Friday PM February 6th, 2009

Nationwide job cuts higher than end of 1974; unemployment rate at 7.6 per cent is highest since September 1992…Allis-Chalmers lays off 235 workers…Houston Hispanic Forum hosting 23rd annual Career and Education Day Saturday at George R. Brown Convention Center…

The government says employers slashed payrolls by 598,000 in January, the most since the end of 1974, catapulting the unemployment rate to 7.6 per cent. The Labor Department’s report is grim proof the nation’s job climate is deteriorating. Job losses were far worse than the 525,000 economists expected. So was the rise in the unemployment rate, now at the highest since September 1992.

President Barack Obama says the latest jobless numbers demand action and it’s “inexcusable and irresponsible” for Congress to delay on his economic recovery package. In prepared remarks for a White House appearance, the president pointed to the unemployment report for January. Employers slashed payrolls by 598,000, the most since the end of 1974, catapulting the unemployment rate to 7.6 per cent. He said that’s 3.6 million Americans who wake up wondering how they are going to pay their bills, Americans who need help. Obama said he is certain members of the Senate are reading the same numbers. He said he hopes they share his urgency to act and pass his recovery package.

Allis-Chalmers Energy is cutting 235 workers, plus reducing some pay rates and employee benefits. The Houston-based oilfield services company says most of the move began last month and have been completed. The company has 3,050 employees a year ago.

Despite rising unemployment, global executives remain optimistic about a long-term increase in the demand for talent, according to the most recent Korn/Ferry Institute Executive Quiz. Korn/Ferry’s Eric Nielsen says companies in hard-hit industries will need to focus more on hiring once the worst has passed.

image of speaker, click for audio“Part of what you need to retain in this sort of environment is a belief in our system and our values and the high standard of living that which is something we almost take for granted now. So I think there still is a sense of optimism that goes beyond any short-term event. Now, with that said, if you’ve been laid off and the market you’re in is exceptionally difficult, I’m not going to pretend that, you know, there isn’t a lot of anxiety and angst in that. But I do think that companies that come through this will be healthier. Jobs within those companies will be better.””

Some 77 per cent of respondents feel the demand for talent will increase more over the next five years than it did during the previous five years. Executives are optimistic about a 2009 labor market upswing, even in the wake of widespread layoffs.

President Barack Obama has announced a team of outside economic advisers to help boost an economy in a virtual free fall. The president signed an executive order creating the Economic Recovery Advisory Board, headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. His announcement came as employers eliminated 598,000 jobs in January, the most since the end of 1974, and the unemployment rate soared to 7.6 per cent. In a statement, the White House said the board will offer independent advice in regular briefings to the president, vice president and their economic team. The White House said the board’s initial focus will be programs to “jump-start economic growth.”

A new report shows that most low-income people who lose their jobs also are without health care insurance. A study by the advocacy group Families USA says slightly more than half the nation’s unemployed cannot afford private insurance and also are not eligible for coverage under Medicaid. The report focuses on middle-class and lower-income workers with annual incomes of about $44,100 for a family of four, or about double the poverty level in 2008. Only one in five unemployed workers within that income level had private insurance or military coverage. Families USA says only one in four unemployed workers at that level got coverage through Medicaid, the government sponsored insurance program for low-income Americans.

A delegation of officials led by Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas is hoping the federal government will pick up the tab for the repair of Galveston’s infrastructure and government buildings, which were damaged by Hurricane Ike. Thomas warned lawmakers in meetings on Capitol Hill that the city could not afford to pay 25 per cent of the recovery costs as required because tax revenues have plummeted. The Galveston officials also sought Congressional support for more than $25 million in the massive economic stimulus package still in Congress for “shovel-ready” construction projects. Republican U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison promised to continue to help the city recover from Hurricane Ike. Republican U.S. Senator John Cornyn said he believed that lawmakers could persuade Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano to waive a requirement that the community must pay a share of recovery costs. The Bush administration forgave Louisiana communities’ share following Hurricane Katrina.

The Houston Hispanic Forum hosts its 23rd annual Career and Education Day on Saturday at the George R. Brown Convention Center. All HISD middle school and high school students are welcome. More than 50 panel sessions will look at various career options, including accounting, engineering, journalism, technology, law, the arts and other fields. Information about college admissions and financial aid will be available. Representatives from colleges, universities, corporations and organizations will be in the Exhibit Hall.

KBR has won a $35 million contract from the Pentagon to build an electrical distribution center and other projects in Iraq. Houston-based KBR is under criminal investigation in the electrocution deaths of at least two U.S. soldiers in Iraq since 2005. One of the men — Staff Sgt. Christopher Lee Everett — was in the Texas Army National Guard. The announcement of the new KBR contract comes just months after the Pentagon rejected the company’s explanation of serious mistakes in Iraq and its proposed improvements. Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey has asked the Corps of Engineers whether it was confident KBR could accomplish it and whether the Corps had any alternatives. KBR spokeswoman Heather Browne says the company is committed to providing quality services. Browne says KBR will comply with the military’s requirements in its work on the camp adder contract.

