To have power means to have responsibility

This post originally appeared on SOCAP International’s Web site

Guest blog by Matt D’Uva, President of the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals

I had the absolute privilege to attend the Trumpeter Award Dinner on Tuesday night hosted by the National Consumers League.  NCL, founded in 1899, is an inspiring organization.  They have been fighting the good fight for important causes such as workers’ rights, consumers’ rights, and equal pay for equal work.  Although the organization is well over 100 years old, this year marks the 40th Anniversary of the Trumpeter Awards Dinner which, of course, made me think about the interesting connection between this celebration and SOCAP’s own 40th anniversary.

Organizations like NCL have been a critical player in important movements in the history of our country, such as the consumer movement which helped create new legislation, practices and accountability which ultimately led to the creation of SOCAP and literally the customer care profession.  I believe that leaders like Florence Kelly, the first general secretary of the NCL (and the namesake of one of the Trumpeter Awards), would be thrilled to see the power of consumers today.  I believe she would be challenging organizations like SOCAP and our members to ensure that the Voice of the Consumer is alive, strong and elevated within companies on every issue.  Ms. Kelly once famously said, “To buy means to have power, to have power means to have responsibility”.

This responsibility is born by consumers, by customer care executives and by organizations like SOCAP and NCL.  To that end, SOCAP has worked hard to build a partnership with the National Consumers League to ensure that we are living up to Ms. Kelly’s challenge of taking our responsibility seriously to consumers.  For example, SOCAP—working through our local chapters and our national members—actively supports NCL’s LifeSmarts program which works with young people in grades 6 – 12 to help them learn important skills to better and more educated consumers.  Our members help write questions, volunteer their time, and donate funds to help the LifeSmarts program grow.  As SOCAP’s President and CEO, I also serve as a member of the Advisory Board.

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Equal Pay Day serves as a harsh reminder of the pay gap between men and women

By Michell K. McIntyre, Director of NCL’s Special Project on Wage Theft

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, signed into law by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 when women were averaging 56 cents for every dollar men made. While progress has been made, women now average 77 cents for every dollar men make, the pay gap remains. Today, 99 days into 2013, is Equal Pay Day. This day symbolizes the extra time needed for women to earn the same salary as their male counterparts in 2012.

President Obama highlighted this pay disparity during his 2012 campaign and painted his opponent as out of touch with the issue. The 2012 election also welcomed a record number of female senators providing an ideal landscape for finally passing the Paycheck Fairness Act. This bill would prohibit companies from penalizing employees for sharing salary information, and force companies to demonstrate that pay discrepancies are not related to gender.

The fact that women get less money for equal work is not only a women’s issue but also a family issue. At a time when women increasingly are the breadwinners, 71 percent of mothers are part of the labor force, a pay gap unfairly targets children in households with single mothers or where both parents work. The pay gap, when calculated over the course of a year, means women receive on average $10,784 less than males performing similar work. That figure is increased among African American women and Hispanic women, who make $19,575 and $23,873 less respectively than a white non-Hispanic male performing the same job. Using these figures, the Department of Labor estimates that women make on average $380,000 less over the course of their careers. That is a huge sum of money when trying to put a child through college, buying healthy groceries for the dinner table, or paying the rent.

Despite the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill signed into law by President Obama in 2009, more work needs to be done to ensure women have the resources and tools they need to confront discrimination and challenge unfair practices in the courts. Current law forces women to jump through too many hoops in order to make claims of gender discrimination. The Paycheck Fairness Act would reduce those obstacles and lower those walls in an attempt to finally achieve equal pay for equal work. It’s time to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act!

FTC announces winners for Robocall Challenge

Sandra Latouff

By Sandra Latouff, NCL Fraud and Policy Intern

Last week, the FTC announced the winners of the Robocall Challenge. The winners, Serdar Danis and Aaron Foss will each be receiving $25,000 and a trip to Washington, DC for an opportunity to present their innovations. The Challenge asked innovators to create solutions that will block illegal robocalls for both landlines and mobile phones. A robocall is a term for a phone call that uses a computerized auto dialer to deliver a pre-recorded message.

In 2012, the FTC received about 200,000 complaints per month from consumers about robocalls! In an effort to fend off robocalls, some consumers have turned to the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry. Currently, 220 million consumers have registered their numbers on the Registry, but even with the Registry consumers nationwide are still being pestered by robocalls. In an effort to help the public fight against the creative methods robocalls are reaching consumers, the FTC created the Robocall Challenge to gather creative and efficient ideas from participants that could be successful. The hope of the FTC is that by hosting the Robocall Challenge a winning idea will catch the attention of private companies and eventually find its way to the marketplace for consumer protection.

