US creates 236,000 jobs in March; unemployment rate 3.5%

U.S. employers added 236,000 jobs in March, suggesting to economists that the economy may not dip into recession despite numerous Federal Reserve interest rate hikes.

The national unemployment rate fell to 3.5%, just above the 53-year low of 3.4% set in January.

The Friday jobs report from the Labor Department also showed signs that inflationary pressures might be easing. Average hourly wages were up 4.2% from a year ago, down from the 4.6% year-over-year increase in February.

Last month’s number was well under the 326,000 jobs created in February.

“The labor market continues to show resilience despite the Fed’s efforts to tame inflation by raising interest rates,” said Eric Merlis, managing director and co-head of global markets at Citizens, in a statement. “Today’s report should not deter the Fed from continuing its efforts to bring inflation to its target zone.” “Today’s report is a Goldilocks report,” Daniel Zhao, lead economist at Glassdoor, told the Associated Press. “It’s hard to find a way it could have been better. We do see that the job market is cooling, but it’s still resilient.’’

March’s job growth was led by leisure and hospitality, which added 72,000 positions. Restaurants and bars accounted for 50,000 of those.

State and local governments added 39,000 and health care companies 34,000.

Construction companies, however, cut 9,000 jobs, that sector’s first such reduction since January 2022. Factories also reduced payrolls slightly for a second straight month as manufacturing slowed.

Though unemployment remains higher for people of color than for white Americans, the unemployment rate for Black workers dropped in March to 5%, the lowest recorded in government records dating to 1972.

The March numbers are the last jobs report the Fed will see before its next meeting May 2-3, the AP reported. Its policymakers will gain a clearer view of inflationary pressures next week, when the Labor Department issues reports on consumer and wholesale prices.

Daniel Zhao is one of the economists holding out hope that the economy can avoid a recession brought on by Fed rate increases.

“Today’s job market does not look like one that’s about to tip into recession,” he said. “I wouldn’t bet against the job market.’’

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer

Pennsylvania’s gas tax to jump 3.5 cents in 2023

For Pennsylvania drivers, gas at the pump may soon cost more, thanks to a 2013 state law enacted to fund road and bridge improvements.

The commonwealth’s gas tax is scheduled to rise 3.5 cents in 2023, an increase levied on wholesalers that will likely be passed on consumers.

From the current 57.6 cents per gallon, the tax will rise to 61.1 cents per gallon next year, according to a notice in the Pennsylvania Bulletin.

Meanwhile, the tax on diesel fuel is set to climb from 74.1 cents per gallon to to 78.5 cents per gallon.

Pennsylvania’s gas tax is already one of the highest in the nation, ranking in the top three.

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer

Pa. Sees billions in federal dollars one year after Bipartisan law

Since being signed by President Joe Biden in 2021, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has provided Pennsylvania with billions of dollars in support for projects. 

Thus far, investments have been made to improve the state’s infrastructure, support a cleaner environment, and create good jobs that pay well. 

“This $7.9 billion infrastructure investment is really an investment in people,” said Gov. Tom Wolf, who on Tuesday joined White House Infrastructure Coordinator Mitch Landrieu to celebrate the anniversary of Biden’s historic investments in important infrastructure projects in Pennsylvania and across the country. 

For Pennsylvania, the investment includes funding for the following critical projects: 

  • Amtrak routes on the Eastern Seaboard 
  • Addressing aging infrastructure of the Philadelphia International Airport 
  • Replacing and repairing more than 7,540 miles of highway and 3, 353 bridges in poor condition 
  • Providing eligible families $30/month off their internet bills through the Affordable Connectivity Program 

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is the largest federal investment in infrastructure in decades, and Pennsylvania has received in total the following: 

  • $58 million for clean school buses 
  • $62 million to improve electric vehicle infrastructure 
  • At least $100 million for broadband and internet expansion 
  • $119 million for airports 
  • $208 million for clean energy and energy efficiency projects 
  • $240 million for clean drinking water 
  • $349 million to cap orphaned wells and reclaim mind lands 
  • $614.8 million to improve public transportation 
  • $1.1 billion to improve infrastructure resilience and prepare for floods and extreme weather events 
  • $5.2 billion for road and bridge projects 
  • $110 billion for ports and waterways. 

