Day: May 1, 2020

Outside the Box: Job and finances under threat from COVID-19? How to get a little more financial certainty

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The COVID-19 pandemic has made the past two months feel like a cruel roller-coaster ride, with sharp drops in the stock market, businesses closing and millions displaced from their jobs. The overall mood has been unsettling, to say the least.

Want a little more financial certainty? There are steps we can take that will give us greater control over our life, both in the short and long term. For me, I’ve gained comfort from revisiting my living expenses. This exercise can have great benefits, especially with COVID-19 threatening our jobs and our finances.

Read our COVID-19 coverage

For instance, cutting living costs can help us pay for unexpected expenses that we hadn’t budgeted for, like those 300 rolls of toilet paper. It also allows us to further shore up our emergency fund, which could be particularly helpful if we get laid off.

The longer-term benefits of being deliberate with our spending are even more striking. Consider the hypothetical situation of two people—we’ll call them John and Mark—which is summarized below:

John Mark
Gross salary $150,000 $150,000
Taxes $50,000 $50,000
Net pay $100,000 $100,000
Expenses $95,000 $60,000
Savings per year $5,000 $40,000
Living expenses saved each year 0.63 months 8 months
Emergency fund needed $23,750 $15,000
Time to build emergency fund 57 months 4.5 months
Retirement savings needed $2,375,000 $1,500,000

As you’ll see from the table, both John and Mark make a gross salary of $150,000 and take home $100,000 after taxes. But John has living expenses of $95,000 a year, while Mark lives on $60,000. Thanks to his far lower living expenses, Mark has three key financial advantages over John:

1. Save more. Because John spends most of his income, after a year of working, he hasn’t even saved a month of living expenses, while Mark has socked away eight months of living costs.

2. Need less in future. Because John’s expenses are higher, he needs a bigger emergency fund ($23,750 vs. $15,000) and a larger retirement nest egg ($2.375 million vs. $1.5 million). It takes John nearly five years to build up a rainy-day fund equal to three months of living expenses, while it takes Mark just 4½ months.

3. Greater career flexibility. Because his expenses are so high, John is pretty much locked into his current job or a position that’ll pay a similar salary. Meanwhile, if Mark received a job offer at a salary of $100,000—which would be a one-third cut in pay—he could still accept the position, because his living expenses are far lower. Having that sort of flexibility could be particularly important in today’s challenging job market.

What does all this mean for you and me? My advice: Review your expenses for the past several months and categorize each expense as need-to-have or nice-to-have. You might temporarily decrease those nice-to-have expenses, so you can shore up your cash reserves. The good news is, because of social distancing and sheltering in place, you may have cut some expenses already, including dining out, going to the movies, getting haircuts and traveling.

What else might you cut? Here are some possibilities, ranging in impact from small to large:

• Cut bank fees (e.g. ATM, foreign transaction and late payment fees).

• Cancel unused subscriptions.

• Combine individual streaming subscriptions into a cheaper family plan (e.g. Spotify, YouTube TV).

• Negotiate your phone, internet and cable bills.

• Call your auto insurer and ask for a premium reduction.

• Negotiate your rent.

Refinance your mortgage.

• Reduce the burden of high-cost debt by requesting a lower interest rate or paying it off with lower-cost home equity borrowing.

I admit it, I’m a finance nerd. Still, I really do think that periodically reviewing expenses can be an empowering experience. First, there are the obvious benefits: You immediately gain more control over your finances, expand your career flexibility and perhaps achieve greater peace of mind. But this process might also help you clarify your life choices.

I believe that difficult times can help us grow—if we engage in some hard work and self-reflection along the way. I’ve found that revisiting my living expenses has encouraged me to re-examine my past decisions and define my future goals for a happier, more value-driven life. During this challenging period, that’s what I’d call a silver lining. And let’s face it: We all have a little more free time than we want these days for some good old-fashioned arithmetic.

This column originally appeared on Humble Dollar. It was republished with permission.

Roger Ma is a financial planner at lifelaidout, a publisher strategist at Google and author of “Work Your Money, Not Your Life.” The above article is drawn from his book. Roger lives in New York City with his wife Jenn, son Owen and their two cats. Follow him on Twitter.

