America’s pandemic economy: Little news and big news alike, it’s pretty sad right now

Just last week, I was thinking about how nice it will be to once again grab a late lunch and spend part of the afternoon working at the Pret A Manger cafe in Boston’s Downtown Crossing. For a downtown, high-volume chain eatery, it had a homey and comfortable feel to it. Once the business lunch hour crowd had dissipated, I was usually able to find a table to enjoy my food and get some work done, with laptop or tablet at hand.

My typical lunch fare was one of Pret’s egg salad sandwiches and a cup of lentil soup, with a coffee or an iced tea for a little mid-day boost. If I was there for a snack only, I’d often opt for one of their chocolate chunk cookies, truly one of the best I’ve ever had. Only minutes from my university office, it was a pleasant place to be productive, and the staff was always friendly and efficient. During recent years, I spent many hours there.

But earlier this week, the company announced that it is closing all of its Boston locations. As reported by Erin Kuschner for (link here):

London-based café chain Pret A Manger has closed all of its Boston locations as it announced plans to restructure its business model as a result of COVID-19.

In a statement shared with on Wednesday, the company revealed that U.S. sales were down by 87 percent year-over-year due to the pandemic, and that it had made the decision to close 17 outposts across Boston and Chicago….

When it comes to the state of the American economy, it’s all pretty much the same, on smaller or larger scales. The impact of the pandemic on the national economy has been terrible. As Scott Horsley reports for National Public Radio (link here):

The coronavirus pandemic triggered the sharpest economic contraction in modern American history, the Commerce Department reported Thursday.

Gross domestic product — the broadest measure of economic activity — shrank at an annual rate of 32.9% in the second quarter as restaurants and retailers closed their doors in a desperate effort to slow the spread of the virus, which has killed more than 150,000 people in the U.S.

The economic shock in April, May and June was more than three times as sharp as the previous record — 10% in 1958 — and nearly four times the worst quarter during the Great Recession.

The numbers are horrific, but the individual stories behind them are even worse. They’re about jobs disappearing, businesses closed, and everyday pleasantries gone. The heartache is significant. The damage done in roughly five months is breathtaking. And here in the U.S., we’re not through it yet. We’ve got our work cut out for us.


Skipping Bible study? Ordering a deli platter? You may be violating company rules

Prepping for my WeWork interview

Periodically the media treats us to stories that illustrate the power of employers to control workers’ lives in ways that may have little to do with the actual product or service they are providing. This summer I spotted a couple of stories that fall into this category.

Thou shalt not skip Bible study

NPR’s Sasha Ingber reports on an Oregon construction company worker, Ryan Coleman, who filed a religious discrimination lawsuit after being fired for no longer attending Christian Bible study sessions, as required by his employer, Dahled Up Construction:

According to the complaint, he was hired as a painter in October 2017 and discovered on the job that he was required to attend Christian Bible study as part of his employment.

Coleman, who is half-Native American (Cherokee and Blackfoot), wasn’t comfortable with those terms, his attorney, Corinne Schram, told NPR. “He says his church is a sweat lodge, his bible is a drum, and that’s his form of worship to the creator,” Schram said.

According to the document, Coleman expressed his discomfort with attending the Bible study meetings and said the requirement was illegal, but business owner Joel Dahl insisted that he go anyway.

. . . After several months, Coleman finally refused to go to the religious sessions and was fired from the job, according to the filing.

Of sprouts and spinach leaves

WeWork is a company that rents co-working space to entrepreneurs and start-up business ventures. It has grown by leaps and bounds in cities where office real estate is expensive. As David Gelles reports for the New York Times, it also now limits company food and catering orders to vegetarian selections only:

WeWork is no longer a safe space for carnivores.

Earlier this month, the co-working juggernaut announced that it was essentially going vegetarian. The company will no longer serve red meat, pork or poultry at company functions, and it will not reimburse employees who want to order a hamburger during a lunch meeting.

