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Hit First by the Coronavirus Pandemic, Arline Workers Seek New Paths

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This was supposed to be the year that Steven Ray Littles II put down roots in the Seattle area. Instead, he returned to his parents’ home in Bakersfield, Calif., after taking a buyout from Delta Air Lines, ending a six-year career as a flight attendant.

He enjoyed the job, which allowed him to travel widely and make new friends from a variety of backgrounds. But Mr. Littles, 32, feared his job was vulnerable because the coronavirus pandemic had dealt a huge blow to the airline industry.

“I was looking at it from a safety net perspective,” he said. “What control do I have in this situation, and how am I going to make this the best opportunity for myself?”

Across the country, airline workers like Mr. Littles have wrestled with similar decisions because of a substantial decline in travel and the growing fear that many passengers may not return for years. Congress threw the industry a lifeline in March by offering airlines $25 billion as long as they refrained from major job cuts.

That requirement expires on Thursday, and airlines have warned that unless lawmakers extend that program, they will furlough tens of thousands of workers. To limit the number of layoffs, airlines have asked employees to voluntarily accept pay cuts, extended leaves, buyouts or early retirement. Tens of thousands have signed up.

Southwest Airlines has said so many employees have volunteered for such programs that it won’t furlough workers through the end of this year. Delta is also largely avoiding furloughs for now, though it might reduce its staff in some professions, including pilots.

Mr. Littles said that his decision to leave Delta hadn’t been easy, but that he and his family had gone through a similar transition a decade earlier. During the last recession, his parents could no longer afford to keep their three sons and his mother in college. Mr. Littles volunteered to drop out. He moved home and worked a series of jobs. A stint loading bags onto planes at the local airport turned into a job at the ticket counter. That led to a job as a flight attendant.

Mr. Littles, who had never been east of Little Rock, Ark., started in 2014 and moved to New York City. He discovered and fell in love with Bozeman, Mont., and visited Dublin; Bogotá, Colombia; and Accra, Ghana.

“These last six years felt like the best college course or life experience I could ever have,” he said. “You feel like you get this back door to the real world.”

After getting sick this year from what he now assumes was the coronavirus, Mr. Littles signed up for temporary leave in March. That prompted him to think more carefully about his future. Flight attendants at Delta are not unionized, so what were the odds that he, with relatively little seniority, would survive a furlough? Was it time to move on?

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Mr. Littles took the buyout, which included medical coverage for one year, providing him a sense of security as he explores starting a drone photography business.

ImageMike Stoica, an American Airlines mechanic, is retiring and planning to spend a lot of his time restoring airplanes like this Boeing Stearman biplane.
Credit…Sarah Huny Young for The New York Times

In four decades as an airplane mechanic, Mike Stoica survived expansions, contractions, a bankruptcy and a merger. But when American Airlines offered early-retirement packages this summer, he decided it was time to go.

“To me, at my age, it was a no-brainer,” said Mr. Stoica, who is 71.

He had planned to work longer, but the retirement package ensured that his younger wife would have health insurance coverage until she qualified for Medicare. His last day at work was Friday.

Mr. Stoica was the crew chief for American at Pittsburgh International Airport and is president of his union chapter. He is particularly proud of being tapped to assist the federal officials who investigated an engine failure on US Airways Flight 1549 in 2009. That flight ended when Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III famously landed a plane on the Hudson River. The project took Mr. Stoica from a barge on the river to a huge General Electric engine facility, where the failed components were dissected.

“We had some really neat moments,” he said. “The responsibility is huge.”

Now, Mr. Stoica is looking forward to turning his attention to planes of a different size. He recently finished restoring a 1944 Boeing Stearman biplane, and has another project lined up.

Credit…Jovelle Tamayo for The New York Times

Tina Jackson’s decision to accept a retirement package from Alaska Airlines was bittersweet. Leaving meant saying goodbye to co-workers who acted like extended family and threw her a baby shower when she adopted her daughter nearly two decades ago.