Americans will cut down on home remodeling projects because of coronavirus

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The global coronavirus pandemic is set to put a damper on all forms of housing market activity — and that includes remodeling.

A new report from Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University examined how much Americans are expected to spend on home improvements in 2020 across the country’s 47 largest metropolitan areas.

Before the pandemic reached U.S. shores, researchers at the Joint Center for Housing Studies had forecast remodeling spending to increase in 37 markets nationwide and only decrease in nine metro areas.

But, now, a majority of metro areas (24) are expected to see a dip in home-renovation spending. And in 15 other cities, remodeling spending is only expected to increase between 1% and 3% compared with last year.

Also see: Mortgage rates fall to new record low — here’s why some loan applicants won’t be offered them

“With the pandemic exacerbating localized slowdowns in house prices, existing home sales, and home building, many metros will see even more pronounced erosion of home renovation activity this year,” Abbe Will, associate project director in the Remodeling Futures Program at the Center, said in the report.

The downturn in remodeling expenditures is expected to occur throughout the country. Researchers noted that more affordable housing markets — including those in the Midwest and the Sunbelt — are more likely to see remodeling growth this year. But even then, researchers said they expect homeowners in Orlando, Kansas City and Omaha to shell out less money on home improvement.

A previous survey from the National Association of Home Builders released in April found that 96% of remodeling firms said the coronavirus was causing them to field fewer inquiries from homeowners looking to pursue home improvement projects. Remodelers also noted that homeowners were expressing concerns about having workers come into their homes to complete projects because of the outbreak.

Read more:Only 50% of Americans believe it’s a good time to buy a home, an all-time low, Gallup poll says

While concerns related to transmission may deter some homeowners from pursuing remodeling projects, economic uncertainty is likely to play a bigger role. With millions of Americans losing jobs or income, many homeowners are wary of making a major investment in their home.

Home sales are also a big driver of home improvement projects, since prospective sellers want to spruce up their properties to appeal to buyers, and new owners often make improvements on their homes. With home sales expected to dip significantly because of the virus, there’s less incentive to funnel money into a renovation now. As such, analysts say 2021 could see an even bigger downturn in remodeling activity, depending on when the real-estate market can begin to rebound.

Why Americans are willing to share their personal information in drug trials but not for contact tracing efforts

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Contact tracing and drug trials could be two key milestones on the path forward to safely reopening America’s economy. But Americans have differing views on each: they’re hesitant to share their personal information for contact tracing efforts, but the same is not true when it comes to drug trials, studies suggest.

Americans are divided on whether it’s “acceptable for the government to use people’s cellphones to track the location of those who have tested positive for the virus to understand how the virus is spreading,” according to a study published in April by the Pew Research Center. Some 52% thought it was acceptable; 48% thought it was unacceptable. When it comes to people who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive, a smaller share (45%) believed it is acceptable. These results varied by race, gender and political affiliation.

While the study did not gauge Americans’ views on private companies efforts to roll out contact-tracing technology, the results are “indicative of people’s attitudes of data collection” when it comes to contact tracing, said Monica Anderson, an author of the study.

Meanwhile, when asked about participating in pharmaceutical research to develop a treatment or vaccine for COVID-19, some 58% of U.S. adults said they would be at least somewhat willing to do so, according to research by PwC’s Health Care Institute.

Half of consumers would share their data directly with a drug company. These results did not vary by age or race.

The reluctance to share data for contact tracing could push back the timeline on reopening the economy in some parts of the country. But it’s not clear whether Americans’ increased interest in participating in medical studies will minimize this effect.

Functions of contact tracing

Contact tracing is a way to help identify a person’s whereabouts who tests positive for a contagious disease and then track down people who may have crossed paths with them.

In South Korea, health officials are able to pinpoint exactly where a person who has tested positive has been using security camera footage, credit-card records, GPS data from cellphones and car navigation systems.

South Koreans are also notified when a person in their district contracts COVID-19 and they are given highly detailed information about their whereabouts — including the exact bus they may have taken and whether or not they wore a mask. Officials don’t, however, release their names.

