Business News

Does a four-day workweek work? Companies share results after one year

Marko Geber/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- Do fewer working hours boost a company's overall productivity? A recent study out of the United Kingdom suggests the four-day workweek model benefits businesses and employees alike.

One year after 61 U.K. companies opted to participate in a four-day week pilot study, 89% of the companies continued to keep the structure in place.

More efficiency, happier employees and lower turnover rates are among the positive results found by the study, announced this week.

The 2022 study, conducted by the think tank Autonomy alongside the 4-Day Week Campaign and 4-Day Week Global, began as a six-month trial that has extended to the one-year mark and, in some cases, made permanent.

Forgoing the standard five-day workweek model, the participating organizations agreed to complete 100% of the usual workload in 80% of the time worked -- with no reduction of pay.

After one year, 51% of the companies have decided to implement the four-day workweek permanently and 89% have decided to continue the structure through the year.

In a follow-up survey with the participating companies' managers and CEOs, 100% reported that the four-day week had a "positive" or "very positive" impact on their organization, according to the study.

When researchers asked what the four-day structure had changed, 82% of surveyed companies reported positive impacts on staff well-being. 50% saw positive effects on reducing staff turnover and 32% said the policy had noticeably improved their recruitment, the study reports.

In a separate follow-up survey with the staff members of the participating companies, the benefits of the four-day workweek were felt both in and out of the office.

"Improvements in physical and mental health, work-life balance and general life satisfaction, as well as reductions in burnout, found at the end of the original pilot have all been maintained one year on," researchers said.

Looking to the future, a recent poll commissioned by the U.K. 4-Day Week Campaign found that 58% of the public expects the four-day workweek to be the standard way of working by 2030, according to the study.

Internationally, the study notes that the four-day workweek has become a key demand in some trade union negotiations in countries such as the United States, Germany and Italy.

Spain, Iceland and South Africa are among the nations that have implemented a trial of the four-day workweek for select companies and workers.

In November 2023, Belgium imposed a law that requires employers to offer full-time workers the right to request a four-day workweek.

At the state level in the U.S., lawmakers in Massachusetts introduced a bill in April 2023 that would provide employers with a tax credit if they shift at least 15 workers to four days a week without cutting their pay.

In California, a lawmaker re-introduced his 32-hour Workweek Act to Congress in March 2023, which would set the standard workweek at 32 hours.

At the time, Rep. Mark Takano said the act would be "a significant change which will increase the happiness of humankind. That’s a very big statement. But it was a big deal 100 years ago when we gave people the weekend by passing the Fair Labor Standards Act."

Takano initially introduced the legislation to Congress in 2021.

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


'I eat or I pay my bills': Americans describe rent burden fears, concerns

An 'Apartments for Rent' sign hangs in front of a building on Dec. 06, 2022 in Miami Beach, Fla. -- Joe Raedle/Getty Images, FILE

(NEW YORK) -- Half of Americans are burdened by the cost of housing, according to a recent Harvard study, officially capturing the grim reality facing renters nationwide.

Marianne Smith, a 65-year-old Oklahoma resident, is one of them -- paying about 35% of her income toward rent, she said in an interview with ABC News.

"I eat or I pay my bills," Smith told ABC News. "Had I not had family and friends that could afford to just put money in my bank account, I'd be on the streets.”

In 2023, Smith says a medical emergency left her in an ongoing state of economic vulnerability. Smith is widowed and says she can't work due to a genetic blood disorder and other health conditions.

Her only income is the $1,844 Social Security Disability Insurance she gets monthly, which she’s been using to pay her outstanding medical bills and rent. She says her rental cost alone is $660 a month.

However, she says her rent has been increasing every year, with each signing of the apartment's yearlong lease, putting more and more pressure on her wallet. The median gross rent in the state of Oklahoma stands at $934, according to the U.S. Census.

When asked how a reduction in her Lawton, Oklahoma, renting costs could impact her life, Smith said: "Oh my God. I'd eat three meals a day instead of two or one. Let's start there."

Sarah Saadian, the Senior Vice President of Public Policy and Field Organizing at the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, said rental costs are putting households nationwide on the brink.

“When you're devoting so much of your very limited income toward housing, it means that any sort of financial hiccup – your car breaks down, your kid is sick and you miss a day of work – that very easily can spiral out of control,” said Saadian.

She continued, “More and more households that are struggling to pay rent are living just one sort of financial shock away from facing evictions and, in worst cases, homelessness.”

Rent puts pressure on daily choices for many Americans

Rent reached historic highs in 2021 and 2022, the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University report found. And currently, more Americans are burdened by rent than ever before. Harvard defines "cost-burdened households" as those that spend more than 30% of income on rent and utilities.

Median rents were 21% higher in 2022 than they were in 2001, with adjustments for inflation. However, renters’ incomes have risen just 2% during the same period.

And though rental costs are cooling, they remain well above pre-pandemic costs.

Of the 22.4 million renters who are rent-burdened, the study found that roughly half of them are spending more than 50% of their income toward rent.

This has impacted Americans across a broad range of income levels.

Since 2019, Harvard found that the cost burden intensified the most for middle-income renter households earning $30,000 to $74,999 annually. About 40% of households earning $45,000 to $74,999 were rent-burdened, and almost 70% of households between $30,000 and $44,999 were burdened.

In 2022, 83% of low-income households were cost-burdened, with 65% experiencing severe burdens.

This all comes as the U.S. economy continues to perform well on other measures of economic health: Inflation is falling, job growth is surging and gross domestic product is proving much more resilient than expected in the aftermath of near-historic interest rate hikes.

Affordable housing access isn’t keeping up

Not only is it that rentals are getting more expensive, but states across the country are actually losing the number of apartments that qualify as low-rent and have been since 2011, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies.

“We have this widening gap between what people earn and how much their housing costs and, at the same time, we have a severe shortage of homes, especially those that are affordable to people with the very lowest incomes,” said Saadian.

For those searching for a place to stay, the outlook on affordable housing is bleak. A growing share of U.S. households can't find housing they can afford, Harvard researchers found.

