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    Published on: February 14, 2022

    New York City Mayor Eric Adams recently compared cheese to heroin.  KC argues that this isn't fair to cheese eaters, to cheese mongers, and certainly not to people who are addicted to heroin and those who try to help them break that addiction.  In other words, it is time for a KC rant about a world that seems to embrace the stupid.

    Published on: February 14, 2022

    The New York Times over the weekend posted a story on its website about a report from the nonprofit Economic Roundtable saying that "about 75 percent of Kroger workers said they were food insecure, meaning they lacked consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. About 14 percent said they were homeless or had been homeless in the previous year, and 63 percent said they did not earn enough money to pay for basic expenses every month … Kroger was the sole employer for 86 percent of those surveyed, partly because more than half had schedules that changed at least every week, making it difficult to commit to another employer. About two-thirds said they were part-time workers, even though they wanted more hours. Keeping workers part time is a strategy employers use to encourage turnover and reduce costs."

    Indeed, the Times writes that "some of the workers said that even though other retailers and fast food restaurants had started offering higher starting wages than Kroger, the company’s health insurance and retirement benefits, which the union negotiated, were more generous than what other employers offered. Other part-time Kroger workers say they stay on the job because they don’t want to lose their seniority and the chance for a full-time role."

    What's curious about the New York Times story is that it is based on an Economic Roundtable study that got almost the same level of attention from the Los Angeles Times - more than a month ago.

    Indeed, Kristal Howard, Director of Corporate Communications and Media Relations at Kroger, repeats essentially the same defense that the company made to the LA Times, that "Kroger has provided an incredible number of people with their first job, second chances and lifelong careers, and we’re proud to play this role in our communities."  Howard also tells the New York Times that "the company had raised its national average hourly rate of pay to $16.68 from $13.66 in 2017, a 22 percent increase, and that its benefits package included health care, retirement savings, tuition assistance and on-demand access to mental health assistance."

    The New York Times frames the larger story this way:

    "Business has boomed during the pandemic for Kroger, the biggest supermarket chain in the United States and the fourth-largest employer in the Fortune 500. It owns more than 2,700 locations, and its brands include Harris Teeter, Fred Meyer, Ralphs, Smith’s, Pick ’n Save and even Murray’s Cheese in New York City. The company, which is based in Cincinnati, said in December that it was expecting sales growth of at least 13.7 percent over two years. The company’s stock has risen about 36 percent over the past year.

    "But that success has not trickled down to its vast work force of nearly 500,000 employees, a number of whom have reported being homeless, receiving government food stamps or relying on food banks to feed their families. A brief strike in Colorado last month by workers, represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, at dozens of Kroger-owned King Soopers locations brought renewed scrutiny to the issues of pay and working conditions for grocery workers, who have been on the front lines throughout the pandemic."

    The story goes on:

    "Kroger has one of the country’s starkest gaps between a chief executive’s compensation and that of the median employee. Rodney McMullen, Kroger’s chief executive since 2014, earned $22.4 million in 2020, while the median employee earned $24,617 — a ratio of 909 to 1. The average C.E.O.-to-worker pay ratio in the S&P 500 is 299 to 1, with grocery chains like Costco (193 to 1) and Publix (153 to 1) lower than that.

    "These disparities have fomented outrage among employees, who are also dealing with issues like fights over masks and theft and violence in stores."

    Daniel Flaming, president of the Economic Roundtable, explains the problem this way:  "There is a race to the bottom that’s been going on for a while with Walmart and other large retail stores, and also restaurants, and to reverse that trend is not easy."

    KC's View:

    I got a little bit of deja vu reading the New York Times story, and had to go back into my archives to confirm my memory that we'd taken note of a similar Los Angeles Times story on January 11.

    My reaction to this story is pretty much the same as it was to the earlier piece - that it is possible for two things to be true at the same time.  I have no problem with Kroger's assertion about the jobs it provides in the communities it serves, and the degree to which it has raised wages over time, especially during the past two years.  This is in addition to all the other increased costs that Kroger (and its brethren) have incurred as they endeavor to compete in a cutthroat environment.