Aggressive contact tracing, among other factors, including the availability of testing kits in the early stages of the pandemic, is believed to have significantly helped flatten the curve there.

“Contact tracing in South Korea is incredibly valuable but it’s also incredibly invasive and would never work in the U.S.,” Colin Zick, a partner at Boston-based law firm Foley Hoag LLP, and co-chair of its health care practice and chair of its privacy and data security practice, said.

“But it will be effective if we can figure out in a different legal regime how to balance out the desperate need for contact tracing with some greater semblance of privacy protections.”

Even using a simplistic contact tracing app that doesn’t track a person’s location, “has the potential to substantially reduce the number of new coronavirus cases, hospitalisations and ICU admissions,” researchers from the University of Oxford found.

Based on a model of over one million inhabitants of a city, the researchers reported that this is the case “if approximately 60% of the population use the app.”

Pictured is the model of contact tracing University of Oxford researchers used to quantify its usefulness.

Fraser Group, Oxford University’s Big Data Institute

The app that the researchers based their model on shares many similarities with contact tracing technology Apple AAPL, +2.11% and Google GOOG, +0.53% GOOGL, +0.33% are jointly working to roll out in May.

The technology, which is strictly opt-in, works by harnessing short-range Bluetooth signals, known as Bluetooth beacons. Using the Apple-Google technology, contact-tracing apps would gather a record of other phones with which they came into close proximity.

Apple and Google spokesmen said separately that none of the information gathered from phone users will be monetized and will only be used for contact tracing. Both companies can disable the broadcast system on a regional basis when it is no longer needed.

The tech giants’ proposal “is the version of digital contact tracing that is the most privacy respecting,” said Glenn Cohen, a professor of health law policy and bioethics at Harvard University. “It remains to be seen, though, what these architectural decisions will mean as to efficacy.”

Participation in contact tracing or drugs trials all boils down to trust and perceptions

“People are more willing to share data when they feel the benefits outweigh the costs,” said Rahul Telang, a professor of information systems at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College

‘For a long time people have been comfortable sharing personal information with their doctors. Pre-COVID one of the biggest barriers of clinical trials was getting people to participate in them.’

— Benjamin Isgur, leader of PwC’s Health Research Institute

“People are more likely to feel that the benefits of drug trials outweigh concerns of privacy. If get selected, you feel like you are contributing to the science of society.”

Related: These 21 companies are working on coronavirus treatments or vaccines — here’s where things stand

This especially is the case given that most Americans’ lives have been upended by coronavirus. Therefore there is a greater desire to participate in clinical trials which could potentially unveil a lifesaving drug or vaccine, said Benjamin Isgur, an author of the report and the leader of the Health Research Institute.

Don’t miss: What daily life during the pandemic looks like to people across the U.S., and beyond

“For a long time people have been comfortable sharing personal information with their doctors. Pre-COVID one of the biggest barriers of clinical trials was getting people to participate in them,” Isgur said.

“Our research showed that during the pandemic consumers are willing to share their personal information [for clinical trials] and they want to join the fight against the pandemic.”

When it comes to contact tracing there is “always some chance your data will be shared when it’s not supposed [to be],” Telang said.

‘People are used to flipping through 12 pages of terms and conditions and hitting ‘I agree’. But it’s one thing to agree to play Candy Crush, it’s another thing to agree to potentially be tracked’

While it is the case that users will have to agree to terms and conditions in order to use contact tracing apps, jargon and the extensive pages of those terms could easily deter people from consenting, Zick said.

“People are used to flipping through 12 pages of terms and conditions and hitting ‘I agree’. But it’s one thing to agree to play Candy Crush, it’s another thing to agree to potentially be tracked.”

With drug trials and medical research, institutional review boards, a group which is required to oversee the ethical design of any medical study involving humans, “take pains to make sure terms and conditions are in plain language,” Zick said.

If contact tracers modeled their terms and conditions off this, there’s a great possibility more people will agree to participate, he said. “Even just a summary with a few data points on ‘here’s how we use your data’ can develop similar kind of trust.” He also added that all the terms and conditions should “reasonably be related to an admirable goal.”

