Yelp ratings may be predictor of how restaurants fare after a minimum wage increase

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Some restaurants owners have argued that raising the minimum wage may force them to close, or cut staff. Now a new study suggests that this only really happens to restaurants with lower customer satisfaction ratings as measured by Yelp.

In January the minimum wage in Palo Alto, California, increased from  $11 an hour to $12 an hour. “When the increase happened everybody was a little bit happy,” said Edita Buran, a waitress at local restaurant Calafia Cafe.

But Buran has noticed that the restaurant has cut back on staffing for each shift. “It’s increasing the load on each person drastically,” said Buran.

Buran works at a restaurant with three and half stars on Yelp. Restaurants in that category are 14 percent more likely to go out of business after a $1 minimum wage increase, said Michael Luca, professor of business at Harvard University and one of the authors of the study.

“Basically the five and four and a half star restaurants are completely insulated from changes to the minimum wage,” Luca said. “What we see though, is that two star and three star restaurant are heavily affected by changes in the minimum wage.”

Luca got raw data from Yelp about all the restaurants in the Bay Area where there have been a lot of city-level minimum wage increases. His theory is that restaurants with higher levels of customer satisfaction are able to pass on higher labor costs to their customers. Restaurants with lower ratings can’t do that.

“We’re on that cusp point,” said Pedro Castaneda, Buran’s  manager at Calafia Cafe.

Paychecks have gotten fatter since the wage hike, but Castaneda said there are other factors contributing to the slowdown, like summer vacation.  He said the restaurant is holding on. “I think if it goes any higher we will definitely feel it,” Castaneda said.

But Castaneda doesn’t think the restaurant would actually close. “What would probably end up happening is we would have to either get someone who could do multiple jobs or rely on technology a little more to cut back our staff,” he said.

Luca said he’s heard that one before. “I think it’s rare to find a business that thinks it’s going to close,” said Luca. But, he adds, if the restaurant has managed to stay open this long after the minimum wage increase, all signs are good.

 

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Unemployed Oil Workers Find New Home in Solar Industry

Eighty thousand workers have been laid off across the country as the price of oil has plummeted. In Texas, some out-of-work rig hands, pipe fitters and engineers are finding employment in solar energy.

David Webster has been managing the Mission Solar warehouse in San Antonio since February. Before finding work in the solar sector, Webster spent 10 years shipping oil out of rigs all over the world. Now, he makes sure that the solar panels are packaged and distributed to customers across the U.S.

Transitioning to solar energy was an adjustment.

“Learning about the different types of [panels], learning how the whole process works, that was a learning curve,” Webster said. “The warehouse portion and the management people, not so much.”

Something else that’s different about his new job — the money. “Over a year’s period of time, it’s about half,” Webster said.

Mariela Cruz, a hiring manager at OCI Power, said that a 50 percent pay cut is pretty typical for people transitioning from oil and gas to solar energy.

“Not to say that we don’t pay well or anything like that, but definitely we know that there is a pay differential for those employees,” Cruz said.

An entry level job in solar pays about $50,000 a year. At the peak of the oil boom, rig hands could be making six figures. But warehouse manager David Webster said it was a hard life. Spending 28 days on the rig and 28 days off took a toll on him. The recent uncertainty in the oil market convinced him to take a pay cut.

“The stress of not knowing if you were going to get laid off, that was worse,” Webster said. “I don’t have any stress here.”

The recent downturn in the oil market has made solar energy jobs more attractive. When Mariela Cruz posts an opening for a solar technician, for example, she gets about 100 candidates, of which 25 percent come from oil and gas. Her challenge is to weed out those who will leave once oil prices go up again.

“You can generally tell that they’re trying to make a different transition, that they maybe are tired of the ups and the downs,” Cruz said. But she says some people are less genuine.  “There are some that will actually candidly tell you, well, I’m only looking for something until the market changes, and you’re like okay, thank you.”

