Thursday, February 28, 2013

Shirk work? Working at home can mean longer hours -- Feb. 28, 2013 column


Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer has decreed that workers must start showing up at the office.

Uh, oh. What if her employees get less work done -- not more?

Contrary to what many employers think, telecommuters actually work more overtime than their office-bound colleagues, Mary C. Noonan of the University of Iowa and Jennifer L. Glass of the University of Texas at Austin reported last June in “Monthly Labor Review.” 

In their article, titled “The hard truth about telecommuting,” the sociologists say people who work regularly, but not exclusively, at home work between five and seven hours more per week than those in the office.   

Noonan and Glass studied telecommuting trends of nearly 67,000 workers from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s and found that telecommuters were far less likely to work a regular schedule and more likely to work more than 40 hours a week.  

Fans laud telecommuting for everything from reducing traffic congestion and air pollution to boosting productivity and promoting work-life balance. Employees in cubicles dream of padding down the hall in their slippers to sit at their computers and having more time for children and other relatives. But the study suggests a dark side to telecommuting: It may allow employers to increase or intensify work demands among salaried employees. 

Mayer stunned not only Yahoo employees but the 21st century workplace when her human resources chief sent an internal memo telling employees “We need to be one Yahoo! and that starts with physically being together.” Angry employees leaked the memo to Kara Swisher at All Things D, a site that covers the digital world.

The memo raises an intriguing point. What are we missing with our reliance on email and texting? “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” the memo said.

The irony was delicious, an Internet search company insisting that people chat face to face. How quaint. What’s next – typewriters and carbon paper?

Mayer, who was hired to breathe life into Yahoo, became its chief executive at 37 while pregnant with her first child. Working women hoped that she, of all people, would be sympathetic to the needs of other working moms. She reportedly lavished free food and iPhones on Yahoo employees. When that didn’t turn the company around, she reined in the troops – and reaped criticism from all sides.

Even fellow CEOs questioned her judgment. Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, blogged about trust. “To successfully work with other people, you have to trust each other. A big part of this is trusting people to get their work done wherever they are, without supervision,” he wrote.  

No one would argue with the value of trust in the workplace, but what happens when the trust is abused? The New York Times reported that some Yahoo employees used their working time at home to start their own businesses.

Several studies have found that telecommuting improves productivity. To spark innovation, though, research suggests interaction is key. Yahoo joins a few other large corporations that have upset workers by requiring them to show up.

The uproar strikes many as rich people’s problems. Most Americans juggle jobs and family without the luxury of being able to work at home. 

White, college-educated managers and professionals are far more likely to telecommute than is the population as a whole. Telecommuters are less likely to be black and Hispanic. Noonan and Glass also found that while many companies say they have flexible workplace policies, the rate of telecommuting has stayed at about 17 percent through the mid-2000s.

The federal government has increased telecommuting. Three years ago, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama sponsored the first White House forum on workplace flexibility. In December 2010, the president signed the Telework Enhancement Act, requiring federal agencies to promote working remotely.

Yahoo intends to be “the absolute best place to work,” the memo said. Mayer may yet discover that more work gets done at home than in the hallway and cafeteria.   

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Hey, Congress: First, do no harm -- Feb. 21, 2013 column


A Wal-Mart executive complained that February sales were “a total disaster.”

His email leaked and naturally made news. We rarely sniff panic from the world’s largest retailer.

The fact that Wal-Mart shoppers were staying home, though, was hardly surprising.

On Jan. 1, Congress and the White House raised the payroll tax 2 percentage points -- from 4.2 percent to 6.2 percent – for every working American. A family earning $50,000 will have a thousand dollars less to spend this year.
A thousand dollars may sound like zip when some Americans can afford to spend $100,000 on a closet -- not on the clothes in the closet, mind you, but on the spacious and fancy dressing room where they armor-up to meet the day.
“These days the cost of a closet can rival or surpass that of the kitchen,” the Wall Street Journal cheerfully advised.
Talk about parallel universes. For most Americans, confidence in the economy has slipped. We’re  worried about higher gas prices. Gas rose 45 cents on average in 31 days, the fastest climb since 2005.

We still have 12.3 million people officially unemployed, and 46.2 million of us live in poverty. The poverty rate for children under 18 is about 22 percent.

But other Americans, a fortunate few, have disposable income such that they can drop $100,000 to $250,000 on a closet.

