US Citizenship question in 2020 census – nothing new

For the first time since the 1950 census, respondents will be asked to declare their citizenship.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross reported the decision Monday, and Democrats and immigrant advocacy and support groups instantaneously launched a vocal rebellion, as reported in the WSJ. Ross claimed that the question would yield citizenship data that would bolster the Voting Rights Act: the DOJ and courts reference this data to protect minority voting rights.

In fact, the citizenship question appears on the annual American Community Survey, which reaches less than 1% of the population, but the DOJ claims the data doesn’t have enough detail. By including it in the census, the question will be ideally answered by every US household. What is more, this question was included on the decennial census from 1820 to 1950.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that the state of California, now followed by over a dozen more states, have filed suit against the Trump administration Monday night under the premise that the question violates the Constitution.

One of the major issues is that many believe the question will deter so many respondents that the accuracy of the census data is greatly at stake. Also, states with very large immigrant populations (California, New York, Illinois, and so on) may lose state and federal representation, electoral college votes, and population-based funding.

Another issue: the deadline for making changes to 2020 Census questions is April 1st. In response to the citizenship question being suggested so near the deadline, Democrats introduced bills in the House and Senate that would require more time and vetting – in essence, pushing the deadline even further back for future counts.

Along with the citizenship question announcement, the NYT reported how Ross was ready to address the inevitable uproar, primarily from Democrats, stating:  

  • Decades of experience with citizenship questions (on earlier censuses and other surveys) demonstrate that adding it to the 2020 census would not deter respondents.
  • Many other democracies, from Australia to the UK, “routinely ask about citizenship in their head counts without any difficulty.”

These are two very important points. Citizenship questions are routine in most countries, and calling the addition of the question “unconstitutional” indicate that the census was “unconstitutional” from 1820 to 1950. With this, it’s difficult not to question the motives of the Democrats in uproar.




H-1B pause on premium processing – can we stop the cycle?

The USCIS receives and processes roughly 6 million immigration applications from both individuals and employers each year. Most applicants request either 1) to permanently live in the U.S., 2) to temporarily work in the U.S., or 3) naturalization as a U.S. citizen.

Processing time for H-1B (employer-sponsored) depends on so many factors of each individual petition (simply, on the complexity of the file – does that person have records from 5 countries or just 1? Do they have any gaps in education and/or employment that need explaining? Are there any extenuating circumstances? And so on.) So, while some petitions are processed in 3-4 months, others take 8+ months.

Similar to last year, USCIS announced it will temporarily suspend “fast processing” from for-profit companies until early September in order decrease processing time for all H-1B applications. A company can pay a fee of $1,225 to learn in 15 days the H-1B visa petition.

Consider: some employers in Silicon Valley – who can easily budget that $1,225 and often simply do as part of the H-1B filing process – actually rely on rapid processing. In fact, many tech companies line up projects but don’t initiate them until they know they have enough engineers to work on them. If they know in 15 days that their future employees will be granted a visa, they can set the wheels into motion.

Who misses out?

Petitions from these for-profits usually swamp out those from organizations not subject to the H-1B cap, like nonprofits and research institutions. Why? They have extremely stringent, restricted budgets, often composed of donors, grants and endowments, so not only do they typically hire less frequently than big tech companies, they also have fewer premium processing applications.

For-profit companies can still apply for premium processing without immediate rejection IF the individual still qualifies for expedited processing. The reasons include:

  • Severe financial loss to company or ​person​;​
  • Emergency situation;​
  • Humanitarian reasons;​
  • Nonprofit organization whose request is in furtherance of the cultural and social interests of the United States​;​
  • Department of Defense or ​n​ational ​i​nterest ​s​ituation (These particular expedite requests must come from an official U.S. government entity and state that delay will be detrimental to the government.);​
  • USCIS error; or​
  • Compelling interest of USCIS.​

This list simply gives general grounds to expedite if the government considers an individual particularly deserving of an exception, at their discretion.

Why does this matter?