Xzandria Armstrong, a 38-year-old Georgia resident, has been on the hunt for affordable housing for several years.

She said she has experienced housing instability with her two children throughout those years – her lack of a credit history, she said, has made applying for housing difficult.

She said she’d been denied repeatedly, as compounding application fees only worsened her financial situation. She said she and her family were forced to move between homeless shelters, short-term rentals and sleeping in her car while waiting to be accepted.

“These children are growing up in hotel lobbies and this is their childhood. It makes me sad. And I think that we can do better," said Armstrong.

After receiving housing vouchers, she said she was only left with options in neighborhoods or housing that she felt was unsafe for her children.

She says that lawmakers should look at the housing they're supplying for low-income families: "He or she would probably be flabbergasted and be like, 'I'd like to live in none of these.' But that's what you chose for us, who voted for you."

Donna Wilson, a 65-year-old Texas resident, works part-time on top of receiving governmental assistance for her disability and senior housing.

She said it's barely enough to get by, to cover her medication, rent, and other essentials.

"I cannot afford to get a full-time job, because I would lose my benefits," she said, adding that even if she had a full-time job and lost her benefits, she likely wouldn't make enough to afford those necessities anyway.

Wilson was a single parent for much of her life and said she leaned on homeless shelters in emergencies for housing.

Homelessness has been on the rise across the country since 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, prompting Wilson to become an anti-poverty activist with the Poor People's Campaign to use her experiences to advocate for change.

"You see so many unhoused people because they can't afford the rent for whatever reason -- these are educated people, these are veterans. This is no accident," she said.

A recent report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development found more than 650,000 people were experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2023, a 12% increase from 2022.

Harvard researchers found that the “most fundamental driver of the nation’s growing homelessness” is the ongoing housing affordability crisis.

“When you look at a person on the street, don't look down on 'em, because you don't know what their situation is," Wilson said. "You don't know what made them become unhoused."

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


What's driving the bitcoin surge? Experts weigh in.

Westend61/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- Bitcoin is on a tear.

The largest cryptocurrency has soared more than 20% over the last four days, approaching an all-time high. By contrast, the S&P 500 has dropped slightly over that period.

On Wednesday, the price of bitcoin surpassed $64,000 for the first time since November 2021.

The upsurge stems primarily from an explosion of investment in bitcoin ETFs, a novel investment vehicle approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission last month, analysts told ABC News. That initial burst of gains, they added, triggered a stampede of investors fearful of missing out on the returns.

"It's been a wild ride," Katie Stockton, the founder of market research firm Fairlead Strategies, told ABC News.

A bitcoin ETF (exchange-traded fund) allows investors to buy into an asset that tracks the price movement of bitcoin, while avoiding the inconvenience and risk of purchasing the cryptocurrency coin itself.

For instance, an ETF for gold allows individuals and institutions to put money on the price movement of the precious metal, rather than having to buy, transport and store the physical item.

A bitcoin ETF, in turn, gives investors access to the cryptocurrency market without facing the technical impediments and fees associated with navigating a crypto exchange.

Soon after the SEC approved the new investing option, a slew of bitcoin ETFs became available, including offerings from legacy firms such as Fidelity and Franklin Templeton.

The new crypto alternatives unleashed billions of dollars in investment within weeks, Bryan Armour, the director of passive strategies research at financial firm Morningstar, told ABC News. The nine leading bitcoin ETFs have received a combined $10 billion since last month, Armour said.

"There has been a very successful launch for pretty much all of these ETFs," Armour said. "It's just crazy for seven weeks on the market."

When investors place their money in a bitcoin ETF, the funds in turn purchase bitcoin, increasing demand for the cryptocurrency and potentially causing a jump in price, Armour added.

Since bitcoin ETFs gained approval on Jan. 10, the price of bitcoin has skyrocketed 30%.

"There has been significant trading volume," Armour said.

The rally in recent weeks gave rise to an additional wave of investment when traders witnessed the initial price spike and sought to jump on board, said Stockton, of Fairlead Strategies.

Over roughly a week in the middle of February, the price of bitcoin hovered in a "tight range" at about $51,000, Stockton said, adding that when it broke past that threshold on Monday, the new heights stoked optimism and an onrush of investment.

"The run-up that we've seen over the past four days has been really explosive," Stockton said.

Despite the breakneck pace of gains in recent weeks, some analysts cautioned about the past volatility of bitcoin and the possibility of an imminent price plateau, or even downswing.

In the immediate aftermath of the bitcoin ETF approval, for instance, the price of bitcoin dropped 15% before rebounding, Armour said. Over the past five years, he added, bitcoin has plummeted more than 40% on four separate occasions.

"Investors could expect it to either go up substantially or drop in half," Armour said. "Anything can happen."

James Butterfill, head of research at digital asset management firm CoinShares, acknowledged concern about bitcoin's rapid price ascent, but also pointed to reasons for optimism.

"When you see the price move so dramatically higher, it always worries you a little bit," Butterfill told ABC News. "Is it sustainable?"

However, Butterfill notes that the price surge has coincided with a period of stubbornly high interest rates, suggesting that the jump in demand owes little to excess cash in search of a place to land.

"It's not some crazy speculation," Butterfill said. "There's genuine demand for this."

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Ritzy parties, billion-dollar auctions: Two events are changing the car hobby

Chris Sattlberger via Getty Images

(MIAMI) -- Historic sports cars, million-dollar roadsters and one-off supercars will be on display when two of the auto industry's flashiest events take place next month.

Enthusiasts from all over the country will travel to Florida March 1-3 to revel in classic and modern cars that are seldom shown in public.

ModaMiami, billed as the "ultimate car show on America's East Coast," and The Amelia, "one of the world's most recognized lifestyle concours," are likely to draw more than 30,000 spectators. Both events will also feature auctions that could shatter sales records.

The fact that gearheads may be forced to choose between Moda and Amelia has divided the enthusiast community. The inaugural ModaMiami is hosted by RM Sotheby's at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables; The Amelia, in its 29th year, takes over the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island and is organized by Hagerty.

