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Want a free speaker? Eleven reasons authors might say no

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, life, Media, Money, work on April 11, 2014 at 12:52 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Many of you dream of becoming a published author — and some of you already are.

It’s a very cool accomplishment and one to be proud of.

I’ve published two well-reviewed non-fiction books and I still love sharing them with audiences. I really enjoy public speaking and answering readers’ and would-be readers’ questions and hearing their comments.

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But, while it’s terrific to get out there and share your story, and that of your book, you’ll also get a pile ‘o invitations to speak for no money.

A new service (and I’m not A Big Enough Name for them to want me, sigh) is paying NYC-area authors $400 (and pocketing $350 of the $750 fee) for bringing authors to local book clubs.

Says Jean Hanff Korelitz:

“There were so many writers I know and admire who I also knew would appreciate any income at all,” she said in an email. “Most of us, whether or not we are ‘successful,’ really struggle financially in this city. Also, we’ve reached this point at which we’ve come to assume art should be free, and copyright is under assault, etc., and the bald fact is that the artist has to live, too. So I really liked the idea of creating (or at least extending) a new income source for writers.”

Here are some reasons I now say “No, thanks” to most of the people who want my unpaid time, some of which might apply to you as well:

Your audience isn’t going to welcome my ideas

I learned this early, the hard way — speaking unpaid, to boot. Someone I’d interviewed for my retail book, “Malled”, asked me to address his annual conference. He, the CEO of a wildly successful software firm, had about 75 people flying in to Las Vegas, expecting to hear updates on the labor management software they buy from him. They weren’t — even though the CEO cared as passionately as I — the least bit interested in how to better hire, manage and motivate retail associates, my central message. The room was distinctly frosty.

Yes, I got to stay at the Bellagio. But this proved to be a serious mismatch. Next time, I’ll take the psychic hit, but only softened by a four-figure check.

I’m not fond of flying, especially turbulence

Are you eager to jump on a plane heading anywhere, unless it’s a business or first-class ticket with a car and driver waiting at the other end? It rarely is for midlist authors.

I make no money selling books

Non-authors have no clue how the publishing world functions, and assume that every book we sell means money in our pockets. It doesn’t! If you have commercially published a book, you have been paid an advance. Only after you have paid off the advance, (and you’ll make maybe 10% of the cover price of each book you sell), will you ever see another penny. Most authors never do.

A “great lunch” is really not an appealing offer

Seriously. I know you mean to be kind, but I can buy my own food and eat it on my own schedule.

Some of us loathe and fear public speaking

I don’t, but many authors do. Ours is a solitary business, one spent alone at home huddled over a notebook or computer. We spend most of our time thinking, writing, revising. We chose this business because it suits our nature. So standing up in front of a room filled with strangers — whose comments and questions can be quite weird or rude — can be stressful. Why bother?

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Your audience is too small

Here’s the math. On a good day, I can sell my books to one-third of the room; i.e. if there are 30 people attending my presentation, 10 will usually buy my book, if 100, 30. Most audiences are small, fewer than 50 or 60 people.

The odds of someone in the room being willing and able to pay me to do the next gig? Slim to none. And I’ve still lost half my workday.

Your audience isn’t my audience

Even if you’ve gathered 100 or 200 or 300 people, are they the people most interested in my topic? If not, I’m an annoyance, and their lack of interest in my work — let alone a passion for the issues  I care deeply about — creates a headwind I have no stomach for. It’s emotionally draining for me and it’s no fun for them. If you’ve scheduled me with several other authors, as is often the case, their audience may be completely different from mine.

It costs me time and money to do this for you

You’ve asked me to donate at least three or four hours of my workday — probably driving 30 minutes each way, (plus the cost of gas), to sit for several hours through lunch and socializing, speak, answer questions and sell and sign books. That’s a day’s paid work wasted. I’ve actually had a major commercial organization in another country insist they couldn’t pay me a penny, even travel costs, to speak at their annual conference.

If you perceive so little value in my time and skills, I’m staying home, thanks.

Your competitors pay!

I drive five minutes to my local library — where my friends and neighbors show up  by the dozens — and still get paid $50. Local women’s clubs pay. I was paid $8,000 to speak at a conference in New Orleans in 2012. Yes, really.

If you have to, sell tickets at $10 each, but your payment shows respect for my time, skills and experience. Whatever you feel, we don’t necessarily consider it a privilege or honor to talk about our books to people who don’t value our time.

