Instead of firing, businesses may look for other ways to trim costs. Mr. Pritchard in Provo and his business partner, Janine Coons, said that if business fell off, their first resort would be to cut hours. Their second would be taking pay cuts themselves. Firing would be a last resort.

The pizzeria didn’t lay off workers during the pandemic, but Mr. Pritchard and Ms. Coons witnessed how punishing it can be to hire — and since all of their competitors have been learning the same lesson, they do not expect them to let go of their employees easily even if demand pulls back.

“People aren’t going to fire people,” Mr. Pritchard said.

But economists warned that what employers think they will do before a slowdown and what they actually do when they start to experience financial pain could be two different things.

The idea that a tight labor market may leave businesses gun-shy about layoffs is untested. Some economists said that they could not recall any other downturn where employers broadly resisted culling their work force.

“It would be a pretty notable change to how employers responded in the past,” said Nick Bunker, director of North American economic research for the career site Indeed.

And even if they do not fire their full-time employees, companies have been making increased use of temporary or just-in-time help in recent months. Gusto, a small-business payroll and benefits platform, conducted an analysis of its clients and found that the ratio of contractors per employee had increased more than 60 percent since 2019.

If the economy slows, gigs for those temporary workers could dry up, prompting them to begin searching for full-time jobs — possibly causing unemployment or underemployment to rise even if nobody is officially fired.

Policymakers know a soft landing is a long shot. Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, acknowledged during his last news conference that the Fed’s own estimate of how much unemployment might rise in a downturn was a “modest increase in the unemployment rate from a historical perspective, given the expected decline in inflation.”

But he also added that “we see the current situation as outside of historical experience.”

The reasons for hope extend beyond labor hoarding. Because job openings are so unusually high right now, policymakers hope that workers can move into available positions even if some firms do begin layoffs as the labor market slows. Companies that have been desperate to hire for months — like Utah State Hospital in Provo — may swoop in to pick up anyone who is displaced.

Dallas Earnshaw and his colleagues at the psychiatric hospital have been struggling mightily to hire enough nurse’s aides and other workers, though raising pay and loosening recruitment standards have helped around the edges. Because he cannot hire enough people to expand in needed ways, Mr. Earnshaw is poised to snap up employees if the labor market cools.

“We’re desperate,” Mr. Earnshaw said.

But for the moment, workers remain hard to find. At the bistro and pizza shop in downtown Provo, what worries Mr. Pritchard is that labor will become so expensive that — combined with rapid ingredient inflation — it will be hard or impossible to make a profit without lifting prices on pizzas or prime rib so much that consumers cannot bear the change.

“What scares me most is not the economic slowdown,” he said. “It’s the hiring shortage that we have.”

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Less Turnover, Smaller Raises: Hot Job Market May Be Losing Its Sizzle

Last year, Klaussner Home Furnishings was so desperate for workers that it began renting billboards near its headquarters in Asheboro, N.C., to advertise job openings. The steep competition for labor drove wages for employees on the furniture maker’s production floor up 12 to 20 percent. The company began offering $1,000 signing bonuses to sweeten the deal.

“Consumer demand was through the roof,” said David Cybulski, Klaussner’s president and chief executive. “We just couldn’t get enough labor fast enough.”

But in recent months, Mr. Cybulski has noticed that frenzy die down.

Hiring for open positions has gotten easier, he said, and fewer Klaussner workers are leaving for other jobs. The company, which has about 1,100 employees, is testing performance rewards to keep workers happy rather than racing to increase wages. The $1,000 signing bonus ended in the spring.

“No one is really chasing employees to the dollar anymore,” he said.

By many measures, the labor market is still extraordinarily strong even as fears of a recession loom. The unemployment rate, which stood at 3.7 percent in August, remains near a five-decade low. There are twice as many job openings as unemployed workers available to fill them. Layoffs, despite some high-profile announcements in recent weeks, are close to a record low.

Walmart and Amazon have announced slowdowns in hiring; others, such as FedEx, have frozen hiring altogether. Americans in July quit their jobs at the lowest rate in more than a year, a sign that the period of rapid job switching, sometimes called the Great Resignation, may be nearing its end. Wage growth, which soared as companies competed for workers, has also slowed, particularly in industries like dining and travel where the job market was particularly hot last year.

