Friday PM December 4th, 2009

Unemployment rate drops back to ten per cent…Salary disputes lead to five Houston restaurants paying $334,000 to 154 current and former employees…Ecuador sues Chevron over liability for pollution in Amazon rainforest…


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The unemployment rate fell to ten per cent in November as employers cut the smallest number of jobs since the recession began. The Labor Department says the economy shed 11,000 jobs last month, an improvement from October’s revised total of 111,000. That’s also much better than the 130,000 Wall Street economists expected. But the respite may be temporary, as many economists expect the jobless rate to keep climbing into next year as the economy struggles to generate enough jobs for the 15.4 million people out of work. If part-time workers who want full time jobs and laid off workers who have given up looking for work are included, the so-called underemployment rate also fell, to 17.2 per cent from 17.5 per cent in October.

Economists had been predicting the unemployment rate to fall by the end of the year. It’s a small decline, but Leo Espinoza with talent consultant Korn/Ferry International says it’s a turning point.

“The key takeaway is the fact that we do have access to highest-level executives that have done a lot of analysis and are doing their business planning for 2010, or already have it set, and getting the sense from them as to where do you see this going? Are you going to be increasing jobs? How is that going to impact your overall business, which therefore impacts the overall economic climate for our country and state and city. And when we see a month like November where it actually did decrease, although it sounds small—10.2 per cent to, you know, ten per cent—it is a very positive factor for our overall economy.”

Espinoza says the improvement in the unemployment figure can have a psychological effect on employers.

The White House says President Barack Obama is pleased that the economy is moving in the right direction but wants to press harder on creating jobs. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said new employment figures show the economy is making much-needed progress and is “getting the right trend going in hiring.” But he said that even a modest loss in jobs last month was too much. Gibbs told reporters that the nation must “get back to an economy that is not just growing but is creating jobs.” White House economics adviser Christina Romer called it a sign that stabilization of financial markets may be improving the labor market.

President Obama says he’s optimistic that banks will ease lending next year. And, he says that should help businesses that want to expand and hire new workers. At a town hall meeting in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Obama was asked what his administration could do to loosen tight credit, especially for struggling small businesses. The president replied that banks were “way too easy in terms of giving credit,” and that contributed to the near financial collapse. Obama said banks now have swung in the opposite direction. He said the administration will push them to lend to creditworthy customers. The president said the banks were to saying yes to everybody and now they’re saying no to everybody.

Orders to U.S. factories unexpectedly rose in October, the sixth gain in the past seven months. It was further evidence that the manufacturing sector is beginning to recover, which will help support the overall economy. The Commerce Department says orders rose 0.6 per cent in October, much better than the flat reading that economists had expected. A jump in demand for commercial aircraft and petroleum products led the gain. Orders for durable goods, items expected to last three years, rose 0.6 per cent, unchanged from a preliminary estimate last week. Orders for nondurable goods rose 1.6 per cent, propelled by gains in demand for petroleum, chemicals, plastics and food.

Salary disputes led to five Houston-based restaurants paying a total of about $334,000 to 154 current and former employees. The Labor Department announced the minimum wage and overtime violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Some employees were paid less than the hourly $7.25 federal minimum wage and the companies did not maintain the required records. The investigation involves employees of: Pearl Castle, doing business as Cafe 101, UHL Investment, doing business as Bodard Bistro, MYPA’s Holding, doing business as Tan Tan restaurant, Chang Kun, doing business as Arirang Korean Restaurant and Trans Family, doing business as Tay Do. All five restaurants cooperated with the investigation. The Labor Department says back wages have been paid in full.

The U.S. Energy Department says it will spend close to $600 million to help build renewable energy plants that will turn wood chips, cornstalks and algae into fuel. The government will team up with private companies to create 19 biorefinery projects in 15 states. Federal officials announced the undertaking at a news conference in Toledo, Ohio, where a pilot plant will turn agriculture and forest waste into diesel fuel. The 15 states involved are California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

The Republic of Ecuador has sued the Chevron as the two battle over liability for pollution in the Amazon rainforest. The suit was filed at a federal court in Manhattan. Ecuador is asking the court to block an attempt by Chevron to force their dispute over the environmental damage into international arbitration. Separately, Chevron is defending itself against a $27 billion lawsuit in Ecuador brought by 30,000 inhabitants of a rainforest where illnesses have been blamed on contamination from oil drilling. Chevron says Ecuador, not the company, should have to pay any damages. A message left with Chevron, which is based in San Ramon, California, was not immediately returned.

Lawmakers are planning hearings on the decision by Comcast to buy control of NBC Universal. Consumer groups are worried that it would give the cable company too much power over entertainment. The government isn’t likely to block the deal outright. But regulators could impose some restrictions–for example, banning Comcast from keeping its rival subscription television services from getting access to NBC channels. Comcast is seeking to own more movies and TV shows—putting the company in a position of strength if fewer people sign up for cable TV and decide to watch more video online.

A smoking ban adopted by the Galveston City Council and set to take effect January 1st could leave room to light up in certain businesses. The city council agreed to ask the city attorney to amend the ordinance to allow smoking in stores that sell tobacco and cigars. A final vote on the amendment could come December 10th. The ordinance, as adopted July 23rd, forbids lighting up in bars, restaurants, private clubs and tobacco stores. The proposed change would allow smoking in tobacco and cigar stories, but those businesses would be banned from selling alcohol or allowing drinking on the premises. Tobacco shops would have to install ventilation systems and be off limits to anyone younger than 18.

In one industrial accident alone, Total Petrochemical’s oil refinery in Port Arthur sprayed tons of sulfuric acid and carbon monoxide into the sky. The French company’s 62-year-old facility also has released toxins such as cancer-causing benzene, regularly surpassed allowable pollution limits, failed to report dozens of emissions–or to even fully identify what or how much was released. Regulators say such incidents helped make total the most heavily fined polluter in Texas in the 2009 fiscal year. Total, assessed $1.58 million for 11 violations over several years, says it has since resolved many of the problems at the Port Arthur plant and continues to look for ways to improve. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issued about 1,750 fines for about $14.5 million in the fiscal year. The agency credits more aggressive enforcement efforts that prompted more than 100,000 investigations.

Theme park operator Six Flags and a group of its note holders are fighting over the company’s Chapter 11 reorganization plan. A Delaware bankruptcy judge opened a hearing on competing proposals to restructure the company, which is based in New York and operates 20 amusements parks in the U.S. and abroad. Six Flags wants to extend its exclusive rights to submit a plan, aimed at a debt-to-equity swap giving secured lenders virtually all of the reorganized company’s common stock. But holders of more than $500 million of Six Flags notes say they have a better plan that would increase the recovery for creditors. They argue that the company should not be granted more time and that they should be allowed to present their plan. Six Flags operates three attractions in Texas: Six Flags Over Texas and Six Flags Hurricane Harbor in Arlington and Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio.

The long, slow harvest of what is expected to be the second largest U.S. corn crop ever is winding down–except in Illinois. Illinois is the country’s second largest corn producer. But more than a quarter of its harvest is still in wet, muddy fields at a time when farmers are typically done for the season. Among the top ten corn states, the only state further behind is South Dakota. Farmers in Iowa, the nation’s number one corn producer, are steering combines toward the final ten per cent of their crops. A wet spring kept many farmers from planting on time. A cool, damp summer slowed crop development. A rainy fall prevented corn from quickly drying, which is needed to produce animal feed, corny syrup and other products.

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