“It’s an investment in safe travels to work, family, and friends; an investment in a secure supply chain, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe,” Wolf said. “I am grateful for President Biden’s leadership and this bold investment to build a better future for all Americans.”

Awards for affordable rental housing total more than $92 million

Awards totaling more than $44.2 million in Low Income Housing Tax Credits, more than $20 million in National Housing Trust Funds for the construction of 1,459 affordable multifamily rental units in Pennsylvania, and more than $9 million in PennHOMES funding, were announced by Gov. Tom Wolf Thursday. 

This is the first year the agency is announcing awards for the new Pennsylvania housing tax credit totaling more than $19.3 million in state credits. The federal and state tax credits were approved by the board and administered by the PHFA. 

“The funding we award today will have a significant impact by adding 1,459 affordable rental units once construction is completed,” Wolf said in a statement. “In all communities across the state, affordable housing is in great demand, which is why the allocation of this funding is important for addressing that need.” 

Developments receiving funding will preserve and create an additional 1,518 total rental units, including 1,459 for low-income Pennsylvania residents, with 123 units for people at or below 30 percent of the area median income supported by the National Housing Trust Funds. 

PHFA Executive Director and CEO Robin Wiessmann said tax credits are important as they fill a void in the marketplace for the construction of affordable housing. 

“Even before the pandemic there was clear demand for more rental housing that fits people’s budgets. That demand is even stronger today, and this new round of tax credits, plus the additional funding, are vital for creating and rehabilitating much-needed affordable housing.” 

The 33 multifamily housing developments being awarded for tax credits can be viewed on the PHFA site at https://www.phfa.or/mhp/. Please see the list of tax credit recipients under “News: 2022” and dated 11/10.

Samuel Balliet Stadium receives state money for upgrades

State grant money totaling $50,000 has been secured to help make improvements at historic Samuel Balliet Stadium in Coplay, state Rep. Jeanne McNeill, D-Lehigh, announced Monday.

Coplay Sports Inc. had requested funds to replace broken and unsafe bleachers and for upgrades to the field. The grant will provide $30,000 for new bleachers and $20,000 for infield and outfield materials and equipment.

Built in the 1940s, the stadium was named after Samuel “Sammy” Balliet, an American Legion Baseball coach for the Coplay Athletic Association throughout the 1950s and 1960s. His teams captured six state championships.

The field has hosted youth, American Legion and adult baseball games for more than half a century.

“Samuel Balliet Stadium continues to be one of the most recognized facilities in the baseball community in the Lehigh Valley and we need to support the efforts underway to breathe new life back into the complex, restore its legacy, and return it to its former glory as the crown jewel of baseball stadiums in the area,” McNeill said. “As the stadium is getting ready to install a completely new lighting system, it is critical that the bleachers and stands will be safe for the patrons who will be attending games and events.” McNeill also recently helped secure over $243,000 from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development that will be used to replace the stadium lights destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer

Apartment rents in Allentown up 5% over last year

Rent growth in Allentown has slowed considerably, although it still stands at 5% year over year.

That’s according to the most recent report from Apartment List, which showed that median rents in Allentown are $1,101 for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,400 for a two-bedroom unit.

Year-over-year rent growth in Allentown is well under the state average of 8.3% and the national average of 10%.

“Allentown was once a city experiencing some of the fastest rent growth in the country,” Rob Warnock, senior research associate with Apartment List, wrote in an email.

“Last September, annual rent growth stood at 20%. But since then, the market has slowed dramatically and annual rent growth in Allentown has decelerated to just 5%. This is half the national average … and lower than other large Pennsylvania cities like Philadelphia (7.7%) and Pittsburgh (7.3%). This means prices are still rising, but they are rising at a much slower rate than they were a year ago, and they’re rising at a rate that looks much closer to pre-pandemic patterns.”

