Stripper ‘Consultant’ Strikes Back against Boss

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Thursday, March 31, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

When Ramona Cruz worked as a stripper at three different clubs in Massachusetts, her bosses dictated everything, from her skimpy attire, hair and makeup to the long hours she performed on stage and when she could participate in more lucrative private dances with customers.

Because she was eager for a job, Cruz agreed to work for no wages or benefits, just tips from her customers. Moreover, she had to share part of her tips with the club's other workers. Last fall, Cruz was stunned to learn from a friend that by law she should have been treated as an employee entitled to a minimum wage, overtime and other protections.

Instead, the club owners had gotten around federal and state labor laws for over a decade by classifying her and other exotic dancers as “independent contractors” who were entitled to none of those benefits. Last September, Cruz, 35, the mother of an eight-year-old girl, sued to recover the lost wages, tips and fees she was required to pay to work in the clubs, in three pending class-action suits challenging the classification of strippers as independent contractors.

"You don't feel like an independent contractor because you have to follow all their rules," Cruz, who now works as a home health aide in Boston, told The Fiscal Times. "We had to be there or we got late fees. Whatever they said went."

Unpaid jobs: The new normal?

While businesses are generally wary of the risks of using unpaid labor, companies that have used free workers say it can pay off when done right.

This article was originally published by on Friday, March 25, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

With nearly 14 million unemployed workers in America, many have gotten so desperate that they're willing to work for free. While some businesses are wary of the legal risks and supervision such an arrangement might require, companies that have used free workers say it can pay off when done right.

"People who work for free are far hungrier than anybody who has a salary, so they're going to outperform, they're going to try to please, they're going to be creative," says Kelly Fallis, chief executive of Remote Stylist, a Toronto and New York-based startup that provides Web-based interior design services. "From a cost savings perspective, to get something off the ground, it's huge. Especially if you're a small business."

In the last three years, Fallis has used about 50 unpaid interns for duties in marketing, editorial, advertising, sales, account management and public relations. She's convinced it's the wave of the future in human resources. "Ten years from now, this is going to be the norm," she says.

Economy Grows, But Jobs Don’t

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Thursday, March 24, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Of all the woes of the Great Recession, one anomaly is the most troubling: How can the economy be growing while unemployment remains so high? The breakdown in the historic relationship between GDP growth and jobs has confounded experts ranging from White House Chief Economist Austan Goolsbee to Cato Institute scholar Mark Calabria.

Under the principle known as Okun's law, named for Arthur M. Okun, an economist who worked for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, a 3 percent increase in U.S. gross domestic product should lead to a 1 percent drop in the unemployment rate. Yet as the U.S. economy rebounds from the latest downturn, the jobless rate remains stubbornly high — as much as 2 percentage points higher than economic theory predicted. Possible explanations include overly cautious employers, a lack of worker mobility and simple measurement error.

New Tax Laws Make Filing a Bureaucratic Nightmare

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Friday, March 18, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Taxes are never fun, but this year is proving especially painful. Not only did the Internal Revenue Service fail to finalize all its systems and forms until mid-February, some popular tax breaks expired in 2010.

It wasn’t until mid-December that Congress reached a compromise for legislation to extend tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush that were set to expire at the end of last year. As a result, the IRS wouldn’t accept tax returns filed electronically until mid-February, as it updated its tax guidance, instructions and software, and many tax preparers waited until that point to begin work on clients' returns.

The delay was unavoidable because of the late action by Congress, said IRS spokesman Eric Smith. "Some returns could not be actually sent electronically until mid-February."

This year's headaches reflect the increasingly complicated tax code and contentious debate over tax legislation, which leads to last-minute legislation with short-term compromises. In the near term, lawmakers struggling to agree on a budget -- and pare a projected $1.6 trillion deficit -- are in their fifth month of stop-gap measures to keep the government operating. In the long term, they hope to reduce the federal debt and deficit without sending tax rates through the roof or eliminating cherished federal programs.

"We've had so many changes in tax law in the last 18 months that people are genuinely confused about what the rules are," said Joseph McLeod, tax partner in the Raleigh, N.C. office of Cherry, Bekaert & Holland, a certified public accounting firm. "Tax-return preparation has gotten more lengthy, more complicated. It takes more of our time, so we have to bill more at the very point in time when people want to pay less."

Investors Beware: Return to Stocks May Be Too Late

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Monday, March 7, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Investors are worried about the federal deficit, still-high unemployment and rising oil prices, which are raising the specter of inflation. But they’re buying stocks, afraid of being left out as major indexes rise to their highest levels in nearly three years. They may be too late.

Individuals tend to sell out of the market near the bottom and buy back close to the top — realizing their losses and missing out on potential gains, experts say. After the flash crash in May 2010, massive amounts of money flowed out of stock mutual funds: $82.3 billion in the eight following months, according to Chicago-based research firm Morningstar. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index went on to double from its low in March 2009, the fastest such increase in the index's history.

The financial crisis and Great Recession shook Americans' confidence in the markets, and investors withdrew $216 billion from stock mutual funds from 2007 through 2010, according to Morningstar. "This was fundamentally different from past bear markets," said Morningstar analyst Kevin McDevitt. "There are a lot of people who felt they didn’t want to play this game anymore and felt the whole system was rigged against them." The S&P is still down about 5 percent from the start of 2007.

