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"This nation spends more money annually on cleaning up roadkill on highways and on salt for snow removal [than on passenger rail]." -- Amtrak President George Warrington, to The Associated Press There is a case of sex discrimination and harassment that's allegedly so big and so extreme that the government is taking the radical step of trying to block a proposed settlement--something it hasn't done in at least 30 years. The suit affects 4,600 women at the nation's largest rent-to-own furniture and home appliance company, Rent-A-Center, based in Plano, Tex. Not only is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suing Rent-A-Center in Illinois and Tennessee, it's trying to block a proposed $12.25 million payout to plaintiffs in a Missouri case. The EEOC says the offer is inadequate and could undercut cases elsewhere.

The EEOC suits allege that managers, who took over Rent-A-Center in a 1998 merger, pushed women out and destroyed women's job applications. Sworn statements quote a senior exec as saying: "Women should be home taking care of their husbands and children," and accuse him of smacking women employees' butts. A 2000 company newsletter pictured 66 managers--all male. Says one of the women's attorneys, Jerome Schlicter: "It's the most remarkable example of a mentality that was supposed to have gone out of American business 50 years ago."

Rent-A-Center denies the charges and says it is "committed to a discrimination-free workplace." Skittish times call for liquid assets. Thinking commodities, like gold or pork bellies? There's another one: water. A new mutual fund, the Pictet Global Water Fund from Geneva banking group Pictet, invests in the stocks of 50 U.S. and foreign companies in water supply, decontamination, waste management, and distribution. Launched on Dec. 31, the fund so far is down 3.7%, compared with a flat return for the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index.

But fund managers say that's a temporary drop: The U.S. water industry alone is expected to grow 7% a year, to $150 billion, over the next decade as governments hire contractors to supply water and upgrade old infrastructure.

And as the world's population continues to grow exponentially at 1.4% annually, the sewage business also holds promise. The fund invests in such stocks as Philadelphia-Suburban, a water utility for several northeastern states; sewage treatment and water provider American Water Works; and Vivendi Environnement, a Paris-based waste-water treatment company owned by media conglomerate Vivendi Universal.

There's only one other mutual fund geared for the U.S. market that invests exclusively in water treatment companies: the Water Fund, run by Santa Fe-based Avalon Trust. It launched in December, 1999, and has returned 4.5% to investors since.

Meanwhile, the S&P 500, which is down 23% over the same period, has been a downright washout. Last year, Starbucks (SBUX) was feeling jinxed by its own success. Long lines of caffeine cravers were scaring off new customers. So it came up with a swipeable smart card that cut time spent paying from 20 seconds to four. Starbucks didn't know how customers would respond and had low expectations. In fact, when it launched the card in November it didn't even advertise.

But Starbucks cards have been a runaway success. In the first two months, customers bought 2.3 million of them, valued between $5 and $500, totaling $32 million. Those numbers have been growing steadily ever since.

For Starbucks, the benefits are many: advance sales, interest earned on the money, and detailed data on customers' coffee-buying habits. "The Starbucks card is the most significant new product since Frappuccino," boasts Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz. Soon java junkies will be able to use the card to order by cell phone or online and have drinks ready when they arrive, eliminating wait time altogether. The goal--now that Starbucks has gone a long way toward speeding payment--is to not deter a single hurried commuter. A ranking of state governments most adept at using the Web shows that the West Coast has no monopoly on digital prowess. Here are the top five states ranked by how accessible they make government to their citizens:

ILLINOIS

Virtual high school offers 69 full-length classes

KANSAS

Has first certified system for accessing criminal histories via the Net

WASHINGTON

Data on all 296 school districts and 2,000 school buildings available online

MARYLAND

State legislative proceedings posted online

ARIZONA

Conducted 2000 Democratic Presidential primary online

Data: The Progress & Freedom Foundation, Digital State 2001 Former Enron exec Lou Pai may be spending his days fighting shareholder lawsuits. But he's no stranger to the courts: He's been embroiled for years in a Colorado suit that may set a precedent for hundreds of thousands of acres of ranchland in the West.

Pai--who cashed out of $353 million worth of Enron stock before he left his job as head of Enron Energy Services last year--owns one of the largest stretches of private land in the U.S., the 77,100-acre Taylor Ranch. The property, which Pai began acquiring in 1997, has been controversial for decades. Neighbors assert that an 1844 land grant from Mexico gave their ancestors "settlement rights" on the ranch, which is about the size of Atlanta. So they're suing Pai for the right to graze their cattle, hunt, and gather firewood. They sued the previous owners, too. But Pai raised the stakes, residents say, by putting up barbed wire fences, hiring armed guards, and turning down requests for access. So far, state courts have ruled in the ranch's favor. "It's like any private property," says Pai's lawyer, Keith Tooley. "You own it, you own it."

The Colorado Supreme Court is expected to rule any day. Even if Pai wins, though, his legal troubles are far from over. Even in a lousy job market, there's a place where positions are going begging: libraries. At the American Library Assn. winter job fair in New Orleans, just 214 applicants put in for 318 jobs.

The problem is that many librarians, who tend to be older women, are starting to retire. And the younger people now going into library science studies tend to want more-lucrative jobs in the private sector. "There's a shortage of school librarians, and we just can't find any reference librarians," says Connie Paul, head of the Central Jersey Regional Library Cooperative. At the Chicago public libraries, it took two years to replace 25 librarians who retired four years ago.

The ALA is now running a five-year public education campaign to lure people to the profession. New Jersey librarians sport pins reading "Ask me why I love what I do." Susan Kent, the city librarian of Los Angeles--where 10% of jobs are empty--says she tries everything "short of driving a bus down Wilshire Boulevard and asking who's got a library degree and scooping them up." With 25% of librarians due to retire in the next seven years, maybe that's not such a bad idea. During dot-com's heyday, online retailers used giveaway prices to attract customers. Now, research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests this tactic only attracts the kinds of customers that online sellers don't want. Why? Cheapskates attracted by low-ball prices don't also buy higher-margin goods that make retailers money. So to get free-spending customers, sites should charge a little more.

Researchers Glenn Ellison and Sarah Fisher Ellison used Pricewatch.com, which ranks prices for computer parts, to compare sales of online retailers. They found that the cheapest site attracts 40% more customers than ones just 1% pricier. But the customers aren't really worth it. "The lowest price is going to be such that the seller loses money," says Glenn Ellison.

So the cheap site needs to persuade visitors to buy more stuff or to upgrade to costlier items. But cheapo customers are the least willing to do so. The slightly pricier sites got 40% of buyers to upgrade; cheap sites only swayed 10%. Online, it seems so-called "loss leaders" have little to lead. Visitors to travel Web sites increased dramatically over the past year despite the drop in travel after September 11.

* Launched June, 2001

Data: Nielsen/NetRatings


Hollywood Goes YouTube
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