"It does not do the hobby any favors by having these on the same weekend," said one longtime auto analyst who has taken part in The Amelia. "People in South Florida may not opt to come up north to show their car. ModaMiami is trying to draw attention away from Amelia."

The scheduling conflict has a backstory: When Hagerty took over control of The Amelia Concours d'Elegance from founder and car collector Bill Warner, it replaced RM Sotheby's, the event's official auction house, with its newly acquired company, Broad Arrow Auctions. Rob Myers, CEO of RM Sotheby's, said he decided at that point to explore the "concours business" and organize a show that was "the opposite of Amelia and Hagerty."

"ModaMiami will be a different crowd from Amelia ... a lifestyle event, not just an auction," Myers told ABC News. "I plan on being in Miami next year and maybe do a few of these around the country. This is our first year and I don't know what to expect. But we're doing the best we can."

The auto analyst noted that Myers, though a "savvy business guy," can be an "absolute pit bull" and has "axes to grind" with Hagerty.

Michigan-based Hagerty has come under fire recently for trying to "own the collector space" and raising ticket prices at its events, which include RADwood, the Greenwich Concours d'Elegance, Motorlux and the California Mille.

"I look forward to how ModaMiami turns out," the analyst said, though RM Sotheby's departure "has been an unfortunate loss for Amelia and the local businesses and people."

At least 25,000 people will attend this year's multiday car culture celebration on Amelia Island, said McKeel Hagerty, The Amelia chairman and Hagerty CEO, who conceded that ModaMiami would make it challenging for enthusiasts to experience both gatherings.

"It's unfortunate there's been a purposeful event to pull some people away from Amelia and all the things happening around it," Hagerty told ABC News. "We're going to produce a great show this year and make it exist for another 29 years."

Hagerty also addressed the recent criticism from fellow enthusiasts.

"We have been attending these events longer than when we were first approached by owners to buy," he said. "Some people have seen our growth and are questioning it. We're trying to execute at a high level ... our job is to steward these events for the long term."

Hagerty said this year's activities will appeal to a broad group of motoring fans. There's a seminar and a movie night. Saturday's "Cars & Community" will include a RADwood display, Concours d'Lemons, ride and drives and a Bavarian beer garden. Guests can check out Ricky Hendrick's car collection including the Garage 56 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that was prepared for the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans. Hendrick, a 15-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and owner of Hendrick Motorsports, is this year's honoree.

Broad Arrow's auction includes more than 150 cars including a 2020 McLaren Speedtail; 1958 BMW 507 Series II Roadster; a 1967 Ford GT40; a 1971 Porsche 914/6 GT; 1966 Shelby 427 S/C Cobra; and a 1988 Porsche 959 SC Reimagined by Canepa, among others. On Sunday, The Amelia Concours d'Elegance will highlight more than 250 historically significant vehicles in more than 30 classes, according to Hagerty.

"The level of cars at Amelia are on par with Pebble Beach," Ian Kelleher, vice president of marketing at Broad Arrow, told ABC News, referring to the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance that takes place every August. "These events provide an up close and personal opportunity to come face-to-face with the cars hobbyists love and lust after."

ModaMiami attendees have a specially curated weekend of automobiles, art, cuisine and design. Myers said the event culminates in a car spectacle on the Biltmore Hotel's golf course, with "100 of the world's best supercars" parked on the green for ticket holders to ogle.

An exclusive collection of Mercedes-Benz vehicles, including the legendary Formula One Mercedes-Benz W 196 R, five Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwings, two 300 SL Roadsters and a 540 K Special Roadster, a previous Pebble Beach Best in Show winner, will also be on the showfield. ModaMiami activities range from exclusive driving opportunities to sampling cuisine from celebrity chefs.

"I have friends who are bringing cars from Reno and California and all over the U.S," Myers said. "Eight Best of Show cars are coming to Miami."

Aaron Weiss, president of The Concours Club, a private racing circuit for members, said ModaMiami will attract a diverse group of collectors who are seeking unique experiences.

"Purists will still go to Amelia ... they're looking for specific cars," he told ABC News. "Miami has a vibrant car culture. There are lots of ways to indulge in the car passion. ModaMiami is going for the lifestyle crowd and young collectors."

Mac Morrison, executive editor of Motor Trend, said there has been a "big explosion" in luxury-type vehicle shows, which is helping to boost interest in car culture again as traditional auto shows become smaller and less influential.

"Car enthusiasm is waning in the era of EVs and technology, but there is a reinvigoration and interest in cars as a lifestyle," he told ABC News. "A whole culture has sprung up around these events. It's encouraging to see car guys and car girls finding an outlet to indulge in this passion."

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Wendy's announces Uber-like surge pricing model

Signage is displayed outside a Wendys Co. restaurant in El Sobrante, Calif., May 6, 2020. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

(NEW YORK) -- Wendy’s announced it will launch new menu prices that will fluctuate depending on the time of day.

The country’s second-largest burger chain, which has 6,000 restaurant locations, said the change will begin next year.

Customers could pay $1 more for a sandwich like the Baconator during the lunch rush, for example.

“Historically, companies just set one price that was constant across time. Pricing algorithms allow companies to change prices throughout the day or perhaps even throughout an hour,” Zach Brown, a professor of economics at the University of Michigan, told ABC News' Good Morning America.

Wendy’s CEO Kirk Tanner said the company will spend $20 million on high-tech digital menu boards that can update prices in real time, similar to surge pricing strategies adopted by rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft, airlines and hotels.

“During the busy times, they can obviously increase profits then,” Brown said. “And also, some consumers will want to shift to the less busy times when demand is lower and prices are lower.”

Wendy’s is already receiving a frosty reaction to the price change announcement with one user on X, formerly known as Twitter, writing, “Surge pricing is just Price Gouging by any other name.”

Wendy’s told ABC News in a statement that its dynamic menu pricing can “be competitive and flexible with pricing, motivate customers to visit and provide them with the food they love at a great value. We will test a number of features that we think will provide an enhanced customer and crew experience.”

