I stayed at a free 10-day quarantine hotel in NYC when I got COVID-19. Programs like these need to be more widespread if we want to get a hold on the virus.

A man wearing a mask vacuums a hotel hallway.
A scene from the first floor of the USC Hotel on April 27, 20202 where USC medical staff are allowed to self-quarantine after working in high-risk hospital.

  • I discovered the hotel program after testing positive for COVID-19 and researching places to safely quarantine.
  • The program is open to all New Yorkers and tourists who have tested positive, but few people know about it.
  • As the Delta variant spreads, programs like this are a great way to limit transmission.
  • Catherine Morrison is a writer and recent graduate from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Dani and his mother Gloria hadn’t planned to stay in New York City for long. Traveling from Paraguay, they arrived in New York on June 28. They came to get a vaccination for Dani, 20, an electrical engineering student who is not yet eligible for the COVID vaccine in their home country.

The day before they were scheduled to board their flight home, Dani and Gloria found themselves staying in a hotel with scheduled meals, nurses visits, and outdoor breaks. They had tested positive for COVID-19, and the city recommended a stay at a COVID-19 isolation hotel. I met them because I had checked in, too.

NYC Health and Hospitals initially implemented the Isolation Hotel Program in April 2020. While the program provides a safe, affordable space for local residents and travelers to quarantine, very few have ever heard of it. So much so that I thought it was an online scam when I was desperately researching places I could stay to avoid infecting my roommate. New York’s COVID-19 hotels are a powerful weapon in the arsenal against the pandemic, especially as variants continue to rise.

According to a spokesperson for NYC Health and Hospitals, the initial goal of the program was to provide safer spaces for patients suspected or confirmed to be exposed to COVID-19, who had been discharged from inpatient and emergency room settings, and who did not have places to isolate or quarantine. Now, the program is open to any New York residents – individuals who tested positive and their roommates – or out-of-state travelers who have tested positive or have been exposed to the virus.

New York operated five hotels at the peak of the pandemic, but hotels were decommissioned as infection rates decreased. Since March 2020, over 24,000 New York residents have checked in, but the hotels have never been at capacity.

The exterior of the hotel.
The Laguardia Plaza Hotel on the afternoon of July 8, captured during a scheduled outdoor break

While New York’s isolation program is not the only one in the country, it is one of the largest. Other major cities like Chicago, Baltimore, San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas, Miami, and cities across California also have programs for those in need of quarantining spaces. More rural areas, however, have yet to implement such programs.

“We know of no other city that created a hotel program as early or extensively as our own,” a spokesperson for NYC Health and Hospitals said.

Now that variants have sparked a new wave, officials anticipate the number of patients to increase again, but shouldn’t we be doing more to ensure people in need know about this option?

Staying in the isolation hotel

I checked into the hotel on the same day as Dani and Gloria. I had woken up that morning with a runny nose and a slight cough. To plan for the worst, I made my way to the CityMD walk-in clinic to get a rapid test. As I left the clinic, I got a call from the doctor.

“I’m sorry, but your result was actually positive,” she said.

The person I was most worried about infecting was my roommate. After texting her that I was positive, I locked myself in my room until she could go get tested – thankfully she tested negative. Knowing that I wouldn’t want to put her at risk by staying in our small apartment, I started looking into options for alternative housing. She was the one who sent me a text about the isolation hotel program. Immediately, I got on the phone and, within three hours, a car was downstairs, ready to drive me off to the hotel – at no charge because they didn’t want me to take public transit.

Eligible under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the city offers the program to guests entirely free, including a 10-night stay with three daily meals, a weekly laundry service, and four outdoor breaks a day.

During the outdoor breaks, I spoke with the other guests to hear about how they got to the hotel. Everyone I met decided to enroll in fear of getting someone else infected.

Dani and Gloria were staying at Dani’s aunt’s apartment in Astoria, Queens when they got the news. Unsure of what to do, they got a call from the city the next morning informing them of the program and were brought via government-ordered ride share service to the LaGuardia Plaza Hotel.

“We were scared and we were looking for hotels to go to because we didn’t want to infect [Dani’s aunt],” Dani said. “And then they called us. We were so relieved.”

A man and a women smile at the camera. They are sitting at a table outside.
Dani and Gloria on June 30, 2021, two days after arriving in New York City.

As I met more hotel guests, I questioned why more New Yorkers didn’t use this program. Most infected residents probably assume there aren’t reasonable alternatives and decide to isolate at home. But as household transmission is responsible for a vast majority of infections, and 77% of those infected with COVID admit they cannot effectively isolate at home, why wouldn’t more New Yorkers try to find a safe space to quarantine?

While it could be fear of leaving their homes, or being surrounded by other sick guests, or not having the knowledge of the program, it’s evident that, in order for these programs to be most successful, the city needs to find ways to make it more accessible and the case for isolating effectively more compelling.

No one knows about this program

My classmate who also got infected when I did, Nidhi Upadhyaya, only learned about the program after the city contacted her two days after getting tested, once she had already found alternative accommodation.

“I was absolutely terrified about infecting my roommate,” Upadhyaya said.

From social media advertisements to billboards to pamphlets handed out at testing centers around the city, there’s so much more the city could do to make individuals aware of the program.

“The program almost seems intentionally hidden,” Jon Orbach, my other classmate who tested positive, said. “There could be advertisements on the subway or online. The only way of knowing about this program would have been word of mouth, so any advertisements would have increased public awareness.”

A spokesperson from NYC Health and Hospitals explained that the city has released multiple campaigns promoting the hotel program, including on social media – though they have mainly been aimed at individuals with COVID-19 or those who have been exposed.

A hotel room with two beds, a window, and a desk.
My room at the LaGuardia Plaza Hotel.

Missing from the hotel were New York’s homeless – some of the most vulnerable during the pandemic. Between July 2019 and June 2020, 613 homeless New Yorkers died, a 52% increase from the previous year, indicating the tragic effects of the pandemic. With many of the city’s homeless living in shelters, where keeping a safe distance is nearly impossible, COVID was the leading cause of this increase in deaths.

However, New York is not alone in facing this problem. With over 580,000 people in the United States experiencing homelessness and COVID breakouts occurring in shelters around the country, it’s essential that this community have access to services like hotel isolation programs.

A spokesperson from NYC Health and Hospitals told me that people are most commonly referred to the program from a medical setting. Unfortunately, the homeless often don’t have access to medical services that would allow for them to access referrals or learn about the isolation program. The spokesperson did say that the Department of Homeless Services also maintains a hotel isolation program.