    And, I have no problem believing that in many of those markets, even the increased wages may not be enough for people to survive, and it is almost certainly is worse in some markets than in others.

    There is a line from the New York Times that struck me:  "Working at a grocery store no longer provides the stable income and middle-class lifestyle that it did 30 years ago."  The line grabbed me because when we've had stories about supermarket wages in the past, inevitably we'll get email from MNB readers suggesting that the problem is that too many people have an unreasonable expectation that they should be able to support themselves working 40+ hours a week in a retail environment.

    That argument always has kind of bothered me, because it seems to inherently diminish the level of work in which these folks are engaged - they work hard, they represent (directly or indirectly) the brand to consumers, and they perform the kind of front line efforts that allow the company to thrive.  And yet somehow, to some people, this isn't honorable, full-time labor;  the job is seen as a kind of way-station in most places to be assigned to people who either don't need to support families by doing it or ought to be aspiring to do better, or at least something else.

    I'm not sure that's the message we ought to be sending to the people on the front lines.  I'm not sure it is the culture of caring that employees have every right to expect from their employers, and to which employers - at least those that want to be employers of choice - ought to aspire.

    "Race to the bottom" isn't entirely fair.  The fact is that wages are a lot higher now than they were just a few years ago.  But I think it is fair to point out that in most retail environments, the folks in charge - from CEOs to store and department heads - are rewarded based on low they can get their labor factors.  Efficiency - how much they can get from how little - is prized.  Effectiveness, while valued, may not the primary thing on which their compensation is based.  People are called "associates," but that is more artifice than reality.

    We're in a volatile time when it comes to labor.  There are unionization pushes in companies that so far have avoided having their workforces organized, and unions are playing hardball at companies where they do have a presence.  At the same time, companies are dealing with "the great resignation" trend, which, though it won't last forever, certainly has raised workplace and career satisfaction to a higher level of consciousness.

    And so companies may have to think about who and what they want to be.   What the message is they want to send to customers and employees alike.  And how/if they are going to refashion the employee dynamics that define their companies, and if they really want to create a culture of caring.

    Published on: February 14, 2022

    Business Insider has a story this morning about Amazon's new CEO, Andy Jassy, that it suggests offers insight into his management style.

    Looking at email chains and internal communications between Jassy and other executives, Business Insider writes that they "provide new insights into one of the most important management handoffs in the history of modern American business. Jeff Bezos, Amazon's visionary and mercurial founder, built the company from scratch into a dominant e-commerce and cloud-computing platform with over 1.6 million employees. In July, he handed the empire to Jassy. Such leadership transitions are risky, especially for founder-led technology companies.

    "The documents reveal the new CEO applying his penchant for micromanaging to a bevy of customer complaints, instructing his team to review and resolve problems swiftly — much more often than Bezos did. For Jassy, who spent the prior 15 years leading AWS, these customer emails also give a uniquely exhaustive view into Amazon's retail business, helping him adjust to a larger role managing other parts of the company he's less familiar with.

    The emails reveal a highly customer-focused perspective, which is not surprising for anyone with Amazon's DNA, and they also suggest that Jassy is using the process to learn more about the retail business.

    Business Insider goes on:

    "It's not unusual for Amazon executives to dig into customer complaints to get a pulse on how the customer experience is going. Bezos famously forwarded simple question-mark emails to his team when he saw unusual charges. Others, like the company's worldwide-consumer CEO, Dave Clark, also actively investigate customer emails. But Jassy's frequency and depth of such inquiries far outpace other executives', according to a person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations."

    The story points out that "Michael Johnson, a management professor at the University of Washington, said there's a difficult balance to strike between pushing for results and micromanaging. If Jassy is giving enough freedom for employees to make their own decisions, Amazon will continue to thrive. But if he starts to interfere in operational decisions too, it could quickly go the other way."

    You can read the story here.