The Solar Foundation says Texas will add 900 solar jobs this year. That’s about one percent of the people who recently got pink slips in oil and gas. John Tintera is with the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers. He says there’s no way this new industry can absorb all of those displaced workers.

“We’re simply not seeing solar having that level of employment,” Tintera said. “If solar continues to grow then I think at least a 20 percent coverage would be something that would not surprise me if I saw that figure in the future.”

But for now, hiring manager Mariela Cruz says getting a job in solar energy is more competitive than ever. She has one bit of advice for oil and gas workers wanting to make the transition: don’t pretend to be a tree hugger and all about renewable energy after a whole career on oilfields.

“After you’ve done [oil and gas] for 20 years it’s kind of hard to say,” Cruz said. “Can I really take that with a grain of salt or not?”

Cruz hopes that the people she hired this year will stay on board, even when oil prices go back up.

Latinitas Gets Girls into Tech

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Get the full story on NPR’s Latino USA.

Out of all the people earning bachelor’s degrees in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math), just eight percent are Latinos. That number shrinks even more when you look at the number of Latinas (female students).

Alma Benitez was one of those Latinas trying to break into the STEM field, but she faced more obstacles than the prejudice she faced being a Latina: her family hid her college acceptance letters because they didn’t want her to leave home for college. With pressure from inside and outside the home, Alma found support in Latinitas, an after school club for Latinas in Texas that encourages young Latinas to get excited for science, with the hopes that they’ll grow up and pursue a career in STEM.

Reporter Brenda Salinas gives us a glimpse at the particular struggle Latinas face in the world of STEM. She speaks with Alma about her struggle to pursue her dreams, and with Laura Donnelly, the founder of Latinitas, who’s also a Latina computer scientist.

 

Stem Cell Therapy For Pets

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Scientists discovered how to extract stem cells from human embryos in the early 2000s. Stem cell research got many people excited but there was a lot of controversy and suspicion surrounding this breakthrough. We haven’t heard much about stem cell research since then, but there are some medical professionals are using the technology: veterinarians.

More than 12,000 animals have been treated with stem cell therapy in the U.S. since 2004. The trend started with racehorses but is now available to domestic animals.

The industry is worth $20 million a year – that’s small compared to the $2 billion dollars Americans spent on pharmaceutical drugs for their pets in 2014. But the industry is expanding fast. There are three companies offering stem cell therapy for pets. A new facility opened in New York in August.

Tony Yuan owns a company called Mobile Stem Care in San Antonio. He says business is good because a lot of people are willing to spend serious money on their pets.

Roger Burton is one of his customers. A long-time hunter, Burton noticed that his Lewellin Setter, Reece, was limping out on the fields. He had never really thought about stem cell therapy for animals, but his doctor convinced him that the risks were minimal.

Burton was impressed with the results of the treatment. “Since the next day I have not seen her struggle at all, this is one happy dog,” Burton says. “She was on two forms of pain reliever, we just took her off of it and all I saw was progress.”

Burton paid upwards of a thousand dollars for the treatment. “I haven’t run across a situation yet where I haven’t done a procedure because of cost,” Burton says. HIs veterinarian, doctor Rachel Smith says she’s never seen patients so willing to spend money on their pets – just think of memory foam dog bed and pet health insurance.

Tony Yuan says that sentiment translates into medical procedures, so the margins for animal stem cell therapy are good. He says it would take him about $20 to bring stem cell therapy to humans.

Doug Frantz teaches bio-medical engineering at the University of Texas San Antonio. He says it will probably be another 10 years before humans can be treated with this type of therapy – and that’s a good thing.

“There’s a lot of regulations when you’re making that jump from veterinary medicine to medicine for humans,” Frantz says, “You really don’t have to have that regulation for animals because the FDA is not really interested in regulating those to that level.”

For the FDA to approve a drug or medical procedure for humans, it has to be better than the existing gold standard. For animals, the procedure has to just be proven safe. Scientists around the world are running hundreds of clinical trials proving the effectiveness of stem cell therapy in humans – and that is going to take a while.

