Your 401(k) is up, and a new report shows increased savings. But Americans need to do more

How’s your 401(k) looking? A new report shows Americans are saving more, but probably need to do even more. 

Vanguard has released its annual report, How America Saves 2024. Vanguard and Fidelity are the two biggest sponsors of 401(k) plans, and this is a snapshot of what nearly five million participants are doing with their money. 

The good news: stock market returns are up and, thanks largely to automatic enrollment plans, investors are saving more than they did in the past. 

The bad news: account balances for the median 401(k) of a person approaching retirement (65+) remains very low. 

The takeaway: Americans are still very reliant on Social Security for a large chunk of their retirement. 

Higher returns, participation rates, savings rates 

Why do we care so much about 401(k) plans? Because it’s the main private savings vehicle Americans have for retirement. More than 100 million Americans are covered by these “defined contribution” plans, with more than $10 trillion in assets. 

First, 2023 was a good year to be an investor.  The average total return rate for participants was 18.1%, the best year since 2019. 

But to be effective vehicles for retirement, these plans need to: 1) have high participation rates, and 2) hold high levels of savings. 

On those fronts, there is good news. John James, managing director of Vanguard’s Institutional Investor Group, called it “a year of progress.” 

Plan participation reached all-time highs. Thanks to a change in the law several years ago, a record-high 59% of plans offered automatic enrollment in 401(k) plans. This is a major improvement: ipreviously, enrollment in 401(k) plans were often short of expectations because investors had to “opt-in,” that is they had to choose to participate in the plan.  Because of indecision or simple ignorance, many did not. By switching to automatic enrollment, participants were automatically enrolled and had to “opt-out” if they did not want to participate. 

The result: enrollment rates have gone up. Plans with automatic enrollment had a 94% participation rate, compared with 67% for voluntary enrollment plans. 

Participant saving rates reached all time highs. The average participant deferred 7.4% of their savings. Including employee and employer contributions, the average total participant contribution rate was 11.7%. 

A few other observations about Vanguard’s 401(k) plan investors: 

They prefer equities and target date funds.  They love equities over bonds or any other investments. The average plan contribution to equities is 74%.  A record-high 64% of all 2023 contributions went into target-date funds, which automatically adjust stock and bond allocations as the participant ages. 

They don’t trade much. In 2023, only 5% of nonadvised participants traded within their accounts; 95% did no trading at all. “Over the past 15 years, we have generally observed a decline in participant trading,” Vanguard said, which it partially attributed to increased adoption of target-date funds. 

Despite gains in the market, account balances are still low

In 2023, the average account balance for Vanguard participants was $134,128, but the median balance (half had more, half had less) was only $35,286. 

Why such a big difference between the average and the median? Because a small group of investors with large balances pull up the averages. Forty percent of participants had less than $20,000 in their retirement accounts. 

Distribution of account balances

  • Less than $20,000     40%
  • $20,000-$99,999        30%
  • $100,000-$249,900  15%
  • $250,000 +                  15%

Source:  Vanguard 

Median balances for those near retirement are still low

A different way to look at the problem is to ask how much people who are retirement age have saved, because it’s an indication of how prepared they are for imminent retirement.

Investors 65 years or older had an average account balance of $272,588, but a median balance of only $88,488. 

A median balance of $88,488 is not much when you consider older participants have higher incomes and higher savings rates. That is not much money for a 65-year old nearing retirement.

Of course, these balances don’t necessarily reflect total lifetime savings. Some have more than one retirement plan because they had other plans with previous employers. Most do have other sources of retirement savings, typically Social Security. A shrinking number may also have a pension. Some may have money in checking accounts, or have stocks or bonds outside a retirement account. 

Regardless, the math does not look great

So let’s do some retirement math. 

A typical annual drawdown for a 401(k) account in retirement is about 4%. Drawing down 4% of $88,488 a year gets you $3,539 every 12 months. 

Next, Social Security. As of January 2023, the average Social Security benefit was almost $1,689 per month, or about $20,268 per year.

Finally, even though pensions are a vanishing benefit, let’s include them. 

According to the Pension Rights Center, the median annual pension benefit for a private pension is $9,262 (government employees have higher benefits). 

Here’s our yearly retirement budget:

  • Personal savings $3,539
  • Pension                 $9,262
  • Social Security   $20,264
  • Total:                   $33,065

It’s certainly possibly to live on $33,000 a year, but this would likely only work if you own your home, have low expenses and live in a low-cost part of the country. 

Even then, it would hardly be a robust retirement. 

And these are the lucky ones. Only 57% of retirees have a tax-deferred retirement account like a 401(k) or IRA. Only 56% reported receiving income from a pension. 

And that extra income largely determines whether a retiree feels good or bad about their retirement. 

In 2023, four out five retirees said they were doing at least okay financially, but this varied tremendously depending on whether retirees had sources of income outside of Social Security. Only 52% of retirees who did not have private income said they were doing at least okay financially. 

What can be done? 

To have a more robust retirement, Americans are just going to have to save more. 

One issue is investors still don’t contribute the maximum amount allowed. Only 14% of participants saved the statutory maximum amount of $22,500 per year ($30,000 for those age 50 or older). The likely reason: most felt they couldn’t afford to. 

However, only 53% of even those with income over $150,000 contributed the maximum allowed.  Given that the employee match is “free money,” one would think participants in that income bracket would rationally choose to max out their contribution. The fact that many still don’t suggests that more investor education is needed. 

Regardless, it’s very dangerous to assume that retirees are going to be bailed out by an ever-rising stock market. Another year anywhere near 2022, when the S&P 500 was down 20%, and investor confidence in their financial future will likely deteriorate.

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Why Walmart, Walgreens, CVS retail health clinic experiment is struggling

Bobbi Radford showed up at the CVS MinuteClinic in Batavia, Ohio, last Thanksgiving because she had pain in her arm.

“I waited an hour and then was told to go to the [emergency room].,” Radford said. Filling the staffer in on her history of congestive heart failure, she was directed to go to the ER. But Radford says after she did that, it was determined at the ER that she had a case of tennis elbow.

“It was a waste of my time, and I still had to go to my family doctor,” Radford said.

Despite their early promise of convenience and accessibility, in-store clinics haven’t been the golden egg-laying goose many retailers originally envisioned. That’s why Walmart recently announced it would shutter its 51 in-store full-service health-care centers. Another symptom of the ailing market is Walgreens, which announced the closing of 160 VillageMD locations (Walgreens owns a 53% stake in VillageMD, which also operates free-standing clinics). CVS’s MinuteClinic, the largest in-store clinic with over 1,100 locations, has announced dozens of clinic closings this year in Southern California and New England.

Not all patient experiences are negative. Karla Lemon of Conway, South Carolina, says she uses CVS’s MinuteClinic for vaccines or sinus infections. “I’ve had a pretty good experience with them,” said Lemon.

But the business experience in the retail health clinic space has largely disappointed. That’s not a huge surprise to Timothy Hoff, professor of management health-care systems at Northeastern University. Hoff has researched retail health clinics and how they deliver primary care and says that the margins can be thin to non-existent, and that the many other challenges have hindered their success. What was not too long ago viewed as the “2.0” version of primary health care is now being left behind in the wake of closed in-store clinics.

“1.0 was the rise of urgent care centers. Those were places 20 or 30 years ago that gave people alternatives to primary care doctors,” Hoff said. But about 15 years ago, Hoff says, the space began moving into heavily trafficked stores like groceries and department stores with health care attempting to meet people where they were. But this presented challenges that many retailers, and even some providers, weren’t familiar with.

“Some of these organizations grew this part of their business too quickly and didn’t realize the cost model in sustaining these,” Hoff said. Insurance reimbursements at these clinics are low, but the expenses have gone way up. “I just don’t think the math works for many places now to have many of these. Some of these large organizations are retrenching and pulling back,” Hoff added.