Why exactly do you, and your audience, expect free entertainment from us?

I don’t believe in your cause, the one you’re selling my brand to win attendance

I already donate my time and money to causes I personally believe in. Unless I’m passionate about yours, and eager to help you raise funds for it, I’ve already made my pro bono commitments.

malled china cover

I’m busy!

It’s that simple.

Are you saving enough?

In behavior, culture, Money, parenting, US, life, domestic life, family on March 10, 2014 at 2:21 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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A recent piece in The Wall Street Journal asserts that Americans spend way too much money:

You may overspend because you’re bored, you have no budget or you want to keep up with your neighbors.

Or you might be letting your emotions dictate your financial decisions.

Whatever the reason, you may be setting yourself up for a financial disaster.

But fear not: There are a few ways you can rein in your spending before it’s too late.

Tracking your cash flow and tapping into your feelings are two things financial advisers say you can do to curb your urge to spend.

“The spending choices you make now will greatly impact your quality of life later on,” says Patrick McDowell, a Miramar Beach, Fla., financial adviser.

Here’s an honest post by a new Broadside follower (welcome!), a college student, making minimum wage and struggling financially with college costs:

Although it can be annoying, I understand this is making me a better person.  It’s not just about the money all the time, it’s about a learning experience.

And here’s a dense and dry blog post, recently chosen for Freshly Pressed, about behavioral economics — written by a professor:

Certainly the evidence that people don’t typically behave rationally is quite compelling.  It’s easy to find examples of behavior which conflicts with economic theory.  The problem is that it’s not clear that these examples help us much. I’m pretty much obsessed by when, why, how and where we choose to spend our money. Or save it.

Given how little money most Americans save — here’s a blog post from The Economist about that — it’s a tough decision to postpone immediate pleasures (let alone the daily grind of needs), for groceries, housing and medical care in the future, possibly decades away. What if we never get there?

But what if we do live to be 80, 90 or beyond — and find ourselves broke and scared?

Here’s a frightening post from one of my favorite writers, Guardian journo Heidi Moore, about how older women — because we earn less and live longer — end up in poverty:

17.8 million women lived in poverty in 2012, 44% of whom lived in extreme poverty. Extreme poverty means “income at or below 50% of the federal poverty level”, which amounts to less than $5,500 a year…

What is surprising is that the slide into deep poverty is happening so soon, and in such massive numbers, among the elderly. It’s not clear what could have changed between 2011 and 2012 to cause it.

My mother went into a nursing home three years ago, paying — for a small room — $5,000 a month. Yes, really. That certainly made clear to me the very real cost of getting old, ill and needing costly care every single day. She saved, lifelong and ferociously, so she has the funds for it.

Most of us will not.

Our parents and grand-parents, and a few fortunate folk in specific industries, could look forward to a company pension; Jose will receive one from The New York Times, thank heaven. A few lucky people also get a company match to their 401(k) retirement savings from their employers.

But most of us are now expected and required to save and save and save and save, praying our investments retain and grow in value. I’ve been saving 15 percent of my income every year for a while; it’s finally adding up to a sum that makes me feel like the sacrifice is worth it.

It’s also simplistic to shame people who “spend too much” when millions have lost their jobs, often repeatedly, and have run through whatever savings they might once have had. Millions are also now earning far less than they once expected or hoped to.

Wages are stagnant or falling while the cost of living rises each year — and we’re still human beings who actually want to leave our homes and have some fun!

I splurge on four categories: 1) items or improvements for our home; 2) travel; 3) entertaining friends; 4) fresh flowers.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

How about you?

What do you splurge  on — and where do you keep your wallet closed?

Readers — a decade later. This is why we write

In art, blogging, books, culture, journalism, life, Money, work on March 8, 2014 at 12:05 am

By Caitlin Kelly

A check arrived this week that left me so excited I burst into tears.

It wasn’t the amount on the check — $491.00 Canadian — but its source, a Canadian gift to authors called the Public Lending Right Program. If your books qualify, (only those published within the last 20 years), you can register your work and receive, in effect, a royalty paid out once a year for the public’s use of your books through Canadian libraries.

malled cover HIGH

The enrolment period is open now, until May 1. Maybe your works qualify!

I was also thrilled to receive a payment that didn’t feel covered with blood and sweat, the way so much of my work now does.

