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Unemployed Workers Forced to Choose Between Safety and Money as States Reopen

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  • As some states start reopening their economies, laid-off and furloughed workers are being asked to return.
  • Many are worried that their workplaces do not have sufficient safety measures in place to protect them; however, states like Iowa and Texas have warned that refusing to work out of fear of contracting the coronavirus will make them ineligible for unemployment benefits. 
  • There are a few expectations, like for those who have the virus or are caring for someone who does, and states like Colorado are taking additional steps to keep people on unemployment if their workplaces are unsafe. 
  • Fears about returning to work come just as the Department of labor recorded 3.8 new unemployment claims last week, bringing the total of claims to 30 million in six weeks.

States Reopening Creates Dilemma for Workers

Several states across the country have already started to reopen their economies, while others are laying out plans to do so in the next few weeks and months. This means many laid-off and furloughed Americans are having to decide whether or not they feel comfortable enough to return to the workforce.

But they might not really have a choice. If they refuse an offer to return to work out of fear for their health, federal guidelines say that they could lose the unemployment aid that many have only just started to receive, as noted by Politico.

There are a few exceptions under a program called Pandemic Unenmplyement Assistance, approved under the CARE act. That program extends unemployment benefits to people who can’t return to work if they are sick with the virus or taking care of a family member who is, among a few other specific criteria. 

Still, millions of workers feat that their workplace’s safety precautions won’t be sufficient enough to keep them from getting sick. Public health experts and labor advocates have been calling for the Trump administration to layout some mandatory regulations and science-based guidelines to protect workers and inform businesses on how to reopen. 

The administration, however, has only advised employers to follow best practices like social distancing and wearing protective gear. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump signaled that it was up to states to enact those measures, saying, “We want the governors to call those shots,” at a roundtable with industry executives at the White House.

On top of that, Republicans have been pushing to expand liability protections for businesses to shield them form coronavirus related lawsuits. Many believe such protections could give employers less incentive to care for their workers’ health. 

The calls for mandatory safety precautions became even louder this week after the president ordered meat plants to stay open despite massive outbreaks in several facilities that, in some cases, spread to the community.  

Because of federal standards around “prevailing conditions of work,” a person seeking unemployment benefits could theoretically argue their working conditions are unsafe due to the outbreak. But it might be a hard case to make in some states, and many workers might not even have the time or resources to take on that kind of battle. 

Some states, like Colorado, are trying to find a way to allow workers to remain on unemployment if their workplaces are in fact unsafe. This week, the state started allowing some businesses to reopen, but “vulnerable individuals,” including senior citizens or those with certain health conditions, cannot be compelled to return if they have to work near others. 

The state’s labor department also said the vulnerable may continue to be eligible for benefits if returning to work is a risk to their health or the health of someone they live with. “If you’ve been offered a job and refused that job for health reasons or Covid reasons, be sure and put that into the form so that we can look at that, assess that and determine if you may be eligible to continue to receive benefits,” said Joe Barela, the department’s executive director.

Fear Alone Is Not Enough, Some States Say

But other states have made it clear that fear of catching the virus is not enough of a reason to refuse to return to work. 

“If you’re an employer and you offer to bring your employee back to work and they decide not to, that’s a voluntary quit,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) said Friday. “Therefore, they would not be eligible for the unemployment money.”

On Monday, the governor announced that she was loosening social distancing restrictions in 77 of Iowa’s 99 counties, effective May 1. Under her order, retail stores, gyms, restaurants, and other businesses will be allowed to open. Reynolds also said employers who have workers that refuse to return should file a report with Iowa Workforce Development. 

Laid-off workers are facing a similar dilemma in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott (R) gave the go-ahead for retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and malls to reopen on Friday. According to the Texas Workforce Commission, to qualify for unemployment benefits in the state, a worker must be “willing and able to work all the days and hours required for the type of work you are seeking.”

Cisco Gamez, a Texas Workforce Commission spokesman, told the Texas Tribune that employees who choose not to return to work will become ineligible for unemployment benefits.

South Carolina and Tennessee have messages on their websites noting that workers refusing to return will lose unemployment aid the same week they turn down an offer. 

New Unemployment Numbers 

The concerns for some heading back to work come just at the Department of Labor released its weekly report on unemployment claims, recording 3.8 million more Americans filing for benefits during the week ending on April 25. 

The data brings the total number of people applying for benefits over the last six weeks to more than 30 million. 

