Dear COVID-19: Sorry, but Working From Home Is Overrated

From today’s New York Times:

I’m writing this from the makeshift quarantine bunker in my dining room — sweatpants on, hand sanitizer nearby, snacking my way through my emergency rations. I’m getting plenty of work done, but I’m starting to get unnerved by the lack of stimulation. It’s been hours (days?) since I interacted face to face with a human who is not related to me, and cabin fever is setting in.

Among the coronavirus’s many effects is a boom in people like me: office workers, shooed away from the office, trying to acclimate to a work-from-home lifestyle.

While the outbreak has already created inconveniences (and much worse) for millions of people in the form of travel restrictions, health scares and stock market turmoil, it has been an exciting time for some fans of remote work. They argue that quarantined workers are getting a glimpse of our glorious, office-free future.

“This is not how I envisioned the distributed work revolution taking hold,” wrote Matt Mullenweg, chief executive of Automattic, the software company that owns the WordPress blogging platform.

Mr. Mullenweg, whose company’s work force is fully distributed, sees a silver lining in the coronavirus. In his blog post last week, he wrote that it “might also offer an opportunity for many companies to finally build a culture that allows long-overdue work flexibility.”

I get where he’s coming from. I was a remote worker for two years a while back. For most of that time, I was a work-from-home evangelist who told everyone within earshot about the benefits of avoiding the office. No commute! No distracting co-workers! Home-cooked lunch! What’s not to love?

But I’ve been researching the pros and cons of remote work for my upcoming book about human survival in the age of artificial intelligence and automation. And I’ve now come to a very different conclusion: Most people should work in an office, or near other people, and avoid solitary work-from-home arrangements whenever possible.

Read the complete article here.

Over 1 million former felons still face hurdles after being given right to vote

From today’s ABC News Online:

It’s been more than 10 years since ​Gary Daughtry Sr., 66, had the right to vote and since he was released from prison. Previously in the state of Florida, anyone who committed a felony ​lost his or her right to vote ​and had to petition the governor to become re-enfranchised.

“I don’t think it’s fair that I had to pay my debt to society, and they won’t let me vote,” Daughtry told ABC News.

More than a decade ago, Daughtry committed grand theft in Florida, a third-degree felony. He served 16 months in prison and the court ordered him to pay an array of fees as part of his sentence, of which he still owes almost $1,000. He told ABC News he’s unable to pay because he’s disabled and cannot work, ​and he says all he wants to do is help re-elect President Donald Trump.

“I support him in every way,” Daughtry said.

Under a new state law, passed last year with the​ stated aim​ to not re-enfranchise a felon who had not completed all terms of his or her sentence, former felons are required to either pay the fees and fines that they owe or get their sentence modified in order to register to vote. The process itself is also relatively complicated so that despite some counties implementing procedures to help former felons along, advocates say it still represents a tremendous hurdle to enfranchisement.

Read the complete article here.

The Bleak Job Landscape of Adjunctopia for Ph.D.s

From today’s New York Times:

The humanities labor market is in crisis. Higher education industry trade publications are full of essays by young Ph.D.s who despair of ever finding a steady job. Phrases like “unfolding catastrophe” and “extinction event” are common. The number of new jobs for English professors has fallen every year since 2012, by a total of 33 percent.

In response to these trends and a longer-term decline in academic job security, the Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has made a proposal. In exchange for federal funding to reduce public college and university tuition to zero, he said, at least 75 percent of college courses would have to be taught by tenured or tenure-track professors. Currently, that proportion is less than 40 percent and dropping.

How this happened is a story of a rupture in the way the academy produces and consumes people with scholarly credentials. In 1995, roughly 940,000 people were employed teaching college. Of those, about 400,000 had tenure or were on track to get it. They enjoyed professional status, strong job security, relatively good pay (on average), and the freedom to speak their minds.

