LifeSmarts in 5 minutes a day – National Consumers League

By Lisa Hertzberg, LifeSmarts Program Director

Education has changed dramatically over the last decade. Standards and testing control the school schedule, curriculum is more rigid, and educators must meet more demands than ever.

In this climate, consumer education has really been squeezed. Organizations like the National Consumers League, which believes that consumer education is vital to students’ education, is striving to demonstrate creative ways that educators can reach students with consumer content.

LifeSmarts is our vehicle for providing meaningful consumer education, and educators tell us LifeSmarts is more relevant today than ever. It is a flexible program that educators can use to complement what they are teaching. To help educators use the program and fit it into their crowded schedules, we are shining a spotlight on best practices for using LifeSmarts in the classroom when there is one day, one hour, or even just five minutes at a time to devote to consumer education.

A few quick ideas for educators include:

If you’re interested in learning more about LifeSmarts, and how to use it in an educational setting, join us for a Webinar on December 1 at 4:30 Eastern time. To register, go to the LifeSmarts home page.

Advocacy group warning seasonal workers: don’t fall victim to wage theft – National Consumers League

November 28, 2011

Contact: NCL Communications, (202) 835-3323,

Washington, DC – This holiday season, the National Consumers League (NCL), the nation’s oldest consumer organization, is issuing a reminder to the thousands of part-time and seasonal workers of their rights and protections under federal labor laws and warning them about the prevalence of abuses in the workplace. With the holiday shopping season in full swing, retailers across the country are taking on extra help to manage the holiday crowds.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, retailers hired more than 18,000 new workers in October alone.

With the national unemployment rate stuck around 9 percent, seasonal work will provide many American workers with much-needed wages; however NCL is warning new hires of the many pitfalls in the workplace that often lead to wage theft, in which workers don’t receive the compensation they are rightfully owed.

“Part-time and seasonal workers are often more vulnerable to wage theft,” said Michell K. McIntyre, Project Director of NCL’s Special Project on Wage Theft. “Many workers sign onto the temporary work, grateful for the opportunity and without paying full attention to company rules and policies governing compensation and benefits. Short-term, seasonal work also often moves at a faster pace, and both workers and employers can forget critical pieces of information or paperwork that could affect how much a worker gets paid.”

One of the most important pieces of information seasonal hires need be aware of is their worker classification—whether they are labeled as an employee or an independent contactor in their job description and tax forms.

A worker classified as an independent contractor is not entitled to employee rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). FLSA rights include:

  • The right to the minimum wage and the highest rate available between the federal ($7.25 per hour), state, city, and county minimum wages
  • Anti-discrimination protections
  • Workers compensation and overtime pay
  • Overtime compensation at 1½ times the regular hourly rate after working more than 40 hours per week for the same employer
  • A workday that begins upon entering the workplace (including donning a uniform or setting up) and ends when leaving the workplace (including the time it takes to clean up or restock inventory)

Employers do not pay payroll taxes for independent contractors; contracted workers are on the hook for the back taxes to both the IRS and the state tax board when tax season rolls around. An independent contractor receives a 1099 tax form in place of a W-2 form.

NCL reminds workers that knowing the law and keeping proper records are critical in order to ensure that they are paid the amount they are owed. NCL recommends workers save all payroll stubs and double-check that the number of hours worked, rate of pay, paycheck deductions and that the official/legal name of the employer is correct. To help American workers calculate how much they should be earning, the US Department of Labor has created a free app for smartphones to help workers track their hours and determine the exact amount employers owe. The tool is exceptionally useful when there are any paycheck discrepancies.

“In these tough economic times, it’s important for workers to get every penny they are owed. The best way for workers to ensure accurate payment is to know their rights at work and who they can turn to for help,” said Sally Greenberg, NCL’s Executive Director.


About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit

With Wal-Mart’s move to DC, an opportunity to change its poor labor image – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

DC officials are welcoming six Wal-Mart stores into the city. That would be an exciting development except that the biggest retailer in the world has a poor reputation – for wage theft (forcing employees to work off the clock), failing to promote women, keeping wages so low that employees can’t afford health insurance, busting efforts to unionize, signing their employees up for food stamps because they pay such bad wages, and squeezing their suppliers to reduce prices so severely they’ve driven some of them out of business. And yet, it’s hard for DC to turn its nose up at an offer to provide fresh grocery options in neighborhoods that currently have only fast food and convenience shops. It’s regrettable that the city’s two largest and longstanding unionized grocery chains – Giant and Safeway – haven’t moved into these neighborhoods.

