Are you prepared for the Dec. 1 deadline that could disrupt your workforce?

In just two months, sweeping changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act will make 4.2 million currently exempt employees eligible for overtime. Employers must either increase the salary of currently exempt employees or reclassify them as hourly wage earners, which will make them eligible for the overtime pay.

As an employer, are you prepared to make such moves?

Effective December 1, the salary threshold for “exempt” status under the Fair Labor Standards Act will jump to $47,476 a year from the current $23,660, allowing more workers to qualify for time-and-a-half pay if they work more than 40 hours a week. And, for the first time, the salary threshold will be indexed once every three years. So the next update will be on January 1, 2020, when the new level is expected to be more than $51,000 (based on salary growth in the lowest region of the country).

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Trump and Clinton’s Widely Divergent Business Tax Proposals

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both eyeing changes that would affect the federal income taxation of large and small businesses. But not surprisingly, they come to the table with very different business tax proposals.

Trump Supports Major Business Income Tax Reform

The Republican presidential nominee wants a 15% business income tax rate. But how exactly that rate would apply is anyone’s guess. Regular corporations are now subject to a maximum federal income tax rate of 35%. Individual owners of pass-through entities — such as S corporations, partnerships and LLCs — which pass their income to their owners for tax purposes, as well as sole proprietors who report income on Schedule C of their tax returns, are taxed at individual rates, which currently top out at 39.6%.

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The Scary Threat to GPS That Could Paralyze Businesses

The Rising Cyberthreat to GPS

A growing problem for GPS: The U.S. doesn’t have a backup system. Most of our critical infrastructure, including power grids, banks, transportation systems and telecom networks, relies on the Global Positioning System. Beyond mapping for transportation and other location services, GPS is used for highly precise timing necessary for high-speed financial trading, wireless network synchronization and power grid synchronization. But the rising risk of a major outage goes largely unnoticed. “I think GPS vulnerability doesn’t attract much attention because there have not been any major calamities yet, unlike with cybersecurity,” says Marc Weiss, a researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

A disruption in GPS would paralyze scores of business and other services, and with GPS use on the increase, a plausible work-around is becoming critical. A 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office pegged the cost of a GPS outage in the billions of dollars, and that might be a vast understatement. Google and Boston Consulting Group concluded in a 2012 report that the value of geospatial services, only a portion of GPS’s total value, added up to $1.6 trillion in just the U.S. Experts point out that the potential for civil unrest would rise, too, as a variety of systems, from ATMs to cellular networks, go down. Intentional wireless jamming, solar flares, satellite malfunctions and foreign threats are among the rising threats to GPS.

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Don’t Rush to Judgment on Last Night’s Presidential Debate

The first draft of history often turns out to be wrong once more facts and details come to light. That’s worth keeping in mind after Monday night’s first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

The initial consensus of pundits is that Clinton had a better debate but didn’t come close to throwing a knockout punch. And she clearly knew how to bait Trump to keep him off balance and on the defensive.

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Is Self-Insurance a Viable Option for Small Employers?

Once a strategy pursued only by big companies, self-insuring is being used by a growing number of smaller employers to provide health care coverage to their employees. According to a report by the nonprofit Employee Benefit Research Institute, from 2013 to 2015 the percentage of employers with fewer than 100 workers that offered at least one self-insured plan increased from 13.3% to 14.2%. The share of employers with 100 to 499 employees offering a self-insured plan rose from 25.3% to 30.1%.

Firms that self-insure bear the financial risk of employees’ health care themselves. That means they pay for each claim as it’s incurred, instead of paying a fixed premium to an insurance company. Since these employers are assuming the risk, they must have the cash flow to pay the claims. So, it may not be for everyone. But firms with as few as 15 employees can make it work.

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For Clinton and Trump, Big Debate, Small Target

Keep this number in mind if you watch Monday night’s first presidential debate: 20%. That’s the slice of the American electorate that isn’t supporting either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump at the moment and, thus, the segment most likely to be swayed by what they see and hear.

Here’s my math: Approximately 40% of likely voters responding to polls in September say they will support Clinton and a similar number say they’re backing Trump. To the degree that those numbers change–a tick or two either way–the support seems to come from the one in five folks who seem to have plans that don’t include either of the mainstream candidates.

