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Where are the workers? Cutoff of jobless aid spurs no influx

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Where are the workers? Cutoff of jobless aid spurs no influx

INDIANAPOLIS — Earlier this year, an insistent cry arose from business leaders and Republican governors: Cut off a $300-a-week federal supplement for unemployed Americans. Many people, they argued, would then come off the sidelines and take the millions of jobs that employers were desperate to fill.

Yet three months after half the states began ending that federal payment, there’s been no significant influx of job seekers.

In states that cut off the $300 check, the workforce — the number of people who either have a job or are looking for one — has risen no more than it has in the states that maintained the payment. That federal aid, along with two jobless aid programs that served gig workers and the long-term unemployed, ended nationally Sept. 6. Yet America’s overall workforce actually shrank that month.

“Policymakers were pinning too many hopes on ending unemployment insurance as a labor market boost,” said Fiona Greig, managing director of the JPMorgan Chase Institute, which used JPMorgan bank account data to study the issue. “The work disincentive effects were clearly small.”

Labor shortages have persisted longer than many economists expected, deepening a mystery at the heart of the job market. Companies are eager to add workers and have posted a near-record number of available jobs. Unemployment remains elevated. The economy still has 5 million fewer jobs than it did before the pandemic. Yet job growth slowed in August and September.

An analysis of state-by-state data by The Associated Press found that workforces in the 25 states that maintained the $300 payment actually grew slightly more from May through September, according to data released Friday, than they did in the 25 states that cut off the payment early, most of them in June. The $300-a-week federal check, on top of regular state jobless aid, meant that many of the unemployed received more in benefits than they earned at their old jobs.

An earlier study by Arindrajit Dube, an economist at University of Massachusetts, Amherst and several colleagues found that the states that cut off the $300 federal payment saw a small increase in the number of unemployed taking jobs. But it also found that it didn’t draw more people off the sidelines to look for work.

Economists point to a range of factors that are likely keeping millions of former recipients of federal jobless aid from returning to the workforce. Many Americans in public-facing jobs still fear contracting COVID-19, for example. Some families lack child care.

Other people, like Rachel Montgomery of Anderson, Indiana, have grown to cherish the opportunity to spend more time with their families and feel they can get by financially, at least for now. Montgomery, a 37-year-old mother, said she has become much “pickier” about where she’s willing to work after having lost a catering job last year. Losing the $300-a-week federal payment hasn’t changed her mind. She’ll receive her regular state jobless aid for a few more weeks.

“Once you’ve stayed home with your kids and family like this, who wants to physically have to go back to work?” she said. “As I’m looking and looking, I’ve told myself that I’m not going to sacrifice pay or flexibility working remotely when I know I’m qualified to do certain things. But what that also means is that it’s taking longer to find those kinds of jobs.”

Indeed, the pandemic appears to have caused a re-evaluation of priorities, with some people deciding to spend more time with family and others insistent on working remotely or gaining more flexible hours.

Some former recipients, especially older, more affluent ones, have decided to retire earlier than they had planned. With Americans’ overall home values and stock portfolios having surged since the pandemic struck, Fed officials estimate that up to 2 million more people have retired since then than otherwise would have.

And after having received three stimulus checks in 18 months, plus federal jobless aid in some cases, most households have larger cash cushions than they did before the pandemic. Greig and her colleagues at JPMorgan found in a study that the median bank balance for the poorest one-quarter of households has jumped 70% since COVID hit. A result is that some people are taking time to consider their options before rushing back into the job market.

Graham Berryman, a 44-year-old resident of Springfield, Missouri, has been living off savings since Missouri cut off the $300-a-week federal jobless payment in June. He has had temporary work reviewing documents for law firms in the past. But he hasn’t found anything permanent since August 2020.

“I’m not lazy,” Berryman said. “I am unemployed. That does not mean I’m lazy. Just because someone cannot find suitable work in their profession doesn’t mean they’re trash to be thrown away.”

Likewise, some couples have decided that they can get by with only one income, rather than two, at least temporarily.