More broadly, many companies around the country say they are finding it less arduous to attract and retain employees — partly because many are paring their hiring plans, and partly because the pool of available workers has grown as more people come off the economy’s sidelines. The labor force grew by more than three-quarters of a million people in August, the biggest gain since the early months of the pandemic. Some executives expect hiring to keep getting easier as the economy slows and layoffs pick up.

“Not that I wish ill on any people out there from a layoff perspective or whatever else, but I think there could be an opportunity for us to ramp some of that hiring over the coming months,” Eric Hart, then the chief financial officer at Expedia, told investors on the company’s earnings call in August.

Taken together, those signals point to an economic environment in which employers may be regaining some of the leverage they ceded to workers during the pandemic months. That is bad news for workers, particularly those at the bottom of the pay ladder who have been able to take advantage of the hot labor market to demand higher pay, more flexible schedules and other benefits. With inflation still high, weaker wage growth will mean that more workers will find their standard of living slipping.

But for employers — and for policymakers at the Federal Reserve — the calculation looks different. A modest cooling would be welcome after months in which employers struggled to find enough staff to meet strong demand, and in which rapid wage growth contributed to the fastest inflation in decades. Too pronounced a slowdown, however, could lead to a sharp rise in unemployment, which would almost certainly lead to a drop in consumer demand and create a new set of problems for employers.

Recent research from economists at the Federal Reserve Banks of Dallas and St. Louis found that there had been a huge increase in poaching — companies hiring workers away from other jobs — during the recent hiring boom. If companies become less willing to recruit workers from competitors, and to pay the premium that doing so requires, or if workers become less likely to hop between jobs, that could lead wage growth to ease even if layoffs don’t pick up.

There are hints that could be happening. A recent survey from another career site, ZipRecruiter, found that workers have become less confident in their ability to find a job and are putting more emphasis on finding a job they consider secure.

“Workers and job seekers are feeling just a little bit less bold, a little bit more concerned about the future availability of jobs, a little bit more concerned about the stability of their own jobs,” said Julia Pollak, chief economist at ZipRecruiter.

Some businesses, meanwhile, are becoming a bit less frantic to hire. A survey of small businesses from the National Federation of Independent Business found that while many employers still have open positions, fewer of them expect to fill those jobs in the next three months.

More clues about the strength of the labor market could come in the upcoming months, the time of year when companies, including retailers, traditionally ramp up hiring for the holiday season. Walmart said in September that this year it would hire a fraction of the workers it did during the last holiday season.

The signs of a cool-down extend even to leisure and hospitality, the sector where hiring challenges have been most acute. Openings in the sector have fallen sharply from the record levels of last year, and hourly earnings growth slowed to less than 9 percent in August from a rate of more than 16 percent last year.

Until recently, staffing shortages at Biggby Coffee were so severe that many of the chain’s 300-plus stores had to close early some days, or in some cases not open at all. But while hiring remains a challenge, the pressure has begun to ease, said Mike McFall, the company’s co-founder and co-chief executive. One franchisee recently told him that 22 of his 25 locations were fully staffed and that only one was experiencing a severe shortage.

“We are definitely feeling the burden is lifting in terms of getting people to take the job,” Mr. McFall said. “We’re getting more applications, we’re getting more people through training now.”

The shift is a welcome one for business owners like Mr. McFall. He said franchisees have had to raise wages 50 percent or more to attract and retain workers — a cost increase they have offset by raising prices.

“The expectation by the consumer is that you are raising prices, and so if you don’t take advantage of that moment, you are going to be in a pickle,” he said, referring to the pressure to increase wages. “So you manage it by raising prices.”

So far, Mr. McFall said, higher prices haven’t deterred customers. Still, he said, the period of severe staffing shortages is not without its costs. He has seen a loss in sales, as well as a loss of efficiency and experienced workers. That will take time to rebuild, he said.

“When we were in crisis, it was all we were focused on,” he said. “So now that it feels like the crisis is mitigating, that it’s getting a little better, we can now begin to focus on the culture in the stores and try to build that up again.”