Some experts say customers could see more menu pricing changes ahead at other fast food chains, including McDonald’s and Burger King, especially if Wendy’s sees a boost in its bottom line after implementing dynamic pricing.

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Federal Trade Commission sues to block Kroger, Albertsons merger

Cars sit parked in front of a Kroger Co. grocery store in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S., on Sunday, April 26, 2020. (Stacie Scott/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

(WASHINGTON) -- The Federal Trade Commission on Monday sued to halt the Kroger and Albertsons merger, according to court documents filed in federal court. The merger would represent two of the largest grocery store chains in the United States combining forces.

Kroger announced that it intended to acquire Albertsons for $24.6 billion in October 2022, and that deal, according to the FTC, would lead to higher grocery prices for millions of Americans.

"This supermarket mega merger comes as American consumers have seen the cost of groceries rise steadily over the past few years. Kroger's acquisition of Albertsons would lead to additional grocery price hikes for everyday goods, further exacerbating the financial strain consumers across the country face today," said Henry Liu, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Competition. "Essential grocery store workers would also suffer under this deal, facing the threat of their wages dwindling, benefits diminishing, and their working conditions deteriorating."

Kroger stores are in 36 states and include companies like Fred Meyer, Fry's, Harris Teeter, King Soopers, Kroger, and Quality Food Centers. Albertsons operates stores in 35 states under regional names including Albertsons, Haggen, Jewel-Osco, Pavilions, Safeway and Vons.

If the merger were completed, Kroger and Albertsons would operate more than 5,000 stores and approximately 4,000 retail pharmacies and would employ nearly 700,000 employees across 48 states, according to the FTC.

Kroger says the FTC lawsuit will "actually harm" Americans instead of helping them, according to a statement released after the lawsuit was filed.

"The FTC's decision makes it more likely that America's consumers will see higher food prices and fewer grocery stores at a time when communities across the country are already facing high inflation and food deserts," the statement reads. "In fact, this decision only strengthens larger, non-unionized retailers like Walmart, Costco and Amazon by allowing them to further increase their overwhelming and growing dominance of the grocery industry."

Kroger says customers would benefit from lower prices and more choices following the merger close. The company says it has committed to investing $500 million to begin lowering prices Day One post-close, and an additional $1.3 billion to improve Albertsons stores.

California Attorney General Bonta issued a statement calling the proposed merger "bad for workers."

"This megamerger is bad for workers, for agricultural producers, and for California communities. In some markets in Southern California, Kroger-Albertsons is expected to be the only one-stop grocery option. Today, we are going to bat for a more just and competitive economy, one where companies need to compete for labor and where prices and service matter,” Bonta said in the statement.

Bonta and the attorneys general from Washington D.C., Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Oregon and Wyoming joined the lawsuit.

"Bottom line: this merger will benefit the shareholders of these companies, not regular Arizonans. I am proud to stand with the FTC and my fellow attorneys general in suing to block this anticompetitive, anti-consumer, and anti-worker merger," Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes said.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Ark., applauded the FTC lawsuit.

"The FTC found that the merger would likely reduce competition and raise prices—putting further strain on working families in our state who are being crushed by the high inflation caused by the Biden administration’s policies. I appreciate and support the FTC’s thorough analysis and decision to take action to block this merger for the benefit of Alaskans," Sullivan said.

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


IRS to open its free tax filing site to more new users

courtneyk/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- As the tax filing season gets underway, taxpayers in some states will have a new way to file online available to them in "the coming days," the IRS said this week.

Direct File, the free site for filing federal tax returns directly through the IRS, will be open for new users in 12 states during unspecified windows of time, before becoming widely available to taxpayers in those states in mid-March, according to the IRS.

The IRS has already launched its filing site to some federal government workers in a testing phase.

With this pilot program, the IRS says it is trying to provide a free alternative to taxpayers so they can use the government website for online filing instead of paying to do so with a commercial company.

According to the IRS, the website explains tax concepts and has customer support representatives available via chat to answer basic tax law questions in English and Spanish.

The agency created the platform with funds from the 10-year 2022 Inflation Reduction Act that included $80 billion for IRS improvements.

Here's how Direct File works and how taxpayers can use it:

Who is eligible?

Direct File will be available to taxpayers who in 2023 lived in these 12 states: Arizona, California, Florida, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wyoming.

Additionally, taxpayers in those states need to qualify depending on their income type and amount. For example, taxpayers with wages of more than $200,000 or independent contractors won't be able to use the site. The type of health insurance the taxpayer purchased might also restrict them from using the platform.

When does it become available to taxpayers?

The platform will be available to the taxpayers in those 12 states in the coming days, IRS said in a news release.

There's no specific date and time for when Direct File will be open to new users in those 12 states, instead it will be available for "short, unannounced windows of time." The state of the platform will be displayed on top of the website. The platform will be available to the wider public in mid-March, according to the IRS.

This is part of the testing phase to see how the site will work with a bigger volume of users, the IRS said.

The agency is supposed to start with a smaller testing group and the simplest characteristics, said Nina E. Olson, the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Taxpayer Rights. That's how platforms in the private sector had started, too, she said.

Currently, 1200 government employees are using the site to file their taxes as part of the testing, according to the updates on the IRS website.

What kind of taxes is the site for?

Direct File can be used only for federal taxes. State taxes must be filed separately through a different platform. However, the site will guide the taxpayers living in Arizona, California, Massachusetts or New York to a state-supported platform and transfer their information to file the state returns. These states were selected because they chose to partner with the agency, according to the IRS website.

How to use it?

Direct File is a website, so taxpayers don't need to install a special software or application.

To start with, taxpayers have to sign up with the IRS identity verification tool, ID.me, with which users say they have had issues.

According to Olson, the issues with ID.me are government wide and not specific to the IRS. The testing phase should also help identify why some taxpayers get turned away when trying to sign up, so that can be addressed later, she said.

