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Obamacare for small businesses: online enrollment delayed a year

ObamaCare experienced another setback this week, delaying the sign up for small businesses, and reactions from supporters and critics couldn’t be more different.

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Obamacare to be delayed for small businesses

Late on Thanksgiving Eve, the Obama administration announced a one year delay of online enrollment for small businesses seeking to use the federal Obamacare exchanges to insure employees. The timing has been equated by some to a Friday night news dump (traditionally done by politicians in hopes that the weekend will sweep the issue under the rug), while others praise the administration for not waiting until after the holidays.

While most of the focus remains on the individual market, officials are prompting small business owners to sign up directly through an insurer, agent, or broker, which a spokesperson said “allows small employers to sign up for coverage through offline enrollment while [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] works on creating a smoothly functioning online experience in the SHOP Marketplace.”

The timing is what is making headlines tonight, especially given that just before the Fourth of July this year, the administration announced a delay in the requirement for big businesses to offer insurance to their staff.

Some call this timing part of a broader strategy, others say it is coincidence, but our focus is more on what those in favor of Obamacare and those opposed are saying about this delay:

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Marketplace is still the best price and quality

Small Business Majority CEO John Arensmeyer said in a statement, “It’s disappointing that the online portion of the federal small business marketplace through Healthcare.gov will be delayed and it’s important it get up and running as soon as possible. However, it doesn’t change the fact that the marketplace can offer the most competitive combination of price and quality for small businesses purchasing health insurance.”

Opponents’ celebration is not credible

“Today’s news is discouraging and fits into the larger mosaic of rollout difficulties,” MSNBC’s Steve Benen said, adding “but some of the anti-healthcare players dancing in the end zone this afternoon are lacking in credibility.”

Benen asserts that today’s news ia setback, but opposition celebration is premature. “First, the program for small businesses isn’t being delayed until 2014; the website is,” he said, noting that business owners can still get the plans and the tax breaks, but through brokers. For now.

Additionally, Benen notes that “this delay doesn’t affect states that already created their own exchanges, so for small businesses in a lot of ‘blue’ states, the announcement is irrelevant.”

He concludes, “for all the Republicans hoping for bad news, and crowing about the administration’s setbacks, the fact remains that under their approach, there would be no program to help small businesses, no coverage options, no tax breaks, and no website.”

Setting priorities

“What’s important in our work is to continue to prioritize the best consumer experience for those who are coming to us online,” Medicare spokeswoman Julie Bataille said, adding that “These decisions all reflect [that] reality.”

Improving the overall problems

Sy Mukherjee at ThinkProgress.org writes, “the delay is mostly a consequence of ongoing — but improving — problems with the Healthcare.gov website that made it difficult to devote appropriate resources to fix similar issues with the SHOP marketplace.”

Avoiding a nightmare

Daily Kos’ Joan McCarter said, “So yet another delay is frustrating, but at least we’ll be spared all the stories about what a nightmare the website is for small business owners signing up. And you know we would have been inundated with those horror stories.”

Survey says:

CNN reports, “Despite the website woes, a new CNN/ORC International poll released Wednesday showed a majority of Americans believe the current Obamacare problems can be solved, and the figures for overall support and opposition remain little changed from a month ago.”

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Obama bit off more than he can chew

“The president bit off more than he can chew with this health care law, and small businesses are now forced to bear the consequences,” said Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) in a statement Wednesday evening.

“Business owners across the country are already having health care plans for their employees canceled by this law, and now they’re told they won’t have access to the system the president promised them to find different coverage. Instead, they’ll have to resort to a system you’d expect to see in the 1950s.”

It was obvious it wasn’t ready

House Small Business Committee Chairman Sam Graves (R-MO) asserted the he has suspected the small business enrollment site (separate from the individual market) was nowhere near ready to launch.

In a statement, he said, “Based on the June GAO report on SHOPs readiness that I requested, we knew the administration was not prepared for the implementation, but this pattern of continued delay and disarray is especially disappointing. This mismanagement and inadequacy is causing the American people and small business owners to lose trust in their government’s ability to do just about anything.”

Making employers’ jobs tougher

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) affairs manager Kevin Kuhlman said in a statement, “This new delay announcement is a disappointment but not a surprise. Small businesses continue to be low on the priority list during the Obamacare implementation process.”

Kuhlman added, “It probably matters little to people in Washington that the failure to get the small business exchanges online adds yet another onerous paperwork requirement for job creators.”

“The continued delays add to uncertainty and contribute to the decision of many owners to take early renewals of their small-group plans,” Kuhlman concludes.