Sarah Hamby of Kokomo, Indiana, lost her $300-a-week federal payment this summer after Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, ended that benefit early. Hamby’s husband, who is 65, has kept his job working an overnight shift at a printing press throughout the pandemic. But he may decide to join the ranks of people retiring earlier than they’d planned.

And Hamby, 51, may do so herself if she doesn’t find work soon. The jobs she had for decades at auto factories have largely disappeared. The positions that she sees available now require skills she doesn’t have. Yet she isn’t desperate for just any job.

“I’m at a point where I feel too old to go off and get educated or trained to do other type of work,” she said. “And to be honest, I don’t want to go work at a computer, in an office, like what a lot of us are being pushed to do. So now I’m stuck between doing some line of work that pays too little for what it’s worth — or is too physically demanding — or I just don’t work.”

Nationally, the proportion of women who were either working or looking for work in September fell for a second straight month, evidence that many parents — mostly mothers — are still unable to manage their childcare duties to return to work. Staffing at childcare centers has fallen, reducing the care that is available. And while schools have reopened for in-person learning, frequent closings because of COVID outbreaks have been disruptive for some working parents.

Exacerbating the labor shortfall, a record number of people quit their jobs in August, in some cases spurred by the prospect of higher pay elsewhere.

In Missouri, a group of businesses, still frustrated by labor shortages more than three months after the state cut off the $300-a-week federal jobless checks, paid for billboards in Springfield that said: “Get Off Your Butt!” and “Get. To. Work.”

The state has seen no growth in its workforce since ending emergency benefits.

“We don’t know where people are,” said Brad Parke, general manager of Greek Corner Screen Printing and Embroidery, who helped pay for the billboards. “Obviously, they’re not at work. Apparently, they’re at home.”

Richard von Glahn, policy director for Missouri Jobs With Justice, an advocacy group, suggested that many people on the sidelines of the job market want more benefits or the flexibility to care for children.

“People don’t want to go back” to the pre-pandemic job market, von Glahn said. “Employers have a role in creating a work environment and offering a package that provides workers the security they need.”

In Wyoming, fewer people are in the workforce now than when the state cut off all emergency jobless aid. Fear of contracting COVID-19 likely discouraged some people from seeking jobs, Wenlin Liu, chief economist at the state Economic Analysis Division, said last week.

Wyoming has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, he noted, and has been a COVID-19 hotspot since late summer. The surge in infections, Liu said, may be causing some parents to keep their children home.

State Rep. Landon Brown, a Republican, defended the cutoff of federal unemployment aid.

“Wyoming,” Brown said, “is not interested in continuing to allow the federal government to keep people away from jobs, paying them as much to stay home in some cases as to go and get a job.”

Mississippi ended all emergency jobless aid on June 12. Yet it had fewer people working in August than in May. In Tupelo last week, a job fair attracted 60 companies, including a recruiter from VT Halter Marine, a shipbuilder located 300 miles south. About 150 to 200 job seekers also attended, fewer than some businesses had hoped.

Adam Todd had organized the job fair for the Mississippi Department of Employment Security, which helps people find jobs and distributes unemployment benefits. The agency has received “calls of desperation,” Todd said, “from businesses needing to recruit workers during the pandemic.

“We’re in a different point in time than we have been in a very long time,” Todd said. “The job seeker is truly in the driver’s seat right now.”

___

Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

___

Rugaber reported from Arlington, Virginia. AP Writers Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Mississippi, Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Summer Ballentine in Jefferson City, Missouri, contributed to this report.

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Front Range retailers hope 2021 holiday shopping season is a little brighter

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Front Range retailers hope 2021 holiday shopping season is a little brighter

Area businesses that have survived the pandemic are banking on the increase in activity and travel to make this year’s holiday shopping season a bit brighter.

Department and big-box stores offered deals on Black Friday while local stores looked forward to Small Business Saturday. The day geared toward independent retailers and other businesses was founded in 2010 by American Express and is cosponsored by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Wheelhouse Gifts on Denver’s South Pearl Street opened in 2020. The store, owned by Jody Fidler, was open for Black Friday and Small Business Saturday last holiday season.