The retail clinics depend on volume selling. “If you can’t pump through a lot of patients, it doesn’t work,” Hoff said. Staffing was also a struggle. “They ended up being more expensive to run than they thought, combined with a workforce shortage, they just didn’t work.”

There is also the issue of cross-selling. A lot of retail chains use clinics as loss leaders to steer customers to other products and services they sell: lure customers in, in the hope they buy other stuff. But the model didn’t materialize. If someone is sick enough to seek care, they probably won’t be in the mood to purchase a pint of ice cream or socks while they are out. Likewise, “people coming in for groceries won’t necessarily hop over to the clinic,” Hoff said.

A retail reality check for MinuteClinic

Colleen Sanders, a family nurse practitioner in Washington, D.C., who now works in health-care education, worked a two-year stint at MinuteClinic. She pointed to margin and staffing issues she witnessed.

“Health care is a business in the USA; while we look at the giant numbers of how many billions are generated, it doesn’t mean there will be big margins. I think retailers have realized that they will not be making millions and millions of dollars,” said Sanders. “Margins are small.”

Staffing costs, meanwhile, slicing into already thin margins, meant that when Sanders worked at MinuteClinic, she did everything from checking people in, to billing and cleaning the clinic at the end of the day, and any support staff was undertrained, at best, she said. “That was the model to ensure they could do it so they didn’t have to add staff. But with volume, you need ancillary staff so the professional can dedicate time to patient care, because that is where you can bill insurance and revenue comes in.”

The 15 minutes that she was allotted to see a patient often just wasn’t enough for the complex ailments people sometimes have. For some patients, service simply wasn’t fast enough: Sanders recalled a 7-year-old she was treating remark that treatment was taking more than a minute. Ultimately, Americans’ “want-it-now” culture doesn’t mesh with medicine, and that is what the retail clinic closures are signaling. “The pace at which we want health care to work isn’t congruent with actually providing the level of service we should be providing, coupled with the cost of having support staff,” Sanders said. “If we wanted to make a dent in retail health care, then we would staff with registered nurses instead of medical assistants, but that would cost too much.”

CVS wouldn’t comment directly on the closings, but a spokesperson described the latest strategy as a combination of care delivery capabilities — a blend of virtual, in-store, and in-home services — that delivers a “more convenient experience.”

Walmart and the problem of volume vs. price

In 2019, Walmart announced a bold initiative to open in-store health clinics — according to one press report, its board approved a total of 4,000 to be added over a decade through 2029. Publicly, Walmart had only said it planned to develop a cost-efficient model and scale it appropriately, and disputed that specific number. The plans ended with the recent closing of the 51 clinics it had opened.

“Primary health care is a low margin business,” said Arielle Trzcinski, a principal analyst covering health care at research firm. Forrester. “Compared to what they see in traditional retail, health care is a fundamentally different business,” Trzcinski said, citing the challenges of navigating insurance companies and administrative burdens that health care brings.

Retailers can’t recoup money from offering primary care as a loss leader in the same way other health care organizations can.

“Primary care is a feeder for patients that need higher acuity services, such as surgery or specialists. Hospitals make money on the back end and Walmart or Walgreens didn’t have that,” Trzcinski said. CVS fares better because of its merger with health insurer Aetna that now allows for upselling of other services, including mental health.

“Walmart ultimately thought they were solving an important issue,” Trzcinski said, but she added that Walmart never really put its full marketing muscle behind the effort or created relationships with other employers to make a pathway into the clinic. “They set out to make health care more affordable and convenient for their customers. But to do that you need volume. … It takes volume or a different pricing structure, to make it work, and Walmart, in the end, had neither calibrated correctly.” 

A missed opportunity for rural America

Sanders says the business model’s constraints have even undermined one of the retail clinic concept’s great promises: health-care delivery to rural areas.

“Walmart tried to go into rural areas where providers were scarce and to meet a community need; I think it is a great idea because everyone knows where the local Walmart is. But getting providers to go to rural areas and work is really challenging. The quality of life and the things people can do in a small town are not as appealing as urban centers, so they pay providers a premium to work there,” Sanders said, and that is one more thing that eats into revenue. 

Retailers will continue to experiment with the model.

Dollar General, for example, has attempted a “workaround” by offering mobile clinics that visit some of its rural locations, and offer a variety of minor medical services.

Amazon’s recent launch of One Medical, which features a $9-a-month subscription charge for existing Prime members, offers another way to make money.

“They get your cash whether you end up using the service or not, and it is a good price if you need the care,” said Virgil Bretz, CEO of Washington-based fintech health platform MacroHealth. The care is virtual, but you can walk in if you are near a One Medical facility. Unlike most models that make money when patients come, “Amazon makes more money if you don’t show up. So there is something a little different about this retail model,” Bretz said.

In-store health clinics can be profitable and viable, and retailers are experimenting with piecemeal approaches tailored to the local market. Walgreens recently announced the opening of a handful of in-store health clinics in Connecticut, which will be run by Hartford HealthCare, with the clinics being called  “Hartford HealthCare at Walgreens.” Patients will be able to go beyond typical small-scale clinic services and tap into Hartford’s larger network of specialists and care options. 

And in Phoenix, a Be Well Health Clinic operates in a Walgreens near the campus of Arizona State University, catering just to sexual health issues.

“The common thread is it is a locally-based partnership with a local provider with the shared goal of offering convenience and access,” said a Walgreens spokesperson.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Little Clinics, which operate inside Kroger, is shifting services to focus on senior care.

Walmart and Kroger did not respond to requests for comment.

This is all part of what Hoff calls “health care 3.0,” a continuing disruption and evolution of primary care delivery based on market and customer needs, and including retail clinics. New models will emerge, and not every model will work.

Every several years, there is a run of outsiders trying to make changes to health care, good and bad,” Bretz said. Inevitably, they “hit the brick wall of the reality of just how complex health care can be.”

Corrections: Walgreens has a 53% stake in VillageMD, which was reduced as part of a reorganization. Walmart disputes press reports indicating it planned to open 4,000 clinics over a decade. Separately, Virgil Bretz is CEO of MacroHealth.

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Why half of all workers may struggle to get weight-loss drug health insurance coverage

An injection pen of Zepbound, Eli Lilly’s weight loss drug, is displayed in New York City on Dec. 11, 2023.

Brendan McDermid | Reuters

Companies are increasing access to new blockbuster weight-loss drugs for employees, but size of employer may make a big difference in early access. Small businesses and their workers are often stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to this burgeoning health insurance coverage market.

Small businesses employ roughly half of the workers in the U.S. labor market, and they have been adding jobs at a faster pace than large employers. Since the first quarter of 2021, small-business hiring accounted for 53% of the 12.2 million total net jobs created across all employers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, consistent with the longer-term trend.

The blockbuster obesity drugs, called GLP-1 agonists, cost roughly $1,000 per month on average — and they are typically taken for a long time. Access to these weight-loss drugs is coming from an increasing number of sources in the marketplace, drug makers are ramping up production, and use cases continue to increase, with clinical trials showing benefits for conditions from sleep apnea to heart disease risk. But many of the 100 million American adults who are obese can’t afford to pay out of pocket for drugs like Novo Nordisk’s Wegovy and Eli Lilly’s Zepbound, and are turning to their employers for help. 

A survey last October of 205 companies by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans found that 76% of respondents provided GLP-1 drug coverage for diabetes, versus only 27% that provided coverage for weight loss. But 13% of plan sponsors indicated they were considering coverage for weight loss. Covering these drugs, however, is harder for smaller employers, many of whom rely on off-the-shelf plans offered by their insurance carriers. While there are plans that cover GLP-1 drugs, the cost can be prohibitive for many small businesses.