“When something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us,” said Ms. Jackson, 56, who worked in the reservations department.

As the pandemic wore on, it became clear that the industry would become smaller, and Ms. Jackson’s colleagues started to worry about their jobs. So she volunteered for a three-month furlough. When the airline offered retirement packages, she took one to help her colleagues who needed to work.

As a reservations agent, Ms. Jackson would often hear people at their best and worst. When someone called to buy tickets for a wedding or to visit a new grandchild, she could share in that joy. When a customer called to buy a ticket to attend a funeral, she could try to make his or her life a little easier.

For now, Ms. Jackson plans to stay at home with her husband on San Juan Island in northwest Washington. But once it’s safe to do so, she hopes to spend retirement traveling the globe, starting in Europe, with the help of lifetime flight benefits.

“For 20 years, I’ve gone all around the world and never left my chair,” she said. “I wanted to go to all these amazing places that everybody was telling me about.”

Credit…Matthew Odom for The New York Times

When his retirement began this month, Robert Browning Vaughn II was sitting next to the pool with his wife, Kimi Vaughn, at a Mexican resort in Cabo San Lucas. The trip had long been planned for Mr. Vaughn’s 60th birthday, but the retirement was a late addition. Mr. Vaughn, a former Delta pilot who goes by R.B., had intended to work five more years, but then the airline offered early retirement.

He had been furloughed in the 1990s, but felt that Delta had given him a good career and allowed him to build a schedule around his family’s needs. So he decided to return the favor and help a colleague with less seniority. He also realized it was time for a break after a string of personal tragedies.

“I’ve gotten to do what I dreamed of doing,” he said. “Now, I don’t have to go to another hotel room unless it’s one of my choosing.”

Early in his career, Mr. Vaughn flew internationally, but he switched to shorter, domestic trips so he could more easily return home to help his first wife, who had depression and other conditions, and his son, who has autism. In 2015, Mr. Vaughn’s wife, to whom he had been married for 33 years, killed herself.

He took time off to grieve and care for his son. In 2017, he started dating Kimi, who worked at his son’s school. Mr. Vaughn’s father died that summer, and his wife’s daughter died last year. His mother died in February, and his grandmother died of the coronavirus this summer.

“Burying that many family members in such a short period, each one of those changes your perspective on life,” Mr. Vaughn said. “We’ve had a lot of heartache, but we try to look at the things we’ve been blessed with.”

He and his wife had planned to travel the world, but are sticking to domestic trips from their home near Atlanta for now, like a road trip this week to Santa Fe, N.M. He also plans to ride his Harley-Davidson and golf with his son more frequently.

Credit…Sarahbeth Maney for The New York Times

As a flight attendant and instructor at Alaska Airlines, Julia Ortega saw the unfolding crisis weigh on her colleagues as they arrived for an annual recertification class. She was worried, too.

Ms. Ortega, 34, and her husband married in February and were planning an April wedding celebration in Mexico, but had to postpone twice, to November and now to May. Also, they live in the Bay Area, where the cost of living is high. But after seeing her colleagues agonize about the future, Ms. Ortega decided she could afford to step back, volunteering to take leave in the spring and signing up for a nine-month unpaid furlough starting on Thursday.

“If I had that chance to take a leave and allow them to keep a job, to at least save one more of my co-workers, then that’s what I would do,” she said.

These past few months have prompted some soul searching. Ms. Ortega had chanced into the job a decade ago when she met an airline recruiter at the restaurant chain where she trained staff. Though she had considered another career change, Ms. Ortega decided she wasn’t ready to give up on aviation and is confident she’ll be called back as the economy improves.

“You either love it or you hate it, and I’ve grown to fall in love with the industry,” she said. “So I’m not going anywhere until they kick me out.”

For now, Ms. Ortega is spending time at home with her two dogs, while her husband continues to work in airport operations at San Jose International Airport. To keep busy and stay healthy, she has been running outside, building on a wedding workout regimen.

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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