U.S. weekly jobless claims remain high as backlogs, layoffs linger

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Millions more Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week as backlogs continue to be cleared and disruptions from the novel coronavirus unleash a second wave of layoffs, pointing to another month of staggering job losses in May.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits totaled a seasonally adjusted 2.438 million for the week ended May 16, the Labor Department said on Thursday. Data for the prior week was revised down to show 2.687 million claims filed instead of the previously reported 2.981 million. Connecticut said last week it had misreported its numbers.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims would total 2.4 million in the latest week. The jobless claims report, the most timely data on the economy’s health, could offer early clues on how quickly businesses rehire workers as they reopen and on the success of the government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

A broad shutdown of the country in mid-March to contain the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, has resulted in the worst unemployment since the Great Depression.

“None of these states had systems set up to process the unprecedented amount of claims in one fell swoop, so there are backlogs,” said Steve Blitz, chief U.S. economist at TS Lombard in New York. “We continue to read of firms cutting their workforce and these are firms that were not immediately impacted by the mandated contraction from COVID-19.”

Claims have been gradually declining since hitting a record 6.867 million in the week ended March 28.

Economists said claims numbers were staying high also as states were now processing applications for gig workers and many others trying to access federal government benefits.

These workers generally do not qualify for regular unemployment insurance, but to get federal aid for coronavirus-related job and income losses they must first file for state benefits and be denied.

Last week’s claims data covered the week during which the government surveyed establishments for the non farm payrolls portion of May’s employment report. The economy lost a record 20.5 million jobs in April, on top of the 881,000 shed in March.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)

Facing meat shortages, some Americans turn to hunting during pandemic

By Andrew Hay

TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) – David Elliot first thought of shooting an elk to help feed family and friends back in January when the United States reported its first novel coronavirus case.

Elliot, emergency manager at Holy Cross Hospital in Taos, New Mexico, had always wanted to go big-game hunting and, with the pandemic spreading, there seemed no better time to try to fill his freezer with free-range, super-lean meat.

So for the first time in his life, despite not owning a rifle or ever having hunted large animals, he put his name in for New Mexico’s annual elk permit draw.

With some U.S. meat processors halting operations as workers fall ill, companies warning of shortages, and people having more time on their hands and possibly less money due to shutdowns and layoffs, he is among a growing number of Americans turning to hunting for food, according to state data and hunting groups.

“I understand some people might be driven by like antlers or some sort of glory. I don’t want to do that,” said Elliot, 37, who received a prized permit to shoot a female elk in an area of Taos County where herds of the animal graze in vast plains studded with extinct volcanoes.

Elliot plans to borrow a rifle and maybe even a horse to carry the elk back to his vehicle after the hunt in November. “I want to make sure it’s a clean, humane shot, as much as possible, and get a bunch of food.”

Game and fish agencies from Minnesota to New Mexico have reported an increase in either hunting license sales, permit applications, or both this spring.

Indiana saw a 28% jump in turkey license sales during the first week of the season as hunters likely had more time to get out into the woods, said Marty Benson, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Firearm manufacturers have reported sales increases, and the FBI carried out 3.74 million background checks in March, a record for any month.

That followed a decline of 255,000 in the number of hunters between 2016 and 2020, based on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service license data, a 2% fall, as fewer young people took up the activity, hunting advocates say.

Hank Forester of Quality Deer Management Association expects a resurgence after many Americans saw empty meat shelves at the grocery store for the first time during March and April.

“People are starting to consider self-reliance and where their food comes from,” said Forester of the hunter research and training group. “We’re all born hunters.”

‘MENTAL CLEANSE’

Teachers Brian Van Nevel and Nathaniel Evans get up at 4 a.m. to try to be first into the forests around Taos to hunt wild turkey.

Evans, a middle-school teacher, has seen a lot more people stalking birds this year.

A town councilor as well, he is hunting not just for food but to reconnect with himself at a time when he is guiding Taos’ response to the pandemic as well as teaching online classes.

“Its been so important for me, being able to go out and kind of cleanse my mental card and just go and be present, you really have to be present, and quiet and listening,” said Evans, 38, who in April shot a 17-pound (7.7-kg) bird.

Some states such as Washington and Illinois closed state lands as the virus spread, prompting the National Rifle Association to lobby governors to keep them open to allow people to hunt for food.

Officials in Washington issued 10 poaching charges between March 25 and April 26 compared with three in the year-earlier period, the state’s Fish and Wildlife Department reported.