It’s a glaring symptom that our immigration policy needs some attention. Visa petition volume is always going to be extremely high in the United States, and a system overhaul is somewhat unrealistic, so we must consider ways to compartmentally address it piece by piece.


Rights for gig economy workers at risk

In CNNMoney article “For gig economy workers in these states, rights are at risk” (March 14, 2018), Lydia DePillis covers New York-based online platform Handy – which connects users and at-will home service providers – as it pushes bills through eight state legislatures in 2018 that would permanently and officially classify most gig workers as independent contractors.

All eight bills have passed at least the house or senate in each state. At this rate, all eight bills will soon be signed into law in 2018.

Most members of the economy understand working in any capacity other than “full-time regular” employment means running the risk of not having the same rights and benefits promised to workers of that status. Still, the passing of these eight bills would really put gig economy workers in a tight spot, a population that is arguably already vulnerable, and protect the business of gig economy platforms.

Are these bills aligned with American values? Let’s get a general understanding of the landscape.

What is the gig economy?

On-demand, at-will labour. A gig economy is an environment in which temporary, freelance positions prevail instead of regular full-time employment. The most common examples are Uber, Lyft (and other ride-sharing), TaskRabbit, and so on.

When did it start?

Gigs are nothing new to the economy. The simple facts of a gig is that it is temporary and independent. Think of labourers waiting near construction sites to be selected for work on any given day during the Industrial Revolution. Think of freelance musicians, marketers, and waitstaff throughout history and present day. The unique element of 2018’s gig economy is not only that it is large and growing exponentially into many industries, but also that some workers consider it the preferred method of employment, citing flexibility and high demand as top pull-factors. The internet has largely catapulted forward our modern gig economy by hosting accessible and easy-to-use platforms for gig workers and “employers” to connect.

What is the status of a gig worker?

In the spirit of tax filing season, let us question: do people who work in the gig economy qualify as independent contractors? That’s the major question of DePillis’s article. The quick answer from most companies is “yes” – they don’t pay taxes on them, provide medical benefits, retirement, and other compensation packages that full-time employees are entitled to. Independent contractors cover their own expenses, including equipment, transportation, insurance and self-employment taxes.

“Currently, the distinction between a contractor and an employee hinges on the idea of control. Telling a worker when and how to perform a job, providing training or supplies, monitoring their activity and determining the rate of pay are all factors that would support a finding that the worker is an employee.”

What’s the point?

“Defining gig workers as independent contractors will give platform companies the certainty that their business model will hold up to legal scrutiny, Handy argues.”

“They’ll be able to set wage rates, they’ll be able to discipline workers, they’ll be able to fire workers, they’ll be able to monitor workers,” explains Rebecca Smith, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit worker advocacy group.

“It’s just such a sorry excuse for a business model to make vulnerable workers more vulnerable just so you can tell your investors that one day you might be solvent,” Palak Shah said, Director of Social Innovations for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a national nonprofit advocacy group. Shah met with Tennessee lawmakers to emphasize how this bill would further alienated gig economy workers and finagle them out of employee rights.

Would the passing of these eight bills ultimately help or hurt our economy?

As will every economic question, the answer is “it depends” – “yes and no”.

Gig workers will be officially operate at an “independent contractor” status, which means a percentage of the relatively high hourly wage will get eaten up by IC-related expenses.

The protection of the gig economy platform business model will encourage others to launch similar businesses, which will likely boost employment not only for those who work directly for the platform but also for the workers posting/ available on the platform.

Passing of the eight bills is indeed aligned with American values of free market and capitalism, but it is difficult for many to accept that the protection of industry comes at the cost of making life more difficult for the most vulnerable workers.



23andMe delivers first direct-to-consumer kit testing for risk of cancer – scope will expand

For $99, using a quick saliva sample, consumers can get their ancestry readings from 23andMe. But for $199, consumers can get the Ancestry + Health dual analysis, and the health analysis tells you more than ever.

