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Saving Jobs by Sharing Them, With Government Help

Linda Petersen remembers when the housing market collapsed in 2008 and she was faced with having to lay off most of the people she worked with at her land title and escrow company in Washington State.

As it turned out, there was another option: a little-known and rarely used state unemployment insurance program that subsidizes the wages of workers who are kept on the payroll with reduced hours instead of laid off.

“Oh, my goodness, yes, it saved us,” said Ms. Petersen, the chief financial officer of Land Title Company of Kitsap County. The program — known as work sharing — “allows us to keep and retain that talent, so when things tick back up, we’ve still got them, and it allows them to pay their bills and stick with us through the hard times.”

For the first time in 10 years, the Land Title Company recently took advantage of the state’s work sharing program — this time to supplement the income of employees at high risk of complications from Covid-19 and unable to go to the office after the coronavirus outbreak.

“I am definitely a big fan,” Ms. Petersen said.

She isn’t the only one. Work sharing programs are extraordinarily popular among economists, Republican and Democratic policymakers, employers and workers — at least those who have heard of them. The problem is that few have, even though economists say work sharing is one of the best ways to strengthen the labor market during a downturn.

Of the roughly 30 million people receiving unemployment benefits, only 309,000 — 1 percent — are getting them through a shared work program.

Congress sweetened the program’s appeal during the pandemic, promising as part of the CARES Act that the federal government would pick up the cost from the states through the end of the year, without an overall cap, but nearly half of all states still don’t have such a program.

“I’m sick of this being the ‘best kept secret,’” Suzan LeVine, commissioner of Washington’s Employment Security Department, said of the program, officially titled short-time compensation. “It is the diamond in the rough of the unemployment benefits system.”

Work sharing is widely credited with saving jobs and easing the pain and severity of economic downturns. But while popular in Germany and other advanced industrial countries, such programs have had trouble gaining traction in the United States, where job protection laws are comparatively weak and layoffs are a ready solution when revenues drop. States aren’t required to offer short-time compensation, and many choose not to devote the resources — like funds for updated computer technology — to create and run such a program.

One of the biggest problems, said Kevin Hassett, former chairman of President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers and a longtime champion of the approach, is that most employers and workers simply don’t know about it.

Washington State, which started its program in 1983, has vastly expanded participation since the pandemic. Between March and August last year, 688 businesses took part; now 3,560 are doing so. One in nine Washington workers receiving state jobless benefits is getting them through work sharing.

Ted Brown Music is one business taking part. Ted Brown opened his first music store in downtown Tacoma during the Great Depression, and his family sustained and expanded it through the financial meltdown and recession in 2008, but this crisis has been different.

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Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
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Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Less than two weeks after Washington reported the nation’s first coronavirus death, the state started closing restaurants, schools and businesses. The company’s stores had to shutter or curtail operations, and its wide-ranging school programs and live events were canceled.

“We originally tried not to lay off anybody,” said Whitney Grisaffi, Ted Brown’s granddaughter and the company’s president. But it soon became apparent that the company could not afford to keep paying most of its 180 employees. “Everyone was so afraid,” Ms. Grisaffi said.

A mention of the work sharing program by the Chamber of Commerce caught the attention of Stephanie Howe, the vice president and Ms. Grisaffi’s sister.

Although program rules can vary by state, companies must apply individually, and file a separate plan for each unit or category of workers. Ted Brown Music was approved within two weeks. Now 150 of its employees are taking part. They are paid an hourly wage for the time they work, and receive state unemployment benefits for the hours they don’t. They were also eligible to receive the federal government’s weekly $600 supplemental job benefit until it expired last month.

Jim Stevens, who joined the company in 1970 and knew its founder, was laid off for six weeks after the pandemic hit. “That was just terrible,” said Mr. Stevens, a salesman in the flagship Tacoma store, which his wife, Ellie, manages. “I’ve never been unemployed for any major period in my life.” He was later brought back to work 28 hours a week under the work sharing program.

