Food Stamps, Online Grocery Shopping Are About to Mix 

Amazon and Walmart on Thursday kicked off a two-year government pilot program allowing low-income shoppers on government food assistance in New York to shop and pay for their groceries online for the first time. 

 

ShopRite will join the two retailers on the program early next week, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. 

 

The USDA has long required customers using electronic benefits transfer, or EBT, to pay for their purchases at the actual time and place of sale. So the move marks the first time SNAP customers can pay for their groceries online.

ShopRite and Amazon are providing the service to the New York City area, and Walmart is providing the service online in upstate New York locations. The agency said the pilot will eventually expand to other areas of New York as well as Alabama, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington.

Purchase food, but not delivery

The pilot program will test both online ordering and payment. SNAP participants will be able to use their benefits to purchase eligible food items but will not be able to use SNAP to pay for service or delivery charges, the agency said. 

 

“People who receive SNAP benefits should have the opportunity to shop for food the same way more and more Americans shop for food — by ordering and paying for groceries online,” said USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. “As technology advances, it is important for SNAP to advance, too, so we can ensure the same shopping options are available for both non-SNAP and SNAP recipients.” 

 

Perdue said he will be monitoring how the pilot program increases food access and customer service, specifically for those who have trouble visiting physical stores.  

Roughly 38 million individuals receive food stamps in the U.S., according to the USDA. Nearly $52 billion, or 82% of all food stamp dollars, were spent at big box stores and grocery chains in 2017, according to the most recent USDA data. 

 

The 2014 Farm Bill authorized the USDA to conduct and evaluate a pilot program for online purchasing prior to national implementation. The USDA says the move was intended to ensure online transactions are processed safely and securely. 

 

Seattle-based Amazon said those who qualify don’t need to be Prime members to buy groceries with their benefits. They’ll get free access to its AmazonFresh service, which delivers meat, dairy and fresh produce to shoppers’ doorsteps. And they’ll also be able to use Prime Pantry, which delivers packaged goods like cereal and canned food.

Qualifying amounts

However, they’ll need to spend over a certain amount to qualify for free shipping: $50 at AmazonFresh and $25 at Amazon.com. The online shopping giant launched a website, amazon.com/snap, where people can check if they qualify. Amazon said it’s working with the USDA to expand service to other parts of New York state. 

 

Amazon.com Inc. was on the initial list for the government pilot program, and Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart Inc. made the list later. The world’s largest retailer, however, in late 2017 had started allowing customers in limited locations to order items through its online grocery pickup service and then pay for it in person at the stores. 

 

“Access to convenience and to quality, fresh groceries shouldn’t be dictated by how you pay,” Walmart said. “This pilot program is a great step forward, and we are eager to expand this to customers in other states where we already have a great online grocery.” 

 

Walmart said that nearly 300 locations with grocery pickup in the states will be part of the USDA government program. 

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National Enquirer Being Sold to Former Newsstand Mogul 

The National Enquirer is being sold to the former head of the airport newsstand company Hudson News following a rocky year in which the tabloid was accused of burying stories that could have hurt Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. 

 

Tabloid owner American Media said Thursday that it plans to sell the supermarket weekly to James Cohen. Financial terms were not immediately disclosed for the deal, which included two other American Media tabloids, the Globe and National Examiner.  

  

American Media said last week that it wanted to get out of the tabloid business to focus on its other operations, which includes its teen brand and broadcast platforms.

Non-prosecution agreement

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan agreed last year not to prosecute American Media in exchange for the company’s cooperation in a campaign finance investigation. That probe eventually led to a three-year prison term for Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen for campaign violations among other charges.

American Media admitted it had paid $150,000 to keep former Playboy model Karen McDougal quiet about an alleged affair with Trump to help his campaign. Trump has denied an affair.  

The sale would end a longtime relationship between the Enquirer and Trump. Under the aegis of American Media CEO David Pecker, the tabloid has for years buried potentially embarrassing stories about Trump and other favored celebrities by buying the rights to them and never publishing in a practice called “catch and kill.” 

 

The Associated Press reported last year that Pecker kept a safe in the Enquirer’s office that held documents on buried stories, including those involving Trump. 