“We all want to get out of the house and stop the spread of coronavirus, but we have the right to know what this going to look like in six months,” he said, referring to data collected through contact tracing.

Contact tracing, Cohen said, “is not a silver bullet.”

“We still need lots of testing, manual contact tracing, and the other traditional tools of public health. But this may prove useful too — I think we don’t have enough data to know, and thus whether gains in efficacy might be worth reductions of privacy or not.”

‘There’s no excuse for not offering remote work.’ The coronavirus-induced work-from-home revolution feels like vindication for some workers with disabilities

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Robert Kingett, a 30-year-old freelance writer, author and accessibility consultant in Chicago, Ill., is blind. He also has cerebral palsy, which makes standing for long periods of time difficult. But Kingett has had trouble finding jobs where he can work remotely, he said, because positions like editor gigs or internships would be only partially remote — for example, still requiring applicants to attend on-site meetings.

“When I was applying for internships, I was told that I could never work remotely, even if it was for a publishing internship position in the editorial department,” Kingett told MarketWatch in an email. “I really didn’t understand why. I thought, do I really have to sit in an office to open up email attachments? I don’t get it. Why is this so restrictive? It just didn’t make sense to me.”

Hector Matos, an Austin, Texas-based senior iOS developer for Dropbox DBX, +0.19% whose attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) makes it hard for him to focus in the open-office environments favored by many tech companies, said that the cloud-storage company had been the first employer in his career to offer him a stable, permanent work-from-home opportunity. He received the offer in late February, before the pandemic forced U.S. businesses to go remote, and began working there at the end of March.

“Working from home is the best thing that has ever happened to me,” Matos, 30, told MarketWatch. “I have been trying for years in tech to get to a place where I could permanently work from home. … I have had the most uphill battle just to get to this place.”

Hector Matos, of Austin, Texas, is a senior iOS developer for Dropbox.

Courtesy of Hector Matos

Many businesses across the U.S. have cobbled together work-from-home programs to comply with COVID-19 social-distancing measures. And some workers with disabilities, having struggled to find remote work prior to the pandemic, are hoping this moment could be a turning point that makes telework options more widely available.

Even with a yawning unemployment rate and essential workers’ continued need to report to their jobs, remote work has become increasingly common: The share of workers reporting that their employers were offering remote-work or flex-time options rose from 39% in mid-March to 57% in a poll conducted March 30 to April 2, according to Gallup. The percentage of working Americans who say they’ve worked from home due to the coronavirus doubled from 31% to 62% over the same period.

To be sure, workers’ access to remote-work benefits in the time before COVID-19 was fairly limited. Just under 29% of U.S. workers could work from home in the period from 2017 to 2018, while nearly 25% actually did work from home, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. People in management and professional occupations were far more likely to have work-from-home privileges than those in the service sector, construction and production, according to the estimates, which included workers aged 15 and older but excluded self-employed workers.

Workers with a disability, meanwhile, are more likely than those without a disability to work in service jobs and transportation, production and material moving jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They are less likely to work in “management, professional and related occupations.”

‘This recent shift, especially in the publishing industry, proves that they can actually do most work-from-home, given no other option.’

— Robert Kingett, a freelance writer and accessibility consultant in Chicago

“They do tend to often be in positions where telecommuting is not possible,” said Rachael Langston, a senior staff attorney for Legal Aid at Work in San Francisco. Langston, who uses a mobility scooter and typically commutes into her office, began working from home due to her asthma prior to her city’s stay-at-home order.

But for those who do have access to remote work opportunities, the benefits appear to be substantial: Among adults aged 21 and older who can or do work remotely in “roles that have digital output,” 14% say they have a disability or chronic illness, according to a survey of 3,000 adults by the all-remote software-development startup GitLab. Of those workers, 83% said remote work had enabled them to work, according to the survey conducted Jan. 30 to Feb. 10.

The recent COVID-19-induced shift to businesses operating from home, Kingett said, “has proven that there’s no excuse for not offering remote work.”

