more restrictive in the face of increased costs under the federal health care law known as Obamacare. UPS and the University of Virginia last week announced plans to no longer offer coverage for employees' working spouses if they are eligible for coverage by their own employers.

Chad Griffin, HRC's president, heralded Walmart's decision. Griffin said he even worked at his local Arkansas Walmart as a teen. "I am moved by my former employer's historic action that further proves equality is good business," Griffin said in an e-mailed statement.

Walmart "has sent a cultural signal that equality for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people is the simplest of mainstream values, and we look forward to continuing to work with them," Griffin said.

Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said the company had been working to better define what a domestic partner is and that the Supreme Court's decision helped prompt its move. Partners of Walmart employees can be of the same or opposite sex and married or unmarried, as long as they've been "living together in an ongoing exclusive" relationship for at least 12 months and intend to stay that way, Hargrove said. Still, Hargrove said, "No proof is required today to enroll a spouse."

Lucas Handy, an openly gay former Walmart associate from Fort Dodge, Iowa, says "it shocked me completely" when he heard of the change in Walmart's benefits.

But he added that the change may be little relief to workers who struggle to work enough hours to become eligible for health care coverage or to pay the high deductibles. Handy said he was no longer eligible for health care after being moved from a full-time customer-service position to a part-time pharmacy technician job, but would have had difficulty affording it anyway.

"The real issue with Walmart's health care is that most of us are unable to afford the coverage," said Handy, who said he made $8.95 an hour before being fired in July.

Walmart spokesman Kory Lundberg said Handy was fired after a series of policy violations. Handy said he was fired by for speaking out about the company's labor practices.

He is collecting unemployment and volunteering for the labor union-backed group OUR Walmart.

Hargrove said Walmart is testing how to make it easier for employees to see what shifts are available when they want more hours. He said employees must be with the company a year and work an average of 30 hours a week to become eligible for health care coverage.

Many Michigan businesses struggle to grasp Obamacare

Story originally appeared on the Detroit News.

Auburn Hills business owner Bill Kittle still isn’t sure how the federal law will impact his small company.

“I’m looking for the complete idiot’s guide to the affordable care act,” said Kittle, whose company tracks the fiscal health of local governments and school districts and employs a handful of full- and part-time workers.

The owner of Munetrix is typical of Michigan’s 800,564 small business owners. Many are still in the dark about the rules and requirements of federal health care reform, also known as Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act, and how it will impact their bottom line, according to business leaders, insurance officials and independent agents interviewed by The Detroit News this week.

“Most small employers haven’t really grasped it yet,” said Joe DiCresce, vice president of Brown and Brown, a Detroit-based independent insurance agency. “A lot of them have tried not to pay attention to it until they really had to, and now they’re being forced to pay attention to it.”

The health insurance law hopes to add millions of Americans to insurance rolls through a combination of reforms, including added responsibility on individuals and businesses, and expanded Medicaid.

Although various components have been implemented, the Obama administration has postponed an employer mandate until 2015. That will require businesses with 50 or more employees to provide comprehensive insurance to their workers. All individuals, however, must have insurance by Jan. 1. That includes employees waiting for their firms to meet the federal requirement by 2015.

But business owners still face a litany of requirements, such as notifying their employees by Oct. 1 about the Michigan health insurance exchange.

Many independent business owners have found themselves too busy cutting hair, fixing cars, stocking shelves or providing consulting services to get up to speed on the complex Affordable Care Act, said Charlie Owens, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business in Michigan. “Every minute, every hour they’re spending on this, they’re not growing their business,” Owens said. “No one got in business to administer the Affordable Care Act.”

Misinformation abounds

Jane Johnson, president of Rochester Hills-based Osco Inc., which designs and manufactures injection molding systems for the plastics industry, said she’s tried to stay on top of law, but that’s been difficult because of the many regulation changes handed down by the Obama administration. “Even though you have plenty of access to information, it keeps changing,” Johnson said.

There’s also a lot of misinformation circulating in the business community, Owens said.

“There’s a big void between what they think they know, and what they actually know,” said Owens, who’s been trying to get his 10,000 Michigan members of the National Federation of Independent Businesses up to speed. “A lot of them read about the change in the employee mandate and they think they don’t need to know anything for a year — that’s not the case.” Owens said there are many things businesses need to know now.

Employers, for example, are required to provide each employee with a notice by Oct. 1 informing them about Michigan’s health insurance exchange. Businesses also should know that after January, the waiting period for workers to qualify for company-sponsored health insurance can’t be longer than 90 days.