‘A GOOD IDEA’

Nina Stafford, 42, a building contractor from Fayetteville, Georgia, killed her first deer in January. She described the experience as “thrilling, exciting and remorseful for the deer.”

“The coronavirus has only made me want to go and do it more so that I don’t have that scared feeling of where’s my next meal going to come from,” said Stafford, who also grows vegetables and fruit.

To be sure, stocks of species like wild turkey can only sustain so many hunters. Wildlife ecologists Michael Chamberlain and Brett Collier fear the turkey’s existing population decline will steepen this spring.

Turkey hunter numbers in wildlife management areas in Georgia increased 47% this year from 2019, while turkeys killed during the first 23 days of the season rose 26%, despite no recent increase in bird numbers, the ecologists, respectively with the University of Georgia and Louisiana State University, wrote in a report, citing state department of natural resources preliminary data.

Not all states have reported an increase in hunting license applications, with both California and Florida seeing declines.

Still, big game such as deer could see similar pressure in the autumn as hunters have more time to max out “bag limits,” which in the case of Georgia is 12 animals, the ecologists said.

Elk hunts in most states are limited to a single animal per hunter who draws a permit in an annual lottery. Elliot sees no downside to paying $60 for a tag that could allow him to get close to 200 pounds (91 kg) of meat, if he can get a cow elk.

“It’s not just because what’s going on in the world right now. Frankly I don’t make that much money, so like this is just a good idea anyway,” said Elliot.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney)

Layoffs and food lines: How the pandemic slams the poorest U.S. workers

By Brad Heath and Veronica G. Cardenas

Laredo, Texas (Reuters) – Alberto Mendoza figures he can make it a couple of weeks on unemployment benefits before starting to decide which bills won’t get paid. The 26-year-old father of three lost his job training cooks when all the local restaurants started closing their doors and laying off staff.

“I have to pay rent, my truck bills; I have three children to support,” he said.

Mendoza is among thousands here in Laredo, Texas, along the southern U.S. border, who are teetering on the edge of financial ruin as the coronavirus pandemic takes hold – even though Laredo has seen no deaths and confirmed just nine cases by Tuesday evening. That’s a tiny figure compared to thousands of other hard-hit communities.

For an interactive graphic tracking coronavirus in the United States, click https://tmsnrt.rs/3bmK7N3

The plight of Laredo – a city of 260,000 located in one of America’s poorest counties – illustrates the breadth and depth of the economic pain radiating across the world as governments scramble to shut down commerce and issue stay-home directives to slow the pandemic. When city officials limited public gatherings – even funerals – to no more than 10 people, the local economy went off a cliff, despite the comparatively minor health impacts so far. The city’s rapid decline underscores the magnified fallout from the pandemic in economically fragile communities where most families live one or two missed paychecks away from desperation.

Poverty makes it much harder for people to isolate themselves to guard against infection or to seek proper care when they get sick, said Sandra Quinn, a professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health.

“A pandemic like this just feeds on social inequities and existing health system disparities,” she said.

In surrounding Webb County, which includes Laredo, nearly a third of residents live beneath the federal poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About as many don’t have health insurance. Nearly all the students in the city’s school system — now shuttered — were eligible for subsidized lunches or other government benefits.

Mendoza’s kids have insurance through Medicaid, the government-run health program for low-income families. Mendoza has no insurance at all. If he gets sick, he said, he would “go to the doctor and ask for a payment plan.”

Other families are already in the food line. One day last week, more than 800 people showed up at the South Texas Regional Food Bank for boxes of pasta, rice and other supplies. On a typical day before the pandemic, just 25 or 30 people might have stopped by the organization’s warehouse to get food to sustain their families through a rough patch.

Now, instead of coming inside to ask for help, they sat at laptop computers under an awning outside, no more than 10 at a time, using video chat to talk with workers who didn’t want to run the risk of becoming infected.

“You have to feel for these people,” said Alma Boubel, the food bank’s director.

The severity of the U.S. economic crisis will soon become more clear with releases of new data. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard recently predicted the U.S. unemployment rate may hit 30% in the second quarter – higher than during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Goldman Sachs analysts estimated that more than 2 million people applied for unemployment benefits last week alone, more than triple the previous record.

The unemployment rate in Webb County, estimated at 4.1% in January, was above the national average before the virus hit. Many of the region’s jobs are tied to the transportation industry that moves goods back and forth across the border with Mexico – traffic that U.S. President Donald Trump and the Mexican government have sharply curtailed in an effort to contain the disease.

Officials in Laredo and Webb County did not respond to questions about how they planned to handle the public health or economic shocks.

