“You would think that there would be enough data and enough history to see that a little more clearly,” he added. “But it also suggests that times are changing and they are changing fast and more dramatically.”

Strong consumer spending may have saved the economy from ruin during the pandemic, but it has also led to enormous excess and waste.

Retailers have begun to slash prices on inventory in their stores and online. Last Monday, Walmart issued the industry’s latest warning when it said that its operating profits would drop sharply this year as it cut prices on an oversupply of general merchandise.

above a reclaimed strip mine dating back to when this region was a major coal producer. Today, the local economy is home to dozens of e-commerce warehouses that cover the hilly landscape like giant spaceships, funneling goods to the population centers in and around New York and Philadelphia.

Liquidity Services, a publicly traded company founded in 1999, decided to open its new facility as close as it could to the Scranton area’s major e-commerce warehouses, making it easy for retailers to dispense with their unwanted and returned items.

Even before the inventory glut appeared this spring, returns had been a major problem for retailers. The huge surge in e-commerce sales during the pandemic — increasing more than 40 percent in 2020 from the previous year — has only added to it.

The National Retail Federation and Appriss Retail calculate that more than 10 percent of returns last year involved fraud, including people wearing clothing and then sending it back or stealing goods from stores and returning them with fake receipts. But more fundamentally, industry analysts say the increasing returns reflect consumer expectations that everything can be taken back.

burned in incinerators that generate electricity.

stock price plummeted nearly 25 percent in one day. Other retailers’ share prices have also fallen.

Target’s stumbles have been an opportunity for people like Walter Crowley.

Mr. Crowley regularly rents a U-Haul and drives back and forth to the liquidation warehouse from his home near Binghamton, N.Y.

Mr. Crowley, who turns 54 next month, focuses mostly on discounted home improvement goods, which he resells to local contractors, like multiple pallets of discontinued garage door openers, tiles and flooring.

But on a sweltering day earlier this month, he stood outside the warehouse in his U-Haul loading up on items from Target.

“I saw its stock got tanked,” said Mr. Crowley, a cigarette dangling from his mouth and sweat pouring down his face. “It’s an ugly situation for them.”

He bought several cribs, a set of sheets for his own house and a pink castle for a girl in his neighborhood who just turned 5.

“I end up giving a lot of it away to my neighbors, to be honest,” he said. “Some people are barely getting by.”

The buyers bid for the goods through online auctions and then drive to the warehouse to pick up their winnings.

It’s a diverse group. There was a science teacher who stocked up on plastic parts for his class, as well as a woman who planned to resell her purchases — neon green Igloo coolers, a table saw, baby pajamas — in the Haitian and Jamaican communities of New York. She ships other items to Trinidad.

The Pennsylvania warehouse, one of eight that Liquidity Service operates around the country, employs about 20 workers, some of whom have been hired on a temporary basis. The starting pay is $17.50 an hour.

Charles Benincasa, 39, is a temporary worker who has had numerous “warehousing” jobs, the most recent at the Chewy pet food distribution center in nearby Wilkes-Barre.

Mr. Benincasa said his friends and family had gotten in the habit of returning many of the goods they buy online. But as he’s watched the boxes pile up in the Liquidity Services warehouse, he worries about the implications for the economy.

“Companies are losing a lot of money,” he said. “There is no free lunch.”

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Wall Street Banks Are Getting Flexible on Working From Home

When Tom Naratil arrived on Wall Street in the 1980s, work-life balance didn’t really exist. For most bankers of his generation, working long hours while missing out on family time wasn’t just necessary to get ahead, it was necessary to not be left behind.

But Mr. Naratil, now president of the Swiss bank UBS in the Americas, doesn’t see why the employees of today should have to make the same trade-offs — at the cost of their personal happiness and the company’s bottom line.