While breakthrough cases were once seen as rare, they are now happening all over the country. As cases continue to increase, it’s clear that isolation programs will be even more important. Those living in community living situations, with elderly or sick people in their homes, and those with medical issues themselves benefit tremendously from having a safe place to quarantine.

It’s important that cities that already have services in place work to better market their programs to reach residents and visitors. As well, it’s crucial that they integrate the homeless community into their program to ensure they’re able to access the shelter they need to recover.

For those cities and states that don’t yet have hotel isolation programs at all, it’s time to work with cities like New York who have established hotel isolation programs to make quarantining spaces available across the country.

Read the original article on Business Insider

America’s unemployment system is broken. With millions of workers still without jobs, it’s time to finally fix it.

Unemployment protest
Unemployed people at a rally last year in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

  • Federal pandemic unemployment insurance provided essential support to unemployed workers.
  • Now that it’s gone, the disjointed unemployment insurance system once again excludes most who need help.
  • If it doesn’t act, Congress risks making porous unemployment insurance a silent crisis until the next recession.
  • Julia Raifman, ScD is an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health and leads the COVID-19 US State Policy database.
  • Will Raderman is a research fellow at the Boston University School of Public Health and contributor to the COVID-19 US State Policy database.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

How many families might never experience food insecurity if permanent improvements were made to unemployment insurance? As unemployment shot up to historic highs because of the pandemic, new Census data show that the poverty rate went down. Congress protected people who lost work with legislation that included necessary expansions to unemployment insurance. Reforming unemployment insurance will ensure similar safeguards are in place at all times.

Federal pandemic supplements supported millions of workers and their families during a period of intense tumult. Gig workers and those in less conventional positions, who are typically ineligible for state unemployment insurance, could qualify for federal assistance. The higher benefit amounts distributed were associated with reduced food insecurity, and the improved benefit durations allowed for financial stability across many months of unalterable unemployment. Such enhancements reduced risk of depressive symptoms and helped prevent long-term health damage to workers and their children.

The upgrades were a major divergence from the pre-pandemic norms, when millions of unemployed workers were left stranded with insufficient access, amounts, and lengths of assistance. This month’s expiration of federal unemployment programs ensured the immediate resumption of that inadequate system, hurting ten million workers now and tens of millions more in the years to come. Without implementing improved and lasting national standards in the reconciliation bill, Congress once again risks making porous unemployment insurance a silent crisis until the next recession. Out of sight and out of mind, except for those out of work.

Major economic downturns, like the past year and a half, result in extended periods of unemployment. These moments typically receive intensive media attention and legislative responses. Less discussed is the fact that there is a constant cycle of job churn even in normal years, with numbers of job separations comparable to the past twelve months. In 2019 alone, the equivalent of 11% of the total labor force went from employed to an unemployed designation at some point. Meanwhile, state unemployment insurance systems excluded most by design.

Workers in the United States require the same consistent income protections provided to people transitioning between jobs in other nations. This is the time to enact three key changes to improve regular unemployment insurance in the upcoming reconciliation bill: larger weekly payment amounts provided to unemployed workers, easier rules to qualify, and longer eligibility periods.

Workers need improved programs

Bigger benefits are needed. In the first quarter of this year, the average unemployment insurance amount provided by regular state programs was below a full-time federal minimum wage job for workers in 16 states. Zero states guarantee a minimum weekly benefit amount equivalent to the federal minimum wage. Without the now-expired federal supplements, insurance meant to provide safe financial continuity between jobs does not ensure security.

That assumes the worker even qualifies. Just over 1 in 4 unemployed workers received benefits in 2019. More people were excluded than included. Recent entrants to the labor force, those returning to work after raising children, gig workers, and self employed individuals are among the tens of millions of people typically unable to qualify. Many who were ineligible for regular unemployment insurance were able to receive payments through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, but it expired on Labor Day in states that kept it active through the summer. Normal eligibility must be broadened to help a greater number of lower-income workers and those in nontraditional employment situations.

Those who are struggling to find new jobs for more than 6 months – presently 3.18 million individuals – have now lost virtually all remaining support except those in the few states with Extended Benefits programs still running. As the volume of recent research indicates, the financial cut-off is unlikely to impact overall employment levels or speed of labor recovery, but will force families to drastically reduce their spending.

Officials argue there’s been sufficient time to find work, but this doesn’t reflect the current state of affairs – the dangerous Delta variant, inconsistent childcare, and climate disasters in regions across the country – nor does it address the challenges facing workers whose duration of unemployment is over 26 weeks, the maximum span which state unemployment insurance benefits generally last for. This group of the long-term unemployed has grown in size during the pandemic, but in every single month since November 2001, there have been over a million long-term unemployed workers.

Finding a job is challenging. As time stretches on, it gets harder and harder to be considered for positions, and the probability of employment in the future worsens. The longer someone is unemployed, the weaker their attachment to the job market becomes. Unemployed workers’ likelihood of withdrawing from the workforce completely goes up. Unemployment insurance gives them a reason to keep searching and reduces their risk of death. The length of benefit eligibility needs to be extended.

In addition to better baseline levels, linking benefit enhancements to unemployment data would ensure that unemployment insurance is automatically extended in recessions without the need for congressional action or susceptibility to politics as seen this summer. Policymakers ignored relevant evidence with harmful consequences. Despite firm declarations that unemployment insurance was slowing job growth, states that retained the federal expansions saw more employment growth in August than states that cut benefits.

High pandemic unemployment revealed cracks in the system that have long existed. Federal programs that temporarily fixed that damage serve as an example of how we can make enduring improvements to policies.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Insulin prices have tripled over the past decade. Diabetics like me are now being forced to choose between paying for groceries or our medication.

Why Is Insulin Expensive
  • The price of insulin has increased drastically over the past 20 years.
  • Diabetics often ration their insulin, with deadly results, because of the skyrocketing price.
  • Biden has proposed a measure that would let Medicare negotiate lower prices for medications.
  • Melissa McEwen is a diabetic from Helena, Montana.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

At 15, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. That was 21 years ago, when a vial of insulin cost $25. Today, that same vial can cost up to $600.

Without health insurance, supplies to treat my diabetes would cost more than $1200 a month. If I had to pay that out of pocket each month, I would end up rationing my insulin and potentially dying from this disease, a fate many people have succumbed to.

I was born and raised in Helena, Montana where I still live with my husband and stepson. I work at the Department of Corrections and receive incredible insurance through the state. This coverage makes the cost of my health care manageable, but that hasn’t always been the case.

Back when I was first diagnosed, the technology to monitor your blood sugar level was not as advanced as it is today. As a result, my eyesight worsened. Diabetics go through vision changes and problems — it just comes with the territory. To save my eyesight, I get injections in both eyes every three months. Even with great insurance, each eye injection costs $500 totalling $4,000 a year. This treatment prevents my retinas from detaching, saving my eyesight and allowing me to continue working. It is as essential as my insulin.

