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The Most Influential Spreader of Coronavirus Misinformation Online

The Most Influential Spreader of Coronavirus Misinformation Online

Researchers and regulators say Joseph Mercola, an osteopathic physician, creates and profits from misleading claims about Covid-19. “I have every right to inform the public,” he says.SAN FRANCISCO — The article that appeared online on Feb. 9 began with a seemingly innocuous question about the legal definition of vaccines. Then over its next 3,400 words, it declared coronavirus vaccines were “a medical fraud” and said the injections did not prevent infections, provide immunity or stop transmission of the disease.Instead, the article claimed, the shots “alter your genetic coding, turning you into a viral protein factory that has no off-switch.”Its assertions were easily disprovable. No matter. Over the next few hours, the article was translated from English into Spanish and Polish. It appeared on dozens of blogs and was picked up by anti-vaccination activists, who repeated the false claims online. The article also made its way to Facebook, where it reached 400,000 people, according to data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned tool.The entire effort traced back to one person: Joseph Mercola.Dr. Mercola, 67, an osteopathic physician in Cape Coral, Fla., has long been a subject of criticism and government regulatory actions for his promotion of unproven or unapproved treatments. But most recently, he has become the chief spreader of coronavirus misinformation online, according to researchers.An internet-savvy entrepreneur who employs dozens, Dr. Mercola has published over 600 articles on Facebook that cast doubt on Covid-19 vaccines since the pandemic began, reaching a far larger audience than other vaccine skeptics, an analysis by The New York Times found. His claims have been widely echoed on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.The activity has earned Dr. Mercola, a natural health proponent with an Everyman demeanor, the dubious distinction of the top spot in the “Disinformation Dozen,” a list of 12 people responsible for sharing 65 percent of all anti-vaccine messaging on social media, said the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate. Others on the list include Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a longtime anti-vaccine activist, and Erin Elizabeth, the founder of the website Health Nut News, who is also Dr. Mercola’s girlfriend.“Mercola is the pioneer of the anti-vaccine movement,” said Kolina Koltai, a researcher at the University of Washington who studies online conspiracy theories. “He’s a master of capitalizing on periods of uncertainty, like the pandemic, to grow his movement.”Some high-profile media figures have promoted skepticism of the vaccines, notably Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham of Fox News, though other Fox personalities have urged viewers to get the shots. Now, Dr. Mercola and others in the “Disinformation Dozen” are in the spotlight as vaccinations in the United States slow, just as the highly infectious Delta variant has fueled a resurgence in coronavirus cases. More than 97 percent of people hospitalized for Covid-19 are unvaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.President Biden has blamed online falsehoods for causing people to refrain from getting the injections. But even as Mr. Biden has urged social media companies to “do something about the misinformation,” Dr. Mercola shows the difficulty of that task.Over the last decade, Dr. Mercola has built a vast operation to push natural health cures, disseminate anti-vaccination content and profit from all of it, said researchers who have studied his network. In 2017, he filed an affidavit claiming his net worth was “in excess of $100 million.”And rather than directly stating online that vaccines don’t work, Dr. Mercola’s posts often ask pointed questions about their safety and discuss studies that other doctors have refuted. Facebook and Twitter have allowed some of his posts to remain up with caution labels, and the companies have struggled to create rules to pull down posts that have nuance.