Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Who's Trustier than TRUSTe?

Lots of folks, it seems.

I've thought well of TRUSTe, a company that is (to quote their website) "the leading global Data Privacy Management (DPM) company and powers trust in the data economy by enabling businesses to safely collect and use customer data across their customer, employee, and vendor channels."

Moreover, "All TRUSTe solutions are engineered to enable businesses to continuously develop new and innovative products and marketing programs while adhering to best practices for providing customers with transparency, choice and accountability regarding the collection and use of personal information."

OK, that's a little heavy on the marketing-speak, but you'd think I'd like something that promised consumers "transparency, choice and accountability", right? The little TRUSTe symbol on a website seemed like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

I'd even assumed -- without really thinking about it -- that a company that certified websites for adhering to privacy standards was probably a not-for-profit.

Turns out I was wrong on several counts. (Sigh. Not for the first time, of course, and surely not the last.) Well, I was half-right about the final assumption: TRUSTe was founded as a nonprofit in 1997, but converted to for-profit in 2008. Let's just think about that for a moment, shall we?

In today's New York Times, Edward Wyatt reports that the Federal Trade Commission has penalized TRUSTe "$200,000 in profits... as part of a settlement for failing to annually recertify the privacy practices of companies in more than 1,000 instances while claiming on its website that it did so each year." (Full article, here)
The commission said that from 2006 to January 2013 TRUSTe failed to conduct annual privacy checks on some of the companies it certified. The company also failed to require companies using its seal to indicate after 2008 that the company was no longer a nonprofit corporation. 

In a blog response (here), TRUSTe CEO Chris Babel wrote that companies that were not reviewed annually were those that had multi-year contracts, which "represents less than 10% of the total number of annual reviews we were scheduled to conduct" and that "over 90% of multi-year clients" had two-year contracts, which meant that "the vast majority were reviewed every other year."

Babel also promised, "We have taken swift action to address the process issues covered by the agreement [with the FTC]."

Remember what your mother taught you? "Fool me once..."

We'll be watching.
This represents less than 10% of the total number of annual reviews we were scheduled to conduct during that time.
Multi-year clients that did not undergo the annual review step of their certification were reviewed when their agreements were up for renewal. Because over 90% of multi-year clients signed two-year contracts, the vast majority were reviewed every other year.
- See more at: http://www.truste.com/blog/#sthash.zpAk8r7s.dpuf
his represents less than 10% of the total number of annual reviews we were scheduled to conduct during that time.
Multi-year clients that did not undergo the annual review step of their certification were reviewed when their agreements were up for renewal. Because over 90% of multi-year clients signed two-year contracts, the vast majority were reviewed every other year.
- See more at: http://www.truste.com/blog/#sthash.zpAk8r7s.dpuf

Friday, November 7, 2014

At the Risk of Repeating Myself:

If people are dying because of your product, you should really really do something to fix the problem.

Trust me on this: Sweeping research under the rug is not going to make the problem go away.

Less than a year ago, I asked how many people had to die before a company would wake up and start recalling their product (full post, in re GM's ignition switch defects, here).

I'm asking the question again today, as more information comes out about airbag defects at Takata.

According to an article by Hiroko Tabuchi in today's New York Times, the Japanese airbag manufacturer, "alarmed by a report a decade ago that one of its airbags had ruptured and spewed metal debris at a driver in Alabama", conducted secret tests, using airbags retrieved from junked vehicles. The results? According to former employees (anonymous "because of continuing ties to Takata"):
The steel inflaters in two of the airbags cracked during the tests, a condition that can lead to rupture, the former employees said. The result was so startling that engineers began designing possible fixes in preparation for a recall.....

But instead of alerting federal safety regulators to the possible danger, Takata executives discounted the results and ordered the lab technicians to delete the testing data from their computers and dispose of the airbag inflaters in the trash, they said.
Those secret tests were conducted a decade ago, "after normal work hours and on weekends and holidays during [the] summer". 
That was four years before Takata, in regulatory filings, says that it first tested the problematic airbags. The results from the later tests led to the first recall over airbag rupture risks in November 2008.
The current recall has grown to involve ten automakers (BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Pontiac, Subaru, and Toyota) and 14 million vehicles. A more complete list of years and models affected, compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, can be found here.

I understand the pressures that automakers and their suppliers face - to keep costs down, to meet brutal "just-in-time" manufacturing schedules, not risking penalties for late deliveries. But:
“That put a lot of pressure and incentive on us to never miss a shipment,” said one of the former managers. “I’d argue, ‘what if my daughter bought the car with the bad airbag?’ But the plant would tell us, ‘Just ship it.' ”
"Just ship it"? Really?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What's the Difference Between a $5.60 Big Mac and a $4.80 Big Mac?

One of them comes with a living wage for the server, and the other doesn't.

In today's New York Times, Liz Alderman and Steven Greenhouse explore the difference between a Big Mac purchased in Denmark and one bought in the United States (full article, here). For the consumer, the difference is 80 cents (16.67%), which was actually a lot less than I had expected, given how loudly U.S. franchises have been prophesying the end-of-the-world should living wages become the norm here.