Sentiment started to change this January, when $15.8 billion flowed into U.S. equity funds, the biggest January since 2004, though small relative to the $3.5 trillion in overall assets held in the funds. A new Wells Fargo-Gallup poll found that retail investors remain wary of investing in stocks, but the market's climb is pulling many back in. The federal budget deficit — tied with unemployment — is the top worry of individual investors, a concern for 71 percent of those surveyed.

"It's shocking to me that the federal budget deficit would rank ahead of energy prices, ahead of access to credit, ahead of the questions that have dominated the media," said David M. Carroll, a senior executive vice president at Wells Fargo. "It's food for thought for our representatives in Washington."

State Debt Crisis: Preview of Federal Pain to Come

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Monday, Feb. 28, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

As Illinois lawmakers wrestle with a $13 billion budget deficit – the equivalent of half the overall budget for the year – they are finding that simply keeping up with the interest payments on the debt is an onerous task. This year’s price tag: a crippling penalty of more than a half-billion dollars on debt issued in 2010.

Nevada, California and Texas are struggling with deficits as large as 44 percent, 29 percent and 32 percent, respectively, and these and other states will feel the impact of rising borrowing costs. So far, the solutions from both Democratic and Republican governors, including proposals for sharp cuts in government workers' benefits and a scaling back of bargaining rights, have sparked protests in Wisconsin and Ohio.

Beyond the grim implications for cash-strapped states, this scenario offers a preview of the pain that might befall the federal government if investors in U.S. Treasuries start to demand a premium because of uncertainty over the federal fiscal situation. Already, the Obama administration's budget proposal for 2012 projects that interest payments on the national debt will quadruple over the next decade, from $207 billion in 2011to $844 billion in 2021. Interest on debt held by the public is estimated to climb from 7.7 percent of total federal outlays in 2011, to 15.8 percent in 2016. If interest rates rise, those debt costs will climb even higher.

"If we don’t get a handle on our fiscal situation, investors will grow more nervous and demand a higher interest rate to buy our debt," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's "That, combined with deficits, will start to gobble up our budget and resources and ultimately will swamp us, much like rising interest payments swamped a number of European countries."

Sometimes it's good to be a sellout

Sometimes it's not. How to know when to be true to your vision, and when to grow your company at any cost.

This article was originally published by on Friday, Feb. 25, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor

Company founders fall into two categories, according to Noam Wasserman, an associate professor at Harvard Business School. The "king" wants to build an empire and change the world, while a "rich" founder is motivated by financial gains and unleashing a company's growth potential.

Many entrepreneurs look at company founders like Apple's (AAPL) Steve Jobs -- who managed to grow his company into a behemoth while also maintaining control -- and assume it's possible to be both a king and rich. In reality, "99% of those founders are going to be facing, at some point, a choice between one and the other," Wasserman says. "Hopefully they're picking the fork in the road that is much more consistent with what their goals and aspirations are."

It's important to understand what type you identify with most to navigate the key decisions that will arise during any entrepreneurial venture, Wasserman says. King founders find it difficult to share control and can be very stubborn when facts on the ground challenge their vision. Rich founders are motivated by the practical rewards of entrepreneurship, whether it's money or freedom, and are more likely to share control as their venture grows and changes.

In fact, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is a better example than Jobs of a king, motivated by a dream of bringing computing power to the masses. When Apple was about to go public, he sold his own shares below-market to the key early employees he thought should be rewarded financially, Wasserman says.

"Every entrepreneur thinks they're unique and idiosyncratic," he says. "Those very diverse people are consistently facing the same issues and same potential missteps."

Homeowners Exhale as Fed Reverses Course on Mortgages

This article was originally published by the Fiscal Times on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Millions of homeowners facing foreclosure dodged a bullet when the Federal Reserve Board changed course on proposed changes to mortgage rules, instead deferring to the nascent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the first skirmish over regulatory authority under last year’s sweeping financial reform legislation.

A coalition of consumer groups took the unprecedented step of asking the Fed to withdraw two sets of rule proposals on consumer mortgages and turn them over to the new bureau created by the Dodd-Frank Act. In a brief statement this month, the Fed cited more than 5,000 comments received on the matter and said it plans to wait for the bureau, which will take over authority on consumer mortgage rules in July 2011.

If the Fed had finalized the rule proposals, it would have eliminated a longtime consumer right to void a mortgage under certain circumstances, one of the best tools homeowners have to halt foreclosure. Consumer advocates say the rule also would have opened the door to risky reverse mortgages, and would allow changes in advertising that would permit false statements.

Nearly 11 million Americans owe more on their homes than the properties are worth, and 3.4 million homes have been lost to foreclosure since the recession began, according to CoreLogic. The foreclosure crisis has spawned accusations that lenders used improper documentation and procedures to seize homes, prompting investigations by state attorneys general and members of Congress, as well as lawsuits estimated to end up costing banks as much as $52 billion.

The Fed’s proposed rules "would have been disastrous for homeowners … At the time of the worst foreclosure crisis in anyone's memory, they were pulling the rug out from the most vulnerable consumers this law intended to protect," said Nina Simon, director of litigation at the Center for Responsible Lending, which filed joint comments with the National Consumer Law Center, the National Fair Housing Alliance, Consumers Union, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition and other consumer groups.