There’s strong demand from employees for coverage and smaller employers would like to be able to do it, but there are trade-offs, said Shawn Gremminger, president and chief executive of the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, a nonprofit purchaser-led organization. Companies have to consider the impact on wages or other benefits they might like to offer. “The company money has to come from somewhere,” he said.

In some cases, small employers, even if they want to cover weight-loss drugs, are simply priced out of the market and they may have to accept they can’t offer the coverage they would like to. 

“Given the price of these drugs, you have to do the cost-benefit analysis and for a lot of small companies — even some larger ones — they just can’t do it,” Gremminger said. “No matter how much they want to.”

Here are a few issues for small business employers and employees to understand in accessing expensive weight-loss drugs as part of job benefits.

Annual benefits deals are being brokered now. Open enrollment season for health insurance doesn’t occur until the fall, but employers should be having renewal discussions with their benefits broker or agent now, and that conversation should include weight-loss drugs. Small business employers should be telling a broker they would like to be able to provide weight-loss drugs for employees, and ask for help in finding the right carrier or the right plan, said Gary Kushner, chair and president of Kushner & Company, a benefits design and management company.

The market is changing quickly. Last year, an insurance carrier asked about covering weight-loss drugs may have said no, but it’s worth asking the carrier again because they may have been forced to make changes to their offerings for competitive reasons, said Kate Moher, president of national employee health and benefits for Marsh McLennan Agency, which advises employers on plan designs and benefits programs. “You should be asking the question every year,” she said. 

Insurance premiums may rise. To gain access to weight-loss drugs, many small businesses may have to switch insurance carriers, and probably pay more. “It most likely will be more expensive if one is not covering the drugs and the other is,” Kushner said.

Employers also have to decide how much of that can be reasonably passed to employees, without unduly burdening workers who may never need these drugs. “If 20% of your population takes it, everyone’s premium goes up by whatever percentage that is to cover the cost,” Gremminger said.

Small businesses should consider a ‘captive health’ plan. Generally speaking, any business with at least 50 employees might consider working with a captive health insurance plan like Roundstone, ParetoHealth, Stealth and Amwins, Moher said. These businesses allow groups of companies who couldn’t self-insure — the approach most large corporations take — to pool resources and design a group health plan together. 

This approach may allow a small business and its employees more flexibility, Moher said, but owners still have to weigh the costs and there are requirements to qualify. It’s also not something businesses can change every year like they could when working with a traditional insurance carrier. “It’s a long-term play; you can’t jump in and out,” Moher said. 

These plans are designed for the long-term because, as member-owners, the participants all agree to spread the risk, an approach that can keep costs down over time and decrease volatility. But if business owners are looking for a quick-fix or prefer to wait and see how the market develops over the next year, it’s probably not the right model.

A GLP-1 drug standalone coverage option could also work for some small businesses. Companies like Vida Health, Calibrate, Found Health and Vitality Group provide these offerings separate from an employer’s primary carrier, Gremminger said. Employers need to do the math to determine whether it could be more cost effective, and whether the option truly suits their employees’ needs based on the offerings.

Use an FSA to help cover weight-loss drug costs. If insurance coverage options aren’t an effective solution today, small employers may have a few other ways to help employees defray the cost of weight-loss drugs. They might consider, for instance, making contributions to employees’ flexible spending accounts or health savings accounts. They could also consider a health reimbursement arrangement, or HRA, which is an employer-funded plan that reimburses employees for qualified medical expenses. 

However, there are strict rules and requirements for each of these options. For example, with an FSA, the IRS limits an employer’s contribution based on how much the employee contributes, and this still isn’t likely to suffice to cover the cost of these drugs long-term. “Does it help? Sure. Does it solve the problem? No,” Kushner said.

It’s also not a move to make without first getting sign-off from legal counsel. “You need the guidance of your ERISA attorneys to make sure you meet all the criteria,” Moher said. “It’s a creative way of doing it, but you have to make sure you’re meeting all of your compliance requirements.”

Right now, the end result can be very discouraging for small businesses and their employees given the costs and limited options, but it’s also important to know that there are 20 or so drugs in the approval pipeline. Once they get approved, costs are likely to come down, Moher said. “This is something that may be a short-term thing until we get more GLP-1 drugs approved.”

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For Black workers, progress in the workplace but still a high hill to climb

Ali and Jamila Wright, co-owners of Brooklyn Tea.

Courtesy: Brooklyn Tea

Looking at the state of Black employment in America tells a mixed story: Much progress has been made in the age of the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond, but much is left to be done.

In the nearly four years that have passed since the pandemic upended the U.S. economy, the advancement for Black people has been unmistakable: a surge in earnings that outdid the gains for both white and Hispanic people, an unemployment rate that has fallen more than a percentage point from where it stood in January 2020 and a general sense that the collective consciousness has been raised regarding inequality in the workplace.

Yet, there are still racial discrepancies in terms of earnings. Black workers are still notably underrepresented in some professions, particularly high-end tech, and efforts to address some of these issues have fallen out of favor amid criticism that they have gone too far and are inefficient.

On balance, though, there’s a feeling of optimism that real progress has been made.

“This recovery really stretched the limits of what policymakers thought was possible for Black workers,” said Jessica Fulton, interim president at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that focuses on issues for people and communities of color. “We were in a situation where folks accepted that Black unemployment was going to always be high and there was nothing that they could do about it. So I think this is an opportunity to continue to push the limits of what’s possible.”

When looking at the data, the numbers are encouraging.

The Black unemployment rate in January was 5.3%, up a touch from December but still near the all-time low of 4.8% hit in April 2023. Black employment in the month totaled nearly 20.9 million people, up 6.3% from February 2020, the month before the pandemic hit, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

From a pay standpoint, the numbers are even more encouraging. For Black workers, weekly before-tax earnings as of the end of 2023 have risen 24.8% since the first quarter of 2020. That’s more than the 18.1% increase for white people and the 22.6% rise for Hispanics during the period. Of the groups the BLS measures, only Asians, at 25.1% had seen bigger pay gains.

Still, the unemployment rate is lower for white people, by a wide margin at 3.4% in January.

“High unemployment for Black workers is a solvable problem,” Fulton said. “There are challenges we need to address. We need to figure out how to address discrimination, we need to figure out how do we address unequal access to high-quality workforce development. We need to figure out how to address labor loopholes.”

Focus on tech

One of the areas where the greatest discrepancies exist for underrepresented groups is technology, where Black people and others hold few positions and even fewer are in management roles.

The situation is well-documented. While Black people make up about 12% of the U.S. labor force, they hold just 8% of all tech jobs and a mere 3% of executive positions, according to a McKinsey & Company study released in 2023.

There are several groups working to address the disparity, with varying levels of success.

Those involved tell similar stories. Black workers are interested in tech and believe there are opportunities. Companies don’t understand the real-world benefits of a diverse workplace. Opportunities are limited amid a backlash against the diversity, equity and inclusion push.

“Diversity is not just a warm and fuzzy feeling. You are proven by numbers to get a better return on investment,” said Autumn Nash, a software engineer at a major tech company in the Northwest that she asked not to be named because the company hadn’t given permission for this article.

Nash, who is Black, holds a prominent position in tech, where she has worked for well over a decade while both climbing the corporate ladder and trying to assist those in her cohort achieve success as well.

Autumn Nash

Courtesy: Autumn Nash

Along with her work responsibilities, she’s involved with several organizations looking to help others achieve in tech. They include Rewriting the Code, a global network founded in 2017 that focuses on women, and MilSpouse Coders, which assists military spouses and where Nash serves as education board chair.

Companies that build diversity the right way prosper, she said. Those that don’t have suffered on a tangible level in the form of products that are inadequate and data bases that don’t reflect real-world dynamics.