“I think this is a great middle finger to the excuse of, ‘We just don’t have the technology to do remote work,’” he said. “This recent shift, especially in the publishing industry, proves that they can actually do most work-from-home, given no other option.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has identified telework as a form of reasonable accommodation, though employers don’t have to provide specific accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act if they will result in “undue hardship,” such as high cost. Through an interactive process, the employer and employee are supposed to identify “essential functions” fundamental to that job and determine whether some or all of those duties can be done remotely, according to the EEOC.

“Employers sometimes tend to be reticent to allow someone to work from home 100% of the time, so that can be problematic,” Langston said. An individual is also not necessarily entitled to the work-from-home accommodation they prefer if the employer provides a different type of accommodation that meets their needs, she added.

Tina W., an accounts-payable specialist in Mesa, Ariz., says she feels vindicated by the increase in companies offering work-from-home setups.

Courtesy of Tina W.

Tina W., a 41-year-old accounts-payable specialist in Mesa, Ariz., who has complex regional pain syndrome and fibromyalgia, requested one work-from-home day per week from her former employer to mitigate her on-and-off back pain. But her employer raised concerns about data security, she said, even though others in similar roles were able to work from home and access the same data through a VPN.

“I was very perplexed,” said Tina, who asked that her last name not be published. “I didn’t know why they were fighting me so hard on it.”

After she missed a day of work in November due to the pain, she said, her employer of five and a half months fired her. She has begun the process of filing an EEOC complaint against the company.

Tina said she feels vindicated by the increase in companies offering work-from-home setups now — as if what she had requested from her employer “wasn’t so horrible” after all. “It made me feel like it was something they could’ve done without it being a burden,” she said. “They just didn’t want to do it.”

‘I think some are just twiddling their thumbs and just waiting for things to be OK and go back to business as usual.’

— Vilissa Thompson, a disability-rights advocate and social worker

Employment attorney Paula Brantner, the president and principal of the firm PB Work Solutions, said that the difficulty in some circumstances “lies with the manager’s discomfort in managing in a situation where they can’t physically look over someone’s shoulder” or “constantly check in with them, interrupt them, go to their desk, bring them into face-to-face meetings.”

But workplaces have been forced to become far more flexible during this pandemic, Brantner said, and “we’re getting an opportunity to see just how much people can do without that physical proximity.” “I think it’s really going to break open some of the excuses and reasons why people have not been given that accommodation,” she said.

Of course, workplaces need to ensure that any technology they use to work remotely is accessible to people with communication disabilities, Langston said. And one potential downside to a mass shift toward remote work, Kingett said, is that “discrimination may take new shapes and forms.”

Robert Kingett, a 30-year-old freelance writer and accessibility consultant in Chicago, has had trouble finding remote jobs.

Courtesy of Robert Kingett

“Employers may say that in order to become accessible, they have to use an inferior software product that leaves them vulnerable to more viruses. People may not want to use Zoom ZM, -7.72% , even though it’s fully accessible to disabled users in every way, because they believe that Zoom isn’t secure,” he said by way of example. “I think more people will try to use privacy as a shield to avoid accessibility compliance, which utterly terrifies me.”

Not everyone is convinced that America’s current acceptance of remote work will translate to long-term change after the pandemic is over. Vilissa Thompson, a disability-rights advocate and social worker in Winnsboro, S.C., who has osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease), said she had turned down a position this month because the employer — a disability-centered organization, no less — had unrealistic expectations of how long remote work due to the pandemic might be necessary. The organization seemed to be under the assumption “that this whole stay-at-home thing is going to be a quick deal,” she said.

“I think some are just twiddling their thumbs and just waiting for things to be OK and go back to business as usual,” Thompson, 34, told MarketWatch. “Maybe for some employers in some industries, there may be more telework opportunities. But honestly, I think that many employers are just looking to just go through the motions of this pandemic and then go back to normal … normal being in the office.”

Vilissa Thompson, 34, is a disability-rights advocate and social worker in Winnsboro, S.C.

Courtesy of Vilissa Thompson

Some others are more optimistic. Brantner said that while some workers are certainly struggling with remote-work life and eager to return to an office, the months-long “test run” of remote work in many locations is paving a path forward.