The publishing/journalism business today too often feels less like a creative endeavor than a protracted and wearying battle — rates remain low, publishers pay late and editors refuse to negotiate contracts that claw back 3/4 of your fee if  they decide they just don’t like your final product, even after multiple revisions.

One Canadian friend, with four books in the system, says she used to make a pretty penny from the sale of her intellectual property. A book’s advance, ideally, is only the first of an ongoing revenue stream from your work; with Malled, I also earned income from a CBS television option and multiple, well-paid speaking engagements.

Like most mid-list authors, I’ll never “earn out”, repaying my advance and earning royalties, so every bit of ancillary revenue from each book is very welcome.

Twenty-eight countries have a similar program to Canada’s, with Denmark leading the way in 1941.

Not, sorry to say, the United States.

It’s a sad fact that writers here are not considered successful unless they sell tens of thousands of copies of their books, a bar that very, very few of us will ever be able to clear. Not because our books are boring or poorly-written or sloppy. They’re too niche. They’re too controversial. They’re too challenging.

Or, more and more these days, with the closing of so many bookstores and newspaper book review sections, readers simply never discovered they even exist, which makes endless self-promotion even more necessary than ever.

Here’s a new website to help readers discover year-old books  — called backlist books, in the industry — they might have missed.

And another, focused on business books.

There’s a fascinating resource called WorldCat.org — do you know it? If you’re an author, you can search it to see where your books have ended up; mine are in libraries as far away as New Zealand and Hong Kong.  A friend once sent me a photo of three copies of my first book, Blown Away, on the shelf in a Las Vegas library. I felt like waving.

Measuring your worth and success as a writer solely by your financial income is unwise. But if you measure your books’ value by the number of readers reaching for them, even a decade after publication — as people clearly did with this statement, for my first book, Blown Away: American Women and Guns — you can enjoy a different sort of satisfaction.

That first book came out in April 2004, still finding readers. Certainly, gun use and violence in the United States is an ongoing issue  — I knew that when I chose my subject.

My second book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail came out April 2011 and in China last July. According to this PLR statement, it, too, is still being read; in this rough economy, many people have tumbled from well-paid jobs into low-wage, hourly labor.

Our books feel like dandelion seeds, something light and ethereal blown hopefully into the wind. Will they take root and bloom and spread, our ideas heard and discussed and maybe even remembered?

Beyond our sales figures, authors never really know who’s reading us.

Having proof of ongoing readership and influence?

Priceless.

If you want to succeed freelance…

In behavior, business, design, education, journalism, life, Media, Money, photography, work on January 24, 2014 at 12:56 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I hope you’ll sign up for my webinar, Sunday Feb. 2 at 2pm EST.

It’s 90 minutes, conducted through Skype, costs $125 and will help anyone — photographer, graphic designer, artist, writer, small business owner — who wants to really understand how to earn a living without a steady paycheck.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

I grew up in a family where everyone worked freelance, in film, television and journalism. No one had a steady paycheck or paid sick or vacation days. No pension. No access to unemployment benefits.

As the saying goes, we ate only what we killed. I learned early, firsthand, the importance of persistence, of protecting your intellectual property, of keeping very careful track of what you earn and what you owe in taxes. (For those of you who’ve never freelanced, you become wholly responsible for paying whatever taxes you owe, as none are deducted at source.)

I started freelancing as a journalist at the age of 19, while still a full-time undergraduate at the University of Toronto, Canada’s  most competitive university and freelanced full-time after graduation for three years. I then won a prestigious and highly competitive journalism fellowship in Paris and was hired as a staff writer by the Globe and Mail.

I’ve gone on to write freelance for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Glamour, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Smithsonian and many more outlets, including on-line sites like Quartz.

I’ve been full-time freelance since 2006, this time around, my third long stint doing so.

In this webinar, you’ll learn some of the many skills you need to thrive while self-employed:

– how to find clients

– how to keep them!

– how to detect, avoid or fire PITAs (pains in the ass)

– how to juggle multiple projects at once

– how to find and manage researchers and assistants

– how to price your time

– how to handle late payers and deadbeats

– efficient time management

Sign up is here.

I also coach individually, and my students have found tremendous value even after two hours by phone, email or Skype. Whatever you want or need to discuss, it’s your call!

Questions or concerns?

Please email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

How much money is enough?

