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    Published on: September 10, 2021

    The Biden administration announced yesterday that private sector companies with more than 100 employees will be required to mandate that their workers either receive the Covid-19 vaccine or be tested once a week to see if they are infected.

    The mandate will affect more than 80 million Americans who work in the private sector.

    While the rule is expected to be released in coming weeks, lawsuits challenging the mandates - both from states and private businesses - also are expected.

    Axios writes that "the new rule, to be developed by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), underscores the Biden administration's ramped up efforts to control the virus as cases and hospitalizations largely driven by the Delta variant surge nationwide."

    In addition, the federal government will require health care workers at Medicare and Medicaid participating hospitals and other health care settings to be vaccinated, as well as federal employees.  In these cases, testing may not be an option.

    The Washington Post writes that "the cluster of new policies comes as the country grapples with the highly contagious delta variant, which has sent cases surging to more than 150,000 a day and is causing more than 1,500 daily deaths. The White House has struggled to convince hesitant Americans to get vaccinated and has been increasingly shifting toward requirements."

    KC's View:

    Here's the good news for businesses:  The government just gave you cover.  You can mandate vaccinations or constant testing and blame the feds.  In the end, it'll be better for your business because it will stabilize the health of your workforce, and it'll get the country back to a greater sense of normality.

    I'm sure that there will be much sound and fury in some quarters about these mandates, and I would agree that we all would be better off if they were not necessary.  But as long as there are people out there who are in denial about the efficacy of the vaccines or the potency of the coronavirus, and are willing to spread disinformation that - to put it bluntly - dishonors the memory of the hundreds of thousands of people who have died from it in the US alone, then something had to be done.

    People who refuse to be vaccinated are putting not just themselves at risks, but everyone around them.  They put the economy at risk.  They put businesses at risk.  They create enormous stresses on a health care infrastructure that then cannot deal with other medical issues.   It strikes me as being far more than just a public health emergency, and, much as I hate the mandates, they may be the only way to address the issue.

    Published on: September 10, 2021

    Walmart yesterday said that it would be "phasing out its decades-old quarterly bonuses for store workers … as it implements hourly wage increases for hundreds of thousands of its employees," the Wall Street Journal reports.

    According to the story, "A Walmart spokeswoman said most workers say their hourly wage is the most important part of their pay, and that folding the bonus into wages increases the amount of consistent, predictable income. She said the quarterly bonus makes up just a portion of the pay increase workers are receiving."

    And, some context from the Journal piece:

    "The bonuses have been part of Walmart store workers’ potential compensation for decades. Early on, Walmart distributed the bonuses annually based on store performance. Over the years the retailer has used a variety of metrics, including attendance or store-theft level, to determine the payout. Walmart moved the bonus to a quarterly structure in 2007. In some quarters, a store’s performance doesn’t qualify workers for a bonus."

    The Journal notes that "last week, Walmart said it would raise its starting wage to $12 from the $11 floor established in 2018, a move that will increase pay for over 525,000 of its 1.6 million U.S. workers by at least $1 an hour."

    The change is expected to be completed by the end of next year.

    KC's View:

    The thing about a bonus is that it rewards exceptional performance, as opposed to a salary, which compensates you for coming to work.  I'm not saying that this change will make a difference is how people feel about their jobs, but I do think there is something powerful about performance-related bonuses.

    Published on: September 10, 2021

    From CNBC, a story about how Dollar General CEO Todd Vasos says that "the retailer is chasing business opportunities in health care for a simple reason: About 65% of the company’s stores are located in 'health deserts.'

    "That translates to more than 10,000 stores — including many in rural areas and small towns — where customers must drive long distances to get medical care, Vasos said.

    He said the retailer is in a prime position to change that … In July, the deep discounter said that it had hired its first chief medical officer and planned to add more health-related items to shelves, from dental supplies to cold and cough medication."

    While specifics about what a health-oriented model would look like, Vasos tells CNBC that "we really have an opportunity to grow that health-care side of the business — not only products in the store, but services … “There’s as many if not more health/medical deserts in rural America as there are food deserts.  We believe we have the ability to service the consumer in a lot of these instances where she today has to drive 30, 40 minutes to get basic health care."

    KC's View:

    Factor this new interest into Dollar general's enormous growth numbers, and one can get a sense of exactly how impactful a strong health care focus could be.