So now we have Wal-Mart saying it will provide 1,800 jobs, offer fresh produce, and pay competitively; not surprisingly, DC locals are happy to have them. If this deal moves forward, the one thing DC Mayor Vincent Gray should do, given Wal-Mart’s sorry reputation, is to require as a condition of providing permits to open the stores, a community benefits agreement that would provide the city with important concessions. Wal-Mart has curried favor by making donations to charitable organizations, including $3 million to workforce development in DC, and over half a million for summer youth employment. That’s not enough. The city should get really creative, and require that the chain remain neutral to the UFCW’s organizing efforts, require payment of a livable wage for all workers, have a plan to promote women and minorities in the management chain, and establish training programs for the city’s youth.

Wal-Mart doesn’t have to live with a bad image among labor forever. The company will be coming to DC in force and has a great opportunity to start to make over that image.

How we can improve the marketing of food to children – National Consumers League

By Teresa Green, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow

With the nation facing an obesity epidemic, the marketing of food to children has understandably become a controversial issue.  The formation of an Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children, made up of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is part of the Obama administration’s attempt to find a solution to this pressing issue.

The Working Group was formed in 2009 and charged with conducting a study and developing “recommendations for standards for the marketing of food” to children.  The Working Group initially recommended that foods marketed to children meet certain nutritional thresholds and limit the inclusion of unhealthy ingredients such as saturated fat, sugar and salt.

Facing immense pressure from the industry, representatives of the Working Group announced at a hearing before Congress in October that they would be substantially altering their recommendations.  For example, marketing recommendations will now only target children up to 12 and will not include equity characters and sponsorship of team sports.

There are two important components of this discussion that bear mentioning.  The first is that, contrary to the assertion of some members of the industry, the Working Group’s report does not enact regulations.  Because the report is not part of the rulemaking process, it does not bear the force of law and thus companies are under no compulsion to follow its advice.  Even beyond that, the report does not recommend ending advertisement to children, but rather advocates that the products which are advertised to kids meet certain standards of health.

The second point is this; there is no doubt that America is facing an obesity epidemic.  The CDC estimates that 20% of children ages 6 to 11 in this country are obese.  According to a study done by the Institute of Medicine, advertising influences children to prefer high calorie foods that have little nutritional content.  This means that changing the way that food is marketed to children has the potential to be a real and meaningful part of the solution to the obesity problem facing our nation.

The Working Group has not released its new guidelines and only time will tell how much they will be altered from the original. Groups like NCL will continue to advocate for limits on marketing which protect the most vulnerable from exposure to advertising that can have long-term negative impacts on their health.

NCL decries presidential candidate Gingrich’s attack on child labor laws – National Consumers League

November 22, 2011

Contact: NCL Communications, (202) 835-3323,

Washington, DC–The National Consumers League (NCL) expressed dismay with comments made last week by presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who attacked the nation’s child labor laws as “truly stupid” and suggested that impoverished school children should be used to replace adult janitors in struggling schools.

“As a nation, we’ve spent 100 years trying to protect children by passing child labor laws. For a presidential candidate to make such a reckless comment is unfortunate,” said NCL’s executive director Sally Greenberg, who noted that “before the passage of child labor laws, children often worked 14-16 hour days in factories and mines and often suffered debilitating injuries in the workplace.”

Speaking at a Q & A session at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on Nov. 18, Gingrich responded to a student’s question about income inequality in the U.S. by arguing that the inequality is the result of “truly stupid” rules that he said has added to U.S. poverty rate and prevents children from developing a strong work ethic. “It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, child laws, which are truly stupid,” said Gingrich.

“You say to somebody, you shouldn’t go to work before you’re what, 14, 16 years of age, fine. You’re totally poor. You’re in a school that is failing with a teacher that is failing. I’ve tried for years to have a very simple model,” he said. “Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.” In his remarks, Gingrich praised the examples of those who began work between the ages of nine and 14.