The partial jobless benefits replaced some of the lost income, while the $600-a-week federal supplement made up for the giant decline in the couple’s commissions.

Though the program involves paperwork for employers, Ms. Grisaffi said its benefits far outweighed the burdens.

“We would have been forced to lay off people and work with more of a skeleton crew,” Ms. Grisaffi said. “This saved us a whole lot of jobs.” Under the program, the company is also continuing to pay its share of employees’ health insurance costs.

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Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

The prospect of saving jobs and speeding a recovery is what prompted policymakers after the Great Recession to expand work sharing, and they included provisions to encourage states to use it in 2012, when the payroll tax cut was extended. Currently, 26 states have permanent programs.

A temporary economic crisis like the coronavirus is the kind of situation that work sharing was designed for, said Katharine G. Abraham, an economist at the University of Maryland and a member of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration. And the impact is more focused than, say, cutting the payroll tax or handing out stimulus checks.

“If you think these businesses aren’t going to go away, then laying people off and having them take jobs elsewhere is a lot of disruption that doesn’t need to happen,” said Ms. Abraham, who has extensively researched the topic.

Employers preserve their relationships with workers and avoid the costs of ramping back up and retraining. Workers avoid layoffs while retaining access to their health insurance and a steady income. And they have a better chance of fending off the longer-term side effects that often accompany layoffs, like permanently reduced income.

The federal Paycheck Protection Program, which offered forgivable loans to businesses that kept workers on the payroll, had a similar goal. But work sharing continues to help prop up businesses facing a slow recovery by allowing their staffs to divide the available hours.

For states, which have been clobbered by zooming costs and plunging tax revenues, work sharing is like finding a winning lottery ticket tucked away in a drawer. Many states have exhausted their unemployment insurance trust funds — which are financed by taxing employers — and been forced to borrow from the federal government to continue paying benefits.

Jeff Donofrio had not heard of work sharing when he took over as director of Michigan’s Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. But after Congress increased incentives as part of the emergency relief package passed in March, he became a vocal pitchman.

With work sharing, the federal government pays the bill. As of July, Michigan had saved at least $212 million in unemployment pay, said Mr. Donofrio, who enlarged the program’s staff, had the state’s computers reprogrammed and streamlined the application process.

It can also mean significantly lower costs in the future for employers, whose unemployment insurance tax rates increase when layoffs rise. “A lot of businesses are saying this is too good to be true,” he said. “It seems like a solution to a lot of our problems.”

States and localities have themselves taken advantage of work sharing. Between May and July, 31,000 Michigan state employees took part in the program, logging in fewer hours and receiving some jobless benefits. The state said it had saved $80 million in wages.

Muskegon, a small city on the western shore of Michigan, saved $375,000 by using the program for 150 of its 235 employees.

“When the economy took a turn with the coronavirus, it was one of the few tools that cities could use to minimize the impact on their work force and hold their employees harmless in most cases,” said Dwana Thompson, who oversees employee relations for the city.

Two hundred miles to the east, Detroit enrolled 1,700 of the city’s 9,000-member work force in a work sharing program.

“This was a win-win,” said Denise Starr, Detroit’s human resource director. Given sinking tax revenues from the city’s casinos as well as income and sales tax, the only alternative would have been layoffs. The city plans to keep about 1,300 employees in the program through the end of its fiscal year in June 2021, she said.

Getting the word out to policymakers and businesses has been one of the biggest problems, said Susan N. Houseman, vice president and director of research at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Mich. But advertising and promotional campaigns have attracted many more participants, said Ms. Houseman, who studied successful efforts in Oregon and Iowa.

“There are huge incentives to players to use it and for states to promote it,” she said.

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Fearing coronavirus, a Michigan college tracks its students with a flawed app

Schools and universities across the United States are split on whether to open for the fall semester, thanks to the ongoing pandemic.