Employees with the flexibility to skip “horrible commutes” and work from home more often are simply happier and more productive, Mr. Naratil said. “They feel better, they feel like we trust them more, they’ve got a better work-life balance, and they’re producing more for us — that’s a win-win for everybody.”

Welcome to a kinder, gentler Wall Street.

Much of the banking industry, long a bellwether for corporate America, dismissed remote working as a pandemic blip, even leaning on workers to keep coming in when closings turned Midtown Manhattan into a ghost town. But with many Wall Street workers resisting a return to the office two years later and the competition for banking talent heating up, many managers are coming around on work-from-home — or at least acknowledging it’s not a fight they can win.

rolled out its plan last month to allow 10 percent of its 20,500 U.S. employees to work remotely all the time and offer hybrid schedules for three-quarters of its workers.

“Talent will move, and it’s not only about a paycheck,” he said.

said. Wells Fargo started bringing back most of its 249,000-person work force in mid-March with what it calls a “hybrid flexible model” — for many corporate employees, that entails a minimum of three days a week in the office, while groups that cater to the bank’s technology needs will be able to come in less often.

BNY Mellon, which has nearly 50,000 employees, is allowing teams to determine their own mix of in-person and remote work. And it introduced a two-week “work from anywhere” policy for people in certain roles and locations. “The energy around the office has been palpable” as employees eagerly map out their plans, said Garrett Marquis, a BNY Mellon spokesman.

Moelis & Company, a boutique investment bank, has strongly encouraged its almost 1,000 staff members to come to the office Monday through Thursday, but with added “intraday flexibility” over their hours, said Elizabeth Crain, the company’s chief operating officer. That might mean dropping children off at school in the morning, or taking the train during daylight hours for safety reasons, she said. The new approach fosters teamwork and enables employees to learn from one another in person, while also giving them more control over their schedules.

Ms. Crain said everyone was much more flexible. “We all know we can deliver,” she said.

Ms. Crain, who has worked in the financial industry for more than three decades, recently committed to something that would have been unthinkable before the pandemic: a weekly 9 a.m. session with a personal trainer near her office. She said she hoped that breaking out of the confines of the traditional workday sent a message to employees that they were trusted to get the job done while making time for their personal priorities.

said last month.

But he and Goldman’s David Solomon have welcomed efforts to get workers back into Manhattan offices. Mr. Solomon echoed Mayor Eric Adams at a talk at Goldman’s headquarters in March, saying it was “time to come back.”

Andrea Williams, a spokeswoman for Goldman Sachs, said returning to the office “is core to our apprenticeship culture” and client-focused business. “We are better together than apart, especially as an employer of choice for those in the beginning stage of their career,” she said.

For months, Mr. Dimon has made a similar argument at JPMorgan — and continued to even as he said about half its employees would work from home at least some of the time.

“Most professionals learn their job through an apprenticeship model, which is almost impossible to replicate in the Zoom world,” he wrote. JPMorgan has hired more than 80,000 workers during the pandemic, he said, and it strives to train them properly.

building a new headquarters in Midtown that will be the home base for up to 14,000 workers, will move to a more “open seating” arrangement.

Banks outside New York are also adapting: KeyCorp, which is based in Cleveland, hasn’t set a specific return-to-office date, but expects half its staff to eventually show up four or five days a week. Another 30 percent will probably come in for one to three days, with the ability to work from different offices. And 20 percent will work from home, albeit with in-person training and team-building events.

The new setup is “uncharted territory” that is necessary to keep the work force engaged, said Key’s chief executive, Chris Gorman. While he comes in every day and is a big believer in face-to-face meetings, Mr. Gorman said he had avoided a heavy-handed approach that could alienate employees and prompt them to look elsewhere.

Mr. Naratil, the UBS president, is also a believer in in-person gatherings — he still spends most of his week at UBS’s office in Weehawken, N.J. — but he said the great remote-work experiment of the last two years had debunked the myth that employees were less productive at home. In fact, he said, they are more productive.