“I think employees themselves will be more likely to be advocates for it,” she said. “We’ve had to find ways to make it work, so I think there are going to be a lot of people who go back and say, ‘Look, I want to do this all the time,’ or ‘I want to do this more often,’ or ‘I need as an accommodation to do it in this particular way.’”

‘For years, I’ve been trying to get this work-from-home opportunity — and the minute I do, suddenly the rest of the industry is now working from home.’

— Hector Matos, a senior iOS developer for Dropbox

Companies looking to establish a more permanent telework program should seek input from their workers, including in employee resource groups, said Jill Houghton, the president and CEO of Disability:IN, a nonprofit advancing corporate disability inclusion.

“You can’t create the path forward without engaging the people that are going to be impacted by it,” she said. “If it’s going to impact people with disabilities … it’s going to be really important to engage with people with disabilities to help you plot that path forward.”

Matos, acknowledging the death and suffering caused by COVID-19, said the pandemic had spawned at least one silver lining. “For years, I’ve been trying to get this work-from-home opportunity — and the minute I do, suddenly the rest of the industry is now working from home,” he said. “It’s going to make this so much easier to maintain after COVID lifts.”

And Kingett, for his part, said he hoped “that people will get over themselves and start working with people more.”

“I get it that certain companies have to comply with security standards, but there’s a lot of ways to make something work,” he said. “Will it cost a little bit more? Sure. Maybe. Will it possibly benefit your other workers’ productivity? That’s a very strong possibility.”

Autotrader: It’s smart to buy a used car, but make sure it comes with these 4 things

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Once you find the used car of your dreams, you may be tempted to sign the papers and hit the road — and who can blame you, especially if you’ve been on a lengthy hunt to find a car or truck that’s just right.

But first, slow down a little. There are a few things you should ask the seller — whether a private party or a dealer — about before you whip out your blue pen and provide your John Hancock. Here’s a look at four things you should make sure your next used car includes.

1. Extra keys

It’s been a long time since you could simply take a car key to a locksmith or even to a big box hardware store and expect to walk out with a duplicate for only a couple of bucks. Even the most basic new car keys contain chips that must be programmed by either a dealer or a specialist. More complicated proximity key systems — the kind that allow you to leave your key in your pocket — feature chunky key fobs that can cost hundreds to replace.

Also read: The pros and cons of buying a certified used car

It’s absolutely worth asking the seller if they have both of the keys the car came with. Most dealers will be eager to give you all the keys they have on hand, while private parties may have to dig through drawers to find extra keys.

2. Owner’s manuals

Pop open the glove box, look in the seat back pockets and root around the spare tire well. If the owner’s manual — and any related documentation — is nowhere to be found, ask if the car comes with those items. Newer cars are complex, and even the most tech-savvy of us will probably find a reason or two to flip through the owner’s manual.

Digital versions of owner’s manuals are offered by most automakers on their websites, but there’s no substitute for a manual you can pull out in a hurry. Replacing the print manual can cost as much as a couple hundred dollars for some cars. Additionally, an owner who keeps manuals intact is probably more fastidious than one who tossed them in the trash.

3. Service records

Most dealers cite privacy laws and shred service records. However, some will cut out a previous owner’s private information and hand you a stack. Private party sellers are far more likely to provide you with records, too.

Also see: 8 affordable new cars priced well below $20k

Service records provide the best glimpse into how well kept a car was by its previous owner. If there’s a big stack of records that address major problems or maintenance areas, they’re worth their weight in gold as they may reduce your costs down the road. A car with no service history is far more of a gamble, especially since you don’t know what preventive maintenance has been done.

4. Any accessories

Just like owner’s manuals and spare keys, accessories may get pulled out of a car and stored in a garage. If you don’t see items like the floor mats, roof rack bars, auxiliary cables or cargo compartment covers, it’s worth asking both dealers and owners if they have those parts. Some dealers may have pulled out the floor mats to clean them and then forgot to put them back in, while private parties may have tossed them on a shelf in the garage and forgotten about them.

These accessories are often items you’ll want anyway, and they may save you a ton of money.

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