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Update on Oil Prices, Plus Reader Feedback on Heating With Wood

Five months ago, a prominent commodities expert told me that oil prices would move higher. The market has been extremely volatile since then, but that prediction has in fact panned out. So I sat down with him again to get his take on the outlook for oil prices and the economy in general. Also, readers weigh in with their tips and observations on woodstoves as a follow-up to my last issue, which discussed heating with wood.

Oil Prices: Grinding Higher

Back in April, I sat down with Jason Schenker, president of Prestige Economics of Austin, Texas. At the time, benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude oil was trading at $40 per barrel, after rallying from about $26 per barrel during the winter. Jason predicted that while the U.S. energy industry would continue to suffer from depressed oil prices, WTI would gradually head higher as production fell. Flash forward five months, and that is about what has happened: U.S. oil output is down from about 8.9 million barrels per day in April to roughly 8.5 million barrels per day now. A slew of firms have gone bankrupt. And after some big spikes and swoons, the price of crude has climbed from $40 per barrel to about $44.

Since he was right in his predictions then, I decided to check in with him again, on a range of topics.

On whether prices are still likely to head higher: “The trend is grinding upward….I see significantly higher prices by the end of next year and the end of 2018.” (By “significantly,” he means about $10 per barrel more than today’s price.) “Drilling costs have gone down, but the cost of getting the money to do that drilling has gone up” because energy firms that can no longer secure bank loans or raise funds in the bond market are turning to private equity funding, which comes with more financial strings attached.

On whether operators can put more drilling rigs to work and pump more oil in the near future: “They’re pulling out all of the stops, but at some point this is still a cash crunch.” The most efficient firms with the lowest-cost drilling prospects in areas such as Texas’s Permian Basin are finding ways to eke out a profit at today’s oil prices, but they probably can’t go on cutting their operating costs much longer. “There was a lot of fat on the steak that could be cut off, and that’s what they’re doing now.” That means U.S. output should keep trending lower and eventually bring supply and demand into better balance, which is bullish for prices in the long term.

On the state of the global economy: “I’m concerned about China….For almost two years Chinese manufacturing has been in recession.” That downturn has been a major reason why global oil demand growth has slowed and why prices started sliding in 2014. “Their economy is not growing at 6.5%.”

On the health of the U.S. economy right now: “Industrial production has been negative year over year for 11 months….The record without a recession is four [months]. Corporate profits have been negative year over year….Trucking orders are down…rail’s down…oil’s hurting, coal’s hurting….” All of this further confirms his expectation of a mild U.S. recession beginning either late this year or early next year.

On when the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates: “All this talk of Fed rate hikes…as I said in April ‘stick a fork in the Fed, they’re done.’ They keep forecasting that they’re going to raise the rates,” but they also keep lowering their prediction of how high rates will be in the future. This is “super-bearish for the greenback” and by extension bullish for commodities like oil, which are priced in dollars and thus get a lift when the value of the dollar weakens relative to other currencies. The Fed, he says, is anxiously monitoring the state of the economy, with new gauges of GDP growth, oil market dynamics and other diagnostic tests. “They are watching things very closely, in a way they have never done before, even during the financial crisis.”

Wood Heat: Tips, Best Practices, Drawbacks

Two weeks ago, I asked readers to weigh in on their experiences heating with wood during the winter, and the response was substantial. First off, thank you very much to everyone who contributed; your feedback was very helpful.

Here’s a rundown of some of the advice and observations:

Seasoning is key. Multiple readers noted that storing wood outdoors and letting it properly dry before burning is a must. Some folks argue for a year or more of seasoning before burning.

The cost of firewood is a major consideration. Wood you can secure for free makes it possible to save on your heating bills. Wood you buy probably won’t, unless you live somewhere with very high utility prices. And even free wood isn’t free. If you’re planning to rely heavily on a woodstove or boiler, you’ll need a hefty supply. And cutting, hauling and splitting all that firewood isn’t without costs. You might need a log splitter to handle big stuff. Or oil and replacement chains for a chainsaw. Or a trailer to haul your firewood stash home. In other words, don’t overlook the many costs that come with prepping your winter wood supply.