“He has been given new life by social media, which he exploits skillfully and ruthlessly to bring people into his thrall,” said Imran Ahmed, director of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which studies misinformation and hate speech. Its “Disinformation Dozen” report has been cited in congressional hearings and by the White House.In an email, Dr. Mercola said it was “quite peculiar to me that I am named as the #1 superspreader of misinformation.” Some of his Facebook posts were only liked by hundreds of people, he said, so he didn’t understand “how the relatively small number of shares could possibly cause such calamity to Biden’s multibillion dollar vaccination campaign.”The efforts against him are political, Dr. Mercola added, and he accused the White House of “illegal censorship by colluding with social media companies.”He did not address whether his coronavirus claims were factual. “I am the lead author of a peer reviewed publication regarding vitamin D and the risk of Covid-19 and I have every right to inform the public by sharing my medical research,” he said. He did not identify the publication, and The Times was unable to verify his claim.A native of Chicago, Dr. Mercola started a small private practice in 1985 in Schaumburg, Ill. In the 1990s, he began shifting to natural health medicine and opened his main website, Mercola.com, to share his treatments, cures and advice. The site urges people to “take control of your health.”In 2003, he published a book, “The No-Grain Diet,” which became a New York Times best seller. He has since published books almost yearly. In 2015, he moved to Florida.As his popularity grew, Dr. Mercola began a cycle. It starts with making unproven and sometimes far-fetched health claims, such as that spring mattresses amplify harmful radiation, and then selling products online — from vitamin supplements to organic yogurt — that he promotes as alternative treatments.To buttress the operation, he set up companies like Mercola.com Health Resources and Mercola Consulting Services. These entities have offices in Florida and the Philippines with teams of employees. Using this infrastructure, Dr. Mercola has seized on news moments to rapidly publish blog posts, newsletters and videos in nearly a dozen languages to a network of websites and social media.The Mercola headquarters in Cape Coral, Fla.MercolaHis audience is substantial. Dr. Mercola’s official English-language Facebook page has over 1.7 million followers, while his Spanish-language page has 1 million followers. The Times also found 17 other Facebook pages that appeared to be run by him or were closely connected to his businesses. On Twitter, he has nearly 300,000 followers, plus nearly 400,000 on YouTube.Dr. Mercola has a keen understanding of what makes something go viral online, said two former employees, who declined to be identified because they had signed nondisclosure agreements. He routinely does A/B testing, they said, in which many versions of the same content are published to see what spreads fastest online..css-1xzcza9{list-style-type:disc;padding-inline-start:1em;}.css-3btd0c{font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-size:1rem;line-height:1.375rem;color:#333;margin-bottom:0.78125rem;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-3btd0c{font-size:1.0625rem;line-height:1.5rem;margin-bottom:0.9375rem;}}.css-3btd0c strong{font-weight:600;}.css-3btd0c em{font-style:italic;}.css-w739ur{margin:0 auto 5px;font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-weight:700;font-size:1.125rem;line-height:1.3125rem;color:#121212;}#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-w739ur{font-family:nyt-cheltenham,georgia,’times new roman’,times,serif;font-weight:700;font-size:1.375rem;line-height:1.625rem;}@media (min-width:740px){#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-w739ur{font-size:1.6875rem;line-height:1.875rem;}}@media (min-width:740px){.css-w739ur{font-size:1.25rem;line-height:1.4375rem;}}.css-9s9ecg{margin-bottom:15px;}.css-uf1ume{display:-webkit-box;display:-webkit-flex;display:-ms-flexbox;display:flex;-webkit-box-pack:justify;-webkit-justify-content:space-between;-ms-flex-pack:justify;justify-content:space-between;}.css-wxi1cx{display:-webkit-box;display:-webkit-flex;display:-ms-flexbox;display:flex;-webkit-flex-direction:column;-ms-flex-direction:column;flex-direction:column;-webkit-align-self:flex-end;-ms-flex-item-align:end;align-self:flex-end;}.css-12vbvwq{background-color:white;border:1px