“But because of the pandemic, it wasn’t probably as impactful as it could have been for us,” said Molly Casey, an employee who’s in charge of the store’s social media. “This year, knowing we can be fully open despite the mask mandate, is really important to us.”

Retail analysts and trade organizations say there’s reason for optimism this year. The National Retail Federation said sales rose in October by 1.7% from September despite ongoing labor shortages, supply chain disruptions and rising inflation.

Denver-area shopping centers experienced “a very significant and positive visit trend” in October, according to a statement by Placer.ai, which provides analysis of foot traffic based on data from devices enabled to share the information. Data from Placer.ai showed visits in October to three metro-area shopping centers — Cherry Creek in Denver, Southlands in Aurora and Park Meadows in Lone Tree — were at or slightly above levels for the same period in 2019.

October’s sales numbers indicate people are responding to factors affecting retailers heading into the holidays, said Dave Bruno, director of retail market insights at Aptos, a retail technology company.

“People are shopping early to minimize the risk of supply chain disruptions and inventory outages impacting their holiday gift-giving,” Bruno said in a statement. “The big question, obviously, is whether much of the planned holiday buying is being done early and December sales will suffer, or if this confidence and buying power will sustain strong growth throughout the entire season.”

Charlotte Elich is among Denver-area business owners who hope people turn out in force to support local retailers this holiday season.

“I’m always optimistic. My goal is always to surpass the year before and I’ll say we always seem to have done it, except for 2020,” Elich said. “Now my goal is to at least match 2019 this year.”

To meet that goal, Elich will have to deal with working shorthanded, something businesses from the country’s largest corporations to small mom-and-pop shops are facing as people have quit jobs or not returned after furloughs and layoffs. Elich, who owns 5 Green Boxes gift shop and another store on South Pearl Street in Denver, was struggling to cover shifts when two employees recently quit.

Now, Elich is working in the office during the week and working the counter on weekends. She also has to worry about staffing her store in Union Station in Lower Downtown and an outlet site on the weekends.

“It seems like I had a lot more applicants” in past years, Elich said. “I don’t have a whole lot of people applying these days.”

Elich, who has weathered the ups and downs of the pandemic, has been in business for 44 years.

Shauna Sankey of Colorado Springs started BlackGirlSalsa in August 2020 and hopes to grow it into a full-time venture. She is encouraged by the support she sees for small businesses in campaigns like Google’s Black Owned Friday and Small Business Saturday.

“It wasn’t like a master plan. It just kinda fell into that situation,” Sankey said of her pandemic-born pursuit.

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Medical center in Lafayette hosts test run of humanoid robot

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Medical center in Lafayette hosts test run of humanoid robot

TRU Community Care in Lafayette was the host last week to the unveiling of a brand new technology in the medical field — a humanoid robot that can perform basic medical tasks.

BEOMNI, a remote-controlled humanoid robot, pushes a cart of medical supplies down the hall next to TRU Community Care Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Wensel during a demonstration at TRU PACE Center in Lafayette on Friday. (Matthew Jonas, Daily Camera)

Beyond Imagination, an AI company based out of Colorado Springs, visited the Lafayette hospice center to test out the robot, named BEOMNI.

“We are excited that TRU sees the almost limitless potential of our humanoid robots in health care and has agreed to run this first pilot study with us. We look forward to partnering with them to bring a highly effective solution to market,” said inventor and CEO Dr. Harry Kloor.

The robot is controlled remotely using VR technology, so that doctors and specialists can see patients who are miles away. However, the physical presence of a robotic aid such as BEOMNI can make up for gaps that are present in current telehealth technology, such as physically touching and administering care to a patient.

As the technology develops, Beyond Imagination is hoping to incorporate BEOMNIS into other aspects of everyday care, offering an alternative to modern-day nursing homes and round the clock care centers.

