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Darden's real estate play

Tue, 2015-06-23 13:00

Eaten at the Olive Garden lately? You probably thought more about the bread sticks than who owns the building — fair enough. However, Darden Restaurants, which owns the Olive Garden, Long Horn Steakhouse and some other chains, announced Tuesday that it’s going to spin off its real estate into something called a REIT — a real estate investment trust — and then lease the properties back.

REITs are everywhere, says Michael Grupe, with the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts. “If you work in an office building, for example, there’s a good chance that that property is owned by a REIT. If you live an apartment building, it may very well be owned by a REIT.”

Spinning off the properties only to lease them back may sound like a strange, circular kind of logic, but it’s actually a smart move, says Susan Wachter, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

She says investors tend to like REITS because they have a steady source of income — typically rents — and they pay lots of that income back to investors.

“Investors are not willing to pay much for the volatile restaurant business,” she says. “But the real estate is far more predictable, and therefore Darden is able to raise more capital this way.”

Wachter says it makes sense for Darden to take the money it raises from the REIT, pay down some debt and then focus on its restaurant business, while letting people who know real estate focus on the properties.

“It’s the old Adam Smith, specialize, specialize and specialize,” she says. “Not location, location, location.”

Companies like McDonald's and Macy's are under pressure to do something similar, while Sears is also pursuing a similar strategy.

John Glascock, at the University of Connecticut, thinks Sears should have done it years ago.

“Probably over half the Sears out there would already be shut down,” he says. "Those [properties] would probably be something else much more productive, but when they kept them together, it’s tempting to say, ‘Well, I own the land, it’s only costing me opportunity cost. It’s not costing me real cash, let me try one more quarter.’ ”

Glascock says real estate can wind up subsidizing the bad decisions of the company it’s tied to, but separate, each side has to stand on its own. 

Good Humor rolling out ice cream trucks for tour

Tue, 2015-06-23 13:00

Summertime is officially going all digital and social media.

Ad Age reports that Good Humor is bringing back its ice cream trucks.

I know — awesome, right?

Except, well, instead of that classic jingling of ice cream truck bells, you're going to have to follow the truck on Twitter to figure out where it's going to be.

Which just makes me sad, somehow.

To measure poverty, states look beyond free lunch

Tue, 2015-06-23 13:00

For years, the federal school meals program has been one of the most powerful forces in education. Not just because it feeds kids, but because the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals has been the main way schools measure poverty. That number, in turn, can impact everything from school funding levels to accountability programs. 

But that’s changing. Massachusetts has introduced a new way of measuring poverty in its schools. Starting next school year, students will be considered “economically disadvantaged,” not according to their school lunch status, but if their families participate in programs like food stamps, welfare and Medicaid. According to the new data released today, schools look a lot less poor.

“It’s about two-thirds of the number of students that we had before,” says Jeff Wulfson, deputy commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Wulfson says Massachusetts had to come up with a different way of measuring poverty. It’s one of 49 states that now let high-poverty districts feed all students at no charge, rather than collecting applications for the school meals program.

Massachusetts' new measurement could more be more accurate, says Zoe Neuberger, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in that it no longer requires schools to collect income data from families. That can be a challenge, "particularly with middle or high school students, because the children are embarrassed about receiving the meals," she says.

Federal poverty programs are also better-equipped to collect and audit income information, she says. "They have offices full of caseworkers whose job it is to assess family income and household composition," she says. "Schools are not set up to do that. Nor should they be." 

Other states are adopting similar ways of measuring poverty, says Michael Griffith, a senior policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States. He worries the new standards could miss the working poor — families who earn too much to qualify for food stamps, but not enough to pay full price in the cafeteria.

“They are not poor by the definition of some of these programs, but they are clearly low-income and they are struggling,” he says.

Wulfson says Massachusetts plans to create new funding formulas so that high-poverty schools aren’t short-changed.

Facial Recognition: An Eventuality

Tue, 2015-06-23 12:29

Targeted advertising is everywhere these day. Be it your Facebook profile, your browser history or anything else online, all of your data is being collected for one purpose: to sell you more stuff.