“The lack of diversity has left very big, wonderful tech companies with egg on their face, because they’ve had premature products,” Nash said. “One of the best ways to fight data bias is with diversity, and it’s diversity in all different backgrounds. If you look at the boards of most big AI companies, do you see diversity there?”

Indeed, instances of bias along racial lines is still seen as a significant problem, particularly in tech.

Some 24% of tech workers said they experienced racial discrimination at work in 2022, up from 18% the prior year, according to a survey by tech career marketplace Dice. While some companies have changed their corporate culture, many others remain behind.

“There are some good stories out there,” said Sue Harnett, founder of Rewriting the Code. “Goldman Sachs and Bank of America do an outstanding job, not only trying to recruit, but actually bringing them on board and converting them from being interns to full-time employees.”

Rewriting the Code collaborates with workers and companies to address diversity issues. Specifically, the organization focuses on college women and follows them through the first six years or so on their career path.

On the downside, Harnett still sees too many token measures that don’t go far enough.

For instance, she said some companies focus on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which only goes so far in being able to find a capable and diverse workforce.

“I cringe when I talk with a company and ask them about their diversity recruiting strategy and their answer is they work with HBCUs,” she said. “That can be part of the strategy, but it shouldn’t be the only strategy.”

Harnett is sympathetic, though, with how tough the job can be.

“The amount of money that you have to put in to try and find this talent can be overwhelming, but I think there are solutions out there, so I’m personally optimistic,” she said. “I wish we made more progress by now. But the companies are ones that will drive this.”

The small business view

Sometimes the answers are found closer to home.

Ali and Jamila Wright are co-owners of Brooklyn Tea, a small business based in the New York City borough that has expanded to Atlanta and is looking for more growth opportunities.

From a hiring strategy, they focus almost solely on underrepresented groups who have a variety of employment needs. For instance, they hire actors in between shows or other workers in other professions who have been laid off and need a bridge until they find other employment.

Ali and Jamila Wright, co-owners of Brooklyn Tea.

Courtesy: Brooklyn Tea

“All of our employees are people of color,” Ali Wright said. “We have people of color, we have people that are binary or nonbinary. So being that we are diverse ourselves, it just makes it easier to hire people that we know are systematically disadvantaged.”

Brooklyn Tea has been a beneficiary of a relatively booming small business environment, particularly for Black and Latino entrepreneurs.

Black-owned businesses as a share of Black households surged from 5% to 11% from 2019 to 2022, the fastest pace in 30 years, according to the Small Business Administration. The surge has come as the number and dollar value of loans to Black-owned businesses has more than doubled and as the share of the SBA’s loan portfolio to minority-owned businesses has jumped to more than 32% from 23% since 2020.

However, race remains a tenuous dynamic in the U.S., and there’s always the possibility that progress can be rolled back, particularly considering a growingly hostile attitude toward DEI initiatives. Critics say the approach has resulted in a misallocation of resources, particularly following controversies at Ivy League schools.

“From 2020 until 2022, that’s when we all felt the most potential and the most hope, even in the midst of a pandemic,” Jamila Wright said. “We were receiving so much funding and just collaboration from corporate entities, and that attack on DEI has impacted some of the businesses, including ours.”

But the controversies have mainly triggered a reexamination of how to achieve diversity, not a backdown on initiatives in general.

For instance, a Conference Board survey in December found no human resources executives were planning to scale back diversity efforts. Still, Jamila Wright said she is cautious about the future.

“I think history has taught us that nothing, when it comes to race in America, blows over quickly,” she said. “So it’s just us trying to figure out how to be savvy in situations where we shouldn’t have to be savvy. That has been something that we have to become equipped to do.”

CORRECTION: Autumn Nash is a software engineer at a major tech company in the Northwest. A representative for her firm misstated her name.

Bonawyn Eison: Removing barriers will lead to reform

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The ultimate work perk? This company provides a free place to stay in Spain

Some workers go to great lengths to hide hush trips from their bosses.

But employees of the Polish company PhotoAid needn’t bother.

The company, which helps travelers take their own passport photos at home, allows its employees to stay at an apartment in Spain for free — provided they work while they’re there.

The apartment is in Tenerife, the largest of Spain’s Canary Islands, an archipelago west of Morocco. Employees can stay up to three weeks at a time and can visit as many times in year as they like, depending on demand from other employees.

The company reimburses half of employees’ airfare too, up to 1,000 Polish zlotys ($246), once a year. Flights from Warsaw to Tenerife can start at around $150 for a six-hour direct flight.

Employees can stay up to three weeks at a time at the Tenerife apartment and can visit as many times as they like.

Source: PhotoAid

The company started renting the apartment in Tenerife’s capital, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in the summer of 2022 as a way to create relationships and build morale among its employees, all of whom work remotely, said co-founder Rafal Mlodzki.

Plus, Mlodzki said he and the other co-founders, Marcin and Tomasz Mlodzki — who are also his brothers — wanted to offer a company perk that would stand out.  

How the ‘workcations’ work

PhotoAid is a small company with a young workforce, so most employees don’t have children, said Mlodzki. But those who do tend to group together and use the benefit in the summer months when schools are closed.

Employees can request to bring their partners too, which the company reviews on a case-by-case basis, he said.  

Employees must abide by several rules, he said, such as the check-in and check-out protocol. Employees must upload a photo of the apartment on arrival, then do the same on departure to show the next group of employees how they left it.

Workcation time spent in Tenerife doesn’t count as employee vacation time, which is up to 26 days a year, said PhotoAid co-founder Rafal Mlodzki.

Source: PhotoAid

On arrival, employees are assigned a cleaning task too, but the company hires a professional cleaner for deep cleans, he said. While drinking wine on the balcony and chatting into the night are regular occurrences, employees are not allowed to drink during work hours, he said.   

Mlodzki told CNBC Travel that employees like to visit Tenerife with coworkers with shared interests. For example, a recent group played sports in their free time, while another group went to music concerts.

‘The best onboarding in the world’

Around 50 of PhotoAid’s 143 employees have now stayed at the Tenerife apartment, many meeting their teammates in person for the first time during their stays. Around 10 were onboarded as new starters there too, said Mlodzki.

“One of the reasons we decided to open this office was the possibility of offering the best onboarding in the world for senior team members. Those onboarded are not only thrilled but also deeply understand the company and their role in it,” said Mlodzki.

Coworkers with shared interests — such as sports and music — travel to Tenerife together.

Source: PhotoAid

“Often, spontaneous moments occur. For example, after a series of 45-minute sets with 10-minute breaks, we might go on a mini mountain trip and continue onboarding informally. It might even transition into an evening on the terrace.

“We just onboarded our new chief operating officer during a workation in Tenerife, and he was deeply impressed. He had never experienced an onboarding like this before.”

Two senior leaders have scheduled a strategic planning and brainstorming session at the apartment this winter, where average temperatures in January are 68 degrees Fahrenheit, higher than 34 F in the Polish capital of Warsaw.

The apartment

The 3,200-square-foot apartment overlooks the port of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. It has three bedrooms, a spacious lounge with board games, two balconies and a small gym. There are also eight workspaces with high-speed internet, computer monitors and ergonomic chairs.

The apartment has eight workspaces with high-speed internet, computer monitors and ergonomic chairs.

Source: PhotoAid

There’s a bakery next door for fresh bread, with restaurants, bars, wineries, and vermuterias (bars specializing in Spanish vermouth) nearby.

Workation as a ‘wow’ factor

When she was interviewing, Aleksandra Staromiejska said the Tenerife benefit made PhotoAid stand out. Now a company digital public relations specialist, she stayed in the apartment for two weeks in May, along with a colleague from her team. 

Aleksandra Staromiejska started her work days early to maximize her time at the beach, she said.

Source: Aleksandra Staromiejska

She started and finished her work early, she said, to spend as much time as possible at the beach, a 20-minute bus ride away. Over the weekend, she and her colleague went hiking in Macizo de Anaga (Anaga mountains).