Albion College, a small liberal arts school in Michigan, said in June it would allow its nearly 1,500 students to return to campus for the new academic year starting in August. Lectures would be limited in size and the semester would finish by Thanksgiving rather than December. The school said it would test both staff and students upon their arrival to campus and throughout the academic year.

But less than two weeks before students began arriving on campus, the school announced it would require them to download and install a contact-tracing app called Aura, which it says will help it tackle any coronavirus outbreak on campus.

There’s a catch. The app is designed to track students’ real-time locations around the clock, and there is no way to opt out.

The Aura app lets the school know when a student tests positive for COVID-19. It also comes with a contact-tracing feature that alerts students when they have come into close proximity with a person who tested positive for the virus. But the feature requires constant access to the student’s real-time location, which the college says is necessary to track the spread of any exposure.

The school’s mandatory use of the app sparked privacy concerns and prompted parents to launch a petition to make using the app optional.

Worse, the app had at least two security vulnerabilities only discovered after the app was rolled out. One of the vulnerabilities allowed access to the app’s back-end servers. The other allowed us to infer a student’s COVID-19 test results.

The vulnerabilities were fixed. But students are still expected to use the app or face suspension.

Track and trace

Exactly how Aura came to be and how Albion became its first major customer is a mystery.

Aura was developed by Nucleus Careers in the months after the pandemic began. Nucleus Careers is a Pennsylvania-based recruiting firm founded in 2020, with no apparent history or experience in building or developing healthcare apps besides a brief mention in a recent press release. The app was built in partnership with Genetworx, a Virginia-based lab providing coronavirus tests. (We asked Genetworx about the app and its involvement, but TechCrunch did not hear back from the company.)

The app helps students locate and schedule COVID-19 testing on campus. Once a student is tested for COVID-19, the results are fed into the app.

If the test comes back negative, the app displays a QR code which, when scanned, says the student is “certified” free of the virus. If the student tests positive or has yet to be tested, the student’s QR code will read “denied.”

Aura uses the student’s real-time location to determine if they have come into contact with another person with the virus. Most other contact-tracing apps use nearby Bluetooth signals, which experts say is more privacy-friendly.

Hundreds of academics have argued that collecting and storing location data is bad for privacy.

The Aura app generates a QR code based on the student’s COVID-19 test results. Scan the QR code to reveal the student’s test result status. (Image: TechCrunch)

In addition to having to install the app, students were told they are not allowed to leave campus for the duration of the semester without permission over fears that contact with the wider community might bring the virus back to campus.

If a student leaves campus without permission, the app will alert the school, and the student’s ID card will be locked and access to campus buildings will be revoked, according to an email to students, seen by TechCrunch.

Students are not allowed to turn off their location and can be suspended and “removed from campus” if they violate the policy, the email read.

Private universities in the U.S. like Albion can largely set and enforce their own rules and have been likened to “shadow criminal justice systems — without any of the protections or powers of a criminal court,” where students can face discipline and expulsion for almost any reason with little to no recourse. Last year, TechCrunch reported on a student at Tufts University who was expelled for alleged grade hacking, despite exculpatory evidence in her favor.

Albion said in an online Q&A that the “only time a student’s location data will be accessed is if they test positive or if they leave campus without following proper procedure.” But the school has not said how it will ensure that student location data is not improperly accessed, or who has access.

“I think it’s more creepy than anything and has caused me a lot of anxiety about going back,” one student going into their senior year, who asked not to be named, told TechCrunch.

A ‘rush job’

One Albion student was not convinced the app was safe or private.

The student, who asked to go by her Twitter handle @Q3w3e3, decompiles and analyzes apps on the side. “I just like knowing what apps are doing,” she told TechCrunch.

Buried in the app’s source code, she found hardcoded secret keys for the app’s backend servers, hosted on Amazon Web Services. She tweeted her findings — with careful redactions to prevent misuse — and reported the problems to Nucleus, but did not hear back.

A security researcher, who asked to go by her handle Gilda, was watching the tweets about Aura roll in. Gilda also dug into the app and found and tested the keys.