“With nearly 14 million unemployed adults in the nation, Mr. Gingrich’s solution is to fire adults and hire children to do work that no child should be asked to do,” said Reid Maki, NCL’s Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards and the coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, a 28-member organization which NCL co-chairs with the American Federation of Teachers. “The fact that Mr. Gingrich went out of his way to suggest that children from poor neighborhoods should be compelled to do janitorial work is really troublesome. If schools are failing and the students are poor—as in the case put forward by Mr. Gingrich–it is all the more essential that these children focus on academics.”

NCL believes in the value of work for teenagers with proper limits and safeguards, but is keenly aware of research that shows teen work beyond 15-20 hours a week has diminishing returns for young workers, causing them to drop out at greater rates and increasing the likelihood that they will not attend college. NCL catalogues the hidden dangers of teen work in its annual report, “The Five Most Dangerous Jobs for Teen Workers” released each spring.

Several members of the Child Labor Coalition, including the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, Human Rights Watch, First Focus Campaign for Children, the American Federation of Teachers, and NCL have been working to remove exemptions to U.S. child labor law that allow children in agriculture to work 10- to 12-hour days in 100-degree heat, harvesting crops. “These children perform back-breaking labor in pesticide-treated fields and use dangerous equipment,” said Reid Maki. “They suffer a drop-out rate that condemns many migrant youth to a vicious cycle of generational poverty. Mr. Gingrich needs to help toughen our child labor laws, not gut them.”


About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit

Black Friday/Cyber Monday news: Internet holiday shopping tips for savvy consumers – National Consumers League

November 22, 2011

Contact: (202) 835-3323,

Washington, DC–As Americans return to the workplace next Monday after the long holiday weekend, many will spend a portion of their day surfing the Internet for deals from online retailers. Monday, November 28 — “Cyber Monday” – is what the retail industry claims to be one of, if not the, busiest Internet shopping days of the year, and with more and more consumers opting to avoid the mall, e-shopping next week is expected to be higher than ever. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, spending on Cyber Monday will be around $1.2 billion, a prediction by research-firm comScore Inc.

Whether consumers do their shopping online at the workplace or at home, advocates are reminding them to practice safe e-shopping habits in the coming weeks and year-round. “The Internet can make your shopping faster and easier, but there can also be pitfalls if you’re not careful,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, which today released its top ten tips for avoiding cyber grinches and scams this holiday season. “There are ways to ensure you have a safe online shopping experience, so that gift-giving is a joyous occasion, not an opportunity for cyber thieves.”

  1. Don’t shop online on an unencrypted or open wireless network. As convenient as they seem, an airport or coffee shop’s wireless network is not an appropriate place to conduct financial transactions. Entering personal financial information over an unsecured connection may leave your computer open the to hackers and thieves to capture your financial information. Home Wi-Fi networks can also be compromised, so consumers should find out how to secure their connections.
  1. Secure your computer before shopping online. Before connecting to the Internet or shopping online, take the following three core protections: 1) Install anti-virus and anti-spyware programs and keep them up to date; 2) Install a personal firewall; 3) Regularly update operating system and anti-virus programs to current protections.
  1. Know who you’re dealing with. Before shopping online with an unknown e-store, check out the seller and be sure to get the name and physical address of the vendor in case something goes wrong. If you’re buying gifts on an online auction site, check the track record of the seller before you bid.
  1. Pay the safest way – by credit card, especially when you’re purchasing something that will be delivered later. Under federal law you can dispute the charges if you don’t get what you were promised. You may also dispute unauthorized charges on your credit card. Consider using a “virtual” credit card number.  These numbers replace your plastic credit card number with a new number that is linked to your real account number.  When you’re prompted to enter your credit card number at checkout, you enter the virtual number instead of the real number.  These “virtual” numbers can be set to have a low credit limit, to only work at certain Web sites, or to expire after a certain period of time (two months from date of purchase is a good rule of thumb).  This way, if the Web site you’re shopping at is compromised, the crooks likely won’t be able to run up charges on your real credit account since the virtual number.  A note of caution, however: think twice before using a virtual credit card number for services where you will be billed repeatedly or for things like rental car reservations, since the card may not be billed until you pick up the car.
  1. Only shop on safe sites. When providing payment information, the Web site URL address should change from “http” to “https,” (or, less frequently, “shttp”) indicating that the purchase is encrypted or secured. Look for an icon on the browser (generally in the bottom right of the window), such as an image of a padlock closing, to indicate that the page is secure.
  1. Don’t fall for a phishing email or pop-up. Legitimate companies don’t send unsolicited email messages asking for your password, login name, or your financial information. But scammers do, and it’s called “phishing.” Crooks often send emails that look like they’re from legitimate companies – but direct you to click on a link, where they ask for your personal information. Delete these emails.
  1. Be careful when shopping for a gift in an online auction. Consumers sometimes turn to auctions for harder-to-find collectibles or expensive electronics. Understand how the auction works, and check out the seller’s reputation before you bid. Use safe ways to pay, like a credit card. If you use a 3rd party payment system, read the terms carefully to understand what protection, if any, it offers if you don’t receive what you were promised. Always ask about terms of delivery and return options. Be especially wary of auctions that ask for payment via wire transfer.
  1. Turn your computer off when you’re finished shopping. Many people leave their computers running 24/7, the dream scenario for scammers who want to install malicious software—“malware”—on your machine and then control it remotely to enable them to commit cyber crime. To be extra safe, switch off your computer when you are not using it.
  1. Don’t be tempted by offers of free money. Con artists take advantage of cash-strapped consumers during the holidays to offer personal loans or credit cards for a fee upfront. These scammers simply take the money and run. Beware of emails offering loans or credit, especially if you have credit problems.

