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(Bloomberg) -- The MeToo movement has helped uncover the many ways men abuse positions of power, as well as the corporate fixers and financial settlements that enable such behavior. But what happens at a company just getting its start, with a few dozen employees, a board consisting of three men and no HR department?For Priyanka Wali, the experience was disillusioning. Soon after going to work for a two-year-old health care startup in San Francisco, she said her boss touched her knee and later commented in a meeting that he “wouldn’t mind” if she were his girlfriend. Wali, a contract physician, didn’t report the alleged behavior when it occurred in 2016, she said, because the company, Virta Health Corp., didn’t have a human resources department at the time.The situation festered until this year, when she and a colleague filed formal complaints with the company against the same manager. Virta, which now has 165 employees and a three-person HR team, commissioned an investigation in March and found their claims of harassment to be credible, according to a copy of the report reviewed by Bloomberg. The initial determination was that Wali would keep reporting to her boss because there wasn’t another manager available. That sparked an uproar in the office, and she was eventually reassigned to a new boss. But by then, damage had been done, former employees said. Their faith in management had been shaken, and several people said they sought jobs elsewhere as a result.“It is already hard enough to come forward after experiencing harassment,” Wali wrote in an email to Bloomberg. “I came forward to HR, and I ended up experiencing more stress as a result and had to eventually leave my job for my own psychological wellness.”Sami Inkinen, Virta’s chief executive officer, said in an emailed statement that his company “immediately took the complaint very seriously, worked hard to get the process right but should have handled parts of it better.” The company held an all-hands meeting in May, he said, “to openly acknowledge where we fell short, to explain what we did right and establish the highest possible bar for handling situations like this in the future.”A Virta spokesman said the initial decision to have Wali continue reporting to her manager was “a mistake” and that the company has taken steps to improve. The alleged harasser, Michael Scahill, no longer works at Virta. “I was very saddened and sorry to learn, years after the events, that some of my actions offended colleagues whom I respect greatly,” Scahill wrote in a email. “I never wanted to upset anyone and have apologized to those involved.”The allegations, whispered about within the office over the last couple years, caught the attention of the San Francisco Business Times in August, when the newspaper reported on a company investigation into claims by two unnamed women. One of the women, Wali, spoke to Bloomberg, as did three other employees who were there at the time. Their accounts, along with the investigator’s statement, shed new light on a dynamic that routinely goes unreported at very young companies and illustrates how workers can feel helpless when a startup isn’t equipped to field their complaints. California law extends sexual harassment protections to independent contractors, but neither woman has filed a lawsuit.“I came forward to HR, and I ended up experiencing more stress as a result.”For all the horror stories about established corporate policies and HR departments failing to protect employees or worse, the alternative can be similarly destructive. Many entrepreneurs wait years before establishing HR departments, said Elaine Varelas, a managing partner at Keystone Partners, an HR consulting and executive coaching firm. Startups tend to prioritize other specialties, such as finance or legal, as a cost-saving decision that can leave employees without recourse and allow culture problems to linger, Varelas said. “They say it’s for money, or they’ll say they have an employment attorney,” she said, “but it’s not the same.”Good HR policies can be undervalued at startups, Varelas said. Companies rarely advertise their response to sexual misconduct claims, despite how commonplace the issue is today. “Women aren’t going to work at a company that ‘deals with sexual harassment well,’” she said. “It’s not an enticing ad.”Inkinen started Virta in 2014 with two nutrition researchers and a noble mission: reverse diabetes in 100 million people. The Finland-born entrepreneur, a competitive cyclist and triathlete who once rowed across the Pacific Ocean with his wife, had little experience in health care but plenty at big companies. He worked at McKinsey & Co. and Microsoft Corp. He then helped start and run Trulia, a real estate search engine, until Zillow Group Inc. bought the company in 2014. For Virta, Inkinen would go on to raise more than $80 million from investors, including Venrock and Playground Global, an incubator founded by former Google executive Andy Rubin.Wali, a doctor specializing in internal medicine and obesity treatments, was working with patients and teaching medical students in the San Francisco Bay Area when Virta was starting up. She joined the company in late 2016 as a contractor, with the hope of soon getting promoted to full time. That plan quickly got complicated. In her first week on the job, Wali’s boss put his hand on her knee during a one-on-one meeting, according to the legal investigator’s report. Although it’s not covered in the report, Wali said the touching happened more than once. He made the comment about not minding if she were his girlfriend on a video