About 10 years later, I worked at a bank that didn’t have great insurance. I had to pay a $3,000 deductible out of pocket before insurance would start to cover the cost of any of my medication. That means that for two months every year, an entire paycheck would go to pay for my diabetic supplies. Thankfully, we had my husband’s paycheck to draw on. I held a second job to help pay for necessities, since most of my income was going towards insulin and medical supplies.

This past decade alone, insulin prices have tripled in the United States, despite the costs of producing the drug remaining virtually unchanged. I think back sometimes to a childhood friend who rationed his insulin. He was always sick, because he couldn’t afford his treatment.

But it’s not just diabetics who struggle to afford their life-saving medications. Three in 10 Americans don’t take their medicine as prescribed due to the costs. We live in the richest country in the world, so why are there so many people working full time who can’t afford the medication they need to live?

President Biden’s Build Back Better plan will allow Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices, having an industry-wide impact reducing the cost of prescription drugs. These negotiated prices would be available to private healthcare payers and businesses as well. This will save households $120 billion and private businesses $43 billion over a decade. Diabetics could save thousands of dollars each year on insulin alone. For many Americans, these savings could be the difference between life and death.

My journey has not been easy, but it is much better than what many diabetics face. I’ve never gone without my basic needs covered, and that is a luxury that a lot of diabetics don’t have.

Nearly nine out of 10 Americans agree that the government should be able to negotiate lower drug prices. It just makes sense. Regardless of whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, this is good policy and the right thing to do.

Diabetics face a daily struggle: Counting carbs, adjusting insulin for everything we eat, waking up with low or high blood sugar, which can cause us to go into a diabetic coma. We should not have to also worry about whether we can afford our insulin. Diabetics have been abused by pharmaceutical companies for far too long, it’s time that Congress stand up for us.

Read the original article on Business Insider

The US has blown over $21 trillion on the War on Terror instead of ideas like forgiving student debt or improved healthcare. Now t’s time to invest in making American lives better.

National Guard
The National Guard in Washington, DC in January 2021.

  • Since the 9/11 attacks, the US has spent $21 trillion on wars and militarism.
  • For less than half that, we could decarbonize the electric grid, deeply reduce child poverty, and more.
  • With US troops out of Afghanistan, it’s time to reinvest in these 20 years of missed opportunities.
  • Lindsay Koshgarian directs the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. She’s the lead author of the new report State of Insecurity: The Cost of Militarization Since 9/11.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As the US marked the end of the war in Afghanistan, President Biden zeroed in on a critical question: “What have we lost as a consequence in terms of opportunities?”

The president noted that we have spent $300 million a day in Afghanistan for 20 years. It’s a shocking figure, but it’s only part of the cost of the wide-ranging militarization the US has undertaken around the world and in our own country since 9/11.

Twenty years after 9/11, our thoroughly militarized foreign and domestic policies have come at a cost of $21 trillion over the last two decades, according to new research my coauthors and I published at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Those costs have included the wars, ballooning Pentagon budgets, and our massive global military presence. They also include punitive immigration and border enforcement and the reorientation of the FBI, DEA, and other law enforcement agencies around counterterrorism with newly expanded powers.

This spending has done massive damage in its own right.

US militarized spending since 9/11 has caused 900,000 deaths from the global war on terror and led to 5 million deportations from this country. It has put $1.8 billion worth of military equipment on city streets, singled out Black and Latinx people to be put behind bars for primarily nonviolent crimes, and fueled FBI programs that targeted people based on nothing more than their race, ethnicity or religion. And that’s just for starters.

It’s also, as the president suggested, money that simply hasn’t been spent on other things.

We’re still in the middle of a pandemic that has cost more than 600,000 lives in the US alone. Millions of Americans face homelessness now that most eviction moratoriums have ended. We have an ongoing opioid epidemic that costs almost 50,000 lives a year. Thousands of people in every part of the country have lost their homes or lives to fires and floods that were previously unthinkable, but have become common because of climate change.

Each of these crises is an emergency, but we still hear from too many in Congress that real solutions are just too expensive. But what if we spent even a portion of the $21 trillion we’ve sunk into militarism on those things instead?

Crisis solutions cost less than war

It turns out that many of the ambitious plans we hear are “too expensive” would cost just a fraction of the $21 trillion we’ve spent on militarism. It would cost less than a quarter of that – $4.5 trillion – to build an entirely renewable energy grid, decarbonizing electricity generation across the entire country.

It would cost just $1.7 trillion to forgive student debt.

For $2.3 trillion, we could create 5 million jobs paying $15 an hour with benefits – for 10 years.

For $449 billion – just 2% of our militarized spending – we could keep putting money in the pockets of families with children by expanding the Child Tax Credit another 10 years, helping people stay in their homes, giving kids a fair start in life, and tremendously reducing child poverty.

And it would cost just $25 billion – just one-tenth of 1% of $21 trillion – to vaccinate low-income countries against COVID, saving lives and stopping the spread of new coronavirus variants.

Even if we did all of those things, it still adds up to less than half what we’ve spent on militarism in the last 20 years.

Divest from militarization

We’re not saying we need to erase all of these expenses. We clearly need to take care of veterans who were put in harm’s way because of our policies, for example. But we can minimize these and other costs in the future by ending our reliance on militarization and war – which, as the ignominious end of our occupation of Afghanistan suggests, has proven a massive failure.

The fact that we’ve spent $21 trillion on militarism in 20 years proves one thing: When the country prioritizes something, we have both the money and the political will to make it happen.

But so far, Congress isn’t shifting priorities. On September 1, the House Armed Services Committee voted to add $25 billion – coincidentally, the same amount it would cost to vaccinate the rest of the planet against COVID-19 – to the already huge Pentagon budget for weapons military leaders didn’t even ask for. They’re out of step with Americans, the majority of whom said in a poll last year that they would rather cut the Pentagon budget by 10% to pay for other priorities.

At the end of the Cold War, the US cut back on Pentagon spending as part of a “peace dividend.” The US has finally withdrawn the last troops from Afghanistan. The end of this war can give us a peace dividend to reinvest at home, if Congress and President Biden are bold enough to claim it. After 20 years of missed opportunities for our infrastructure, our jobs, and our planet, we can’t afford not to.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Private companies are exploiting international travelers with outrageous COVID-19 testing costs

Visitors at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu, Hawaii, enter the state after the new pre-travel testing program launched.
Visitors at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu, Hawaii, enter the state after the new pre-travel testing program launched.