The increasingly hybrid workplace has forced leaders to connect with their teams in new ways, like virtual happy hours, Mr. Naratil said. The rank and file have shown that they can rise to the occasion, and the onus is on bosses to attract workers back to physical spaces to generate new ideas and strengthen relationships.

Managers, he said, need to have a good answer when their employees ask the simple question: “Why should I be in the office?”

“It’s not ‘Because I told you to,’” he said. “That’s not the answer.”

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Rising Gas Prices Have Drivers Asking, ‘Is This for Real?’

After months of working from home, Caroline McNaney, 29, was excited about going back to work in an office, even if her new job in Trenton, N.J., meant commuting an hour each way.

But when she spent $68 filling the tank of her blue Nissan Maxima this week, she felt a surge of regret about switching jobs.

“Is this for real?” Ms. McNaney recalled thinking. “I took a job further from home to make more money, and now I feel like I didn’t do anything for myself because gas is so high.”

The recent rise in gas prices — which the war in Ukraine has pushed even higher — has contributed to her sense of disappointment with President Biden. “I feel like he wants us to go out and spend money into the economy, but at the same time everything is being inflated,” she said.

higher heating bills. Natural gas reserves are running low, and European leaders have accused Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, of reducing supplies to gain a political edge.

While oil prices worldwide have shot up since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Biden and Democrats, who hold control of Congress, have faced consumers’ ire.

Cat Abad, 37, who lives in the San Francisco area, where prices have hit nearly $6 for the highest-grade gas, said she saw stickers on the pumps at one local station saying that Mr. Biden was responsible for the rise. She took the stickers off, she said, believing that he was not at fault.

Still, she said, “It’s a good time to have a Prius,” as she filled up for her commute down the peninsula to Foster City.

Inflation is already proving a perilous issue for Mr. Biden and fellow Democrats as the midterm elections approach, with many voters blaming them for failing to control the rising cost of living. The higher gas prices add further political complexity for Mr. Biden, who has vowed to curb the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels.

In light of the war in Ukraine, the energy industry is pushing the Biden administration to support more domestic oil production by opening up drilling in federal lands and restarting pipeline projects.

“This moment is a reminder that oil and natural gas are strategic assets and we need to continue to make investments in them,” said Frank Macchiarola, a senior vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group.

There is a chance that the strain on consumers may be temporary as global oil supply and demand are rebalanced. And, in the near term, lower consumer spending may have some benefits. Reduced spending could help constrain inflation, but at the expense of slower economic growth.

Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, rapidly rising energy prices were contributing to the fastest inflation in 40 years. Energy prices — including not just gasoline but home heating and electricity as well — accounted for more than a sixth of the total increase in the Consumer Price Index over the 12 months ending in January.

The recent jump in energy prices will only make the problem worse. Forecasters surveyed by FactSet expect the February inflation report, which the Labor Department will release on Thursday, to show that consumer prices rose 0.7 percent last month, and are up 7.9 percent over the past year. The continued run-up in gasoline prices over the past week suggests overall inflation in March will top 8 percent for the first time since 1982.

Some drivers said the higher gas prices were a necessary result of taking a hard line on Mr. Putin.

Alan Zweig, 62, a window contractor in San Francisco, said: “I don’t care if it goes to $10 a gallon. It’s costing me dearly, but not what it’s costing those poor people in Ukraine.”

Destiny Harrell, 26, drives her silver Kia Niro hybrid about 15 minutes each day from her home in Santa Barbara to her job at a public library. She is now considering asking her boss if she can spend some days working from home.

She said the rise in prices has contributed to her anger at Mr. Putin and his decision to invade Ukraine.

“It’s super frustrating that a war that shouldn’t even really affect us has global reach.”

Ben Casselman, Coral Murphy Marcos and Clifford Krauss contributed reporting.