On the other hand, all the work involved in gathering and cutting firewood can be a plus. As one reader noted, tongue in cheek: “Self-acquired firewood warms you six times — once when cut, once when loaded to take home, once when unloaded and split, once when stacked, once when brought to the house, and finally when you burn it.” Another reader says that you can ease the burden of splitting firewood by doing it in very cold weather: “The wood practically jumps apart.”

Heating with wood can be messy. Hauling firewood inside also can bring in sawdust and bugs. Cleaning out ashes periodically isn’t easy. As one reader warns: “If you use a shop vac to clean out the fireplace or stove, you MUST USE A FINE FILTER.”

Products to try. One reader recommends an e-book called Stovemanship, by Mors Kochanski, as a good reference for folks who are new to heating with wood. Another recommends Kindle Candles, from Yankee Candle Co., as a reliable fire starter.

Pluses and minuses. One reader with a fireplace insert reports saving 20% on his annual heating bill, which is nothing to sneeze at. And many wood burners say that there’s “just something about wood heat” that seems more effective, or at least cozier, than the warmth produced by furnaces or other heating systems.

But many folks note that there are drawbacks to wood heating. Not everyone likes the smell of wood smoke in the air, either from their own fireplace or from their neighbor’s. A poorly burning fire can release harmful pollutants into the air. Using a stove as your primary source of heat requires keeping it burning for long periods of time, forcing you to stay nearby and monitor it. Tightening government regulations on air quality make it harder for new stoves and wood boilers to comply. (One reader from Vermont reports that his boiler is the only model from one particular manufacturer that can now be sold in that state.)

And ultimately, it’s difficult to know how efficient a woodstove truly is. The numbers some manufacturers advertise can vary depending on who performed the testing and how they calculated the result. And whatever the rating, the number was probably obtained in a lab under optimal conditions, using ideally seasoned firewood: Not exactly how most consumers will use them. So, as with the fuel efficiency stickers displayed on the windows of new cars: “Your mileage may vary.”

Can a Rural Congressional District Make Trump President?

What if the presidential election comes down to a congressional district that’s so rural that, as The Almanac of American Politics puts it, “some valleys have more moose than people”? It’s not a fantasy. There’s a plausible path that could make voters in northern Maine’s 2nd Congressional District kingmakers on Election Day.

Maine and Nebraska are the only states that award one electoral vote to the candidate that carries each congressional district. The distinction usually doesn’t matter, but this year it’s not such a longshot bet to think that one of Maine’s electoral votes could go to Donald Trump and put him in the White House.

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Billions’ Worth of Merchandise Stranded at Sea

The collapse of one of the world’s largest ocean carriers has marooned more than half a million cargo containers in international waters. As much as $14 billion worth of cargo is stuck in limbo awaiting the fate of bankrupt Hanjin Shipping, with dozens of vessels anchored offshore filled with toys, shoes, computers, couches, dishwashers, etc. Port operators and cargo handlers refuse to unload the ships until they are paid.

Hanjin’s global creditors have impounded at least eight vessels, and about 80 are still at sea until captains are assured ships and cargo won’t be seized. It isn’t clear whether Hanjin’s parent company will be able to secure the $90 million it pledged to ease the carrier’s financial woes, or whether that will be enough to dent Hanjin’s $5.5-billion debt. The company has resorted to selling off ships from its 149-vessel fleet, after signs that the South Korean government won’t bail out its largest ocean carrier.

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Computer intelligence: more ‘humanlike,’ ‘trustworthy’? Plus other tech updates

This week, an update on artificial intelligence software, the outlook for tech and telecom costs, an interview with the CEO of a drone start-up, bargain tech stocks with solid dividends and more.

Federal and state governments will step up the use of artificial intelligence tools in coming years. Recent breakthroughs by commercial companies such as Facebook and Alphabet, along with other promising commercial success stories, are gaining the attention of government officials. Helping to pave the way: Computer intelligence that is more humanlike and trustworthy, qualities that make it easier to spur adoption. Chicago-based Narrative Science, for instance, uses software to turn unwieldy data in massive spreadsheets into plain English. The result is well-written news stories, financial reports and more. “The machine will actually be a device that can explain itself,” says Kris Hammond, chief scientist of the company.

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