  • Testing for my family of four to travel from the UK to Spain cost £550, or $762.
  • There is no reason that testing needs to cost this much, especially when there are free at-home tests available.
  • Private companies are jacking up prices, making overseas travel out of reach for many.
  • Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a freelance writer, journalist and editor based in the UK.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

PCR testing has emerged as a multi-billion dollar industry, and the UK is the world’s second most expensive place for COVID travel tests, behind only the US. With extortionate prices for PCR tests, overseas holidays were pushed off-limits for many UK families this year, making trips abroad a luxury of the better off.

Determined to visit our ramshackle old farmhouse in the Andalusian mountains in Spain where myself, my husband, and our two boys lived for the better part of a decade, we had no choice but to pay the exorbitant expense of COVID travel testing.

The compulsory testing equated to an additional £550 ($762) on top of the cost of the holiday, and the sum would have been significantly higher if myself and my husband had not been fully vaccinated. The Spanish government requires all arrivals to Spain from Britain to show a negative PCR test taken within 72 prior to arrival, or proof of full vaccination – our unvaccinated teenage sons had to have a PCR test before leaving the UK at the cost of £70 ($97) each.

The majority of the COVID testing budget was spent on re-entering Britain, where a compulsory day two test administered by Randox – hailed as the UK’s largest COVID-19 PCR testing provider – cost us £240 ($332).

This was on top of the 160 euros we had to pay just a couple of days earlier to acquire a negative COVID antigen test certificate in order to leave Spain. This nasal swab test, like the rapid ‘self tests’ that are provided for free for domestic use in Britain, doesn’t have to be sent off to a laboratory and provides results within 30 minutes. The tests were administered by a doctor in a private clinic in our local Spanish town.

At one level, some may argue that charging for COVID testing to travel is not unreasonable. If people choose to travel abroad during these precarious times, they should be charged accordingly, and should bear in mind the additional cost of PCR tests before booking their holidays – a “you’ve made your bed, now lie in it” attitude.

However, rather than merely being a matter of choice that comes with additional financial burden, excessive COVID travel costs symbolize escalating inequality in the wake of the pandemic. As many private firms enjoy a COVID windfall, making huge profits on testing, the less wealthy are forced to forgo holidays abroad as travel becomes something only the rich can afford.

The ‘cheaper’ tests are unavailable

Others who took the plunge and travelled overseas this summer cite similar grievances about the cost of testing. Paula Kowalska recently returned from travelling to an “amber” country – a nation sandwiched between the “safe” green countries that require no quarantine regardless of vaccination status and the “high-risk” red countries on the UK government’s travel traffic light system. Kowalska said she was shocked to find the tests she had bought less than a month ago for £35 were no longer available, replaced by ones that cost £60-£70.

“The government website advises the availability of £20 tests. However, these are so limited they are never available or are available by appointment only in certain locations, with 4 or 5 slots a day only,” she told me.

And yet, COVID testing for travel purposes in certain countries is significantly cheaper and, in some instances, free – indicating that there are bigger issues at play.

A friend of mine, who has dual Czech and British citizenship, recently travelled back to Britain from the Czech Republic. The COVID test she was required to take before leaving the Czech Republic and re-entering Britain was offered for free since she was a Czech citizen.

Some nations are even using COVID tests for travel as a political tool. France offered free COVID tests for tourists. However, as of July 7, 2021, the French government decided to make tourists pay for tests, stating it was about “reciprocity,” since French tourists are required to pay for tests abroad. When they want to, nations can and are providing free COVID testing for travellers, so what gives in the UK?

Blatant profiteering

To shed light on the contentious cost of COVID tests for travel, I spoke to Hussain Abdeh, director at Medicine Direct, a UK-based online pharmacy.

Abdeh explained how any medical product that is sold in the UK needs to meet certain regulatory standards.

“Simply put, all PCR tests that are available in the UK meet the same standards of accuracy regardless of the prices they are sold for,” Abdeh said.

He explained the possible origins of pricing differences, saying it could be due to different manufacturing costs or wholesale costs. But this is problematic given that, as Abdeh pointed out to me, usually we would see bigger brands like Boots and Lloyds offering the cheapest prices, due to their buying power and discounts. This, however, is not the case with PCR tests, as Boots seem to be one of the most expensive on the UK market, currently at £79.

“However, with that said, the UK is allowing travel from some countries that offer a free PCR testing service such as Germany and Italy. This tells me that the free PCR testing services being offered by those countries also meet the standards for PCR tests that have been implemented in the UK,” Abdeh told me.

The inconsistency in costs suggests an incentive of profiteering is at play.

The UK’s “test to travel” scheme has prompted concerns about Tory cronyism – whereby Conservative Party officials grant contracts to donors and connections so they can profit from the crisis.

Some of the private firms that are milking the PCR travel test market, like the Northern Ireland-based firm Randox, have links to members of the UK Conservative party. In April, Randox proudly asserted it was “supporting UK holidaymakers by reducing the cost of PCR tests to support travel to £60 per test” – again proving that the costs of tests don’t need to be as high as they are.

In November 2020, without any competition, the UK government awarded Randox, whose testing kits were recalled in the summer of 2020 because of concerns about contamination, a £347 million COVID testing contract.

Despite being awarded nearly half a billion pounds in taxpayer money, Randox continues to privately charge citizens from £86 for a travel test-at-home kit consisting of a pre-departure PCR test, a day two PCR test, and a travel certificate.

New rules confirm prices don’t need to be so high

When I reached out to the Department of Health and Social Care for commentary on the cost of COVID travel tests, they stated:

“Our top priority has always been protecting the public and the robust border and testing regime we have in place is helping minimise the risk of new variants coming into the UK.

We are reviewing all private providers to ensure they meet our robust standards and over 80 private travel testing companies have been issued a two-strike warning for inaccurate pricing and face removal from the gov.uk list if they do so again.”

On September 17, a major update on international travel rules in England was announced. New lighter testing requirements are being introduced as the government seeks to give the struggling travel sector a boost ahead of state support coming to an end this month. The overhaul means that as of October 4, people who have had two jabs will no longer need to take a COVID test before entering England. Later in October, the day two PCR tests will be able to be replaced with cheaper lateral flow tests.

For me, the scrapping of expensive test requirements and complicated travel arrangements, following months of outrage from the tourism sector and travelers, is yet more proof of the profiteering out of travel tests that has been going on for months.

It’s not like the changes are being made due to the virus shrinking. On the contrary, studies show that for some weeks now there has been a worrying waning of immunity as confirmed cases rise.

Choosing the scrap pricey tests after the summer holiday rush, as doctors warn that the country is heading to a “knife-edge” winter for the NHS, shows that the testing was fundamentally used as a means of profit from the start.

