NYC Taxi Owners Are Denying Benefits to Drivers. The City Council Can Stop Them.

Jun 25, 2015Richard Kirsch

Earlier this month, the New York City Council enacted basic protections for workers at car washes, one group of exploited, largely immigrant workers. Next up on the City Council’s to-do list should be reversing a court decision that robbed taxi drivers, another group of mostly immigrant workers, of health and disability benefits.

Earlier this month, the New York City Council enacted basic protections for workers at car washes, one group of exploited, largely immigrant workers. Next up on the City Council’s to-do list should be reversing a court decision that robbed taxi drivers, another group of mostly immigrant workers, of health and disability benefits.

New York City’s taxi drivers are one more group of workers who decades ago were legally considered employees but now are classified as independent contractors, with low and unpredictable wages, long work hours, and no benefits. Over the last two decades, taxi driving has become a career for many new immigrants.

Starting in 1996, drivers began organizing together, through the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, to win an increased share of cab fares and other protections. Two years ago, the Taxi Workers Alliance organized successfully to get the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which regulates the industry, to designate six cents from every cab ride to a fund to pay for disability and health benefits for drivers.

The Taxi Workers Alliance, through an RFP process, won a contract to set up a fund that would provide a modest disability payment of $350 for 26 weeks, plus other benefits, such as vision, dental, and hearing. Drivers would still be responsible for their own health insurance, with many relying on the Affordable Care Act.

Even though the fund does not cost the taxi owners a dime, they still sued to stop it, arguing that the commission overstepped its authority, and earlier this month a New York State appeals court agreed. As Bhairavi Desai, the Executive Director of the Taxi Worker Alliance, told me, the owners saw the health and disability fund “as a basis for the union…They were hell-bent on stopping the union and having the drivers have any benefits.”

An irony of the court’s ruling is that one reason that taxi drivers are considered to be independent contractors by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is that they work in a highly regulated industry, in which many of their pay and working conditions are regulated by the Taxi and Limousine Commission. But when the commission acted to fund a much-needed benefit, the court, at the behest of the owners, blocked the way. The court said that it was up to a legislative body to decide on a new policy like using fares to finance a health and disability fund.

The other reason that the NLRB considers the drivers to be independent contractors is that they cruise for riders instead of being dispatched by the taxi companies. This in contrast with drivers of “black cars” in New York, who are dispatched by the limousine companies and therefore legally under their control. Some of the limousine drivers have joined the machinists union (IAMAW).

Looking into the future, competition from services like Uber may push New York’s cab companies to adopt an app for riders to call cabs. Earlier this month, the California Labor Commissioner’s office ruled that an Uber driver there was an employee, in part because of Uber’s reliance on apps.

For now, the court’s decision puts the issue squarely in front of the New York City Council. Since their election in 2013, both New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the new progressive majority on the council have made bolstering the ability of low-wage workers to care for and support their families a hallmark of their policies. One of their first actions was to strengthen a new law requiring that workers receive paid sick time. The new regulations establishing worker and environmental protections at car washes are the latest such action.

Laws that improve wages and benefits for New York’s working families are not only fair, they are a fundamental strategy to move New York’s economy forward. The more New Yorkers have the ability to care and support their families, the more New York will build a middle class that is the basis for strong communities and an economy not wholly dependent on Wall Street.

With some $2 million already collected and a contract with the Taxi Worker Alliance signed, passing an ordinance to approve using the six cents per fare for the health and disability fund should be an easy fix. But the taxi industry in New York is profitable and powerful and finances election campaigns. Still, that’s why New York City has public financing of campaigns and a pro-worker and pro-community mayor and City Council. Hopefully, they’ll quickly step up to the plate so that New York City’s taxi drivers can have their own organization provide essential benefits for their and their families’ health. 

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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L.A. Port Truck Drivers Put Their Jobs on the Line for Decent Pay and Cleaner Air

May 5, 2015Richard Kirsch

Following the most recent work stoppage by port truck drivers in southern California, Los Angeles Mayer Eric Garcetti announced the formation of a new trucking company, which will be a model for good pay and protecting the environment. The announcement takes the port drivers' ongoing protest of low-wages and exploitative working conditions to a new level.

Following the most recent work stoppage by port truck drivers in southern California, Los Angeles Mayer Eric Garcetti announced the formation of a new trucking company, which will be a model for good pay and protecting the environment. The announcement takes the port drivers' ongoing protest of low-wages and exploitative working conditions to a new level.