If the taxpayer misses the window when Direct File is open, they can still sign up for ID.me and check the site for the next window.

The site has a step-by-step guide on how to track the progress of the return, the IRS said. Once they start the return, the taxpayers can come back to the platform anytime during the season and continue working on their returns -- even if the site is closed for new users.

The agency's Direct File is voluntary. The other paid or free alternatives are still available for taxpayers.

A similar site should have been created decades ago but this is a move in the right direction, Olson said.

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


The housing market is cooling again. Here's why.

Thomas Northcut/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- A sluggish housing market for most of last year began to heat up as the calendar turned to 2024.

In recent weeks, however, the market has cooled once again.

A surge in mortgage rates accounts for the slowdown in the housing market, experts told ABC News, pointing to elevated home prices pushed out of reach for most consumers when combined with high borrowing costs.

The jump in mortgage rates is due to stubbornly high inflation that has delayed interest rate cuts at the Federal Reserve, experts said. Mortgage rates track yields on 10-year treasury bonds, which are highly sensitive to the Fed's benchmark rate.

"High mortgage rates and high housing prices have led to an affordability problem of a dimension that we haven't seen in decades," Susan Wachter, a professor of real estate at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, told ABC News.

The average interest rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage has soared to 6.9%, rebounding after a steady decline at the end of last year, according to a report from Freddie Mac on Thursday.

Meanwhile, home sales have plummeted. Mortgage-purchase applications fell 10% from a week earlier, data from the Mortgage Bankers Association on Wednesday showed.

"Existing home sales have fallen off a cliff," Lu Liu, also a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, told ABC News.

The housing market dynamic traces back to a highly anticipated announcement in December, during which the central bank revealed expectations of interest rate cuts in 2024.

The signal elicited a boost of optimism among key market players, who foresaw the end of the Fed's fight against inflation and the decline of interest rates from near-historic highs. In turn, yields fell on 10-year treasury bonds, and mortgage rates soon followed suit.

Inflation, however, has refused to cooperate. Stronger than expected economic performance and resilient consumer demand have helped buoy price increases, keeping them above the Fed's target rate.

"The strengthening of the economy is a surprise," Wachter said. "It does raise questions about the Fed's next steps."

Consumer prices rose 3.1% in January compared to a year ago, slowing markedly from the previous month but missing expectations of an even larger cooldown, a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics earlier this month showed.

Inflation stands well below a peak of 9% last year but remains more than a percentage point above the Fed's target rate of 2%.

"The inflation rate is reflected in the 10-year treasury rate, which pushes mortgages up," Wachter said.

When the Fed initiated the rise of bond yields with its first rate hike of the current series in March 2022, the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate stood at just 4.45%. The average mortgage is now nearly 2.5 percentage points higher.

Each percentage point increase in a mortgage rate can add thousands of dollars, or even tens of thousands, in additional costs each year, depending on the price of the house, according to Rocket Mortgage.

The rising mortgage rates have put a freeze on the housing market in part because home prices remain high, Liu said. Potential homebuyers would rather stick with mortgages that have comparatively low rates rather than shift to higher rates that would compound the elevated home prices, she added.

"A lot of people are holding back from moving or selling," Liu said.

Observers would expect home prices to fall amid low consumer demand, but the stubbornly high housing costs may be owed to that reluctance among prospective homebuyers to first put their own homes up for sale, Liu added.

"It's a little bit of a puzzle why home prices have remained stable or even ticked up," Liu said. "Home owners may be buying, but they're not selling."

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


New lawsuit claims Stanley tumblers 'failed to disclose presence of lead'

Stanley tumblers are displayed on a shelf at a Dick's Sporting Goods store, Feb. 2, 2024, in Daly City, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

(NEW YORK) -- The trendy oversized Stanley thermos that reached viral fame on social media and became a must-have item is facing new criticism from customers.

The parent company of the viral tumblers is facing two lawsuits after Stanley acknowledged that part of the insulation at the bottom of the bottle -- which people do not come into contact with -- contains some lead.

In one of the lawsuits filed last week, Mariana Franzetti alleges the company, Pacific Market International, "engaged in a campaign of deceiving customers by failing to disclose the presence of lead in its tumbler products."

The lawsuit also claims the company "knew or reasonably should have known about this lead issue for years but chose to conceal it from the public presumably to avoid losing sales."

The cups are still available for sale online.

Pacific Market International did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment.

"When I discovered that lead was possibly in the Stanley cup, I was really upset," Franzetti told ABC News. "I tried to treat my body as well as possible. I wouldn't have bought any sort of product that had lead in it, to my knowledge. And I just thought, why is a company like this being so deceptive?"

Last month, several customers said they performed at-home tests on the cups -- with some allegedly testing positive for lead.

Stanley released a statement in response saying the material used for the insulation seal at the bottom of the products does contain "some lead," but that it is covered with stainless steel and "no lead is present on the surface of any Stanley product that comes into contact with the consumer nor the contents of the product."

The company told USA Today in response to the lawsuits that it will "vigorously defend itself against meritless claims."

"My trust has been shaken in the company, but I would like to see them not just with the Stanley cups currently, but with all their products, make a commitment to being lead-free," Franzetti said.

Stanley cups have gained massive popularity in recent months. In January, videos across social media showed shoppers at Target clamoring for the brand's limited edition "Galentine's Day" red and pink tumblers.

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Boeing replaces Ed Clark, leader of 737 Max program, in wake of midair incident

Mordolff/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- Boeing has announced it is replacing the head of its 737 Max program as part of a reshuffling of the company in the wake of the much-publicized incident of a door plug blowing out of an Alaska Airlines flight last month.

Katie Ringgold will be replacing Ed Clark – an 18-year veteran of the company – as vice president and general manager of the 737 Max program and Renton site, Boeing said.

The company also announced other leadership changes.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes President Stan Deal said, "I am announcing several leadership changes as we continue driving BCA's enhanced focus on ensuring that every airplane we deliver meets or exceeds all quality and safety requirements. Our customers demand, and deserve, nothing less."