And, for families who had to forgo a holiday this year due to unfeasible additional costs, the costs are a stark exemplar at the new societal inequalities created by policy response to the pandemic.

Read the original article on Business Insider

It’s never been more clear: companies should give up on back to office and let us all work remotely, permanently

Work from home
  • With the rise of the Delta Variant, companies should switch to all remote.
  • All-remote is better for workplace collaboration, the environment, and companies’ bottom lines.
  • Companies that switch to all-remote should be intentional about collaboration and technology.
  • Jeff Chow is SVP Product at InVision.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

It’s time to go back to the office for good – the home office.

With the CDC’s recommendation that even fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors in areas with “substantial” and “high” transmission of COVID-19, employees across industries are wondering what the new future of work looks like. As the possibility of another shelter-in-place order looms, companies are deciding whether moving to a hybrid situation – simultaneously in-person and remote – is worth it.

It’s not. Simply put, the concept of “forever remote” makes sense for numerous companies and industries. For many, America’s “back to work” isn’t a simple light switch, but many organizations are better off to shut the lights off at the traditional office. The switch to all remote will broaden a company’s talent pool and increase employee happiness and retention, while limiting a lease and lowering its carbon footprint.

There are benefits to becoming a fully-remote organization. A top example is that the talent pool now goes national, or even international. Organizations are no longer limited to recruiting employees from a given radius to their offices. Asynchronous work helps to open the door for employees to work across time zones to get projects and deliverables completed in time.

InVision, where I work, has been all-remote since its inception. We have the luxury of hiring people living across the US and in 25 countries.

Additionally, without the need for a large physical office presence, companies can save hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, on leasing office space or building an expansive campus.

There is also evidence that eliminating an office for all employees to work remotely is better for the environment. Eliminating a daily commute, whether it’s driving a vehicle or taking mass transit, helps cut down on emissions. This was initially noticed back in the spring and summer of 2020, when a decline in transportation due to the COVID-19 pandemic led to a 6.4% decrease in global carbon emissions, which is the equivalent of 2.3 billion tons. The United States had the largest drop in carbon emissions at 12%, followed by the entirety of the European Union at 11%.

In a June 2021 McKinsey survey of over 1,600 employed people, researchers found about one in three workers back in an office said returning to in-person work negatively impacted their mental health. Those surveyed also reported “COVID-19 safety and flexible work arrangements could help alleviate stress” of returning to the office. Not everyone who works for the same company is going to get along. In an all-remote environment, it is far easier for people who are at odds to simply avoid each other. HR won’t have to spend nearly as much time mediating between (or terminating) office Hatfields and McCoys.

So, how exactly do you quickly pivot to remote again and stick with it? The key is intentionality. Teach managers to make a point of celebrating wins and good work on group calls. Build encouraging collaboration into managers’ Key Performance Indicators (KPI)s. Take advantage of face-to-face opportunities by holding in-person, all-company all-hands meetings as a time to build culture, not a time to just do more work.

Treat working groups to dinner (use some of the money you saved on your lease!) and let them get to know each other as people. To be intentional, invest in new ways of working that are oftentimes better ways of working: reducing necessary meetings and adjusting more feedback sessions to asynchronous collaboration. Meetings that remain on calendars should be reserved for the purpose of being highly engaging and energizing moments for teams to brainstorm and do generative sessions.

Second is technology. By now, we’re all familiar with the likes of Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams, but there are other products that can actively improve collaboration (full disclosure: I work for InVision, which makes one such digital collaboration tool, namely Freehand).

Take a thorough look with your IT team (and talk to your employees) to see what they need on a day-to-day basis. What tools does your accounting team need? Do they differ from what the marketing team needs (spoiler alert: they do). And don’t force everyone to use the same tools. If your accounting team loves Microsoft Excel, that’s fine for them. I can guarantee, however, that your product design team is not going to use it.

Finally, invest in your employees’ ability to make the transition (again).

GreenGen, which provides green energy solutions for businesses and infrastructure projects, had one of the most pioneering ideas. “We had our employees do a two-day work-from-home resiliency test. This was to ensure that everyone’s home Wi-Fi was adequate so that all of our documents and materials were easily accessible online, and that we could troubleshoot any potential problems preemptively,” said Bradford H. Dockser, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of GreenGen. “Ensuring that our team members got monitors, mice, and keyboards at home made the transition seamless.” With that sort of intentional stress test, GreenGen didn’t skip a beat.

Above all, the main key to returning to the home office for good lies within communication. Technology and innovative products have helped to bring colleagues closer together virtually, as people work from anywhere at any time. Initial shelter-in-place orders taught many businesses across industries that remote work can be just as effective, if not more so, than the traditional office model. Businesses should make the call to go all-remote permanently. Their employees, their investors, and the environment will all thank you.

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I’m a former NFL player who went through addiction and depression during my career. Athletes need better tools to deal with mental health issues.

Former NFL Player Dominique Easley is seen here practicing.
Former NFL Player Dominique Easley is seen here practicing for the New England Patriots.

  • Mental health has a direct connection to the ongoing opioid crisis in the US.
  • Athletes suffer from anxiety and depression, among other mental health issues, in silence.
  • There’s an opportunity to address mental health afflictions like any other athletic obstacle.
  • Dominique Easley is a Super Bowl-winning former NFL player and current investor.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Famed football player, coach and analyst, Lou Holtz, said it best: “Life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you respond to it.”

We as a society have had our lives dramatically altered by COVID-19, which has shaken us as individuals as the ramifications of the virus impact us all uniquely.

Similarly, I believe we have a responsibility to respond to what is happening to our athletes; to address the often unspoken crises taking place within a community commonly portrayed as superheroes, but very much vulnerable to the stressors of day to day life. These crises are exacerbated wildly in the lead up to, the duration of, and in the wake of sport milestones which, for a moment, have the power to allow the world to forget about the pandemic.

Watching Simone Biles‘ stoic response to the abuse she received at the Tokyo Olympics in putting her mental health and thus, her safety first, was a particularly painful experience that resonated with me deeply.

In football, it can be easy to forget the humanity of players because our faces are hidden behind facemasks. We are often handsomely paid for careers that many people can only dream of, and yet so few of us have the honor of living it; the euphoria of 80,000 people cheering us on and having the opportunity to provide joy for our communities.

But that privilege comes with the burden of expectations; that our pain and suffering, be it physical or mental, should be hidden, let alone tolerated, simply because we have achieved our dream jobs.

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the US every year. However while most disorders are treatable, less than 37% receive treatment, including at one time, athletes like me. Meanwhile, almost 50% of those suffering from anxiety also experience depression.