Unemployment claims have hit unprecedented levels as the coronavirus keeps business across the nation closed. However, as far as weeks go, this new report shows a decline in claims. In late March, the department registered 3.3 million claims in a single week. In the weeks since that first spike, the department recorded 6.9 million, 6.6 million, 5.2 million, and then 4.4 million claims. 

Still, even if the peak of layoffs is behind us, the country is in uncharted waters with these incredibly high numbers. Before the virus outbreaks, the highest number of new unemployment claims in a week was about 700,000 back in 1982. 

Economists have noted that part of why claims are so high is because more people, like gig workers and independent contractors, are not covered for benefits under the CARES act. But experts also warned that there could be even more without work who have yet to be recorded in the system because unemployment offices all over the country are so overwhelmed with cases. 

Preliminary numbers for the full month of April are scheduled to be released Friday, May 8. That report is expected to have some staggering numbers that could help better understand the extent of the damage this pandemic has had on the American workforce. 

See what others are saying: (Newsweek) (Vox) (Politico

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Supply Chain Issues Trigger Price Hikes, School Lunch Shortages, and More

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Many news outlets have cited experts warning of supply chain issues affecting holiday spending, but the consequences of ongoing bottlenecks are already being felt across the country.


Schools Struggle for Food 

A host of supply chain bottlenecks are affecting products and businesses throughout the U.S., forcing prices of goods and services to rise. 

In Colorado, the ​​Denver Public Schools system said it’s struggling to make sure it has enough milk for students on a daily basis, Insider reported Sunday. In fact, the schools are so short on milk cartons they’ve now resorted to asking students to bring refillable water bottles instead.

“When the milk is available, we are prioritizing serving milk at breakfast at all schools and at our elementary schools for lunch,” Theresa Hafner, DPS executive director of Food Services, told Insider in an email.

Meanwhile, other schools are struggling to find additional lunch-related supplies including meats, orange juice, meal trays, and plastic cutlery.

According to NBC News, Shonia Hall, director of school nutrition services for Oklahoma City Public Schools, even found herself needing to make a run to a local Sam’s Club to purchase 60,000 spoons and forks each just “to get us through for a few days in hopes the truck would show up.”

“It’s an additional cost to your budget, to your program,” she added.

Zillow Pauses House Buying

The issues also extend to the housing market, as both labor and supply shortages have led to operational backlogs for renovations and closings.

Zillow cited those issues Sunday when announcing that it would stop buying homes at least through December. Instead, the company said it plans to first prioritize the selling of its current catalog of homes. 

“We’re operating within a labor- and supply-constrained economy inside a competitive real estate market, especially in the construction, renovation and closing spaces,” Jeremy Wacksman, Zillow’s chief operating officer, said in a statement cited by Yahoo! Finance.

Zillow’s share price fell as much as 11% from around $94 to around $84 early Monday as investors pulled out of the company.  

What’s Causing the Issues?

U.S. companies are having a hard time stocking their shelves with certain products and keeping prices from rising largely because of factors induced by the pandemic.

The first and most basic issue is that last year, most consumer spending halted amid COVID-19 lockdowns in March. Around that same time, many companies were forced to scale back production and lay off workers.

However, more people are now returning to the outside world, and with that comes a boost in shopping. Still, several businesses have found themselves unable to ramp up production to meet the increased and arguably unprecedented demand.

In addition to production issues, there are numerous transportation challenges. For example, a large wave of businesses have struggled for months to fill open positions. One such industry where that’s being acutely felt is trucking.

In fact, the country is so stressed for drivers to haul freight that at least one high school in California has now launched a program to train seniors to drive big rigs

Meanwhile, Walmart, UPS, and FedEx all made 24/7 transportation commitments last week. 

The supply chains problems don’t stop with ground transportation. One of the most pressing situations seen so far involves the problems at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in California, where container ships are backed up. 

Pre-pandemic, it was fairly unusual for any cargo ship to be seen waiting off the coast to get into one of the two ports, which process 40% of all shipping containers entering the U.S. Now, dozens of ships have been waiting weeks to get in. 

Even once they unload, there’s another major backlog involving shipping containers at the ports. Because of those combined issues, Long Beach extended its operational hours in September.

President Joe Biden later announced on Oct. 13 that L.A.’s port will “operat[e] around the clock 24/7” as part of a “90-day sprint” to clear a path for cargo.

Supply chain issues are expected to impact holiday shoppers, but many analysts expect the problems to extend well into 2022. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg echoed that prediction on Sunday during an appearance on CNN. 