    Published on: February 14, 2022

    Fast Company reports on the easy passage, in both the US Senate and the House of Representatives, of a "bill that amounts to one of America’s biggest workplace reforms in decades" - the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act, which "bans the use of a controversial closed-door legal process known as forced or mandatory arbitration to resolve sexual-misconduct cases in the workplace. Victims nationwide now have the right to pursue their dispute in a regular court."

    The bill is expected to be signed by President Biden.

    Some context from the Fast Company piece:

    "The bill was introduced back in 2017, when #MeToo’s rise put the ubiquity of these employment contract clauses under a spotlight, by a U.S. Senate odd couple: Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

    "Forced arbitration has its share of critics. In recent decades, it’s slowly found its way into the fine print of more and more employment contracts. While it goes unnoticed by many employees when they take a new job, in the context of sexual misconduct, it has a history of shielding workplace abusers from the full legal consequences of their actions. Claims are considered privately, nondisclosure is typically required, and the process generally provides no ability for an appeal. Critics say the effect is that perpetrators get off easy, companies feel no external pressure to address problems in the workplace, and victims can be unfairly denied their day in court."

    KC's View:

    It is heartening to see that government can work - this change is long overdue and hopefully will lead to workplaces in which people think twice about predatory behavior, in which companies are aggressively intolerant of bad players, and in which victims can feel confident they their rights have a better shot of being protected.

    Not only did this bill have bipartisan support, but it was overwhelming - Fast Company writes that "the Senate passed it on Thursday via voice vote, meaning 'the world’s greatest deliberative body' leapfrogged the long process of making each member cast an individual vote. Meanwhile, the bill sailed through the House 335-to-97 on Monday."

    It wasn't exactly fast-tracked;  after all, it was first introduced five years ago.  But let's take the win.

    Published on: February 14, 2022

    "Favorite Super Bowl Commercials" is all about personal taste … what appeals to you may not appeal to me.

    For example, the Budweiser Clydesdales commercial was lauded by many, but it left me cold.  Same for the Rocket Mortgage/Barbie commercial.  But, I really liked the Larry David FTX cryptocurrency commercial, but not everybody did.

    Last week I posted the Amazon Alexa commercial here, which I loved.  Here are four more … the first of which was delightful largely because it was so unexpected (Meadow! A.J.!):

    Published on: February 14, 2022

    Random and illustrative stories about the global pandemic and how businesses and various business sectors are trying to recover from it, with brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  In the United States, there now have been 79,325,576 total cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, resulting in 943,411 deaths and 49,836,893 reported recoveries.

    Globally, there have been 412,731,737 total cases, with 5,836,608 resultant fatalities and 333,339,799 reported recoveries.  (Source.)


    •  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 75.9 percent of the total US population has received at least one dose of vaccine … 64.4 percent is fully vaccinated … and 42.8 percent has received a vaccine booster dose.


    •  The New York Times reports that "with Covid treatments still in short supply in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration on Friday gave emergency authorization to a new monoclonal antibody drug that has been found in the laboratory to be potent against the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

    "The Biden administration said it would make the therapy immediately available to states free of charge.

    "The authorization of the treatment, bebtelovimab, means that the United States now has four drugs available for high-risk Covid patients early in the course of their illness that have been found to neutralize the Omicron variant. While there is a greater menu of Covid pills and treatments now than at any other point in the pandemic, the drugs have been so scarce that doctors have been forced to make painful rationing decisions during the Omicron surge."


    •  Also from the New York Times:

    "Nearly two years into the pandemic, pharmacists and technicians across the nation are under intense strain as their jobs shift from filling prescriptions and counseling patients to administering Covid-19 vaccines and tests, handing out masks and dealing with increasingly angry customers.

    "The situation has been exacerbated by a labor shortage that has squeezed most industries and that has resulted in droves of nurses and caretakers leaving their posts in a pandemic that has pushed them to the brink.

    "Large retail pharmacy chains have tried to respond, with some reducing store hours, increasing starting wages, offering more breaks and giving out bonuses to retain employees. But customers have felt the impact, with some experiencing disruptions in vaccine appointments, longer lines to pick up prescriptions and frustration over securing masks and at-home virus tests.