Danis’s proposal, titled “Robocall Filtering System and Device with Autonomous Blacklisting, Whitelisting, GrayListing and Caller ID Spoof Detection”, would analyze and block robocalls using software that could be implemented as a mobile app, an electronic device in a user’s home, or a feature of a provider’s telephone service. Foss’s proposal, called Nomorobo, is a cloud-based solution that would use “simultaneous ringing,” which allows incoming calls to be routed to a second telephone line. In the Nomorobo solution, this second line would identify and hang up on illegal robocalls before they could ring through to the user. A third proposal from Google engineers Daniel Klein and Dean Jackson won the Technology Achievement Award. Klen and Jackson’s solution would involve using automated algorithms that identify “spam” callers.

As a result of the Robocall Challenge, the FTC created a video compiling submissions that focused on what consumers are doing right now to reduce illegal robocalls. Here are some of the tips:

  1. Ask you carrier what services they provide. Some service providers allow their customers to block off certain phone numbers. There may or may not be a charge for this service. Consumers may also be able to use VoIP hardware that allows them to tag any incoming number as unwanted which then plays a disconnected tone to the caller. After this, there is usually no second call.
  2. Check out devices for your landline. Search Internet shopping sites for “call blocker.” One consumer said that she uses a special phone that causes robocaller software to drop her number from their call list, which reduced and eventually stopped the number of calls she received.
  3. Experiment with “special information tones.” Some consumers placed the three note “non-working number” ringtone at the beginning of their voicemail or answering machine message which resulted in fewer robocalls.
  4. Investigate apps for your smart phone. Consumers are paying for apps that block robocalls. There are some free apps that, based on reviews, perform decently as well.
  5. Use a “virtual phone line” with call screening options. One consumer obtained a virtual phone line that forwarded the calls from that line to his actual phone. He gives his virtual number to everyone and keeps his other phone number to himself.

Consumers should also be sure to check the Terms of Service for any new program or offer when applying. An agreement to receive phone calls (i.e. robocalls) may be buried deep within the fine print.

If you have any tips or suggestions on how you prevent or stop robocalls, the FTC invites consumers to share their knowledge on their Facebook page. Click here for more information about the Robocall Challenge and its winners.

The Food Safety Modernization Act and the struggle to give FDA additional power

By Teresa Green, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow

On January 4, 2011 President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) into law.  The culmination of years of work by advocates, victims of foodborne illness and their families, and the regulated food industry, FSMA was seen as a game changer.  It gave FDA new power to regulate food safety.  Most importantly, once fully implemented, FSMA was designed to transform FDA from an agency whose primary mission is response to foodborne illness to one working proactively to prevent these outbreaks from occurring at all.

An essential part of establishing this new paradigm is a series of proposed rules, four of which were scheduled to be released in January 2012.  As January passed, followed by February, then spring, summer, and fall, the clamoring from advocates and the industry for the release of the rules grew louder and louder.  Finally, in January 2013, a year later, two of the four rules were released. These two rules address produce safety and preventive controls in processed food.

Earlier this week FDA released an additional set of documents that can help to explain some of the reasons for the long delay.  These documents show that the two rules were held up at OMB (the agency that must review all agency rulemaking), where extensive changes were made to their content.  Most notably, OMB removed requirements for environmental and end-product pathogen testing as well as a proposed supplier approval verification program.

While what remains is still an improvement over the existing system, it is far weaker than what FDA had initially proposed.  There are likely many reasons why these changes were made, but these considerations will matter very little to the parents of a child whose foodborne illness could have been prevented by one of the nixed measures.


The President’s Push For Rebuilding the Nation’s Infrastructure is Just The Right Medicine

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

I’m on vacation in FL for the week and reading the Palm Beach Post’s coverage of President Obama’s speech from the port of Miami calling for a surge in spending on infrastructure. I couldn’t agree more. The President is not saying that all such spending should be taxpayer funded. Instead, he’s asking for a public-private partnership, including improving Miami’s rail connection to Hialeah, and in turn, with rail lines all over the country. Right now, port traffic must go through downtown Miami, causing costly delays in transporting the cargo that can be avoided with a tunnel under Biscayne Bay.