That doesn’t stop people like Roger Burton from daydreaming about getting the same procedure as his dog. “I have a torn meniscus in one of my knees and I would love to have it done today,” Burton says.

But that’s not going to happen anytime soon without FDA approval.

 

Squirrels are the Biggest Cyber Hackers

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You might have heard warnings about the potential for malicious computer hackers to sabotage infrastructure like electric utilities.

Turns out, there may be a bigger threat: squirrels.

Thanks to pop culture and politics, one might suspect the threat of hackers taking down our power grid is all but imminent. President Obama has addressed the issue extensively, and National Geographic even dedicated a feature-length movie to the possibility – the much-tweeted about 2013 movie “American Blackout.” But, the next time you see or hear somebody freaking out about hackers, maybe you should bring up squirrels.

In Austin and elsewhere, acorn-packing squirrels have a higher chance of creating a serious power outage than a malware-peddling malcontent.

If a squirrel runs across two different power lines at the same time or touches both a power line and a tree, not only is the poor little squirrel toast, there’s a good chance that the power line is as well.

Carlos Cordova, a spokesperson for Austin Energy, says squirrels accounted for or contributed to roughly 400 power outages in Austin last year – a span of time in which hackers caused zero global power outages.

The proliferation of squirrel-related outages has even inspired a data journalist to tabulate the phenomenon.

The anonymous observer known as “Cyber Squirrel 1” runs a website and a Twitter account that documents outages accredited to squirrels and other critters. He’s taken on the persona of the chief propaganda minister of the squirrel army. They’ve had 702 successful power outage operations worldwide. The interactive map is a silly way to transmit a serious message.

“There is some risk to the electric grid from cyber attack, of course, there is a small amount of risk there,” he says. “But the amount of hype and fear and uncertainty and doubt that is surrounding that risk is way out of proportion to the actual risk.”

Cordova says he’s constantly thinking about threats to the power grid. “There’s animals on the power lines like squirrels that can cause problems, and then there’s humans sitting in their rooms in their pajamas in cyber space going through our lines over the web that can also create problems,” he says. “We diligently protect against both.”

Cyber Squirrel 1 says that’s a good thing. But, just like Y2K or any other existential threat associated with technology, the doomsday rhetoric can get a little conflated sometimes.

In Sync: Is Sharing Your Online Calendar A Relationship Milestone?

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People in love have always savored their relationship milestones: the first date, the first I-love-you’s, meeting each other’s families.

Modern relationships come with their own special milestones, like swapping Wi-Fi passwords, becoming Facebook official, taking down your online dating profiles, and increasingly often, choosing to share your online calendar.

These days, more couples are discussing whether to make their online calendarsvisible to each other. It was even a plot point in the pilot episode of Jane the Virgin. The upside to being calendar connected: You can avoid pesky scheduling conflicts. The downside: It can feel kind of intrusive and kind of unromantic.

How Many People Are Calendar Connected?

A 2014 Pew Research Center study found that 11 percent of couples share an online calendar. That’s not an accurate measure of what we’re calling calendar connectivity. The difference in the language is small, but significant. Making your online calendar visible to your partner is not the same thing as having one online calendar that both of you share

The study also found that 27 percent of committed couples share an email address. “Older adults and those who have been in their relationship for longer than ten years are especially likely to share an email account,” Pew said.

Among younger couples, anecdotally it seems to be much more common to sync your separate online calendars than to share the same email address. If you’re under 40 and have the same email address as your partner, you’re a freak. You know that.

To get a better idea of how many couples are calendar connected, I tapped into my own social networks to do an informal survey. It was anecdotal, completely unscientific and highly informative.

So far, around half of all couples surveyed (about 30 people answered, all under 40) said they share their online calendars with each other. Fifteen percent of the respondents said they aren’t currently calendar connected, but wouldn’t mind if their partner asked. A quarter of the people I asked think sharing your online calendar with your partner is really weird.