Eco Flow Transportation’s founding came out of a long-running dispute between port drivers and Total Transportation Services, which had fired some 35 drivers who had filed claims for their unlawful misclassification as independent contractors and for illegal deductions from their paychecks.

The new company, breaking with the widespread, illegal practice of treating drivers as independent contractors, already employs 80 drivers with a goal of expanding to 500 within a year. The firm promises to be neutral in efforts by its employees to join the Teamsters Union, which has been supporting the drivers’ protests and legal actions against misclassification as contractors.

Eco Flow also aims to address diesel pollution from port trucks that are not maintained at standards, established in 2008, which aimed at drastically lowering the environmental health threats from the trucks. A court ruling in 2010 effectively placed the cost of maintaining clean trucks on drivers. The port drivers, who are forced by the trucking companies to be “independent contractors,” work an average of 59 hours a week, with take-home pay of under $29,000. The drivers’ low-pay makes it difficult for them to keep trucks at a level to meet clean air standards. But because Eco Flow owns the trucks, it assumes full responsibility for maintaining the fleet’s clean air standards.

Eco Flow is also working to introduce a new model for the ports, called “free flow” cargo, which can help move cargo out of terminals more rapidly and increase the velocity of Port of Los Angeles terminals. The benefits will be less pollution from idling trucks and less port congestion. More efficient deliveries will also make it easier for the firm to pay the drivers a decent salary. This is a sharp contrast from most port-trucking companies who, by treating drivers as contractors, pay them by delivery and so pass on the cost of idling time to the drivers.  

What does it take for workers to risk their jobs in actions that often result in retaliation by employers? I talked with Nick Weiner, an organizer at Change to Win, about the transformation that port drivers went through over several years, which led them to go from accepting their status to protesting.

Q: What has been the barrier to port drivers taking actions?

Weiner: The Teamsters have tried over the last 30 years but failed because we’ve allowed the illusion that drivers are independent contractors to drive strategies in the past. The drivers had used the language of the boss—calling themselves independent owner-operators. Part of the helping them come together was to use different language, so they could engage one another.

In ’96 in L.A. there was a big strike. And there were smaller ones. All failed, because drivers didn’t have right language, and didn’t engage government officials to enforce law. We learned our history.

Sometimes they said, ‘we want to be reclassified as employees.’ But they weren’t saying – ‘we are your employees now.’ That’s what’s needed to go from defensive. It’s not just we want to be employees and everything is fine. It’s by being employees, we can join a union and negotiate a contract. The end is not being an employee; there are a lot of employees not doing well.

We have this term misclassification—a very wonky, inside-baseball but now it means something. ‘Yea, we know we’re misclassified. It means taking away our rights, employers stealing from us.’ New language has been liberating.

Q. How do drivers get an understanding of how they could do better through organizing?

Weiner: Drivers see that [unionized] longshoremen get treated well: they are paid well, get time off. While the drivers sit for hours on line [at the ports], without getting paid. They’ve come to see that the do critical work and are the largest set of workers in the port economy who are left out of the prosperity of the port economy.

We’ve worked to tie those things together, being employees and the union. They thought they needed to deal with misclassification and then organize. Instead, needed to get them to understand you’re an employee now, you can organize now.

It takes time for drivers to undo the brainwashing. To engage in collective struggle. 

The collective struggle has taken two forms. The first has been a series of unfair labor practice pickets, aimed at specific companies, which block access to the ports of those companies trucks. The second is legal action under California law. Drivers have filed more than 400 claims against companies under California’s wage and hour law. The first 19 rulings resulted in an average award of $66,240, largely for wage and hour violations and illegal paycheck deductions for items like truck leases.

The drivers are also filing complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which governs union organizing.

Slowly, the organizing is paying off. One firm, Green Fleet, avoided being picketed last week by reaching a comprehensive labor peace agreement with the Teamsters. After a U.S. Department of Labor ruling, another firm, Shippers Transport Express, reclassified its "independent contractors" as employees and in February signed a contract with the Teamsters, which resulted in higher pay and fully paid health care benefits for the drivers.

The growing militancy of exploited workers, from Uber drivers to Wal-Mart “associates” to home care workers and many more is building a new movement of workers to challenge the 21st century economy, in the same way that workers built the labor movement 100 years ago. Their organizing and militancy helped drive the New Deal economic reforms which built the middle class in the 20th century. The fight of today’s workers is laying the foundation for the reforms we need to rebuild the middle class today in an economy based on good jobs and environmental sustainability. 