Now there’s a new frontier in tracking technology: Facial recognition software. Companies want to be able to track your identity and keep note of the things you regularly consumer a near-constant basis.

“Connecting a person’s past behavior and data to their current location is kind of a holy grail for companies when it comes to marketing,” says Ben Johnson, host of Marketplace Tech. “Imagine you go into a store and there’s a camera on the shelf of items that you’re looking at, and that camera records the emotional reaction you have to the items you’re looking at.”

Facial recognition could make its way into many public spaces.  However, privacy advocates are hoping that it will be opt-in only so that those who do not wish to make their identity open to the public have those wishes respected. “A lot of companies don’t want this,” Johnson says. “This is where these two kinds of organizations really part ways and are really having problems coming to an agreement on some sort of rules of the road.”

Still, most experts agree that this is an eventuality. “We have to think about the fact that no matter what, technology companies are going to build this stuff, they’re going to start using this stuff,” Johnson says. “They’re going to ask for forgiveness, not permission."

To hear the whole conversation, click the audio player above.

Rewriting the recipe for healthy fast food

Tue, 2015-06-23 12:23

Fast food restaurants see the writing on the wall. The U.S. consumer is obsessed with food. Local. All-natural. Organic. Think of all that food porn on Instagram. Or all those food documentaries on Netflix. So Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Subway and others have been changing up their menus. They're removing artificial ingredients. Chipotle Mexican Grill just completed the process of getting rid of most genetically engineered ingredients, or GMOs.

But are these moves making the food any more, you know, better for you?

“Let’s see how this liquid gold tastes,” says nutritionist Terry Perry, looking down at the cheese on a 760-calorie Nachos BellGrande from Taco Bell.

Perry works with food stamp recipients on making good food choices in Spokane County, Washington. We've taken her out to lunch to get a nutritionist's take on some of these strategic moves.

Perry bites into a chip. “It's not bad – I mean it's not terrible. It's very salty.”

By this time next year, the cheese on the Nachos BellGrande might be a little less yellow. But that doesn't address what Perry sees as the real problems: the high sodium, saturated fat or extra carbs.

“So you have to look at it for over all,” Perry says. “One of the biggest concerns about fast food is that it's highly processed and that it's usually too big of a serving,” says Perry.

At Chipotle, she's much more impressed. But the salad she orders is approximately 630 calories — with the help of a large dollop of guacamole. That's about twice the calorie count of her usual lunch.

Nutritionist Terry Perry eats a bowl from Chipotle. 

Jessica Robinson

“[Removing GMOs] doesn’t really change the calorie level,” says Perry. “It doesn’t change the nutrient level, how many vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrate, how much fat is in it.”

And restaurant consultant Aaron Allen says health isn't the point. “Fresh” is, or the appearance of it.

" 'Fresh' has become the most bankable word in food service," Allen says. “And 'processed' has become a four letter word."

Allen says Chipotle is the “fresh” poster child, helped out by the move to take out GMOs. It's part of a category of so-called “fast casual” restaurants that are taking a cause-conscious approach to food. Starbucks and Panera Bread are others. Their image as the anti-McDonald's has attracted the young dining public, and it's paying off in their stock prices.

Now enter brands like Taco Bell and Subway, who don't want to be left in the artificially colored cornchip dust. They can only do so much — quick and cheap depends on processed foods.

“So, they found some quick wins they can gain in terms of public perception by making some very easy steps, like using real pepper instead of an artificial flavor that tastes like pepper,” says Allen.

So, to answer the question: As you might have guessed, no, many of these changes don't make the food any better for you. But even Chipotle acknowledges this.

“If you’re looking at our decision to move to non-GMO ingredients through the lens of being a nutritionist — and as to whether that change makes food any healthier or more nutritious in any way — then skepticism is probably warranted,” says Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold. “But that's not why we made the change.”

Arnold cites potential environmental impacts from cultivation of genetically engineered crops.