On the up side, owners with fewer than 10 employees could qualify for tax credits equaling up to 50 percent of insurance costs if they choose to buy policies for their workers.

Business organizations and health insurers, including Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, have been holding workshops on the law, and the Small Business Association of Michigan has launched a service, ACANotice.com, to help small businesses mail out notices about the health exchange to their workers.

John Dunn, vice president of middle- and small-group business for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, said hundreds of business owners have attended his workshops.

“A lot of small employers didn’t realize if you are a small employer (with fewer than 50 employees), you are not subject to the employer mandate” to provide insurance or pay a penalty, “and if they don’t give notice (about the health insurance exchange), they will be subject to fines,” Dunn said. “The last big area is we try to educate them in is how their (insurance policies) are going to be priced.”

Costs will go up

Amid all the uncertainty about the law, there is one thing employers with 50 or more employees know for sure. They’re going to pay more — and for Johnson, that presents an agonizing dilemma.

“Years ago, we paid 100 percent of our health care for everyone, whether it was for a family or a single,” said Johnson, who employs 35 workers at Osco. “We still pay 65 or 70 percent.

“I suspect we’ll be forced to make some sort of alterations, but we always want to take care of our employees. We’re not ones to say ‘Just go to the exchange,’ so we’re really going to have to struggle with our decision. We’re kind of a family here and it’s important to us.”

Milan Gandhi, vice president of Med-Share Inc., a Southfield a diagnostic imaging provider, said the Affordable Care Act will be good for business — more people will have insurance to pay for medical tests. The company has five imaging centers and 40 mobile imaging units.

But with 90 full-time employees, the company’s health insurance costs also will increase — by about $2,000 per employee. It would be cheaper to give workers a $4,000 stipend to buy their insurance on the health exchange, but that’s an option the company won’t consider.

“We’ll find a way (to afford health insurance) because it’s important to us,” Gandhi said. “But it’s a strain for sure on our company, and that doesn’t matter what industry we’re in.”

Friday, August 23, 2013

Illinois Unemployment Second Highest In Nation

Story originally appeared on Northern Public Radio (NPR).

With national unemployment at its lowest level since the start of the Great Recession, the numbers keep going the wrong way in several parts of Illinois.

Peoria, Danville, and Decatur all saw unemployment increase by more than a percentage point.

Still, Gov. Pat Quinn defends his administration's efforts at building the economy.  Thursday, he announced that a German manufacturer will move its U-S headquarters to Schaumburg, a Chicago suburb, a move Quinn says could create 40 jobs.

"Our employment growth ... new jobs created ... our state has had a good record in that area,” he says.  “We could do much better, we want to keep on doing better, but the bottom line is we've got to make sure that we have the people who are now coming back into looking for work, providing that opportunity for them."

Even the metropolitan area in the state with the lowest unemployment -- Bloomington-Normal -- has an unemployment rate of 7.8 percent , nearly half a percentage point higher than the national average.

Decatur has the worst unemployment in the state -- where more than 13-percent of people who want to work can't find them.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Unemployment rates up in most states in July

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

Unemployment rates rose in 28 states and the District of Columbia in July, reflecting weaker job prospects across the country despite a drop in the national jobless rate.

Unemployment fell in eight states and was unchanged in 14 states, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Monday.

The unemployment rate rose sharply in eight states, including Alaska and Georgia which posted the largest increases. The rate rose to 6.3% from 6.5% in Alaska, and to 8.8% from 8.5% in Georgia.

Unemployment increased two-tenths of a percentage point in several other states, including California, to 8.7%; Iowa, 4.8%; Nebraska, 4.2%; Vermont, 4.6%; and Virginia, 5.7%.

Only Mississippi had a significant drop in unemployment, to 8.5% from 9%.

Nevada continued to have the highest unemployment rate, at 9.5%, followed by Illinois, at 9.2%. North Dakota, which is benefiting from an oil boom, continued to have the lowest rate, at 3%.

States are likely feeling the delayed effects of sharp federal budget cuts and a January payroll tax increase that has dampened consumer spending. Nationally, the unemployment rate fell to 7.4% from 7.6% last month, but employers added a disappointing 162,000 jobs.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Higher bills? Thank the emerging middle class

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

Consumers trying to keep their budgets balanced will be dismayed to find that keeping up with the Joneses is getting pricier as the global middle class expands.