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly stated that the new trucking company would be employee-owned.

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Daily Digest - February 25: The Big Banks Had a Bad Year

Feb 25, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

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Annual Bank Profit Falls for First Time in Five Years (WSJ)

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Annual Bank Profit Falls for First Time in Five Years (WSJ)

Victoria McGrane says the trend is primarily because seven of the 10 largest banks posted lower earnings, while other parts of the banking sector, like community banks, are thriving.

The White House Has No Back-Up Plan if SCOTUS Rules Against Obamacare (Vox)

Sarah Kliff reports on the announcement that the Department of Health and Human Services has been unable to find an administrative fix in case they lose in King v. Burwell.

State Orders Minimum Wage Increase for Tipped Workers (Capital New York)

The New York State Labor Department has ordered an increase in the minimum wage for tipped workers from $5.00 to $7.50 per hour, writes Jimmy Vielkind.

Labor Takes Final Stand as Wisconsin Prepares Way for Anti-Union Law (AJAM)

Ned Resnikoff says Wisconson labor leaders see the governor's new support for right-to-work legislation as proof that he's already focused on appealing to donors for a 2016 presidential run.

Obama Proposal Recognizes How Retirement Saving Has Changed (NYT)

Neil Irwin argues that by requiring those who manage retirement savings to put their clients' best interests first, Obama is bringing back some of the protections of old-school pensions.

One Sign Americans Won't See Big Raises Anytime Soon (Bloomberg Business)

An increasing share of hires are workers who are just entering or re-entering the workforce, writes Jeanna Smialek, which is good for labor force participation but keeps salaries down.

New on Next New Deal

Guns on Campus: Not an Agenda for Women's Safety

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Andrea Flynn breaks down the data that proves allowing guns on campus will only increase the safety risks women face, not reduce sexual assault.

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Daily Digest - February 24: How to Recreate a Strong Middle Class

Feb 24, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

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Free the Middle Class (USA Today)

Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Elijah Cummings argue that bringing back a strong middle class requires government intervention.

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Free the Middle Class (USA Today)

Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Elijah Cummings argue that bringing back a strong middle class requires government intervention.

Even Better Than a Tax Cut (NYT)

Continually cutting taxes won't be possible if the government is going to function, argues Lawrence Mishel, which makes policies that push wage growth far more important right now.

NJ Judge Overturns Christie's Pension Cuts (AJAM)

Yesterday's ruling says that Christie could not choose to shortchange pensions in his 2014 budget, and he is now expected to make up the pension deficit by the end of the fiscal year in June.

A Student-Debt Revolt Begins (New Yorker)

Vauhini Vara speaks to one of 15 students from a now-closed for-profit college who are going on a "debt strike" because they argue the school's false promises make their loans invalid.

Retail Workers Are Quitting Their Jobs Like It’s 2007 (Buzzfeed)

Sapna Maheshwari ties the retail quits rate to recent moves by large retail employers to raise their wages. If workers are quitting because they can get better jobs, employers have to catch up.

Why Reform Conservatives Should Join the Democratic Party (The Week)

Jeff Spross argues that so-called reformicons would have much better luck with their policy priorities if they worked with Democrats, who actually support programs that help the poor.

Obama's Newest Plan Might Drive Investment Advisers Out of Business. Good. (Vox)

Matt Yglesias argues that it's for the best if financial advisors for the middle class are driven out of business, because they are only pushing products that make them money.

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Daily Digest - February 23: The Republican Health Plan is Less Coverage, More Costs

Feb 23, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

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GOP Health Plan Would Leave Many Low-Income Families Behind (The Hill)

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GOP Health Plan Would Leave Many Low-Income Families Behind (The Hill)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Andrea Flynn explains how the Republican substitute for the Affordable Care Act would leave people with higher costs, worse coverage, and fewer protections.

Walmart Sends Wage Signal to U.S. Business (Financial Times)

David Crow and Sam Fleming speak to Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Damon Silvers about Walmart's wage hike, which he says will create pressure on other low-wage businesses.

U.S. West Coast Port Employees Agree to Deal (Bloomberg Business)

James Nash and Alison Vekshin report on the deal brokered by Labor Secretary Tom Perez, which will end the slowdowns at West Coast ports but won't immediately fix the cargo backlog.

A Friendly Office Debate Over Wages (NYT)

David Leonhardt and Neil Irwin agree that whether wage growth will accelerate is the biggest economic question of the year, but disagree on the likelihood of a positive answer.