    Published on: September 10, 2021

    Random and illustrative stories about the global pandemic and how businesses and various business sectors are trying to recover from it, with brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  Here are the US Covid-19 coronavirus numbers:  41,561,156 total cases … 674,547 deaths … and 31,744,959 reported recoveries.

    The global numbers:  224,182,024 total cases … 4,623,815 fatalities … and 200,794,263 reported recoveries.  (Source.)

    •  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 73.4 percent of the US population age 12 and older has received at least one dose of vaccine, with 62.5 percent being fully vaccinated.

    •  Reuters reports that "the White House said Thursday that Amazon, Walmart, and Kroger will sell at home rapid COVID-19 tests at-cost for the next three months.

    •  Axios reports that "the Los Angeles Unified Board of Education approved a measure Thursday mandating eligible students in the nation's second-biggest school district to be vaccinated against the coronavirus … It's the first major school district to require vaccines for students — a move that may set a precedent for school districts across the country to follow.

    "The school district, which has seen a number of legal challenges to its other COVID-19 mitigation measures, will likely face more litigation over the mandate."

    •  The Seattle Times reports that Washington State  Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday "announced a new statewide requirement for masks to be worn at large outdoor gatherings as Washington rides the crest of its fifth and largest wave of COVID-19.

    "Fueled by the more contagious Delta variant, hospitals are seeing record-levels of coronavirus patients, and large outbreaks are being traced to outdoor music festivals and county fairs …  the state’s current requirement for indoor facial coverings in public spaces will be expanded to include outdoor events with 500 or more attendees, according to the governor’s office. That mandate will apply to both vaccinated and unvaccinated people."

    Published on: September 10, 2021

    •  The Wall Street Journal reports that "DoorDash Inc., Grubhub Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc.’s Uber Eats division are suing New York City over its law permanently capping the amount of commissions the apps can charge restaurants to use their services, the latest move in a growing clash between the platforms and local regulators.

    "The three largest food-delivery companies filed the suit in federal court in New York late Thursday, contending that the fee cap is harmful and constitutes government overreach. The limit on fees has cost the companies hundreds of millions of dollars combined through July, they said in the suit.

    "A permanent cap will likely require them to rewrite contracts with restaurants, reduce marketing in the city and raise fees for consumers, the companies said in the complaint.

    The companies are seeking an injunction that would prevent New York from enforcing the fee-cap ordinance adopted last month, unspecified monetary damages and a jury trial."

    •  CNBC reports that Amazon yesterday said it would begin selling its own branded television sets.

    According to the story, "There will be two versions — the high-end Amazon Fire TV Omni Series and the more affordable Amazon Fire TV 4-Series — each available in different sizes. They go on sale in October at prices ranging from $369.99 to $1,099.99."

    There are two goals:  "to better integrate its Fire TV software with Alexa voice controls," as well as to give Amazon "the power to set its own prices, which means it could undercut competitors the way it does with its Fire tablets, which sell for a fraction of the price of Apple’s iPads."

    CNBC notes that "until now, Amazon has sold streaming sticks that plug into TVs, and has worked with other manufacturers, like Toshiba and Insignia in the U.S., to build TV sets with its own Amazon Fire interface, which offers voice control and easy access to Amazon Prime video and other streaming services.

    "Competitors like Roku and Google have followed a similar path with plug-in sticks and third-party manufacturers.

    "But Amazon is the first of those to launch its own TV."

    •  Amazon yesterday announced that it plans to "expand the education and skills training benefits it offers to its U.S. employees with a total investment of $1.2 billion by 2025. Through its popular Career Choice program, the company will fund full college tuition, as well as high school diplomas, GEDs, and English as a Second Language (ESL) proficiency certifications for its front-line employees - including those who have been at the company for just three months. Amazon is also adding three new education programs to provide employees with the opportunity to learn skills within data center maintenance and technology, IT, and user experience and research design."

    Published on: September 10, 2021

    •  The Associated Press reports that "the number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell last week to 310,000, a pandemic low and a sign that the surge in COVID-19 cases caused by the Delta variant has yet to lead to widespread layoffs.

    "Thursday’s report from the Labor Department showed that jobless claims dropped from a revised total of 345,000 the week before. And at their current pace, weekly applications for benefits are edging toward their pre-pandemic figure of roughly 225,000.