In a memo to employees announcing the new policy, Miguel McKelvey, WeWork’s co-founder and chief culture officer, said the decision was driven largely by concerns for the environment, and, to a lesser extent, animal welfare.

Legal restrictions and management practices

Generally speaking, private sector employers enjoy wide leeway in setting company hiring and work policies, so long as they do not violate discrimination laws and similar protections.

The Bible study requirement directly implicates an employee’s right to be free of religious discrimination by an employer. The vegetarian food order requirement, however, does not appear to run afoul of any employment laws.

Legal distinctions aside, I think there’s a strong case for removing the company mandates in both situations. I respect that a business owner may want to create a company that embraces certain values. However, I also think that we need to give workers room to be themselves in their everyday choices.

It’s about getting the balance right.

An afternoon off

Let me start off by admitting that managing work-life balance is not one of my strengths. I tend to get wrapped up in the various projects I’m working on, and it just so happens that I have a lot of them competing for my attention right now. I truly enjoy genuine down time, but I don’t build enough of it into my schedule.

Yesterday I waved the white flag of surrender, dropped a book and some magazines into my backpack, and took the subway into downtown Boston. There I went to a Pret a Manger sandwich shop/cafe, bought some lunch, and commandeered a comfortable seat and small table for the afternoon. Pret is a chain, and I’ve noticed that each Pret store tends to adapt to its space and location in terms of look & feel. This Pret is odd in a good way. It’s in the heart of the city’s Downtown Crossing area, and it’s very busy during peak weekday hours. However, outside of those times, it feels more like a spacious, hang out-type cafe. Plus, the food and beverages are good.

The book was a strategic choice: Don Winslow’s The Force, a gritty and gripping cop novel set in today’s New York City. It’s really, really, really good. Between various obligations and the overall state of the world, I’ve had trouble maintaining focus on books read purely for pleasure, but The Force is drawing me in easily. Winslow is a great storyteller who has done his homework on creating a realistic backdrop. If you like your crime/suspense novels in the cozy zone, then I’d suggest skipping this one. But if you like them with big doses of in-your-face real, then I highly recommend it.

Anyway, now that I’ve done a few product endorsements (Pret and Winslow, you’re welcome), back to my point about taking an afternoon off. Being a nostalgic sort, this reminded me of days as a young Legal Aid lawyer in New York City. Money was tight, so vacations involving travel were out of the question. Instead, I found myself using vacation time in one and two day chunks, taking what are now called staycations. One of my favorite pastimes was to pack a few books and find a place to read them over a cheap lunch and something to drink.

This made for a welcomed afternoon mini-vacation. I need to do this more often. A good book, some coffee and a morsel or two, and I’m good to go for the next time!

Thanksgiving, giving thanks, and giving back



Today I’m hopping on a train to New York City (hence the Amtrak Acela poster from my office!), the travel piece of what has become an annual Thanksgiving get together with my cousins and friends. What began over a decade ago as an impromptu turkey day gathering is now a full-fledged tradition, and I look forward to it every year.

In classic New York style, we don’t start until the late afternoon. We’re all pretty hungry by the time the feast is served — and when I say feast, I mean it! The evening finishes up with many choices of desserts amidst singing and playing music.

Over the years, not much has changed about this gathering, the most noticeable difference being the kids now joining the grown ups at the main table. We repeat ourselves a lot from year to year, including well-deserved compliments to the chef and updates on how we’re all doing. That suits me fine. It is a source of continuity and connection, and a blessed reminder of how friends become family, and vice versa.

But for various reasons, I find myself a little down this year. I tend not to be the biggest holiday enthusiast to begin with, but I am particularly mindful right now of how many people are in need and how many are struggling with life’s challenges.

I started this blog five years ago, just as the Great Recession was going into full gear. Today, here in one of the world’s richest nations, we have millions who can’t find decent jobs, even more who are dealing with hunger on a daily basis, and a wealth gap that grows ever wider.