Now, the FDA has approved 23andMe to test for several strains of cancer.

This is the first direct-to-consumer testing kit for genes affiliated with a higher risk of developing breast, ovarian or prostate cancer. As it does not test for the hundreds of other types of cancer, the FDA issued a warning along with its approval, saying that “the test should not be used as a substitute for seeing your doctor for cancer screenings.”

As mentioned in an article by CNN, 23andMe already tests for genetic health risks for diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, as well as food allergies and overall “wellness reports for things like lactose intolerance and saturated fat.”

Typically, genetic tests for cancer require a doctor’s prescription and look for more than these three mutations, as reported by Business Insider. But, in the next couple weeks, customers will be able to get a preliminary understanding of their personal risk of potentially getting these three types of cancer.

NOTE: This isn’t equally useful to consumers across the board.

The three BRCA gene mutations 23andMe analyzes are most commonly found in people of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish descent. The former National Society of Genetic Counselors president Mary Freivogel told BI, “If you are not of Jewish background, this test has very little utility for you,”

So, for example, if someone of non-Ashkenazi Jewish descent receives her test results back saying minima trace of genetic mutation can be found, that may not be the end of the story for her body. This is but one reason why visits to doctors are still just as highly recommended as they were last week.

Where this test could find great utility is its ability to prompt people to get more thorough cancer screens who may have not do so otherwise. TechCrunch suggests along with other major news outlets that this by no means should be the final step, but the first step, in exploring one’s health in an affordable and proactive way.

Results that merit further screening may significantly increase the amount of people who catch breast, ovarian and prostate cancer at very early stages. In this way, 23andMe is making us all one step closer to beating cancer.


A “no” now is not a “no” forever: thrown from the Shark Tank to swimming in over $1 billion

If you enjoy watching Shark Tank, you may also enjoy watching the Sharks review decisions they have made in previous episodes – companies they’re happy they invested in, companies they’re happy they did not invest in, and most interestingly, successful companies that have flourished despite being rejected and thrown out of the tank.

Ring was a smart doorbell startup that came onto Shark Tank looking for $750,000. (Watch the the Shark Tank pitch here.) There were all kinds of concerns, including security concerns, practicality concerns, and patron participation. Looks like patron participation is not an issue.

As reported by CNBC, Ring has raised $209 million so far and was last valued at $760 million, according to Pitchbook. Amazon is now buying Ring for over $1 billion, but they’ve invested in them before: several years ago, Amazon invested in Ring through the Alexa Fund (its investment arm exclusively investing in Alexa voice technology powered devices).

Have you seen those commercials for Amazon in-home delivery? Ring is helping Amazon realize this in a safe, secure way. In fact, the growing home security industry is expected to hit $51.5 billion by 2022, and smart-home market (in-home deliveries) is becoming an increasingly desirable to receive packages at home.

Despite their partnership with Amazon, Ring is still expected to operate independently in this field.

Freedom v security: more Americans want freedom

Over the course of 2 years, the cloud-based accounting company FreshBooks surveyed 2,700 full-time workers, and they found

  • 97% of self-employed workers had no desire to return to “traditional” work
  • 43% of respondents feel that becoming self-employed will give them more control over their career
  • 33% cited “family reasons” for seeking to work independently
  • the number of self-employed workers could triple by 2020

Especially at a point where a great majority of households have both parents working, Americans have begun imposing the work-life balance on their own lives. Having two workaholic parents is not the routine that people want to sign themselves or their families up for, so self-employment is now becoming a sought after arrangement. Many people no longer feel the “traditional” career path is best for them and it’s emboldening creativity and entrepreneurship.

Issue: Some kinds of self-employment require MUCH more than a 40 hour work week

In 2018, the gig economy, part time work and freelance careers take up a greater share of the self-employment market. According to Quartz, “Despite its lack of financial security, independent work also offers psychological benefits of creativity and autonomy. Studies have shown that most people actually prefer autonomy to authority and prestige.”