The rest were so-called contingent or adjunct faculty: some employed full time, others filling in a course or two per semester. They had lower pay, less status and tenuous job security, particularlyif they spoke their minds. There were also thousands of graduate students, not counted in the numbers above, teaching as part of their training. (The University of California, Santa Cruz, which is known to be progressive even by the standards of academia, recently fired 54 graduate assistants who were striking for higher pay.) The percentage of professors on the tenure track had been slowly declining since the 1970s. In the late 1990s came a demographic event that would ultimately throw the university labor market into a tailspin: the first college years of the so-called millennials, those born from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s.

Colleges swelled with students over the next decade and a half, with undergraduate enrollment increasing from 12.2 million in 1995 to a peak of 18.1 million in 2011. Colleges needed to hire hundreds of thousands of additional professors. Administrators had options. They could have kept the ratio of tenured to nontenured about the same, using new tuition revenue to create more tenure-track positions.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, the number of contingent faculty more than doubled, to 1.1 million. The number of tenured and tenure-track faculty, by contrast, increased by only 9.6 percent, to 436,000.

Read the complete article here.

In major ruling, San Diego judge says Instacart will flunk AB 5 contractor test

From today’s San Diego Union-Tribune:

A San Diego Superior Court judge has ruled that Instacart is likely misclassifying some of its workers as contractors — when the law requires they be classified as employees — marking a notable step toward enforcement of the controversial new state law known as AB 5.

But the ruling came with a healthy dose of skepticism from the judge over the “wisdom” of the law itself.

Judge Timothy Taylor issued an injunction Feb. 18 against Instacart in San Diego Superior Court, essentially warning the San Francisco company that it’s failing to comply with the state’s labor laws. Instacart disagrees with the ruling, and plans to file an appeal, the company said in a statement Tuesday.

Instacart, which operates nationally and has a presence in San Diego, is an app that allows customers to place grocery orders online, which are then purchased and delivered by gig workers called “shoppers.” The labor law case, filed by San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott in September, takes issue with how the grocery delivery company classifies its shoppers.

The suit alleges that Instacart shoppers do not qualify as independent contractors under a 2018 California Supreme Court decision (Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court). It’s the Dynamex case that spurred Assembly Bill 5 to move its way through the state legislature last year, sponsored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), and signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The law went into effect Jan. 1.

According to Judge Taylor, the law makes it clear that Instacart is in violation, calling California state policy “unapologetically pro-employee.”

“While there is room for debate on the wisdom of this policy, and while other states have chosen another course, it is noteworthy that all three branches of California have now spoken on this issue,” Taylor wrote in a court filing dated Feb. 18. “The Supreme Court announced Dynamex two years ago. The decision gave rise to a long debate in the legal press and in the Legislature. The Legislature passed AB 5 last fall. The Governor signed it. To put it in the vernacular, the handwriting is on the wall.”

Read the complete article here.

Enjoy The Extra Day Off! More Bosses Give 4-Day Workweek A Try

From NPR News Online:

Companies around the world are embracing what might seem like a radical idea: a four-day workweek. The concept is gaining ground in places as varied as New Zealand and Russia, and it’s making inroads among some American companies. Employers are seeing surprising benefits, including higher sales and profits.

The idea of a four-day workweek might sound crazy, especially in America, where the number of hours worked has been climbing and where cellphones and email remind us of our jobs 24/7. But in some places, the four-day concept is taking off like a viral meme. Many employers aren’t just moving to 10-hour shifts, four days a week, as companies like Shake Shack are doing; they’re going to a 32-hour week — without cutting pay. In exchange, employers are asking their workers to get their jobs done in a compressed amount of time.

Last month, a Washington state senator introduced a bill to reduce the standard workweek to 32 hours. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is backing a parliamentary proposal to shift to a four-day week. Politicians in Britain and Finland are considering something similar.

In the U.S., Shake Shack started testing the idea a year and a half ago. The burger chain shortened managers’ workweeks to four days at some stores and found that recruitment spiked, especially among women.

Shake Shack’s president, Tara Comonte, says the staff loved the perk: “Being able to take their kids to school a day a week, or one day less of having to pay for day care, for example.”

Read the complete article here.

