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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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Robinhood Crypto Trading Crashes Twice as Dogecoin Multiplies in Value, Enraging Users

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  • Robinhood users found themselves unable to buy or sell cryptocurrency Thursday night, an issue reminiscent of the app’s decision to restrict GameStop trades earlier this year.
  • While Robinhood resolved the problem within a matter of hours, it came amid a massive rally on Dogecoin, a cryptocurrency that started out as a joke. The app’s crypto services briefly went down again Friday morning as the rally continued.  
  • Robinhood has denied that its crypto trading outages were an intentional effort to drive down Dogecoin prices and instead blamed the outages on “unprecedented demand for Robinhood Crypto services.”
  • By Friday morning, Dogecoin briefly soared to $0.45, more than 400% of the value it had at the beginning of the week and more than 4,500% of the value it had at the beginning of the year.

Robinhood Crashes Amid Dogecoin Rally

The joke cryptocurrency Dogecoin has surged more than 400% this week alone, but around 10 p.m. EST Thursday night, the free-to-trade app Robinhood tweeted that it was “experiencing issues with crypto trading.” In turn, that caused many of the app’s users to find themselves unable to execute trades.

Dogecoin first began to spike Tuesday ahead of the market debut of the cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase, which raised $86 billion in its first day of trading. That morning, one Dogecoin amounted to about $0.07. By midnight, it had doubled in value. Those gains continued Thursday evening when Dogecoin spiked to around $0.33.

That may not seem like much, but if a person invested $1,000 in Dogecoin when it was selling for around $0.01 at the beginning of the year, by Thursday evening, that person would be sitting on a small fortune of around $33,000 before taxes. 

Robinhood Users Angry Yet Again 

Many Robinhood users found themselves frustrated when they were unable to sell off their existing dogecoins, especially since the cryptocurrency’s value was rapidly falling. 

In fact, within the matter of just over an hour, it had dipped to around $0.25. Using the last example above, that would mean thousands of dollars of missed opportunity.

“Are you going to cover my account?!?” one user asked Robinhood when she found herself unable to sell her dogecoins. “This is a technical error, not my own risk. Ive been trying to execute this transaction for almost two hours! None of my crypto comes up!” 

This is not Robinhood’s only bout with controversy. Earlier this year, the company infamously blocked its users from buying GameStop stock during a frenzy that sent shares from under $20 to nearly $500 at one point; however, Robinhood still allowed users to sell their existing shares — a move that even if it lacked the intention, had the effect of attempting to drive share prices for GameStop down. 

Though CEO Vlad Tenev later argued that the company “had no choice” but to restrict buying, Robinhood’s decision nonetheless sparked the ire of its users and even prompted Congressional investigations.

Many Robinhood users were quick to point that out Thursday when they once again found themselves unable to execute trades. Some even accused the company of more nefarious intentions. 

Service Restored… Until It Went Down Again 

At 11:46 p.m. Thursday night, Robinhood tweeted that crypto trading had been “fully” restored.

“Like others, we were experiencing unprecedented demand for Robinhood Crypto services, which created issues with crypto trading,” the company said. “We’ve resolved the issue and apologize for the inconvenience.

Multiple times since Thursday evening, the company has denied that it intentionally halted crypto trading to affect Dogecoin prices. 

“Unprecedented demand for Robinhood Crypto services created temporary issues with crypto trading,” a Robinhood spokesperson told the New York Post Friday. “That’s it, plain and simple.” 

On Friday morning, Dogecoin went on to spike at a current 52-week high of $0.45; however, it soon dipped back into the mid- to upper-thirty-cent range, where it remained around 3 p.m. EST.

Meanwhile, amid the surging demand, Robinhood experienced yet another crypto outage around 10:30 a.m. EST Friday. Just before 11 a.m., it said that trading had been restored for most customers. 

See what others are saying: (New York Post) (Business Insider) (Coindesk)

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Child Safety Advocates Urge Facebook To Scrap Plans for Instagram Kids

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  • Nearly 100 child safety experts and international organizations sent a letter to Facebook Thursday criticizing its plans to develop an Instagram app for children under 13.
  • Facebook claims the app will offer parental controls and is meant to create a safer space for kids, who are often lying about their age to access the normal version of Instagram.
  • Still, critics point out that children already on Instagram are unlikely to switch to a kids version. Many also cited concerns about screen time, mental health, and privacy, arguing that younger children are not ready for such a platform.
  • U.S. Lawmakers expressed similar concerns earlier this month, saying, “Facebook has an obligation to ensure that any new platforms or projects targeting children put those users’ welfare first, and we are skeptical that Facebook is prepared to fulfill this obligation.”