In behavior, business, culture, life, men, Money, US, work on January 21, 2014 at 12:39 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Interesting, if scary, essay in The New York Times recently, by a former Wall Streeter — who once sneered at his $3.6 million bonus as insufficient:

After graduation, I got a job at Bank of America, by the grace of a managing director willing to take a chance on a kid who had called him every day for three weeks…At the end of my first year I was thrilled to receive a $40,000 bonus. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to check my balance before I withdrew money. But a week later, a trader who was only four years my senior got hired away by C.S.F.B. for $900,000. After my initial envious shock — his haul was 22 times the size of my bonus — I grew excited at how much money was available.

Over the next few years I worked like a maniac and began to move up the Wall Street ladder. I became a bond and credit default swap trader, one of the more lucrative roles in the business. Just four years after I started at Bank of America, Citibank offered me a “1.75 by 2” which means $1.75 million per year for two years, and I used it to get a promotion. I started dating a pretty blonde and rented a loft apartment on Bond Street for $6,000 a month.

I felt so important…The satisfaction wasn’t just about the money. It was about the power…

Still, I was nagged by envy. On a trading desk everyone sits together, from interns to managing directors. When the guy next to you makes $10 million, $1 million or $2 million doesn’t look so sweet.

If you live — as we do — in an area filled with seriously wealthy people, some of whom attend the same church as we do, or sit beside us on the same commuter train, it’s disorienting to realize what “enough” looks like to those of us whose annual incomes are a puny fraction of theirs.

My first husband, a physician, earns in one month what I make in a not-great year writing.

A new film, The Wolf of Wall Street, is a true-life story of a former trader whose life defined greed. Cate Blanchett should get an Oscar nomination for her role in Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s latest film, about a New York woman who tumbles from tremendous wealth into poverty.

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And here’s a stunning bit of new data, from Oxfam -- 85 people own nearly half the world’s wealth.

Here’s a sobering list of how much money you’ll need for retirement — if you need or want $4,000 a month, your stash needs to be $666,000. Very few people can ever manage to save that much, especially when battered by multiple recessions and a weak economy.

People who live nowhere near NYC have no idea how insanely expensive it is or why we put up with it — for some of us, it’s where we need to be professionally; my husband spends more than $5,000 a year just to get to his office, between train, cab and subway. There’s no practical way to cut that fixed cost, a stupid number to many of you, I know.

But moving an hour or two further away from the city to save on housing costs also means an even longer commute, (which costs more), and sharply diminishes the time and energy to spend on its cultural, social and professional opportunities — fine for some, not for others.

Let alone the time one has to see one’s family, relax or have a life; one of my favorite books is the classic, Your Money or Your Life, which makes clear that’s the tradeoff many of us make, with only 24 hours in every day.

One writer I know profitably pounds the drum of endless productivity — a very American obsession — with books like 168 Hours.

What the point of making huge bank if you’re working all the time and/or too exhausted to enjoy your personal interests, (or even have any!), let alone nurture intimate relationships with anything beyond your computer screen or phone?

Credit Suisse recently made headlines by suggesting its junior bankers take Saturdays off.

I come from a family with money, some inherited, some earned, but will never enjoy a lavish life like theirs, which is sometimes a little depressing after watching them spend freely on jewels, furs, limousines, property, cars, travel and antiques. You develop a taste for the best, with extremely limited ability to buy it yourself.

So what’s really “enough”?

For us, at the moment, it’s having decent retirement savings and adding to them every year, no matter how much immediate fun it costs us.

It’s my husband’s job that he still enjoys and which, thank God, offers a pension.

Above all, it’s good health — without which billions in the bank means damn little.

How much money is enough for you these days?

Who do you (still) trust?

In behavior, business, Crime, culture, domestic life, education, life, love, Money, movies, news, politics on January 9, 2014 at 1:08 am

By Caitlin Kelly

trust-torn

If — bless you, my child! — you still actually trust any institution, charity, government, authority figure, public servant, media outlet or corporate entity, it’s been a remarkably shitty few weeks:

The NSA is spying on everyone.

Target’s database of customers got hacked.

Snapchat, too.

Retired New York City cops and firefighters — 106 of whom faked post 9/11 trauma — ripped off Social Security for $21.4 million.

A Bronx assemblyman is charged with accepting $20,000 worth of bribes to help four local businessmen.

New Jersey governor — and soon-to-be Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie — is now caught up in a new political scandal.

I moved to New York in 1989, my NYC-born mother’s advice ringing in my ears: “People lie.”

Why, yes, they do. In astonishing numbers.

