Unemployment Claims Fall as Covid Restrictions Ease: Live Updates

Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

Even as layoffs remain extraordinarily high by historical standards, unemployment claims have shown a recent decline as coronavirus cases and restrictions on activity recede.

New claims for unemployment benefits declined last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday, and were significantly below the level seen in most of December and early January.

Last week brought 813,000 new claims for state benefits, compared with 850,000 the previous week. Adjusted for seasonal variations, last week’s figure was 793,000, a decrease of 19,000. (Because of revisions to previous data, it was not the fourth straight weekly decline, as this briefing stated earlier.)

There were 335,000 new claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federally funded program for part-time workers, the self-employed and others ordinarily ineligible for jobless benefits. That total, which was not seasonally adjusted, was down from 369,000 the week before.

New coronavirus cases have fallen by a third from the level two weeks ago, prompting states like California and New York to relax restrictions on indoor dining and other activities.

“We’re stuck at this very high level of claims, but activity is picking up,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist with ZipRecruiter, an online employment marketplace. Indeed, job postings at ZipRecruiter stand at 11.3 million, close to the 11.4 million level before the pandemic hit.

The improving pandemic situation has eased the strain on restaurants and bars, Ms. Pollak added. More generally, however, the leisure and hospitality industry is still under pressure.

Plenty of other signs of weakness remain. On Friday, the Labor Department reported that employers added just 49,000 jobs in January, underscoring the challenges for the nearly 10 million unemployed.

President Biden cited the weak showing to press for approval of his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package. It would send $1,400 to many Americans, provide aid to states and cities, and extend unemployment benefits that are due to expire for millions in mid-March.

Ms. Pollak said postings by employers at ZipRecruiter in recent days offered hope. “We’ve seen employers smash all of our expectations and show a great deal of exuberance,” she said.

Motorists line up at the pumps of a Shell station for gasoline late Thursday, Dec. 24, 2020, in Lone Tree, Colorado. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Credit…David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Royal Dutch Shell on Thursday made the boldest statement among its peers about the waning of the oil age, saying that its oil production had reached a high in 2019 and was now likely to gradually decline.

Shell’s “total oil production peaked in 2019,” the company said in a statement, and added that it expected a gradual decline of oil production of around 1 to 2 percent annually in coming years.

The company also said that its carbon emissions probably peaked in 2018.

Shell said it was beefing up its previously announced effort to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Analysts, though, said there was little that was new in Shell’s announcement about future investments, and the company’s commitments to invest $2 billion to $3 billion a year in renewable energy like wind and solar lagged some of its peers in terms of the proportion of capital spending allocated.

“Despite the green spin, the substance would suggest a more cautious approach to renewables,” said Stuart Joyner, an analyst at Redburn, a market research firm.

Even before the pandemic wiped out demand for oil last year, energy companies were preparing for a gradual flattening in the world’s appetite for oil, which has trended upward for decades.

Demand has revived somewhat since last spring’s collapse, and oil futures on Monday returned to their pre-pandemic levels, but many legacy producers, especially those based in Europe, are transitioning to a future of cleaner energy, investing more money in renewable sources like wind, solar and hydrogen.

Some companies, like BP, have said they will reduce oil and gas production substantially over time. But Shell, a company whose roots go back to kerosene sales in the 19th century, seemed to go further on Thursday, declaring that the year before the pandemic hit would be the high point for the company’s oil production.

Shell has previously hinted that this might a possibility. Ben van Beurden, the company’s chief executive, suggested on a call with reporters last year that the peak may have already occurred.

Planters will join a growing collection of food brands at Hormel.
Credit…Jon Elswick/Associated Press

That’s not peanuts.

On Thursday, Kraft Heinz said it had agreed to sell its nuts business, including the iconic Planters brand, to Hormel Foods for $3.35 billion in cash.

At Hormel, Planters will be added to a growing collection of food brands, including the peanut butter brand Skippy, which Hormel acquired in 2013, and Justin’s nut butter, which it acquired in 2016.

The pandemic has been a sales boon for Kraft Heinz, which had some of its factories working three shifts during periods in the past year to meet high demand for products like its Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. On Thursday, Kraft Heinz reported that net sales in the fourth quarter rose 6.2 percent to $6.9 billion.

For the full year, Kraft Heinz said net sales rose 4.8 percent to $26.18 billion. The company said it expected to see flat-to-positive growth in net sales in 2021.