“While there's no science to show that GMO ingredients are more or less healthful, there are other implications associated with GMOs," he says.

Many researchers dispute those environmental impacts as well. But here's one more implication that's hard to ignore: more and more, consumers just don't like GMOs.

My First Job: Animal Chef

Tue, 2015-06-23 11:10

At the zoo, pandas typically don’t go on juice cleanses, and hippopotamuses don’t adhere to a GMO-free diet. But they do need someone to prepare food for them. That’s where Hannah Hayes stepped in. Her first job was a zoo chef.

Hayes recalls walking into the zoo kitchen every morning and reading the recipes listed on a whiteboard that wrapped around the room. Each animal has its own specific diet to follow.

"I’d make fruit salad for parrots, I would create pine cones covered in peanut butter with chocolate chips or whatever the bears wanted to eat. I often would go into the freezer to get out dead baby mice for the snakes," Hayes says.

Being a chef for a variety of animals can be a pretty daunting task, but she also found it very rewarding.

"By the end of it, I think I felt pretty empowered about what I could accomplish. It made me feel empowered in the kitchen essentially, that I could create things," Hayes says.

PODCAST: Fees, glorious fees

Tue, 2015-06-23 03:01

2015 is the year bonds have been convulsing around the world. More on that. Plus, Fees to check bags, change tickets, cancel flights – airlines now charge their customers a raft of fees for all sorts of things. We take a closer look at the exponential growth of airline fees. Plus, if there is one (unqualified) success story from the Empowerment Zone in Baltimore, it might be a small but vigorous job-training program started by the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in conjunction with Johns Hopkins. At present, it has sent nearly 400 men and women into middle-skill, often middle-class lab jobs – and it stands as one of the few lasting programs to survive the end of the federal funding period. 

Those sky high fees for flying

Tue, 2015-06-23 02:00

Airline fees are scheduled to be a key topic at a Department of Transportation meeting Tuesday. Flyer aggravation about the fees is growing as they increase. Carriers now make billions in fees, more than ever before.

When it comes to fees, there are two extremes among U.S. carriers: the bold and the old. The bold includes airlines like Spirit, which piles on charges, even for carry-on bags. The old are legacy carriers like United, American and Delta, which have historically been less aggressive. But these days, the older are getting bolder.

“They’re charging for damn near everything that they can think of,” says Richard Gritta, professor of finance and transportation at University of Portland.

Transportation Department stats show revenue from baggage and change fees alone up 372 percent between 2007 and 2014. And that doesn’t even include money made on seat selection and food sales.

These fees are part of why airline stocks are doing better lately. Despite passenger protests, they are here to stay. And with all the airline mergers of recent years, there are fewer places to shop around.

 

 

 

Mark Garrison: When it comes to fees, there are two extremes among U.S. carriers: the bold and the old. The bold includes airlines like Spirit, which piles on charges, even for carry-on bags. The old are legacy carriers like United, American and Delta, historically less aggressive. But these days, aviation analyst Michael Boyd says the older are getting bolder.

Michael Boyd: If they can get away with it, yes. Back in 2008, when American started charging for luggage, I thought, ‘They’re dead, no one’s gonna match them.’ What did I know?

Transportation Department stats show revenue from baggage and change fees alone up nearly 400 percent since 2007. That’s not to mention money made on seat selection and food sales. Richard Gritta is professor of finance and transportation at University of Portland.

Richard Gritta: They’re charging for damn near everything that they can think of.

These fees are part of why airline stocks are doing better lately. Some carriers get close to 40 percent of revenues from fees. Like it or not, the charges are here to stay. And with all the airline mergers, there are fewer places to shop around. I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

Proposed House bill slashes education funding

Tue, 2015-06-23 02:00

The House Appropriations Committee released its draft spending bill for Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education departments, and budget watchers noted deep cuts to federal education funding.

It cuts nearly $3.8 billion from mostly education and healthcare. The National Institutes of Health is one area that gets more money.

