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Category: Marc Lifsher

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California's unemployment rate dips in September

California's unemployment rate dipped below 12% in September
California's unemployment rate dipped below 12% in September, and nearly 12,000 new jobs were created.

The jobless rate fell to 11.9%, from 12.1% in August, and was the best performance since June.

"I'd say it's a good gain in jobs, better than what we've been getting," said Howard Roth, the chief economist with the state Department of Finance.

California in September had the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation, behind only Nevada with 13.4%. North Dakota had the lowest rate at 3.5%, while the national rate was 9.1%.


Unemployed Californians face benefit losses

California job centers must devote more money to training

California unemployment rate hits 12.1% as employers slash jobs

-- Marc Lifsher

Photo: Employment seekers check the Internet at a Westminster job center. Credit: Jae C. Hong / Associated Press

California farmers call Colorado cantaloupe sickness 'isolated'


Federal regulators' pinpointing of a deadly listeria food poisoning to a single packing shed in Colorado provides evidence that the outbreak was an isolated case of poor sanitation practices, according to California's biggest trade group for fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables.

On Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration linked the bad cantaloupes to Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo. Water had been allowed to accumulate, providing an ideal environment for the bacteria to grow and spread, the FDA said.

"The recent, tragic outbreak of listeria associated exclusively with a single cataloupe packing facility in Colorado should not have happened," said Tom Nassif, chief executive of the Western Growers Assn. in Irvine. "We are confident that California and Arizona cantaloupe producers have the controls and preventive pactices in place to ensure the safety of over 45 million cases of canaloupes, 85% of the total U.S. volume, grown in this region."

Nassif said that Western Grower farmers in the two states follow stringent food-safety rules in all phases of production, harvest and packing.

The FDA investigation revealed that the Colorado packing shed was difficult to clean. Workers there did not "pre-cool" the fruit to remove field heat before it went to cold storage. Bacteria could have grown in the condensation that formed on the melons.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the contaminated cantaloupes made 123 people sick in 26 states, killed 25 people and caused a miscarriage in one pregnant woman.


Listeria: FDA IDs potential factors in cantaloupe outbreak

Tainted cantaloupes: How long will listeria outbreak continue

Listeria-related romaine lettuce recall unrelated to cantaloupes

-- Marc Lifsher and Eryn Brown

Photo: Late season-cantaloupes being harvested near Firebaugh, Calif. Credit: Gosia Wuzniaka / Associated Press

Solar energy jobs growing in U.S. and California, study says

One in every four solar energy jobs in the United States is held by a Californian, a new study said.

One in every four solar energy jobs in the United States is held by a Californian, and growth in the clean-tech industry is burgeoning nationwide, a new study said.

In August, California had an estimated 25,575 of the 100,237 solar-related jobs nationwide, according to the National Solar Jobs Census 2011, scheduled for release Monday by the Solar Foundation, a research and education organization in Washington.

The total for California was four times greater than the runner-up, Colorado, with 6,186 solar jobs as of last summer.

California ranked first in the nation for generating electricity from both photovoltaic solar panels and concentrated solar power systems that use mirrors to focus the sun's energy to create steam to run turbines, the study said.

"This report shows that the solar industry is not only creating green jobs across California but that the industry is forecast to continue growing at a much faster pace than the overall U.S. economy," said MIchelle Kinman, a clean-energy advocate for Environment California. "California industry and policymakers have a tremendous opportunity to build on this solid foundation and make solar a centerpiece of the state's energy policy."

Nationally, employment in all parts of the solar industry -- including manufacturing, installation, residential, commercial and large-scale power generation -- grew 6.8% in the 12 months prior to August, the study said. Overall U.S. job growth was less than 1% for the same period, it said.

Growth is expected to accelerate by 24%, creating 24,000 jobs over the next year, based on a survey of solar employers.

The industry's momentum is expected to continue despite bad publicity it received from a political scandal surrounding the bankruptcy of Northern California solar panel manufacturer Solyndra. The Fremont-based company recently closed after getting a $535-million federal loan guarantee.

"We have to look beyond the failure of one company and see the tremendous success that's occurring here," said Arno Harris, the chief executive of Recurrent Energy, a San Francisco solar developer.

Solar, added David Hochschild, vice president of another Fremont solar panel maker, Solaria Corp, "is on the cusp of playing a large role in mainstream markets."