“The keys were practically ‘full access’,” Gilda told TechCrunch. She said the keys — since changed — gave her access to the app’s databases and cloud storage in which she found patient data, including COVID-19 test results with names, addresses and dates of birth.

Nucleus pushed out an updated version of the app on the same day with the keys removed, but did not acknowledge the vulnerability.

TechCrunch also wanted to look under the hood to see how Aura works. We used a network analysis tool, Burp Suite, to understand the network data going in and out of the app. (We’ve done this a few times before.) Using our spare iPhone, we registered an Aura account and logged in. The app normally pulls in recent COVID-19 tests. In our case, we didn’t have any and so the scannable QR code, generated by the app, declared that I had been “denied” clearance to enter campus — as to be expected.

But our network analysis tool showed that the QR code was not generated on the device but on a hidden part of Aura’s website. The web address that generated the QR code included the Aura user’s account number, which isn’t visible from the app. If we increased or decreased the account number in the web address by a single digit, it generated a QR code for that user’s Aura account.

In other words, because we could see another user’s QR code, we could also see the student’s full name, their COVID-19 test result status and what date the student was certified or denied.

TechCrunch did not enumerate each QR code, but through limited testing found that the bug may have exposed about 15,000 QR codes.

We described the app’s vulnerabilities to Will Strafach, a security researcher and chief executive at Guardian Firewall. Strafach said the app sounded like a “rush job,” and that the enumeration bug could be easily caught during a security review. “The fact that they were unaware tells me they did not even bother to do this,” he said. And, the keys left in the source code, said Strafach, suggested “a ‘just-ship-it’ attitude to a worrisome extreme.”

An email sent by Albion president Matthew Johnson, dated August 18 and shared with TechCrunch, confirmed that the school has since launched a security review of the app.

We sent Nucleus several questions — including about the vulnerabilities and if the app had gone through a security audit. Nucleus fixed the QR code vulnerability after TechCrunch detailed the bug. But a spokesperson for the company, Tony Defazio, did not provide comment. “I advised the company of your inquiry,” he said. The spokesperson did not return follow-up emails.

In response to the student’s findings, Albion said that the app was compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, which governs the privacy of health data and medical records. HIPAA also holds companies — including universities — accountable for security lapses involving health data. That can mean heavy fines or, in some cases, prosecution.

Albion spokesperson Chuck Carlson did not respond to our emails requesting comment.

At least two other schools, Bucknell University and Temple University, are reopening for the fall semester by requiring students to present two negative COVID-19 tests through Genetworx. The schools are not using Aura, but their own in-house student app to deliver the test results.

Albion students, meanwhile, are split on whether to comply, or refuse and face the consequences. @Q3w3e3 said she will not use the app. “I’m trying to work with the college to find an alternative way to be tested,” she told TechCrunch.

Parents have also expressed their anger at the policy.

“I absolutely hate it. I think it’s a violation of her privacy and civil liberties,” said Elizabeth Burbank, a parent of an Albion student, who signed the petition against the school’s tracking effort.

“I do want to keep my daughter safe, of course, and help keep others safe as well. We are more than happy to do our part. I do not believe however, a GPS tracker is the way to go,” she said. “Wash our hands. Eat healthy. And keep researching treatments and vaccines. That should be our focus.

“I do intend to do all I can to protect my daughter’s right to privacy and challenge her right to free movement in her community,” she said.


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Decrypted: Hackers show off their exploits as Black Hat goes virtual

Every year hackers descend on Las Vegas in the sweltering August heat to break ground on security research and the most innovative hacks. This year was no different, even if it was virtual.

To name a few: Hackers tricked an ATM to spit out cash. A duo of security researchers figured out a way to detect the latest cell site simulators. Car researchers successfully hacked into a Mercedes-Benz. A Windows bug some two decades old can be used to plant malware. Cryptocurrency exchanges were extremely vulnerable to hackers for a time. Internet satellites are more insecure than we thought and their data streams can contain sensitive, unencrypted data. Two security researchers lived to tell the tale after they were arrested for an entirely legal physical penetration test. And, a former NSA hacker revealed how to plant malware on a Mac using a booby-trapped Word document.