Whether James Cohen has any allegiances to Trump is not clear. While he was a registered Republican as late as 2017, according to Nexis records, he has given to both Republicans and Democrats. That included $17,300 in 2016 to an arm of the Democratic National Committee and $2,500 to the Republican National Committee in 2012.

News of the sale comes two months after Amazon chief Jeff Bezos publicly accused the Enquirer of trying to blackmail him by threatening to publish explicit photos of him. 

An American Media attorney denied the charge, but it threatened potentially big legal costs by upending American Media’s non-prosecution agreement in the hush money case. The AP reported that federal prosecutors were looking into whether the publisher violated terms of the deal, which included a promise not to break any laws in the future.

Heavy debt load

The Bezos accusation comes at a difficult time for American Media. It has financed several recent acquisitions with borrowed money and has been struggling under a heavy debt load. American Media said the Cohen deal would help reduce the amount it needs to pay back, leaving it with $355 million in debt. 

 

The Washington Post, which earlier reported the sale, said Cohen will pay $100 million in the deal.

Cohen’s family had run a magazine and newspaper distributor for decades before his father branched into newsstand stores in 1980s, starting with a single one at LaGuardia Airport. Before he died in 2012, the father had opened more than 600 stores. 

 

After the death, James Cohen’s niece alleged her uncle had cheated her out of her inheritance. She lost the case. 

 

The family sold a majority stake in the chain about a decade ago. The business is now owned by Dufry, an operator of duty-free stores in which James Cohen is a major shareholder. 

 

Cohen still owns a magazine and newspaper distributor called Hudson News Distributors. In addition, he runs a real estate developer and a publishing company, which owns Gallerie, an art and design magazine. 

 

Cohen has reportedly been involved in American Media deals before. The New York Times reports that, in 2011, Cohen invested in the company’s American edition of OK!, a British tabloid. 

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Slight US Boost Seen From New North American Trade Pact

The new North American free trade pact would modestly boost the U.S. economy, especially auto parts production, but may curb vehicle assembly and limit consumer choice in cars, a hotly anticipated analysis from the 

U.S. International Trade Commission showed on Thursday. 

The ITC report is a crucial step in the push for Congress to consider ratification of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which was signed by President Donald Trump and the leaders of the other two countries last year to replace the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement. 

The report estimates that annual U.S. real gross domestic product would increase by 0.35 percent, or $68.5 billion, on an annual basis compared with a NAFTA baseline, and would add 176,000 U.S. jobs, while raising U.S. exports. 

The ITC’s estimates are for year six of the trade deal, once it is fully implemented. 

The trade deal’s success or failure in Congress could be determined by how it is expected to affect the U.S. auto industry, a sector that steadily drained jobs to Mexico under NAFTA. The USMCA deal contains much tighter regional content rules, requiring that 75 percent of a vehicle’s value be sourced in North America versus 62.5 percent currently, and 40 to 45 

percent produced in high-wage areas, namely the United States 

and Canada. 

Auto industry employment would rise by 30,000 jobs for parts and engine production, but U.S. vehicle assembly would decline. 

U.S. vehicle prices would rise up to 1.6 percent, causing consumption to fall by 140,000 units per year, or about 1.25 percent of 2017 sales, the report said. 

The report overall was more positive than initially anticipated by economists, who said the traditional economic models used by the ITC to measure previous trade deals would result in minimal gains for the United States. 

White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett told Reuters that he was pleasantly surprised by the results, which used different modeling methods that he called “accurate and well done.” 

“Their estimate is a lot closer to what we think USMCA will do than I expected,” Hassett in a telephone interview. “This is very strong argument for passing the USMCA.” 

Concerns not alleviated

But some key Democrats were not swayed from their demands for improvements to the enforcement of new labor standards before they consider USMCA. Democrats control the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, chairman of the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee, said that he had already believed the trade deal needed changes before it could be considered by the House. “Nothing in this report alleviates those concerns,” he said. 

Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee said, “The administration shouldn’t squander the opportunity to lock in real, enforceable labor standards in Mexico.” 

The ITC report said Mexican union wages would rise by 17.2 percent if the labor provisions agreed to in the USMCA were enforced. Even so, Mexican factory wages would remain far below those in the United States. 