Here's the census' list of the top 10 states by the number of solar industry jobs:

1. California          25,575

2. Colorado             6,186

3. Arizona               4,786

4. Pennsylvania       4,703

5. New York            4,279

6. Florida                4,224

7. Texas                 3,346

8. Oregon                3,346

9. New Jersey           2,871

10. Massachusetts    2,395


Google to finance rooftop residential solar installations

Obama administration approves two solar loans worth $1 billion

New addendum could help appraisers give credit for green fixtures

-- Marc Lifsher

Photo: Solar panels on the roof of a Fontana warehouse in 2008. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

California winemakers hail South Korean trade agreement


California grape growers and vintners are excited about ratification by Congress of a free-trade agreement with South Korea.

The treaty calls for the immediate removal of a 15% Korean tariff on California wine and 45% import duty on grape juice concentrate. Korean excise, value-added and other taxes on California wines also will be lowered, making the products more attractive and affordable to Korean consumers.

California accounts for 90% of all U.S. wine exports to South Korea, which totaled 500,000 cases worth $11.2 million last year.

Korea has a significant wine-drinking culture, with import consumption growing 177% in the last decade, said Robert P. "Bobby" Koch, president of the Wine Institute, a trade group based in San Francisco.

California long had been the second biggest exporter of wine to Korea, behind France. However, Chile surpassed the Golden State in 2005 after the South American nation signed a trade agreement with Korea that sharply lowered import duties. The European Union signed its own treaty with Korea, which became effective on July 1, boosting the likelihood of increased wine sales.

The U.S. action Wednesday is expected to make California wines more competitive in the growing Korean market.


Redwoods versus red wine

Farm brings every muscat imaginable

New law bans self-service alcohol sales

-- Marc Lifsher

Photo: Foley Winery in Santa Ynez Valley. Credit: David Langford / Associated Press

Unemployed Californians face benefit losses


Nearly 1.8 million jobless Americans could lose their unemployment insurance benefits at year's end unless Congress approves the president's proposal to reauthorize the federal program through 2012, said the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group known as NELP.

California leads the other 49 states with 305,400 unemployed people facing a cutoff.

About 70,600 would see their 26 weeks of regular, state-paid checks run out. Another 122,500 would stop getting federal emergency unemployment compensation, and 112,300 immediately would lose special, extended federal benefits.

Other states with large numbers of people on unemployment insurance include Florida, New York, Texas and New Jersey.

On Tuesday, NELP released a report called "Hanging on by a Thread," warning that a cut in unemployment benefits would damage workers, business owners and the U.S. economy.

"For millions of out-of-work Americans hanging on by a thread, unemployment insurance is the only thing preventing a free-fall into destitution and despair," said Christine Owens, executive director of NELP.

"For struggling businesses and the halting economy, unemployment insurance is what's preserving consumer spending at a moment we need it most. Withdrawing this crucial stimulus would likely tip the nation back into recession."

NELP is urging Congress to act quickly at a time when the national unemployment rate remains stubbornly above 9%. The last time federal lawmakers reduced unemployment benefits during a time of high joblessness was in 1985, when the national unemployment rate was 7.2%, NELP said.


California job centers must devote more money to training 

State Fund plans to lay off 1,800 workers by June 

Obama suggests changing unemployment system

-- Marc Lifsher

Photo: Job seekers scan the Internet at a government-run employment center in Westminster. Credit: Jae C. Hong/Associated Press


State-run workers' compensation insurer to lay off 1,800

Tom Rowe external use photoIn an effort to streamline operations and cut expenses, California's largest workers' compensation insurance company plans to lay off almost a fourth of its 6,800 employees.

Tom Rowe, the president and chief executive of the government-controlled State Compensation Insurance Fund, announced Thursday that the company was overstaffed by approximately 30% and plans to let go 1,500 to 1,800 civil service workers by the second quarter of next year.

It's the first layoff at the San Francisco-based firm since the 1930s.

"The positions being eliminated are in areas where business processes have changed significantly enough that work has been substantially reduced," Rowe said in a companywide email. "We spend more operating the company than we do on benefits to injured employees."

The layoffs are expected to save the company about $350 million per year.

The century-old company was created by the California Legislature to act as an insurer of last resort for employers that cannot get legally required workers' compensation coverage from private sector insurance companies. Last year, it collected about $1 billion in premiums from approximately 150,000 employers representing 15% of the California workers' compensation insurance market.

State Fund officially is a state agency, staffed by government workers, but it operates as an independent company and does not rely on any funding appropriated by the Legislature or the governor. State Fund is governed by a board of directors, mainly appointed by the governor.


Inquiry into State Compensation Insurance Fund ends

Workers' comp insurer State Fund to cut back operations

State Fund inquiry has gone very quiet

-- Marc Lifsher

Photo: State Fund President Tom Rowe. Credit: State Compensation Insurance Fund

Amazon invites its fired California associates to come back

Now that has settled a summer-long dispute with the state of California over collecting sales taxes on Internet purchases, the world's biggest e-retailer wants to hook up again with 10,000 operators of affiliated websites that it fired in late June.