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Bad News From the Fed? We’ve Been Here Before.

The Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates again is hardly a positive development for anyone with a job, a business or an investment in the stock or bond market.

But it isn’t a great shock, either.

This is all about curbing inflation, which is running at 8.3 percent annually, near its highest rate in 40 years. On Wednesday, the Fed raised the short-term federal funds rate for a third consecutive time, to 3.25 percent, and said it would keep increasing it.

“We believe a failure to restore price stability would mean far greater pain later on,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said. He acknowledged that the Fed’s rate increases would raise unemployment and slow the economy.

last time severe inflation tested the mettle of the Federal Reserve was the era of Paul A. Volcker, who became Fed chair in August 1979, when inflation was already 11 percent and still rising. He managed to bring it below 4 percent by 1983, but at the cost of two recessions, sky-high unemployment and horrendous volatility in financial markets.

around 6 percent — and had set the country on a path toward price stability that lasted for decades.

The Great Moderation.” This halcyon period lasted long after he left the Fed, and ended only with the financial crisis of 2007-9. As the Fed now puts it on a website devoted to its history, “Inflation was low and relatively stable, while the period contained the longest economic expansion since World War II.”

mandates — “the economic goals of maximum employment and price stability”— as new information arrived.

Donald Kohn, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, was a Fed insider for 40 years, and retired as vice chair in 2010. With his inestimable guidance, I plunged into Fed history during the Volcker era.

I found an astonishing wealth of material, providing far more information than reporters had access to back then. In fact, while the current Fed provides vast reams of data, what goes on behind closed doors is better documented, in some respects, for the Volcker Fed.

That’s because transcripts of Fed meetings from that period were reconstructed from recordings that, Mr. Kohn said, “nobody was thinking about as they were talking because nobody knew about them or expected that this would ever be published, except, I guess Volcker.” By the 1990s, when the Fed began to produce transcripts available on a five-year time delay, Mr. Kohn said, participants in the meetings “were aware they were being recorded for history, so we became more restrained in what we said.”

So reading the Volcker transcripts is like being a fly on the wall. Some names of foreign officials have been scrubbed, but most of the material is there.

In a phone conversation, Mr. Kohn identified two critical “Volcker moments,” which he discussed at a Dallas Federal Reserve conference in June. “In both cases, the Fed moved in subtle ways and surprised people by changing its focus and its approach,” he said.

Congress, financial circles and academic institutions. Economics students may remember Milton Friedman saying: “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.”

For Fed watchers, the change in the central bank’s emphasis had practical implications. Richard Bernstein, a former chief investment strategist at Merrill Lynch who now runs his own firm, said that back then: “You needed a calculator to figure out the numbers being released by the Fed. By comparison, now, there are practically no numbers. You just need to look at the words of Fed statements.”

The Fed’s methods of dealing with inflation are abstruse stuff. But its conversations about the problem in 1982 were pithy, and its decisions appeared to be based as much on psychology as on traditional macroeconomics.

As Mr. Volcker put it at a Federal Open Market Meeting on Oct. 6, 1979, “I have described the state of the markets as in some sense as nervous as I have ever seen them.” He added: “We are not dealing with a stable psychological or stable expectational situation by any means. And on the inflation front, we‘re probably losing ground.”

17 percent by March 1980. The Fed plunged the economy into one recession and then, when the first one failed to curb inflation sufficiently, into a second.

unemployment rate stood at 10.8 percent, a postwar high that was not exceeded until the coronavirus recession of 2020. But in 1982, even people at the Fed were wondering when the economy would begin to recover from the damage that had been done.

The fall of 1982 was the second “Volcker moment” discerned by Mr. Kohn, who was in the room during meetings. The Fed decided that inflation was coming down — although in September 1982, it was still in the 6 to 7 percent range. The economy was contracting sharply, and the extraordinarily high interest rates in the United States had ricocheted around the world, worsening a debt crisis in Mexico, Argentina and, soon, the rest of Latin America.

Fed meeting that October, when one official said, “There have certainly been some other problem situations” in Latin America, Mr. Volcker responded, “That’s the understatement of the day, if I must say so.”

