The United States needs to quickly find new supplies of lithium as automakers ramp up manufacturing of electric vehicles.
Lithium is used in electric car batteries because it is lightweight, can store lots of energy and can be repeatedly recharged. Other ingredients like cobalt are needed to keep the battery stable.
But production of raw materials like lithium, cobalt and nickel that are essential to these technologies are often ruinous to land, water, wildlife and people, Ivan Penn and Eric Lipton report for The New York Times. Mining is one of the dirtiest businesses out there.
That environmental toll has often been overlooked in part because there is a race underway among the United States, China, Europe and other major powers. Echoing past contests and wars over gold and oil, governments are fighting for supremacy over minerals that could help countries achieve economic and technological dominance for decades to come.
Mining companies and related businesses want to accelerate domestic production of lithium and are pressing the administration and key lawmakers to insert a $10 billion grant program into President Biden’s infrastructure bill, arguing that it is a matter of national security.
“Right now, if China decided to cut off the U.S. for a variety of reasons we’re in trouble,” said Ben Steinberg, an Obama administration official turned lobbyist. He was hired in January by Piedmont Lithium, which is working to build an open-pit mine in North Carolina and is one of several companies that have created a trade association for the industry.
So far, the Biden administration has not moved to help push more environmentally friendly options — like lithium brine extraction, instead of open pit mines. Ultimately, federal and state officials will decide which of the two methods is approved. Both could take hold. Much will depend on how successful environmentalists, tribes and local groups are in blocking projects.
Economists are expecting another big monthly jump in hiring when the Labor Department releases its April jobs report Friday morning. Forecasters surveyed by Bloomberg estimate that payrolls grew by 978,000 last month and that the unemployment rate fell to 5.8 percent from 6 percent.
As coronavirus infections ebb, vaccinations spread, restrictions lift and businesses reopen, the labor market has been healing. The March gain, subject to revision on Friday, was 916,000.
“Recovery in employment will come in fits and starts,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton. “But we’re going to see a lot of strong gains this year.”
Mall traffic has picked up, Ms. Swonk said, but manufacturing may be hobbled by bottlenecks in the supply chain. Restaurants, hotels and travel are coming back online, she said, but it is unclear whether the job increases in those industries will exceed the seasonal gains typical at this time of year.
The economy still has a lot of ground to recover before returning to prepandemic levels. In March, there were roughly 8.4 million fewer jobs than in February 2020, and the labor force has shrunk.
Employers, particularly in the restaurant and hospitality industry, have reported scant response to help-wanted ads. Several have blamed what they call overly generous government jobless benefits, including a temporary $300-a-week federal stipend that was part of an emergency pandemic relief program.
But the most solid evidence of a real shortage of workers, many economists say, would be rising wages. And that is not happening in a sustained way. As Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, said at a news conference last week: “We don’t see wages moving up yet. And presumably we would see that in a really tight labor market.”
Millions of Americans have said that health concerns and child care responsibilities — with many schools and day care centers not back to normal operations — have kept them from returning to work. Millions of others who are not actively job hunting are considered on temporary layoff and expect to be hired back by their previous employers once more businesses reopen fully.
The good news, said Robert Rosener, a senior U.S. economist at Morgan Stanley, is that the choppiness in the labor market that results from successive rounds of openings and closings seems to be easing. “People are going back to work and are more likely to stay at work,” he said.
This week the Republican governors of Montana and South Carolina said they planned to cut off federally funded pandemic unemployment assistance at the end of June, citing complaints by employers about severe labor shortages.
That means jobless workers there will no longer get a $300-a-week federal supplement to state benefits, and the states will abandon a pandemic program that helps freelancers and others who don’t qualify for state unemployment insurance. (Montana will, however, offer a $1,200 bonus for those taking jobs.)
“What was intended to be short-term financial assistance for the vulnerable and displaced during the height of the pandemic has turned into a dangerous federal entitlement, incentivizing and paying workers to stay at home,” declared Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina.
But that view is just one piece of a broad debate about the impact of temporarily enhanced unemployment benefits during the pandemic.
Gail Myer, whose family owns six hotels in Branson, Mo., says the $300-supplement is indeed a barrier to hiring. “I talk to people all over the country on a regular basis in the hospitality industry, and the No. 1 topic of discussion is shortage of labor,” he said.
Before the pandemic, Mr. Myer said, there were about 150 full-time employees at his six hotels. Now, staffing is down about 15 percent, he said. Jobs at Myer Hospitality for housekeepers, breakfast attendants and receptionists are advertised as paying $12.75 to $14 an hour, plus benefits and a $500 signing bonus.
Worker advocacy groups offer a different perspective. “The shortage of restaurant workers we are seeing across the country is not a labor-shortage problem; it’s a wage-shortage problem,” said Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage, a minimum-wage advocacy group.
In surveys of food service workers by One Fair Wage and the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, three-quarters cited low wages and tips as the reason for leaving their jobs since the coronavirus outbreak. Fifty-five percent mentioned concerns about Covid-19 as a factor. And nearly 40 percent cited increased hostility and harassment from customers, often related to wearing masks, in addition to long-running complaints of sexual harassment.
Amy Glaser, senior vice president at the staffing firm Adecco, said former restaurant workers and others were migrating toward warehousing jobs that had raised wages to as high as $23 an hour and customer service jobs that could be done from home.