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How COVID-19 is forcing Austin tech companies to adjust to remote work, personal travel

(BUSINESS NEWS) There is no consensus on how to treat employee travel and remote work, so here is the spectrum of how Austin tech companies are reacting to the COVID-19 threat.

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Because there is a lot of confusion and misinformation, today, we’re going to talk about how companies are adjusting to the endless unknowns of the spreading coronavirus (or COVID-19) threats.

The jobs report released this morning obliterated expectations, adding 273,000 jobs in February, and unemployment dipping to 3.5%, but this remains a lagging indicator, so the extent of the impact of the virus remain unknown.

Also unknown is how each company should adjust, and having not gone through this in the modern era, we’re all flying blind. Retail employees can’t work remotely, healthcare staff must also interface in person, but tech companies are reacting by sending their workforces home.

For example, Austin’s Amazon team has cut all business travel and cancelled any on-site job interviews.

Also up in the air is the conference circuit, as attendees are staying home, and sponsors are pulling out of conferences due to restricting employee travel.

Our favorite site for tracking conference cancellations is IsItCanceledYet.com which offers a simple yes/no tracking on major conferences.

So far, major conferences cancelled include Google I/O, Game Developers Conference, TwitchCon (Amsterdam), Adobe Summit, Facebook f8, Mobile World Congress, Internet Freedom Festival, IBM Think, and Kubecon.

Not yet cancelled are SXSW (despite widespread criticism and petitions to shut it down), Microsoft Build, TwitchCon (San Diego), Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), PAX West, Coachella, Seattle Comic Con, San Diego Comic Con, and Dell World.

UPDATE: SXSW has been cancelled, as have Seattle Comic Con and Dell World.

Most major tech companies in America have cancelled all business travel, essential or otherwise.

Microsoft, Google, Twitter, and Facebook in Seattle and San Francisco have all sent their teams home for work, and many of their Austin teams are following suit.

Austin tech companies are scrambling to determine whether or not teams should be sent home, given that the city has no confirmed cases yet. That said, there are confirmed cases in San Antonio and Houston, putting pressure on companies to consider their policies.

The spectrum of work from home policies at Austin tech companies:

  • Several companies are sending everyone home 2-3 days next week to test out their readiness, but recalling everyone afterwards and waiting for various triggers (like a confirmed case in Austin).
  • A few companies are being non-communicative, but are testing out all company equipment (like laptops) and using various excuses like an “annual update,” or “in case of weather emergencies.”
  • Some companies are allowing any employee to work from home that wishes to, but most employees are still reporting in for work.
  • Many companies are simply allowing anyone that feels ill with any COVID-19 symptoms to work remotely, but there is no discussion of sending all team members home.
  • Some companies are allowing employees to work from home if they’re pregnant, living with someone pregnant, are immunocompromised, or living with someone immunocompromised.
  • Other companies have requested that employees work from home (for example, Dun & Bradstreet has asked all team members with a laptop work remotely and use a VPN when doing so).
  • Some Austin tech companies have straight up said they’re not making any adjustments, everyone must report in, and employees are simply instructed to wash their hands more frequently.

As you can see, there’s a pretty broad spectrum of responses for remote work.

The only theme we are seeing is that unlike other sectors, most Austin tech companies are at least trying to be communicative with their teams, and are willing to test their readiness in case confirmed cases hit the city.

What is now emerging is how Austin tech companies are responding to employees’ personal travel choices:

  • Most companies have not communicated with employees about their personal travels. At all.
  • The majority of companies that are being proactive are asking employees to observe a 14-day self-isolation period upon return, if visiting any nations that the CDC has labeled with a Level 2 or Level 3 Travel Health Notice. Some are mandating it (like the University of Texas), others are requesting it.
  • A few tech companies have required employees to take work equipment with them during personal travels in case they’re quarantined or isolated and need to work remotely.
  • Several companies are requiring that leadership or HR be notified of any personal travel in advance. Some are simply asking for a heads up so they can consider a response, others are noting that they have to approve that travel beforehand.
  • Several companies, like DISCO, are requiring employees to fill out forms indicating where their personal travels will take them, and will react on a case by case basis.
  • Some have urged employees not to travel at ALL. So far, there are no commands, but several polite requests.