And where can pain take you? Individuals from all walks of life, who have mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, are more likely to be prescribed opioids. The National Institute of Drug Abuse reports that in 2017, an estimated 1.7 million people in the United States suffered from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers. In 2018, more than two million US adults had opioid use disorder (OUD); 62% of them also had a mental illness.

I was one of those people.

Yes, throughout my career, I suffered from depression and anxiety. I felt like I couldn’t address these afflictions because of the image I needed to portray; my stock in the eyes of my peers, my fans, even my family. Looking back, I know that the internal pain and suffering I felt that went unaddressed for far too long, deterred me from cultivating the tools to properly deal with or handle my emotions.

It’s important to note that these conditions of depression and anxiety began not just during my career but from the moment I arrived in the NFL. After being picked in the first round of the NFL draft by the New England Patriots, I was unfortunately injured. It took seven months for me to heal. During that time, I couldn’t participate in practice and because of that, I entered into a further state of depression. While I was initially excited about playing and improving myself, my being injured led to me looking inward, which was a detriment on my ability to be a good teammate. I turned to opioids due to a horrendous amount of physical and mental pain that very first season, and they became a crutch.

Seeking counsel from others and attending therapy, it took a long time to rehabilitate from opioid dependency and address my mental health issues. I’m proud to have become a better person and a better businessman (I’ve since entered the medicinal and recreational cannabis industry, joining a consortium that includes my fellow Florida Gator and NFL alumnus, Jordan Reed), a responsible entrepreneur in pursuing greater diversity, equity and inclusion, and frankly, a better father, provider and human being.

Yet the challenges that so many others face go on, often unnoticed.

The NFL has rightly taken steps to address the mental health of players – I commend their “Total Wellness” initiative seeking to change professional football’s culture when it comes to psychological well-being. Acknowledging that football players need to get help for mental health challenges the same way that they seek help for a twisted ankle, is paramount. Relying on the expertise of psychologists to educate and inform players and others about the importance of mental healthcare, on and off the field, is the way forward.

It’s an important first step that needs to be replicated. Across the pond, Chelsea soccer star Christian Pulisic has openly stated his struggles while promoting the fact that there is nothing wrong with seeking help.

These are solutions that we in the athletic community have been waiting on for far too long. We can lead by example, and failing to do so poses dire consequences.

I’m incredibly proud of Simone Biles, of Christian Pulisic. And I’m excited to work with others in tackling this crisis as one of the next stages in my professional career off the gridiron.

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The Texas anti-abortion decision is the result of a decades-long plan by the right to take over the courts. It’s time liberals start treating the Supreme Court as what it is: a warped, anti-democratic institution.

Abortion signs at the Supreme Court
Pro-choice activists and anti-abortion activists outside the US Supreme Court on January 18, 2019.

  • Republicans have been working for decades to take back control of the Supreme Court.
  • The Court has long protected the corporate elite rather than the will of the people.
  • Instead of revering the Supreme Court, liberals need to work to limit its power, for the sake of democracy.
  • Astra Taylor is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Supreme Court of the United States is incompatible with democracy. The news out of Texas is just the latest piece of evidence in that case.

Instead of defending vulnerable minorities against a powerful majority, the Supreme Court is invested in protecting the interests of a powerful and wealthy minority.

This is a result of the right-wing’s well-funded, decades-long plan to take over the judicial system – a plan now paying dividends in the form of warped, one-sided decisions that make a mockery of the idea of checks and balances. These decisions portend a future in which basic rights and popular policies are undone or blocked, further entrenching the power of corporate elites.

It’s time for liberals to stop revering the Supreme Court and start treating it as the democracy-sabotaging institution it is – and to strategize a counteroffensive.

Let’s refresh what just happened: After being asked for an injunction by reproductive justice advocates, the Supreme Court voted by a 5 to 4 margin not to intervene to halt the most draconian anti-abortion law in the land.

The new Texas legislation undermines Roe V. Wade by making the vast majority of abortions illegal. It breaks terrifying new ground by incentivizing private citizens to police each other, empowering random individuals to file lawsuits against anyone who can be deemed to “abet” the act of a woman getting an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy – be they doctors, therapists, friends, or even rideshare drivers. These bounty hunters can be awarded up to $10,000 for their trouble.

This devastating blow to women’s rights comes on the heels of the recent Supreme Court decision to scuttle the White House’s extension of the federal eviction moratorium. The pause on evictions, the concurring justices opined, would be a slippery slope, leading to other executive branch protections for sick and vulnerable people. Better, then, to nip it in the bud, even if that means putting millions of families in the streets as the Delta variant surges.

The Court has long served to protect the powerful

For people who grew up hearing about the glories of Roe V. Wade and Brown V. Board of Education, the Supreme Court’s callous right-wing turn might seem like a shocking and sudden development. In fact, it is a reversion to the historical norm. Since the nation’s founding – with some vital and welcome exceptions – the Supreme Court has typically ruled on the side of the powerful and enforced an unjust status quo. Recall its role in upholding slavery in the antebellum period, or what’s known as the “Lochner era” from the late 1800s to 1937, during which the court attacked basic labor protections and economic regulations, including minimum wage.

After losing the Supreme Court to liberals in the middle of last century, conservatives regrouped and decided to play the long game. Corporate elites made retaking the courts a priority and invested accordingly. Conservative activists nurtured what Michaela Brangan, faculty in the Amherst Law Department, calls “legal cadre” – a pipeline for ideologically extreme justices and funding for a tsunami of litigation.

“The right’s strategy has been bearing fruit via a growing number of cases for years,” Brangan told me. “But the real harvest has been in the form of the current Court, whose majority comes directly from the cadre ranks.”

The fruits of these efforts include decisions such as 1976’s Buckley V. Valeo and 2010’s Citizens United V. FEC, which both tightened the vice grip of big money on our political system, eroding democracy by increasing the power of big donors and corporations. There was also 2000’s Bush V. Gore, in which five unelected individuals installed a president who had lost the popular vote. Both George W. Bush and Donald Trump were losers in that regard, and yet together they were able to appoint five justices to the Supreme Court bench.

No wonder today’s Republicans recognized the courts as essential to their success. As I’ve written elsewhere, the Republican party has radicalized against democracy. Unable, or rather unwilling, to adapt their strategies to win over a majority of voters, they lean on other tools to ensure their dominance – including erroneously claiming election fraud to justify a spate of voter suppression laws.

This duplicitous approach is all the more egregious given that the rules already tilt dramatically in their favor: The Electoral College favors rural Republican States – as does the Senate – and gerrymandering means Republicans can win a majority of seats in Congress even though they win less votes than the opposition. Taking control of the Supreme Court is the icing on the anti-democratic cake.

