Economy & business
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Walmart Is Eliminating Greeters, Worrying Disabled Workers

As Walmart moves to phase out its familiar blue-vested “greeters” at 1,000 stores nationwide, disabled workers who fill many of those jobs say they’re being ill-treated by a chain that styles itself as community-minded and inclusive. 

 

Walmart told greeters around the country last week that their positions would be eliminated on April 26 in favor of an expanded, more physically demanding “customer host” role. To qualify, they will need to be able to lift 25-pound (11-kilogram) packages, climb ladders and stand for long periods. 

 

That came as a heavy blow to greeters with cerebral palsy, spina bifida and other physical disabilities. For them, a job at Walmart has provided needed income, served as a source of pride and offered a connection to the community.  

Customer backlash

 

Now Walmart, America’s largest private employer, is facing a backlash as customers rally around some of the chain’s most highly visible employees. 

 

Walmart says it is striving to place greeters in other jobs at the company, but workers with disabilities are worried.  

 

Donny Fagnano, 56, who has worked at Walmart for more than 21 years, said he cried when a manager at the store in Lewisburg, Pa., called him into the office last week and told him his job was going away.  

 

“I like working,” he said. “It’s better than sitting at home.” 

 

Fagnano, who has spina bifida, said he was offered a severance package. He hopes to stay on at Walmart and clean bathrooms instead. 

 

Walmart greeters have been around for decades, allowing the retail giant to put a friendly face at the front of its stores. Then, in 2016, Walmart began replacing greeters with hosts, adding responsibilities that include helping with returns, checking receipts to deter shoplifters and keeping the front of the store clean. Walmart and other chains have been redefining roles at stores as they compete with Amazon.  

The effect of the greeter phase-out on disabled and elderly employees — who have traditionally gravitated toward the role as one they were well-suited to doing — largely escaped public notice until last week, when Walmart launched a second round of cuts. 

 

As word spread, first on social media and then in local and national news outlets, outraged customers began calling Walmart to complain. Tens of thousands of people signed petitions. Facebook groups sprang up with names like “Team Adam” and “Save Lesley.” A second-grade class in California wrote letters to Walmart’s CEO on behalf of Adam Catlin, a disabled greeter in Pennsylvania whose mother had written an impassioned Facebook post about his plight. Walmart said it has offered another job to Catlin. 

 

In Galena, Ill., hundreds of customers plan to attend an “appreciation parade” for Ashley Powell on her last day of work as a greeter. 

 

“I love it, and I think I’ve touched a lot of people,” said Powell, 34, who has an intellectual disability. 

‘What am I going to do?’

 

In Vancouver, Wash., John Combs, 42, who has cerebral palsy, was devastated and then angered by his impending job loss. It had taken his family five years to find him a job he could do, and he loved the work, coming up with nicknames for all his co-workers. 

“What am I going to do — just sit here on my butt all day in this house? That’s all I’m going to do?” Combs asked his sister and guardian, Rachel Wasser. “I do my job. I didn’t do anything wrong.” 

 

Wasser urged the retailer to “give these people a fair shake. … If you want to make your actions match your words, do it. Don’t be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” 

 

With the U.S. unemployment rate for disabled people more than twice that for workers without disabilities, Walmart has long been seen as a destination for people like Combs. Advocacy groups worry the company is backsliding.  

“It’s the messaging that concerns me,” said Gabrielle Sedor, chief operations officer at ANCOR, a trade group representing service providers. “Given that Walmart is such an international leader in the retail space, I’m concerned this decision might suggest to some people that the bottom line of the company is more important to the company than inclusive communities. We don’t think those two are mutually exclusive.” 

 

The greeter issue has already prompted at least three complaints to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as a federal lawsuit in Utah alleging discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the federal law, employers must provide “reasonable” accommodations to workers with disabilities. 

 

Walmart did not disclose how many disabled greeters could lose their jobs. The company said that after it made the change at more than 1,000 stores in 2016, 80 percent to 85 percent of all affected greeters found other roles at Walmart. It did not reveal how many of them were disabled. 

 

This time, Walmart initially told greeters they would have 60 days to land other jobs at the company. Amid the uproar, the company has extended the deadline indefinitely for greeters with disabilities. 

 

“We recognize that our associates with physical disabilities face a unique situation,” Walmart spokesman Justin Rushing said in a statement. The extra time, he said, will give Walmart a chance to explore how to accommodate such employees. 

