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TALKING POINTS

The week in business

ECONOMY

Rosengren says economy will struggle until virus crisis is resolved

New England states are starting to allow shuttered businesses to reopen after two months of closures. But this is not the time to celebrate: Until the COVID-19 public health crisis is resolved, the economy will probably remain in bad shape. That’s the word from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s chief executive, Eric Rosengren, who spoke Tuesday — in an online presentation — to members of the New England Council, a regional business networking and lobbying group. Rosengren said the Boston Fed’s internal forecast now shows that the national unemployment rate is likely to remain at double-digit levels through the end of the year, after peaking at around 20 percent. (The rate was nearly 15 percent in April, up from 3.5 percent in February.) “That’s very sobering,” Rosengren said. “But it’s also a call to action.” As states allow various sectors to reopen, he said, it’s vital that the timing and design of the relaxing of restrictions don’t result in worse health outcomes. Even when businesses are free to reopen, many of them won’t see much demand until customers feel safe leaving their homes, he said. And without “public health solutions” to the pandemic, Rosengren said, it will be virtually impossible to return to full employment. “At the root of this economic problem is a public health issue that has to be resolved,” Rosengren said. He noted that the industries in which social distancing is most challenging — such as hospitality and entertainment — have suffered the steepest employment declines. They also could face the steepest uphill climbs back to normalcy. Rosengren said that Boston, New York, and several other major metro areas will be harder hit than rural places, where COVID-19 rates are much lower. Cities such as Boston that rely on subways and elevators to move people to and from their offices are inevitably more susceptible to the spread of the coronavirus than places where people commute by car, he said. Boston, he said, also will be hurt by its dependence on the tourism and higher education sectors, which, by their nature, bring people together from far-flung places. — JON CHESTO

WORKPLACE

Front-line workers unhappy with safety procedures file hundreds of complaints

As they risk their own well-being to care for infected patients or rush to keep store shelves stocked, workers across Massachusetts have filed hundreds of complaints with the federal government in recent weeks, alleging their employers failed to keep them protected from the coronavirus. Yet worker advocates, as well as former leaders of the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, say the federal agency is falling short of its duty to hold employers accountable. Most of the OSHA complaints have come from those considered essential workers, such as medical staff, delivery personnel, and supermarket employees, records show. Some workers said they were forced to work alongside sick colleagues. Others said they were ordered to keep working with symptoms or confirmed infections. The accusations include complaints about a lack of masks, gloves, and other protective equipment and assertions that companies failed to adequately clean work spaces or communicate risks to employees. Massachusetts logged among the most complaints in the country, trailing only Oregon and California, records show. The files provide an intimate look into the extraordinary circumstances that workers say they were forced to work through during the early weeks of the pandemic. As of Wednesday, more than 13,600 OSHA complaints and referrals related to COVID-19 had been filed nationwide. About half of those cases had been closed and none had resulted in citations or penalties, OSHA officials said. — MATT ROCHELEAU

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ECONOMY

Recovery in Massachusetts will be a slow road

Let’s add patience to the list of requirements Governor Charlie Baker laid out Monday for restarting the state’s economy. The reopening plan Baker that announced Monday is a cautious attempt to protect public safety while gradually lifting restrictions on the 60 percent of the state’s economy that has been shut down since March 23. It will be well into summer, at the earliest, before most consumer-facing businesses are allowed to resume operations, and it will be a long, slow climb from there as consumers get comfortable with shopping in stores again, eating at restaurants, and going back to the gym. “We are going to see a lot of people unable to go back to work soon,” said Tom Kochan, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “Hospitality, retail, travel, restaurants — they are going to continue to be hit very hard by this.” For that reason, Kochan said, the federal government should provide additional aid, such as extended unemployment benefits and more economic stimulus. Massachusetts ranks among the states hardest hit by COVID-19, and it is one of the last to reopen its economy. Nearly 1.1 million people in the Commonwealth have applied for unemployment pay in the past eight weeks. That’s nearly 29 percent of the pre-pandemic labor force. Nationally, the jobless rate is approaching 20 percent, the highest since the Great Depression, and the economy will shrink by 6 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Construction and manufacturing — which shed more than 100,000 jobs combined in the past two months, even though the sectors remained partially open — got the green light to ramp up to full capacity. Hair salon owners and pet groomers, car washes, lab and office space workers, and retailers with curbside pickup will get their turn on Monday.
— LARRY EDELMAN and SHIRLEY LEUNG

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LABOR

Return to offices to be gradual, with some workers staying home for months more

Governor Charlie Baker is allowing most offices across Massachusetts to start reopening on May 25, while those in Boston will remain shuttered until June 1. But the real opening date for many white-collar employers, the day when companies call workers back? It’s much later than that. In fact, hundreds of thousands of office workers will stay home for weeks, if not months, to come. Executives say they’re too concerned about their workers’ health to force them to return quickly. Plus, bosses know that many employees have kids at home; with school out and summer camp up in the air, they need flexibility or child care. And many employers want more time to sort out the new rhythms of a workplace where symptoms are checked every day and social distancing is paramount. “Working from home was the easy part,” said Lou Maiuri, chief operating officer at the financial services giant State Street Corp. “It’s ‘return-to-the-office’ that’s actually far more complicated.” The Baker administration on Monday said businesses should initially limit their offices to less than 25 percent of total capacity. They also need to develop COVID-19 “control plans” to demonstrate how they are preventing the spread of the coronavirus. The administration has been encouraging workers to stay at home, post-reopening. More than 50 companies, representing at least 150,000 workers, said they would extend work-from-home policies at least through the end of the spring. Many will extend them into the summer, and some for the rest of 2020. — JON CHESTO

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