You might think the GOP-controlled committee is responsible for these proposed cuts, but it’s really the fault of the Budget Control Act, also known as the sequester, which requires that Congress not increase the deficit.

"There is no good way to allocate this," says David Reich, a senior policy consultant with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The Veterans Affairs scandal means veterans' medical care will get more money. "There’s a pretty strong consensus that there is a need for a several-billion-dollar increase" at the VA, says Reich. But that means there's less to go around for everyone else.

The cuts would hit school improvement grants, literacy programs, magnet schools, teen pregnancy reduction programs and more.

Joel Packer from the Raben Group says the deficit has shrunk, so both Democrats and Republicans could work to raise the budget caps.

"Something has to happen by midnight Sept. 30 this year, or the whole federal government shuts down," Packer says. 

But don’t worry too much about this bill becoming law. It also blocks all Affordable Care Act funding, so there's little to no chance it will be signed into law by President Barack Obama.

The final bill is due for a markup by the full committee on Wednesday. 

House bill slashes education funding

Tue, 2015-06-23 02:00

The House Appropriations Committee released its draft spending bill for Labor, Health, Human Services and Education, and budget watchers noted deep cuts to federal education funding.

It cuts nearly $3.8 billion from mostly education and healthcare. The National Institutes of Health is one area that gets more money.

You might think the GOP-controlled committee is responsible for these proposed cuts, but it’s really the fault of the Budget Control Act, also known as the sequester, which requires that Congress not increase the deficit.

"There is no good way to allocate this," says David Reich, a senior policy consultant with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. The Veterans Affairs scandal means veterans' medical care will get more money. "There’s a pretty strong consensus that there is a need for a several billion dollar increase" at the VA, says Reich. But that means there's less to go around for everyone else.

The cuts would hit school improvement grants, literacy programs, magnet schools, teen pregnancy reduction programs, and more.

Joel Packer from the Raben Group says the deficit has shrunk so both Democrats and Republicans could work to raise the budget caps.

"Something has to happen by midnight, September 30 this year or the whole federal government shuts down," Packer says. 

But don’t worry too much about this bill becoming law. It also blocks all Obamacare funding. So there's little to no chance it will be signed into law by the president.

The final bill is due for a markup by the full committee on Wednesday. 

Baltimore lab program produces a positive reaction

Tue, 2015-06-23 02:00

Jamond Turner used to work as a security guard at Johns Hopkins University, where one evening, his rounds took him past a laboratory. Turner was impressed by what he saw and decided to pursue a career in laboratory work.

The decision brought him to the BioTechnical Institute of  Maryland, a nonprofit that trains unemployed and underemployed Baltimore residents tuition-free for entry-level, high-skill jobs in labs.

BTI's Lab Associates program has its genesis in Baltimore's Empowerment Zones. Baltimore was one of six U.S. cities that won the federal Empowerment Zone designation in 1994. The city was awarded $100 million dollars and a host of tax breaks for business and employers. Baltimore sunk the money into job creation and job training. And while many of the jobs have since disappeared, job training programs saw some successes.

The BTI program began in 1998, partnering with a laboratory company that received tax breaks for moving into one of the city's poorest areas.

Since then, about 350 students have graduated and gone to work for employers that include cutting-edge biotech firms, the American Red Cross and the McCormick spice company.

Kathleen Weiss, the executive director at BTI, says people often hear the term "entry-level jobs" and think of retail positions or warehouse work. She says students at BTI are preparing for entry-level jobs with a future. The average starting salary for a BTI graduate is about $27,000 a year and includes benefits.

 

Video visitations gain popularity in prison system

Tue, 2015-06-23 02:00

As part of a series about technology in prisons called "Jailbreak," we're talking about the growing use of video visitation in prisons. It's being used already in over 500 institutions around the country. Most of them are county jails, but a few are state prisons.

And while we know a lot about the impact of in-person visits between inmates and their familes while incarcerated, we don't know much about the impact of video visitation.

Bernadette Rabuy, a policy and communications associate at the Prison Policy Initiative, says the growth in popularity of video visitation technology has a lot to do with cutting costs. Prisons are also attracted to the fact that it eliminates the opportunity for the smuggling of contraband items to prisoners.

