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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Travel Tip: Southwest Airlines is for Regionals

After eight months in this job I have gotten to know several people in this company and others who do what I do.  They may be in Sales, Marketing, Nurse Consulting or whatever field, but one thing they have in common is that they travel all the time.  The other thing they have in common is that Southwest is their airline of choice.  Why? Change Fees! 

Southwest advertises heavily that they don't charge bag fees.  However most professional travelers rarely check luggage so that doesn't affect our expenses.  What really does hit our companies' pockets is the $150 per change fee that every other airline imposes if you change after your trip is ticketed. 

In order to keep our expenses (and that of our clients) low we need to book as far in advance as possible.  However you never know what is going to come up and it is not unusual to change 30 - 50% of your travel arrangements post-ticketing.  The last time I tried to fly American for one project I had three $150 change fees on a $540 ticket.  The changes were unavoidable and the charges, almost equal to the original ticket price, were nuts.

As far as the downside of Southwest, the waiting in line, getting a high number and a middle seat, etc.. there are strategies you can use.

1. Download the SWA App for your phone and check in on-line 24 hours in advance of your flight.  You will almost never get a high number. 
2. Set an iPhone or Outlook alarm 24 hours in advance of your flight so you can be one of the first to check in and you won't forget to check in.
3. But things happen and sometimes you don't remember.  SWA reserves A 1-15 for its Business Select customers.  If all of those aren't used and the plane isn't full you can pay $40 and buy up to one of those positions at the gate. 
4. You can check on-line and see what the upgrade to Business Select would cost and consider biting the bullet.  For one trip it was under $100.  For my current trip it was over $800 so I set my Outlook alarm and checked in on my App.  I was B15 flying out on a very inexpensive ticket.

Do what you want, but these Regionals I've met can't all be wrong. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Travel Tip: IHG Rewards Club

For years I have been a frequent customer of the Holiday Inn brand of hotels.  Now before you turn up your nose know this: almost all their properties have been remodeled.  There are still some terrible ones (Louisville - North in Clarksville IN) but by and large everything from the Express to the Crowne Plazas are newly constructed or renovated in the last five years.

But that isn't my point.

These are owned by International Hotel Group or IHG.  IHG appears to be moving their customer loyalty programs into one branded Rewards Club and because they have nine brands there is enough critical mass to staff a 24-hour, 7-day per week customer line.  So as a Holiday Inn Priority Club member I can call and get a live person anytime.

And what does said live person do?

They find hotels nearby and make reservations for you on the spot.

Several times I have ended up in a city only to find that the travel office or the client has failed to properly make my reservations.  Sometimes I am booked into a community guest room with a twin bed (which if you've met me you know won't work), or my reservation was for last week, or next week, etc...  I call my Priority Club 800 number, give the operator my address, and ask them for a property with a vacancy nearby and the rate.  I get options over the phone in less than 30 seconds, approve the reservation, and they use my credit card on-file.

I have been a Marriott member, and am currently a Hilton Honors member.  Neither of them have this service.  If you travel a lot like I do, get yourself a Priority Club or IHG Rewards Club account.  It will save you some midnight when your plane lands and you have no room.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

George Zimmerman and the "Low Ready" Solution

This is off-topic for me; it has nothing to do with HR.  It does have to do with a passionate belief of mine: that people have the right to protect themselves and their loved ones from harm. The exercise of that right, I believe, should include the measured and rational use of guns. In exercising this right I have received Conceal and Carry training and permits in two states.

Believing as I do in the Conceal and Carry program, the Treyvon Martin case in Florida has grieved me considerably.  It highlighted to the nation, and to the delight of gun control advocates, the exceptionally rare occasion of a permit holder being involved in an unwise use of their weapon.  Permit holders are the most law abiding of citizens and almost never engage in an unjustified shooting. You could argue all day over whether the Martin shooting was or wasn't justified; people who go on about this all-day have no good information and just add their own prejudices about race and guns to the noise. That is not significant to my point.

What is significant is that George Zimmerman apparently did not follow Conceal and Carry protocol in the moments leading up to the shooting. Use of the "low ready" protocol might have prevented this loss of life.

For those of you who have not been through one of these programs, here is a quick primer.  There are typically three positions for your weapon:

  • holstered
  • low-ready
  • ready
The holstered position is obvious: in your holster and concealed, safety on, hands off the weapon.  The ready position is also fairly obvious: weapon un-holstered, both hands on the weapon, safety off, finger on the trigger with the gun pointed at the threat. This is used only in response to an immediate and identified threat.

