New surveys show how pandemic workplace policies are shifting.

Daily Business Briefing

Sept. 1, 2021, 7:45 a.m. ET

Sept. 1, 2021, 7:45 a.m. ET

Credit…John Muggenborg for The New York Times

Google said on Tuesday that it would delay reopening its offices until Jan. 10. The new date is a postponement from October, which was a postponement from September, which was a postponement from July, which was a postponement from January.

Companies including Amazon, Apple and Starbucks have rescheduled with similar frequency, and it’s becoming difficult to take new announcements about back-to-office plans seriously. American Airlines, The New York Times, Twitter and others have decided not to set a new date for reopening their offices.

These shifts, of course, reflect constantly changing circumstances during the pandemic. A batch of surveys captured how workplace practices and policies are changing, the DealBook newsletter reports.

On vaccine mandates:

Before the latest surge of coronavirus cases, few companies had announced vaccine mandates. But according to a survey released Wednesday, most companies now have plans to require that employees get vaccinated by the end of the year. Conducted by Willis Towers Watson, the survey polled nearly 1,000 companies that together employ almost 10 million people:

  • 52 percent plan to have vaccine mandates by the end of the year (including 21 percent that already do).

  • 78 percent plan to track employees’ vaccination status (55 percent already do).

  • 17 percent are considering health insurance premium rewards or surcharges to encourage vaccination (2 percent already do).

On employee expectations:

Creating and putting these policies in place takes time. Companies may also be responding to their employees’ shifting expectations (and fears) about returning to the workplace. Another report released Wednesday, conducted by the Conference Board, surveyed 2,400 U.S. workers:

  • 42 percent said they were worried about returning to work for fear of contracting Covid or exposing family members to the virus, up from 24 percent of respondents in a survey in June.

  • 29 percent said they were unsure if they would remain at their current job for the next six months. Among those looking for jobs, 80 percent said that their employer’s stance on flexible work arrangements was very or moderately important in their decision to look elsewhere.

On business travel:

Looking ahead to after the pandemic, one of the things that workers can probably count on is less business travel, according to a survey out Tuesday by Bloomberg of 45 large companies around the world:

  • 84 percent of companies plan to spend less on travel after the pandemic, with a majority of those planning cuts of 20 to 40 percent of their prepandemic budgets. Put another way, all of those Zoom meetings aren’t going away.

Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the Saudi oil minister and chair of the OPEC Plus meetings. The group’s last production agreement came after an arduous series of negotiating sessions.
Credit…Saudi Press Agency, via Reuters

Officials from OPEC, Russia and other oil-producing countries will meet Wednesday by video conference to decide how much oil to pump into the market as the pandemic continues to inject uncertainty into the global economy.

The meeting will be the first after an arduous series of negotiating sessions in July that led to a deal to increase production by 400,000 barrels a day in each of the coming months, adding around 2 percent to supplies by year end. The producers also resolved a dispute over production ceilings with the United Arab Emirates.

The agreement is subject to monthly review, but analysts say that there seems to be little reason for the 23-member group, known as OPEC Plus, to depart from the hard-won arrangement at this time. However, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the Saudi oil minister who chairs the meetings, has shown a penchant for pulling off surprises.

Oil prices have risen through much of this year as pandemic lockdowns eased and economies began a boisterous expansion. Prices fell sharply after the July agreement, causing concern that the production increase was too much, but they have recovered to about $73 a barrel for Brent crude. Shutdowns in the Gulf of Mexico caused by Hurricane Ida as well as a large fire at a Mexican offshore facility have restricted supplies.

Analysts say that officials are growing increasingly worried about the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant of coronavirus and could dial back on production increases later in the year.

“We get the sense the group is going to stick with the planned quota increase” this month, said Richard Bronze, the head of geopolitics at Energy Aspects, a research firm. However, officials “will want to keep the option of pausing supply increases later in the year open,” he added.

Credit…Edgard Garrido/Reuters

Two Canadian railroads — Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific — have for months been jockeying to acquire Kansas City Southern, which would allow them to become the first Canadian company with tracks through Canada, the United States and Mexico. On Tuesday, the Surface Transportation Board, a U.S. agency that approves freight mergers, dealt a blow to Canadian National’s attempt to get that done.

The board, in an unanimous decision, declined to approve a voting trust, which would have allowed shareholders of both Canadian National and Kansas City Southern to reap the benefits of a deal while the companies wait for regulatory approval to complete their merger. The decision complicates the already complex situation and threatens to derail Canadian National’s $30 billion bid, which had trumped an earlier bid by Canadian Pacific.