Kraft Heinz, the result of a 2015 merger that created one of the largest food companies in the world, was struggling ahead of the pandemic. Its stock had slumped, underperforming other food companies, as sales and profits sank, in part because consumers had begun to favor less-processed, healthier foods in recent years.

But during the pandemic, consumers, who were now cooking and consuming more meals at home, sought comfort foods and gravitated toward many old-school brands within Kraft Heinz and other food companies.

For Kraft Heinz, the food boom has provided a good opportunity to shed businesses. Last September, it sold its natural cheese business to France’s Groupe Lactalis for $3.2 billion.

The nuts business, which contributed roughly $1.1 billion in net sales to Kraft Heinz for the past year, had been neglected inside the company and had lost market share to competitors, including private-label brands.

Adding insult to injury, for a Super Bowl ad last year, the company killed off and held a funeral for its monocled mascot, Mr. Peanut, who was created in 1916 when a schoolboy, Antonio Gentile, submitted a sketch to win a contest for the brand. At a funeral, attended by other brand avatars like the Kool-Aid Man, a baby peanut emerged from the ground, first squeaking like a dolphin, before proclaiming, “Just kidding. I’m back.”

A prototype Learjet 23 executive jet on a test flight, in 1964.
Credit…Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Learjet luxury aircraft made famous by Frank Sinatra and immortalized in songs by Pink Floyd and Carly Simon is going away.

Bombardier, the Canadian company that makes the plane, said Thursday that it would stop building the plane at the end of the year — more than half-a-century after it was introduced — as it shifts attention to its more profitable and larger Challenger and Global aircraft. The move comes after Bombardier exited the business of making planes for airlines last year and completed the sale of its rail unit last month, all part of an effort to return to profitability with a more singular focus on private aircraft.

“With our strategic repositioning now complete, we are very excited to embark on our journey as a pure-play business jet company,” Éric Martel, Bombardier’s chief executive, said in a statement.

The company also announced plans to cut 1,600 jobs, or about 10 percent of its work force. Bombardier said Thursday that it lost $568 million last year and hoped to cut costs by more than $400 million by 2023.

The Learjet decision comes just months after the company announced the first delivery of the plane’s latest model, the Learjet 75 Liberty.

The jet was originally designed with a focus on performance by William Lear, an engineer. It entered service in 1963 and went on to play a key role in ushering in an era of luxury private flight. Mr. Sinatra reportedly bought his in 1965, using it for trips to and from Las Vegas and making it a symbol of ultimate luxury for the rich and powerful.

More than 3,000 Learjets have been sold since its inception. But the jet has struggled in recent years because buyers of private jets considered it cramped and not as luxurious as other planes. Bombardier, which acquired the Learjet business in 1990, delivered just 11 to customers last year.

Coronavirus vaccine being administered in London last month. Britain’s early start in vaccinations is one reason cited for the recent rise in the pound.
Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

The British pound has been on a quiet ascent. This week, it surpassed $1.38, a level it hasn’t seen against the U.S. dollar in nearly three years, and it is up nearly 2 percent against the euro this year. Britain has been under a strict lockdown, but its trade deal with the European Union and quick vaccine rollout has helped the nation’s financial assets, including stocks, perform well.

In the past week, it was pushed higher after the Bank of England painted an optimistic picture for the economic recovery this year as soon as the lockdown is lifted. It is forecasting the British economy will return to its pre-pandemic size by early 2022.

The central bank also said it had no imminent intention of introducing negative interest rates, which caused the pound and bond yields to jump higher.

That said, the pound’s rise may face obstacles. The Brexit trade deal has thrown up a number of hurdles as exporters contend with new customs requirements and retailers reconsider supply chains. The tension between London and Brussels seems to have worsened over the future of financial services and trading arrangements for Northern Ireland.

“Despite the market’s relief that the U.K. and the E.U. managed to strike a trade deal in December, it is becoming obvious that Brexit is casting long shadows,” Jane Foley, a currency strategist at Rabobank, wrote in a note.

“Looking ahead we continue to see both political and economic hurdles for GBP and anticipate a fairly rocky ride in the coming months,” she said, using the abbreviation for the pound.

  • Stocks indexes on Wall Street edged higher, with the S&P 500 climbing about 0.25 percent in early trading with gains led by technology shares.