Allentown’s rents are easier to afford than those in many large U.S. cities. For example, metropolises like Miami, New York and Dallas have seen rents skyrocket 18.7%, 16.6% and 13.8%, respectively, over the past year.

San Francisco has a median rent of $2,680 for a two-bedroom unit, almost 1.5 times that of Allentown.

Nationally, the Apartment List rent index rose 0.5% in August, half the rate of growth in July.

“This year, rents have risen slightly faster than they did before the pandemic, but significantly slower than they did in 2021 when rent inflation was at its peak,” the report said. “So far in 2022, rents are up 7.2%, compared (with) 14.8% at this point in 2021. The year-over-year growth of 10% is down from a (peak) of nearly 18% at the beginning of the year.”

But this year’s pace remains faster than the years prior to 2021. For example, rent growth from January to August was 4.8% in 2018, 4.2% in 2019 and minus 0.2% in 2020.

Meanwhile, the nationwide vacancy rate for rentals is climbing. Apartment List’s most recent vacancy index is 5.1%, gradually easing from a low of 4.1% last fall.

State to hold online auction of surplus heavy equipment

The state Department of General Services will hold an online public auction of more than 280 pieces of surplus heavy equipment from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, starting at noon June 20 and ending at 10 a.m. July 5.

Up for bid are air compressors, snowplow trucks and snowplows, anti-icing trucks, motor graders, excavators, wheel and backhoe loaders, asphalt equipment, single-, tandem- and tri-axle dump trucks, spreaders, skid steers and more.

Interested bidders can view the list of items, currently being updated, on govplanet.com/penndot. In order to bid, they must register using the “Register Now” button.

The auction offers the public “quality … heavy equipment no longer being used by PennDOT at a fair price,” a release explained. “With the recent increased demand and limited supply of these types of items, the online heavy equipment auction is an ideal opportunity for members of the public to add this type of equipment to their operations.”

The Department of General Services’ State Surplus Property Program is responsible for coordinating these auctions for PennDOT.

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer.

Ben Franklin Technology Partners 2021 report shows statewide impacts 

Ben Franklin Technology Partners has generated more than $2 billion in revenue for Pennsylvania businesses in 2021. 

An initiative through the state Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED), Ben Franklin Technology Partners makes seed investments in early-stage technology companies. 

The program announced the results of its investments for last year in its 2021 Annual Statewide Impact Report. 

In 2021, the Ben Franklin network supported 1,647 companies and helped those companies create 2,438 jobs while retaining 12,923 more positions. 

Ben Franklin clients developed 158 software copyright and patents and launched 380 new products and processes. 

“Year after year, even in the most difficult economic times, Ben Franklin continues to succeed, delivering impressive results with its investments,” said Ryan Glenn, Ben Franklin’s director of statewide initiatives. “Investments in innovation are the foundation of the new economy.” 

Ben Franklin operates four regionally based centers in Pittsburgh, State College, Bethlehem and Philadelphia. The program is available to all 67 counties. 

Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania said last week that it will be presenting a virtual tour of its technology business incubator on Lehigh University’s campus in Bethlehem next week.

The incubator, Ben Franklin TechVentures, currently houses 37 early-stage firms. The tour is free and open to the public and will take place on Zoom.

Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed $22 million for Ben Franklin in his 2022-23 budget, which would give each of the regional centers a $2 million budget increase. 

Wolf’s 2022-23 budget is currently in front of the legislature with a final spending plan due before the end of June 30th. 

PASSHE to freeze tuition increases for fourth year

Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) plans to freeze tuition hikes for its associated schools for the fourth consecutive year. 

PASSHE’s Board of Governors voted on Thursday to once again freeze any increases in tuition prices for the 90,000 students attending a state system university. 

The vote comes after the board requested $550 million in state funding for this fiscal year in order to offset the need for a tuition increase.  

The board is also seeking $201 million in direct-to-student aid and at least $75 million of the remaining $150 million in federal funding that the state has committed to help permanently control costs at PASSHE schools. 