The realities of lower-wage work also often mean that people can’t shift their livelihoods to a home office, as professionals in higher-end jobs often can. That dynamic also complicates government efforts to stop the spread of disease through social isolation.

“Social distancing is hard, and of course many low-income people work at jobs that are physical, in-person, manual, and you have to show up,” said Sara Rosenbaum, a professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.

Studies after an outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus in the United States a decade ago found that minorities and lower-income families had a harder time separating themselves from other people in the way health authorities recommend. “They were less likely to be able to avoid public transportation, lived in larger households,” and had jobs that couldn’t be done remotely, Quinn said.

Ricarda Rios, 65, worked as a substitute teacher in Laredo before the schools closed. The system’s employees are still on the payroll, but not the subs. He said he is already “completely out of resources.”

That’s made it harder to steer clear of other people, especially when stores run short of basic supplies. “I have to go to different places until I get lucky and buy a dozen of eggs or a gallon of milk,” he said.

Carmen Garcia, the executive director of the Laredo Regional Food Bank, said she grasped the enormity of the crisis when she exhausted the supplies she bought for all of March just ten days into the month. Many of the people who come to her for help live in large families and work low-wage jobs that are now threatened. Many regularly seek cheaper medical care on the opposite side of the border with Mexico, which has been closed to non-essential travel.

“There’s a lot of worry now,” Garcia said. “Our clients, what they’re saying is they don’t know where else they can get assistance. They’re willing to risk their health. They can’t work right now, so they don’t have a paycheck. They need whatever food they can get.”

(Reporting by Brad Heath and Veronica G. Cardenas; Additional reporting by Ned Parker; Editing by Brian Thevenot)

The media has a big problem, Reuters Institute says: Who will pay for the news?

FILE PHOTO: Front pages of newspapers and magazines are displayed on an iPhone during the grand opening and media preview of the new Apple Carnegie Library store in Washington, U.S., May 9, 2019. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo

By Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – News organizations are being challenged by technology giants and unsettled by a broader lack of trust but they have a much deeper problem: most people don’t want to pay for online news, the Reuters Institute found.

Swiftly accelerating mobile internet and smartphones have revolutionized the delivery of news and destroyed the business models of many news organizations over the past 20 years, leading to falling revenues, layoffs and takeovers.

The mass migration of advertising to U.S. technology giants such as Facebook, Google and Amazon has hammered revenues while more than half the world’s population now has access to news via an internet connection.

But will people actually pay for news?

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism said in its annual Digital News Report that most people would not pay for online news and that there had been only a small increase in the proportion of people willing to do so in the last six years.

Even among those who do pay, there is “subscription fatigue” – many are tired of being asked to pay for so many different subscriptions. Many will opt for films or music rather than pay for news. So some media companies will fail.

“Much of the population is perfectly happy with the news that they can access for free and even amongst those who are willing to pay, the majority are only willing to sign up for one subscription,” Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute, said by telephone.

“A lot of the public is really alienated from a lot of the journalism that they see – they don’t find it particularly trustworthy, they don’t find it particularly relevant and they don’t find it leaves them in a better place.”

While many news organizations add paywalls and some see increases in digital subscriptions, there has been little change in the proportion of people paying for online news, apart from the “Trump bump” rise in the United States in 2016/2017.

In the United States, those paying for news online were likely to have a university degree and be wealthy: The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post did well on digital.

Still, almost 40 percent of new digital subscriptions at the New York Times are for crosswords and cooking, the Reuters Institute said, citing an article by Vox.

In Britain, around a third of those surveyed said they avoided the news due to Brexit. Leave voters said they avoided the news as it made them sad and said they could not rely on the news being true. There has been no Brexit bounce.

“If news organizations want to cut through with a direct route to users in an environment dominated by platforms, if they want to convince people to pay for their journalism then they must convince people that the journalism they publish has value for them, for the public,” Nielsen said.

NETFLIX, APPLE AND AMAZON

As they fight for revenue, news organizations are facing a growing threat from entertainment providers such as Netflix , Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Prime.

“In some countries, subscription fatigue may also be setting in, with the majority preferring to spend their limited budget on entertainment (Netflix/Spotify) rather than news,” said Nic Newman, a senior research associate at the Reuters Institute.

“Not surprisingly, news comes low down the list when compared with other services such as Netflix and Spotify – especially for the younger half of the population,” he said.

When asked what media subscription they would pick if they had only one for the next year, just 7% of under 45-year-olds picked news. The report showed 37% would opt for online video and 15% for online music.