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Whiplash on U.S. Vaccine Mandate Leaves Employers ‘Totally Confused’

“You can’t really mandate booster shots yet,” he said. “It hasn’t been signed off on by any federal agency.”

JPMorgan Chase, whose decision to require vaccines is complicated by its sprawling retail operations across the United States, declined to comment on how the court’s most recent decision, along with the recent spike in cases, affects any plans to mandate vaccines. But the bank on Friday told its American employees who do not work in bank branches that “each group should assess who needs to come into the office, work priorities and who should revert to working from home on a more regular basis over the next few weeks.”

Walmart, which has mandated vaccines for mainly its corporate staff, also did not have any comment on broadening that requirement. Only 66 percent of its roughly 1.6 million U.S. employees are vaccinated, according to data compiled by the Shift Project at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

Legal questions about the OSHA rule are far from resolved. Immediately after the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled on Friday, several of the many plaintiffs who have challenged that rule asked the Supreme Court to intervene as part of its “emergency” docket. Appeals from the Sixth Circuit are assigned for review by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who under Supreme Court rules could in theory make a decision on his own but is more likely to refer the matter to the full Supreme Court. With the Labor Department now delaying full enforcement of its rule until Feb. 9, the justices have several weeks to ask for abbreviated briefings if they want them.

“Things are going back and forth literally in a matter of hours,” said Sydney Heimbrock, an adviser on industry and government issues at Qualtrics, who works with hundreds of clients on using the company’s software to track employee vaccination status. “The confusion stems from the on-again-off-again, is it a rule or isn’t it a rule? The litigations, appeals, reversing decisions and making decisions.”

Even the spread of Omicron hasn’t changed the position of some of the vaccine rule’s most ardent opponents. The National Retail Federation, one of the trade groups challenging the administration’s vaccine rule, is among those that have filed a petition with the Supreme Court. The group is in favor of vaccinations but has pushed for companies to get more time to carry out mandates. Still, even as it fights the administration’s rule, the federation is also holding twice weekly calls with members to compare notes on how to carry it out.

“There’s no question that the increased number of variants like Omicron certainly don’t make it less dangerous,” said Stephanie Martz, the group’s chief administrative officer and general counsel. “The legitimate, remaining question is, is this inherent to the workplace?”

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The End of a Return-to-Office Date

“We decided as a leadership team, ‘what was magical about these dates?’” Ms. Anas said. “It was extremely liberating saying, ‘We’re going to see how this nets out and we’re not solving for a date.’”

She is unsettled by the possibility that they will still be working from home in March, two years since they first packed up their desks. But with coronavirus infections spiking, Ms. Anas is relieved that the company doesn’t have to weigh the merits of an early 2022 return, leaving workers to wait worriedly for updates.

“If we had kicked the can to January, they’d be fixated on that,” she said. “We keep focused on the work. This is just a distraction.”

For many organizational leaders, addressing the anxieties of their work force has been the only constant in the R.T.O. process.

With the spread of Delta, Jessica Saranich, who runs U.S. operations at the productivity software company Monday.com, got a flurry of notes from colleagues: Will we really go back to the office in August? Last month brought the news of Omicron, with a fresh set of questions: What does this mean for the January off-site gathering, with its promise of free food, partying and a Miami D.J.? Ms. Saranich’s team has delayed its return to office date three times, which has left some employees pleading for more permanence in the company’s policies.

“Sometimes our team will say please just make a decision, pick something, make us come back to the office or make us be remote,” Ms. Saranich said. “But it’s not something that we want to rush. To be able to lean into the discomfort and say we don’t know is a great gift that we can give to our team.”

Still, plenty of organizations aiming for an early 2022 return haven’t budged.

Express Employment Professionals, a staffing provider in Oklahoma City, aims to bring half of its 300 workers back to their newly remodeled headquarters on Jan. 15. The company had originally reopened its office in July in a phased re-entry plan, which was temporarily scaled back in September. Keith McFall, chief operating officer, feels that clear R.T.O. dates serve as a force of stability for workers navigating months of tumult.