I grew up in Toronto, hardly a hamlet, but in a country with 10 times fewer people than the United States, where you can commit a whole pile ‘o crimes, move states (even keeping your name!) and start all over again. In Canada, if you lie, cheat and steal, the odds are exponentially higher that people in your professional and/or social circles will realize you’re a lying sack of shit and your odds of repeating your felonies and misdemeanors — or mere lies — probably somewhat lower as a result.

Not here!

My first husband lied to me for months, then left. Later, as the lonely and insecure victim of a skilled con artist, back in 1998, I saw how effectively one’s buttons — (good looks! charm! intelligence! devoted attention!) can be pushed — by someone in the determined pursuit of a wholly different goal than one expects.

It amazes me, in a good way, how much trust is absolutely foundational to a functional world — whether your dog trusting you to walk him or her, even in -25 degree weather, or your boss relying on your skills to keep his or her company ethically profitable.

Every client who chooses to hire me freelance is placing their trust in me, an action I never take lightly. I think one of my USPs (keck — unique selling propositions) is that I almost never get it wrong; in 20 years writing for The New York Times, only three (damn them!) corrections.

Each time I apologized immediately and sincerely to my wronged source and editor. Luckily, all were gracious and forgiving.

I suspect we’re more forgiving of someone who is (briefly) fallible than falsely flawless.

Trust is not an endlessly renewable resource.

I recently re-watched the terrific film “An Education”, starring Carey Mulligan in her break-out role as a naive, bookish 16-year-old who falls hard for a charming liar, (is there any other kind?), and learns quite a bit as a result. So does her family, won over by David’s gorgeous car, smooth manners and apparently elitist connections.

Here’s American business guru Seth Godin on who we choose to read (deeply) and whose ideas we click past and dismiss:

TL;DR is internet talk for “too long; didn’t read”. It’s also a sad, dangerous symptom of the malfunctions caused by the internet tsunami…That mindset, of focusing merely on what’s fast, is now a common reaction to many online options.

There’s a checklist, punchline mentality that’s dangerous and easy to adopt. Enough with the build up, wrap this up, let me check it off, categorize it and quickly get to the next thing… c’mon, c’mon, too late, TL;DR…

Let’s agree on two things:

1. There are thousands of times as many things available to read as there were a decade ago. It’s possible that in fact there are millions as many.

2. Now that everyone can write, publish, email you stuff and generally make noise, everyone might and many people already are.

As a result, there’s too much noise, too much poorly written, overly written, defensively written and generally useless stuff cluttering your life.

When we had trusted curators it was easy. We read what we were supposed to read, we read what we trusted, regardless of how long it was, because the curator was taking a risk and promising us it was worth it. No longer. Now, it’s up to us.

We’re all susceptible to someone and their siren song: great sex, access to power, scintillating charm, a cool car, seductive flattery.

The comfort of feeling safe, even if we’re very much not…

How about you?

Who do you trust — fully, implicitly, cautiously — and why?

Have you ever had your trust  abused?

What happened after that?

When — if ever — do we just stop shopping?

In behavior, business, culture, domestic life, family, life, Money, urban life, US on December 19, 2013 at 12:18 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Every day, my email in-box (guilty!) fills up with notifications of sales from flash-sites like Gilt and One King’s Lane and Ideeli or from retailers I’ve purchased from before.

I delete almost every single one.

Every weekend, (yes, we still read some of our newspapers in print), a thick, glossy pile of flyers tumbles in a nasty tree-wasting avalanche from within the folds of the Times, each imploring us to spendspendspendbuybuybuybuybuybuy!

Consumer Spending

Consumer Spending (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

Between the easy availabilty of on-line shopping — a boon to the home-bound or retail-underserved — and a consumer-driven culture urging us to buy everything we see, right now, it’s an ongoing challenge not to spend money. Not to buy even more stuff.

The U.S. economy, a statistic that always somewhat horrifies me in its implications of rampant consumption, is based 70 percent on consumer spending — gas, food, diapers, gum, Manolos, trucks, Ipads, whatever.

So if we actually stop shopping, or slow down our spending on consumer goods, the economy slows. If you live in the U.S., and have any disposable income (such a bizarre phrase!) it can feel like some civic or patriotic duty to go spend some more money.