Annually, the average cost of a nursing home in Colorado can cost around $100,000 for an individual patient; Whereas the cost of a BEOMNI aid would come out to far less than that, says Dr. David Wensel, Chief Medical Officer of TRU Community Care.

The need for a humanoid robot in the medical field is a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the staffing shortage in the medical field, according to Wensel.

1638023138 433 Medical center in Lafayette hosts test run of humanoid robot
BEOMNI, a remotely controlled humanoid robot, navigates the its way through a doorway while pushing a cart with medical supplies with TRU Community Care Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Wensel during a demonstration at TRU PACE Center in Lafayette on Friday. (Matthew Jonas, Daily Camera)

The pilot study took place from Nov. 9-12 in order to determine how the robot would fare in a real-world medical setting. The robot can perform tasks such as taking temperature using a thermometer, looking into a patient’s mouth using a tongue depressor and a flashlight, and even dance with patients — although long-term capabilities are expected to extend far beyond that.

This particular robot is a ‘version one,’ but is equipped with AI technology that will help the robot learn as it goes.

Another plus about BEOMNI humanoids in the health care field? “They can’t get COVID!” says Kloor.

BEOMNI robots are expected to be on the market in the next couple of years. For more information on Beyond Imagination and BEOMNI, visit beomni.ai.

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Denver artisan bakeries start “Bread Club” to keep business rolling

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Denver artisan bakeries start “Bread Club” to keep business rolling

A phenomenon early in the pandemic was captured on social media: people stuck at home were baking — and proudly displaying — photos of their bread.

“We’ve baked bread for thousands of years. It’s one of the oldest staple foods we have,” baker Zach Martinucci said.

So, there’s bread as sustenance. And Martinucci said that going through the steps of making bread might have helped restore a sense of rhythm to days that grew monotonous for people at home with few diversions.

Martinucci talks about cooking during the pandemic with two hats on: He owns the bakery Rebel Bread and studied culinary anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

His new venture, Bread Club, is intended to help local bakers keep their kitchens humming as consumers and businesses continue to adjust to a shifting marketplace.

Five Denver bakeries are members of the club, a market for local artisan bakery orders. The bakeries are Rebel Bread, Moon Raccoon Baking Co., Sugar Bakeshop,  Pandemic Donuts and  Mile High Pie Co.

Martinucci said the bakeries have a big presence at farmers markets, so their summers are busy. Sugar Bakeshop has a storefront. Rebel Bread has wholesale customers and opens a retail counter on weekend mornings at its kitchen and offices on South Broadway. The other bakeries sell online, to some wholesale customers and at pop-up events.

“I’m hoping Bread Club in the offseason provides a reliable way for people to sample and support these different bakeries that might not have regular hours,” Martinucci said.

Bread Club deliveries go out from Rebel Bread and are available in Denver and some neighboring areas. Customers can also pick up their orders at Rebel Bread.

Martinucci said people like being able to customize their orders and sample pastries, breads and pies from the various bakeries.

“The menu rotates and there’s always something new to try,” Martinucci said.

Sugar Bakeshop has been open for about a decade. Martinucci started Rebel Bread three years ago after working in a French bakery and attending the San Francisco Baking Institute.

The other three Bread Club members are pandemic-era startups.

Tanner Burgard quit his real estate job early in the summer of 2020 to return to his true passion of cooking. He “bounced around,” working for friends in the restaurant industry while trying to learn as much as he could. In February, Burgard started Mile High Pie Co. He settled on pies because of his love of savory dishes, like the chicken pot pie his wife makes. He also wanted to make something that could easily be delivered. “Without a storefront or anything, I knew it had to be deliverable.”

Burgard, who has three regular part-time employees, started with the savory and expanded to the sweet. His latest selection included Southern sausage gravy and bacon pie and walnut, whiskey and maple pie. Burgard’s latest favorite is a beef bourguignon pie. It’s made with red-wine braised beef, mushrooms, carrots, onions, potatoes and red-wine beef gravy.

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Fresh sourdough, left, and baguettes at Rebel Bread in Denver Nov. 04, 2021.

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