Offers made

 

Walmart said it has already made offers to some greeters, including those with physical disabilities, and expects to continue doing so in the coming weeks.  

 

But some workers say they have been tacitly discouraged from applying for other jobs. 

 

Mitchell Hartzell, 31, a full-time Walmart greeter in Hazel Green, Ala., said his manager told him “they pretty much didn’t have anything in that store for me to do” after his job winds down in April. He said he persisted, approaching several assistant managers to ask about openings, and found out about a vacant position at self-checkout. But it had already been promised to a greeter who doesn’t use a wheelchair, he said. 

 

“It seems like they don’t want us anymore,” said Hartzell, who has cerebral palsy. 

 

Jay Melton, 40, who has worked as a greeter in Marion, N.C., for nearly 17 years, loves church, Tar Heels basketball and Walmart. His sister-in-law, Jamie Melton, said the job is what gets him out of bed. 

 

“He doesn’t have a lot of things he does himself that bring him joy,” she said. Addressing Walmart, Melton added: “When you cut a huge population of people out, and you have written a policy that declares they are no longer capable of doing what they have been doing, that is discrimination.”  

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Economy & business
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World Bank: Women Have Just 75 Percent of Men’s Legal Rights

Women around the world are granted only three-quarters of the legal rights enjoyed by men, often preventing them from getting jobs or opening businesses, the World Bank said in study published Wednesday. 

 

“If women have equal opportunities to reach their full potential, the world would not only be fairer, it would be more prosperous as well,” Kristalina Georgieva, the bank’s interim president, said in a statement. 

 

While reforms in many countries are a step in the right direction, “2.7 billion women are still legally barred from having the same choice of jobs as men,” the statement said. 

 

The study included an index measuring gender disparities that was derived from data collected over a decade from 187 countries and using eight indicators to evaluate the balance of rights afforded to men and women. 

 

The report showed progress over the past 10 years, with the index rising to 75 from 70, out of a possible 100, as 131 countries have agreed to enact 274 reforms, adopting laws or regulations allowing greater inclusion of women. 

 

Among the improvements, 35 countries have proposed laws against sexual harassment in the workplace, granting protections to an additional 2 billion women, while 22 nations have abolished restrictions that kept women out of certain industrial sectors. 

 

Six perfect scores

Six nations — Belgium, Denmark, France, Latvia, Luxembourg and Sweden — scored a 100, “meaning they give women and men equal legal rights in the measured areas,” the World Bank said. 

 

A decade ago, no economy had achieved a perfect score. 

 

On the other hand, too many women still face discriminatory laws or regulations at every stage of their professional lives: 56 nations made no improvement over the last decade. 

 

South Asia saw the greatest progress, although it still achieved a relatively low score of 58.36. It was followed by Southeast Asia and the Pacific, at 70.73 and 64.80, respectively.  

 

Latin America and the Caribbean recorded the second-highest scores among emerging and developing economies at 79.09. 

 

Conversely, the Middle East and North Africa posted the lowest score for gender equality at 47.37. The World Bank nevertheless pointed to encouraging changes, such as the introduction of laws against domestic violence, in particular in Algeria and Lebanon.

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Science & Health
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On World Polar Bear Day Climatologists Sound the Alarm

Wednesday marked World Polar Bear Day – an annual opportunity for conservationists to shed light on the status of the largest and most carnivorous member of the bear family. As VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports, climate change is threatening polar bear habitat and the very future of the species in the wild.

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Silicon Valley & Technology
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TikTok Fined in US for Illegally Gathering Children’s Data 

The fast-growing, Chinese-owned video sharing network TikTok agreed to pay a $5.7 million fine to U.S. authorities to settle charges that it illegally collected personal information from children, officials said Wednesday. 

 

The Federal Trade Commission said the penalty for the social network, which had been known as Musical.ly, was the largest ever in a children’s privacy investigation. 

 

The social network, which has been surging in popularity with young smartphone users and taking over from rivals like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, failed to obtain parental consent from its underage users as required by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, FTC officials said. 

 

The operators of TikTok “knew many children were using the app, but they still failed to seek parental consent before collecting names, email addresses, and other personal information from users under the age of 13,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons.  

No tolerance for lawbreakers

 

“This record penalty should be a reminder to all online services and websites that target children: We take enforcement of COPPA very seriously, and we will not tolerate companies that flagrantly ignore the law.” 