Beyond our shores and borders, the situation worsens, often by leaps and bounds. Recently I met a man around my age who is from Guinea in West Africa. He has been working in the U.S. for over 20 years. He lives on very little so he can send most of his earnings back to his family and village neighbors, who are in dire need of the most basic staples and provisions.

For those of us who are in a position to be thankful for life’s bounty, the best way to show our gratitude is to give back. Whether by way of money, service, advocacy, or some combination, we have opportunities to make a difference. As the saying goes, and inspired by multiple faith traditions, from those to whom much is given, much is expected, yes?

Morning coffee thoughts


Periodically I like to justify my coffee habit by writing about the vital brew, and this Monday morning seems as good a time as any to share some musings.

It made Civil War soldiers more alert and ready

In the splendid Soldiers Blue & Gray (1988), historian James I. Robertson quotes Union surgeon A.C. Swartwelder on the benefits of coffee:

“I am thoroughly convinced that a pint of good coffee is a better beverage for the soldier than all the rye, bourbon, brandy…or any alcoholic nostrum that ever flowed from a worm…. It has no equal as a preparation for a hard day’s march, nor any rival as a restorative after one.”

However, observes Robertson, Southern troops rarely had adequate supplies of coffee, thanks to the effectiveness of a Union blockade. All too often they had to make do with ersatz coffee “brewed from peanuts, potatoes, peas, corn, and rye.” Yikers.

The Union, of course, won the Civil War. Just sayin’.

But can it kill you?

Michael Kelley reports for Business Insider on a Mayo Clinic study that found drinking more than four cups a day may be hazardous to your (er, my) health:

People under 55 who drink an average of more than than four cups of coffee a day raise the risk of dying from all causes, according to a study published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

Researchers led by Steven Blair at the University of South Carolina found that people aged under 55 who drank more than 28 cups a week saw a 56% increase in death from all causes.

However, the authors of the study acknowledge they don’t know why this is so, noting that risk factors associated with heavy coffee consumption, such as cigarette and alcohol use, poor diet, and less sleep, may be at play. (Or being a Civil War soldier. See above.)

Personally, I prefer this study

Alexander Abad-Santos, blogging for The Atlantic, responds to news of the Mayo study by citing last year’s National Institutes of Health findings:

It was just last year that the National Institutes of Health told us that coffee was a life-extender. The Atlantic‘s Brian Fung (now at WaPo) explained that the doctors and researchers at the NIH found (what appears to be) conflicting information:

According to research published today in the New England Journal of Medicine, people who drank four or five cups of coffee a day tended to live longer than those who drank only a cup or less. The benefit was more pronounced for women, but men also stand to gain somewhat from pounding joe.

Coffee-drinking men cut their risk for death by 12 percent after four to five cups of java, according to the study, which was led by the National Institutes of Health’s Neal Freedman. Women who drank the same amount had their the risk of death reduced by 16 percent.

The sounds of coffee

You know the whole deal about writers and coffee houses? Well, it may involve more than just a desire to channel one’s inner Hemingway…

Consider Coffitivity, a neat little site where you can play and download the sounds of a coffee house. The rationale? The Coffitivity folks link to research indicating that an ideal level of ambient noise can actually enable, rather than detract from, our productivity. They say that “the mix of calm and commotion in an environment like a coffee house is proven to be just what you need to get those creative juices flowing.”

I was alerted to Coffitivity by industrial/organizational psychology professor Kathleen Rospenda (Illinois-Chicago), who responded to my recent Facebook post pondering why noises in libraries distract me, while noises in cafes help me stay on task. I don’t know if Kathy discovered the site as part of her scholarly research agenda, but citing her credentials gives this blog piece more street cred.


Related posts

Happy Monday: Top 10 coffee drinking occupations (2012)

Coffee and work (2011)

McDonald’s Big Mac ad hits a new low

From the Orange Line, Boston subway (photo by DY)

From the Orange Line, Boston subway (photo by DY)

McDonald’s is now pitching Big Macs by making fun of public service ads for people who may need mental health counseling.