Stacey Abrams Spearheads ‘Fair Fight,’ A Campaign Against Voter Suppression

From today’s NPR News Online:

A few dozen volunteers are spending a Saturday morning in a hotel conference room in Macon, Ga., for a boot camp of sorts on fighting voter suppression.

“We are walking into a year that’s going to be exciting, a little bit stressful,” explains Hillary Holley, organizing director for Fair Fight Action. The group is waging a campaign against voter suppression in the 2020 election.

“We’re gonna be working a lot, but we’re ready for it,” she says.

Fair Fight is spearheaded by Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, who gained national attention in 2018 after losing a close race for governor in an election clouded by allegations of voter suppression.

“This is not a speech of concession,” she said at the time, after losing by fewer than 55,000 votes to Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp. “Concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper.”

Abrams, a former minority leader in the Georgia House, broke new ground with her gubernatorial campaign, driving up the share of Democratic voters in a state where Republicans have dominated.

There was record turnout for a midterm election but also hours-long waits at some polls, election server security breaches and allegations that strict adherence on signature matches dampened participation.

Abrams says the defeat galvanized her to launch Fair Fight.

“In the wake of the election, my mission was to figure out what work could I do, even if I didn’t have the title of governor,” Abrams says. “What work could I do to enhance or protect our democracy? Because voting rights is the pinnacle of power in our country.”

Read the complete article here.

The Great Google Revolt

From today’s New York Times:

Laurence Berland had just gotten out of the subway in New York, some 3,000 miles from his desk in San Francisco, when he learned that Google had fired him. It was the Monday before Thanksgiving, and the news came to him, bad-breakup-style, via email. “Following a thorough investigation, the company has found that you committed several acts in violation of Google’s policies,” the note said. It did not elaborate on what he had done to violate these policies.

Berland, an engineer who had spent more than a decade at the company, had reason to expect he might be fired. He had been suspended a few weeks earlier after subscribing to the open calendars of several senior Google employees, whom he suspected of meeting with outside consultants to suppress organizing activity at the company. During a subsequent meeting at which he was questioned by Google investigators, he had the feeling that they were pressuring him to say something that could be grounds for termination. Then, the Friday before he was fired, he had spoken at a well-publicized rally of his co-workers outside Google’s San Francisco offices, accusing the company of silencing dissent.

Even so, the timing and manner of his dismissal surprised him. “I thought they’d do it when all the media attention died down,” he said. “When the suspensions and the rally were no longer on people’s minds.” Instead, at a moment when the spotlight was shining brightly, Google had escalated — as if to make a point.

Berland was one of at least four employees Google fired that day. All four were locked in an ongoing conflict with the company, as they and other activists had stepped forward to denounce both its treatment of workers and its relationship with certain customers, like U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Berland’s terminated colleagues were even more shocked by the turn of events than he was. Rebecca Rivers, a software engineer based in Boulder, Colo., was dismissed over the phone after accessing internal documents. Rivers had only recently come out as transgender and was pursuing a medical transition. “I came out at Google expecting to stay at Google through the entire transition,” she said. “It’s terrifying to think about going to a job interview, because I’m so scared of how other companies treat trans employees.”

Sophie Waldman and Paul Duke, the two other Googlers fired that day, had not received so much as a warning, much less a suspension. Though they had been questioned by corporate security two months earlier about whether they had circulated documents referring to Customs and Border Protection contracts, they had been allowed to continue their work without incident. Waldman, a software developer in Cambridge, Mass., said she was given a 15-minute notice before she was summoned to the meeting where she was fired; Duke, an engineer in New York, said an invitation appeared on his calendar precisely one minute beforehand. Security officials escorted him out of the building without letting him return to his desk. “I had to describe to them what my jacket, scarf and bag looked like,” he said.

Read the complete article here.

Trump says Roger Stone has ‘very good chance of exoneration’ after sentencing

From today’s NBC News Online:

President Donald Trump said his former adviser Roger Stone has “a very good chance of exoneration,” hours after the GOP operative was sentenced to 40 months behind bars for obstructing a congressional investigation of Russia’s 2016 presidential election meddling.