We don’t know what the consensus will ultimately become regarding remote work and personal travel during this COVID-19 threat, or if a unanimous behavior will emerge.

Also still scattered is what the triggers are for ending remote work and personal travel mandates.

The target end date for restrictions is currently unknown by all, and while many companies are saying non-essential travel is restricted through March, other mandates remain indefinite.

Lani is the Chief Operating Officer at The American Genius - she has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH and Austin Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

Business News

Coca Cola drops 200 brands, most you’ve never heard of

(BUSINESS NEWS) Coca Cola hopes to revitalize their drink arsenal by rolling back some “underperforming” brands (that you might not have known they were still making.)

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Woman drinking Coca Cola against plain wall

2020 has forced a lot of businesses to return to their proverbial drawing boards, and the Coca Cola Company is no exception. Last week, Coca Cola announced in a corporate blog post that they are halting the production of 200 of their beverage brands.

In the words of Cath Coetzer, the head of global marketing for Coca Cola, the restructuring will “accelerate [Coke’s] transformation into a total beverage company”.

“We’re prioritizing bets that have scale potential across beverage categories, consumer need states and drinking occasions,” Coetzer added. “Because scale is the algorithm that truly drives growth.”

That’s… a surprising amount of technical beverage jargon, Cath.

Coca Cola is already the leading manufacturer of non-alcoholic drinks on the planet. It’s hard to imagine their scope becoming any more “total.” But this strategy shift comes as the consumer thirst for soda is drying up.

Soda consumption has steadily fallen over the last ten consecutive years, thanks to a swath of modern studies that link excess sugar intake with negative health outcomes like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

In light of this research, regional sales taxes on drinks with added sugar have been debated across the country, despite aggressive corporate lobbying against it. All this has meant that beverage companies have had no choice but to pivot hard.

Take Odwalla, a Coca Cola brand that touted its vitamin content and servings of produce, which was discontinued earlier this year. Despite being marketed as a health brand, Odwalla flavors contained whopping amounts of added sugar: Their popular “superfood” flavor quietly boasted 47 grams per bottle.

The brands affected by Coke’s recent soda cull also include TAB diet soda, ZICO coconut water, and Coca Cola Life, plus internationally marketed drink brands like Vegibeta of Japan and Kuat of Brazil.

Condensing their portfolio allows Coca Cola to prioritize their most profitable products and invest in more new beverage trendsetters that better fit the times, like sparkling water, coffee, or even cannabis-infused products.

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Business News

Uber and Lyft face the music as employee ruling is upheld

(BUSINESS NEWS) The battle for Uber and Lyft drivers’ status continues, and despite company protests, the official ruling has been upheld.

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Interior of Uber and Lyft rideshare looking out on palm trees

A gig economy has its pros and cons. For anyone who has ever been an independent contractor, done freelance work, or worked for companies like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash, the pros are clear – you get to work when you want, where you want and how much you want. Flexibility and gigs go hand in hand.

And the cons? Well, those are a little more complex. Without a W2 linking you directly to the company, you as an independent contractor don’t receive the same rights and perks that your 9-5 employee friends might. For example, your employer is not required to provide a healthcare option for you. You are also not entitled to earned time off or minimum wage.

So which is better?

The gig economy conundrum has made its way all the way to an appellate court in California last week. The ruling was that Uber and Lyft must classify their drivers as employees.

Back in May, Attorney General Xavier Becerra and city attorneys from L.A., San Diego and San Francisco brought forth a lawsuit that argues Uber and Lyft gain an unfair, unlawful competitive advantage by not classifying their workers as W2s.

Uber and Lyft responded to the suit, stating that if they were to reclassify their drivers as employees, their companies would be irreparably harmed – though the judge in last week’s ruling negated that claim, stating that neither company would suffer any “grave or irreparable harm by being prohibited from violating the law” and also that the financial burden of converting workers to employees “do[es] not rise to the level of irreparable harm.” Essentially, the judge called their BS.