The door plug fell off a few minutes after Alaska Flight 1282 took off from Portland International Airport on Jan. 5. Passengers captured footage showing a hole where the door plug came loose on the Boeing 737 Max 9 plane. The plane safely made an emergency landing and no one was seriously injured.

The National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report Feb. 6 saying four bolts designed to prevent the door plug from falling off the plane were missing before the plug blew off.

Records reviewed by the NTSB showed that damaged rivets on the edge frame forward of the plug were replaced by Spirit AeroSystems employees at Boeing's factory in Renton, Washington, on Sept. 19, 2023, according to the agency's report. Boeing had to open the plug by removing the two vertical movement arrestor bolts and two upper guide track bolts for the rivets to be replaced, but photo documentation obtained from Boeing showed evidence that the plug was closed with no bolts in three visible locations, according to the NTSB report.

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun took responsibility for the incident during an earnings call on Jan. 31.

"Boeing is accountable for what happened," Calhoun said. "Whatever the specific cause of the accident might turn out to be, an event like this must simply not happen on an airplane that leaves one of our factories. We simply must be better. Our customers deserve better."

The Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency airworthiness directive on Jan. 6, temporarily grounding certain Boeing 737 MAX 9 planes while operators conduct specific inspections before returning the aircraft to service. The decision affected more than 170 planes worldwide.

Alaska Airlines returned its fleet of 737s to the air on Jan. 26, two days after the FAA released final instructions to airlines to begin conducting inspections of their 737 Max 9 planes.

ABC News' Meredith Deliso and Julia Jacobo contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


More student loan borrowers to receive debt relief beginning Wednesday

jayk7/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- The Biden administration will begin automatically relieving student debt for another 153,000 people on Wednesday, bringing the total number of Americans approved for debt relief to nearly 3.9 million.

President Joe Biden will tout the new debt relief in a speech from Los Angeles, and thousands of people will receive an email from the president informing them that they now qualify for relief.

"Congratulations — all or a portion of your federal student loans will be forgiven because you qualify for early loan forgiveness under my Administration's SAVE Plan," the email from the president will read.

The people receiving debt relief beginning Wednesday are those who enrolled in the newest student loan payment plan, called the SAVE Plan, which the Department of Education calls the most affordable plan for the majority of borrowers.

Anyone enrolled in the SAVE Plan who took out less than $12,000 in initial loans and has been paying them down for the past 10 years or more will have them forgiven.

"This plan reflects our unapologetic commitment to deliver as much relief as possible to as many borrowers as possible, as quickly as possible," Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said on a call with reporters on Tuesday.

Roughly 7.5 million Americans are enrolled in the SAVE Plan, which just launched this past summer.

The 153,000 who are getting automatic relief starting Wednesday are the first tranche of borrowers to benefit from this aspect of the plan. Moving forward, anyone else who enrolls in the plan and meets this criteria will also get debt relief.

As of Wednesday, there are many Americans who could actually qualify for this debt relief but aren’t enrolled in the SAVE Plan, something the Biden administration says it's working to improve outreach on as an estimated 27 million Americans are currently in repayment for student loans.

Who are the other 3.7 million people who have been approved for debt relief under Biden?

At least 513,000 borrowers have, so far, been approved for debt relief after filing for a total and permanent disability, while 1.3 million borrowers have been approved for debt relief because it has been deemed their college defrauded them.

Some of the most well-known debt relief programs under Biden, however, have been the fixes to the program for people working in public service and to income-driven repayment plans.

The Biden administration has now processed relief for more than 793,000 borrowers through fixes to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF), which allows for debt relief for people in jobs like firefighting, nursing and teaching after 10 years of continuous payment.

The other large tranche of borrowers to receive relief are those enrolled in income-driven repayment plans, which allow people to pay a certain percentage of their income towards their loans for 20 or 25 years before their debts are forgiven.

Around 930,500 borrowers have been identified as paying for their allotted time, but not getting relief. They have now had their debts approved for relief.

The PSLF and income-driven repayment fixes are considered minor fixes to an already-broken system in the student loan apparatus that the Biden administration has now addressed.

They are not debt relief to the tune of $10,000 to 20,000 in blanket forgiveness for anyone who makes below a certain income, as Biden hoped to do last year before the Supreme Court determined his plan was unlawful.

Still, the Biden administration continues to push efforts on debt relief while on the campaign trail, something Biden himself will do on Wednesday in Los Angeles.

“These actions have allowed nearly 4 million people to afford other expenses in their lives -- buy homes, start businesses, pursue dreams that they had to put on hold because of their student loans,” Natalie Quillian, White House Deputy Chief of Staff, said on a call with reporters Tuesday.

“Now, because of the president and the Biden Harris administration, millions of borrowers and their families are no longer weighed down by the burden of student debt,” she said.

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Two Black GM workers share their experiences in the automotive industry

GM chief engineer Dom Lester mentors young minorities and women who are pursuing careers in vehicle engineering. (General Motors)

(NEW YORK) -- Dom Lester has a long and enviable list of accomplishments at General Motors, where's he worked for the last 25 years.

As the company's chief engineer for performance variants, parts and motorsports engineering, he is responsible for the development of GM's bestselling trucks and performance vehicles. His greatest achievement, though, may be fostering a more diverse and accepting place for minorities and women to work.

"Walking around the hallways here, you see more minorities, more women," Lester told ABC News. "To have folks with different thoughts, folks who come from different regions, that's the true intellectual horsepower in the company. Diversity of thought is really the fuel that will propel us forward."

Lester started his automotive career after graduating from Lafayette College with a degree in mechanical engineering. He worked his way up the ranks and now oversees the full execution -- marketing, design, budgeting and engineering -- of new vehicles like Chevy's ZR2 family of trucks, the Escalade V-Series and Cadillac's CT5-V and CT4-V Blackwing sedans.

"I am still pushing the envelope, stretching the company, as chief engineer of performance variants," he said. "The customer comes in all different colors, shapes and sizes ... and I like to see people [on my team] who have different angles and perspectives."