“I’m following this very closely, and I want to see it play out to its fullest, because Roger has a very good chance of exoneration, in my opinion,” Trump said Thursday in a speech in Las Vegas, where he also blasted the jury forewoman in Stone’s criminal trial.

“It’s my strong opinion that the forewoman for the jury is totally tainted,” Trump said, calling the woman “an anti-Trump person” with “a horrible social media account.”

He said the forewoman is a “very dominant person” who likely convinced other jurors to follow her lead. “How can you have a jury pool tainted so badly?” Trump asked.

Lawyers for Stone, 67, had filed a motion asking for a new trial. Stone’s supporters have said it’s based on comments made by the jury forewoman, Tomeka Hart.

Hart ran for Congress as a Democrat in 2012, a fact she disclosed during jury selection. Asked by Judge Jackson if she could fairly evaluate the evidence during the trial, she said yes, and Stone’s lawyers did not seek to have her removed from the jury pool.

The judge who presided over the trial, Amy Berman Jackson, pointedly praised jurors for their “integrity” at Stone’s sentencing.

Read the complete article here.

Florida loses appeals court ruling on felon voting law ahead of 2020 elections

From Politico News:

A legal and political battle over voting rights in Florida reached another milestone on Wednesday when a federal appeals court ruled that a law limiting the voting rights of people with felony convictions was unconstitutional.

Delivering a defeat to Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta upheld a lower court decision that found the state could not deny ex-felons the right to vote just because they can’t afford to pay outstanding court fines, fees and restitution, as required by the 2019 law.

“These plaintiffs are punished more harshly than those who committed precisely the same crime — by having their right to vote taken from them likely for their entire lives,” states the ruling issued by a three-judge panel. “And this punishment is linked not to their culpability, but rather to the exogenous fact of their wealth.”

It’s not clear if the legal battle will get resolved ahead of this year’s presidential election in the battleground state, which could decide whether President Donald Trump wins a second term.

DeSantis spokesperson Helen Aguirre Ferré said the governor’s office disagreed with the ruling and will seek a review from the full court.

In October, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction against the law, a move that applied to only the 17 people who had challenged it in court. That lawsuit, brought by a coalition of left-leaning and civil rights groups, along with people with felony convictions, is scheduled for a non-jury trial in April.

“This is a great win for voting rights,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the Voting Rights and Elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “The 11th circuit told the state of Florida what the rest of America already knows. You can’t condition the right to vote on a person’s wealth.”

Read the complete article here.

Kickstarter Employees Vote to Unionize in a Big Step for Tech Workers

From today’s New York Times:

Employees at the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter voted on Tuesday to unionize, the first well-known technology company to take the step toward being represented by organized labor.

The decision, which was formalized by a vote count at the National Labor Relations Board, came down to a narrow margin, with 46 employees voting in favor of the move and 37 opposing it. The debate over a union — and whether such representation was appropriate for highly paid tech workers — had been a source of tension at the company for many months.

“I’m overjoyed by this result,” said Dannel Jurado, a Kickstarter senior software engineer who voted for a union. “There’s a long road ahead of us, but it’s a first step to the sustainable future in tech that I and so many others want to see.”

The pro-union vote is significant for the technology industry, where workers have become increasingly activist in recent years over issues as varied as sexual harassment and climate change. Behemoth companies such as Google and Amazon have struggled to get a handle on their employees, who have staged walkouts and demanded that their companies not work with government entities and others.

But large-scale unionization efforts have faltered. Only a group of contractors at a Google office in Pittsburgh unionized last year, and a small group of Instacart workers managed to do so this month. In the past, most unionization drives have been associated with blue-collar workers and lower-paid white-collar workers rather than white-collar tech workers, who are often paid upward of $150,000 a year.

Veena Dubal, an associate professor of employment law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law, called the Kickstarter vote “a hugely important step” that “signals to workers across the tech industry that it is both desirable and possible to build collective structures to influence wages, working conditions and even business decisions.”

Read the complete article here.