conference call with colleagues present, according to Wali and the report. (Wali declined to name the man, but the report identifies him as Scahill.)In Virta’s early days, the company’s chief of staff handled what typically would be considered HR responsibilities. Virta hired a head of HR in October 2016, but she lasted less than two months—departing just two days before the alleged touching began, Wali said. A new chief of staff took on HR responsibilities. But Wali said it wasn’t clear to her who was in charge of HR at that time and that she saw no options for recourse. “I was worried that if I spoke up to someone in upper management about my boss’s behavior, it would jeopardize my chance of being hired as a full-time physician,” Wali wrote. “I kept quiet.” About a week later, Scahill invited her to join him at a medical society gala that he had initially planned to bring his girlfriend to, she said. His reasoning, she said, was that they could network together. She declined and purchased her own ticket.Around the same time, according to the investigator’s report, Scahill made repeated comments to another female contractor at Virta. He complimented her appearance and told her once that she was “gorgeous,” the woman told the investigator.Workers began making efforts to communicate the alleged behavior to management in 2017. The second woman contributed feedback for Scahill’s performance review that year describing him as “too flirtatious in the workplace,” though his supervisors didn’t read the responses before passing it on to him, the company spokesman said. In a survey the next year, a male employee wrote that Scahill “has made several disrespectful comments about women.” The feedback was reviewed by a supervisor, who discussed it with Scahill, the spokesman said.Like in other offices across the U.S., management at Virta were closely monitoring the fallout from the MeToo movement. The company put out its first employee handbook in April 2018, outlining a policy against harassment in the workplace, and instated a website for employees to share feedback and complaints anonymously. However, Virta still lacked a head of HR and reopened a search for the role in August that year. The general counsel was overseeing personnel matters, alongside legal functions, finance and other areas. At a staff meeting in October 2018, a worker asked about a post on the employer review site Glassdoor that referenced sexual harassment at Virta. Inkinen, the CEO, responded that the fastest way to get fired at Virta was to harass someone, according to a former employee who attended the meeting.Virta hired a new head of HR in January. A couple months later, Wali discovered she wasn’t the only one with concerns about Scahill. Colleagues openly discussed his behavior at a happy hour event in the office that Wali attended. Wali filed a complaint with the new HR boss, as did the second woman.In response, Virta hired an attorney from an employment law firm to investigate. Over the course of a week, the lawyer interviewed the two women, Scahill and six other employees. The resulting report described allegations of inappropriate comments and touching as credible and said he had stopped the behavior after early or mid-2017.Meanwhile, HR was staffing up. An HR representative, by then one of three people in the department, met with Wali in April and recounted the investigator’s findings, Wali said. She also learned in the meeting that she would still need to have the same boss, she said. “I asked the HR manager how on earth I could be asked to continue reporting to someone who had touched me inappropriately and made comments to me that made me feel uncomfortable?” Wali wrote in an email to Bloomberg.Distressed, Wali took time off to process the news. Virta management acknowledges it didn’t share the results of the investigation with staff, but word spread quickly of the report’s conclusions, former employees said. Some cited an inconsistency with what Inkinen had said the year before about taking a hard line on sexual harassment, one of the people said. Several asked their managers why Wali wasn’t offered a different boss.Four days after Wali was told she’d keep the same boss, Virta contacted her to schedule a call about the situation. She heard from another manager four days after that saying she could now report to him. She asked him to elaborate on the decision-making process and didn’t get a clear answer, she said. “At this point, I became very uncomfortable with how the company handled harassment in the workplace—specifically with what I felt was a lack of accountability and transparency with these decisions,” Wali wrote.Wali and the second woman quit on the same day in early May. Soon after, Virta executives asked for Scahill’s resignation. The following Monday, Inkinen held another staff meeting, this time to apologize. He said the company had made a misstep in not taking into account the emotional safety of its workers, according to a former employee who attended. The message didn’t stop several other Virta employees from leaving and citing the handling of the complaint as an impetus, said two ex-employees.One person who quit over the issue said they lost faith that executives took the welfare of their workers seriously. “No one reports stuff for fun,” the former employee said. “I think they underestimated the impact this would have on the team.”To contact the author of this story: Ellen Huet in San Francisco at firstname.lastname@example.orgTo contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Milian at email@example.com, Anne VanderMeyFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com©2019 Bloomberg L.P.