solid #e2e2e2;width:calc(100% – 40px);max-width:600px;margin:1.5rem auto 1.9rem;padding:15px;box-sizing:border-box;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-12vbvwq{padding:20px;width:100%;}}.css-12vbvwq:focus{outline:1px solid #e2e2e2;}#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-12vbvwq{border:none;padding:10px 0 0;border-top:2px solid #121212;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-rdoyk0{-webkit-transform:rotate(0deg);-ms-transform:rotate(0deg);transform:rotate(0deg);}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-eb027h{max-height:300px;overflow:hidden;-webkit-transition:none;transition:none;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-5gimkt:after{content:’See more’;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-6mllg9{opacity:1;}.css-qjk116{margin:0 auto;overflow:hidden;}.css-qjk116 strong{font-weight:700;}.css-qjk116 em{font-style:italic;}.css-qjk116 a{color:#326891;-webkit-text-decoration:underline;text-decoration:underline;text-underline-offset:1px;-webkit-text-decoration-thickness:1px;text-decoration-thickness:1px;-webkit-text-decoration-color:#326891;text-decoration-color:#326891;}.css-qjk116 a:visited{color:#326891;-webkit-text-decoration-color:#326891;text-decoration-color:#326891;}.css-qjk116 a:hover{-webkit-text-decoration:none;text-decoration:none;}In his email, Dr. Mercola said, “Translation and a variety of media positions are standard for most content oriented websites.”Facebook said it has labeled many of Dr. Mercola’s posts as false, banned advertising on his main page and removed some of his pages after they violated its policies. Twitter said it has also taken down some of Dr. Mercola’s posts and labeled others. YouTube said Dr. Mercola was not part of a program from which he can make money from ads on his videos.In 2012, Dr. Mercola began writing about the virtues of tanning beds. He argued that they reduced the chances of getting cancer, while also selling tanning beds with names like Vitality and D-lite for $1,200 to $4,000 each. Many of the articles were based on discredited studies.The Federal Trade Commission brought false-advertising claims against Dr. Mercola in 2017 based on the health claims about tanning beds. He settled and sent $2.95 million in refunds to customers who bought the tanning beds.The Food and Drug Administration has also issued warning letters to Dr. Mercola for selling unapproved health products in 2005, 2006 and 2011 and has fined him millions of dollars.Many of Dr. Mercola’s claims have been amplified by other vaccine skeptics, including Ms. Elizabeth. She worked for Mercola.com from 2009 to 2011, according to her LinkedIn page.But while Ms. Elizabeth and others are overtly anti-vaccine, Dr. Mercola has appeared more approachable because he takes less radical positions than his peers, Ms. Koltai said. “He takes away from the idea that an anti-vaccination activist is a fringe person,” she said.In an email, Ms. Elizabeth said she was “shocked to have been targeted as one of the 12” in the “Disinformation Dozen” and called it a “witch hunt.” When the coronavirus hit last year, Dr. Mercola jumped on the news, with posts questioning the origins of the disease. In December, he used a study that examined mask-wearing by doctors to argue that masks did not stop the spread of the virus. He also began promoting vitamin supplements as a way to ward off the coronavirus. In a warning letter on Feb. 18, the F.D.A. said Dr. Mercola had “misleadingly represented” what were “unapproved and misbranded products” on Mercola.com as established Covid-19 treatments.In May, Dr. Mercola took down many of his own Facebook posts to evade the social network’s crackdown on anti-vaccine content. Facebook also recently removed his Feb. 9 article.But Dr. Mercola has continued to raise vaccine questions. In a Facebook post on Friday, he used another study to mull how useful the Pfizer vaccine was against Covid-19 variants. One headline in the post said the vaccine was only 39 percent effective, but it did not cite another statistic from the study that said the vaccine was 91 percent effective against serious illness.“Is this possible? We were told 95 percent effectiveness,” he wrote.Within a few hours, the post had been shared more than 220 times.Davey Alba