While Wal-Mart sales are down this month, high-end retailers have been on a roll, reporting huge gains in sales. 
And we’re worried about higher taxes on the very rich? Really?

The country’s richest citizens, the Forbes 400, are worth an astonishing $1.7 trillion, the most ever.  Income inequality has been growing by leaps and bounds.

In the past, the very mention of income inequality provoked Republican wrath and charges of class warfare. Fortunately, Warren Buffett has changed that.   

“In recent years, my gang has been leaving the middle class in the dust,” the sage of Omaha wrote in a New York Times op-ed last November.

President Barack Obama declared in his inaugural address last month that “our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.” He has proposed a hike in the minimum wage, which Republicans are expected to kill.

It’s too bad that “first, do no harm,” the pillar of medical ethics, doesn’t apply to our elected officials in Washington.

While Congress enjoyed an extended Presidents Day vacation, political leaders played a game of chicken with the looming sequestration spending cuts. Many economists warn that if those across-the-board cuts take effect March 1, they will usher in another recession.

When the president arrayed blue-uniformed emergency medical workers behind him on Tuesday to warn of impending job losses should Republicans fail to negotiate on a deal, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed it as a campaign stunt. 

House Speaker John Boehner took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal  Wednesday to warn that the sequester threatens national security and thousands of jobs – and to lay blame at the president’s feet. Both Boehner and McConnell gigged Obama for wasteful federal spending.
 “No one should be talking about raising taxes when the government is still paying people to play videogames, giving folks free cell phones and buying $47,000 cigarette-smoking machines,” Boehner wrote.

I looked into Boehner’s claims. The Energy Department did pay 13 workers at a company in Michigan who played video games and otherwise goofed off when they should have been working. I’m shocked, shocked that this could happen in an American workplace. 
The government started providing discounted phone service to poor people in 1985. Cell phones were added under President George W. Bush. As for the cigarette-smoking machine, Veterans Affairs recently approved such a contract for research into the health effects of smoking in lab mice. 

Nobody likes government waste, but taken together all three projects represent such a miniscule amount that they hardly should be allowed to hold the entire nation hostage. 
Washington needs to find a way to keep the economy afloat. If a few can build $100,000 closets, most should be able to shop at Wal-Mart.

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Vote: Waiting not the hardest part -- Feb. 14, 2013


At 10 a.m. on the first day of early voting in Florida last October, Desiline Victor showed up at her polling place in North Miami. The wait to vote was estimated at six hours.

Other voters might have left immediately, but Ms. Victor, 102, stood in line for three hours. A poll worker then suggested she come back that night. Ms. Victor did, and when she finally put on her “I voted” sticker, people cheered.

The nation cheered when President Barack Obama  told Victor’s story last week as she sat with first lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union address.
“When any American – no matter where they live or what their party – are denied that right simply because they can’t afford to wait for five or six or seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals,” Obama declared.
In his inaugural address, the president also decried long lines at polling places:  “Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote,” he said.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the impatience of our times that the president has declared war on waiting.

No one should have to wait for hours to vote, but that is hardly a poll tax or literacy test. Every state should have no-excuse early and absentee voting.

Yet long lines are just one strand in a tangle of impediments to voting. Recently passed state voter ID laws can discourage and even suppress the vote.
To improve “the voting experience in America,” the president announced a bipartisan commission. Ho hum.  In Washington, commissions are where good ideas go to die.
In a memorable line from Charles P. Pierce in Esquire’s politics blog:  “A bipartisan commission is the Washington policy equivalent of a sock drawer.”

The League of Women Voters said it was “surprised and disappointed.”   

“Setting up a commission is not a bold step; it is business as usual,” the league said in a statement.

Besides, while lines were long in a few polling places, especially in Florida, most voters did not endure long waits.

One poll found 83 percent of voters either didn’t wait at all or waited less than 30 minutes to vote last November, about the same percentage as in 2004 and 2000. Nearly three in four voters said the voting process in their area was managed very well, the Pew Research Center also reported.

Long lines both during early voting and on Election Day were just one problem in 2012 identified by Caltech-MIT’s Voting Technology Project, which evaluates the election process.

Researchers called on state and local officials to improve voter registration so fewer provisional ballots are needed and to make contingency plans for voting after a disruption like Hurricane Sandy.