Millennials came of age during the 2008 housing market crash and proceeding recession and inflation. We were also in college and just entering the job market at high rates of unemployment. Similarly, people who planned to retire during this time had to be agile and find alternative plans as well. Millennials are not the only demographic diverting from tradition.

Essentially, the path and narrative Americans thought we were following blew up before most of us, so we’ve had to be creative, non-traditional and strategic to make a success of it.

At the same time, technology has given us entry points into the economy that did not exist 10-15 years ago, points that we may not have imagined, but points that provide flexibility, autonomy, and above all, an almost instant income channel.

Discussions of the future are not only about career paths now, they’re about lifestyles, the latter being the discussion Americans have historically had less practice in. It seems when all is put in the balance, for many people’s circumstances, the result of a “self-employment” equation is favorable to that of working with a traditional company. Companies that wish to tip the balance back in their favor will continue to develop their work cultures, work-life balance, and employee growth potential.

Cannabis will be available online in Ontario via Shopify

Weed will be available online in the province of Ontario (13.6 million people) as of July 1, 2018.

According to a recent article by Business Insider, Shopify will handle online sales of cannabis in Ontario. The annual retail potential for cannabis could be up to $8.7 billion , according to Business Insider, citing a Deloitte report.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau intends to federally legalize cannabis after July 1, leading to the beginning of retail sales. To step in, take advantage of this enormous financial opportunity, and facilitate the mass distribution of cannabis after this date, is Shopify, the e-commerce giant.

In Ontario, cannabis will only be run through provincially run OCRC (Ontario Cannabis Retail Corp., subsidiary of the provincial government’s Liquor Control Board of Ontario) channels, rather than privately owned dispensaries. For in-person sales, the OCRC plans to open 80 cannabis stores by the summer of 2019, and an additional 150 by 2020.

This begs the question of which other e-commerce retail giants will enter the cannabis space in Canada, like Amazon or eBay. Also, should the US federally legalize cannabis, which of these giants would be the first be an authorized carrier? Would there also be a government monopoly on distribution channels? What would happen with existing dispensaries?

Your thoughts are welcome.


Happiest cities to work – are they?

In a survey by CareerBliss, reported by CNBC, of 20,000 reviews that measured 

  1. company culture
  2. growth opportunities within the company
  3. people you work with
  4. person you directly work for
  5. rewards you receive
  6. support from the employer
  7. work setting, and
  8. CEO leadership

it may or may not surprise you that Mountain View, CA claimed the number one spot, followed by  Detroit, MI and Boulder, CO. The complete list can be viewed below:

Best Places to Work

  1. Mountain View, CA
  2. Detroit, MI
  3. Boulder, CO
  4. Richardson, TX
  5. Stamford, CT
  6. Redmond, WA
  7. San Jose, CA
  8. Santa Clara, CA
  9. Rockville, MD
  10. Cleveland, OH

In this list of Top 10, Silicon Valley cities of San Jose, Santa Clara, and Mountain View take up three spots. It’s well understood that Silicon Valley companies lead in work culture, competitive compensation and benefits, creative perks, and work-life balance. Many of these things were not measured, but I think they play a strong role in some of the factors that were. They undoubtedly influence one’s attitude towards company culture, rewards received, employer support, work setting and CEO leadership.

Compensation, especially, plays a strong factor in satisfaction as a part of the greater picture. In places like Detroit, Richardson, Stamford, and Cleveland, if someone has an above average salary in a place with a relatively low cost of living, he/she will likely be a happier employee than, for example, someone living in Manhattan working for $80,000/year. Eighty thousand dollars a year can go a long way, but not in Manhattan. Similarly, making $65,000/year in Detroit or Cleveland has a much greater chance of leaving employees fairly comfortable.

So, in short, I believe this Top 10 List is missing key underlying factors. I also believe the San Francisco Bay Area (“Silicon Valley”) should be grouped into one location to open up two more slots. And, overall, these kinds of lists should be seen as no more than indicators. Surveying 20,000 employees across the US is to survey less than 0.0067% of the population.