See what others are saying: (NBC News) (Insider) (Wall Street Journal)

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Facebook Is Reviewing More Than 2,200 Hours of Footage for Next-Gen AI 

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The project, which could prove to be revolutionary, is already raising some big privacy concerns. 


Facebook’s Next-Gen AI

Facebook announced Thursday that it has captured more than 2,200 hours of first-person video that it will use to train next-gen AI models.

The company said it aims to make the AI, called Ego4D, capable of understanding and identifying both real and virtual objects through a first-person perspective using smart glasses or VR headsets. In effect, that could potentially help users do everything from remembering where they placed forgotten items to recording others in secret. 

Facebook listed five key scenarios the project aims to tackle and gave real-world examples of how each may look for people who will eventually use the AI.

  • “What happened when?” With that scenario, Facebook gave the example, “Where did I leave my keys?”
  • “What am I likely to do next?” There, Facebook gave the example, “Wait, you’ve already added salt to this recipe.”
  • “What am I doing?” For example, “What was the main topic during class?”
  • “Who said what when?” For example, “What was the main topic during class?”
  • “Who is interacting with whom?” For example, “Help me better hear the person talking to me at this noisy restaurant.”

Facebook said the amount of footage it has collected is 20 times greater than any other data set used by the company.

Privacy Concerns

In the wake of recent controversy surrounding Facebook, it’s important to note that the footage wasn’t reaped from users. Instead, the company said it, and 13 university partners, compiled the footage from more than 700 participants around the world.

Still, that hasn’t alleviated all privacy concerns. 

In an article titled, “Facebook is researching AI systems that see, hear, and remember everything you do,” The Verge writer James Vincent said that although the project’s guidelines seem practical, “the company’s interest in this area will worry many.”

In addition to the recent testimony and data leaks from whistleblower Frances Haugen, Facebook has also faced other privacy issues, as well as billions in fines

Vincent pointe out that the AI announcement doesn’t mention anything in the way of privacy or removing data for people who may not want to be recorded.

A Facebook spokesperson later assured Vincent that privacy safeguards will be introduced to the public in the future.

“For example, before AR glasses can enhance someone’s voice, there could be a protocol in place that they follow to ask someone else’s glasses for permission, or they could limit the range of the device so it can only pick up sounds from the people with whom I am already having a conversation or who are in my immediate vicinity,” the spokesperson said.

Among positive reception, some believe the tech could be revolutionary for helping people around the house, as well as for teaching robots to more rapidly learn about their surroundings.

See what others are saying: (The Verge) (CNBC) (Axios)

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FDA Issues Its First E-Cigarette Authorization Ever

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The authorization only applies to tobacco-flavored products, as the FDA simultaneously rejected several sweet and fruit-flavored e-cigarette cartridges. 


FDA Approves E-Cigarette

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved an e-cigarette pen sold under the brand name Vuse on Tuesday, as well as two tobacco-flavored cartridges that can be used with the pen.

This marks the first time the FDA has ever authorized the use of vaping products. In a news release, the agency said it made the decision because “the authorized products’ aerosols are significantly less toxic than combusted cigarettes based on available data.”

“The manufacturer’s data demonstrates its tobacco-flavored products could benefit addicted adult smokers who switch to these products — either completely or with a significant reduction in cigarette consumption — by reducing their exposure to harmful chemicals,” the agency added. 

The company that owns Vuse, R.J. Reynolds Vapor Company, also submitted several sweet and fruit-flavored pods for review; however, those were all rejected. While the FDA did not specify which flavors it rejected, it did note that it has yet to make a decision on whether to allow menthol-flavored e-cigarettes, including ones sold under Vuse.

FDA Is Reviewing All Vape Products Still on the Market

In January 2020, the FDA banned pre-filled pods with sweet and fruity flavors from being sold. While other e-cigarette related products, including some forms of flavored vapes, were allowed to stay on the market for the time being, they were only able to do so if they were submitted for FDA review.

The FDA’s primary issue with fruity cartridges stems from statistics showing that those pods more easily hook new smokers, particularly underage smokers.

In fact, in its approval of the Vuse products, the FDA said it only authorized them because it “determined that the potential benefit to smokers who switch completely or significantly reduce their cigarette use, would outweigh the risk to youth, provided the applicant follows post-marketing requirements aimed at reducing youth exposure and access to the products.”

While some have cheered the FDA’s decision, not everyone was enthusiastic. Many critics cited a joint FDA-CDC study in which nearly 11% of teens who said they vape also indicated regularly using Vuse products. 

See what others are saying: (Business Insider) (Wall Street Journal) (The Washington Post)

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