Aggregators are also waiting in the wings: Apple News+ offers a single priced subscription for some access to premium titles including TIME, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Vogue, The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times.

That could deny publishers a direct link with consumers, limiting the information they have to make targeted advertising more effective, and valuable.

“Despite the greater opportunities for paid content, it is likely that most commercial news provision will remain free at the point of use, dependent on low-margin advertising, a market where big tech platforms hold most of the cards,” Newman said.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism is a research center at the University of Oxford that tracks media trends. Thomson Reuters Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Thomson Reuters, funds the Reuters Institute.

(Editing by Stephen Addison)

Fiat Chrysler Laying Off 1,300 Workers

A new Fiat Chrysler Automobiles sign is pictured after being unveiled at Chrysler Group World

By Bernie Woodall

DETROIT (Reuters) – Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said on Wednesday it is laying off about 1,300 workers indefinitely and ending one of the two shifts at its Sterling Heights, Michigan plant that makes the slow-selling midsize Chrysler 200 sedan.

U.S. sales of the Chrysler 200 were down 63 percent in the first three months of this year from a year earlier, as FCA has de-emphasized sales of the model which had been often sold to rental agencies.

The lay offs will be effective July 5.

The company did not say how long it would continue to make the Chrysler 200. In January, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne said the company would cease making the midsize sedan as well as the compact Dodge Dart, unless a partner could be found to keep the production going.

United Auto Workers Vice President Norwood Jewell said in a statement that the move was not unexpected, and expressed optimism that FCA will find jobs for the workers by making more trucks and SUVs.

“FCA is not the only company experiencing a slow market for small cars,” Jewell said. “On a bright note, there is a strong demand for larger-sized vehicles. The company has been planning to increase its capacity to build more trucks and SUVs. I believe that in the long term this move will be a positive one for our members and the company.”

It is one of the largest layoffs at a U.S. auto plant since the 2008-2009 recession, and there is widespread speculation that it will not be the end of production changes among U.S. automakers trying to adjust to consumer tastes that continue to shift from cars such as sedans and hatchbacks to SUVs and pickup trucks.

Workers at the Sterling Heights plant in suburban Detroit will return to work this coming Monday after a 10-week shutdown called to match consumer demand with production, the company said.

In 2015, passenger cars accounted for 44 percent of sales in the U.S. automotive market, down from 48 percent in 2014. The last year cars outsold SUVs and trucks in the U.S. market was 2012, when 51 percent of new vehicles sold were cars, according to industry consultant Autodata Corp.

General Motors Co and Ford Motor Co  in the past year have adjusted to the shift in the U.S. auto market, cutting jobs and production for some models while adding to those of others.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Alistair Bell)

Sprint slashes 2,500 jobs to cut costs

(Reuters) – Sprint Corp has axed at least 2,500 jobs across six customer care centers and its Kansas headquarters as part of its plan to cut $2.5 billion in costs, a company spokeswoman said on Monday.

The job cuts, mostly in customer service, also include 574 positions at Sprint’s headquarters at Overland Park, Kansas, Sprint spokeswoman Michelle Boyd said.

Sprint, the fourth-largest U.S wireless carrier, has shut down call centers in Virginia, New Mexico, Tennessee and Texas and cut back jobs at its Colorado and Overland Park call centers, Boyd added.

The telecom company, which has kick started a turnaround plan, said last year it is looking at areas such as labor costs, network expenses, information technology and administrative expenses to reduce costs to the tune of $2.5 billion.

Investors have been concerned that the company, which is majority-owned by Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp, is burning cash at an alarming rate to acquire users and upgrade its network.

Sprint notified employees last week about the job cuts and severance benefits through email, Boyd said.

As of Jan. 1, Sprint’s workforce totaled 33,000 employees. The company has said that it planned to give layoff notices to employees before Jan. 30 as its severance package would be reduced after that date.

Sprint subscribers are increasingly using the Sprint Zone app and going online for their customer care needs and the jobs cuts were made in response to that trend, Boyd said.

Sprint said in November 2014 that it would fire 2,000 employees. In October 2014, the company launched a previous round of layoffs and shed about 1,700 jobs.

Boyd declined to comment on whether the company plans to slash more jobs in coming weeks.

The Kansas City Star first reported news of the job cuts on Monday.

Shares in Sprint, which have fallen about 21 percent this year, were down about 10 percent at $2.59 in afternoon trading.

(Reporting by Malathi Nayak in New York and Abhirup Roy in Bengaluru; Editing by Savio D’Souza, Alistair Bell and Meredith Mazzilli)