10.  Visit to learn more about protecting yourself from online scams year-round and to report suspicious sites, sellers, or scams. You don’t have to be a victim to report a scam, and your information will help law enforcement go after cyber grinches.

Above all, look into the business or individual with whom you are doing business before making the transaction. For more information on avoiding scams throughout the year, visit


About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit

Cautions on credit card points bonanza – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

As a consumer advocate, I write a lot about tricks and traps that credit card companies and banks use to trip up customers and get them to pay all manner of penalties and fees. These techniques have enriched banks to the tune of many billions of dollars, and too often lower income Americans are paying fees they can ill afford.

But the flip-side of the banks’ clever machinations are consumers who figure out how to make the most of free mileage and gifts available by opening cards and getting mileage automatically, or by charging large enough amounts on their cards to earn mega-points. Brad Larney from San Diego, CA took a trip with his wife to Cape Town first class from the United States for $2,000—usually a $30,000 trip—on miles that he earned by buying coins from the Mint, charging the cost to his credit card, and paying the bill with the value of those coins. He was featured in a recent Wall Street Journal article, along with Rick Draper from Canton, MI, who has racked up hundreds of thousands of miles and bonuses, and carries five cards in his wallet and has 30-40 more at home.

I’m of two minds on this practice.  On the one hand, I like that clever consumers have figured out how to outsmart those evil geniuses who draft the fine print on 30-page credit card contracts. And what they are doing is totally legal.

On the other hand, this business isn’t for amateurs. You can get into real trouble by charging up cards and then losing track of who you owe money to. You’ll pay through the teeth in fines, penalties, and interest often compounded and set at least 18 percent. Moreover, holding this many cards can mess with your credit score, making it hard for you to buy a house or take out a loan. So this is truly for those who have perfected the art of tracking their credit cards, paying them off each month or—better yet—knowing when deals like just signing up for a card can earn you 75,000 miles, an offer Capital One Bank announced recently. Those seem pretty safe, as long as you don’t start charging up these accounts. But still, this business can be treacherous so consumers, if you decide to get into applying for multiple credit cards or charging on a card to rack up points, proceed with caution!

Lifesmarts: Student investing in a recession – National Consumers League

By Alex Schneider, Summer 2011 LifeSmarts and Public Policy Intern

Stocks have been taking dives for months now – not exactly great news for any investor.  But for students with little to no exposure to the market, a dip like this can lead to some pretty big investing mistakes.  Before you buy or sell, here are some tips to keep in mind.

Practical considerations

In general, students need cash.  For many students who take out loans for college and pay their own bills while taking in less than $10,000 a year from part-time jobs, investing is not practical.

Students who meet such criteria should consider alternatives that can help them make some money.  Examples include money market accounts, which offer modest interest rates in this economy but still allow access to cash on demand.  But beware – some accounts have high minimum balances, so search for a bank that has reasonable requirements.

Even those students who are making very little should avoid living paycheck to paycheck and should try their best to put 10 percent or more of income into savings for a ‘rainy day,’ whether into a money market or savings account.  Ideally, students on limited budgets should set a goal of saving enough so that if they are caught in a financial bind, they have enough money to live three months without an income. Impulsive buyers should especially try to keep cash in a money market rather than checking account, because accessing the money requires advance planning and because transfers between accounts have limits that can help students budget their money.

