Your questions about garbage, gig work and Black-owned firms : The Indicator from Planet Money What's the garbage situation? How can we invest in Black-owned businesses? And what's the state of the gig economy? Your questions, answered.
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Question Time!

Question Time!

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

Hey, everyone. Stacey and Cardiff here. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. And today's episode is garbage.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Cardiff (laughter)...

GARCIA: Wait, no, hang on a second. That's not what it says here.

VANEK SMITH: You can't say that. You have to hide - you're supposed to pretend like you don't know it's garbage (laughter).

GARCIA: Yeah. I misread this...

VANEK SMITH: Let people draw their own conclusions.

GARCIA: Yeah. No, it says here this episode is actually about garbage partly, so it's a key phrase there - yeah, about garbage.

VANEK SMITH: Yes, it is. And part of the reason for that is that one of our wonderful listeners asked us about garbage. That is right. It is time for another episode where we answer your questions.

GARCIA: Yeah, and let's get right to it. Here is the garbage question from listener Mikala in West Virginia.

MIKALA: I have a trashy question. Now that we're all staying at home, working from home, eating at home more, how is this affecting the distribution of waste, and how are waste management companies handling it?

VANEK SMITH: I love this question, Mikala. I've actually been thinking about this a lot because not only are a lot more people at home throughout the day, but also a lot of restaurants and bars are still closed, so people are eating at home a lot more as well. And all of that means that people are now throwing out a lot more trash at home in their residential neighborhoods.

GARCIA: Yeah, and just how much more trash is being thrown out of homes because of coronavirus kind of depends on where you live. But to take Philadelphia as an example, the volume of residential trash during March and April of this year was about 25% higher than it was during March and April of last year. And estimates for other parts of the country have varied. They range from 5% higher all the way up to 40% higher. But whatever the case, it's a lot.

VANEK SMITH: Trash from households is usually collected either by local sanitation departments or by privately run waste management companies, and those guys are just in demand like crazy right now. They're really overwhelmed, even to the point where other services, like recycling pickup and street cleaning, have been cut back in some places because there is just so much trash to pick up from homes.

GARCIA: Yeah, and the trend goes in exactly the opposite direction for trash that gets collected from commercial buildings, from offices. That is way down. And these waste management companies that handle commercial trash are struggling just like other parts of the economy. Demand for their services has fallen because so many of their customers have closed their doors. Some of these waste management companies have even furloughed workers, and they are running fewer routes.

VANEK SMITH: But, Cardiff, I have a question about our garbage question, which is this.

GARCIA: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: What about overall garbage? Like, if you combine the waste from residential homes and businesses, is our overall trash up or down? I would assume that it would be down because so many businesses are closed. But what is the verdict on overall waste?

GARCIA: Yeah, that's definitely possible. I've got to be honest, I looked all over the place for a nationwide estimate of just overall trash accumulation, trash volumes since coronavirus started. I could not find one. It might not exist just yet. But if any of our listeners have seen such an estimate, then by all means feel free to send it to us at indicator@npr.org.

VANEK SMITH: And there is a little side note on our garbage story, by the way. Workers who collect trash - they're about 120,000 of them throughout the country - they are not just categorized as essential workers - workers who have kept doing their jobs throughout the pandemic - this is also really dangerous work. So we wanted to give them a little shoutout.

GARCIA: A little shoutout, yeah. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the share of people who die on the job while collecting trash or recyclable material is the fifth-highest share of any occupation in the country. And the most common reason for this is vehicle accidents. But the work itself is also physically taxing, and the workers potentially expose themselves to chemicals and toxins every single day.

VANEK SMITH: And now, of course, coronavirus has added a new element of danger to trash collection because the trash they're picking up could have been handled by someone who has COVID-19. So a lot of the workers have to take these extra precautions, like wearing an extra pair of gloves or having their trucks disinfected, things like that.

GARCIA: Yeah. And thanks for that question, Mikala. We really appreciate it. And after a quick break, Stacey and I will take two more listener questions about different topics.

OK, next listener question - it comes from Rob in Brooklyn, N.Y.