Democrats can do more

Republicans aren’t the only ones who deserve blame. The court’s 5 to 4 decision not to intervene in the Texas anti-abortion law is a reminder that had Ruth Bader Ginsberg stepped down in the early days of the Obama administration, there would likely have been a different outcome. The lionization of Ginsburg obscured the harm she committed by refusing to quit. Sadly, 83-year-old liberal justice Stephen Breyer appears set to make the same mistake, telling The New York Times, “I don’t like making decisions about myself.” Breyer needs to realize this decision is not, in fact, about him. It is about all of us. For the good of democracy, Breyer must retire.

Liberals cannot afford any more missteps. Democrats control the executive and legislative branches, which means they have the power to push back – a power they may lose after the midterms.

Democrats in Congress can and must maneuver around the filibuster and pass expansive protections of voting and labor rights – the For the People Act and the PRO Act, respectively – as a way to rebalance the political playing field, empower working people, and prevent Republican electoral shenanigans at the state level. As a candidate, President Joe Biden vowed to pass legislation to make Roe “the law of the land.” He should tell Congress to overrule the Texas legislature, for example, by passing the Women’s Health Protection Act.

The stakes could not be higher. With the Supreme Court in conservative hands, Republicans have judges ready to strike down any liberal reform that they or their donors object to – regardless of whether such reforms are supported by the majority of the American people. Should Democrats manage to pass a Green New Deal or universal healthcare, the Court will be standing by to gut it.

Such tyranny is unacceptable. The Lochner era only came to an end when Franklin D. Roosevelt threatened to pack the court. Joe Biden needs to do the same – and he should actually follow through.

The Court must be dethroned

Looking forward, liberals need to develop a court-seizing strategy of their own, akin to the project conservatives launched decades ago. But instead of strengthening the judicial branch, progressives must aspire to put the judiciary in its proper place. When it comes to the Supreme Court, Brangan maintains liberals “should full-throatedly support any and all efforts to limit its power.” The courts should be an adjunct – not an arbiter or an adversary – of popular government.

This urgent change starts within. The Supreme Court must be dethroned within the liberal imagination. For too long, progressives have romanticized the institution, attached to it a misguided ideal of enlightened justice meted out from on high – an ideal that is anti-democratic and counter-productive.

Real democracy can only be built from the bottom up. As scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor put it in a New Yorker essay entitled “The Case for Ending the Supreme Court as We Know It,” the court’s finest moments – often aimed at reversing earlier bad decisions – typically followed in the wake of mass social movements and unrest.

Right now, across the country, grassroots activists are helping women access abortions, fighting evictions, strengthening unions, and responding to climate change. Unlike the justices sitting on the bench, determined rule on behalf of out-of-touch elite, these movements remain democracy’s best hope.

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Order your Christmas presents now – the shipping crisis isn’t ending anytime soon

Containers in Guangzhou
Shipping containers sitting at Nansha Port on June 8, 2021 in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province of China.

  • Increased consumer demand and COVID-19 lockdowns have pushed freight prices and delays to new highs.
  • Since most toys and other gifts are manufactured overseas, the result will impact holiday shopping.
  • Stores may not have what you want in stock, and prices will likely be higher.
  • Eytan Buchman is the chief marketing officer at Freightos.com.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Santa has always delivered. But this Christmas, a brewing global supply chain crisis may leave parents scrambling, and it’s because of what happened when COVID met freight.

67% of toys are manufactured in Asia – compared to only 7% in the United States. Gifts for adults are no different. In the first quarter of 2020, two-thirds of all cell phones were manufactured in China. Before Santa’s chimney visit, an intricate and unseen network of ocean liners, airlines, and trucks is responsible for delivering everything from Christmas toys to hoarded toilet paper across the ocean to the stores that bring it to your front door.

Yet due to COVID-19, this intricate network – also called the supply chain – has been put to the test. A perfect storm of unprecedentedly high demand for goods, port lockdowns, typhoons, and travel restrictions has made importing incredibly challenging for companies of all sizes. The result is looming inventory shortages and product markups as the world gears up for the holidays.

How did we get here?

Quite simply, Americans started buying more stuff. The pandemic triggered a radical increase in goods consumption as we stayed at home instead of spending on services and travel. On an individual level, this played out on most peoples’ Amazon credit card statements. On a macro level, it sparked an e-commerce explosion, while US imports spiked in the first quarter of this year, trouncing the first quarter record in 2018 by 5%. While demand increased, the infrastructure that makes everything run smoothly was absolutely pummeled.

It hit air cargo first

The airplanes we fly on also carry a third of global trade below their decks. Air cargo is key for time-sensitive or expensive goods like cellphones, computer chips, and flowers. When COVID hit, passenger travel dropped like a sack of bricks, but demand for essential goods spiked. More goods needed to be shipped, but available space dropped by 80%.

As importers scrambled to secure space on planes, air cargo prices skyrocketed 400%. Some airlines converted passenger flights into cargo flights. For example, an Israeli airlift was implemented to contend with pre-Passover egg shortages, with cartons of eggs safely buckled into seats. When air cargo demand stabilized in October, it was at a much higher baseline than before the pandemic.

Ocean cargo was next

5,000 container ships capable of moving close to 25 million containers are the backbone of global trade. Before the Ever Given propelled container shipping to the headlines, ocean cargo was already squeezed.

It started with containers in the wrong places. The consumption surge caught many by surprise, with container shortages at Asian origins making transpacific shipping harder. This got worse as demand to ship goods increased. The shortages led to congestion and delays, which aggravated the problem.

It’s a tough nut to fix; it takes years to build a container ship, making it difficult to accommodate supply and demand swings. When demand is low, balancing is done by basically parking ships at port; last year about 9% of container ships were idled to reduce operating costs. Today, nearly every ship is in use, but it’s still not enough to keep up with the current demand.

It was once a common quip that shipping a container of goods around the world for a year was cheaper than putting them in storage. In fact, rates were so low – about $1,300 per container – that just five years ago, a top ten global ocean liner went bankrupt. That’s changed.

Today, ocean freight rates are 14 times higher – $18,425 per container. Combined with trucking price increases, the cost of importing a 40-foot container from a factory in China to a warehouse in the United States increased from $8,410 to $25,334. The higher shipping costs will mean higher Christmas gift costs, especially for larger goods. For example, container price increases may account for more than a $1,000 increase for a couch.

Graph shows the cost of shipping a 40-foot container from China to the US. The cost has skyrocketed in recent months from $5,000 in January to $18,425 on August 27.
Graph shows the cost of shipping a 40-foot container from China to the US. The cost has skyrocketed in recent months.