Money in stocks is not cash

Some students may consider putting their money into the stock market, driven by promises of high returns on investment.  But as we’ve seen these past few weeks, all investing – no matter how safe the stock or asset – is subject to economic cycles.  Students should not expect to put money into stocks during a recession and then get that money back with high returns within three years.

Three types of student investors

Based on classifications in “Dollars & Sense for College Students” by Ellen Braitman, I have put together three categories of student investors:

Type I: Those who will need their money in ‘a year or so’.  These investors may consider short-term bond funds and money market funds, available from your favorite brokerage house (my favorite is Scottrade because they do not have hidden fees.)  If you fall into this category, do not even think of putting money into stocks, and keep at least 50 percent of your money in cash, such as bank money market accounts.  While the stock market might grow, it might not, and chances aren’t bad that the day you need the money, gridlock in Washington might lead to a downgrade of the U.S. credit rating.  By the way, don’t sell your stock on a day like that.

Type II: Those who will need money at the end of three years.  These investors may consider short-term or intermediate-term bond funds.  In a recession, the best bet is to be on the safe side and keep a sizable cushion of cash in case of any financial trouble – equal to all liabilities that could arise over a three-month period.  For many students, building up savings like this is difficult: for such students, putting money into stocks has the potential to be a disastrous decision.

Type III:  Those who do not need money for more than three years, and frankly, won’t even need the money in five years.  These students might have high paying jobs or have secured jobs for after school or they received scholarships and will not have college loans.  These investors are looking for long-term rewards and will have a steady source of income to rely on in the meantime.  They will keep a good amount of their net worth as cash and can afford to lose what they put into stocks.  Only these investors should put money into the stock market, with the first $5,000-$10,000 into a mutual fund or index fund and then experiment with individual stocks.

Avoid at all  costs

Never be in a position where you need to sell a stock in order to pay day-to-day expenses, regardless of whether stock prices are rising or, as was the case this week, falling.

NCL statement in support of increased FDA funding – National Consumers League

November 15, 2011

Contact: NCL Communications, (202) 835-3323,

Washington, DC—Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of the National Consumers League, issued the following statement today in support of the decision made by House and Senate conferees to increase funding for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“The National Consumers League supports the decision made by conferees to increase FDA funding by $50 million from FY 2011 levels. This increase in funds will ensure that the FDA can fulfill its vital public health role of ensuring that American consumers have access to safe food and medication.

“For decades the FDA has been underfunded and, with the development of an increasingly global market, its responsibilities increase every year. The passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) earlier this year gives the agency increased authority to take steps to ensure the safety of the American food supply. In order to carry out these new measures, however, the FDA must receive adequate funding. The National Consumers League applauds the conferees for approving an increase of $39 million for the implementation of FSMA, much needed funds which will allow FDA to make the American food supply even more secure.

The National Consumers League commends the conferees for their support of the FDA and urges the House of Representatives to approve the numbers put forth by the conferees. Without adequate funding FDA will not be able to completely fulfill its responsibility to keep American consumers safe from foodborne illness.”


About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit

FDA insider sentenced for stock trades – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

It’s sad when public servants violate the trust that has been placed on them, but it’s also fairly rare in this country. Cheng Yi Liang, a 57-year-old longtime FDA chemist, was recently convicted of using inside information he gained while working at the Food and Drug Administration, to invest in pharmaceutical companies with new drugs coming onto the market. Liang worked on new drug approvals for the FDA, and apparently made more than $3.7 million trading drug company stocks. He made a series of online trades using brokerage accounts in the names of his relatives.

What’s impressive is that federal investigators were able to spot the buying and selling of these stocks by an FDA insider and trace the deals to Liang. He’ll go to prison for his crime, as well he should. Prosecutors are asking for between 5 and 7 years’ incarceration.

Many federal workers like Liang have access to sensitive information that they could use for their own purposes and for their own profit, and—in countries where corruption is rampant, those who work for government do just that—and often with impunity. We’re fortunate to live in a place that expects our public servants to abide by a strict code of ethics for public servants. We will not permit them to abuse their positions for their own benefit. Liang’s case is a cautionary tale for anyone working for the federal government—or any government agency—who abuses the public trust for personal gain: you may well end up behind bars.