 

TikTok claimed 500 million users worldwide last year, making it one of the most popular worldwide apps. 

 

Owned by China’s ByteDance, it expanded its reach in the U.S. with the merger with Musical.ly. 

 

Teens have been flocking to the service, which allows them to create and share videos of 15 seconds.  

According to the FTC, the company required users to provide an email address, phone number, username, first and last name, a short biography, and a profile picture. 

 

The consumer protection regulator said 65 million accounts have been registered in the United States. 

 

Officials said the company knew that many of its users were under 13 and should have taken greater precautions. 

 

“In our view, these practices reflected the company’s willingness to pursue growth even at the expense of endangering children,” said a statement from FTC Commissioners Rohit Chopra and Rebecca Kelly Slaughter. 

 

“The agency secured a record-setting civil penalty and deletion of ill-gotten data, as well as other remedies to stop this egregious conduct.” 

Suggestive content

 

TikTok has faced criticism around the world for featuring sexually suggestive content inappropriate for children. 

 

TikTok said in a statement it would create a “separate app experience” for younger users with additional privacy protections as part of its agreement with regulators. 

 

“It’s our priority to create a safe and welcoming experience for all of our users, and as we developed the global TikTok platform, we’ve been committed to creating measures to further protect our user community — including tools for parents to protect their teens and for users to enable additional privacy settings,” the statement said.

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Economy & business
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Fed to Stop Shrinking Portfolio This Year, Powell Says 

The Federal Reserve will stop shrinking its $4 trillion balance sheet later this year, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said on Wednesday, ending a process that investors say works at cross-purposes with the Fed’s current pause on interest rate hikes. 

“We’ve worked out, I think, the framework of a plan that we hope to be able to announce soon that will light the way all the way to the end of balance sheet normalization,” Powell told members of the House Financial Services Committee in what were his most detailed remarks to date on the subject. 

“We’re going to be in a position … to stop runoff later this year,” he said, adding that doing so would leave the balance sheet at about 16 percent or 17 percent of GDP, up from about 6 percent before the financial crisis about a decade ago. 

The U.S. gross domestic product is currently about $20 trillion, suggesting the Fed’s balance sheet would be between $3.2 trillion and $3.4 trillion. 

The Fed has been trimming its balance sheet — bulked up by trillions of dollars of bond-buying during the post-crisis years to help keep interest rates low and bolster the economy — by as much as $50 billion a month since October 2017. As recently as a few months ago it had expected to keep shrinking its portfolio for another couple of years. 

New tack

But in a series of meetings that began in November, the Fed has been devising a new approach. With rising demand for currency around the world, and from U.S. banks for reserves held at the central bank, Fed policymakers now believe a big balance sheet is necessary just to ensure it has proper control over the short-term interest rates it sets to manage the economy. 

In addition, Fed policymakers now say balance sheet policy should take financial and economic conditions into account. 

Questions about the plan remain, including whether the Fed will adjust the maturities of its Treasury portfolio, and how it will go about shedding the mortgage-backed securities (MBS) it accumulated during its asset-buying days. 

Powell said the Fed still has a bunch of decisions ahead of it. 

“The one on MBS sales is really closer to the back of the line — really, we have to decide about the maturity composition, things like that, and we’ll be working through that in a very careful way,” Powell said.  “Markets are sensitive to this.” 

Powell’s remarks on the balance sheet came toward the end of more than two hours of testimony before the Democrat-led House panel that includes several new members, including New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

But the Green New Deal advocate and Bronx populist asked no questions during the debate, and much of what Powell said on Wednesday repeated comments made Tuesday to the Republican-controlled Senate Banking Committee, including that the economy is on solid ground and the Fed would be patient on raising rates. 

Inflation goal unchanged

Powell was asked, as he was in the Senate, about the Fed’s plan to rethink its policy framework this year. He assured lawmakers that the Fed is merely trying to refine its approach so it can meet its current 2 percent inflation goal. 

“We are not looking at a higher inflation target, full stop,” he said. 

Powell also repeated his warnings against a failure by Congress to raise the debt ceiling, saying there would be “bad consequences” should the United States default on its debt payments. 

Powell by law appears two times a year before Congress to brief members of the House Financial Services Committee and the Senate Banking Committee on monetary policy and the state of the economy. 

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Economy & business
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US Trade Official: Deal with China Not Near Agreement

The top U.S. trade official said Wednesday that a new trade deal with China is not close to being completed.