All sold out … at higher costs

Demand may have stretched infrastructure to its limit, but COVID shutdowns snapped it. The hits kept coming: from a COVID breakout in Vietnam that shut down manufacturing, roving shutdowns across airports and seaports in China, the Suez Canal blockage – and the months it took to loosen the congestion – all made it supremely difficult to move goods like Christmas toys.

Global trade is teetering on the brink of massive trade challenges that have extended beyond the realm of freight professionals. Epic congestion means it takes much longer to get goods, with the average ocean freight shipment from China now taking 70 days instead of the previous 44 days, stealing a month of holiday prep time from toy manufacturers. In many cases, only larger companies have the relationships or volume to book shipments, so the boutique toys you were planning on buying might not be in stock.

When those toys do make it across the Pacific, consumers will have to pay more. Larger companies are investing massively in buying their way out of the crisis; Home Depot recently chartered their own ship and Peloton famously put bikes on airplanes to meet demand. Smaller businesses don’t have that luxury; a recent Freightos Group survey of small businesses found that nearly half of small businesses plan to increase prices to compensate for rising costs. It’s gotten bad enough that it’s become a key priority for the Biden administration.

So what can the run-of-the-mill holiday shopper do? Hit the shops early, focus on homemade crafts, maybe send an ecard, or opt to buy locally this year. Either way, a (socially-distant) nod of gratitude to the next truck driver or logistics professional you see would be in order. The fact that this is the first time global freight is really hitting consumers is a testament to how well this incredibly intricate global freight machine works – even during COVID.

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Millions of American workers are shackled by absurd non-compete agreements. Companies need to stop needlessly restricting workers.

Hiring labor market job opening signing bonus
A woman interviews for a job as a hotel front desk staff member. It’s often low-level workers who are most harmed by non-competition agreements.

  • President Biden has directed the FTC to crack down on non-competition agreements.
  • Non-compete clauses can unfairly hinder the mobility of low-level workers due to disparate bargaining power.
  • The FTC should level the playing field where needed.
  • Jose Sariego is a corporate partner at Miami-based Bilzin Sumberg.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Other than mask mandates, is there anything more unpopular in the law these days than the non-competition agreement? These agreements, which prohibit employees from going to work for a competitor, have always been viewed with distaste, considered restraints of trade, and been narrowly construed. Several states have outlawed them altogether or severely restricted their use. And now President Biden has piled on with an Executive Order “encouraging” the FTC to ban or limit non-competes nationally.

Yet non-competes not only persist but have grown in use in recent years – according to the Executive Order, up to 60 million workers are affected by these agreements. This explains their unpopularity and the current debate. While in the past these agreements were reserved for high-level executives or highly-trained technical employees, today horror stories abound about clerks and fast-food workers being subjected to these restraints, often at the cost of their livelihood.

And in today’s tight labor market, the allure of handcuffing a scarce employee is stronger than ever. So the tension between companies’ desires to keep workers and the marketplace’s love of freedom of movement likely will grow tauter.

So what’s wrong with non-competes in the first place? If the law values liberty of contract so much, why can’t an employee and employer agree to whatever they want?

Difference in bargaining power

The reason that non-competes are harmful to lower-level workers and unreasonably stifle their work mobility and opportunities is largely due to the lack of comparative bargaining power between the parties. Liberty of contract presumes that both parties to the contract are relatively equal in bargaining position. That often is not the case with hourly workers and their employers.

Non-competes at this level resemble “contracts of adhesion” that the law has found repugnant in other similar contexts. Most lower-level employees receive an “offer you can’t refuse” ultimatum that they cannot negotiate. These employees also are less likely to know their rights, which limits their ability to push back and negotiate more reasonable restrictions.

Moreover, few employees have the wherewithal financially or emotionally to battle a giant corporation, so the mere threat of being sued creates an in terrorem effect that is sufficient to bind the employee to the employer. Once bound, of course, the employee is at the mercy of other possible abuses, such as low wages, long hours, and unsafe working conditions.

Non-competes are fine for some

No one is crying any rivers for highly-paid CEOs and their C-suite minions who are obligated to enter into non-competes in exchange for their million-dollar salaries, bonuses, and equity grants that companies shower on them. These are big boys and girls who have the leverage and bargaining power to negotiate lucrative deals for themselves, and if they have to sit on the sidelines for a year or two if they decide to leave their company or are bid adieu, they can certainly afford to do so.

Similarly, scarce, highly-trained technical workers such as software developers and others in the tech industry may also be an appropriate place for non-competes. Companies often spend tens of thousands to bring these workers from overseas and to provide expensive training and experience. For these workers capriciously to jump ship to a competitor seems ungrateful to say the least.

The real issue is at the lower levels of the work ladder, where employees have little bargaining power on the one hand and where the company’s interest in restraining the employee is less compelling. Although companies are having trouble these days filling even low-level positions in service industries, the solution is for companies to pay more to attract these historically underpaid workers rather than saddling them with non-competes that essentially enslave them to their corporate masters.

Reasonable solutions

For workers making less than a certain wage, it is fair and reasonable either to ban such agreements altogether or to severely limit the time and scope of the agreements – say to prohibit an employee for a period of 30-90 days from leaving for a competitor in the same business within a mile of the current location. In this way, a worker will not jump willy-nilly to a fast-food restaurant across the street, but can still find better opportunities farther away where the impact on the current employer is minimal.

Keep in mind that there are other, sensible restrictions that companies can impose on employees that do not impinge on a worker’s freedom of movement unreasonably. Non-competes typically are one leg of a three-legged stool that includes a confidentiality provision and a non-solicitation restriction. The confidentiality provision prevents an employee from walking away with an employer’s “secret sauce” and either setting up shop independently or selling the information to a competitor. No one argues that companies cannot protect their trade secrets and other confidential and proprietary information by means of these restrictions.

Likewise, it is reasonable to restrain an employee, who in the course of employment has made contacts with other employees, vendors, and clients of the employer, from turning around and using the contacts he or she made to solicit those very persons and entities when the employee leaves. Those contacts may very well be confidential and proprietary information as well, but even if they are not, a company has a compelling interest in preventing employees from using those valuable contacts for any purposes other than the company’s.

Even these restraints must be “reasonable,” however. Confidential information cannot cover information in the public domain, for example. And non-solicitation provisions cannot extend to vendors or clients that are commonly known or with whom the employee had little or no contact while in the company’s employ.

In sum, the real problem with all of these “restrictive covenants” is the lack of leverage that low-level workers have to protect themselves against abuses. The FTC should level the playing field, taking into consideration legitimate business interests while safeguarding workers’ ability to move about in an increasingly mobile and changeable marketplace.

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