The F.T.C. asks for an extension to refile its Facebook antitrust suit.

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The F.T.C. asks for an extension to refile its Facebook antitrust suit.

The Federal Trade Commission on Friday asked a federal judge to give it more time to refile an antitrust suit against Facebook that is the agency’s biggest test in reining in the power of big tech.In a filing with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the agency asked for a three-week extension, or until Aug. 19, to amend a lawsuit that the court dismissed last month. The F.T.C. said in its request that it had reached an agreement with Facebook over the proposed extension.Last month, Judge James E. Boasberg of the federal court knocked down a core argument made by the F.T.C., saying prosecutors had failed to provide enough persuasive facts to back up the claim — that Facebook holds a monopoly over social networking. But the judge gave the F.T.C. a 30-day window to refile its lawsuit.The new lawsuit will be the first major action by Lina Khan, the new chair of the F.T.C. and a critic of Facebook, Google and Amazon who has advocated for the breakup of the digital platforms.

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Robinhood’s Guinea Pig for Upending Public Offerings: Itself

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Robinhood’s Guinea Pig for Upending Public Offerings: Itself

The stock trading app is opening its initial public offering and investor presentations to everyday investors. The risks are significant.SAN FRANCISCO — When Vlad Tenev and Baiju Bhatt created the stock trading app Robinhood in 2013, the entrepreneurs declared that their mission was to democratize Wall Street and make finance accessible to all. Now as they prepare to make their company public, they are taking that ethos to a new extreme.Mr. Tenev and Mr. Bhatt have long discussed how Robinhood’s initial public offering would be more open than any other offering that came before it, three people close to the company said. This week, the two founders laid out the details: Robinhood plans to sell as much as a third of its offering, or $770 million of shares, directly to customers through its app. The company added that anyone can participate in a special livestream of its investor presentations this Saturday.The moves are highly unusual and upend the traditional I.P.O. process. No company has ever offered so many shares to everyday investors at the outset; firms typically reserve just 1 or 2 percent of their shares for customers. And investor presentations usually take place behind closed doors with Wall Street firms, which have long had the most access to public offerings.But Mr. Tenev and Mr. Bhatt have made plans since at least 2019 to change the way I.P.O.s are done, said a person familiar with the company who was not authorized to speak publicly. Robinhood also chose Goldman Sachs to lead its offering partly because of the bank’s ability to help sell pre-I.P.O. shares — normally reserved for professionally managed funds — to thousands of everyday investors on Robinhood’s app, another person involved in the offering said.“We recognize that for many of you this will be the first I.P.O. you have had a chance to participate in,” Mr. Tenev, 34, and Mr. Bhatt, 36, wrote in Robinhood’s offering prospectus. They added that they wanted to put customers on an “equal footing” with large institutional investors.A more open I.P.O. poses risks for Robinhood’s founders, Baiju Bhatt, left, and Vlad Tenev, outside their headquarters in 2016.Aaron Wojack for The New York TimesBut the risks of opening up an I.P.O. are significant. Robinhood faces the technical challenges of ensuring that orders for pre-I.P.O. shares are processed smoothly and correctly with numerous investors. And while big professional funds tend to hold on to stock that they buy in an I.P.O., there is little to stop everyday investors from immediately dumping Robinhood’s shares.Robinhood is also letting its employees sell up to 15 percent of their shares immediately upon its listing, rather than having them wait the traditional six months. That could add to volatile trading.The company’s app includes a standard industry warning against “flipping” shares within 30 days, saying it could bar flippers from buying into future I.P.O.s. Robinhood’s bankers also expect early trading to be more volatile than other offerings, a person involved in the process said.If the offering is a success, it will validate Mr. Tenev and Mr. Bhatt’s mission and potentially transform the way hot companies go public. It could also help Robinhood burnish its reputation after a rocky year of technical outages, user protests, lawsuits, regulatory scrutiny and fines.