Penn Square Bank in Oklahoma had collapsed, a precursor of other failures to come.

“We are in a worldwide recession,” Mr. Volcker said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.” He added: “I don’t know of any country of any consequence in the world that has an expansion going on. And I can think of lots of them that have a real downturn going on. Obviously, unemployment is at record levels. It is rising virtually everyplace. In fact, I can’t think of a major country that is an exception to that.”

It was time, he and others agreed, to provide relief.

The Fed needed to make sure that interest rates moved downward, but the method of targeting the monetary supply wasn’t working properly. It could not be calibrated precisely enough to guarantee that interest rates would fall. In fact, interest rates rose in September 1982, when the Fed had wanted them to drop. “I am totally dissatisfied,” Mr. Volcker said.

It was, therefore, time, to shift the Fed’s focus back to interest rates, and to resolutely lower them.

This wasn’t an easy move, Mr. Kohn said, but it was the right one. “It took confidence and some subtle judgment to know when it was time to loosen conditions,” he said. “We’re not there yet today — inflation is high and it’s time to tighten now — but at some point, the Fed will have to do that again.”

The Fed pivot in 1982 had a startling payoff in financial markets.

As early as August 1982, policymakers at the central bank were discussing whether it was time to loosen financial conditions. Word trickled to traders, interest rates fell and the previously lackluster S&P 500 started to rise. It gained nearly 15 percent for the year and kept going. That was the start of a bull market that continued for 40 years.

In 1982, the conditions that set off rampant optimism in the stock market didn’t happen overnight. The Volcker-led Fed had to correct itself repeatedly while responding to major crises at home and abroad. It took years of pain to reach the point at which it made sense to pivot, and for businesses to start rehiring workers and for traders to go all-in on risky assets.

Today, the Fed is again engaging in a grand experiment, even as Russia’s war in Ukraine, the lingering pandemic and political crises in the United States and around the globe are endangering millions of people.

When will the big pivot happen this time? I wish I knew.

The best I can say is that it would be wise to prepare for bad times but to plan and invest for prosperity over the long haul.

I’ll come back with more detail on how to do that.

But I would try to stay invested in both the stock and bond markets permanently. The Volcker era demonstrates that when the moment has at last come, sea changes in financial markets can occur in the blink of an eye.

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Railroads’ Strategy Thrilled Wall Street, but Not Customers and Workers

America’s first commercial railroads were built almost two centuries ago. Freight rail has been a symbol of the nation’s economic might and ingenuity ever since.

In recent years, some of the biggest names on Wall Street have made significant investments in railroads, reaping big stock gains as railroads reported higher profits. But the underlying strategies that strengthened railroads’ bottom lines have caused friction with customers, regulators and particularly workers — giving rise to a contract dispute that threatened a nationwide shutdown of the railway system.

After losing ground to trucking in the mid-20th century, the rail industry managed to recover through decades of consolidation and a push for efficiency. Critics say those same dynamics created a system with thin staffing and minimal competition, making it particularly vulnerable to shocks like the coronavirus pandemic.

Those complaints were at the center of the contract impasse that left tens of thousands of workers prepared to walk off the job last week. A strike could have been economically devastating, paralyzing shipments of grain, chemicals and other cargo.

It was averted with less than a day to go when the Biden administration helped to broker a tentative agreement that addresses some of those issues and will be put to a vote of the rail unions’ members in the coming weeks.

The freight rail industry says it has worked hard to adapt to rapid changes — including the pandemic and, before that, a decline in demand for coal, a critical source of business.

“The industry has had to continually evolve to grow its other services,” said Ian Jefferies, the president of the Association of American Railroads, an industry group. To make up for the decline in coal, freight shippers have tried to transport more grain, truck trailers, shipping containers and other goods, he said.

according to the Surface Transportation Board, which monitors and regulates rates.

Prices started to increase in the early 2000s, driven by rising costs for labor, fuel, materials and supplies as well as a growing focus on profitability. From 2002 to 2019, long-distance trucking rates increased by 40 percent, according to a Transportation Department report published this year, while rail rates grew by 96 percent, though they are still well below historical levels, adjusted for inflation.

won a proxy battle for Canadian Pacific in 2012 and installed Mr. Harrison to lead the company.

