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The Week in Business: The Bitter End

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Goodbye, 2020, and good riddance. Here’s what you need to know for the week ahead in business and tech, but most important, cheers to a better 2021. Please ring in the new year safely. — Charlotte Cowles

After a nine-month stalemate, Congress finally managed to pass a much-anticipated (and much-needed) $900 billion pandemic relief package. Then President Trump took a last-minute interest in the bill and didn’t like what he saw (“a disgrace”). Before heading off on his holiday vacation, he demanded that the legislation include direct stimulus payments of $2,000 for most Americans, not $600 as the bill would provide. Democrats were more than happy to accommodate the change, but Republicans blocked the measure, throwing the aid bill into limbo. That’s bad news for anyone who’s relying on existing relief funds, the last of which run out this week.

The Justice Department isn’t done pointing fingers at those who willfully ignored red flags that led to the opioid crisis. This past week, it accused Walmart of looking the other way while its pharmacies filled thousands of suspicious opioid prescriptions. The civil complaint alleges that Walmart also disregarded reports from its pharmacy employees who alerted their superiors that certain prescriptions looked fishy. Walmart denied the accusations, saying the Justice Department was putting retailers in an unfair position of having to “second guess” doctors’ decisions.

Well, this is awkward: The Russian hackers who infiltrated U.S. government networks managed to breach the email system used by top-level officials at the Treasury Department in July, without anyone’s noticing until recently. The same hackers also infiltrated hundreds of U.S. organizations, including Cisco, Intel, Nvidia, Deloitte and the California Department of State Hospitals. Investigators still don’t know if the cyberattack compromised classified information. But one thing certainly isn’t helping: Mr. Trump has refused to acknowledge Russia’s involvement and is trying to blame China instead. President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. accused Mr. Trump of irrationally downplaying the attack — which will become his problem in January.

Britain and the European Union finally reached a hard-fought trade agreement on Christmas Eve, squeaking under their deadline and settling a bitter Brexit battle that has plagued the bloc for over four years. But the deal still needs to be ratified, and trade in the region continues to face serious upheaval. This past week, British officials discovered a new mutation of the coronavirus that’s potentially up to 70 percent more contagious, causing dozens of countries to block travelers from Britain to prevent the spread. The bans forced thousands of cargo trucks (and their drivers) to sit in huge traffic jams at British ports for days while perishable exports spoiled. Customs officials are starting to allow trucks through, but the new trade agreement won’t exactly speed up the process.

Perhaps you’ve seen your first “vaxxies” — naturally, photos that people take of themselves getting a coronavirus vaccine and then post on social media. The country has already distributed over one million doses to health care workers, but who’s next? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that roughly 30 million “frontline essential workers” like emergency responders, teachers and grocery store employees, as well as people 75 and older, should get priority. But “essential” is hard to define, and now Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart are all jockeying for their workers to get that classification and bumped to the front of the line.

In the restaurant business, gratuities are a big part of how servers and bartenders make money. But now, a new rule from the Labor Department says restaurants can require employees to pool their tips and share them with the wider staff, including back-of-house workers who normally don’t see that cash. There are some parameters: Servers can be asked to share tips only if they receive the standard minimum wage in their city or state, not the lower minimum wage that most states allow employers to pay tipped workers. The rule, which could be adjusted or blocked by the Biden administration before taking effect, also prohibits supervisors, managers and owners from dipping into the gratuity kitty themselves. No matter what, consider this a reminder to not be stingy with tips, especially these days.

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