But with less than three months until millions of Americans go to the polls, Black Hat sharpened its focus on election security and integrity more so than any previous year.

Here’s more from the week.


THE BIG PICTURE

A major voting machine maker is finally opening up to hackers

The relationship between hackers and election machine manufacturers has been nothing short of fraught. No company wants to see their products torn apart for weaknesses that could be exploited by foreign spies. But one company, once resistant to the security community, has started to show signs of compromise.

Election equipment maker ES&S is opening up its voting machines to hackers — willingly — under a new vulnerability disclosure program. That will see the company embrace hackers for the first time, recognizing that hackers have knowledge, insight and experience — rather than pushing them away and ignoring the problems altogether. Or, as the company’s security chief told Wired: “Hackers gonna hack, researchers gonna research.”

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The 2021 Ford Bronco gets an official debut date

More than three years ago, Ford announced it was bringing back the Bronco after years of customer requests and speculation.

The mid-size SUV that ended its 30-year production run in 1996 was supposed to debut in March. Then COVID-19 happened and well everything got cancelled, including numerous vehicle reveals.

The reborn Ford Bronco will finally emerge to the media and public — beyond what we’ve already seen thanks to lots of leaked photos — on July 9. Ford announced the date in a post Saturday on Instagram.

Why has TechCrunch dared write about the Ford Bronco? Let’s ignore that it’s a Saturday and I’m trying to bring a little light into everyone’s lives for a fleeting moment or that the Ford Bronco was my childhood companion on numerous camping trips in Baja and the first vehicle I ever drove off road.

The Ford Bronco might be a classic. But it will certainly embody some new fangled tech, hence our interest. The Bronco is also part of Ford’s previously announced plans to invest $750 million and add 2,700 new direct jobs at its Wayne, Mich. factory. The Ford Bronco and an all-new Ford Ranger will be assembled at the Wayne factory, which will also house and a new modification center to support autonomous vehicles.

Expect Ford to produce a family of Bronco vehicles, including a smaller Bronco Sport and plug-in hybrid. Ford CEO Jim Hackett confirmed during the company’s 2019 shareholder meeting that a hybrid would be part of the mix.

The Bronco is going to be available in two- and four-door configurations. There should be lots of opportunity for buyers to customize their Bronco. For instance, opting for removable doors and roof. The expectation is that the Bronco will have a body-on-frame chassis and be offered with 2.3-liter turbo four and maybe even a V6. Although it’s unclear if the smaller Sport will have a different architecture.

Stay tuned.

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Detroit Auto Show canceled in preparation for FEMA to turn venue into field hospital

The North American International Auto Show, which was scheduled for June in Detroit, has been canceled as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread and the city prepares to repurpose the TCF Center into a temporary field hospital.
NAIAS is held each year in the TCF Center, formerly known as the …

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All the high-tech, powerful vehicles TechCrunch reviewed in 2019

TechCrunch occasionally reviews cars. Why? Vehicles are some of the most complex, technical consumer electronics available. It’s always been that way. Vehicles, especially those available for the consumer, are the culmination of bleeding-edge advancements in computing, manufacturing, and material sciences. And some can go fast — zoom zoom.

Over the past 12 months, we’ve looked at a handful of vehicles from ultra-luxury to the revival of classic muscle cars. It’s been a fun year full of road trips and burnouts.


In the last weeks of 2018, we drove Audi’s first mass-produced electric vehicle. The familiar e-tron SUV.

I spent a day in an Audi e-tron and drove it hundreds of miles over Abu Dhabi’s perfect tarmac, around winding mountain roads and through sand-covered desert passes. The e-tron performs precisely how a buyer expects a mid-size Audi SUV to perform. On the road, the e-tron is eager and quiet, while off the road, over rocks, and through deep sand, it’s sturdy and surefooted.