Cross-cultural comparisons are always risky. Denmark has a much higher cost of living than most of the U.S., higher taxes, high levels of unionization, etc.

But... the Danish example proves that it is possible to have that Big Mac and not penalize the McDonald's worker for the sin of being poor.

I've written before about the appalling way that U.S. capitalism concentrates on going lower and lower (example here). A living wage is a moral issue, not an economic one, but it's nice to know that the economics work too. 

The base wage for a McDonald's employee in Denmark is $20 an hour, "two and a half times what many fast-food workers earn in the United States," and much higher than the $15 an hour for which  many U.S. workers have been campaigning. Note that:
Denmark has no minimum-wage law. But ... [a Danish worker's] $20 an hour is the lowest the fast-food industry can pay under an agreement between Denmark’s 3F union, the nation’s largest, and the Danish employers group Horesta, which includes Burger King, McDonald’s, Starbucks and other restaurant and hotel companies.

By contrast, fast-food wages in the United States are so low that half of the nation’s fast-food workers rely on some form of public assistance, a study from the University of California, Berkeley found. American fast-food workers earn an average of $8.90 an hour.

Most corporate fast-food companies won't discuss employee wages because "those decisions [are] made by its franchise operators", which is disingenuous at best, since corporate will train franchisees on how best to keep down labor costs.

But it's not just the wages that are different:
In Denmark, fast-food workers are guaranteed benefits their American counterparts could only dream of. Under the industry’s collective agreement, there are five weeks’ paid vacation, paid maternity and paternity leave and a pension plan. Workers must be paid overtime for working after 6 p.m. and on Sundays.

Unlike most American fast-food workers, the Danes often get their work schedules four weeks in advance, and employees cannot be sent home early without pay just because business slows.

In other words, Danish workers are treated like valuable human beings, not simply as "costs". Not surprisingly, fast-food worker turnover is low and front-line employees even think about their jobs as potential careers, not something to move on from as quickly as possible. Turnover is expensive, but you don't see U.S. fast-food companies looking for good ways to reduce that, do you?

True, Danish fast-food franchises appear to be less profitable than American ones (by how much is not clear, but they're certainly not unprofitable, or they wouldn't be around for long). And those burgers are certainly a little more expensive, but Danes seem OK with that:
“We Danes accept that a burger is expensive, but we also know that working conditions and wages are decent when we eat that burger,” said Soren Kaj Andersen, a University of Copenhagen professor who specializes in labor issues.
That U.S. Big Mac still taste as good to you? Mine seems to have some straw in it.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Still Waiting for Stronger Action

The numbers of states banning a particular type of guardrail has now grown to ten. In the event of a vehicular collision, the guardrail and its "redesigned" end terminal are supposed to slide along, cushioning the impact of the vehicle; instead, the ends are sometimes malfunctioning, effectively driving a spear into the vehicle itself. (I first wrote about this issue about ten days ago - original post, here.)

The issue is that redesigns are supposed to be tested and approved by the Federal Highway Administration before installation.... and they weren't. A Texas jury found that Trinity Industries, the guardrail manufacturer, had defrauded the government, and awarded $175 million (which, under federal law, will be tripled to $525 million; complete New York Times article on the jury findings, by Danielle Ivory and Aaron M. Kessler, here).

Ivory and Kessler reported on Tuesday (full story, here) that the Federal Highway Administration had finally ordered more testing on the guardrail design. Meanwhile, "At least 14 lawsuits blame the guardrails for five deaths and more injuries." The Trinity "ET-Plus" units have been installed in virtually every state.

Ivory reported today that there are now ten states that have banned the ET-Plus: Colorado, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Virginia.

I'd like to see my state added to that list. And could we hurry up on the testing please?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Happy Endings Can Happen!

...but it helps to have The New York Times watching.

Yesterday, I wrote about the woman who was essentially fired from her job for being pregnant (that's a simplification, but it's a long story, and if you want the details, you'll find them here). Her employer's move appeared to be a clear violation of a New York City ordinance protecting pregnant workers, but I was more taken aback by the simple lack of compassion and decency.

Today, it turns out that the woman is being offered her job back.

In a followup article, reporter Rachel Swarms writes that the woman - now unemployed for nearly three months - can return "immediately without loss of seniority and without fear of retaliation," in the warm and welcoming words of her employer's lawyers.

The lawyer, of course, is "not admitting that [the company] had violated any laws or fired Ms. Valencia," and that the health and safety of employees is "of utmost importance."

Why do I find that last statement a little hard to believe?

Monday, October 20, 2014

What Ever Happened to Common Decency and Compassion?

At the workplace, apparently, it's being forced out by the Almighty Bottom Line.

Today's New York Times carries a deeply depressing article by Rachel Swarns about the risks of being pregnant in the workplace. No, not the risk of harm to your developing child, the risk of getting fired for the fact of being pregnant. Oh, and: to hell with the legality of that action.