“I noticed my productivity levels were higher,” said Staromiejska. “I really wanted to do my job quickly so I could finish my work day and have time to go to the beach.”

Vacations to Spain’s Canary Islands are popular with employees of PhotoAid, a company based in the much colder city of Warsaw, Poland.

Source: PhotoAid

“It was actually a very relaxing trip. Just being in nature is something else. My batteries were just charged up,” she said.

The Spanish apartment is often mentioned in employee satisfaction surveys, said Mlodzki.

“When we recruit, it’s an attractive benefit that candidates always react positively to.”

A vacay with the boss?

Enamored by the culture and scenery, Mlodzki said he spends half his time in Warsaw and half his time in Tenerife, staying in the master bedroom at PhotoAid’s apartment. 

Mlodzki acknowledged that some people might feel nervous about spending so much time with their boss. (Indeed, Staromiejska admitted she did before her workation.) But he said it’s great for rapport.

“It’s super interesting for me to get to know more people. To give and get feedback is very enriching for me,” he said.

Rafal Mlodzki, Aleksandra Staromiejska and Michel Jonca. “It’s super interesting for me to get to know more people,” said co-founder Mlodzki.

Source: PhotoAid

From leasing the apartment to paying for employees’ flights, Mlodzki said the investment has been worth it.

 “We think about the Tenerife office as the ‘company charger’ with the goal of reenergizing employees and boosting team spirits that can get depleted by remote work.”

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It’s open enrollment season for health coverage. If you’re self-employed, you can’t afford to ignore it

Open enrollment season can be a time of trepidation for the self-employed

The stakes are especially high because if you need to buy individual or family coverage, the next few weeks could be your only chance for 2024, barring certain exceptions such as moving to a different state, getting married, divorced or having a child. 

“For most people, the nationwide open enrollment period for individual and family coverage is your best shot to review your options and enroll in a new plan,” explained Anthony Lopez, vice president of individual and family and small business plans at eHealth, a private online marketplace for health insurance, in an email.

More from Year-End Planning

Here’s a look at more coverage on what to do finance-wise as the end of the year approaches:

Picking health insurance on your own — without the help of a human resources department — can be daunting. Instead of throwing up your hands in frustration, here are answers to questions self-employed individuals often have about open enrollment.

Healthcare.gov and other options for information

Freelancers, consultants, independent contractors and other self-employed individuals can visit www.healthcare.gov to research and enroll in flexible, high-quality health coverage, either through the federal government or their state, depending on where they live. You can also choose to work directly with an insurance agent or with a private online marketplace to help you wade through options. To be considered self-employed, you can’t have anyone working for you. If you have even one employee, you may be able to use the SHOP Marketplace for small businesses

The deadlines you need to stay on top of

Most states set a deadline of Dec. 15 for coverage that begins Jan. 1, so don’t delay when it comes to signing up for benefits, said Alexa Irish, co-chief executive of Catch, which helps self-employed individuals choose health-care plans. Also, remember to pay your first month’s premium before your health care is supposed to start or you’ll be out of luck as well. “If you miss those deadlines, there’s no wiggle room,” said Laura Speyer, co-CEO of Catch.

If you are already enrolled in a marketplace plan

Those who were already enrolled in a plan last year can make changes by Dec. 15 for coverage that begins Jan. 1. Doing nothing will mean they are automatically reenrolled in last year’s marketplace plan. 

Qualifying for tax credits and other savings

Many people assume they won’t be entitled to savings, but they should still investigate their options, Irish said. Indeed, 91% of total marketplace enrollees received an advance premium tax credit in February 2023, which lowers their monthly health insurance payment, according to data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Credits and other eligible savings are available based on an applicant’s income and household size and can be estimated even before they officially apply. It’s advisable to check for savings possibilities every year, Irish said.

What to consider in making coverage decisions

The thought process will be similar to what you went through when picking health insurance offered by an employer. Whether you are signing up for the first time — or deciding whether to renew your existing plan or choose a different one — you’ll want to consider factors such as who in the family needs the coverage and for what purposes, and how different plans compare in terms of coverage options and cost. This analysis needs to take into account copays, prescription drugs you take or may start to take, whether the plan covers your doctors, and out-of-pocket maximums. 

If you’re self-employed and aiming to grow your business in the coming year, possibly by hiring employees, it’s good to know you can enroll in a small business plan at any time of the year, Lopez said. “Small business group plans aren’t governed by the same open enrollment rules as individual and family plans. So, you can enroll in an individual plan today, then switch over to a group plan in mid-2024 if you add a couple employees and want to provide them with health benefits,” he said.

How much health insurance costs the self-employed

Cost will vary, depending on the plan you choose, who is covered and what subsidies you’re eligible for. But, as a general guide, the average total monthly premium before tax subsidies in February 2023 was $604.78. The average total premium per month paid by consumers after the tax subsidies was $123.69, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Self-employed individuals may also be eligible for a cost-sharing reduction, a discount that lowers the amount paid for deductibles, copayments and coinsurance. You’ll find out what you qualify for when you fill out a marketplace application, but keep in mind, you need to enroll in a “Silver” plan, one of four categories of marketplace plans, to get the cost-sharing reduction. 

Wading through policy options, working with an agent

You don’t have to go through the process alone. There are assisters who are trained and certified by marketplaces to help you apply and enroll. If you want more specific help, you can also choose to work with an agent or broker who is trained and certified to sell marketplace health plans in the state they are licensed. Agents can advise you and give you more detailed information about the plans they sell, and since health insurance premiums are regulated by your state’s Department of Insurance, you don’t have to worry about paying more by working with an agent.

A few things to note: Some agents may offer other plans that aren’t available on government exchanges, but that comply with government requirements. However, to take advantage of a premium tax credit and other savings, you must enroll for a plan through a state or federal marketplace, on your own or through an agent. 

The risk and reward of high-deductible plans

Marketplaces offer multiple plans to choose from and they will vary in terms of coverage and price. One option that’s becoming more popular, especially with young entrepreneurs, is called a high-deductible health insurance plan. This type of insurance plan comes with higher deductibles in exchange for lower premiums, which could be a good choice for people who are healthy and don’t visit the doctor much. Another benefit of a qualified high-deductible plan is the ability to contribute to a tax-advantaged savings vehicle known as a health savings account, or HSA. 

When deciding whether to choose a high-deductible plan, individuals should take into account factors such as how often they visit the doctor, how much they can afford to pay out of pocket, whether their doctors are in network and what the out-of-pocket maximums are. It’s also important to know you have the means to cover a high-cost medical event, should the need arise. If a high-deductible plan makes sense for your circumstances, you can then consider an HSA.

Lopez recommends people don’t delay when it comes to reviewing their coverage options, which may also include dental and vision insurance. “The last week or so of open enrollment can be a busy time for licensed agents too; if you want the best chance of talking to an agent to get your personal questions answered, don’t put it off.”

Don’t miss these stories from CNBC PRO:

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UAW strike brings blue-collar vs. billionaire battle to Detroit

DETROIT — The United Auto Workers strike is bringing a blue-collar versus billionaire battle to the Motor City, just as UAW President Shawn Fain wanted.

The outspoken union leader has weaponized striking — historically a last resort for the union — after less than 24 hours into a work stoppage arguably better than any UAW president has in modern times.

It wasn’t by accident.

Fain, a quirky yet emboldened leader, has meticulously brought the UAW back into the national spotlight after decades of near irrelevance. He wants to represent not just union members but also America’s embattled middle class, which UAW helped create.

United Auto Workers union President Shawn Fain joins UAW members who are on a strike, on the picket line at the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Michigan, September 15, 2023.