Read the review here.

A few months later, we got an Audi RS 5 Sportback for a week. It was returned with significantly thinner tires.

This five-door sedan is raw and unhinged, and there’s an unnatural brutality under the numerous electronic systems. Its twin-turbo 2.9L power plant roars while the Audi all-wheel drive system keeps the rubber on the tarmac. It’s insane, and like most vacations, it’s lovely to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live with the RS 5.

Read the review here.

At the end of Spring, a 2019 Bentley Continental GT blew us away.

The machine glides over the road, powered by a mechanical symphony performing under the hood. The W12 engine is a dying breed, and it’s a shame. It’s stunning in its performance. This is a 200 mph vehicle, but I didn’t hit those speeds. What surprised me the most is that I didn’t need to go fast. The new Continental GT is thrilling in a way that doesn’t require speed. It’s like a great set of speakers or exclusive liquor. Quality over quantity, and in this mechanical form, the quality is stunning.

Read the review here.

In late May, we drove Audi’s 2019 Q8 from Michigan to New York City and back. To the passengers, it was comfortable. For the driver (me), it was unpleasant.

Yet after spending a lot of time in the Q8, I found it backwards. Most crossovers provide the comfort of a sedan with the utility of an SUV. This one has the rough comfort of an SUV with the limited utility of a sedan. Worse yet, driving the Q8 around town can be a frustrating experience.

Read the review here.

2019 bmw i8 1

The BMW i8 is a long for this world, so we took it out for one last spin, several years after reviewing it just after it was released.

The BMW i8 is just a stepping stone in BMW’s history. An oddball. It’s a limited-edition vehicle to try out new technology. From what I can tell, BMW never positioned the i8 as a top seller or market leader. It was an engineer’s playground. I love it.

Read the review here.

2020 gt500 3

This fall, we went to Las Vegas to get the first taste of Ford’s latest GT500. It’s exhilarating and yet manageable.

During my short time with the 2020 GT500, I never felt overwhelmed with power when driving it on city streets. The 2020 GT500 is an exercise in controlled restraint. Somehow this 760 HP Ford can hit 60 mph in 3.3 seconds and still be easy to putz around town. It’s surprising and a testament to the advances made within Dearborn.

Read the review here.

McLaren Senna GTR doors

Supercars are often an exercise in excess, and yet the McLaren Senna GTR is something different. It’s a testament to how McLaren operates.

Sliding into the driver’s seat, I feel at home. The cockpit is purposeful. The track was cold with some damp spots, and the GTR is a stiff, lightweight race car with immense power on giant slick tires. Conventional wisdom would suggest the driver — me in this case — should slowly work up to speed in these otherwise treacherous conditions. However, the best way to get the car to work is to get the temperature in the tires by leaning on it a bit right away. Bell sent me out in full “Race” settings for both the engine and electronic traction and stability controls. Within a few corners — and before the end of the lap — I had a good feel for the tuning of the ABS, TC, and ESC, which were all intuitive and minimally invasive.

Read the review here.

Quick thoughts on other cars we drove this year.

2020 BMW M850i xDrive Coupe
A grand tourer for the modest millionaire. With all-wheel drive, a glorious engine, and heated armrests, the 850i is exciting and comfortable anywhere.

2019 Ford GT350
Forget the GT500. The GT350, with a standard gearbox and naturally aspirated 5.2L V8, is a pony car that gives the driver more control and more thrills than its more expensive, supercharged cousin.

2020 BMW M2 Competition Coupe
This small BMW coupe is perfectly balanced. It’s powerful, controllable, and, during our week with it, gave endless thrills (and donuts). This was my favorite car this year.

2019 Ford Raptor
Need a pickup that’s faster than a sports car? You probably don’t, but if so, we discovered the Raptor was capable and enjoyable if not a bit unwieldy in traffic thanks to its wide body.

Source: TechCrunch