Mr. Harrison brought his approach to Canadian Pacific, then to CSX in 2017, before his death that year. Other freight carriers and Wall Street increasingly took notice, and the practice has spread throughout the industry.

Many freight rail experts say P.S.R. brought necessary reforms to the industry, but they also say some practices, which can differ greatly among carriers, went too far or were poorly executed. Unions say the system has created miserable working conditions.

letter to shareholders.

“I’ll venture a rare prediction,” he wrote in February. “BNSF will be a key asset for Berkshire and our country a century from now.”

Peter S. Goodman and Clifford Krauss contributed reporting.

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So You Wanted to Get Work Done at the Office?

As managers try to draw people back to the office, they’re wrestling with how to rebuild a sense of community without taking away the focus that often came with remote work. Meanwhile, some workers are getting nostalgic for the silence they had at home, especially because many of the office changes aimed at bringing people back often make it harder to concentrate. (One company, for example, added a rock climbing wall.)

Research tends to back up the squishy sense that people get more done outside the office. A study from Stanford of a 16,000-person travel agency found that call center employees working remotely were 13 percent more productive than their in-person colleagues. Another study of 1,600 professionals found that they wrote 8 percent more code working a hybrid schedule compared with being fully in the office.

“We freed people of group think, we freed them of some exclusion and disrespect, we freed them of micromanaging, deafening and distracting noise,” said Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “We have literally a mountain of evidence that if you let individuals generate ideas alone, you not only get more ideas, you get better ideas.”

But many executives feel strongly about the benefits of the office: the opportunities to find mentors, build relationships and brainstorm. Some workers also struggle to be productive at home, especially those with care-taking responsibilities. So companies are going to extremes to bring quiet into the office.

Azeema Batchelor, who works at the law firm Wiley Rein in Washington, D.C., has become reliant on her office’s red light, green light system. A rod the width of a sharpie sticks out of her monitor with a dome on it. When she needs to focus, she turns the dome red. When on a call, she switches it to yellow. When she is open to people strolling through her office to chat, a green light beckons them in.

Ms. Batchelor’s office introduced the colored lighting system earlier this year, as employees started coming in two or three days a week. The aim is to help them find that balance between productivity and the actually desired stop-and-chat. Just the other day, for example, Ms. Batchelor’s boss came by her office to discuss a training they were planning. The green light was on.

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The Supply Chain Broke. Robots Are Supposed to Help Fix It.

The people running companies that deliver all manner of products gathered in Philadelphia last week to sift through the lessons of the mayhem besieging the global supply chain. At the center of many proposed solutions: robots and other forms of automation.

On the showroom floor, robot manufacturers demonstrated their latest models, offering them as efficiency-enhancing augments to warehouse workers. Driverless trucks and drones commanded display space, advertising an unfolding era in which machinery will occupy a central place in bringing products to our homes.

The companies depicted their technology as a way to save money on workers and optimize scheduling, while breaking down resistance to a future centered on evolving forms of automation.

persistent economic shocks have intensified traditional conflicts between employers and employees around the globe. Higher prices for energy, food and other goods — in part the result of enduring supply chain tangles — have prompted workers to demand higher wages, along with the right to continue working from home. Employers cite elevated costs for parts, raw materials and transportation in holding the line on pay, yielding a wave of strikes in countries like Britain.

The stakes are especially high for companies engaged in transporting goods. Their executives contend that the Great Supply Chain Disruption is largely the result of labor shortages. Ports are overwhelmed and retail shelves are short of goods because the supply chain has run out of people willing to drive trucks and move goods through warehouses, the argument goes.

Some labor experts challenge such claims, while reframing worker shortages as an unwillingness by employers to pay enough to attract the needed numbers of people.

“This shortage narrative is industry-lobbying rhetoric,” said Steve Viscelli, an economic sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream.” “There is no shortage of truck drivers. These are just really bad jobs.”