On Tuesday, Amazon e-mailed its "California associates," telling them it's ready again to start paying them commissions for any sales made to customers who "clicked through" to Amazon's shopping site.

"As you may have heard, California Gov. Jerry Brown has signed legislation repealing the law that had forced us to terminate our California Associates," Amazon said. "We are pleased to invite all California Associates whose accounts were closed due to the prior legislation to re-enroll in the Associates program."

As part of the deal with Brown, lawmakers and bricks-and-mortar retailers, such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp., Amazon agreed to start collecting sales taxes in September 2012 and work with California and other states to ask Congress to pass a national Internet sales tax collection law.

While the agreement is good news for many Amazon affiliates, ranging from single-person bloggers to Internet businesses with dozens of employees, it comes too late for some operators, who had already gone out of business or fled the state when their Amazon-related revenues started disappearing.

"I liked California while it lasted, but I was losing my entire family's income," said Ken Rockwell. He quickly moved from San Diego back to his native New York City after Amazon cut him off.

"Why would I come back?

Rockwell said he can run his photography website from anywhere he has an Internet connection.

"I'm looking forward to this thing being worked out on a national scale," he said, "but that's going to take some years."


The compromise

Amazon to alter the way it does business in California

Amazon cuts deal on California sales taxes

-- Marc Lifsher

Photo: Amazon fulfillment center in Goodyear, Ariz. Credit: Ross D. Franklin /Associated Press

Gov. Jerry Brown asks PUC to pass electric bill surcharge


Gov. Jerry Brown is asking his appointed members of the California Public Utilities Commission to come up with a way to continue tacking a surcharge on residential and commercial electric bills to pay for an energy efficiency program that did not get renewed by the Legislature last month.

The $400-million-a-year program is set to expire at the end of the year.

"We cannot afford to let any of these job-creating programs lapse," Brown said in a letter to PUC President Michael Peevey. The surcharges -- $1 to $2 a month on a typical residential bill -- pay for a 14-year-old levy called the Public Goods Charge. It pays for retrofitting structures to make them use less energy, for renewable energy subsidies and for research.

"I request that you take action under the commission's authority to ensure that programs like those supported by the Public Goods Charge are instituted -- and hopefully at their current levels," Brown wrote to Peevey.

The PUC will consider opening a legal and administrative proceeding on Brown's request at its Oct. 6 meeting in San Francisco, said spokeswoman Terrie D. Prosper.

"We're pursuing the fastest path to consider maintain funding levels for these programs and policies already underway," Prosper said.

Some environmentalists said they're supporting the governor's effort to revive the Public Goods Charge.

However, Sierra Club lobbyist Jim Metropulos lamented that Brown did not push earlier and more energetically to get enough bipartisan legislative support to pass the bill.

"We were disappointed that the governor put [his bill] out late, if it was one of his priorities," he said.


Designs on energy efficiency

State should extend energy levy

Light-bulb standards equal energy efficiency

-- Marc Lifsher

Photo: A man looks at energy efficient washing machines at a mall in Baldwin Hills. Credit: Katie Falkenberg / For The Times

California seeks $17 million in back wages from ZipRealty

California's labor commissioner has filed a $17-million lawsuit for back wages against a San Francisco Bay Area real estate brokerage, ZipRealty Inc., that markets homes statewide and nationally using an Internet-based sales strategy.

The case is the largest minimum wage enforcement action in California history, according to the California Department of Industrial Relations.

The complaint filed in Alameda County Superior Court accuses ZipRealty of Emeryville of not paying minimum wage and overtime pay to hundreds of agents throughout California.

The lawsuit seeks about $7.5 million in unpaid minimum wages, $1.3 million in unpaid overtime and more than $9 million in damages and penalties.

"In times like these, enforcement of the minimum wage is critical to maintaining a floor that allows workers to survive," California Labor Commissioner Julie Su said. "This enforcement is important not just for employees but for hardworking employers who shouldn't have to compete against law breakers."

The suit is related to a September decision by a Kern County Superior Court judge that ruled that local ZipRealty agents frequently received no pay at all, even though as employees they were entitled to get at least minimum wage for all hours worked.

During the trial, ZipRealty argued that it did not need to pay minimum wage or overtime because the people involved were "outside sales persons." The court disagreed, noting that the agents should have been paid by law because they spent less than half their time working away from their offices.