“The company is taking a huge risk,” said R.A. Farrokhnia, a business economics professor at Columbia Business School. “If it works, it’s going to be a fantastic win. If it goes badly, it will be a black mark.”Robinhood declined to make its executives available for interviews, citing the quiet-period rules before its listing. After initially pricing its shares at $38 to $42 each, which put Robinhood’s valuation at about $35 billion, it is expected to set a final price next Wednesday and start trading a day later.Companies and their advisers have been cautious about selling a huge portion of their I.P.O. shares to retail investors. Any technical problems could invite regulatory scrutiny and investor lawsuits, bankers said.In 2006, the phone service provider Vonage tried to sell shares to its customers in its I.P.O. But a technical glitch left buyers unclear whether their trades had gone through until days later, when the stock had plummeted. Customers sued Vonage, and regulators fined the banks that ran the offering.For Facebook’s I.P.O. in 2012, Nasdaq broadcast video of Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive, ringing the bell from Menlo Park, Calif.Shannon Stapleton/ReutersBATS Global Markets, a stock exchange, tried to go public on its own exchange in 2012 but experienced “technical issues” on the day of its offering and had to pull the deal. Facebook’s 2012 debut was deemed a “flop” after similar glitches in a new trading system.Still, Mr. Tenev and Mr. Bhatt viewed a more open I.P.O. as core to Robinhood’s ethos. Their app has drawn millions of new investors to the world of stock trading, and the company has repeatedly pushed boundaries with new products, frequently winding up in hot water with regulators.This year, Robinhood introduced I.P.O. Access, a product that allows companies going public to sell pre-I.P.O. shares directly to customers. That way, people can make money on the stock price “pop” that often happens on a company’s first day of trading.One company that Robinhood approached this year about allocating part of its public offering to everyday investors was Figs, a medical scrubs company, said its chief executive, Heather Hasson. Figs ultimately provided 1 percent of its offering to retail investors to “empower” the health care providers that buy its apparel, Ms. Hasson said.“Our community is our brand, and our brand is our community,” she said.But even with such a small allocation, banks such as Goldman Sachs were concerned about potential technical issues and retail investors getting hurt, a person with knowledge of the offering said. It was the first time Robinhood’s app had hosted such a deal. Figs stock has risen nearly 30 percent since its offering in May.Robinhood’s offering is unlikely to be easily emulated because the company is unique in its size and awareness among retail investors — and is in the business of promoting retail trading, said Josh Bonnie, who helps lead capital markets at the law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett.“I think they are differently situated than most companies pursuing I.P.O.s,” he said.Robinhood’s debut may have an added layer of unpredictability because its customers have shown they are willing to band together on social media to fight perceived enemies. The company alienated some of them when it halted trading during January’s “meme stock” rally, when traders who gathered on the Reddit platform sent stocks of certain companies like GameStop on a roller-coaster ride.A protest in January at Robinhood’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., after the app said it would limit trades of GameStop.Ian C. Bates for The New York TimesInvestors who lost money during the trading halt were incensed — including Muhammad Hamza, a recent college graduate in Queens. He had joined Robinhood in November and watched his investments in penny stocks and meme stocks balloon, then plunge by around half during the halt in January. He said he felt betrayed.“I don’t know how to get over that,” Mr. Hamza, 22, said. He now uses WeBull, a competing service, and does not plan to buy into Robinhood’s I.P.O. Instead, he said he was considering shorting Robinhood stock, or making a bet that the price will decline, after it listed.His friends in online communities are plotting similar moves, he said, though some can’t leave the easy-to-use app. Despite the backlash, Robinhood added five million users over the last year and quadrupled its quarterly revenue.“A lot of people are anti-Robinhood,” Mr. Hamza said, “but they still use Robinhood.”