But Rabuy cautions that the benefits may not outweigh the emotional costs: "We don't know that these videos are equivalent to in-person visits, which have been shown by a lot of research to be one of the only ways we know for sure reduces the likelihood of future crimes."

Click the media player above to hear more.

Job training works in Baltimore

Tue, 2015-06-23 02:00

Jamond Turner used to work as a security guard at Johns Hopkins University, where one evening, his rounds took him past a laboratory. Turner was impressed by what he saw and decided to pursue a career in laboratory work.

The decision brought him to the BioTechnical Institute of  Maryland, a non-profit that trains unemployed and underemployed Baltimore residents for entry-level, high-skill jobs in labs.

BTI's Lab Associates program has its genesis in Baltimore's Empowerment Zones. Baltimore was one of six U.S. cities that won the federal Empowerment Zone designation in 1994. The city was awarded $100 million dollars and a host of tax breaks for business and employers. Baltimore sunk the money into job creation and job training. And while many of the jobs have since disappeared, job training programs saw some successes.

The BTI program began in 1998, partnering with a laboratory company that received tax breaks for moving into one of the city's poorest areas.

Since then, around 350 students have graduated and gone to work for employers that include cutting-edge biotech firms, the American Red Cross and the McCormick spice company.

Kathleen Weiss is the Executive Director at BTI. She says people often hear the term "entry-level jobs" and think of retail positions or warehouse work. She says students at BTI are preparing for entry-level with a future. The average starting salary for a BTI graduate is about $27,000 a year, and includes benefits.

 

Niagara recalls bottled spring water

Tue, 2015-06-23 01:42
14 brands

That's how many brands had to issue a recall for bottled water sourced from Niagara Bottling. The reason? A spring contaminated with E. coli. And as NBC Philadelphia reports, while the contamination was discovered on June 10, the spring waited to notify the affected brands.

$1 billion

That's how much Alibaba has sunk into its once dormant food-ordering app known as Koubei. It's part of a move by the company to enter what is known as the O2O (online-to-offline) market of using apps to order goods and services. And as the Wall Street Journal reports, the company is attempting to compete with its rival Tencent Holdings Ltd. and its app, Ele.me

$150

That's how much Gary Portnoy originally was paid for writing the "Cheers" theme at 25. But television royalties are structured so that one is paid every time the show airs, so although the initial payday might be small, songwriters can make millions from getting their work on a hit show. We looked into the world of TV themes for the latest installment of our series "I've Always Wondered."

350 students

That's about how many students have graduated from the BioTechnical Institute of Maryland since it was founded in 1998. BTI's Lab Associates program offers job training to students looking to get into laboratory work — students like Jamond Turner who used to work as a security guard at Johns Hopkins University. The program started when Baltimore decided to use the $100 million it received as part of its designation as an Empowerment Zone to focus on job training and job creation. While the latter may have fallen off, the former seems to be one of the positive remnants of the program

$16.3 million

That was the average pay in the C-suite at the top 350 companies last year, on the rise since the Depression. Meanwhile, worker pay is remaining steady or even falling, according to the Economic Policy Institute study as reported by Mother Jones, meaning CEOs now make more than 300 times what workers in their respective fields earn. 

$236 billion

That's how high Facebook's market value reached during trading Monday, surpassing Walmart. Quartz notes that the shift points to technology's increasing prominence in the economy, even if Walmart brings in hundreds of billions more in revenue.

How much do TV theme songwriters earn?

Mon, 2015-06-22 13:07

Listener Cathy Lane wrote in with a question about music: How much do songwriters and performers earn when their music is used as a television theme song? Are they paid for every episode?

It’s a simple question with a complicated answer.

So we went to Gary Portnoy.  He was just 25 years old when he co-wrote the "Cheers" theme song in 1982.