Voting trusts have a long history in railroad deals, and the board had approved such a trust for Canadian Pacific’s proposed takeover before it was outbid by Canadian National. The denial of the voting trust for the Canadian National deal indicates that regulators could have concerns and that it may not be approved. It could also send Kansas City Southern back to Canadian Pacific.

In a May letter to the board, the Justice Department wrote that its concerns about use of a voting trust in the proposed Canadian Pacific transaction “apply with greater force to Canadian National’s proposed acquisition of Kansas City Southern because it raises additional potential competitive concerns.”

The Surface Transportation Board wrote that it found “that using a voting trust, in the context of the impending control application, would give rise to potential public interest harms relating to both competition and divestiture.”

Kansas City Southern, for its part, may consider itself lucky for having options. In a 2016 paper on voting trusts in railroad mergers, Russell Pittman, an economist at the Department of Justice’s antitrust division, wrote that these trusts serve a purpose, protecting the interests of the acquired and acquiring parties. When the board rejects a trust proposal it can make it harder for the target company to find a new acquirer, but with Canadian Pacific waiting and watching to see what happens, getting another offer may not be a problem.

Canadian Pacific last offered $27 billion for the American railroad earlier this month. That number may be more appealing to Kansas City Southern now.

Kansas City Southern shares fell on the denial, while Canadian National shares rose and Canadian Pacific shares fell.

The stock market continued its quietly remarkable year in August, posting its seventh straight monthly rise.

Matt Phillips, who covers markets for The Times, surveys the state of the market.

The S&P 500 index is up over 20 percent for 2021 and has more than doubled in value since it hit bottom in March 2020. The market has closed at a record high 53 times — the most by this point of the year since 1964, according to LPL Financial.

“I hate to say it,” said Ed Yardeni, a longtime market analyst and president of the stock market research firm Yardeni Research. “But it looks like we’re learning to live with this virus, and the market certainly has.”

The lingering pandemic has lifted the stock prices of companies whose profits are tied to it directly — Moderna’s 260 percent rally this year has made it the S&P 500’s best performer — and those positioned to gain from the messy economic recovery, like metals manufacturers, energy companies and semiconductor makers.

The breadth of the boom was clear in July. Second-quarter earnings results were expected to be generally strong, but trounced expectations: Nearly 90 percent of companies exceeded analyst forecasts, the highest such level of “beats” on record, according to Refinitiv data going back to 1994.

When the S&P 500 this month rose to double its Covid-era low on March 23, 2020, it was the fastest 100 percent rise for the index since World War II, according to Yardeni Research. In roughly 17 months, the rally created nearly $20 trillion in stock market wealth.

Besides the sheer angle of the ascent, analysts have been struck by the smoothness of the rally. The S&P hasn’t suffered a 5 percent pullback since October, according to Mr. Detrick. Even with a 0.1 percent decline on Tuesday, the market is just a day removed from its most recent record high.

Not everybody expects the rally to continue unabated. Any disruption of interest rates and governmental supports could alter the persistently sunny outlook. READ THE ARTICLE →

“With the pandemic and labor shortages — the fact that for once we’re not totally disposable, they need us — it was the perfect time,” said Alexis Rizzo, right, a shift supervisor at a Starbucks in the Buffalo area.
Credit…Mustafa Hussain for The New York Times

Starbucks workers in the Buffalo area are asking the National Labor Relations Board to hold elections on union representation in one of the most serious union campaigns ever to confront the company.

Last week, the workers announced that they were forming a union called Starbucks Workers United, and on Monday they filed petitions for elections at three stores in the area. They proposed a vote in two weeks, our labor reporter, Noam Scheiber, reports.

Alexis Rizzo, a shift supervisor at one of the stores, said that she had had periodic conversations over several years with organizers for Workers United, the union with which the Starbucks workers hope to affiliate, but that until recently the timing for a union campaign had not felt right.

“With the pandemic and labor shortages — the fact that for once we’re not totally disposable, they need us — it was the perfect time,” Ms. Rizzo said.

She and several other workers said the pandemic exacerbated longstanding issues, such as the stress of understaffing, which became more acute as turnover and absenteeism increased and as workers were given additional responsibilities like sanitizing surfaces. The workers also said they felt pressure to come in when sick unless they could find a co-worker to replace them.

Despite periodic commitments by Starbucks to revise its policies, complaints lingered and appeared to intensify during the pandemic. READ THE ARTICLE →

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