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Paid Time Off, Free Fries: How Corporate America Is Getting Out the Vote

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Bank of America is offering employees up to three hours of paid time to vote this year. The spirits company Diageo North America has declared a no-meeting day on Nov. 3. Best Buy is closing stores until noon that day, and PayPal is offering a half day, paid, to workers who volunteer at polling places.

Less than two weeks before the general election, corporate America is having a civic awakening, with thousands of companies encouraging voter participation by offering their workers paid time off, voter-education tools and interactive sessions on how elections work. Some are even providing marketing and free legal advice to local election boards or nonprofit get-out-the-vote groups.

“Companies can’t do everything, but we can function in civil society in a way that really helps to encourage and enable civic participation,” said Franz Paasche, head of corporate affairs at PayPal, where the efforts have varied from paid time off to hosting a speaker series on elections.

Two years ago, when executives from PayPal, Patagonia and Levi Strauss founded Time to Vote, a nonpartisan project that asks companies to encourage workers to participate in elections, there were around 400 members. In recent weeks, membership has shot up to more than 1,700. A similar initiative, called A Day for Democracy, has attracted more than 350 companies since it began with seven Boston-area companies in July. ElectionDay.org, sponsored by the nonprofit organization Vote.org, has gathered pledges from more than 800 companies promising employees paid time to vote.

Most companies are quick to say that their goal isn’t to wade into politics or get any particular candidate into office. Rather, many executives say that they were galvanized by recent upheavals that have put issues of race and gender discrimination, economic inequality, climate change and other topics at center stage for employees and customers, and voting is a way to take a stand.

“The Black Lives Matter and the civil unrest has been a call to arms for C.E.O.s in terms of informing corporate behaviors and civic actions,” said Peter Palandjian, a private-equity executive in Boston who started A Day for Democracy with commitments from the Red Sox and Bank of America. “And I think that’s what’s very different this year.”

Earlier this week, Goldman Sachs announced that it would give workers up to half a day off to vote, paid, for the first time. Other companies that have offered paid time to vote in the past, including Citi and Gap Inc.,have announced that they’re providing additional paid hours if needed as well as voter-education resources this year.

The extra hours are likely to be necessary given that a record turnout is expected this year, which could mean long lines and additional safety procedures in light of the pandemic. In anticipation, Diageo North America, which owns brands like Guinness and Smirnoff, is changing course and allowing employees to take whatever time they need to vote without a written request. Previously, employees were given up to two hours of paid time off to vote, which they had to request in advance. The company also plans to set up a team for workers to call if they run into any trouble casting their ballots, said Laura Watt, its executive vice president of human resources.

Some companies are hoping to encourage voter turnout in general. Shake Shack is giving away free french fries to customers who vote early. Tory Burch, the clothing label, designed a T-shirt that reads “VOTE,” the proceeds from which go to a nonpartisan get-out-the-vote project called I Am a Voter. Coca-Cola dispatched a team of marketers to create public-service announcements on the importance of early, in-person voting that ran on radio, television and at bus shelters around its home state of Georgia; broadcast spots featured the voices of Ed Bastian, chief executive of Delta, the Atlanta Hawks forward Cam Reddish and other local celebrities.

Corley Kenna, who runs communications at Patagonia and co-founded Time to Vote, took advantage of additional benefits her employer is providing this year to work at election sites in Atlanta, her hometown, with two colleagues. Between morning and afternoon shifts at the State Farm Arena and the Southwest Arts Center this month, she caught up on work.

“I think it is on all of us — the private sector, nonprofit, academia — to help provide safe and secure elections,” said Ms. Kenna, a Democrat and environmental advocate who was a senior adviser in the State Department under President Obama.

ImageMs. Kenna’s colleagues Lisa Pike Sheehy, left, and Hilary Dessouky, center, spent part of Thursday poll watching outside a voting site in Atlanta.
Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times

Old Navy, the biggest brand owned by Gap, said it would pay employees to be poll workers, on top of what they get paid by county election commissions. The retailer said it hoped its policy would fuel voter turnout among its young store staff, more than 60 percent of whom are between the ages of 18 and 29. Levi’s extended its paid time off for voting to poll worker training this year and has been featuring environmental and racial justice activists on its Instagram account to talk about voting.

The push by retailers and restaurant chains is significant because it can be especially difficult for hourly workers to find time to vote. After health care, retail is the second-biggest private sector employer in the United States.

In addition to making sure that their efforts are not being seen as partisan externally, companies have been careful about how they communicate internally. Diageo North America has been holding weekly events in the run-up to the election with the African heritage group and women’s network, for example, discussing the issues at stake for their communities, but in a “neutral way,” Ms. Watt said. “We’ve been very clear about not being partisan or not having a particular view leaning one way or another,” she said.

At PayPal, dozens of employees have participated in PayPal Votes, a multipronged internal effort that directs people to polling sites and other voter information and sponsors an election newsletter and guest speakers. A Sept. 10 interview with Alex Padilla, the California secretary of state, on voting procedures drew 600 participants.

Still, not every company is being so proactive. Workers at Amazon, who have been pushing unsuccessfully for a paid day off to vote, are threatening to shut down warehouses temporarily on Oct. 31 if the e-commerce giant doesn’t meet their demands. And on Thursday, Vote.org, a digital platform that helps people register to vote online and provides information about polling sites, called on more than two dozen companies that have not yet committed to giving workers time off to do so. It cited Pew Research Center statistics from 2014 showing that in the past, 35 percent of registered voters didn’t vote because of work or school conflicts.

Tory Burch, which employs nearly 3,000 people in the United States, was one of the few companies offering employees paid time off to vote in 2016, when its founder wrote an op-ed encouraging other company bosses to do the same. At the time, fellow chief executives, some from Fortune 500 companies, told Ms. Burch that they couldn’t follow suit because doing so would be regarded as a partisan act, intended to favor Democratic candidates.

The feedback was “eye opening,” Ms. Burch recalled, given that “encouraging Americans to use their vote is patriotic and not a Democratic initiative.” This year, she is closing all stores and offices on Nov. 3 and encouraging her staff to volunteer as poll workers, believing that the employee good will it generates far outweighs the lost revenue.

In a note to employees Thursday morning reminding them of their options to take paid time off to vote, Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, talked about the importance of a smooth political process.

“The peaceful and stable transition of power — whether it is to the second administration of a president or a new one — is a hallmark of America’s 244-year history as an independent nation,” Mr. Dimon wrote, adding that while he acknowledges the “tremendous passion and strong opinions” that have played into the current race, respecting the democratic process “is paramount.”

Michael Corkery and Karen Weise contributed reporting.

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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