    "The situation is worrying the pharmacy industry. Scott Knoer, the executive vice president and chief executive of the American Pharmacists Association, said inadequate staffing posed serious health risks by increasing the chances that workers make mistakes while filling prescriptions or inoculating patients. A survey released last month from the association found that 74 percent of respondents said they did not think they had sufficient time to safely perform patient care and clinical duties."


    •  From CNN:

    "Walmart updated its Covid-19 policy for US associates Friday, dropping its mask mandate and Covid-19 sick leave policy, the company announced in a memo viewed by CNN Business.

    "The nation's largest private retailer announced the changes as several US states, from New York to California, issued their own plans to lift indoor mask mandates as Omicron cases decline … Fully vaccinated Walmart associates will no longer be required to wear masks unless required by the state or local governments. Unvaccinated employees and those who work in clinical care settings, such as pharmacies, will be required to keep wearing them.

    "Walmart also is dropping a sick pay policy it had put in place for Covid-19, which gave associates extra paid time off beyond sick leave. The emergency leave policy will end in March, unless required by the state or local government.

    "The company also is phasing out daily health screenings, except for workers in California, New York and Virginia, where they are a state requirement."

    Published on: February 14, 2022

    •  From Marketing Post:

    "A new report highlights the ways that AR plays a role in most consumers’ lives -- and ultimately, why it is the 'gateway to the metaverse.'

    "Camera IQ  – a no-code design platform that brands use to transform products and messaging into augmented reality (AR) experiences - collected data from 1,500 U.S. consumers. Of those, 76% reported they had already used AR in some form, and over half said they expect to do so in the future.

    "Camera IQ found that AR experiences are more likely to go viral, with 78% of respondents saying they were likely to share a brand’s AR experience with their digital community, while 53% said they have already done so on social media. Over 40% said they were more likely to share an AR experience on social media than other types of brand posts.

    "With 59% of consumers saying they would be more likely to buy a product they have seen visualized through AR, this type of immersive technology seems to accelerate a buyer’s journey. Eighty-two percent of consumers surveyed said they were more likely to accept a brand that used AR to educate them about their products or services, and 39% preferred when brands used AR over any other type of content."

    Published on: February 14, 2022

    •  The Charlotte Observer reports that "Lowes Foods has set its opening date this month for its “first-of-its-kind” store with entertainment in the Charlotte region … The 25,000-square-foot store is smaller than a typical Lowes Foods store. But along with being a traditional supermarket, it also will feature entertainment and a 'frictionless' shopping experience with the new Scan*Pay*Go app, according to the company."

    The story goes on:

    "Calling it the 'Swiss Army Knife of grocery stores,' Lowes said the store will offer events for children, prepped fruits and vegetables to go, an expanded pickup menu and a place to hold club and class meetings. 'We’ll set up the cheese board, pour the wine, and have a floral centerpiece. And you won’t have to clean up,' Lowe said in the statement.

    "The grocer is trying to stand out by pitching itself as a 'community hub'."

    The store is located in a former Earth Fare location in Huntersville, North Carolina.

    Published on: February 14, 2022

    Ivan Reitman, director of a series of Bill Murray comedies that helped to define a generation - Meatballs, Stripes, and Ghostbusters - has passed away.  He was 75.

    Reitman also was the producer of a sophisticated drawing room comedy called National Lampoon's Animal House, as well as of movies that ranged from Up In The Air to Space Jam to the recent Ghostbusters: Afterlife, which was directed by his son, Jason Reitman.  And his other directing credits included hits like Dave, Twins, Junior, and Draft Day.

    Published on: February 14, 2022

    In Super Bowl LVI - yet another down-to-the-wire game in a playoff season that has been full of them - the Los Angeles Rams drove downfield to score a touchdown with less than two minutes left on the clock, defeating the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20.

    KC's View:

    Normally, this would be where I would point out when pitchers and catchers would report, and baseball's spring training (and life) would begin again.  But alas, the owners' lockout of the players continues, negotiations have so far seemed relatively futile, and there are concerns that, if an agreement is not reached soon, Opening Day could be delayed and the season shortened.