“I think I got $150 for the "Cheers" theme,” Portnoy says. “And I had a very powerful lawyer, and he just says, 'Look, whatever it’s gonna be, it’s gonna be, but you’re not gonna make your money up front. So go for it.' ”

The song was Portnoy’s first big break. It also happened to be the most successful thing he’s ever done. Portnoy says his license plate actually reads: 1HIT1DR.

But that's not such a bad thing. Portnoy gets paid every time the song plays. In recent years, the song has been licensed for commercials — selling cars, Dr. Pepper and even insurance. He won’t say how much he has made off this one song. But he will say that it’s enough to live off of. Portnoy is now 59; he says he enjoys a simple life outside of New York City where he collects Japanese Maples and mid-Century studio pottery. And he never misses an episode of Judge Judy.

Entertainment lawyer Josh Grier has represented the B-52s, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall and others. He says writing one theme song for a hit show that plays over and over again can basically fund your retirement.

“Yeah, you don’t make hundreds of thousands of dollars, you end up making millions of dollars,” Grier says. 

Jonathan Wolff wrote the theme music to a show that always seems to be playing somewhere — "Seinfeld".

“My royalty statements are hundreds and hundreds of pages long from who knows how many countries,” he says.

Wolff has calculated what that one show has made him, calling that number “a happy secret.” Thanks to the royalties, Wolff retired early and moved his family to Kentucky. Wolff stopped taking calls from Hollywood and started coaching little league.

“We decided that we were going to challenge this notion that there’s no such thing as enough money,” Wolff says. “We decided how ever many marbles there are in 2005, that’s what we’re going to leave with.”

How those royalties are calculated is a complicated business. There are whole organizations that specialize in tracking, collecting and distributing royalties for songwriters.

“I think the simplest thing to say is the more often it’s played, the better,” Grier says. “And if it goes into syndication, then it just becomes a constant flow of royalties.”

So that’s what happens when you’re hired to write a song. But what happens when you get that call — a television network wants to use your band’s little-known song for their TV theme? That’s what happened to Brett and Rennie Sparks, the husband-wife duo behind the Handsome Family.

“We were surprised, that’s for sure,” Brett says. “I think we initially deleted the email thinking it was some kind of joke.”

The Handsome Family released the song “Far From Any Road” in 2003. About a decade later, HBO used the song as the theme of the first season of "True Detective." It was never considered one of the band’s more popular tunes, but since airing repeatedly on HBO, Rennie estimates the song has earned more than all their other songs combined.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of all this exposure: Tons of new fans. And a lot of these new fans buy records. Digital sales for the Sparks’ label Carrot Top Records increased nine times what it was making before "True Detective" — thanks in large part to the Handsome Family’s music.

“Years ago, people wouldn’t look to a TV show or a movie or a commercial to find new music, but nowadays, they do,” Rennie says.

“Well, it was considered selling out, and it was considered lame,” Brett adds.

“Yes, but nowadays, it’s perfectly fine, so people do find us that way and become great fans of our music,” says Rennie.

While it’s a wonderful song, “Far From Any Road” was not exactly a hit at first. If it were, it’s fair to say HBO would have had to pay a lot more. Entertainment lawyer Josh Grier says to license a popular contemporary song, a TV network would probably have to pay six-figures. But he says, for the most part, the actual price tags are confidential.

Still, for every theme song that gets stuck in your head — and earns the songwriter a steady income — there are dozens more sitting on studio shelves, written for canceled pilots or short-lived TV shows.

“The universe has to shine on every aspect of it,” Gary Portnoy says. “It’s not just you wrote a magical song, but somebody wrote a magical script and somebody cast it well, and people took to it. So yeah, I’ve got a few TV themes that I think are as magical but probably no one’s ever going to hear them.”

Like this theme for the show "Marblehead Manor" that aired for one season in the late 1980s.

Reversing a trend, Instacart checks out part-timers

Mon, 2015-06-22 12:59

In a move that's the opposite of many others in the on-demand, sharing economy, the online grocery delivery service Instacart is converting some of its independent contractor shoppers, who purchase groceries on behalf of customers, to part-time employees.