Here’s the ad I saw while riding the Orange Line of the Boston subway on Sunday: It features a woman looking down with her head buried in her hand, with the text including (1) a large main caption “You’re Not Alone,” (2) a much smaller caption “Millions of people love the Big Mac,” and (3) an 800 phone number at the bottom. (Yes, I called it. It’s McD’s corporate phone number.)

I don’t think I’m being oversensitive or too “PC” about this. If you ride the subway regularly, you often see public service ads depicting a person in obvious distress, captioned with a few supportive words, and listing a phone number to reach a sympathetic ear. We’re living in difficult times. There are a lot of people who are struggling with their mental and emotional health. They may be highly stressed out, depressed, or even suicidal.

The ad writers and executives in McDonald’s high-priced marketing operation missed the boat badly on this one. I’m sorry, but the ad is just too close to the real thing to be funny.


April 10 update: McDonald’s has responded by saying this was part of an ad campaign that never got formal approval from corporate central, and they’ve ordered the ads pulled. Details here from Eric Randall at Boston Magazine, who has been following the story. (It sounds like McD’s will be be revisiting their protocols in working with advertisers because of this.)

At this point I’m a little bemused by how this story has turned mini-viral. Popular Boston blog Universal Hub and Time magazine’s Brad Tuttle also picked up the story, and I had to decline an interview with Boston’s Channel 5 News because I’m out of town.

I deliberately tried to write the post in a way that was pointed but non-inflammatory, so it’s quite interesting to see how something like this grows legs.


April 11 update: And the Boston Business Journal‘s Galen Moore pulled the story together, including more about the Arnold advertising firm apparently responsible for the snafu.


April 12 update: To my surprise, the story has gone viral, with coverage ranging from ABC News to the Daily Mail over in the U.K. In addition, the mental health community has been weighing in. Here’s the lede from Marie Szaniszlo’s piece in the Boston Herald:

Mental health advocates yesterday blasted a McDonald’s ad on the MBTA that appears at first to be a public service announcement targeting people suffering from depression.

“It’s really too bad because it trivializes the whole issue of depression,” said Julie Totten, executive director of Waltham-based Families for Depression Awareness, which has been running an ad of its own on the T for its Strides Against Stigma Walk on April 27 at Boston University. “We’re trying to say when you need help, it’s not a laughing matter. We don’t want people to feel stigmatized or made fun of.”

Working in the fast food industry: We need to change our perceptions


I didn’t grow up in a particularly wealthy area, but Northwest Indiana back in the day was home to steel mills that promised a decent paycheck to many a family. Most of the region’s cities and towns straddled the line between “working class” and “middle class.” For many young people, the future included possibilities such as working in the mills, going to a local college, or raising a family.

If you’re like me, you grew up thinking that working behind the counter at McDonald’s or Burger King was a classic entry-level job. It was not unusual to walk into a fast food place and to see one of your high school classmates taking orders or working the french fry baskets.

And if you had that job or something like it (mine was working as supermarket bagger), you might joke about making the minimum wage but mainly took it in stride. After all, you assumed that better opportunities would come your way.

Take another look

But hold on a minute. In truth, the vast majority of our low-wage workforce — including most who work in the fast food industry — are adults, and they’re not working behind that counter to pay for weekend movies or nights out with friends.

Fast Food Forward is a labor advocacy campaign on behalf of fast food workers in New York City, and their info graphic above shares the main points:

  • “Contrary to common belief, teens represent less than 12% of the low-wage work force.”
  • “Over 60% of low-wage workers are 25-64 years old…, many with families to support.”

And take a close look behind the counter

Okay, so maybe your dietary habits have evolved beyond Big Macs and Whoppers. But if you do find yourself ordering at any fast food restaurant, take a look at who is working there. At many of these places, you’ll find a good number of workers who are well past their teen years. It’s their main job (or one of them), and not infrequently they’re trying to support a family on it.