According to the article, the 39-year-old woman, who had suffered a miscarriage the previous year, arrived to work with a note from her doctor saying that her current pregnancy was again high-risk and she should work no more than eight hours a day. Eight hours a day, five days a week -- that sounds like a fulltime job to me.

And the job was critically important to her financial stability. She earned $8.70 an hour (after three years on the job -- there's another whole post in that comment alone); her husband was a driver for a private bus company. Together, they earned enough to cover their expenses, including a "studio apartment in Corona, Queens." Not exactly high living, but they were getting by.

What would her bosses say? She worried and prayed.
...[It] was the busy season at the Fierman Produce Exchange, and her bosses had already told her she had to work overtime. So as Ms. Valencia sorted potatoes on that Aug. 8 morning, she worried: How would her supervisors respond to the doctor’s note? At the end of her shift, would she still have a job?

Stop right here and think what you would do if you were Ms. Valencia's employer.

Here's what happened: 
...[When] Ms. Valencia told her supervisors in July that she had a high-risk pregnancy, they told her she could work only without restrictions, she said. After taking time off to try to negotiate an accommodation with the company, she returned when her co-workers volunteered to handle the heavy machinery and lifting.

In August, she said, her supervisors insisted that she work overtime. Ms. Valencia felt so ill after two lengthy shifts that she went to the hospital and then to her doctor, who gave her the letter that she handed to her boss.


Ms. Valencia said she begged her managers to excuse her from overtime as her doctor had recommended. She pointed out that the company’s busy season typically ended in September, and that overtime was rarely needed during the rest of the year.

But her managers insisted that she could not work without a full-duty medical clearance. So Ms. Valencia turned in her company identification and wept as she started the long commute home.
 Excuse me?

This seems like a clear violation of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, a New York City ordinance which took effect in January of this year, and
...[which] requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers — such as providing rest and water breaks, modified schedules and light duty — so long as the accommodations don’t cause undue hardship for the employer. Makes sense, right? It’s actually critical, particularly for low-income women who sometimes get pushed out of their jobs — and into poverty — when they become pregnant.
But I actually care less about the legality than about the stunning lack of basic human decency. We are, after all, talking about a temporary disability. What if Ms. Valencia had broken a bone or strained muscles? Would that be grounds for pushing her to leave? (And note: the story does not make it clear whether she was actually fired, in which case she would be eligible for limited unemployment insurance, or pushed into resigning, in which case she wouldn't.)

Ms. Valencia's co-workers had the decency to offer to help with the most physically demanding elements of her job. But her bosses didn't have the decency to hire temporary workers to pick up the slack during the their busy season.

And some people still wonder whether there's a need for unions today. Ask Ms. Valencia. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Who Guards the Guardrails?

I grew up in hilly, curvy New England, and still love nothing more than driving some of those hilly, curvy roads. Probably at speeds in excess of posted limits.

But some of those roads make me just a little nervous, and so I'm grateful for guardrails.

At least I was, until I read an article by Danielle Ivory and Aaron M. Kessler in Monday's New York Times that warned that the guardrails installed in nearly every state in the country may not be safe. In fact, "some guardrail heads had apparently malfunctioned, in essence turning the rails into spears when cars hit them and injuring people instead of cushioning the blow." (Full article here; followup article from today's Times, here; the issue has also been covered by Brian Ross of ABC's 20/20 newsmagazine, television clip here)

Missouri has banned further installation of these guardrails, as have Nevada and Massachusetts. Virginia is considering a similar move, and is threatening to remove those currently in place.

A primary manufacturer of guardrails, Texas-based Trinity Industries, is the object of a federal whistle-blower lawsuit, alleging fraud, following a significant design change.

Trinity’s new design reduced the width of the steel channel behind the rail head at the end of the guardrail, from five inches to four. Instead of sliding along the rail, which collapses much like an accordion, and helping it curl out of the way of the oncoming vehicle, the rail head can become jammed, some state officials say. In those cases, the long metal guardrail does not get pushed aside — instead, it can become a bayonet that can pierce the vehicle and any person in its way, the state officials say.

Design changes, along with detailed diagrams, are supposed to be disclosed to the Federal Highway Administration.

But when Trinity narrowed its rail head design it did not make any such disclosures. In response to a question from The Times, Trinity said it submitted results of the crash tests to the agency in 2005, though it did not directly address whether it highlighted the change to the rail head.

For at least seven years, tens of thousands of the modified ET-Plus rail heads were installed from coast to coast. It was only in 2012, after a patent case in Virginia led to the discovery of the change, that the federal highway agency was alerted.
 At least five deaths, and many more accidents, have been blamed on the guardrails. The Federal Highway Administration continues to claim that the guardrails are safe.

But I'm starting to have my doubts about the FHA's claims.

Especially because, as the Times journalists report, "internal communications and documents from the highway administration show that a senior engineer charged with examining the guardrails expressed reservations about their safety, before he signed off on their continued use about two years ago."

Feel like expressing more than reservations?