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Wall Street Warms Up, Grudgingly, to Remote Work, Unthinkable Before Covid

In private, many senior bank executives tasked with raising attendance among their direct reports expressed irritation. They said it was unfair for highly paid employees to keep working from home while others — like bank tellers or building workers — dutifully come in every day. Salaries at investment banks in the New York area averaged $438,450 in 2020, up 7.8 percent from the previous year, according to data from the office of the state comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli.

Two senior executives, who declined to be identified discussing personnel matters, said they might push out subordinates who are not willing to come back to the office regularly. Another manager expressed frustration about a worker who refused to show up at the office, citing concern about the virus — even though the person had recently traveled on vacation.

Executives “have not felt that they could put on pressure to get people back in the office — and those who have put on pressure have gotten real pushback,” said Ms. Wylde, of the Partnership for New York City. “Financial services is one of those industries that are hugely competitive for talent, so nobody wants to be the bad guy.” She expects that big financial firms will eventually drive workers back into the office by dangling pay and promotions.

For now, banks are resorting to coaxing and coddling.

Food trucks, free meals and snacks are occasionally on offer, as are complimentary Uber and Lyft rides. Dress codes have been relaxed. Major firms have adopted safety protocols such as on-site testing and mask mandates in common areas. Goldman, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup are requiring vaccinations for workers entering their offices, while Bank of America asked only inoculated staff to return after Labor Day. JPMorgan has not mandated vaccines for workers to return to the office.

At Citi, which asked employees to come back for at least two days a week starting in September, offices are about 70 percent full on the days with the highest traffic. Citi, whose chief executive, Jane Fraser, started her job in the middle of the pandemic, has hired shuttle buses so that employees coming into Midtown Manhattan from suburban homes can avoid taking the subway to the bank’s downtown offices. To allay concerns about rising crime in New York, at least one other firm has hired shuttle buses to ferry people a few blocks from Pennsylvania Station to offices in Midtown, Ms. Wylde said.

Remote working arrangements are also emerging as a key consideration for workers interviewing for new jobs, according to Alan Johnson, the managing director of Johnson Associates, a Wall Street compensation consultancy.

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Austria Imposes Lockdown Amid Europe’s Covid Surge

Vaccination rates in most of Western Europe are higher, but the levels in Eastern Europe are far lower — from 59 percent in the Czech Republic to 24 percent in Bulgaria.

Belgium is highly vaccinated, at 75 percent, but a rise in cases has caused the government to impose tighter restrictions, including more working from home and wider mandatory mask wearing. That prompted a protest in Brussels on Sunday of an estimated 35,000 people near the European Union headquarters. Some protesters threw stones and set fires, the police made more than 40 arrests, and three officers were hurt.

Alexander de Croo, the prime minister of Belgium, called the violence “absolutely unacceptable.” Like Mr. Rutte, he said Belgians were free to protest, but that “the way in which some demonstrators behaved had nothing to do with freedom.” He continued: “It had nothing to do with whether vaccination was a good thing or not, this was criminal behavior.”

In Greece, the government said on Monday that unvaccinated people would be barred from indoor spaces, including restaurants, cinemas, museums and gyms. Vaccination certificates for those older than 60 will be valid for only seven months, with people then required to get booster shots to maintain validity.

In Slovakia, the country’s prime minister, Eduard Heger, announced a “lockdown for the unvaccinated” from Monday. Slovakia and the Czech Republic banned unvaccinated people from restaurants, pubs, shopping malls, public events and stores, except for those selling essential goods.

The W.HO. chief for Europe, Hans Kluge, earlier this month blamed the region’s woes on insufficient vaccination despite the availability of vaccines, and said that the continent could see half a million more deaths by February.

“We must change our tactics, from reacting to surges of Covid-19 to preventing them from happening in the first place,” he said.

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