ROB: On social media, I've been seeing a great push encouraging people to support Black businesses. I found out that there is an index fund that is specifically composed of minority-owned businesses. How does a fund of minority-owned businesses work? Most importantly, could investing in a fund like this actually be a way to support Black companies?

GARCIA: Thanks for that, Rob. And yeah, there are two parts to this question. One is, how does this fund work? And then second, is it a good way to invest in Black-owned businesses? So we'll take those questions in order. So first, the fund that Rob is referring to is called the Impact Shares NAACP Minority Empowerment Fund, but we'll just refer to it here as the Fund. That's the only fund we're talking about - the Fund.

VANEK SMITH: And here's how the Fund works. The Fund says that it will invest in companies that have, quote, "strong racial and ethnic diversity policies in place." But of course, first, it has to identify those companies. So the Fund worked with the NAACP, the civil rights organization, to come up with a list of criteria that could be used to judge whether a company has a good diversity policy in place.

GARCIA: And those criteria can include things like the quality of a company's anti-discrimination policies or its efforts to diversify its own workforce, its employees. And there are 10 criteria in all. And if a company scores high enough on these criteria, then it gets placed into an index. And what the Fund does is it invests a little money in all the companies that make it into the index, and it does this by purchasing shares of those companies in the stock market.

VANEK SMITH: Which means that if you invest in the Fund itself, which is what Rob is asking about, you are buying shares of a fund that itself owns shares of a bunch of other companies. It's kind of like a sampler platter of stocks.

GARCIA: And as for which companies the Fund is invested in, they are mostly big companies - big enough to trade on the stock market. So for example, the companies that the Fund has the most money invested in are Amazon, Microsoft and Apple.

VANEK SMITH: But Rob asked about investing directly in Black-owned businesses, and that is just obviously different from what this fund actually does, which is to put money into companies that meet certain criteria for policies on racial and ethnic diversity.

GARCIA: Yeah, that's right. And so basically, we looked around, and there just seems to be no shortcut that we could find for investing directly in Black-owned businesses, most of which are not these huge companies that trade on the stock exchange. So you have to try to find those businesses and weigh the risks of investing in them against the possible rewards, just like other investments. But all that said, there are some very useful lists and online directories that can help discover Black-owned businesses. These are on sites like officialblackwallstreet.com, and we'll post some other links in today's show notes at npr.org/money.

VANEK SMITH: Our final question comes from Cathy in Florida.

CATHY: The unemployment rate doesn't measure how much the gig economy contracts. Is there a way to measure that?

VANEK SMITH: So, Cathy, the short answer is no. We do not know exactly how much the gig economy has either grown or contracted because of coronavirus, mainly because the gig economy itself is really hard to measure.

GARCIA: Yeah. Most people think of gig work as Uber drivers or someone who delivers you groceries that you ordered on Instacart the app or the handyman that you found on TaskRabbit. But gig work can actually be any kind of work that people do that is not done as part of formal employment for a business. It can be someone who makes homemade baskets and sells them online as a hobby, or it can be graphic designers who freelance by making webpages as their main job, though we should note that only about 1 out of 5 people who do gig work in the U.S. do it as their main source of income. But the point is that some of the gig economy could be seeing more demand, like food delivery drivers, while other parts are seeing less demand just because overall economic activity has fallen so much.

VANEK SMITH: Here is what we do know. Right now, roughly 14 million gig workers are claiming unemployment insurance benefits because their work has been affected by coronavirus in some way. And, in fact, more than 2 out of every 5 people who are now claiming unemployment benefits are gig workers.

GARCIA: And now that so many other people have lost their jobs - non-gig workers - a lot of these newly unemployed workers are themselves trying to do gig work to make a little money. And this means that the people who were doing gig work before the pandemic started now have more competition, so they might not get paid as much as they were getting paid before. A lot of gig workers just really are struggling.

VANEK SMITH: Thank you Mikala, Rob and Cathy for your questions. And, of course, if you have a question for us, we would love to hear it. You can email us a voice memo - that is indicator@npr.org - and we might address it in a future episode.

This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Camille Petersen, fact-checked by Brittany Cronin. THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

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