Amazon’s Top 20 is here

Of the over 230 North American cities that submitted bids for Amazon’s second HQ campus, the remaining cities are:


Atlanta, Georgia
Austin, Texas
Boston, Massachusetts
Chicago, Illinois
Columbus, Ohio
Dallas, Texas
Denver, Colorado
Indianapolis, Indiana
Los Angeles, California
Miami, Florida
Montgomery County, Maryland
Nashville, Tennessee
Newark, New Jersey
New York City, New York
Northern Virginia, Virginia
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Raleigh, North Carolina
Toronto, Ontario
Washington D.C.

As a refresher of what’s at stake, these cities are vying for Amazon’s $5 billion construction project and as many as 50,000 new high-paying jobs for their communities. Apart from Toronto, all other 20 remaining cities are in the US.

I wonder if some of these cities are on this list symbolically or as a courtesy, because it is challenging to imagine where a campus would be in Washington DC or New York, where every square foot is spoken for. Whereas growing cities like Nashville or Austin or Pittsburgh would arguably benefit more from securing the bid and there is, comparatively, a larger gap to fill.

Which cities do you predict will be in the Top 5? Why?






Rumors of Trump to end H-1B extension temporarily hushed

H-1B visa holders had a scare last week when rumors were leaked that the Trump administration was moving to end the visa extension policy.  McClatchy Newspapers was first to report this discussion reflected by internal memos at the Department of Homeland Security.

According to an article by the San Francisco chronicle, this move would have mostly affected the hundreds of thousands of working visa holders with pending green card applications, a majority of whom work in the US tech industry.

People often use the H-1B visa (valid for 3 years) as a step towards US permanent residency, but the wait for a green card can take over 10 years. Simply, this visa extension allows H-1B visa holders to remain working in the US during this gap as they wait for permanent residency. Should this extension be removed, not only would hundreds of thousands of people feel their residency in jeopardy, but also their employers would fear the loss of their employees. Even more drastic, if this policy held, companies would be incentivized to not hire foreign workers of any skill level to avoid the inevitable 3-year rehiring cycle.

As reported by Newsweek, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) chief of media relations Jonathan Withington announced this week, “We are not at liberty to discuss any part of the pre-decisional processes; however, all proposed rules published in the federal register and USCIS posts all policy memoranda on our website,” he said.

“What we can say, however, is that USCIS is not considering a regulatory change that would force H-1B visa holders to leave the United States by changing our interpretation of section 104(c) of AC-21, which provides for H-1B extensions beyond the 6 year limit.”

“Even if it were, such a change would not likely result in these H-1B visa holders having to leave the United States because employers could request extensions in one-year increments under section 106(a)-(b) of AC21 instead,” he added.

In another statement to TechCrunch, Withington mentioned that they’re looking into other possible policy changes in cooperation with the “Buy American, Hire American” executive order that the president signed last April with the intention to bring business investment from abroad to the US.  That includes “a thorough review of employment based visa programs,” though USCIS explained the H1-B extension policy was not in jeopardy. 

Data published by USCIS shows about 73% of  H-1B petitions filed in 2017 were approved (404,087 applications received, 298,445 approved), a drop down from 2016’s numbers, when 399,349 applications were received and 348,162 (about 87%) were approved.

Also, the great majority of H-1B petitions from 2007 to 2017 were filed on behalf of Indian nationals – more than 2.2 million petitions.

Indeed, outside the US, the largest percentage of publications covering these developments are Indian press and media.

Next up, over 300,000 applications were filed on behalf of Chinese-born workers, followed by applicants born in Canada, the Philippines and South Korea.

There is a very strong humanitarian case against eliminating the extension, but let’s not forget the catastrophic economic impacts this could have as well. If the US does not have the skilled workers to replace the workers who would be eventually pushed to leave the US, our economy would not only experience a production slow down but also a lull while US permanent residents and citizens slowly filled the open jobs.