He added, "There are a lot of us in automotive and the door is open ... it's a great field to be in."

Lester visits college campuses across the country to recruit top talent for GM and regularly contributes to the company's resource groups for minorities. Every week he sets aside time in his hectic schedule to mentor young GM employees. Plus, he sits on the board of a nonprofit that supports women of color in motorsports.

His efforts to add more inclusivity to the auto industry has inspired his oldest daughter to study science, technology, engineering and math, he noted.

"She's really into STEM and robotics and sees the excitement and potential in it," Lester said.

GM has long touted its recruiting efforts and diverse workforce. Company executives have participated in events hosted by groups like the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) and National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), among others.

The company has also found talented workers through development programs with HBCUs including Morgan State, Tuskegee University, North Carolina A&T and Howard University. Moreover, GM partners with Advancing Minorities' Interest in Engineering (AMIE), an organization representing 15 engineering-accredited HBCUs, according to a GM spokesperson.

There are currently more than 93,200 GM employees in the U.S. Minorities make up a large part of the company: 17,702 are Black/African American, 8,565 are Asian and 6,118 are Hispanic/Latino, according to company data.

In 2019, Black Americans totaled 17.2% of workers in automotive manufacturing, according to a 2020 U.S. International Trade Commission report. To compare, Black workers made up 12.3% of the labor market that year.

Moreover, Black employment in automotive manufacturing rose from 159,000 in 1995 to more than 250,000 in 2019, the report said. Women, however, continue to experience steep obstacles in the industry: just 23.6% of workers employed by automotive manufacturers were female in 2019.

Brandon Lynum, a colors, material and finishes designer who worked on the all-electric Cadillac Escalade IQ, said his role model was Ed Welburn, the first Black head of global design for GM. Welburn retired in 2016 though his legacy at the automaker lives on.

"He helped create a more diverse culture," Lynum told ABC News. "He's definitely a catalyst for having more minorities in the field, especially at GM Design."

Lynum himself did not know automotive design jobs existed until he was a sophomore in high school. Students at the Cleveland Institute of Arts (CIA) visited Lynum's high school one day and "they mentioned industrial design and automotive design," said Lynum.

"Suddenly it clicked: 'Hey, people go to school to design cars,'" he went on. "A lot of times students are creative and have art backgrounds but they ask, 'What can I do with this background as a professional?'"

Lynum is now following in the footsteps of those CIA college students who first opened his eyes to a career in autos. He travels to the CIA campus, where he's also an alum, to meet with and potential job prospects. His main objective: bringing awareness to the field, especially for minorities.

"Exposure is key," he said. "We have studios across the globe ... we have people who are white, Black, brown. GM Design in general is a very diverse place."

Lester agreed that "seeing is believing" when it comes to getting more minorities and women interested in automotive jobs. His biggest advice to those pursuing careers in competitive industries? "Use your voice," he said.

"Do not let obstacles be roadblocks -- use them as stepping stones into the future," he said. "Everyone has faced obstacles but it's what you do with them. For me, I see them as opportunities. One of the skills I've learned over the years is how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Mastering how to be comfortable has served me well."

And for those who ever doubted Lester's abilities, he pointed to his prestigious "Boss" Kettering award, given to GM workers who have achieved engineering excellence, and his many patents at the automaker.

"I pushed the envelope, pushed the comfort level and thought outside the box," he said. "Don't sell yourself short."

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Dunkin' launches six new menu items for spring, here's a sneak peek

Dunkin'

(NEW YORK) -- Dunkin' is spicing up its spring menu with six new seasonal items rolling out nationwide on Wednesday, including an energy-boosting iced beverage innovation.

The coffee chain that recently made headlines for its Super Bowl commercial starring Ben Affleck and J. Lo announced the lineup of new products, plus a special promo for Leap Day.

New spring menu at Dunkin'

The first new addition is the SPARKD' energy by Dunkin', described by the brand as an iced drink "that provides a revitalizing burst of energy, made with vitamins, minerals and a kick of caffeine" available in two flavors, berry burst and peach sunshine.

The new churro signature latte, available iced or hot, combines smooth espresso with the sweet cinnamon sugar flavors of a churro, topped with whipped cream, caramel drizzle and a dusting of cinnamon sugar.

The second seasonal coffee offering is a cinnamon vanilla coffee, which blends Dunkin's original coffee and cream with notes of churro and vanilla flavors, which customers can order iced or hot.

Dunkin' is also introducing the churro donut, made to pair with the new churro signature latte. The deep-fried cake donut is rolled in cinnamon sugar for a sweet, crunchy exterior.

The coffee chain has also added two new food items: Breakfast empanada and banana chocolate chip bread.

The first, a hot and savory option, is made with scrambled eggs, sausage and cheddar cheese inside a flaky pastry crust.

The latter, hitting menus just in time for National Banana Bread Day on Friday, is Dunkin's take on the beloved baked good, loaded with chocolate chips and served prepackaged "to ensure a tender, moist crumb."

Dunkin' Rewards members can earn an additional 250 bonus points when they order the new items on Feb. 23.

On Feb. 29, in celebration of Leap Day, Dunkin' Rewards members can enjoy a $2 medium cinnamon vanilla coffee when they order in the Dunkin' mobile app. Plus, members will earn 4X points on all app orders on Leap Day.

Check the app and website for more offers tied to ordering the new products throughout spring.

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


What to know about American Airlines' new policy changes: Checked bag fees, luggage size, earning loyalty points and miles

American Airlines passenger jets are lined up on the gates at Washingtons Reagan National Airport, Feb. 10, 2024, in Arlington, Va. (J. David Ake/Getty Images)

(NEW YORK) -- Delta made waves last year in announcing sweeping policy changes to its loyalty program, and now American Airlines has followed suit with changes of its own that will impact how travelers earn frequent-flyer points, as well as how much they pay for checked bags.

On Tuesday, the Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier announced increased costs for checked bags both online and at the airport.

In a push to get more flyers to book directly with American Airlines, the carrier is also "[updating] the way customers earn AAdvantage miles and Loyalty Points on flights, depending on where they book."

