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Tuesday PM December 8th, 2009

Fire and explosion at Motiva refinery in Port Arthur contained; no injuries…CEOs not optimistic about improved employment; seasonal retail employment up…Judge sets trial date for KBR case…



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A fire and explosion at the Motiva Enterprises refinery complex in Port Arthur shut down the hydrogen unit but caused no injuries. The accident happened around 10:30 this morning in the hydrogen plant operated by Praxair. Motiva uses hydrogen in the production of low sulfur gasoline. Praxair spokeswoman Susan Szita Gore says all emergency systems operated as designed and “the situation was very quickly contained.” She told the Associated Press that about ten Praxair employees were present when the accident happened and nobody was hurt. The cause of the accident is sought. She had no details on what burned or a damage estimate, saying Praxair was assessing the situation. Szita Gore says there was no damage to Motiva facilities or to the surrounding community. Motiva Enterprises operates three refineries with a combined capacity of 740,000 barrels a day. The Port Arthur refinery, according to Motiva’s Web site, has about 900 employees. The company’s operations include nearly 7,700 Shell-branded gasoline stations.

The CEOs of America’s largest companies do not expect employment to significantly improve in the next six months. A quarterly survey from the Business Roundtable found that 19 per cent of companies expect to grow their work forces, while 31 per cent predict a decrease in the next six months. That’s slightly better than the 13 per cent who saw increased hiring three months earlier, when 40 per cent forecast a decrease. The CEOs expect the overall U,S. economy to grow by 1.9 per cent in 2010. That would mark a slowdown from the 2.8 per cent pace in the third quarter of 2009. In more positive news, the number of CEOs expecting to increase capital spending nearly doubled, to 40 from 21 per cent. The number expecting sales to increase grew to 68 from 51 per cent.

Challenger, Gray & Christmas finds a 37 per cent improvement in retail employment from this time last year. With more than 54,000 workers added in October, retailers have now hired more than 375,000 seasonal workers. Manpower says employers anticipate a moderate increase in their hiring plans for the first quarter of 2010. The numbers of those anticipating an increase and those expecting a decrease in payrolls are both at 12 per cent. Manpower says to see an increase over the fourth quarter is unusual and seems to indicate increased confidence levels from employers.

The Texas Workforce Commission is tripling the unemployment tax nearly two-thirds of the state’s businesses will pay per employee each year. The minimum tax is going up from $23.40 per worker to $64.80 under rates. The commission says the minimum rate is paid by nearly 255,000 employers, or 67 per cent of those in business at least a year. The taxes feed the state’s unemployment trust fund, which has been depleted by a high number of jobless claims. The state already has borrowed about $1 billion interest-free from the federal government to help keep the fund afloat. Just counting state-paid unemployment benefits–not federally funded extensions–Texas is paying $68.6 million a week in unemployment benefits compared with $33.6 million a year ago. About 700,000 Texans currently are receiving unemployment benefits, including those funded by the state and federal government.

A federal judge has set a 2011 trial date for a lawsuit from a Texas woman alleging she was gang-raped by co-workers while employed by a Halliburton subsidiary in Iraq. During a court hearing, the date for Jamie Leigh Jones’ case was set for February 7th, 2011. Jones sued Halliburton and its former subsidiary KBR, saying she was raped while working for KBR at Camp Hope, Baghdad, in 2005. The Associated Press usually doesn’t identify people alleging sexual assault, but Jones’ face and name have been broadcast in media reports and on her own Web site. The companies contended Jones’ contract required claims against them be settled through arbitration. In September, an appeals court ruled her claims can go to trial.

President Barack Obama says government investment in clean-energy projects can help put Americans back to work. Obama said he wants to expand the initial $787 billion economic stimulus package that included funding for so-called green jobs. He says so many good ideas were pitched that many did not make the cut. Obama says those left-behind projects should be included in a jobs package he broadly outlined in a speech to a think tank. The president says the clean-energy projects create jobs, save money and help the environment. Obama also says the clean-energy projects will draw private investment quickly.

President Obama says staggering job losses mean the country must continue to “spend our way out of this recession” with a round of new incentives for hiring. In a speech at the Brookings Institution, Obama proposed a package intended to stimulate job creation and bring down the country’s ten per cent unemployment rate. The measures include more money for infrastructure projects, tax cuts and credit access for small businesses. It also includes rebates to consumers who make their homes more energy efficient. Obama said it is a “false choice” to claim that the government must pick between paying down the deficit and investing in economic growth. He said spending in the short-term to create new jobs will help reduce the deficit over the long-term.

President Obama is defending infrastructure projects while acknowledging the potential for abuse. Obama outlined steps he would take to help a struggling economy that has unemployment in double digits. The president says more than 10,000 infrastructure projects were included in the $787 billion economic stimulus package. Obama says he recognizes the potential abuse in those already in-the-works projects. But he says further spending on the roads and bridges will create jobs over time and their benefits will go beyond the construction. Obama is pitching the rough outlines of a jobs program in a speech at a Washington think tank.

U.S. airlines did a poorer job getting passengers to their destinations on-time in October compared to the same month a year ago. The Department of Transportation said that the 19 carriers surveyed recorded an overall on-time arrival rate of 77.3 per cent in October. That was lower than the 86 per cent recorded in October 2008 and below the 86.2 per cent recorded in September of this year. Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time performance in October. Delta Air Lines subsidiary Northwest Airlines had the worst. The government says the cancellation rate was higher in October compared to a year ago, and the agency received more complaints about airline service than a year ago. The airlines’ mishandled baggage rate improved year-over-year.

The New York Times says the print advertising market has improved “modestly.” It expects its print advertising revenue to decline 25 per cent in the fourth quarter. That would be slightly better than what other newspaper companies generally have been reporting in the past few quarters. Times Chief Executive Janet Robinson, also said that she expects online advertising revenue to increase by about ten per cent. The company said it expects its debt to be about $800 million at the end of the year–down from $1.1 billion a year ago.

CBS Chief Leslie Moonves says advertisers are now paying 25 per cent more for TV commercial time than they did earlier in the year. That’s an indication that businesses are having the confidence to spend more on marketing. Each year, before the start of the fall television season. Advertisers buy commercial time during a period called “upfronts.” Later, after the season has begun, advertisers buy additional time during the so-called “scatter market” closer to airtime. Many broadcasters withheld spots for sale during the upfronts this year, gambling that prices would improve closer to airtime. Moonves says scatter pricing is up 25 per cent over the upfronts. The CBS Corporation CEO spoke at the UBS Media Conference.

About 24,000 Amby baby motion beds are being recalled after two infant deaths. The hammock-like beds are marketed to parents of fussy babies with colic or reflux. The Consumer Product Safety Commission says the side-to-side shifting or tilting of the hammock can cause an infant to roll and become trapped or wedged against the hammock’s fabric or mattress pad, posing a suffocation risk to babies. The beds are made by Amby Baby USA of Minneapolis. CPSC says there is only one model of the hammock available. It has a label sewn onto the hammock that says, “Amby–babies love it, naturally.” They were sold on the Internet, through and other Internet retailers dating back to 2003.

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