(Bloomberg) -- Mother Nature has given a bit of a break to California during the 2019 wildfire season, but firefighters say the threat remains in force.Only about 163,000 acres have burned this year, a fraction of the 632,000 or so scorched in the same period last year. A wet, snowy winter led to a widespread greening in the spring, signaling there would be plenty of tinder around after a hot, dry summer. But the landscape stayed relatively moist after clouds moored above the Sierra Nevadas in May slowed the snow melt.With weather as an ally, firefighters were able to spend more time finding and containing hot spots before they spread. Meanwhile, PG&E Corp. has suggested its blackout of 2 million people this month may also have helped. After the cutoffs, the company said it found more than 100 instances of wind-driven equipment damage that could have caused fires.“How we warm up and how we dry out are pretty important on how we set up the fire regime for the rest of the year,” said Mike Anderson, a state climatologist in Sacramento. “This year our heat didn’t show up until August. We actually caught a break.”Two years of wildfires helped push PG&E, the state’s biggest utility owner, into bankruptcy after its equipment was identified as the cause of raging blazes that included the Camp Fire in November 2018 that killed 86 people and destroyed an entire town. This month, the company responded by cutting power to residents across northern and central California to make sure its equipment didn’t cause harm once again.While that move has faced fierce criticism, PG&E crews inspecting more than 27,500 miles (44,257 kilometers) of power lines after the blackout found wind damage that included trees tangled with power lines and utility poles knocked to the ground, according to spokesman Jeff Smith.“Had we not shut off power, this type of damage could have sparked a fire,” PG&E Chief Executive Officer Bill Johnson said in an opinion story in Thursday’s San Francisco Chronicle. “In fact, vegetation contacting lines was the very cause of a number of fires in the North Bay two years ago.”Still, the consensus among forecasters and firefighters is that neither the state nor its utilities are out of the danger zone yet.The wildfire season runs into winter, when about 90% of the state’s rain and snow descends. In the meantime, while the state’s bone-dry season was delayed, it wasn’t eliminated. Very low humidity levels combined with high winds rolling down mountain sides -- the “Santa Ana” winds in Southern California, and the “Diablos” in the north -- remain a threat for wildfires ahead.Late season blazes can be very dangerous. In December 2017, for instance, the Thomas fire covered 281,893 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, destroying more than 1,000 structures.“Everyone who is commenting on this year is doing so with their fingers crossed,” said Keith Gilless, dean emeritus of the U.C. Berkeley College of Natural Resources, in a telephone interview.The concern now is focused on as many as 147 million dead trees still standing in California’s forests that were killed by a six-year drought earlier in the decade and a subsequent infestation of bark beetles, said Scott McLean, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection, commonly called Cal Fire.California this year had 400 extra seasonal firefighters to help tamp down spot fires and implement prescribed burns to limit the amount of tinder in key areas, according to McLean. “It’s hard to say what the rest of this year is going to bring,” he added. “We probably should see more fire activity into November at some point.”To contact the reporters on this story: Brian K. Sullivan in Boston at firstname.lastname@example.org;David R. Baker in San Francisco at email@example.comTo contact the editors responsible for this story: Tina Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org, Reg Gale, Steven FrankFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com©2019 Bloomberg L.P.