Conflict Resolver Or Romance Killer?

From a technical standpoint, it’s very easy to make your calendar visible to your loved ones. But psychologically speaking, figuring out whether you want to share that much information can be a complex decision.

A Pew survey found that 11 percent of couples share an online calendar and more than one out of four couples share an email address.

Brenda Salinas for NPR

Do you really want to know where your partner is at all times? Do you want them knowing where you are?

In the informal survey, some respondents said that being calendar-connected helps keep the peace. “It worked for me and my fiancé,” Krystina Martinez of Denton, Texas, replied. “When we began dating, our schedules were all over the place, so it helped us find the time to see each other.”

New York city resident Aurora Almendral and her partner have even managed to find a little romance in syncing their calendars. “The calendar is another layer of connection we have during the day. We often put flirtatious ‘appointments’ there for the other to find,” Almendral says.

But for a lot of couples, sharing calendars feels a little strange. “I find that a little too stalker-ish for my tastes,” Allyson Michele of Santa Fe, N.M., says. “I get it if there’s an important appointment or event you both need to go to, but I don’t understand why anyone would need to link calendars at all times.”

Sara Paul of Austin, Texas, says “it can definitely lead to snooping if one or both of the partners in the relationship are the jealous type.”

A few passionate respondents were firmly against calendar connectivity. “Adults should be able to function without knowing where the other one is every second of the day,” says Paige Suffel of Houston. “If he wants to know what I’m doing, he can ask.”

A Warning From An Expert

Syndicated advice columnist Dan Savage is in the camp strongly against calendar connectivity. “Maintaining some distance — maintaining some degree of mystery and autonomy — is key to sustaining a romantic and sexual attraction over the long haul,” he says. Syncing up your online calendars is counterproductive to that goal, he says, “unless you’re not interested in long hauling the person you’re currently seeing, in which case, merge those calendars.”

For some couples, a shared calendar is just a jumping-off point. There are dozens of mobile apps designed to keep couples organized. The apps have different features centered around a shared calendar but also include to-do lists, grocery lists, digital scrapbooks, conflict resolution tips and GPS trackers. And for couples that are no longer couples, there are calendar apps to help sort out custody agreements.

A New Milestone

Is syncing calendars the new Facebook official? A quarter of the respondents to the informal survey said they consider sharing their calendar a relationship milestone.

“I think it’s a great idea, but only for couples who have been together for a substantial amount of time (whatever they consider that to be),” Katherine Briggs of Los Angeles says. “My partner and I have been going on for seven years, we both have hectic schedules, and we’re happily (almost) living/breathing extensions of each other.”

Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein started sharing his calendar with his girlfriend after she forgot that his parents were coming into town one weekend. Even though the Brooklyn resident sees being calendar connected “mainly as an utilitarian thing,” there is the occasional head-scratcher. “There are sometimes events on the calendar where I don’t know what it refers to because I’m not the only one adding events to my calendar,” he says.

Spitzer-Rubenstein says in 2016, being calendar-connected is a milestone. “In my relationship, it came after we were already engaged and it just made things easier.”

Is There Room For Another Fitness Tracker? Texas Firm Is Counting On It

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I did two versions of this story, one for NPR and one for the Slack Podcast.

Here is the NPR version that aired on Black Friday:

For startups the first holiday shopping season may help to make a business. Texas entrepreneur Peter Li has much at stake on Black Friday as he tries to gain a foothold in the wearable fitness market.

And here is the Slack version, it’s much more focused on the entrepreneur.

For startups the first holiday shopping season may help to make a business. Texas entrepreneur Peter Li has much at stake on Black Friday as he tries to gain a foothold in the wearable fitness market.

 

 

It’s been a great learning experience to do versions of the same story for different outlets. It’s really helped me understand that there isn’t some ideal way to do a story – it’s all dependent on the editor and what they want. Being able to adapt to different editors is a great skill for any reporter.