“Much still needs to be done before an agreement can be reached,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told a congressional panel in Washington. “If we can complete this effort, and again I say if, and if we can reach a resolution on the issue of enforceability, we might have an agreement that enables us to turn the corner in our relationship with China.”

The U.S. and China, the world’s two biggest economies, have been negotiating for months on a new agreement, even as they have imposed hefty new tariffs on billions of dollars of each other’s exports.

Lighthizer said the countries’ negotiators, who have been meeting in Washington and Beijing, “are making real progress.”

President Donald Trump cited that progress Sunday in postponing what would have been a sharp increase in U.S. duties on $200 billion in Chinese imports that would have taken effect Friday.

The most recent U.S. statistics show China last year had a $382 billion trade surplus in deals with the United States through November. Trump is trying to alter trade terms between the two countries to end what the U.S., Japan and European countries contend are China’s unfair trade practices, including state intervention in markets, subsidies of some industries and theft of foreign technology.

China has offered to increase its purchase of American farm products and energy as part of a new trade pact.

Members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, urged Lighthizer to reach a wide-ranging trade agreement.

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Silicon Valley & Technology
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Meet Elon Tusk: Tesla Chief Changes Twitter Display Name

Silicon Valley billionaire Elon Musk changed his Twitter display name to “Elon Tusk” in another late-night flurry of tweets on Wednesday, which also promised news from his electric carmaker Tesla Inc later this week.

In a series of tweets to his 25 million followers following charges from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission earlier this week, Musk accused the regulator of failing to read Tesla’s annual reports and said its oversight was “broken”.

On Wednesday, he changed his display name and added an elephant tag.

Social media platforms have featured a number of memes involving wordplay around Musk’s name this week.

He also promised Tesla would have “news” at 2 p.m. California time on Thursday. The company, deep in debt as it ramps up production of its popular Model 3 sedan, is due to repay a $920 million convertible bond a day later.

Musk had promised last year to have his public statements vetted by the company’s board, as part of a settlement with the SEC that headed off demands for him to resign as Tesla CEO.

Tesla did not immediately respond to request for comment.

 

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Science & Health
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Malawi Vaccinates Young Girls Against Cervical Cancer

Malawi officials say the country has the world’s highest rate of cervical cancer, but only two oncologists serving the nation of 17 million people. In an effort to reduce cervical cancer deaths, the government has rolled out a massive vaccine campaign against the human papilloma virus (HPV), which can cause cervical cancer.

The immunization project follows a pilot effort in two districts between 2013 and 2015.

The campaign is run with funding from the Global Alliance on Vaccines and is expected to reach 1.5 million girls between the ages of 9 and 14 across the country.

The U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, is among organizations implementing the project.

“The disease starts when you engage in sexual behavior and contract a virus we call human papilloma virus that causes cancer slowly, over time,” said Steve Macheso, an immunization specialist for UNICEF in Malawi. “So we are trying to catch the girls early before their sexual debut so that when even they contract human papilloma virus, the virus does not cause cancer when they grow up.”

Other organizations supporting the effort are the World Health Organization and the Clinton Health Access Initiative.

Health experts say cervical cancer causes the largest number of cancer deaths among women in Malawi.

“For the whole Malawi, we are talking about close to 3,600 new cases every year. And over 2,000 of these women die from this kind of cancer every year. This is the highest number of cervical cancer cases in the world,” said Dr. Leo Masamba, one of only two oncologists in Malawi.

Masamba says results of the HPV vaccination effort will not be felt for decades.

“In between, whilst we are waiting for those 10 to 30 years, there will still be quite a lot of cervical cancer cases coming from people that have already been infected with HPV now. We need to make sure that treatments are still available, and other interventions like palliative care is still available,” Masamba said.  

Loveness Kalanda is happy that her 9-year-old daughter will be vaccinated.

“I wish if it was possible, government should have considered vaccination for us older women because this disease is not selective,” she said, adding that she wished there were another way to protect older women from the disease.

Jonathan Chiwanda, the national cancer coordinator in the Ministry of Health, told reporters in the capital, Lilongwe, that measures are in place to tackle the disease.

“All along we have been doing surgeries, we have been offering chemotherapy. We have also been giving antiretroviral drugs with help from remission for the Kaposi sarcoma (type of cancer),” he said.

In addition, he said, the government will soon open its first-ever cancer center in Lilongwe, which will be offering radiotherapy and other treatment to patients.

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