A day spent wandering the Home Delivery World trade show inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center revealed how supply chain companies are pursuing automation and flexible staffing as antidotes to rising wages. They are eager to embrace robots as an alternative to human workers. Robots never get sick, not even in a pandemic. They never stay home to attend to their children.

A large truck painted purple and white occupied a prime position on the showroom floor. It was a driverless delivery vehicle produced by Gatik, a Silicon Valley company that is running 30 of them between distribution centers and Walmart stores in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas.

Here was the fix to the difficulties of trucking firms in attracting and retaining drivers, said Richard Steiner, Gatik’s head of policy and communications.

“It’s not quite as appealing a profession as it once was,” he said. “We’re able to offer a solution to that trouble.”

Nearby, an Israeli start-up company, SafeMode, touted a means to limit the notoriously high turnover plaguing the trucking industry. The company has developed an app that monitors the actions of drivers — their speed, the abruptness of their braking, their fuel efficiency — while rewarding those who perform better than their peers.

The company’s founder and chief executive, Ido Levy, displayed data captured the previous day from a driver in Houston. The driver’s steady hand at the wheel had earned him an extra $8 — a cash bonus on top of the $250 he typically earns in a day.

“We really convey a success feeling every day,” Mr. Levy, 31, said. “That really encourages retention. We’re trying to make them feel that they are part of something.”

Mr. Levy conceived of the company with a professor at the M.I.T. Media Lab who tapped research on behavioral psychology and gamification (using elements of game playing to encourage participation).

So far, the SafeMode system has yielded savings of 4 percent on fuel while increasing retention by one-quarter, Mr. Levy said.

Another company, V-Track, based in Charlotte, N.C., employs a technology that is similar to SafeMode’s, also in an effort to dissuade truck drivers from switching jobs. The company places cameras in truck cabs to monitor drivers, alerting them when they are looking at their phones, driving too fast or not wearing their seatbelt.

Jim Becker, the company’s product manager, said many drivers hade come to value the cameras as a means of protecting themselves against unwarranted accusations of malfeasance.

But what is the impact on retention if drivers chafe at being surveilled?

“Frustrations about increased surveillance, especially around in-cab cameras,” are a significant source of driver lament, said Max Farrell, co-founder and chief executive of WorkHound, which gathers real-time feedback.

Several companies on the show floor catered to trucking companies facing difficulties in hiring people to staff their dispatch centers. Their solution was moving such functions to countries where wages are lower.

Lean Solutions, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., sets up call centers in Colombia and Guatemala — a response to “the labor challenge in the U.S.,” said Hunter Bell, a company sales agent.

A Kentucky start-up, NS Talent Solutions, establishes dispatch operations in Mexico, at a saving of up to 40 percent compared with the United States.

“The pandemic has helped,” said Michael Bartlett, director of sales. “The world is now comfortable with remote staffing.”

Scores of businesses promoted services that recruit and vet part-time and temporary workers, offering a way for companies to ramp up as needed without having to commit to full-time employees.

Pruuvn, a start-up in Atlanta, sells a service that allows companies to eliminate employees who recruit and conduct background checks.

“It allows you to get rid of or replace multiple individuals,” the company’s chief executive, Bryan Hobbs, said during a presentation.

Another staffing firm, Veryable of Dallas, offered a platform to pair workers such as retirees and students seeking part-time, temporary stints with supply chain companies.

Jonathan Katz, the company’s regional partnerships manager for the Southeast, described temporary staffing as the way for smaller warehouses and distribution operations that lack the money to install robots to enhance their ability to adjust to swings in demand.

A drone company, Zipline, showed video of its equipment taking off behind a Walmart in Pea Ridge, Ark., dropping items like mayonnaise and even a birthday cake into the backyards of customers’ homes. Another company, DroneUp, trumpeted plans to set up similar services at 30 Walmart stores in Arkansas, Texas and Florida by the end of the year.

But the largest companies are the most focused on deploying robots.

Locus, the manufacturer, has already outfitted 200 warehouses globally with its robots, recently expanding into Europe and Australia.

Locus says its machines are meant not to replace workers but to complement them — a way to squeeze more productivity out of the same warehouse by relieving the humans of the need to push the carts.