ZipRealty lawyers did not respond to requests for comments on the lawsuit filing.

The ZipRealty case is a symptom of growing problems in the recession-wracked labor market, said Christine Baker, acting director of the Department of Industrial Relations.

"Violations of minimum labor standards are now occurring in a wide variety of occupations, even affecting employees outside traditional low-wage occupations," she said.


L.A.'s living wage ordinance isn't a job killer

Ganging up on guest workers

On Labor Day, he's thankful to have a job

-- Marc Lifsher



California treasurer: Put renewable-energy tax exemption on hold

President Obama and Solyndra Chief Executive Chris Grommet
The head of a California panel that hands out sales tax exemptions to renewable-energy manufacturing companies wants to suspend the program in the wake of the Solyndra scandal.

State Treasurer Bill Lockyer said he will ask fellow members of the California Alternative Energy and Advanced Transportation Financing Authority at a meeting Tuesday to not approve any new applications for exemptions from paying California sales tax. The exemptions are aimed at encouraging the purchase of equipment used to make solar panels and other energy-saving projects.

The program was authorized last year by the Legislature when it passed SB 71 by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima).

A decision on the request is not likely to be made before late October, a spokesman for Lockyer said.

"SB 71 created a tax exemption for businesses that requires a level of transparency and public accountability rarely, if ever, seen in California or anywhere else," said Lockyer in a statement released by his office. "But every government program can be improved."

He added that "in light of recent events"-- the potential loss of a $535-million federal loan guarantee to Solyndra, a bankrupt Fremont solar panel manufacturer -- "we owe it to the taxpayers to see if there is more we can do to make sure we don't give their money to companies headed for a fall or companies that take California's money and run to other states to create jobs."

Lockyer's authority had approved $37 million worth of sales tax exemptions for Solyndra, but the company only used $25.1 million to buy equipment before it closed.

The authority approved 32 sales tax exemption applications, valued at $104 million, of which $31.4 million was used, the treasurer's office said.


Solyndra's collapse is a tale of too much dazzle

Solyndra executives invoke rights, refuse to answer lawmakers

Obama fundraiser linked to program that aided Solyndra

-- Marc Lifsher in Sacramento

Photo: President Obama talks with Solyndra Chief Executive Chris Grommet during a visit to the company's factory in Fremont on May 26, 2010. Credit: Alex Brandon / Associated Press

Gov. Jerry Brown signs Amazon sales tax collection law


Saying it would save existing jobs and create new ones, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law legislation to require and many other out-of-state Internet retailers to collect sales taxes on purchases by California customers.

The new law will "create tens of thousands of jobs and inject hundreds of millions of dollars back into critical services like education and public safety in future years," Brown said Friday at a ceremony held at the San Francisco headquarters of clothier Gap Inc. The event was attended by the lawmakers, who sponsored the bill, and and retail industry executives.

Experts predicted that the new law would help bricks-and-mortar stores that have sales staffs compete with e-commerce companies that need fewer people to fill orders. They also predicted that new jobs would flow into the state if Amazon, as expected, opens some large distribution centers to better serve California, which is estimated to represent as much as 20% of the company's market.

Although the bill, AB 155 by Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Whittier), takes effect immediately, it doesn't require that sales taxes be collected from Californians until Sept. 15 of next year. The delay was part of a compromise put together by Amazon with representatives of national retailing chains, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp., as well as local, independent store owners.

As part of the deal, Amazon agreed not to go forward with a planned referendum to ask voters to overturn an earlier sales tax collection law that took effect July 1.

Proponents of the bill argued that Seattle-based Amazon received an unfair competitive advantage over stores because many Internet buyers did not include sales tax on top of the purchase price of the goods.

California law requires consumers to pay a "use tax" that is equal to the sales tax if the merchant doesn't collect the levy for the state. However, tax collectors generally do not enforce that obligation on non-commercial transactions, and less than one-half of 1% of taxpayers voluntarily pay, state officials said.

"The new law is a big victory for Main Street retailers that have battled to close a loophole that gives Amazon and other e-tailers special treatment in the tax code," said the Retail Industry Leaders Assn., a trade group that has lobbied across the country for laws similar to California's, in a statement.

Paul Misener, Amazon's vice president for global public policy, said his firm plans to bring 10,000 new jobs to California and invest $500 million over the next few years.



Gov. Jerry Brown expected to sign Amazon sales tax collection bill

Amazon sales tax deal avoids ballot fight

Amazon offers to build facilities in bid to end sales tax fight

 --Marc Lifsher

Photo: An Amazon fulfillment center in Phoenix. Credit: Joshua Lott/Bloomberg


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