The low ready position is the transition point between the other two and the opportunity to prevent problems.  It is weapon un-holstered, both hands on the grip in firing position, weapon in front of you and  pointed down to the ground at about a 45 degree angle, safety off but trigger finger on the side of the barrel.

This position is extremely important.  It allows the potential shooter to assess the tactical and legal situation in front of them. 

  • Is the threat identifiable to a high degree of certainty?
  • Is there anyone behind the target who could be hit by a missed shot?
  • Is the threat immediate?
Low ready provides both the potential shooter and the threat the opportunity the make good decisions.  It provides the threat with visual information that the potential shooter is armed.  It also provides the potential shooter with an opportunity to verbally warn the threat not to advance toward them further. It arguably protects the potential shooter against a charge of Assault with a Deadly Weapon, because the weapon is never pointed at the potential threat. 

In most cases, low ready presentation causes the threat to retreat and any bystanders the opportunity to move to safety.

So now let's plug this information into the Zimmerman/Martin shooting.  First of all, the police dispatcher told Zimmerman not to follow Martin.  It is always a good idea to accept police instructions and Zimmerman, according to what I saw of the trial, did not.  Then once out of the car Zimmerman did not pull his weapon until engaged in a fight.  At some point in the altercation it is reasonable to assume that pulling the weapon into low-ready would have afforded Martin, armed only with an Arizona Tea and bag of skittles, the opportunity to retreat.

This is what permit holders are supposed to do: avoid a threat, but then warn the threat ahead of eminent danger with low-ready presentation, then retreat to safety, or discharge their weapon, depending upon the actions of the threat.  That Zimmerman failed to follow this protocol may have led to Martin's death: we weren't there so we don't know for sure.  But in case you are ever in such a situation, or in case you just think all permit holders have John Wayne delusions of masculinity, maybe this information will prove to be useful.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The Healthcare Reform Delay: What it Means for You

Yesterday's announcement by the administration, combined by a new approach by Congressional Republicans, changed the game completely for Healthcare Reform (HCR).  The White House, almost without warning to anyone, delayed by one year the key provision requiring employers to provide affordable coverage to all full-time employees (defined as 30 hours per week or more) or pay a fine. It was to take effect January 1, 2014 and now has been delayed until that same date in 2015.

Most of the heat around implementation was coming from the law's quirky definition of a full-time employee.  The issues are:

  • The definition of full-time as 30 hours is at odds with the Wage and Hour definition for purposes of calculating overtime at 40 hours.
  • The definition only applies to medical coverage, leaving benefits administrators a choice to administer coverage differently for medical or adopt the extra expense of changing eligibility rules for dental, vision, etc...
  • The 30-hour rule is not for hours worked as with Wage and Hour: it is 30 hours paid, meaning that all forms of paid time off (vacation, sick, PTO, jury duty, paid leave of absence, etc...) had to be rolled into the calculation, thus requiring that complicated reports be written.
  • In the guidelines from the government I have yet to see a definitive set of criteria for these reports: every company was making their own and faced IRS penalties if they did them wrong and denied coverage to a legally-eligible employee.

Because the counting period for the calculation of 30 hours per week required a six-month look-back period, businesses were already having to start writing and running hours-worked reports for part-time staff.  July 1 was the start of the first pay period where reporting should be run if businesses, some already starting their FY 2014 budget cycles, wanted to know the number of newly eligible employees for next year.

Meanwhile Congressional Republicans yesterday introduced bills to redefine the minimum number of employees required for a company to have to comply with the Act, from 50 to 100, and a redefinition of a full-time employee.  It signals a new approach in their opposition of the law: from grandstanding bills to repeal it (even when they knew they didn't have the votes) to a strategy of chipping away at its key provisions.

The White House's delay combined with the GOP's new strategy puts a whole new set of variables into the HCR situation.  It will almost certainly remain law and be implemented, but there is now enough uncertainty that businesses should adopt a wait-and-see attitude on changing eligibility rules and offering benefits to employees not currently covered.

As for individuals, nothing in these changes alters the implementation of Insurance Exchanges in each State.  In states which agreed to run their own, those are coming October 1st: in those that did not the federal government is supposed to have those running by January 1, 2014.  How "affordable" that coverage will be remains to be seen, but since it is guaranteed issue it will still benefit those who cannot obtain coverage elsewhere.