E. Neil Trautwein, NFIB’s VP said, “If the law is so burdensome for the administration to implement, just think how hard it is for small businesses.”

ObamaCare failure is more than a failed website

Republican National Committee chair Reince Preibus said, “While Americans prepare for the holidays and one day after President Obama gave another speech trying to blame the ObamaCare trainwreck on Republicans, his administration is delaying yet another portion of his signature healthcare law.”

Preibus also stated, “With each passing day, it’s clear how much worse ObamaCare is than a website full of glitches.”

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So the Labor Department is cool with unpaid internships again

(BUSINESS NEWS) Regulations on unpaid internships continue to wax and wane, and businesses that opt to use unpaid labor should be aware of new regulations.

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Unpaid internships are a deacreasingly common institution in the United States, with help from former regulatory attempts to make them more difficult to create.

That regulatory oversight might become more relaxed after the Department of Labor (DOL) issued new rules under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that governs the role of unpaid internships in the modern American workforce.

Last week, the United States’ labor governing body decided to revise its guidelines on unpaid internships using the concept of a “primary beneficiary test.”

The core principle behind the seven statements that comprise the primary beneficiary test revolves around the idea that the reason you are hiring unpaid interns is for work that provides the intern with the primary benefit (educational opportunities, hands on learning, and networking), not because the company isn’t paying someone else to perform the same activities.

So with these guidelines, there’d be no more call for jokes about interns fetching coffee or making copies. Sounds like a win for the intern, right?

Not exactly.

The guidelines stress, however, that there is no magic quota of yes or no answers that yields the unpaid intern in question has job duties that would require payment. That even includes answering “no” to the statement that reads: “the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation.”

Of course, if a company were in violation of these guidelines, especially the one regarding compensation, it would be easier for adjudication to be brought against the company into a court of law. These rules start as the groundwork for any legal action interns can bring against an organization.

The first set of six guidelines were developed in 2010. By 2011, a lawsuit brought by unpaid interns against Fox Searchlight while working Darren Aronofsky feature, Black Swan, claiming the interns were performing job duties in need of compensation (read: they weren’t already paying employees to do the same roles, rather using interns as free labor).

The ruling in 2013 was in favor of the interns, but a different federal court reversed that decision in 2015. It is interesting to note that the revised guidelines published by the DOL only a week ago were derived from the Court’s 2015 decision on this case.

The larger trend of lawsuits brought by unpaid interns may cause a company pause if they reverse decisions about payment of employees.

Despite the judicial onslaught, some organizations may still choose to pursue unpaid internships in light of the relaxation of the guidelines by the DOL.

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Starbucks’ Teavana chain finally settles lawsuit with Simon Property Group

(BUSINESS NEWS) A bitter battle over store closures concludes with private settlement – and Teavana stores are still closing.

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A months-long legal fight between Starbucks’ Teavana and Simon Property Group, the number one mall operator in the U.S., has come to an end with a private settlement that reportedly allows the tea chain to move forward with some of its store closures.

In July 2017, Starbucks unveiled plans to close all 379 retail locations of its floundering Teavana stores.

Shortly thereafter, Simon Property Group got a local judge to bar Starbucks from closing the 77 Teavana locations in its malls, a peculiar legal move for this situation. Starbucks would be breaking its lease agreement with Simon, and Simon wasn’t going to stand for it.

Simon Property Group cited the ongoing financial plights traditional malls have experienced for years as more and more retailers shut their doors as its primary reason for blocking Starbuck’s actions. The difference with Teavana is that Starbucks isn’t under great financial stress and can actually afford to keep the stores open, per court documents.

Starbucks disagreed, but in November, a judge sided with Simon and ordered Starbucks to keep its Teavana stores open and not break dozens of leases nationally. Starbucks fought back with a December appeal, but the case moved up to Indiana’s highest court, bypassing the intermediate Court of Appeals.

And now, before Starbucks’ appeal could be heard, the dueling companies have apparently reached an undisclosed settlement, according to New York Post reports. Exact settlement details have not been revealed, but the Post has found at least two Teavana locations that are closing in just a few days, indicating that settlement may play out in Starbucks’ favor.

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Zillow sued for concealing Zestimates on certain listings

(BUSINESS NEWS) Zillow being sued for Zestimates is nothing new, but they’re now being accused of concealing Zestimates on “Co-Conspirator Broker” listings, violating federal Antitrust laws.

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From our real estate section, The Real Daily:

The latest Zillow legal troubles again surround their Zestimates; this time they are being sued for their Zestimates violating federal Antitrust laws. The company has allegedly violated and continue to violate Section 1 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1 and the New Jersey Antitrust Act, N.J.S.A. 56:9-3.