When I worked retail for 2.5 years in an upscale suburban New York mall, I saw the insanity — truly — of holiday shopping firsthand. People staggered into our store already so loaded with bags they looked like pontoons. They pawed through the racks, threw our stock onto the floor and shouted with anger when we didn’t have exactly what we needed when they needed it.

Ugly!

And yet very few Americans, even those with decades of earned income, have saved enough money to ever stop working.

In October 2013, USA Today reported:

A new report paints a rather grim assessment of how prepared we are for retirement. “The Retirement Savings Crisis: Is it Worse Than We Think?” from the Washington, D.C.-based National Institute on Retirement Security, says the typical American family has only “a few thousand dollars” saved for retirement.

“We have millions of Americans who have nothing saved for retirement,” says Diane Oakley, executive director of the NIRS. “We have 38 million working-age households who do not have any retirement assets.”

For people 10 years away from retirement, the median savings is $12,000. “Of the people between 55 and 64, one third haven’t saved anything for retirement,” Oakley says.

I read those statistics and wonder what is going to become of them; not everyone has children able or willing to rescue them.

Fortunately, (partly because we never assumed the costs of raising children), we’re way ahead of that $12,000 figure. We drive a 13-year-old vehicle and live in a one-bedroom apartment and I set aside the maximum for my IRA, even when I’d really prefer to spend that money on a long and fantastic overseas vacation, or some gorgeous new clothes or to take in all the shows, plays and concerts that Manhattan offers us.

Having significant savings is, for me, a much deeper comfort than anything I could buy.

Here, from Harvard Business School, why buying an experience (if you must buy anything at all) wins:

Conventional wisdom says that money can’t buy happiness. Behavioral science begs to differ. In fact, research shows that money can make us happier—but only if we spend it in particular ways.

In their book Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, authors Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton draw on years of quantitative and qualitative research to explain how we can turn cash into contentment.

The key lies in adhering to five key principles: Buy Experiences (research shows that material purchases are less satisfying than vacations or concerts); Make it a Treat (limiting access to our favorite things will make us keep appreciating them); Buy Time (focusing on time over money yields wiser purchases); Pay Now, Consume Later (delayed consumption leads to increased enjoyment); and Invest in Others (spending money on other people makes us happier than spending it on ourselves).

I try to adhere to all five of these principles:

Paris - Île St. Louis: Berthillon

Paris – Île St. Louis: Berthillon (Photo credit: wallyg)

– I can still taste the salted caramel ice cream we savored at Berthillon on the Ile St Louis in Paris five years ago.

English: Ile St-Louis - Paris Français : Ile S...

English: Ile St-Louis – Paris Français : Ile Saint-Louis – Paris IV (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

– I’ve chosen to work fewer hours, (which restricts my ability to shop, given that I save 15 percent of my pre-tax income every year as well), to better enjoy my free time and have experiences I value more than buying more things — to take a long walk mid-day or have coffee with a friend or read a book instead of flogging myself into another 10 or 15 hours’ paid work. I ended up in the hospital in 2007 for three days with pneumonia after chasing money too hard, too fast. Never again.

– I tend to hoard gift cards for as long as a year before finally using them, as I did recently with a Christmas 2012 gift card from my husband, (it bought two great pairs of shoes on sale.)

– I splurge on small surprises for Jose whenever I can, whether a book or a pair of colorful socks or a dinner out.

In a season where so many of us are rushing about madly shopshopshopping, it’s easy to forget that a more valuable gift can be as small and essential as a hug, a night or two of babysitting for a weary friend, making a meal for an elderly or ill neighbor.

It doesn’t have to come in a shiny Apple-designed, (cheap Chinese labor made), plastic shell or turquoise Tiffany box, no matter what their ads insist.

 Are you sick and tired of shopping?

Scrooge city! Employers hotly defend poverty-level wages

In business, life, Money, news, politics, urban life, US, work on December 17, 2013 at 3:22 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

‘Tis the season!

Check out the 300 comments — and climbing (including a long one from me) — at the Harvard Business Review blog where a Wharton professor, Peter Capelli, (gasp, competing B-school!) posted the following argument in favor of actually paying workers a living wage:

Jobs paying $15 per hour are not the concern, though. Those are routinely seen as good jobs now. The concern is those jobs paying at or around the minimum wage, $7.25 per hour or only $1160 per month for a
full-time job. About 1.6 million workers in the U.S. are paid at that level, and a surprising 2 million are actually paid less than that under various exemptions. If you are an employer paying the minimum wage or close to it, the Government has determined that your employees need help to pay for food, housing, and healthcare even if they have no family and no one to look after but themselves.  As we’ve been reminded this season, many of those workers also need help from families and coworkers to get by.