Rebecca Cook | Reuters

To do so, he has leveraged a yearslong national labor movement and a growing disgust for wealthy individuals and corporations among many Americans — starting with his first time addressing the union’s more than 400,000 members during his inauguration speech in March.

“We’re here to come together to ready ourselves for the war against our only one and only true enemy, multibillion-dollar corporations and employers who refuse to give our members their fair share,” Fain said at the time. “It’s a new day in the UAW.”

Fain’s comments Friday morning as he joined UAW members and supporters picketing outside a Ford plant in Michigan — one of three facilities the company is currently striking — echoed everything he said during that first speech.

“We got to do what we got to do to get our share of economic and social justice in this strike,” Fain said outside the Ford Bronco SUV and Ranger pickup plant. “We’re going to be out here until we get our share of economic justice. And it doesn’t matter how long it takes.”

Fain’s upbringing plays into his strong unionism and religious beliefs, which he has growingly talked about with members as he emphasizes “faith” in the UAW’s cause. Two of his grandparents were UAW GM retirees, and one grandfather started at Chrysler in 1937, the year the workers joined the union. Fain, who joined the UAW in 1994, even keeps one of his grandfather’s pay stubs in his wallet as “a reminder” of where he came from. 

National media and others really started paying attention to Fain when he said the union would withhold a reelection endorsement of President Joe Biden, who has called himself the “most pro-union president in history.” Fain and Biden have spoken and met, but the union leader has not shown much support for the president. In response to comments by the president Friday, Fain said: “Working people are not afraid. You know who’s afraid? The corporate media is afraid. The White House is afraid. The companies are afraid.”

While many past union leaders have talked such talk, Fain has thus far delivered on his promises to members without batting an eye — causing General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis to go into crisis mode this week as the UAW follows through on that promise to members.

“We’ve never seen anything like this; it’s frustrating,” Ford CEO Jim Farley told CNBC’s Phil LeBeau Thursday as he criticized Fain and the union for what he said was a lack of communication and counteroffers. “I don’t know what Shawn Fain is doing, but he’s not negotiating this contract with us, as it expires.”

In a statement Friday, Ford said that the UAW’s partial strike at its Michigan Assembly Plant has forced it to lay off about 600 workers.

“This is not a lockout,” Ford said. “This layoff is a consequence of the strike at Michigan Assembly Plant’s final assembly and paint departments, because the components built by these 600 employees use materials that must be e-coated for protection. E-coating is completed in the paint department, which is on strike.”

GM CEO Mary Barra echoed Farley’s feelings Friday morning on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

“I’m extremely frustrated and disappointed,” she said. “We don’t need to be on strike right now.”

Both CEOs said everything they could to indicate they believe Fain may not be bargaining in good faith without using those exact words, which could justify a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

The UAW in late August filed unfair labor practice charges against GM and Stellantis with the NLRB, alleging they did not bargain with the union in good faith or a timely manner. It did not file a complaint against Ford. GM and Stellantis have denied those allegations.

Ford CEO Jim Farley: No way we would be sustainable as a company with UAW's wage proposal

Several past union leaders and company bargainers who spoke to CNBC hailed the way Fain has been able to propel the UAW into the national spotlight, including pausing bargaining for a Friday rally and march with Sen. Bernie Sanders, the progressive lawmaker from Vermont. Sanders, whose surprise 2016 Democratic presidential primary win in Michigan helped cement his national prominence, has lent support to numerous labor movements around the country as he rails against the billionaire class.

“I think they’re just doing an outstanding job,” said respected former UAW President Bob King, who cited growing support for the union among the public and the union’s own members. “Both those measurements say that UAW communications has been outstanding.”

UAW members have taken notice — especially after many of them disdained union leadership during and after a yearslong federal corruption investigation that landed two past UAW presidents and more than a dozen others in prison.

“For all the years that I’ve worked here, it’s never been this strong,” said Anthony Dobbins, a 27-year autoworker, early Friday morning while picketing the Ford plant in Michigan. “This is going to make history right here because we are trying to get what we deserve.”

Dobbins, a UAW Local 600 union representative, balked at current record offers by the automakers that have included roughly 20% pay increases, thousands of dollars in bonuses, retention of the union’s platinum health care and other sweetened benefits.

“That’s not working for us. Give us what we asked for,” Dobbins said. “That’s what we want. We have to work seven days, overtime, just to make ends meet.”

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain, center, poses with Anthony Dobbins, right, a 27-year autoworker, and others as the union pickets a Ford plant in Wayne, Michigan, Sept. 15, 2023.

Michael Wayland / CNBC

Key demands from the union have included 40% hourly pay increases; a reduced, 32-hour, workweek; a shift back to traditional pensions; the elimination of compensation tiers; and a restoration of cost-of-living adjustments. Other items on the table include enhanced retiree benefits and better vacation and family leave benefits.

Automakers have argued such demands would cripple the companies. Farley even said the company would have “gone bankrupt by now” under the union’s current proposals and members would not have benefited from $75,000 in average profit-sharing over the last decade.

Ford sources said the automaker would have lost $14.4 billion over the last four years if the current demands had been in effect, instead of recording nearly $30 billion in profits.

Such profits are exactly what Fain has said UAW members deserve to share in. But his strategy to get workers a larger piece of the pie carries great risks.

“This is not going to be positive from an industry perspective or for GM,” Barra said Friday.

Many outside the union believe if Fain pushes too hard, it could lead to long-term job losses for the union. A former high-ranking bargainer for one of the automakers told CNBC that it’s nearly guaranteed the companies cut union jobs through product allocation, plant closures or other means to offset increased labor costs.

“They’re going to have to pay up. The question is how much,” said the longtime bargainer, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. “This ends up with fewer jobs. That’s how the automakers cut costs.”

Fain and other union leaders have argued that meeting the companies in the middle has led to dozens of plant closures, fewer union members and a growing divide between blue-collar workers and the wealthy.

So why not fight?

“This is about us doing what we got to do to take care of the working class,” Fain said Friday. “This isn’t just about the UAW. This is about working people everywhere in this country. No matter what you do for a living, you deserve your fair share of equity.”

GM CEO Mary Barra on UAW strike: We put a historic offer on the table

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Why auto worker strikes against GM, Ford and Stellantis seem inevitable

Members of the United Auto Workers union hold a rally and practice picket near a Stellantis plant in Detroit, Aug. 23, 2023.

Michael Wayland / CNBC

DETROIT – United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain appears ready to fire up the picket lines.

The union’s bulldog new leader has repeatedly vowed to drive a hard bargain with Detroit automakers General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis in contract negotiations ahead of an expiration at 11:59 p.m. on Sept 14.

He’s maintained it’s a hard deadline that his leadership team does not plan to extend, like the union has in the past, and that he’s not afraid to take roughly 150,000 auto workers out of factories if necessary.

That — plus the revelation late Thursday that Fain and the union filed unfair labor practice charges against GM and Stellantis with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming the companies weren’t bargaining in good faith — makes a strike against one, if not all three of the automakers, increasingly inevitable.

Unlike prior union leaders, Fain is attempting to negotiate with all three automakers at once, refusing to select a “target” company to focus on while extending deals at the others. He’s also been far more confrontational with the automakers compared to previous union leaders, at times launching personal attacks on executives.

There’s a belief among some industry analysts and experts that a strike, or several, may be necessary to convince UAW members that the union leaders fought as hard as they could to reach the demands.

“I expect there to be a strike,” said Art Wheaton, a labor professor at the Worker Institute at Cornell University. “I think there’s a reasonable chance they strike Stellantis first and then give a couple more days for Ford and GM to give a better offer.”

Wheaton believes that a strike at Stellantis is nearly guaranteed with the sides as far apart as they are now. The union could use that work stoppage as a warning to GM and Ford to finalize their deals, he said.

“I think a strike is almost essential at Stellantis or they will never get a deal ratified,” Wheaton said. “Stellantis is picking a fight, saying, ‘Try me if you dare.'”