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, praised the report for highlighting benefits beyond tariff reductions. 

“Many of the significant improvements in USMCA are reducing non-tariff barriers and implementing rules and fair practices that will help U.S. workers, jobs and businesses tremendously over the coming years,” Grassley said in an emailed statement. 

 

Dueling analyses

The U.S. trade representative’s office had prepared a separate analysis of the USMCA’s automotive benefits that industry officials had described as a rosier alternative view of USMCA aimed at limiting any potential damage from the ITC report. 

USTR estimated that the trade deal would create 76,000 automotive sector jobs within five years as automakers invest $34 billion in new plants to comply with the regional content rules. The total includes about $15 billion in projects already announced. 

USTR officials said their analysis was based on plans disclosed by automakers to the trade agency for compliance with the new agreement’s tighter rules of origin.

“They have verbally committed to us that they intend to comply with the rules,” a senior USTR official said. “And they have told us that this is not going to have significant upward pressure on vehicle prices.” 

But the ITC report said some automakers may decide not to offer vehicles that would be too expensive to bring into compliance with the deal, reducing consumer choice in the U.S. auto market. 

The trade group representing Detroit automakers Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler said it viewed the USTR analysis as more accurate than the ITC’s. 

The ITC “underestimates the longer-term investments and increased U.S. auto parts sourcing that will be made in our sector as a result of the certainty and predictability the USMCA will deliver,” Matt Blunt, president of the American Automotive Policy Council, said in a statement. 

The USMCA deal will also lead to new access for U.S. exports of dairy, poultry and egg products to Canada and U.S. imports of sugar and sugar-containing products from Canada, the ITC said. 

The ITC’s forecast estimated total U.S. dairy product output would increase by $226.8 million, or 0.1 percent. U.S. agriculture and food exports overall would increase by $435 million. 

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Facebook ‘Unintentionally’ Uploaded Email Contacts of 1.5 Million Users

Facebook Inc said on Wednesday it may have “unintentionally uploaded” email contacts of 1.5 million new users since May 2016, in what seems to be the latest privacy-related issue faced by the social media company.

In March, Facebook had stopped offering email password verification as an option for people who signed up for the first time, the company said. There were cases in which email contacts of people were uploaded to Facebook when they created their account, the company said.

“We estimate that up to 1.5 million people’s email contacts may have been uploaded. These contacts were not shared with anyone and we are deleting them,” Facebook told Reuters, adding that users whose contacts were imported will be notified.

The underlying glitch has been fixed, according to the company statement. Business Insider had earlier reported that the social media company harvested email contacts of the users without their knowledge or consent when they opened their accounts.

When an email password was entered, a message popped up saying it was “importing” contacts without asking for permission first, the report said.

Facebook has been hit by a number of privacy-related issues recently, including a glitch that exposed passwords of millions of users stored in readable format within its internal systems to its employees.

Last year, the company came under fire following revelations that Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm, obtained personal data of millions of people’s Facebook profiles without their consent.

The company has also been facing criticism from lawmakers across the world for what has been seen by some as tricking people into giving personal data to Facebook and for the presence of hate speech and data portability on the platform.

Separately, Facebook was asked to ensure its social media platform is not abused for political purposes or to spread misinformation during elections.

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ILO: Changing World of Work Poses New Safety, Health Risks

The U.N. labor agency says existing methods of protecting workers from accidents and disease are not good enough to deal with new occupational hazards arising from changes in the nature of work.  The International Labor Organization (ILO) is calling for revisions to address physical and psychological problems stemming from the changing job world.

In a new report, ILO estimates find 2.78 million workers die from occupational accidents and work-related diseases each year. It says more than 374 million people are injured or fall ill every year through work-related accidents.  The cost to the world economy from work days lost is nearly four percent of global Gross Domestic Product.

The ILO’s report warns the changes and dangers posed by an increase in technology could result in a worsening of that situation.  It says new measures must be implemented to deal with the psycho-social risks, work-related stress and non-communicable diseases resulting from new forms of work.

It says digitization, artificial intelligence, robotics and automatization require new monitoring methods to protect workers.  

Manal Azzi, an ILO Technical Specialist on Occupational Safety and Health, says that  on the one hand, new technology is freeing workers from many dirty, dangerous jobs.  On the other, she says, the jobs can raise ethical concerns.