 Obama didn’t comment on those proposals or on Democratic efforts in Congress to reform the voting system or on a challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that has reached the Supreme Court.

The court will hear oral argument Feb. 27 in a case from Alabama on whether the Voting Rights Act is still needed.  Section 5 of the law requires some states and jurisdictions, mostly in the South, to have state voting law changes pre-approved by the U.S. Justice Department.

At issue is whether Congress exceeded its constitutional authority in 2006 when it reauthorized Section 5 for 25 years. Officials in Shelby County, Ala., argue that the law exacts a “heavy, unprecedented federalism cost” on covered states and localities as they have to prove to the federal government that changes do not undermine minority voting rights.
The Justice Department, defending the law, argues Section 5 has blocked more than 2,400 discriminatory voting changes since 1982. Absent Section 5, it would have been necessary to go to court on a case by case basis, “a system that would have resulted in years of discriminatory treatment of minority voters and required an enormous expenditure of resources on all sides,” it says.

Some court watchers predict that the Supreme Court will strike down Section 5 before summer. That puts waiting to cast a vote in a new light.
  © 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Dueling values at State of the Union -- Feb. 7, 2013 column

For his 1965 State of the Union address, Lyndon Johnson tried something new.
Wanting to reach the largest audience possible, LBJ moved the speech from day to primetime.
At 9:04 p.m. on Jan. 4, 1965, before a joint session of Congress, the president laid out his vision for a Great Society -- including hospital insurance for the elderly, a voting rights law for African Americans, federal aid for education and an extension of the minimum wage.
Not to be outdone, Republicans demanded time for a response, also a first. GOP House leader Gerald Ford and Senate leader Everett Dirksen did the honors.
Within two years, most of Johnson’s proposals were law.
Those were the days. LBJ had just won by a landslide. He knew he had to act fast to get big things accomplished. His laundry list became marching orders for the fattest Democratic majority in Congress since the New Deal.
Shortly after 9 p.m. on Tuesday, President Barack Obama will deliver his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress. He knows he has to act fast to accomplish his goals. He’ll outline a laundry list of legislative priorities. A Republican response will follow. And that’s where similarities with 1965 end.
Obama will face a divided, deeply partisan Congress. He’ll expound on how the Democratic values he talked about in his Inaugural Address translate into policies to strengthen the middle class. If the last four years are a guide, though, many of his proposals will go nowhere.    
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban-American in his first term, will give the Republican response. Rubio is a fresh face and he’s trying something new: He will speak in Spanish and English. He’s expected to offer a view of how smaller government, as championed by the GOP, will help the middle class.
Rubio has a tough assignment – to hit the reset button on a party that fumbled the last election. Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana recently called the GOP “the stupid party” for dumbing down its brand and failing to appeal to minorities. Plus, Rubio has a lot of hype to live up to. He’s glorified on the cover of this week’s Time magazine as “The Republican Savior.”
As theater, the night of dueling values could get interesting.
Obama will use the bully pulpit to promote job creation, targeting education to job skills, reducing dependence on foreign oil while promoting green energy, reforming immigration and reducing gun violence. He wants to increase spending on those priorities.  
At the same time, the president insists he’s eager for a “big deal” on deficit reduction that will end the cycle of government by crisis that replays every few weeks or months.
Obama’s brand is strong among Democrats after his Inaugural Address in which he set out liberal themes for his second term, but he has alienated Republicans. The White House envisioned the two speeches as a package with the State of the Union offering what former senior Obama adviser David Plouffe called “details and blueprints.”
Obama gave a glimpse of Tuesday’s speech in remarks this week to House Democrats.
“The question I will ask myself on every item, every issue is, is this helping to make sure that everybody's got a fair shot and everybody is doing their fair share and everybody's playing by the same rules?” he said.
Next month, Obama is expected to send Congress his budget for the fiscal year that starts in October.
Despite Lyndon Johnson’s legendary success, most presidents fail to get what they ask in the State of the Union speech.  
Between 1965 and 2002, on average 43 percent of the policy proposals contained in State of the Union addresses were enacted by Congress in the legislative session in which the president gave his speech, Donna R. Hoffman and Alison D. Howard wrote in the 2006 book “Addressing the State of the Union.”
For second presidential terms, the success rate drops to 39 percent.
In 2013, the Democratic president’s State of the Union address will be a wish list. The Republican response will be one too.
 © 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.