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A 22-year-old was arrested in hacks of Twitter, TikTok and Snapchat.

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A 22-year-old was arrested in hacks of Twitter, TikTok and Snapchat.

A 22-year-old man was arrested in Spain on Wednesday in connection with the hack of more than 100 Twitter accounts last July, becoming the fourth person charged in the incident, which led to a temporary shutdown of the social media service.The man, Joseph O’Connor, faces charges in the United States of hacking, extortion and cyberstalking in the Twitter breach and is accused in hacks of the TikTok account of the popular creator Addison Rae Easterling and the Snapchat account of the actor Bella Thorne, the Justice Department said.The Twitter incident began when the hackers connected last year in an online forum focused on buying and selling rare user names, some of the individuals involved told The New York Times at that time. They then broke into Twitter’s systems by tricking employees into providing login information, according to legal filings. The hackers used an administrative tool to take over accounts belonging to political figures and celebrities, including former President Barack Obama, Kanye West and Elon Musk, using the accounts to conduct a Bitcoin scam, the filings said.Graham Ivan Clark, an 18-year-old who prosecutors said was the “mastermind” of the Twitter hack, pleaded guilty to fraud charges in March in a Florida court and agreed to serve three years in juvenile prison. Two others, Mason Sheppard and Nima Fazeli, were arrested and accused of serving as middlemen for Mr. Clark to sell the Twitter accounts.Mr. O’Connor was a well-known figure among hackers dealing in user names, going by the name “PlugWalkJoe.” According to chat logs that the hackers shared with The Times last July, Mr. O’Connor interacted with the group briefly, acquiring the Twitter handle @6.At the time, Mr. O’Connor denied involvement in the Bitcoin scam. “I don’t care,” he said in an interview. “They can come arrest me. I would laugh at them. I haven’t done anything.”According to an affidavit submitted by an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation who investigated the breach, Twitter’s logs showed that a Twitter account belonging to Mr. O’Connor had viewed several accounts, as though shopping, during the hack.Ms. Thorne’s Snapchat account was compromised in June 2019, according to the affidavit. The hacker threatened to release nude photos found on the account unless Ms. Thorne posted a tweet thanking him for returning her account, the affidavit said.Instead, Ms. Thorne posted the images on Twitter. “I feel gross, I feel watched, I feel someone has taken something from me,” she wrote in a statement accompanying the photos. “I can sleep tonight better knowing that I took my power back. U can’t control my life u never will.”In June 2020, Mr. O’Connor made false police reports threatening violence at schools, restaurants, an airport and a residence in Southern California, the affidavit said. The threats were an attempt to cast scrutiny on a youth who lived in the area and had clashed with Mr. O’Connor online, the affidavit said. Mr. O’Connor also sent threatening messages and nude photos to the youth, the affidavit said.In August, a month after the Twitter breach, hackers took over Ms. Easterling’s TikTok account, which had more than 55 million followers. In an apparent reference to Mr. O’Connor’s online moniker, her page was updated with the message “plugwalkjoe zak n crippin.”The F.B.I. found that Ms. Easterling’s account was accessed during the hack by internet protocol addresses linked to Mr. O’Connor, the affidavit said. They also found screenshots of her account saved in Mr. O’Connor’s Snapchat, the affidavit said.Twitter declined to comment. Representatives for Snap, TikTok, Ms. Thorne and Ms. Easterling did not immediately respond to requests for comment.Mr. O’Connor, who is British, faces extradition to the United States and will face charges in Northern California. A lawyer for Mr. O’Connor could not be immediately identified.

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Job-Hunters, Have You Posted Your Résumé on TikTok?

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Job-Hunters, Have You Posted Your Résumé on TikTok?

Feeling limited by LinkedIn, some Gen Z-ers are now applying for jobs using TikTok résumés. Employers are paying attention.This post was originally published on this site

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World Development Indicators

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World Development Indicators
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Timekeeping Software Helps Companies Cheat Their Workers

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Timekeeping Software Helps Companies Cheat Their Workers

By Elizabeth C. Tippett, Assistant Professor, School of Law, University of Oregon — There are a lot of ways employers can manipulate your time using timekeeping software, some of which are legal and others highly questionable. If you work on an hourly basis, you may not have given much thought to what happens to your […]

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Employment Law Legal Research Libraries – TOOL

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By David Stephanides — The WK Labor & Employment Law Library provides publications in a single comprehensive source for labor and employment law. WK publications include fair employment practices, labor relations and disabilities law at the federal and state levels and provides comprehensive primary source research materials, annotated explanations along with news and current developments. Aspen Publishers […]

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Making Financial Decisions When You Lose Your Job

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Making Financial Decisions When You Lose Your Job

By TARA SIEGEL BERNARD — About 1.7 million people lose their jobs every month, creating a hugely stressful situation and requiring potentially life-altering choices. Beyond the emotional toll, many individuals agonize over potentially life-altering financial decisions, including how best to manage any money they may be going out the door with. Source: The New York Times – The […]

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7 Simple Ways To Prevent Seasonal Flu In The Workplace

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7 Simple Ways To Prevent Seasonal Flu In The Workplace

Don’t let the hustle and bustle of the holiday season drag you down – or worse – give you the flu.This week, in observance of National Influenza Vaccination Week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration reminds all employers and workers of the importance of maintaining a healthy, influenza-free workplace this season and throughout the New […]

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