  • Shares in Pinterest rose about 6 percent in premarket trading. The Financial Times reported late on Wednesday that Microsoft made an approach to buy the social media company in recent months, but the talks are not active.

  • Stocks in Europe were mixed. The Stoxx Europe 600 gained 0.4 percent. Shares in BE Semiconductor Industries rose 4.5 percent and ASM shares gains 3.5 percent after reports the European Union is exploring building a semiconductor factory. The industry has recently been beset by supply shortages disrupting car production worldwide.

As unemployment claims shot up early in the pandemic, so did posts on r/Unemployment, one of the many topic-based forums on the site known as subreddits. The subreddit once typically had fewer than 10 posts a day, but it quickly ballooned to nearly 1,000 posts a day in April and May, Ella Koeze reports for The New York Times.

As the crisis wore on, posts and comments surged in the weeks following changes to benefit programs. In January, nearly 10 months after the first lockdowns, the forum had one of its busiest weeks ever, driven by delays in payments and uncertainty around legislation signed late last year.

As hiring stalls and the economy shows signs of slowing again, the continued popularity of r/Unemployment underscores how the system remains broken for so many people.

According to the Labor Department’s most recent count, nearly 18 million Americans are receiving some form of unemployment benefits, and more than one million filed new claims last week. That’s down from the peak of more than 30 million over the summer, but it still represents a number that federal and state assistance programs that are outdated and cobbled together are still struggling to handle.

Post after post on r/Unemployment conveys bureaucratic problems with endless variations: how to file a claim depending on your circumstances, what to do if you made a mistake on your claim, what different statuses on your claim might mean, how to navigate confusing and glitch-prone online portals and even how to speak to an actual person to get issues resolved.

Bruce Springsteen in 2017. His Super Bowl ad for Jeep was his first appearance in a commercial.
Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

After spending years courting Bruce Springsteen to appear in his first commercial, Jeep took down the ad on Wednesday after news broke that the rock legend had been charged with drunken driving in November.

The two-minute spot, which featured Mr. Springsteen in the rural middle of the country, urging unity from a white Jeep, was made last month and aired during the Super Bowl on Sunday. Time for the broadcast, the biggest television event of the year, cost most advertisers $5.5 million for 30 seconds.

The charges against Mr. Springsteen, which included reckless driving and driving while intoxicated in New Jersey on Nov. 14, became public on Wednesday. His first virtual court appearance is likely to occur toward the end of February.

Jeep removed the Super Bowl ad, which was made by a creative team chosen by Mr. Springsteen, from its Twitter feed and YouTube page. The commercial was the second-most-watched game-day spot on YouTube on Sunday night, behind Amazon’s ad and ahead of commercials by Cadillac and Uber Eats, according to the platform.

“It would be inappropriate for us to comment on the details of a matter we have only read about and we cannot substantiate,” Jeep said in a statement. “But it’s also right that we pause our Big Game commercial until the actual facts can be established.”

“Its message of community and unity is as relevant as ever,” the company said. “As is the message that drinking and driving can never be condoned.”

People who missed open enrollment for Affordable Care Act health insurance late last year will get another opportunity to sign up, starting in mid-February, Ann Carrns reports for The New York Times.

President Biden signed an executive order last month creating an extra, three-month enrollment period starting Feb. 15. Consumers can again shop for coverage on HealthCare.gov, the federal insurance marketplace, which serves three dozen states.

Typically, people may sign up for coverage outside open enrollment only if they can document “special” circumstances, like the birth of a child, a marriage or divorce, or the loss of health insurance. (They can generally enroll in A.C.A. plans within 60 days of losing health coverage. If they’ve lost their job recently, they can apply for coverage now.)

Open enrollment on HealthCare.gov ended on Dec. 15. (Dates for state marketplaces vary.) The extra sign-up window is expected to mimic open enrollment, said Cheryl Fish-Parcham, director of access initiatives at Families USA, a health insurance advocacy group. “You don’t have to prove” that you had a change in circumstances.

  • ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel company, said Thursday that Aditya Mittal, the company’s president and chief financial officer, would succeed his father, Lakshmi Mittal, as chief executive. Lakshmi Mittal, who founded the company, will become executive chairman. Aditya Mittal said on a call with reporters that he wanted to focus on reducing carbon emissions from steel production.

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