President Barack Obama has issued an executive order backing the use of union labor for large-scale federal construction projects. The order encourages federal agencies to have construction contractors enter project labor agreements. Those agreements require contractors to negotiate with union officials, recognize union wages and benefits and abide by collective bargaining agreements. Obama’s order restores a Clinton administration rule that was rescinded by President George W. Bush. It’s the fourth union-friendly executive order that Obama has signed since he’s been in office.

Consumer borrowing fell for a third straight month in December–the longest stretch in 17 years–as households cut spending amid a steep recession and rising job layoffs. The Federal Reserve says consumer borrowing dropped at an annual rate of 3.1 per cent in December. Total borrowing dropped by nearly double the amount economists expected. The weakness in December reflected a big 7.8 per cent decline in the category that includes credit card debt, and a 0.2 per cent drop in the category that includes auto loans.

The Treasury Department says more needs to be done to “protect taxpayer dollars” after a government watchdog concluded the Wall Street rescue program overpaid for stocks and other assets. In a report, the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Bailout Funds concludes the overpayments last year amounted to a $78 billion subsidy. The findings added to the frustrations of lawmakers already wary of the $700 billion rescue plan, known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The misgivings come as new Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is preparing to unveil a sweeping new framework for helping banks, loosening credit and helping reduce foreclosures. The Treasury says the plan to be announced Monday will strengthen transparency and accountability.

The new head of the Securities and Exchange Commission is ending a practice she says for two years had slowed the agency’s enforcement efforts against corporate wrongdoing. In her first public address as SEC chairman, Mary Schapiro says she is no longer requiring agency enforcement attorneys to get approval from the commissioners before negotiating fines and penalties with companies accused of violations. Schapiro says that practice “just sends the wrong message” and has caused delays. It is among the steps she says she is taking to revitalize the SEC’s enforcement efforts and bolster investor protection.

Venezuela’s state oil company is behind on billions in payments to private oil contractors from Oklahoma to Belarus. Some contractors have now stopped work, even as Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez funnels more oil revenue to social programs. Petroleos de Venezuela says unpaid invoices jumped 39 per cent in the first nine months of last year–reaching $7.86 billion in September. And that was when world oil was selling for $100 a barrel. But with prices plummeting by more than half, the company’s trying to renegotiate some contracts. But analysts say hardball tactics to reduce charges from crucial service providers could backfire by lowering Venezuela’s oil output. And foreign debt markets are reflecting jitters about Venezuela’s finances. Oil accounts for 94 per cent of Venezuela’s exports and funds nearly half the socialist government’s budget. Chavez uses it to bankroll an international aid bonanza, showering allies with cheap fuel, refining projects and cash donations. But Tulsa, Oklahoma-based contractor Helmerich & Payne said last week that it has stopped drilling with two of its 11 oil rigs in Venezuela because of delayed payments. Dallas-based Ensco International said it suspended operations on an oil rig off Venezuela’s Caribbean coast because it was owed $35 million, prompting PDVSA to take over operations.

A military spokesman says kidnappers have released the wife of a former Nigerian energy minister. Lieutenant Colonel Sagir Musa said Gladys Daukoru was returned safely to a hotel on Friday. Unidentified gunmen abducted the woman from a bar late Tuesday in Port Harcourt. Edmund Daukoru served under former President Olusegun Obasanjo and his portfolio included oil-industry related business. He was also a former head of OPEC, of which Nigeria is a member. Hundreds of expatriate and Nigerian hostages have been taken during three years of rising violence across the Southern Niger delta region that is the seat of Africa’s biggest oil industry. Victims are normally released after a ransom is paid.

Jamie Butler still needs physical therapy once a day to stretch the skin grafts on his arms, hands and legs. He still takes painkillers. And he needs steroid injections to reduce scarring on his face, now covered by a black mask that applies healing pressure to the skin. It’s been a year since he survived badly burned a huge blast at the Imperial Sugar refinery near Savannah, Georgia. The 26-year-old can’t forget what happened at the nation’s second-largest sugar refinery on February 7th, 2008. And he wonders why his 35-year-old brother had to die when fine sugar dust exploded. John Calvin Butler, Jr., worked beside his brother filling bags of sugar. He was one of 14 people who died in the blast that injured 40 others. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed $8.7 million in fines against Sugar Land-based Imperial Sugar. It cited the company for 211 safety violations at its refineries in Port Wentworth, Georgia, where the blast occurred and in Gramercy, Louisiana. Imperial Sugar is contesting the fines. But the United States still lacks federal regulations requiring industrial plants to prevent the buildup of fine dust particles that can form explosive clouds in confined areas.

The number of rigs actively exploring for oil and natural gas in the United States dropped by 73 this week to 1,399. Of the rigs running nationwide, 1,104 were exploring for natural gas and 283 for oil, Houston-based Baker Hughes reported. A total of 12 were listed as miscellaneous. A year ago, the rig count stood at 1,755. Of the major oil- and gas-producing states, Texas lost 50 rigs. Baker Hughes has tracked rig counts since 1944. The tally peaked at 4,530 in 1981, during the height of the oil boom. The industry posted several record lows in 1999, bottoming out at 488.

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