(Bloomberg) -- Since an unprecedented blackout plunged millions of Californians into darkness last week, residents and state officials have questioned how utility giant PG&E Corp. came to the decision to cut the lights.Now they have some answers.In a report filed with California utility regulators on Thursday, the San Francisco-based company said three vice presidents are responsible for deciding whether the power goes out to keep electrical lines from igniting blazes: Michael Lewis, senior vice president of electric operations; Sumeet Singh, vice president of asset and risk management; and Ahmad Ababneh, vice president of electric operations on major projects and programs. Two more vice presidents will join the bunch in 2020.PG&E said the utility has already provided the factors these officials take into account in deciding. In a September 2018 document, the company said it uses national fire danger ratings, National Weather Service warnings, humidity levels, temperature, terrain and local climate to weigh shutoffs. The utility said at the time that it expected to cut service once or twice a year. So far in 2019, it has shut power at least thrice.PG&E has been taking more extreme measures to keep its lines from sparking blazes since a series of catastrophic wildfires in 2017 and 2018 saddled the company with an estimated $30 billion in liabilities and forced it into bankruptcy. Last week’s blackout -- the largest one the utility has ever orchestrated -- has drawn outrage from politicians who said the outage was too extensive and that the company did a poor job of communicating it to customers.“There are crucial lessons to learn from this event, and we are committed to learning and doing a better job across the board,” PG&E Chief Executive Officer Bill Johnson said in a letter accompanying the report.PG&E also said in the filing that the company’s board of directors doesn’t directly influence shutoff decisions. But it noted that a board committee oversees the company’s wildfire safety plan -- which includes shutoffs.\--With assistance from Mark Chediak.To contact the reporter on this story: Lynn Doan in San Francisco at email@example.comTo contact the editors responsible for this story: Lynn Doan at firstname.lastname@example.org, Aaron ClarkFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com©2019 Bloomberg L.P.
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Ten to 15 years ago, pundits liked to speculate that California was on the verge of becoming a failed state. In the early years of the new century the state suffered widespread blackouts thanks to a botched deregulation of its electricity market. Meanwhile, with long-standing ballot initiatives requiring a legislative supermajority to pass tax increases, and education expenses ballooning, the state’s budget seemed permanently mired in the red. Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor at the time, managed to cobble together a deal to limit deficits, but the Great Recession sent them soaring again. The collapse of the housing bubble hit California hard, pushing unemployment above 12%. Some commentators suggested that California’s governance model, heavy on regulation and subject to the whims of ballot initiatives, could lose out to the more laissez-faire systems of states like Texas.California battled back. Under Schwarzenegger's successor, Jerry Brown, the state raised taxes on residents making more than $250,000, and bumped up the sales tax a bit. The new taxes on California’s high earners, along with the recovery in the housing and stock markets and a new technology boom, helped push the state’s budget back into the black:But California’s victory over dysfunction may be short-lived. Earlier this month, California utility PG&E Corp. intentionally cut power to millions of residents, costing the state economy billions of dollars. The planned blackout was meant to keep power lines from sparking wildfires, which have raged across California with increasing fury in recent years:The monetary losses from these fires are staggering — some estimates put them at $400 billion in 2018, or almost a seventh of the state’s gross domestic product. This includes health costs, lost property, lost jobs, decreased asset values and migration out of the state. Meanwhile, PG&E executives say that the intermittent blackouts will continue, meaning that much of the state may no longer have reliable year-round electricity. That will doubtless exert a further chilling effect on investment and property values.Fires aren’t California’s only problem. Thanks in large part to spiraling urban rents, the homeless population increased by 5.3% from 2010 to 2018, in a state that already has almost half of the nation’s homeless. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, the crisis is especially acute, with destitute people and pitiful tent encampments crowding the sidewalks. Government pension costs are rising much faster in California than in the rest of the nation, forcing cost-saving measures that are degrading the state’s education system.These forces are driving Californians to move out of the state in increasing numbers. Population growth is trickling off, and may soon go negative:Even the wealthy are moving away. A recent paper by economists Joshua Rauh and Ryan Shyu found that out-migration of top-bracket taxpayers accelerated after the income tax hike of 2012. That’s bound to put even more pressure on state finances that rely so heavily on contributions from the top 1%. Just how much of that exodus is due to the tax hikes rather than to other factors is unclear, but Rauh and Shyu argue that tax avoidance plays a significant role.So despite its heroic efforts and an unprecedented degree of political unity — Democrats now have a supermajority in the state legislature and the governor's office — California risks falling back onto the dysfunctional path that it seemed to be on in the early 2000s.Much of this is for reasons beyond the state’s control. Climate change is exacerbating drought and wildfires. The rent crisis in California cities is largely due to a structural shift in the U.S. economy; as knowledge industries become more dominant, high-earning workers are crowding into cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles in order to be close to each other, driving rents up for everyone else.But California’s political system is making it hard to respond to these pressures. Thanks to a 1978 ballot initiative called Proposition 13, California cities have stringent limits on raising revenue from local property taxes. That forces the state to provide many services, financing them with hefty income taxes. Those are inherently more unreliable than property taxes, since wealthy taxpayers can move away (while property can’t move), and since California’s income taxes fluctuate a lot because they depend so much on the profits residents earn on volatile stock prices.Meanwhile, despite one-party control of the state legislature, California has been unable to meaningfully address its housing crisis. Powerful local property owners prevent municipal governments from allowing new housing to accommodate the influx of workers from out of state. And they wield power at the state level too, as demonstrated by the demise last year of a bill that would have permitted more apartment buildings near transit hubs.As for the state’s beleaguered power companies, it’s not clear that any plan exists. PG&E is resisting pressure to sell its assets to local governments, Governor Gavin Newsom is considering breaking up the company and the state utility commission is looking at a restructuring. None of that answers the fundamental question of how the state will provide reliable electricity in an age of intensifying wildfires.If California is going to avoid this dark path, it will need the political will to carry out bold reforms. Proposition 13 must be repealed, and property taxes raised. The state legislature needs to pass bills to allow greater housing density and more construction throughout the state. Cities will have to make deals on benefit cuts for pensioners in order to spend more on schools. And the state will probably have to bite the bullet and shell out more money to bury power lines.California can still save itself from becoming a failed state, but its days of complacency and easy prosperity are over. To contact the author of this story: Noah Smith at email@example.comTo contact the editor responsible for this story: James Greiff at firstname.lastname@example.orgThis column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion©2019 Bloomberg L.P.
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(Bloomberg) -- Bankrupt utility giant PG&E Corp. has said its assets aren’t for sale. Don’t tell California’s governor that.While attending a conference in San Francisco on Tuesday, Governor Gavin Newsom said he had encouraged San Francisco to make its $2.5 billion bid to buy PG&E’s power operations within the city’s limits. And he wants to see more offers.“I back more competition,” he said. “I am very specifically encouraging others to come into this space and to make some bids. We want to create a competitive space -- and all of it with an eye on different approaches.”Newsom has called for a major reorganization of San Francisco-based PG&E since the company orchestrated a massive blackout that plunged more than two million people into darkness last week -- a measure it took to keep power lines from sparking the kind of catastrophic wildfires that forced it into bankruptcy in January. PG&E has drawn outrage from customers and politicians alike who’ve blasted it for poorly communicating the shutoffs and making them more extensive than they needed to be.Newsom on Tuesday floated the idea of spinning off PG&E’s gas business and of breaking up the company into different pieces. “All of that needs to be considered,” he said.Last week, PG&E rejected San Francisco’s offer, saying it significantly undervalues the company’s assets and that a deal wouldn’t be in the best interests of its customers. The company also said it doesn’t need to sell its businesses to finance a restructuring and emerge from bankruptcy by next year.California’s utility commission has already opened a proceeding to consider whether PG&E needs to be restructured. The agency would have to sign off on any transaction. It’s also holding an emergency meeting with company executives on Friday to discuss the mismanagement of last week’s blackout.\--With assistance from Will Wade.To contact the reporter on this story: David R. Baker in San Francisco at email@example.comTo contact the editors responsible for this story: Lynn Doan at firstname.lastname@example.org, Mark ChediakFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com©2019 Bloomberg L.P.
Sempra Energy (SRE) will approximately earn $2.23 billion in cash from the divestment of its Chilean businesses, subject to working capital and debt adjustments