    •  Walgreens Boots Alliance and VillageMD yesterday announced "the opening of 18 Village Medical at Walgreens locations in the Phoenix area with plans to open four additional locations by end of this year."  The companies said that "through the Walgreens and VillageMD integrated care model, patients are able to receive comprehensive primary care alongside convenient and cost-effective pharmacy services."

    Published on: September 10, 2021

    •  Publix Super Markets announced that John Goff, ther company's  Miami Division Vice President, has been named Senior Vice President of Retail Operations, effective Jan. 1, 2022.

    At the same time, Regional Director Matt Crawley will succeed Goff as Miami Division Vice President.

    Published on: September 10, 2021

    Yesterday we took note of a Bloomberg story about how "the Biden administration is taking aim at major meatpackers, charging that 'pandemic profiteering' is squeezing consumers and farmers alike, with a few companies that dominate the industry raking in record profits.

    "White House National Economic Council Director Brian Deese said Wednesday that increases in the prices of beef, pork and poultry are responsible for half the jump in food prices since late 2020, yet farmers have seen little gain in what they are paid by giant meat companies."

    North American Meat Institute COO Mark Dopp issued the following statement:

    "As with almost every industry, meat and poultry packers and processors of all sizes have been, and continue to be, affected by the global pandemic and the inflationary trends that challenge the U.S. economy.  American consumers of most goods and services are seeing higher costs, largely due to a persistent and widespread labor shortage. The meat and poultry industry is no different. Issuing inflammatory statements that ignore the fundamentals of how supply and demand affects markets accomplishes nothing. Meat and poultry markets are competitive and dynamic with no one sector of the industry consistently dominating the market at the expense of another."

    I commented:

    Seems to me that it is possible for two things to be happening at the same time - that, in fact, a labor shortage is having an impact on the supply chain and resulting in product shortages and higher prices, and that meatpackers could be taking advantage of the moment to add to their margins.

    The proof will be in the pudding.  Let's see what profits look like when these companies report their financial results in coming quarters.  The bet here is that they'll be doing just fine, that their senior executives and investors will be amply rewarded, and they'll be hoping that everyone will have forgotten these specific accusations.

    Prompting one MNB reader to write:

    Mark Dopp said it best.  This is not a money grab.  Companies are in survival mode due to the challenges faced.  I find it interesting that no one reported margin increases at the retailer level.  Do they not see this as a major contributor as well?  I think Bloomberg is just another rag that has 0 reporting skill sets and just propagates a narrative set by our government.  I take ZERO stock in anything they “report”.

    Really?  Bloomberg?  

    For the record, the New York Post also reported out the same story, explaining it pretty much the same way.

    Both stories gave both sides of the issue, and to my mind, were pretty fair about it.  I'm the one - being a pundit - who pushed the point about profits and margins.

    So if you're going to take a shot at someone, it ought to be a shot at me.

    A comment about another story, from MNB reader Tom Murphy:

    Regarding your discussion on billionaires and their investments, one of your readers made the comment, "I can’t help but feel irritation (anger?) that while the world is literally on fire, they choose to bypass our problems to seek out enterprises that are likely to immortalize themselves."

    I have always believed that democratic governments are seldom good at assessing the future and taking actions to avoid likely future challenges.  In fact, only farsighted private entities and investors, seem to be able to do so.  Two examples I might offer: 

    1) The mayor of New Orleans was recently unwilling to call for a complete evacuation of New Orleans pending the final determination of Hurricane Ida’s path.  Once that was known, it was too late to get all the throngs out of the city on the available evacuation routes.  I am sure the mayor was concerned about the risk about this being an unnecessary evacuation and therefore, a problem with voters in the future.

    2) Politicians are between a rock and a hard place, if they take actions or make recommendations that turn out to be incorrect, the electorate will punish them.  Likewise, the electorate generally doesn’t want to be proactive either…we all respond better to a crisis.  Take a look at the unvaccinated, they cannot see the forest for the trees and have kept many a politician from supporting mask and vaccination mandates (for fear of losing votes although those constituents that are dying are lost votes as well!  (Although like you, I cannot figure out how these idiots can watch what is happening around them to neighbors, friends and family…and don’t stampede out for a shot!)