The company says it is making the change in Chicago, expanding a pilot program that began in Boston. Andrea Saul, Instacart's vice president of communications, says the program will continue to expand in the coming months. Instacart does business in 16 other cities.

The move will add to Instacart's costs. "We are going to incur workers' compensation, different payroll taxes like unemployment, social security and Medicare," Saul says.

But Instacart was willing to take on those costs, because converting independent contractor shoppers into employees improved the company's customer service. 

"Our shoppers got more accurate picking items," Saul says. "We had more on-time deliveries."  

The company attributes the change to improvements in training and supervision made possible because workers were employees. 

Instacart has some 7,000 contractors, only a few hundred of whom are affected by the change so far. But of those given the option to switch to employee status, Saul says 75 percent did. 

"Wages will vary by market for the part-time employees, but we will be competitive in each market to attract and retain shoppers," Saul says. "The hourly floor is above local minimum wage in all regions." She did not detail specific numbers.

The conversion from independent contractor to part-time employee is an important distinction. Other companies have fought such a change. Last week, a California regulatory agency ruled that an Uber driver was an employee. Uber is appealing that decision.

"What we're caught with are 20th century definitions for a 21st century workforce and economy," says Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, who has been vocal on the issue and says it is time for a new way of defining work.

"The idea that everybody fits neatly into being an employee, unemployed or an independent contractor really doesn't reflect the changing nature of this economy," Warner says.

One proposal is to create a dependent contractor designation, which would provide some employee-level benefits to independent workers. There are a host of other ideas, too.

Jeffrey Hirsch, an expert on labor law and a law professor at the University of North Carolina, says the issue is heating up as the on-demand economy explodes. "The indecision and the confusion involved is what's most harmful, both for the companies and for the workers," Hirsch says.

Existing home sales on the rise

Mon, 2015-06-22 12:59

The pace of existing homes sales increased just more than 5 percent from the month before, according to the National Association of Realtors, but perhaps more interesting is who it thinks is doing the buying: almost a third of buyers in May were first-timers. That's moving closer to the 40 percent that the organization sees as normal for the housing market.

Ben Fein-Smolinski and his girlfriend, both 26, were among those first-timers who leaped into the housing market in May.

“We figured that it was maybe time to stop paying rent and to get a place more permanent,” he says.

Buyers like Fein-Smolinski are an important piece of the housing economy. They tend to buy smaller homes, perhaps from people who might have decided they need more space for the kids. That family might then buy a home from baby boomers looking to downsize.

But Fein-Smolinski’s decision was also an economic one.

“We also thought it would be a little more cost effective, instead of finding a bigger apartment to rent,” he adds.

“Rents in this country have never been less affordable than they are now," says Stan Humphries, chief economist at Zillow. “If you can scrape together the down payment and qualify for a mortgage, it makes home ownership look very attractive.”

Other driving factors may be the improving job market or, perhaps, people who want to lock in low interest rates.

However, Richard Green, a professor at the University of Southern California, cautions not to get too excited about one month of data. Housing supply is tight and he says an even more important metric to watch is new construction.

“When you see a pick-up in existing home sales, that indicates there’s more demand for housing, and that extra demand for housing could boost the demand for new construction,” he says. “Things are better than they were three years ago, but we’re still not close to being normal.”

Bernanke wants Andrew Jackson gone from $20 bill

Mon, 2015-06-22 12:58

Currency wars are being waged in the Treasury Department. 

Secretary Jacob Lew has plans to take Alexander Hamilton off the $10 bill and replace him with a woman.

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke weighed in today and said he's appalled by Lew's proposal to drop a man Bernanke calls "the best...economic policymaker in U.S. history."

Far better: Bernanke goes on to suggest that a woman should replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. 

Me?

I'm with Ben.

 

In Greece, breadwinners struggle to make ends meet

Mon, 2015-06-22 12:46

For Effie Panoutsakopoulou, it’s been another bad day at the office. Little wonder: she works in a bank in Athens, and her branch has been besieged with customers clamoring to empty their accounts and even their safe-deposit boxes.  