No doubt the reason low-wage companies continue to pay low wages is because there are plenty of workers willing to take jobs at those wages, and the need to pay more to avoid the risk of being unionized is
largely gone. But “can” and “ought” are not the same thing.  Nothing about the minimum wage implies that it is morally ok as long as you pay at least that much. It simply says that the government will prosecute you if try to pay less than that level.

A longstanding principle in all developed countries including the U.S. is that labor is not like a commodity where taking advantage of the market to squeeze down prices is a fact of life. Employees have human rights that do not disappear when they enter the workplace. Even in business law, principles like the “mechanic’s lien” say that employees should be paid before other creditors because they are more vulnerable than businesses and do not get profits to compensate them for risks.

We’re at an inflection point in the U.S., where some low-wage workers, unprecedented in decades, have actually begun to stage walk-outs, strikes and protests in recent weeks.

In Germany — where 9,000 workers are employed by Amazon — employees have just gone on strike.

Wage list

Wage list (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have — as we say here in sports-metaphor-obsessed-America — skin in this particular game.

I worked 2.5 years making $11/hour (the federal minimum is still $7.25/hour) selling costly outdoor clothing at an upscale mall, the subject of my book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

No matter how insanely productive we were — one of us sold $16,000 worth of merch one holiday Saturday — we never got more hours or  serious raise (mine was 30 cents/hour) or a boost into a low-management position with a (barely) liveable salary.

The endless argument in favor paying crap is that low-wage workers are all teens, seniors and/or have no skills.

False! A recent survey of 436 New York City retail workers found that two-thirds of them are supporting another family member on their wages. Their average age? 24.

I also pay my assistants $15/hour, albeit part-time, about 10 hours a month. This year I paid out $1,5000 in wages to one worker, a significant amount for a one-person shop — me — and a healthy sum to a person new to my line of work, in effect, someone essentially entry-level I was training and paying.

I am appalled, disgusted and fed up with corporate greed, corporate welfare and the right-wing outrage that all low-wage jobs are low-skilled. They’re not.

Every single job adds profit to an employer’s bottom line or — in union-free America — it’s swiftly cut, with no severance or warning.

Walmart and MacDonalds workers suck up my tax dollars in Medicaid and food stamps because their greedhead CEOs think this is moral, equitable and justifiable way to treat workers.

I disagree.

How about you?

Helping writers in financial crisis: please donate to WEAF!

In blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, Media, Money, US, work on December 6, 2013 at 3:11 am

By Caitlin Kelly

As some of you know, many journalists now work full-time freelance. Some do so by choice, while many have been shut out of an industry going through almost daily re-invention; 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008 and many of us did not find another.

Add to that a difficult economy in the U.S., and some writers — even the most talented and productive throughout a long career — can find themselves in a terrifying financial crisis, with no alternate source of income and few savings if your anchor client shuts down or a few reliable editors suddenly leave and/or you get a bad medical diagnosis and you’re too busy getting surgery and treatment to keep working.

Typically, it’s a medical emergency, theirs and/or that of a loved one, and its out-of-pocket costs that shove a writer into fiscal desperation — in the U.S. (a sad and ugly truth), most bankruptcies are the result of overwhelming medical bills.

Writer Wordart

Writer Wordart (Photo credit: MarkGregory007)

I serve on a volunteer board of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund. Since 1982, we’ve given out more than $400,000 to help qualified, deserving non-fiction writers through tough times. Our board is made up of veteran writers and editors, current and former, including Pulitzer Prize winning author Philip Caputo and novelist Betsy Carter.

Books behind the bed

Books behind the bed (Photo credit: zimpenfish)

Unlike most charities, there are no administrative costs, so every penny you give goes only to the writers who seek our help.

When a needy writer asks for a grant we quickly read their application and — within a week — send them what we agree is a fair amount, usually the maximum, up to $4,000.

The money you give us is also tax-deductible, as WEAF is a registered charity.

I’m proud to help others in my profession. I hope you’ll do so as well this year. Writers — whether we’re producing unpaid blog posts or paid books, articles, scripts or other media — enrich our shared culture, explain the world and help us all see things a little more clearly.

Here’s a New York Times story I wrote about funds like ours, including WEAF.

I hope you’ll consider giving even a small amount.