Plaintiff, EJ MGT LLC, based in New Jersey, filed suit again Zillow Group Inc. and Zillow Inc. today. In a 21-point legal brief outlining their specific violations, two things become immediately clear (assuming of course there is truth in these allegations): Zillow is giving preferential treatment to preferred brokerages (labeled ‘co-conspirator Broker[s] in the lawsuit) and Zestimates are wildly inaccurate (as many have adamantly stated since Zestimates’ conception).

The first few points of the brief explain exactly what Zillow is being accused of doing: “this antitrust action arises from Zillow’s conspiracy with certain real-estate brokerage companies to selectively conceal ‘Zestimates.’” Zillow’s estimate of a residential property’s “fair market value” which the lawsuit states they know “to be inaccurate,” have allowed “only select brokers to conceal the display of Zestimates on their listings to the exclusion of the general public.”

The lawsuit goes on to state that “these agreements between Zillow and certain co-conspirator brokers of residential real estate restrain trade (read: the agents/brokers being allowed to conceal unwanted Zestimates, henceforth referred to as ‘Co-conspirator Brokers’) and deprive Plaintiff and the public in general of the benefits of open and robust competition in two markets: the residential real estate market and the residential real estate brokerage market.”

In essence, Zillow and the Co-conspirators Brokers have made an illegal agreement regarding the display of Zestimates on Zillow’s site.

Zillow has long touted their Zestimates as a “user-friendly format to promote transparent real-estate markets and allow people to make informed decisions;” except Zestimates are often believed to be inaccurate and now they’re being concealed at the request of a select group of Co-conspirator Brokers – a far cry from making real estate more transparent.

If the lawsuit’s claims have any validity behind them, it seems as though Zillow may be in for a bumpy ride. Item 10 in the suit states, “Zillow has acknowledged that it conceals Zestimates as a result of agreements with only ‘certain brokers’ who receive ‘certain treatment’” and uses a message screenshotted from Zillow’s Help Center as proof these words were in fact used to explain why some listings had prominent Zestimates while others did not:

You may be wondering what brought about this lawsuit; it seems Plaintiff, EJ MGT LLC, owns and is marketing a property located in Cresskill, New Jersey, through an agent unaffiliated with Zillow (not a Co-Conspirator Broker). Therefore, their listing contains a prominently displayed Zestimate, while a similar listing in nearby Alpine, New Jersey, which is listed through a “Co-conspirator Broker,” conceals the Zestimate:

The above example is not the only one outlined in the case, however. Item 12 of the lawsuit states that further evidence can be seen by comparing a residence page for a property while it was listed with a Co-conspirator Broker versus the same residence page once the property was off the market. One clearly conceals the Zestimate, while the latter displays it clearly underneath the listing price.

For reference, the Co-conspirator Broker listing was screenshot on December 26, 2017 and the screenshot after it was taken off the market with the Zestimate was taken on January 2, 2018. Merely a week in between images, and yet the difference of how the ad is displayed is quite apparent:

In essence, Zillow has violated the very transparency they claimed to create.

Zillow is allegedly promoting misleading and inaccurate information while using their marketing power to charge brokers to hide this information which could negatively impact a sale, and which Zillow itself has acknowledged is sometimes inaccurate.

Also, general members of the public have no way to prevent Zillow from obtaining and posting information in this way, and it cannot be altered without hiring a Co-conspirator Broker, as Zillow has explicitly refused to offer the option to hide information to individual home owners, further deepening the dependency on Co-conspirator Brokers.

Because of their alleged refusal to treat everyone equally and “empower homebuyers with information,” they have potentially restrained trade in connection with the exchange of information regarding home valuation and offered anti-competitive benefits to only those brokers chosen to purchase that ‘special’ service package from Zillow that removes Zestimates from listings.

Therefore, brokers are not on even footing: when a seller attempts to price check; the brokers without it could be losing out to those who have the ‘special’ package and removal of Zestimates alongside listing prices.

So far, each individual Co-conspirator Broker has not been named; they have been named as a group: Sotheby’s International Realty, Inc., Coldwell Banker Real Estate LLC, Century 21 Real Estate LLC, The Corcoran Group ERA, and Weichert Realty, according to court documents. It is unlikely that any action would ever impact the brokerages, rather Zillow Group itself.

Zillow is being sued for five counts: two counts of conspiracy to restrain trade, one count of violating the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, one count of slander of title/product disparagement, and one count of interference with prospective economic advantage. A jury trial has been requested.

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