The Rise of the Non-Compete Agreement, from Tech Workers to Sandwich Makers (WaPo)

Lydia DePillis looks at new research on non-compete agreements, which are surprisingly widespread in industries where they don't really seem necessary.

New on Next New Deal

The One Where Larry Summers Demolished the Robots and Skills Arguments

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal praises Summers and others for a recent panel in which they argued that unemployment and lack of wage growth can't be blamed on technology.

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Daily Digest - February 20: Teach Civic Engagement, Not Just Citizenship

Feb 20, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

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College as a Catalyst for Civic Engagement (Medium)

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College as a Catalyst for Civic Engagement (Medium)

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network member Zach Lipp builds on a recent column by Frank Bruni, arguing that liberal education should develop the skills of civic engagement, not just citizenship.

Walmart Is Giving Raises. Walmart Is Feeling the Pressure. (Gawker)

Walmart hasn't decided to raise its wages to be nice, says Hamilton Nolan. Rather, it's a sign that Walmart is giving in to the ongoing campaigns by low-wage workers, who will win.

The Gig Economy Won't Last Because It's Being Sued to Death (Fast Company)

Sarah Kessler looks at these lawsuits, which center around the question of defining workers as independent contractors or employees, and how that question is changing the gig economy already.

Why Counting America’s Homeless is Both Imperative and Imperfect (Fusion)

Susie Cagle illustrates and writes about the 2015 homeless count in San Francisco, explaining how the homeless count works, why it's done, and what she encountered.

Hospital To Nurses: Your Injuries Are Not Our Problem (NPR)

Daniel Zwerdling looks at one hospital in North Carolina that has a history of dismissing nurses' cases for medical bills and workers' compensation when they are injured on the job.

A Whistleblower's Horror Story (Rolling Stone)

Speaking to the whistleblower from Countrywide Financial, Matt Taibbi says the lack of punishment beyond fines for companies could disincline future whistleblowers from coming forward.

New on Next New Deal

Four Ways to Prune a Rose: Why the NYT Missed the Mark on the Inequality Debate

Eric Bernstein, a program associate at the Roosevelt Institute, explains why a study that claims inequality isn't rising was framed and conducted incorrectly and should be dismissed.

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Daily Digest - February 17: The Shame of Denying Corporate Responsibility

Feb 17, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

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Obama Shames Companies Who Don't Want to Provide Health Insurance (Melissa Harris-Perry)

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Obama Shames Companies Who Don't Want to Provide Health Insurance (Melissa Harris-Perry)

As guest host on Melissa Harris-Perry, Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren examines the president's comments about a Staples policy that prevents workers from obtaining insurance.

The State Where Even Republicans Have a Problem With Busting Unions (The Nation)

John Nichols says that Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner is having trouble maintaining support for his plans to weaken public sector unions, with his Republican Comptroller refusing to cooperate.

The Rich Own Our Democracy, New Evidence Suggests (AJAM)

New studies show that Congress votes closest to the desires of its donors, writes Sean McElwee, and donors' ideological extremism has probably produced our dramatic polarization.

States Consider Increasing Taxes for the Poor and Cutting Them for the Affluent (NYT)

Shaila Dewan explains that shifting from income taxes to consumption-based taxes in the states increases the burden on the poor, and has led to huge budget shortfalls in Kansas and North Carolina.

The Tall Task of Unifying Part-Time Professors (The Atlantic)

Kate Jenkin looks at the challenges of organizing a group of workers who are part-time and shift from campus to campus each semester in light of the upcoming National Adjunct Walkout Day.

The War on the War on Poverty (TNR)

Michael A. Cooper Jr. looks at Republicans' efforts to shut down the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at UNC Law. These same politicians try to argue that poverty isn't a problem.

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Daily Digest - February 13: Campus Network Award Has Local Benefits

Feb 12, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

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Cornell Roosevelt Institute to Benefit From Grant (Cornell Daily Sun)

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Cornell Roosevelt Institute to Benefit From Grant (Cornell Daily Sun)

Stephanie Yan reports on how the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's MacArthur Award will impact the Cornell chapter, which will benefit from new national training programs.

Philadelphia Joins the Growing Ranks of Cities Requiring Paid Sick Days (ThinkProgress)

Bryce Covert reports on Philadelphia's new paid sick leave law, which makes it the 17th U.S. city with such a law. Paid sick leave is expected to save businesses money due to reduced turnover.