Vasu Raja, American's chief commercial officer, said in a statement that "the best fares" will come when booking directly with the airline, adding that the shift in policy will be most rewarding for members of its AAdvantage program.

American Airlines' new bag fees

Previously, a passenger's first checked bag on domestic flights cost $30. The airline has now raised that fee to $35 when purchased online, or $40 when purchased at the airport. A second checked item will cost $45, another $5 increase, both online and at the airport.

The changes will go into affect for flights booked on or after Feb. 20 for travel within the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.

There are a few exceptions: Passengers with status in the AAdvantage loyalty program, those who use an American-branded credit card, and those who buy a premium-class ticket will continue to receive complimentary bags on domestic and international flights.

American also offers complimentary bags to active-duty U.S. military personnel on all American flights.

The airline last raised its bag fees in 2018.

American Airlines lowers fees for oversize, overweight checked bags

In a bright spot for American customers, the airline has introduced its lowest fee ever for checked items that are only a few pounds heavier or a few inches larger than a standard bag, which the airline said can "result in savings of more than $350 for some customers."

American will also reduce the oversize checked baggage limit to 115 linear inches.

For bags over the weight limit between 50-53 pounds, the new fee will be $30, and overweight bags between 53-70 pounds will be charged a fee of $100 to $200. Bags weighing between 70-100 pounds will still be charged $450.

For bags that are over the size limit, between 62-65 linear inches, passengers will be charged a new fee of $30, with bags between 65-115 linear inches charged $150 to $200.

Previously, customers were charged $100 to $200 extra for overweight bags between 50-70 pounds, and all oversize bags between 62-126 linear inches were charged an extra $150 to $200.

Additionally, bags that are both oversized and overweight will now be charged a single fee, rather than two separate fees, ranging from $30 to $450, depending on size and weight.

The lower costs and simpler fee structure for oversize and overweight checked items will go into effect for travel on or after April 17.

Additionally, the airline has said it will no longer allow javelins, pole vaults or hang gliders to be checked starting April 17.

American Airlines updates how flyers earn AAdvantage miles, loyalty points

American is also updating the way customers can earn AAdvantage miles and Loyalty Points on flights, which is contingent upon where they book, "starting with tickets issued on May 1, 2024."

How to ensure you're earning miles and Loyalty Points

In order to earn points in the AAdvantage loyalty program, American Airlines said most customers will be required to purchase tickets directly from the airline or its eligible partner carriers. Additionally, Basic Economy fare tickets will only earn points when the flight is booked directly with American or its eligible partners.

Customers can book travel anywhere as an AAdvantage Business member or contracted corporate traveler to keep earning points and miles. Corporate travelers won't be affected by this change, the airline stated.

American said it will share a list of eligible preferred agencies on aa.com in late April, for customers who wish to book through those travel agencies to earn miles and points.

American Airlines loyalty members, credit card holder benefits

Certain AAdvantage members and credit card holders will still receive important benefits, such as complimentary bags on American Airlines flights.

AAdvantage members who book directly with the airline will also receive benefits like same-day standby and Trip Credit for canceled flights.

The airline said that booking directly will also help loyalty members reach AAdvantage status and unlock rewards faster.

Finally, for tickets purchased on or after Feb. 20, the pet-in-cabin fee will be $150. 

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Delta offering special flight to view total solar eclipse along the path of totality in April

A Delta Air plane takes off from Sydney Airport on Jan. 20, 2024 in Sydney, Australia. (Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

(NEW YORK) -- North America will experience its last total solar eclipse for 20 years in April, and now some skywatchers will have a front-row view.

Delta Airlines announced its chartering a flight from Austin, Texas, to Detroit on April 8 that is specifically intended for passengers to have an up-close view of the solar eclipse along the path of totality -- the specific locations on Earth that fall in the center of the moon's shadow during an eclipse.

A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the sun and the Earth and, for a short time, completely blocks the face of the sun, according to NASA.

The flight is scheduled to depart from Austin at 12:15 p.m. CT and arrive in Detroit at 4:20 p.m. ET. It's timed "to give those on board the best chance of safely viewing the solar eclipse at its peak," Delta said in a press release on Monday.

The one-way flight is $1,129 and can be purchased through the Delta website.

"The April 8 eclipse is the last total eclipse we'll see over North America until 2044," Warren Weston, Delta Air Lines lead meteorologist, said in the press release. "This eclipse will last more than twice as long as the one that occurred in 2017, and the path is nearly twice as wide."

Delta says passengers will have "premium viewing" due to the A200-300 aircraft's extra-large windows.

In the U.S., the path of totality begins in Texas and will travel through Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Small parts of Tennessee and Michigan will also experience the total solar eclipse, according to NASA.

Passengers aboard preexisting flights on April 8 will also have the chance to view the total solar eclipse, and Delta encourages those individuals to come prepared with solar eclipse viewing glasses.

These Delta flights will fly within the path of totality:

  • DL 5699, DTW-HPN, 2:59 pm EST departure, ERJ-175
  • DL 924, LAX-DFW, 8:40 am PST departure, A320
  • DL 2869, LAX-SAT, 9:00 am PST departure, A319
  • DL 1001, SLC-SAT, 10:08 am MST departure, A220-300
  • DL 1683, SLC-AUS, 9:55 am MST departure, A320

Solar eclipse experts suggest -- whether on the ground or in the sky -- that avoiding clouds is the best and only way to fully experience a total solar eclipse.

"You want to avoid any type of cloud, if you can," Fred Espenak, a former astrophysicist from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and author of Road Atlas for the Total Solar Eclipse of 2024, told ABC News of Eclipse Day.

Delta noted that weather changes and air traffic control factors are out of the airline's control on eclipse days.

"Let's say it's on a sunny day with some puffy cumulus clouds around. All you need is for one of those clouds to be in front of the sun and you've missed the total eclipse. So, you're really looking for a place with as few clouds as possible," Espenak said.

"So I wish everybody fair skies next April," Espenak noted.

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.