She told VOA surveillance of workers has become more intrusive, leading them to work longer hours, a situation that may not be ethical.

“Also, different monitoring systems that workers wear.  Before, you would punch in, punch out.  Now, you could wear bands on your wrist that show how many hours you are actually working in a production line. And, there is even discussion of introducing implants, where workers can be continuously surveyed on their production processes,” she said.  

Azzi said a host of mental problems could be introduced by new work environments.  The report also focuses on changes in demographics.  It says employers have to adapt to the physical needs of older workers, who may need training to safely operate equipment.

Another area of concern is climate change.  The ILO is positive about the green jobs being introduced.  But it says care must be taken to protect people from warmer temperatures that increase risks, including air pollution, heat stress, and newly emerging diseases.

In the past, creating a safer working environment focused on the prevention of risks.  Authors of the report say the ILO today needs to anticipate the risks.  They say new skills and information about safety and health in the workplace have to be learned at an earlier age.  Before young people apply for a job, they say, they should know their rights.  The power of knowledge, they say, will help protect employees in the workplace.

 

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Google: Android Users Get Browser, Search Options in EU Case

Google said Thursday it will start giving European Union smartphone users a choice of browsers and search apps on its Android operating system, in changes designed to comply with an EU antitrust ruling.

Following an Android update, users will be shown two new screens giving them the new options, Google product management director Paul Gennai said in a blog post.

The EU’s executive Commission slapped the Silicon Valley giant with a record 4.34 billion euro (then $5 billion) antitrust fine in July after finding that it abused the dominance of Android by forcing handset and tablet makers to install Google apps, reducing consumer choice.

The commission had ordered Google to come up with a remedy or face further fines. The company, which is appealing the ruling, said the changes are being rolled out over the next few weeks to both new and existing Android phones in Europe.

Android users who open the Google Play store after the update will be given the option to install up to five search apps and five browsers, Gennai said. Apps will be included based on their popularity and shown in random order. Users who choose a search app will also be asked if they want to change the default search engine in the phone’s Chrome browser.

Android is the most widely used mobile operating system, beating even Apple’s iOS.

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Pakistan’s Finance Minister Resigns Amid Economic Crisis

Pakistan Finance Minister Asad Umar has resigned days after returning home from crucial talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a financial bailout package to avert a national balance of payments crisis.

While formally announcing his decision to leave Thursday at a hurriedly arranged news conference in Islamabad, Umar explained that he was asked to take the energy minister position instead of finance as part of a Cabinet reorganization.

Umar acknowledged his successor would have to make “some difficult decisions” to deal with economic challenges facing Pakistan.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s eight-month-old administration has faced sustained criticism from political opponents, independent commentators and the business community over the government’s handling of the economic crisis facing the country. Much of that criticism was leveled against Umar.

Umar returned this week from Washington, where his delegation fleshed out details of Pakistan’s next IMF bailout package that he said could be up to $8 billion.

Critics blamed the outgoing minister for taking months to finalize the IMF deal, saying the delay shattered investor confidence in Pakistan’s economy. But speaking Thursday, Umar defended his performance.

“We have finalized the IMF agreement on much better terms than before.I have made these decisions.I refused to take the decisions that would have crushed the nation,” Umar said without elaborating.

He said that an IMF mission is expected to visit Islamabad later this month to work out more details “since all major issues had been settled and documented,” he said.

13th bailout

The long-delayed package would be Pakistan’s 13th IMF bailout since the late 1980s and comes with a worsening economic outlook for the South Asian nation of more than 200 million people.

Former finance minister Salman Shah, while commenting on Umar’s resignation, noted a lack of effective financial strategy was slowing down the economy, deterring all sorts of investments, fueling inflation and unemployment in Pakistan.

Late Thursday, the government made the formal announcement about the Cabinet reorginization, re-allocating certain portfolios and appointing new ministers as well as several special advisors to the prime minister. They included Abdul Hafeez Sheikh as advisor on finance to Khan. Sheikh served as finance minister of Pakistan under a previous government. Khan has also appointed Ijaz Ahmed Shah as his full time interior minister.

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