This kind of public works project will provide jobs, and likely good jobs that pay livable wages and benefits, and can help repair crumbling infrastructure affecting bridges, dams, tunnels, and sewer systems.  This is a win-win-win, because the taxpayers get better services and improved systems, workers get jobs, and the public-private partnership means that businesses are kicking in their share and have a stake in the outcome. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a Republican, says the project will create at least 10,000 jobs in the port and is a strong supporter.

I like how the President put it: “There are few more important things we can do to create jobs right now and strengthen our economy over the long haul than rebuilding the infrastructure that powers our businesses and economy. …My top priority …is to ignite the true engine of our economic growth—a rising, thriving middle class.”

Mr. Obama also outlined a series of other projects which Congress needs to support, including a $10 billion “infrastructure bank.” This is exciting stuff, and just the medicine the nation needs as we climb out of the recession of the last few years. Now we need Congress to get behind the effort.

Tragic Story Highlights the Impact of Grain Bin Danger


By Reid Maki, Coordinator, Child Labor Coalition

An estimated 25 to 30 kids a year die at work. Through its advocacy and its work, the Child Labor Coalition, a campaign of the National Consumers League (NCL), has worked to reduce that number over the years. Last spring, the NCL’s annual report on The Five Most Dangerous Jobs for Teens included the agricultural industry. Last year, we worked to help enact proposed rules to protect kids working in agriculture ultimately, however, that effort failed, and the organized farm lobby was able to force the Obama administration to withdraw the rules. We estimate this will lead to the unnecessary deaths of 50 to 100 youth working on farms over the next decade.

This week, the national media has focused much-needed attention on a particular type of farm-related death: work in grain silo facilities, which in a typical year kills 15 or more workers. According to recent data, 20 percent of the victims of grain engulfments are young workers.

National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting System’s News Hour each featured in-depth stories this week, highlighting a terrible tragedy that occurred in Mount Carroll, Illinois nearly three years ago. Two teens were engulfed by grain and killed while working in a silo: 14-year-old Wyatt Whitebread and 19-year-old Alex Pacas. Will Piper, a 20-year-old co-worker, barely escaped with his life because someone threw him a bucket that he was able to put over his head. The bucket prevented the flowing grain from asphyxiating him. Today, Piper lives in guilt because he turned his friend Alex Pacas onto work in the grain silo.

Among the worst aspects of this case are the fact that Wyatt, 14, was too young to be doing such dangerous work. He and Alex also should have been wearing safety harnesses as they walked on top of the crusty grain trying to loosen it. The facility had the mandatory harnesses but didn’t instruct or compel the teens to wear them.

The NPR and PBS stories grew out of reporting from the Center for Public Integrity. The center found that the fines levied by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as a result of preventable grain engulfments were typically reduced over 50 percent and in some cases well over 90 percent.

In the deaths of Alex Pacas and Wyatt Whitebread, OSHA found 12 “willful violations” and initially leveled $555,000 in fines. This amount was later reduced to $200,000. A Center for Public Interest-NPR analysis found that the $9.2 million fines proposed by OSHA for engulfments that killed 179 people between 1984 and 2012 were eventually reduced to $3.8 million.

NCL and the CLC believe strongly that youth working on farms and agricultural facilities need to have stronger protections. We urge the Obama administration to reconsider the youth occupational safety rules it withdrew last April. Why allow teen workers to engage in jobs that we know to be extremely dangerous? And in cases where employers are found to be at fault for the death of teen workers, why are fines consistently and dramatically reduced?

Consumers have many choices to save money on prescription drugs

From 2011 to 2012 prices for brand name drugs increased in price by an average of 13 percent. As healthcare costs continue to rise, all indications are prescription drugs will rise in cost as well. The good news is consumers have more resources than ever to help them save money on their prescriptions. The easiest way consumers can save money is by finding out whether a generic or non-brand name drug is available.  Generic drugs contain the same active ingredients in the same dosages as brand name drugs, but they cost far less.

Another resource available to consumers is co-pay cards. The co-pay on any prescription is a fixed amount of money that insurance companies ask consumers to pay for a specific drug. By using a co-pay card that sum of money can be greatly reduced or eliminated. There are a variety of co-pay cards available. Consumers can also save money using drug discount cards which are often available online. These cards are offered by state governments, pharmacies, non-profit groups, pharmaceutical companies or large retail chain stores. To compare prices and see which medications are covered by which cards you can visit,, or

To find out more about discount and co-pay cards visit the National Consumers League Web site at Be wary of any discount card that requires a fee up front because those fees may cost more than the prescription itself.