These Motel Rooms Are the Last Resort for Families Without Homes (The Nation)

Leighton Akio Woodhouse profiles two families who are living in motels long-term because they cannot afford the upfront costs of an apartment, accompanied by photos by Elizabeth Lloyd Fladung.

At My Oil Refinery, My Life is Worth the Price of a Pie (The Guardian)

Butch Cleve, an oil refinery worker, explains why 5,000 oil and chemical workers have gone on strike for safer labor conditions. He shares stories of terrible – and preventable – accidents.

GOP Governors Want Higher Education Cuts to Recoup Budget Shortfalls (MSNBC)

Suzy Khimm points out four Republican governors whose states are still experiencing budget shortfalls, at least in part due to recent tax cuts, and are cutting education funding to close to the gap.

Jails Have Become Warehouses for the Poor, Ill and Addicted, a Report Says (NYT)

Timothy Williams reports on a new study from the Vera Institute of Justice, which shows how local jails imprison people for extended periods when they are unable to pay their relatively minor fines.

Obama Blasts Staples, and Reveals Larger Partisan Divide Over Workplace (WaPo)

Paul Waldman analyzes the president's statements about Staples limiting part-time workers' hours, noting that Democrats don't just aim to create jobs, but also try to improve workplaces.

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Daily Digest - February 10: What Happened to Reinvesting Corporate Profits?

Feb 10, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

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Stock Buybacks Are Killing the American Economy (The Atlantic)

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Stock Buybacks Are Killing the American Economy (The Atlantic)

Nick Hanauer blames the high percentage of corporate profits going to stock buybacks for our slowed economy; that money could otherwise go to higher wages or new corporate investments.

Obama and Congress Offer Bogus Rhetoric on Tax Reform (AJAM)

David Cay Johnston says that both the Democrats and the Republicans are only discussing tax reform that benefits the political donor class, instead of reform that help average Americans.

  • Roosevelt Take: In a white paper released last year, Roosevelt Institute Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz proposed a tax plan that would promote equity and growth for all.

Right-to-Work Laws are Every Republican Union-Hater's Weapon of Choice (The Guardian)

There are no philosophical or economic arguments in favor of right-to-work laws, writes Michael Paarlberg, only a political preference for supporting employers over workers.

Illinois Governor Acts to Curb Power of Public Sector Unions (NYT)

Monica Davey and Mitch Smith report on Governor Rauner's executive order, which will strip public sector unions of the fair share dues that non-members pay for the benefits they get anyway.

Red States' New Tax on the Poor: Mandatory Drug Tests for Welfare Recipients (TNR)

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig points out that only certain public funds require invasive tests to ensure recipients are worthy of assistance. Other forms of welfare, like public schools, are simply accepted.

In at Least 22 States, Your Student Debt Could Cost You Your Job (Jobs With Justice)

Chris Hicks points out the disconnect inherent in laws that revoke professional licenses from people who aren't able to pay their student debt. How will they make enough to pay it off without that license?

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Daily Digest - February 6: If Government Cares About the Next Generation, Where Are Their Ideas?

Feb 6, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

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Youth Agenda a Glaring Omission in Rauner's State of the State (State Journal-Register)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Youth Agenda a Glaring Omission in Rauner's State of the State (State Journal-Register)

Campus Network members Rachel Riemenschneider and Samuel Wylde point to the NextGen Illinois youth policy agenda as a collection of young people's concerns that are being overlooked.

Amherst College's Roosevelt Institute to share in $750,000 MacArthur Award (MassLive)

Diane Lederman reports on the Campus Network's MacArthur Award, quoting two students from the Amherst College chapter, Joshua Ferrer and Pierre Joseph.

Fast Food Companies are Invoking ‘Main Street’ to Fight Unions (WaPo)

Lydia DePillis explains how McDonalds is putting its small franchisees front and center to push back against unionization efforts. However, these franchises don't have much independence at all.

The Democrats in Opposition (TAP)

Harold Meyerson argues that if Democrats choose to function as an opposition party against not just the Republicans, but also Wall Street, they will have far more success at the ballot box in the future.

Jobs-Day Guide: January Surprise, U.S. Wages, Participation Rate (Bloomberg Business)

Victoria Stilwell predicts that the latest jobs numbers will fall below projections, as they often do at the beginning of the year. The annual payroll revision numbers will also be worthy of attention.

How the American Family Was Affected by the Great Recession (Pacific Standard)

The most noticeable differences, writes Philip N. Cohen, are in birth rate and divorce rate, which both saw sharp drops at the beginning of the recession and have since rebounded.

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