But the company also presents its robots as the solution to worker shortages. Unlike workers, robots can be easily scaled up and cut back, eliminating the need to hire and train temporary employees, Melissa Valentine, director of retail global accounts at Locus, said during a panel discussion.

Locus even rents out its robots, allowing customers to add them and eliminate them as needed. Locus handles the maintenance.

Robots can “solve labor issues,” said Nathan Ray, director of distribution center operations at Albertsons, the grocery chain, who previously held executive roles at Amazon and Target. “You can find a solution that’s right for your budget. There’s just so many options out there.”

As Mr. Ray acknowledged, a key impediment to the more rapid deployment of automation is fear among workers that robots are a threat to their jobs. Once they realize that the robots are there not to replace them but merely to relieve them of physically taxing jobs like pushing carts, “it gets really fun,” Mr. Ray said. “They realize it’s kind of cool.”

Workers even give robots cute nicknames, he added.

But another panelist, Bruce Dzinski, director of transportation at Party City, a chain of party supply stores, presented robots as an alternative to higher pay.

“You couldn’t get labor, so you raised your wages to try to get people,” he said. “And then everybody else raised wages.”

Robots never demand a raise.

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The Flaw in Biden’s Pro-Labor Record: Uber Drivers Are Still Waiting for Help

As a part-time Lyft driver in 2020, Nicole Moore was listening carefully when Joseph R. Biden Jr., a candidate for president, said the refusal by ride-hailing companies to treat their drivers as employees “deprives these workers of legally mandated benefits and protections.”

Labor activists like Ms. Moore, who runs an advocacy group in California called Rideshare Drivers United, hoped that Mr. Biden, as president, would spearhead a flurry of activity aimed at forcing companies in the gig economy like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash to classify drivers as employees rather than independent contractors. Such a change would mean paying the drivers a minimum wage, giving them benefits and making them eligible to unionize.

Instead, a year and a half into Mr. Biden’s presidency, little has been done at the federal level to address independent contractors. Enforcement of existing labor laws has not been notably beefed up. And the president’s nominee to lead the Labor Department’s enforcement division was voted down by the Senate, including by several Democrats.

labor issues and unions, and that they have been hamstrung by a recent court decision that extended a Trump-era rule making it easier for companies like Uber to argue their workers should be classified as independent contractors under federal law.

In statements, the White House and Labor Department emphasized the importance of addressing worker misclassification but did not single out gig companies like Uber.

“The president ran on an aggressive and comprehensive approach to addressing worker misclassification,” said Alexandra LaManna, a White House spokeswoman who used to be senior communications executive at Lyft. She added, “The policy of this administration is to strengthen worker power and a solution to worker misclassification is a key part of that agenda.”

passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which included language making it harder for companies to classify drivers as independent. The next month, Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh suggested to Reuters that “in a lot of cases gig workers should be classified as employees,” sending shares of gig companies’ stock tumbling.

Mr. Weil would have investigated whether gig companies were violating labor law and sought retroactive minimum pay for drivers.

a judge threw it out. The companies were also stymied in Massachusetts. But without the threat of federal enforcement, their state-by-state approach got legislation passed this year in Washington, Georgia and Alabama.

Ms. Moore said she was pessimistic about Mr. Biden’s following through on his promises.

“That was certainly the hope,” she said. “I’m old enough to learn that you can’t pin all your hopes on any one politician.”

Kate Conger contributed reporting.

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This Remote Mine Could Foretell the Future of America’s Electric Car Industry

Hiding a thousand feet below the earth’s surface in this patch of northern Minnesota wetlands are ancient mineral deposits that some view as critical to fueling America’s clean energy future.

poor environmental record in the United States, and an even more checkered footprint globally. While some in the area argue the mine could bring good jobs to a sparsely populated region, others are deeply fearful that it could spoil local lakes and streams that feed into the Mississippi River. There is also concern that it could endanger the livelihoods and culture of Ojibwe tribes whose members live just over a mile from Talon’s land and have gathered wild rice here for generations.

provoked outrage in 2020 by blowing up a 46,000-year-old system of Aboriginal caves in Australia in a search for iron ore.

at higher rates than any other racial or ethnic group in the state. Locals say the only Tesla for miles is Talon’s company car.