“Today I had to open a deposit box for a lady. But I couldn’t turn the key. The lock was stuck. I tried three or four times," Panoutsakopoulou says. “And the lady  started screaming because she thought we didn’t want to open the safety deposit box for her. Everybody’s very stressed.”

Including Panoutsakopoulou. Her husband lost his job as an architect three years ago, and today they and their two young sons depend totally on her pay of $300 a week. Effie is worried that if the bank run continues, the banking system will collapse and her job will disappear.

With unemployment at 25 percent, millions of Greek households have been reduced to one precarious breadwinner. Christos Mavrou, a 35-year-old sales manager, ekes out a living on $270 a week for his extended family.

“My brother has no job, so I must support him, and his wife is pregnant, so their needs are higher now,” Mavrou says. “I’ve been helping a friend financially too. And, of course, I must support my parents.”

Which means picking up a $6,000 medical bill for his mother after her insurance failed to cover the aftercare for an operation. Mavrou is left with almost nothing to spend on himself, but he insists that he does not feel put upon.

“No, not at all,” he says. “It is my duty and my pleasure to help and support my family.”

Panoutsakopoulou admits that it hasn’t always been a pleasure being the sole breadwinner in her household. Her unemployed husband was paralyzed by depression for more than two years.  

“He was feeling useless. Because he thinks that, as the male of the family, he has to bring in the food. He was very, very depressed.”

This put the marriage under severe strain.

“I had to take care of him. I had to take care of the two boys as well. And I had to work at the bank. I was very, very tired of my husband being depressed, so that caused us a lot of fights,” admits Panoutsakopoulou.

After counselling — paid for by her bank — Panoutsakopoulou restored her own mental equilibrium, and she says the marriage is on the mend.

Mavrou says the crisis strengthened his family and that he feels appreciated by his relatives.

“They don’t tell me they’re grateful,” he says. “They show it to me with their eyes. I can see gratitude in their eyes.”  

Amid their country’s national humiliation, the breadwinners, at least, can feel some personal pride. 

'Big Chicken' has Boston Market flying higher

Mon, 2015-06-22 11:14

Fast-casual refers to the restaurants that are somewhere between McDonald's and Applebee's. When it launched in 1985, Boston Market was the biggest name in the fast-casual food industry, as its signature chicken dishes struck a chord with foodies.

After that big boom, the company became too successful too quickly and filed for bankruptcy. Now, Boston Market is back. George Michel, who previously worked as the head of A&W Restaurants, joined the company in 2010 as the CEO or, as he prefers to be called, "The Big Chicken."

“That’s what my business card says, and that’s how I introduce myself to all of our employees,” Michel says. He says that speaking to a CEO naturally intimidates workers, “but the minute I say I’m 'The Big Chicken,’ I get a big laugh, and we start the conversation.”

Michel has had Boston Market on an upward trend in recent years. This year, the company will open up 12 new restaurants. This is significant because Boston Market only has around 460 locations. When compared with Chipotle, another fast-casual brand that has more than 1,700 locations, it needs to gain all the ground that it can.

“We’re gonna continue to grow,” Michel says. “Next year we’re planning to open 20 to 24 [restaurants], so … we’ve been fine with competing in the marketplace.”

That marketplace doesn’t just include fast-casual restaurants or even just restaurants. According to Michel, “Between 4:30 and 6:30 really, we compete with supermarkets."

Michel notes that at those evening times, moms and dads are thinking about what to bring home for dinner, and “either they’re going to go to Boston Market and get a family meal … or they’re going to go to the supermarket and do their shopping and buy a rotisserie chicken on the way out.”

Despite that competition, Michel says he feels optimistic about the future of his company. Much of that optimism comes from his appreciation of the restaurant business and Boston Market’s customers.

“In the restaurant business … you deal with the food that people love to eat and you measure your results all the way from the top to the bottom line,” he says. “What’s amazing is that everywhere that I go, people know what Boston Market stands for — people have a great love for the brand.”

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