    Anyway, if we want coastal cities to prep for significant sea-rise or regular, futuristic upgrades to infrastructure, then we need to live in a more “socialist” or “autocratic” country…like The Netherlands.  Where visionaries can take action without as much political ballast!

    Proost!  🙂

    Published on: September 10, 2021

    In opening night of the National Football League season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Dallas Cowboys 31-29.

    Published on: September 10, 2021

    Summer scheduling  has meant that it has been a while since I've done an "OffBeat," so let me try to catch up with some short takes and, below, a conversation with a favorite mystery writer of mine.

    •  Worth, on Netflix, is a fascinating take on a real-world story keyed to the 9-11 attacks.  Michael Keaton plays Kenneth Feinberg, a lawyer specializing in mediation who takes on the job of figuring out to compensate victims and the relatives of victims of the 9-11 terrorists attacks out of a fund created by the federal government.

    The problem - and the theme of the movie - is that Feinberg's experience leads him to consider the issue as a math problem, with people compensated based on earnings, age and other factors.  But 9-11 and its aftermath was not a matter of arithmetic, a fact that Stanley Tucci, playing Charles Wolf (whose wife died at the World Trade Center), makes clear to him.  It is less about money than it is about justice, he argues.

    Worth really is about the dawning of compassion, and in taking that approach, it may vary at times from what really happened and how Feinberg really approached the case.  But the script, I think, does a good job of streamlining events and characters and yet staying essentially true in its connection to the emotions of the times.  Keaton and Tucci are, as usual, superb, and are ably supported by Laura Benanti and Amy Ryan.

    Painful to watch, sure.  But Worth is an excellent example of adult-level movie-making that does not shirk from nuance.

    •  It is an entirely different animal, but I really like "Only Murders In The Building," the new Hulu series that stars Steve Martin (who also co-created it), Martin Short and Selena Gomez as three residents of an Upper West Side apartment house in Manhattan who are all intrigued by real-life murder cases.  When one occurs in their own building, they decide to investigate - and turn it into a podcast.  (Of course.)

    The three leads have great chemistry, making hay out of the generation gap that exists and yet finding great rhythms in their dialogue.  They could have called it "Murder, They Wrote," I suppose, ands yet this has a lovely level of sophistication and wit that separates it from mere procedurals.  I'm four episodes in, and can't wait for more.

    •  Mike Lupica returns his latest entry in the Robert B. Parker-created Jesse Stone series, "Stone's Throw," in which the small town police chief protagonist - memorably played by Tom Selleck in a series of television movies - finds himself hip deep in a murder investigation that seems inextricably linked to a real estate war being waged by a couple of out-of-towners who want to bring a casino to Paradise, Massachusetts.  Lupica continues to do a solid job of following in the late master's footsteps, and he has what appears to be a good deal of fun writing about real estate mogul types who may resemble some other well-known real estate tycoons.

    "Stone's Throw" is a fun and breezy read and, as I always say, I feel grateful that more than two decades after Parker's passing, we're still getting stories about his creations - Stone, Sunny Randall, and, of course, the iconic Spenser.

    •  I was rooting around in the wine cellar (okay, okay … it actually is just a basement with a few wine racks) the other evening, looking for a red wine, and I happened on a batch of wines that I'd forgotten about.   The one I grabbed and dusted off was a 2004 Captain's Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Francis Ford Coppola's Napa vineyards, which I took upstairs and aired out a bit before pouring a glass.

    I suspect that the cab was a little past its prime;  I expected it to be just a little fuller than it was.  But it actually was very good, and was perfect for the grilled steak I was serving for dinner.  It also reminded me of how good so many of Coppola's wines can be, which is a good thing, since I also found a couple of dust-covered bottles of Rubicon down there.  It's a dirty job, but I guess I'm going to have to open them up and see how they're doing.

    •  Finally…

    A mystery writer of whom I've become a big fan is Warren C. Easley, who has just come out with "No Witness," the eighth in a series of novels featuring Cal Claxton, an Oregon defense attorney who splits his time between Portland and the wine country.  Claxton is a protagonist with a troubled past, and he's enormously appealing;  MNB readers won't be surprised to know that one of the reasons I also like the novels so much is that Easley has turned the terrain into a character in the books.

    I recently had the opportunity to chat with Easley via Zoom, and I hope you enjoy our conversation.

    "No Witness" is available on Amazon, at the iconic independent bookstore Powell's, and wherever books are sold.