Just as there are wage-related reasons why we can walk into a big-box store and buy a DVD player for $40, the low prices of fast food items are partially enabled by the small paychecks of the people preparing and selling what customers consume.

Unions, yes!

I shake my head at people who scoff at the idea of fast food employees and other low-wage workers trying to unionize. These critics regard such organizing as an act of entitlement . . . Hey, I worked for the minimum wage before going to business school/marrying a doctor/winning Lotto . . . Why can’t they?

But let’s understand reality: Many people are trying to support themselves and their families in these jobs. And the Barons of the Low-Wage Workforce aren’t giving it up voluntarily. It will take workers organizing on their own behalf to push them beyond McWage-level paychecks. Here’s wishing it happens.

Happy Monday: Top 10 coffee drinking occupations

I’m taking a break from my usual posts about workplace dysfunction to report news of more significant gravity: Dunkin’ Donuts and CareerBuilder have teamed up on a national survey to identify the occupations with the heaviest coffee drinkers.

Chris Reidy of the Boston Globe (after all, Dunkin’ is a local brand) provides the list, in rank order (link here):

1) Food Preparation/Service Workers

2) Scientists

3) Sales Representatives

4) Marketing/Public Relations Professionals

5) Nurses (Nurse, Nurse Practitioner or Physician Assistant)

6) Editors/Writers/Media Workers

7) Business Executives

8) Teachers/ Instructors (K-12)

9) Engineering Technicians/Support

10) IT Managers/Network Administrators

For all of you whose occupations didn’t make the list, get over it and have another cup or two. I’m a little miffed that neither of my main venues, higher education and law, are on it, but at least this gives me a goal to work toward.

Coffee and work

The most important machine in my office suite 

Coffee and work. Work and coffee. David Crookes, in a great piece for the British Independent, “Thirsty Work: The coffee shop as office,” makes the connection:

The bond between coffee and work is strong. It has long been the staple drink for employees in offices, leading to rather wired workers but ones with alert brains ready to tackle the tasks of the day. Ever since American chair manufacturer Barcalounger became the first company to allow employees a coffee break in 1902, such a breather has grown to become an integral part of the working day on both sides of the pond.

Rocket fuel

Perhaps hell hath no fury like a late convert, but I didn’t pick up the coffee habit until my mid-30s. Now, that morning cup is a staple, typically followed by 1 or 2 more later in the day. And if I’m working late into the night, on occasion I brew up a pot to give me a needed jolt.

By conventional standards, I’m not a super-charged coffee drinker, but I confess to being hooked on the stuff. The effect of coffee is both physical and psychological in a way that a strong tea or energy drink like Red Bull simply can’t pull off. It tells me to start the day, push through the day, or work into the wee hours.

Hey, we’re part of a tradition!

As Crookes notes, the coffee-and-work connection goes way back:

When Edward Lloyd opened a rather modest London coffee shop in 1688, it became known for more than just its delicious hot black liquid. Large numbers of merchants, shipowners and insurance brokers would stop by, not only to relax and socialise but to trade.

The coffee shop quickly developed into the perfect place to obtain marine insurance and its reputation grew to the point where its influence continues to this day. Only now we know it as Lloyd’s of London.

Writers and coffee

Coffee seems to be especially associated with writers. Crookes invokes J.K. Rowling, Marina Fiorato, Ernest Hemingway, Henrik Ibsen, and Malcolm Gladwell as examples of writers drawn to cafes and coffee shops to do their work.

In popular fiction, I’ve noticed how many mystery and suspense novel writers create protagonists who are hooked on coffee — by the gallons. The late Stieg Larsson, author of the wildly popular Millenium trilogy (starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), must’ve been addicted, because investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist — one of his major characters — seems to brew up a pot of coffee in every scene!

Health benefits

To justify the habit, I’ll close with a reference to the possible health benefits of coffee, including decreased risk of certain cancers and less susceptibility to depression. Just type “coffee health benefits” into Google and you’ll see!

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