Instagram for Kids

An international group of 35 organizations and 64 experts, coordinated by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, released a letter Thursday urging Facebook to abandon its plans to release an Instagram app for kids under 13-years old.

Plans for Instagram Kids have been public for about a month after Buzzfeed News obtained emails about the app in mid-March. Since then, there have been widespread concerns about how such an app could affect children.

Thursday’s letter argues that a version of Instagram targeting under-13-year-olds raises concerns about privacy, screen time, mental health, self-esteem, and commercial pressure. Stephanie Otway, a spokesperson for Facebook, said the company understands the concerns presented by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

“We agree that any experience we develop must prioritize their safety and privacy, and we will consult with experts in child development, child safety and mental health, and privacy advocates to inform it,” she said.

“The reality is that kids are online. They want to connect with their family and friends, have fun and learn, and we want to help them do that in a way that is safe and age-appropriate. We also want to find practical solutions to the ongoing industry problem of kids lying about their age to access apps,” Otway added, noting the reality of how many children interact with age-gated apps.

Unlikely To Stop Children From Joining Regular Instagram

The idea that children would just switch to Instagram Kids received pushback from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. In fact, the group’s executive director, Josh Golin, pointed out that most kids who are currently on Instagram are between 10 and 12-years-old, and they likely wouldn’t migrate over to Instagram Kids because it will be perceived as “babyish and not cool enough.”

The children this will appeal to will be much younger kids,” Golin explained. “So they are not swapping out an unsafe version of Instagram for a safer version. They are creating new demand from a new audience that’s not ready for any type of Instagram product.”

It’s unknown exactly how the app would work, but it would feature content similar to what is allowed in other age-appropriate apps, such as YouTube Kids. One of the few details given out so far is that Instagram Kids will be ad-free and feature parental control options.

Concerns over Instagram Kids has also come from lawmakers. On April 5th Senators Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), alongside Representatives Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) and Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressing concerns that “children are a uniquely vulnerable population online, and images of kids are highly sensitive data.”

“Facebook has an obligation to ensure that any new platforms or projects targeting children put those users’ welfare first, and we are skeptical that Facebook is prepared to fulfill this obligation.”

See what others are saying: (TechCrunch) (BBC) (NBC News)

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Retail Sales Jump Amid Stimulus Spending, Unemployment Claims Plunge To Pandemic Low

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  • The Commerce Department released a report Thursday recording a 9.8% spike in retail sales for the month of March.
  • That surge was largely driven by stimulus check spending, with restaurant, sporting goods, clothing and accessory, and auto sales all being among the top-performing sectors in retail for the month. 
  • Coupled with that news, the Labor Department reported that 576,000 unemployment claims were filed last month — a pandemic low. 
  • That figure is still significantly higher than the roughly 200,000 weekly unemployment claims filed before the pandemic. 

Retail Sales Spike

U.S. retail sales for the month of March jumped 9.8% from February, according to a Thursday morning report from the Commerce Department.

That spike is largely thanks to the most recent round of stimulus checks from Congress.

March was the best month of retail spending since May of last year, which at the time saw an 18.3% gain following the first wave of stimulus checks.  

Sales in the bar and restaurant industry rose 13.4%, making them among the retail sectors that saw the biggest spikes last month. That’s largely a result of relaxed lockdowns stemming from the country’s current pace of around three million vaccinations a day. Meanwhile, sporting goods spending rose 23.5%, clothing and accessory sales rose 18.3%, and motor vehicle parts and dealer sales rose 15.1%.

“Spending will almost certainly drop back in April as some of the stimulus boost wears off,” wrote Michael Pearce, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics, “but with the vaccination rollout proceeding at a rapid pace and households finances in strong shape, we expect overall consumption growth to continue rebounding rapidly in the second quarter too.” 

Unemployment Hits Pandemic Low

The retail sales data came around the same time that the Labor Department released this past week’s unemployment figures, which dropped to a new pandemic low of 576,000 claims. 

That’s a massive difference from almost exactly a year ago when 6 million people filed for unemployment in a single week. It’s also a significant decline from the 769,000 people that filed jobless claims last week, especially since some analysts had predicted there would be around 700,000 jobs lost with this week’s report.

That said, unemployment claims are still much higher than the around 200,000 a week that were being filed prior to pandemic closures.

“You’re still not popping champagne corks,”  Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton, said according to The New York Times. “I will breathe again — and breathe easy again — once we get these number[s] back down in the 200,000 range.”

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNBC) (Fox Business)

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