“Talon and Rio Tinto will come and go — greatly enriched by their mining operation. But we, and the remnants of the Tamarack mine, will be here forever,” Mr. Applegate said.

near tribal land.

approved a plan to ban the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035.

Indonesia and the Philippines, releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide before being refined in Chinese factories powered by coal.

Another source of nickel is a massive mining operation north of the Arctic Circle in Norilsk, Russia, which has produced so much sulfur dioxide that a plume of the toxic gas is big enough to be seen from space. Other minerals used in electric vehicle batteries, such as lithium and cobalt, appear to have been mined or refined with the use of child or forced labor.

With global demand for electric vehicles projected to grow sixfold by 2030, the dirty origins of this otherwise promising green industry have become a looming crisis. The Democrats’ new tax and climate bill devotes nearly $400 billion to clean energy initiatives over the next decade, including electric vehicle tax credits and financing for companies that manufacture clean cars in the United States.

New domestic high-tech mines and factories could make this supply chain more secure, and potentially less damaging to the global environment. But skeptics say those facilities may still pose a risk to the air, soil and water that surrounds them, and spark a fierce debate about which communities might bear those costs.

can leach out sulfuric acid and heavy metals. More than a dozen former copper mines in the United States are now Superfund sites, contaminated locations where taxpayers can end up on the hook for cleanup.

canceled leases for another copper-nickel mine near a Minnesota wilderness area, saying the Trump administration had improperly renewed them.

Talon Metals insists that it will have no such problems. “We can produce the battery materials that are necessary for the energy transition and also protect the environment,” said Todd Malan, the company’s chief external affairs officer and head of climate strategy. “It’s not a choice.”

The company is using high-tech equipment to map underground flows of water in the area and create a 3-D model of the ore, so it can mine “surgically” while leaving other parts of the earth undisturbed, Mr. Malan said. Talon is also promising to use technology that will safely store the mine’s toxic byproducts and do its mining far underground, in deep bedrock where groundwater doesn’t typically penetrate.

Talon has teamed up with the United Steelworkers union on work force development. And Rio Tinto has won a $2.2 million Department of Energy grant to explore capturing carbon near the site, which may allow the mine to market its products as zero emission.

estimates, the world will need roughly 20 times as much nickel and cobalt by 2040 as it had in 2020 and 40 times as much lithium.

Recycling could play a bigger role in supplying these materials by the end of the decade, and some new car batteries do not use any nickel. Yet nickel is still highly sought after for electric trucks and higher-end cars, because it increases a vehicle’s range.

The infrastructure law passed last year devoted $7 billion to developing the domestic supply chain for critical minerals. The climate and tax law also sets ambitious thresholds for ensuring that electric vehicles that receive tax incentives are partly U.S.-made.

has begged miners to produce more.

is home to deposits of nickel, copper and cobalt, which were formed 1.1 billion years ago from a volcano that spewed out miles of liquid magma.

Talon has leased 31,000 acres of land in the area, covering an 11-mile geological feature deep under the swamp. The company has zealously drilled and examined the underground resources along one of those 11 miles, and discovered several other potential satellite deposits.

In August, the company announced that it had also acquired land in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to explore for more nickel.

Talon will start Minnesota’s environmental review process within a few months, and the company says it anticipates a straightforward review. But legal challenges for proposed mines can regularly stretch to a decade or more, and some living near the project say they will do what they can to fight the mine.

Elizabeth Skinaway and her sister, Jean Skinaway-Lawrence, members of the Sandy Lake Band of Minnesota Chippewa, are especially concerned about damage to the wild rice, which Ms. Skinaway has been gathering in lakes several miles from the proposed mine for 43 years.

Ms. Skinaway acknowledges the need to combat climate change, which also threatens the rice. But she sees little justice in using the same kind of profit-driven, extractive industry that she said had long plundered native lands and damaged the global environment.

“The wild rice, the gift from the creator, that’s going to be gone, from the sulfide that’s going to leach into the river and the lakes,” she said. “It’s just a really scary thought.”

“We were here first,” said her sister. “We should be heard.”

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