Strikes could take various forms, including a national strike, where all workers under the contract cease working, or targeted work stoppages at certain plants over local contract issues.

During a Facebook Live on Aug. 8, 2023, UAW President Shawn Fain

Screenshot

Prolonged strikes against all three of the automakers would be unprecedented and quickly impact the automotive supply chain, U.S. economy and domestic production.

The Biden administration has taken particular interest in the talks, including the appointment of longtime Democratic adviser Gene Sperling to monitor the situation for the White House.

Wall Street watching

Wall Street has warned of a potential work stoppage for several months, and investors have taken heed.

A brief survey of 99 investors by Morgan Stanley found 58% believe a strike is “extremely likely.” That’s followed by 24% who said it’s “somewhat likely.” Just 16% said a strike was unlikely, while 2% said it was “neither likely not unlikely.”

Industry and labor experts agree, and for good reason.

The impending contract deadline follows combative rhetoric by Fain and other union leaders; a years-long labor movement involving work stoppages, including the UAW; and ambitious demands by the union for 40% or more pay increases, retention of platinum healthcare and a 32-hour workweek.

Such demands aren’t typically made public or even fully reported until close to the end of the negotiations, in part as an effort to bargain in good faith but also to avoid setting expectations — either too high or too low — for UAW members, who need to ratify the contracts after the sides announce a tentative agreement.

“I’ve always said that the best way to reach agreements is to be negotiating with each other and not in the newspapers, TV or anywhere else,” said Dennis Devaney, senior counsel at Clark Hill who formerly served as a NLRB board member and attorney for GM and Ford. “I don’t think the public negotiation … is really going to move things along.”

United Auto Workers members on strike picket outside General Motors’ Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant on Sept. 25, 2019 in Detroit.

Michael Wayland / CNBC

o be clear, it’s not exclusively up to Fain to call for strikes. It’s up to the UAW’s 14-member International Executive Board (IEB), which Fain leads as president. The leaders, based on weighted votes, must approve such a work stoppage by a two-thirds majority vote.

Then there’s the question of how long a strike would last.

Of its surveyed investors, Morgan Stanley found the vast majority of respondents (96%) expected a potential strike to last longer than a week. Over a third (34%) expect the strike to last longer than a month.

A strike against GM in 2019 during the last round of contract negotiations lasted 40 days and cost the automaker $3.6 billion in earnings that year, GM reported at the time.

The UAW has more than $825 million in its strike fund, which it uses to pay eligible members who are on strike. The strike pay is $500 per week for each member.

Assuming 150,000 or so UAW members covered by the contracts, strike pay would cost the union about $75 million per week. A fund of $825 million, then, would cover about 11 weeks. One caveat: that doesn’t include health-care costs that the union would cover, such as temporary COBRA plans, that would likely drain the fund far more quickly.

Ratification

For much of the union’s history, it was largely expected that members would ultimately approve whatever deal was bargained and endorsed by UAW leaders.

However, in recent negotiations, that hasn’t been the case and the sides have needed to return to the negotiating table.

That was the situation two rounds of negotiations ago, in 2015, with then-Fiat Chrysler, now Stellantis, workers, who voted down a tentative agreement. That same year, GM skilled trade workers also voted against a tentative deal with the Detroit automaker, stalling ratification.

Typically, once a tentative deal is reached between the union and an automaker, the members of that automaker will then vote by local organization on whether to accept the tentative agreement and make it a contract. The whole ratification process can take about two weeks for each company.

“The UAW’s tentative agreement with an automaker is really a set of agreements—the main text, as well as appendixes for different aspects, such as pensions and retirement plans, health care benefits, supplemental unemployment benefits, profit sharing, personal savings plans, life and disability benefits, dependent care benefits, and salaried workers (for those who are also UAW-represented),” said Kristin Dziczek, automotive policy advisor for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s Detroit branch, in a blog post.

In 2019, it took eight additional weeks to negotiate and ratify all three agreements once the first tentative agreement was reached following GM’s strike. The negotiations and ratification voting ended in early December.

Spokespeople for the automakers declined to comment directly for this article, but reiterated that their teams continue to bargain in good faith with the union in hopes of deals that benefit both sides.

– CNBC’s Michael Bloom contributed to this report.

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What Wall Street needs to know about UAW talks, a potential strike, and what it could all cost

United Auto Workers members on strike picket outside General Motors’ Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant in Detroit, Sept. 25, 2019.

Michael Wayland / CNBC

DETROIT – The Oracle of Omaha is cutting exposure to the U.S. automotive industry amid union negotiations — potentially for good reason.

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway this week said it nearly halved its stake in General Motors in the second quarter. While the firm didn’t disclose its reasoning, the sale front runs what is expected to be a challenging end of the year for the U.S. automotive industry, plagued by contentious contract talks between the United Auto Workers union and GM, Ford Motor and Stellantis.

The talks, which cover nearly 150,000 U.S. auto workers, could cost the automakers billions of dollars in additional labor costs, work stoppages or, in a worst-case scenario, both.

New UAW leadership team has dubbed these talks the union’s “defining moment.” President Shawn Fain has already deployed harsh messaging and a few theatrics, including throwing contract proposals by Stellantis in a trash bin, and there’s been little to no talk about “give and take” or “win-win” deals.

“They’re ready to strike if a deal does not happen,” said Melissa Atkins, a labor and employment partner at Obermayer. “Going in with that mindset, I anticipate it being very contentious … and just given the history, there probably will be a strike.”

Aggressive efforts by the union are great for organized labor and the embattled UAW, which is attempting to regain its footing after a yearslong federal corruption probe landed several top leaders in prison for bribery, embezzlement and other crimes — but not for the companies or their shareholders.

Here are the numbers investors should know ahead of the expiration date for current contracts between the Detroit automakers and UAW at 11:59 p.m. ET on Sept. 14.

$80 billion

Contract proposals made by the UAW at this point would add more than $80 billion in labor costs for each of the biggest U.S. automakers over the length of the contract, Bloomberg News first reported earlier this month.

“One might think of these UAW contracts as a set of three large purchase orders to secure the labor needed to assemble future vehicles, parts, and components—contracts that are collectively worth roughly $70–$80 billion over the course of the next four years,” Kristin Dziczek, automotive policy advisor for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s Detroit branch, wrote in a Wednesday blog post.

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain greets workers at the Stellantis Sterling Heights Assembly Plant, to mark the beginning of contract negotiations in Sterling Heights, Michigan, U.S. July 12, 2023. 

Rebecca Cook | Reuters

The demands include a 46% wage increase, restoration of traditional pensions, cost-of-living increases, reducing the work week to 32 hours from 40 and increasing retiree benefits.

If the UAW gets those demands, without any changes to other benefits, the all-in hourly labor cost for the automakers would more than double from at least $64 per hour to more than $150 per hour, according to media reports.

That would be a significant increase over wage hikes seen during the previous four-year agreements, according to estimates from the Center for Automotive Research. The 2019 deals were projected to increase average hourly labor costs over the length of the contracts by $11 per worker for then-Fiat Chrysler, now Stellantis, and $8 per worker at GM and Ford.

Under the current pay structure, UAW members start at about $18 an hour and have a “grow-in” period of four years to reach a top wage of more than $30 an hour.

$5 billion

A work stoppage by nearly 150,000 UAW workers at GM, Ford and Stellantis would result in an economic loss of more than $5 billion after 10 days, according to Anderson Economic Group, a Michigan-based consulting firm that closely tracks such events.

AEG estimates the total economic loss by calculating potential losses to UAW workers, the manufacturers and to the auto industry more broadly if the sides cannot reach tentative agreements before the current contracts expire.

In another analysis, Deutsche Bank previously estimated that a strike would hit earnings at each affected automaker by about $400 million to $500 million per week of production.