 “We are hopeful the legislature supports our funding request so we can maintain the tuition freeze,” said Cindy Shapira, chair of the Board of Governors. “With all of the other rising costs in our economy, working families should not have to worry about paying more for tuition at a public university.” 

Basic tuition for in-state undergraduate students at the PASSHE universities has been $7,716 for the last three years. 

PASSHE is currently attempting to control costs, trimming $173 million in operating costs and forgoing at least $63 million through the three years of tuition freezes. 

“Just freezing tuition is not a sustainable strategy without meaningful investment from the Commonwealth,” said State System Chancellor Daniel Greenstein. “Pennsylvania must invest in its state-owned universities if we want them to continue providing the high-quality, affordable education they were born to deliver.” 

State insurance consumers received over $15 million in restitution payments in 2021  

The Pennsylvania Insurance Department reclaimed over $15 million last year for more than 41,000 consumers who had funds stolen, payments improperly processed or other forms of restitution or credit as a result of errors or unethical conduct. 

State Acting Insurance Commissioner Michael Humphreys announced the returned money last week, noting that 41,032 consumers around Pennsylvania received some form of restitution payment or credit. 

Examples include restoration of stolen funds when an agent collected payment from a consumer for a policy or annuity but did not send that money to the insurance company or refunding or overcharged premiums when an insurance company was found to be charging premiums above the Insurance Department’s approved rate. 

“Pennsylvania consumers’ rights and protections are guaranteed to them through state law and the Insurance Department works diligently to hold the businesses we regulate accountable,” said Humphreys. “We protect consumers by holding these businesses to the highest standards.” 

In some cases, the department’s findings can result in additional penalties, such as suspension or revocation of a license, being assessed against the offending party. 

In 2021, the department issued more than $512,000 in enforcement penalties for violations of Pennsylvania’s insurance laws. 

Wolf joins four Democrat governors to request pause on federal gas tax 

Gov. Tom Wolf, along with four other Democratic governors, is urging Congress to pass legislation that would pause the federal gas tax until the end of the year. 

In a joint letter to leaders in the US Senate and House, the governors said that the move would address rising gas prices amid international crises and rising inflation. 

Currently tax prices across the country exceed $4 per gallon. A pause on the federal gasoline tax would decrease that cost by 18.4 cents-a-gallon. 

The letter, addressed to Nancy Pelosi, Charles Schumer, Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell, asks for the approval of The Gas Prices Relief Act, legislation recently introduced in the House and Senate that would alleviate the consumer cost of rising gas prices. 

The letter was signed by the governors of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Colorado, New Mexico and Wisconsin. 

“Like most Americans, Pennsylvanians are grappling with rising gas prices as they navigate paying for other household needs, from their rent or mortgage to groceries and other necessities,” said Wolf. “A federal gas tax holiday would ease some of that pain on Pennsylvanians’ wallets without impacting important infrastructure projects that are funded through the federal Highway Trust Fund.” 

Wolf urges Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to remove Russian-made products from state-owned stores 

In a letter to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board on Sunday, Gov. Tom Wolf urged the state board to remove Russian-sourced products from Pennsylvania’s Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores. 

Wolf’s letter follows Russia’s attack on Ukraine this month. 

“I urge you to remove Russian-sourced products from stores and cease selling them as quickly as possible as a small show of solidarity and support for the people of Ukraine, and an expression of our collective revulsion with the unprovoked actions of the Russian state,” Wolf wrote in the letter. 

Removing Russian-made vodkas off the shelves of state stores was seconded by the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, which called the option reasonable. 

“This is a reasonable option for the Commonwealth to take to show its disapproval of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the damage the attack has done to world peace,” said Chuck Moran, executive director of the association. 

Russian liquor sold at Pennsylvania’s state liquor stores includes Russian Standard and Ustianochka. If the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board does follow through with Wolf’s request, the move would not include Russian-themed liquors. 

The association recommended a number of American-made vodka brands for taverns, bars, clubs and licensed restaurants to use instead of Russian-made vodkas including Texas-made Tito’s Vodka and locally made vodkas such as Holla Spirits in York.