For every $50 donation to WEAF — and please email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com to let me know you’ve made the donation, with your name and mailing address — I’ll snail mail you a signed copy of “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, my most recent book. USA Today called it “a bargain at any price” and Entertainment Weekly described it as “an excellent memoir.”

I’m happy to sign it to you, or to someone else for a holiday gift.

Thank you!

It’s Black Friday, and retail workers deserve more

In behavior, books, business, culture, life, Money, Uncategorized, US, work on November 29, 2013 at 12:48 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Today, thousands of Americans rush out to start their holiday shopping. It’s called Black Friday because it’s the beginning of the season that pushes retailers into the black — i.e. profitability.

While shoppers clamor for more product, more discounts and even more hours in which to spend their money, please pause to remember the hard-working people who serve them, since 70 percent of the American economy is created by consumer spending.

Retail workers also deserve more:

– More money (most earn minimum wage)

– More respect (until you’ve served them, it’s hard to believe how rude and nasty some shoppers can be)

– More hours (store managers scrimp on paid hours because every other cost is already spent)

– More opportunities for raises, bonuses and promotions into a decent wage. (No worker adding profits to the bottom line should be so fiscally punished)

Here’s my op-ed in today’s New York Daily News, America’s sixth-largest newspaper and the last newsroom in which I worked as a reporter.

An excerpt:

In a time of growing income inequality, no one should assume that retail staff are uneducated or have no higher ambition than folding T-shirts for hours. RAP also found that more than 50% of them either have a college degree or are working toward one.

Some, like our store manager Joe, who fought with U.S. Special Forces in Mogadishu, have served their country overseas. And some enjoy retail work and consider it a meaningful career choice.

For others, it’s a stopgap, a place to earn a wage while awaiting a better-paid opportunity. One multi-lingual young lawyer I know recently made the move from folding T-shirts at the Gap to working at a major investment house, the fortunate culmination of a lengthy and frustrating job search.

These workers deserve and demand more respect and better economic treatment.

Walmart

Walmart (Photo credit: matteson.norman)

As some of you may know, a frenzied crowd of shoppers trampled a 34-year-old Walmart associate. Jdimytai Damour — in his first week on the job on Long Island, NY — to death in 2008.

Walmart has yet to pay the $7,000 fine levied by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration:

Sitting on appeal with a review commission, the case of Jdimytai Damour’s death highlights how corporations can choose to fend off modest penalties over workplace dangers for years on end, according to occupational health experts.

For a company with sales of $466 billion last fiscal year, the $7,000 fine from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration represents little more than a single store’s rounding error. Walmart would have vastly outspent that sum simply in legal fees devoted to fighting the penalty. But the world’s largest retailer is less concerned with the monetary fine than with the broader implications of the case. A negative ruling could compel Walmart and other retail companies like it to take additional safety precautions for workers or face new liabilities.

“It’s not about the penalty,” said Celeste Monforton, a former OSHA analyst who’s now a lecturer at George Washington University. “It’s this interest in seeing how far Walmart can push back against the decision.”

I’m aware that for some people — including readers here — Walmart offers low prices and may be the only shopping choice in their area. I will never ever shop there.

I worked part-time, from 2007 to 2009, at an upscale mall near my home in suburban New York selling for The North Face, costly outdoor clothing manufactured — as most apparel now is — in low-wage nations across the globe, from Peru to China. I earned $11/hour, with no commission, for a job that demanded devoted attention to 14 simultaneous tasks, from spotting shoplifters (no store security staff) to scrubbing the toilets. We were given daily sales goals. The lowest was $400, the highest — during the holidays — $6,000.

malled cover LOW

It was the hardest job I’ve ever done. I’m glad I did it. I’ve never seen the world the same way since then.

It showed me a sort of corporate brutality I could never (naively) have imagined had I not stepped behind the cash wrap. Shoppers assumed we were stupid, uneducated, unable to get or keep any other sort of work, when many of us had lost much better-paid jobs in the recession. Or we were going to college, and/or supporting a family.

My second book, “Malled” My Unintentional Career in Retail” details my experience, as well as that of hundreds of others nationwide.

Yet the word most industry experts use to describe these workers?

Disposable.

Retail work is the largest source of new jobs in the U.S., yet most of them  — part-time, with very few hours and no benefits — pay such low wages that workers end up using food stamps to supplement their meager incomes. Enough already with corporate welfare!

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