Economists generally consider the middle class to be people with the financial resources to make discretionary and small luxury purchases — from an automobile to concert tickets. By that broad brush, about 2 billion worldwide qualify, said Jack Plunkett, CEO of Plunkett Research.

By 2030, that number will balloon to 5 billion, with many of the newcomers in developing countries such as India, China and Brazil.

Consumer spending in Brazil, Russia, India and China accounted for 8.1% of global gross domestic product in 2010, according to IHS Global Insight. It is expected to reach 12% by 2015. U.S. consumption as a percentage of GDP peaked at 22 percent in 2002 and is expected to be roughly 14% by 2015.

That emerging middle class pushes prices higher, because there are more people vying for resources and products. Rising wages, which help create a middle class, also inflate prices because goods are more expensive to produce, Plunkett said.

"The long-term effect is going to be pretty dramatic," he said.

Consumers are likely to notice first—and may have noticed already—with basic items such as groceries and gasoline.

"When people get a higher income, they want to eat more meat," said Chris Christopher, an economist with IHS Global Insight. Prices for a pound of ground chuck and whole chicken are up 20 percent and 28 percent, respectively, in the past five years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In some cases, surging demand contributes to temporary shortages in supply. That happened recently with baby formula in China and a few years ago with rice worldwide, said Teri Gault, CEO of TheGroceryGame.com.

The effect of the new middle class isn't limited to staples. It has pushed the needle on luxury items, as well, including designer fashion and premium alcohol.

Commodities such as diamonds and gold also have been affected, although global economic woes have put a temporary damper on the trend, Plunkett said.

Diamond prices are down as much as 2 percent this year because of lower demand from India and China, according to brokerage firm ConvergEx.

U.S. consumers may also find themselves playing second fiddle to the middle classes in developing countries. Those first-time buyers provide a unique opportunity for manufacturers of everything from automobiles to cellphones to lock in brand loyalty, according to Christopher.

"Major corporations are taking notice of the global consumer rebalancing," he said. "They're trying to maximize sales."

That's likely to mean more products that are designed with that audience in mind or that are introduced abroad before the United States. In 2011, Dell, for example, launched the XPS 14Z laptop in China a month before it arrived stateside.

"This is unheard of before," he said. "It's a pretty strong shift."

© CNBC is a USA TODAY content partner offering financial news and commentary. Its content is produced independently of USA TODAY.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Wal-mart agrees to safety changes at nearly 2,900 stores

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

The agreement with the U.S. Department of Labor stems from inspections at a N.Y. store.

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has agreed to make safety improvements at more than 2,800 stores for employees who use trash compactors and handle chemicals as part of an agreement with the Labor Department.

The retailer has agreed to pay a $190,000 fine over safety violations that were found during inspections at a Rochester, N.Y., area Supercenter.

The agreement, announced Wednesday, stems from two 2011 inspections by the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration at the store in Gates, N.Y., that found serious hazards affecting Walmart workers.

The agreement applies to 2,857 Walmart and Sam's Club stores that are under federal OSHA supervision in 28 states. The states that operate their own inspection programs could negotiate similar agreements.

The hazards included an unlocked and poorly secured trash compactor, an unguarded grinder, obstructed exit routes, an absence of training in the use of the compactor and a general lack of information and training regarding the use of hazardous chemicals.

Walmart had been cited for similar violations of workplace safety between 2008 and 2010 at workplaces in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, New York, North Dakota and Oklahoma, according to the OSHA news release that announced the initial infractions.

At the time of the announcement, Arthur Dube, OSHA's area director in Buffalo, said, "The sizable fines proposed here reflect not only the seriousness of these conditions but the fact that several of them are substantially similar to hazards identified at nine other Wal-Mart locations in New York and eight other states."

The agreement reached with OSHA reduces the original fine from $365,000.

Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said Wednesday that the violations have been corrected at the Gates store and the safety problems cited were not found in other Walmart stores.

Hargrove said the agreement was in line with Walmart's corporate policy to create a safe working environment for its employees.

Under the settlement, Walmart has agreed to lock compactors when they're not in use. In addition, they can only be operated "under the supervision of a trained manager." The company also agreed to improve its procedures regarding use of chemicals. Workers will not be required to handle "undiluted" cleaning chemicals.

The company also agreed to improve its training in the use of chemicals and dangerous equipment.

Hargrove said the agreement will be implemented in the 621 Sam's Club and 4,069 Walmart stores in the United States.

According to the settlement, a copy of the agreement is to be posted in every Walmart.