Additionally, according to the judge, there is nothing that would prevent Uber and Lyft from offering flexibility and independence to their drivers – and they have had plenty of time to transition their drivers from independent contractors to employees (the gig worker bill that spurred this lawsuit was decided in 2018). Seems fair to me!

However, there is an oppositional proposition on the ballot that muddies the waters. Proposition 22, if passed, is a measure that would keep rideshare drivers and delivery workers classified as independent contractors, meaning that those workers from Uber and Lyft would be exempt from the new state law that classifies them as W-2 employees. And you might be surprised to know how many of the app-based rideshare workers are in favor of Prop 22!

In a class-action lawsuit, Uber has been accused of encouraging drivers and delivery workers to support Prop 22 via the company’s driver-scheduling app. It appears, unfortunately, that Uber is manipulating its workforce by wrongly hanging their jobs over their heads.

On this matter, Gig Workers Rising stated: “If Uber and Lyft are successful in passing Prop. 22 and undo the will of the people, they will inspire countless other corporations to adapt their business models and misclassify workers in order to further enrich the wealthy few at the expense of their workforce.”

Ultimately, the fate of California Uber and Lyft driver’s in still in question. It’s unclear if the question we should be asking is, will Lyft drivers have proper healthcare through their jobs or will they have jobs at all. All of this is occurring at a time where millions are jobless and 158,000 individuals sought unemployment support this week due to COVID-19 layoffs.

Personally, I have little sympathy for tech-giants that rake in billions off the backs of the exploited working-class. If the CEO of Uber is an ostentatious billionaire, then his employees should have health insurance. Clear and simple.

The scariest part of the gig economy is that workers have become increasingly happy to work for a company that gives them little to no benefits. More companies are dissolving or combining positions so that they can further bypass their responsibilities to their employees. Let us not be fooled: The dispute over whether or not to make Uber and Lyft workers W2 employees does not affect the health of the companies themselves. What it will affect is how fat the bonuses will be the big guys at the top, and that’s exactly why the companies are so adverse to the ruling. They’d rather their workers suffer than lose a single dime.

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Business News

Bay Area co-living startup strands hundreds of renters at dire time

(BUSINESS NEWS) They’re blaming COVID for failing as a co-living space, but it looks like trouble was well established even before now.

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Person packed a bag and walking away from co-living space.

Over the last few years, “co-living” startups have become increasingly common in tech-rich cities like San Francisco. These companies lease large houses, then rent individual bedrooms for as much as $2,000 per month in hopes of attracting the young professionals who make up the tech industry. Many offer food, cleaning services, group activities, and hotel-quality accommodations to do so.

But the true value in co-living companies lies in their role as a third party: Smoothing over relations, providing hassle free income to homeowners and improved accountability to tenants… in theory, anyway. The reality has proved the opposite can just as easily be true.

In a September company email, Bay Area co-living startup HubHaus released a statement that claimed they were “unable to pay October rent” on their leased properties. Hubhaus also claimed to have “no funds available to pay any amounts that may be owed landlords, tenants, trade creditors, or contractors.”

This left hundreds of SF Bay Area renters scrambling to arrange shelter with little notice, with the start of a second major COVID-19 outbreak on the horizon.

HubHaus exhibited plenty of red flags leading up to this revelation. Employees complained of insufficient or late payment. The company stopped paying utilities during the spring, and they quietly discontinued cleaning services while tenants continued to pay for them.

Businesses like HubHaus charge prices that could rent a private home in most of the rest of the country, in exchange for a room in a house of 10 or more people. PodShare is a similar example: Another Bay Area-based co-living startup, whose offerings include “$1,200 bunk beds” in a shared, hostel-like environment.

As a former Bay Area resident, it’s hard not to be angry about these stories. But they have been the unfortunate reality since long before the pandemic. Many urbanites across the country cannot afford to opt out of a shared living situation, and these business models only exacerbate the race to the bottom of city living standards.

HubHaus capitalized on this situation and took advantage of their tenants, who were simply looking for an affordable place to live in a market where that’s increasingly hard to find.

They’ve tried to place the blame for their failure on COVID-19 — but all signs seem to indicate that they had it coming.

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