ProPublica recently co-published a report with The Washington Post about a company called USA Discounters that offers easy credit to military service members. The catch? If a service member falls behind, the company aggressively goes after them by suing them in courts near its Virginia headquarters, making it incredibly difficult for service members to show up in their own defense.
Click the media player above to hear ProPublica Senior Editor Tracy Weber in conversation with Marketplace Morning Report guest host Mark Garrison.
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It used to be that business travelers would roll into town, hop in a taxi, and spend the night at a hotel. Now, some are using Uber to hire drivers, and to search Airbnb to stay in the apartments of strangers.
Both companies are part of the so-called “sharing economy,” and that non-traditional status has helped prevent them from being taxed and regulated in the same way as their traditional competitors. At the same time, both companies are now taking steps to become regular fixtures of corporate travel.
Airbnb just launched a new web portal for business travelers. On the front page is a picture of a loft with brick walls, high ceilings, and what looks to be a nice stereo system. This is not your everyday workingman's motel.
“Sometimes it's nice to come home to a place that feels a little more like yours," says Lex Bayer, head of global payments and business development at Airbnb.
Last year, Bayer says 8 percent of the travel done through Airbnb was for business. That, he says, lead it to partner with Concur, a logistics service that manages employee travel for 70 percent of all Fortune 1000 companies.
If employees want to stay at Airbnb properties, Concur helps smooth out the process so it conforms with corporate travel procedures. Tim MacDonald, Concur's executive vice president of platform and data services, says use of Airbnb by employees has increased: "We've seen 27 times growth in expense reports with Airbnb listed."
MacDonald says alternative business models like Airbnb have grown too big to ignore. Concur also works with Uber — a “rideshare service” with cars operated by regular people. It too escapes regulation by falling into the "sharing economy" gray zone. The exemption of these companies irks established players in the lodging and transportation fields.
“If you are going to look like a hotel and act like a hotel, you should be treated like a hotel," says Vanessa Sinders, senior vice president for governmental affairs at the American Hotel and Lodging Association. Right now, she perceives a double standard. “Hotels have to abide by so many different safety, security, health code, accessibility requirements, and we think that that should be applied fairly and equally across the board.”
So far, over 30 companies have partnered with Airbnb to make it an official travel option for employees. Many of those happen to be start-ups themselves.
The housing crash sent many construction workers fleeing to other industries. Now that housing is recovering, builders are struggling with a shortage of skilled workers. That’s delaying housing starts and driving up home prices.
The housing market continues to recover along with the overall economy, but the construction workers who left the industry in droves during the recession aren’t exactly flocking back. Meanwhile, a shortage of skilled workers is getting worse. But can you blame them for leaving in the first place?
The National Association of Home Builders reports that unemployment among construction workers peaked at 22 percent during the recession.
No wonder so many found jobs in other industries, says the group’s chief economist, David Crowe, adding that housing still seems too unstable for them to come back.
"More than half of builders are now telling us that they’re having trouble finding construction workers – carpenters, brick masons, painters and so forth," Crowe explains.
60 percent of builders the group surveyed say the shortage forced them to delay projects in the last six months, or raise home prices.
That’s not putting much of a drag on the housing market yet, says Kermit Baker, with Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies: "But with growth coming down the road in all likelihood, certainly we’re going to have serious problems in the future if we don’t train and attract more workers in the construction industry."
Baker adds that builders need to revive some of the training programs they scrapped during the long downturn, and get their “muscle memory” back for growing their workforce.
Workers and advocacy groups praise the hard-fought change, from $7.25 to $8, but opponents warn it will wreak havoc on business balance sheets.