Friday PM April 20th, 2007

Texas gasoline prices rise for 11th straight week...Texas unemployment rate falls to 4.3 percent in March; Houston's rate drops to 4.1 percent...About 100 contract workers at BP Texas City refinery receive hospital treatment overnight after falling sick on the job...

Texas retail gasoline prices rose this week for an 11th week in a row, and motorists are expressing concerns about the possibility of $3 a gallon gasoline, according to Rose Rougeau with AAA Texas. The weekly Gas Price Survey shows regular-grade gasoline prices at Texas pumps averaged $2.78 per gallon. That's a seven-cent increase from last week. Rougeau says volatility tied to consumer demand, world events and profit-taking in the markets make it impossible to predict future price trends. Houston's average rose by 6.8 cents a gallon to $2.79. Nationally, regular grade is averaging $2.87 per gallon--a six-cent increase. El Paso has the most expensive gasoline prices among the 11 Texas markets surveyed, rising eight cents to an average of $2.85 per gallon. Corpus Christi remains the cheapest on the list with regular grade rising six cents to an average of $2.68 per gallon.

The Texas unemployment rate fell to 4.3 percent in March. The Texas Workforce Commission says that's down from February's jobless rate of 4.5 percent and one tick below the national average of 4.4 percent. That's as nonagricultural employers added an estimated 15,000 jobs. Houston's unemployment rate dropped to 4.1 from 4.6 percent. A year ago, the Texas jobless rate was five percent. The figures were adjusted for seasonal trends in hiring and firing, which most economists believe gives a better picture of the job market. The Workforce Commission estimates that nearly 11.1 million Texans were employed. It also estimates that 496,400 were jobless and still looking for work in March. However, initial claims for unemployment compensation jumped 20 percent from February to March, with 52,901 new claims last month. The job increases were spread among many sectors.

The Monster Local Employment Index shows online recruitment activity is on the rise. According to Monster Worldwide, there were gains in 26 of 28 metro areas, with Houston leading the way. Online job demand in the Houston metro area gain four points in March. Demand was strongest for construction, healthcare and office and administrative workers. Coming in second in terms of year-over-year growth was St. Louis. At the other end, online job availability in Cincinnati declined between February and March and was unchanged in Detroit.

About 100 contract workers at the BP Texas City refinery had to receive hospital treatment overnight after they fell sick while on the job. About 400 contract workers, in all, were working at the refinery late last night when several working inside a tank complained of dizziness, nausea and eye irritation. The symptoms spread to other workers. Workers were taken to Texas City and Galveston hospitals--some by ambulance, most by bus. There, they were decontaminated and examined. Plant spokesman Scott Dean says all have been released. Dean says the workers were among about 400 working on crude distillation unit that's been shut down since Hurricane Rita hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. He said monitoring personnel checked the air for sources that could have caused the workers to become sick and detected nothing. Plant officials say operations continued. But the source of the illness remains under investigation.

San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications said that it's agreed to sell its television group to a private equity firm. The $1.2 billion sale to Providence Equity Partners includes 56 TV stations in 24 markets and the associated Web sites. Among them is the group's flagship WOAI-TV in San Antonio. San Antonio-based Clear Channel expects the sale to close in the fourth quarter, pending regulatory approval. It expects the deal to generate proceeds of $1.1 billion. The sale was expected. It comes two days after Clear Channel agreed to go private under a sweetened buyout bid of $19.35 billion from private equity firms Bain Capital Partners and Thomas H. Lee Partners. That's despite opposition from two large shareholders who say the price is too low. Clear Channel plans to hold a shareholder vote on the sale of the company on May 8th. The sale of the TV group isn't contingent upon completion of the Clear Channel buyout.

A former Enron human resources executive who was convicted of stealing nearly $3 million from the company after it went bankrupt will serve five years and three months in prison. The Houston Chronicle reports that Christian Deeb Rahaim was sentenced by U.S. District Judge David Hittner. The scam ended in November 2005 when Enron detected the fraud and fired him as senior director of benefits. He is the only former Enron executive to plead guilty to a crime committed after the company failed.

Continental Airlines reports a better-than-expected first-quarter profit. It was the first time since 2001 that Continental earned a profit in the typically weak first quarter of the year. The Houston-based air carrier says it earned $22 million, compared to a net loss of $66 million a year earlier.

Southwest Airlines reports first-quarter profit rose by half on record revenues. But the Dallas-based air carrier says income would have fallen if not for gains from hedging future fuel costs.

Fort Worth-based RadioShack has laid off 250 employees as the electronics retailer attempts to save about $30 million. Most of the job cuts are at the company's corporate headquarters in Fort Worth. The cuts come about a week after RadioShack revealed that Chairman and CEO Julian Day got compensation valued at $19 million last year.

The company that makes Blackberrys now knows what caused an outage that left millions of users without wireless e-mail access this week. Research in Motion blames insufficient testing of a software update at the company's network data center. The introduction of a new system routine to optimize the temporary holding space of the system that handles e-mail sent to Blackberry users wasn't supposed to impact users. Furthermore, the process designed to maintain service in the event of an outage didn't go as well as expected, which delayed the resumption of service. The outage lasted from Tuesday night into Wednesday morning.

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