Strikes could take several forms: a national strike, where all workers under the contract cease working, or targeted work stoppages at certain plants over local contract issues. A strike against all three automakers, as Fain has alluded to, would be the most impactful but also the riskiest and most costly for the union.

$825 million

The UAW has more than $825 million in its strike fund, which it uses to pay eligible members who are on strike. The strike pay is $500 per week for each member – up from $275 in 2022.

Speaking in front of a backdrop of American-made vehicles and a UAW sign, President Joe Biden, then a presidential candidate, speaks about new proposals to protect U.S. jobs during a campaign stop in Warren, Michigan, Sept. 9, 2020.

Leah Millis | Reuters

1.5 million

If the union decides to strike against all three Detroit automakers, production losses would quickly add up.

S&P Global Mobility estimates a 10-week strike would mean lost production of roughly 1.5 million units, according to an investor note from Mizuho Securities USA.

A 40-day strike against GM during the last round of negotiations in 2019 led to a production loss of 300,000 vehicles, the company said then. It also cost the automaker $3.6 billion in earnings, GM said.

Industry experts argue that a strike against all or any of the automakers would likely impact the operations and bottom lines of the companies more quickly than four years ago since the U.S. auto industry is still recovering from supply chain problems caused during the coronavirus pandemic.

Vehicle inventory levels for the automakers also are lower than they were heading into the talks four years ago.

Heading into 2019 contract negotiations, U.S. vehicle supply was 3.73 million — essentially enough units to last 86 days of selling under normal conditions at the time, according to Cox Automotive. The industry is currently just under 2 million units, with 56 days’ supply.

“In 2019, there was quite a slack in there. There’s almost no slack now,” AEG CEO Patrick Anderson said Thursday during a webinar with the Automotive Press Association. “If we are to get a strike, within the first week, the numbers start to get serious for each of the automakers.”

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Why Amazon built a second headquarters and how the pandemic reshaped HQ2

Six years ago, Amazon kicked off a sweepstakes-style contest in search of where to build a second headquarters. The competition drew bids from 238 states, provinces and cities vying to be the next anchor for the nation’s dominant online retailer and second-largest private employer.

This week, Amazon formally opened the doors of the first part of its new East Coast headquarters, dubbed HQ2, in northern Virginia. The first phase, called Metropolitan Park, includes two 22-story office towers, which can accommodate 14,000 of the 25,000 employees Amazon plans to bring on in Arlington. About 2,900 employees have already moved in, and Met Park will be occupied by 8,000 employees in the fall.

Amazon built its headquarters in Seattle in 1994 partly because of the area’s deep pool of tech talent and the presence of Microsoft in nearby Redmond, Washington. The company’s Seattle campus now spans tens of millions of square feet across more than 40 office buildings, and the greater Puget Sound area has 65,000 corporate and technical Amazon employees.

It raises the question why Amazon, with its sprawling campus in Seattle and a growing real estate footprint globally, needed to build a second headquarters.

Around 2005, as Amazon’s business grew and its campus ballooned in Seattle, founder and then-CEO Jeff Bezos began to consider where the company should expand next.

At all-hands meetings, employees would ask Bezos “if we would ever be in one location at one time,” said John Schoettler, Amazon’s real estate chief, in an interview.

“I think that there was a romantic notion that we as a company would only be so big that we’d all fit inside one building,” Schoettler said. “[Bezos] had said, well, we have long-term leases and when those leases come up, I’ll work with John and the real estate team and we’ll figure out what to do next.”

John Schoettler, Amazon’s vice president of global real estate and facilities, walks Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin through HQ2.

Tasha Dooley

Originally, Bezos suggested Amazon stay around the Puget Sound area, but the conversation then shifted to recreating the “neighborhood” feel of its Seattle campus elsewhere, Schoettler said.

“We could have gone out to the suburbs and we could have taken some farmland and knocked some trees down, and we would’ve built a campus that would have been very inward-looking,” he said. “They generally have a north or south entrance and exit east or west. When you put yourself in the middle of the urban fabric and create a walkable neighborhood, an 18-hour district, you become very outward, and you become very part of the community, and that’s what we wanted.”

Holly Sullivan, Amazon’s vice president of economic development, said it would have been harder for Amazon to create that kind of environment had it “sprinkled these employees around 15 other tech hubs or 17 other tech hubs around North America.”

“So what HQ2 has provided is the opportunity for that more in-depth collaboration and being part of a neighborhood,” Sullivan said.

‘I don’t see us getting bigger in Seattle whatsoever’

Amazon’s highly publicized search for a second headquarters has faced some challenges. In 2018, Amazon announced it would split HQ2 between New York’s Long Island City neighborhood, and the Crystal City area of Arlington, Virginia. But after public and political outcry, Amazon canceled its plans to build a corporate campus in Long Island City.

The company’s arrival in Arlington has generated concerns of rising housing costs and displacement. The company said it has committed more than $1 billion to build and preserve affordable homes in the region.

Schoettler said Amazon intends to focus much of its future growth in Arlington and in Nashville, Tennessee, where the company’s logistics hub is based. It also plans to hire as many as 12,000 people in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, he added.

“I don’t see us getting bigger in Seattle whatsoever,” Schoettler said. “I think that we’re pretty much tapped out there.”

HQ2 has some of the same quirks as Amazon’s Seattle campus. There’s a community banana stand staffed by “banistas” and white boards on the walls of building elevators. Amazon has a dog-friendly vibe at its Seattle office, which carried over to Metropolitan Park, where there’s a public dog park, and a gallery wall of the dogs of Amazon employees. The towers feature plant-filled terraces and a rooftop urban farm that echoes the feel of the “Spheres,” botanical gardenlike workspaces that anchor Amazon’s Seattle office.

Metropolitan Park is the first phase of Amazon’s new Arlington headquarters, called HQ2.

Tasha Dooley

Amazon is opening HQ2 at an uncertain time for the company and the broader tech sector. Many of the biggest companies in the industry, including Amazon, have eliminated thousands of jobs and reined in spending following periods of slowing revenue growth and fears of a recession ahead.

Companies have also been confronting questions about what work looks like in a post-pandemic environment. Many employees have grown accustomed to working from home and have been reluctant to return to the office. Amazon last month began requiring corporate employees to work from the office at least three days a week, which generated pushback from some workers who prefer greater flexibility.

Amazon tweaked the design of HQ2 around the expectation that employees wouldn’t be coming into the office every day.

Communal work spaces are more common, and there’s less assigned seating, Schoettler said. Employees may only be at a desk 30% of the day, with the rest of their time spent in conference rooms, or having casual coffee meetings with coworkers, he said.

“If we don’t come in that day, no one else will utilize the space,” Schoettler said. “And so that way, you can come in, the desk is open and it’s not been personalized with family photos and that type of thing. You can sit down and absolutely utilize the space, and then go off about your day.”

Amazon’s HQ2 features some of the same quirks as its Seattle headquarters, like a community banana stand.

Tasha Dooley

The shift to a hybrid working environment has also influenced the further development of HQ2. Amazon in March said it had pushed out the groundbreaking of PenPlace, the second phase of its Arlington campus. PenPlace is expected to include three 22-story office buildings, more than 100,000 square feet of retail space and a 350-foot-tall tower, called “The Helix,” that features outdoor walkways and inside meeting areas for employees surrounded by vegetation.

Amazon will observe how employees work in the two new Metropolitan Park buildings to inform how it designs the offices at PenPlace, Schoettler said.

Amazon didn’t say when it expects to begin development of PenPlace, but it is continuing to move forward with the permitting and preconstruction process, Schoettler said.

“We just want to be really mindful, since we’re just opening these buildings, to make sure we’re doing it right,” Sullivan said. “These are large investments for us. We own these buildings, and we want to give them a long shelf life.”

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