Unemployment to social justice: top 5 business stories of 2020

2020 was a year unlike any other in U.S. history. Before we embark on 2021 and the promise that it brings, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s content curation desk is taking a look back at the most impactful stories of 2020 and their effects on Georgia and the rest of the nation. Today’s topic: Business

5. The corporate shift on social justice

After the death of George Floyd on Memorial Day, major American companies stepped up to embrace social justice causes and abandon brands that have racially stereotyped people of color for decades. National polls taken after Floyd’s death revealed a dramatic shift in how Americans viewed police violence, with most acknowledging that Black people are more likely to be targeted, mistreated or even killed by those who were sworn to serve and protect.

The sea of change swept the country for months as many corporations showed unity with the Black Lives Matter movement or faced social pressure to reconsider insensitive branding.

The movement began snowballing in June after the Quaker Oats Company announced it was removing the name and image of Aunt Jemima from its brand after 131 years, calling the change necessary “to make progress toward racial equality.”

Other popular consumer products, such as Uncle Ben’s rice, Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup and Edy’s Eskimo Pie, immediately followed suit, announcing they, too, would phase out their longtime brand logos. Cosmetic skin “whitening” creams were also phased out by some popular makeup brands.

Many other social changes also became apparent in 2020.

As Confederate statues and symbols were toppled nationwide, the BLM cause was felt in the boardrooms and front offices of the nation’s largest corporations.

Leaders of the nation’s largest companies, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, have taken to social media to express support for the Black Lives Matter movement but have also acknowledged shortcomings with diversity and a lack of urgency to promote Black people to the executive ranks. After Floyd’s death, many renewed pledges to install more Black managers and senior executives in the coming years.

Executives at Ford made public calls for racial justice and police accountability.

In June, Starbucks faced severe backlash on social media and reversed an earlier policy decision that told employees not to wear clothing in support of BLM. In the end, the company allowed its employees to wear BLM attire and unveiled a design for its own T-shirts in support of the cause.

And, in another astonishing reversal, the NFL this year issued a statement in support of kneeling during the national anthem, several years after it blackballed 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for silently taking a knee as a form of protest against police brutality.

4. The changing landscape of retail

Retail storefronts struggled to stay afloat in 2020 amid the economic crush of a global pandemic.

Many consumers newly out of work shifted their purchases to immediate necessities instead of clothing and everyday novelties.

As millions of people have lost jobs or continued to work from home, the demand for clothing and apparel all but vanished, leaving malls and department stores flapping in the breeze.

Additionally, the rise of consignment and thrift stores — coupled with a dramatic surge in online shopping — has steered many consumers away from the big stores. Forced to shutter for months, many popular brands such as Pier 1 Imports threw in the towel amid the ongoing outbreak. High-end department stores in particular have struggled more than other retailers including Walmart and Target.

JCPenney, Neiman Marcus, Stage Stores and others filed for bankruptcy in 2020, and Lord & Taylor liquidated its remaining stores.

Victoria’s Secret was also beset by falling sales and planned to sell 55% of its business before the deal fell apart in May.

Macy’s also closed dozens of stores and eliminated thousands of corporate jobs on its way to a plan to abandon its core position as an anchor tenant at some shopping malls and move into smaller, standalone stores.

3. Cruise lines, theme parks struggle

The cruise industry has faced an uncertain timeline for return to business since the pandemic shutdown began in mid-March. That’s when all three major cruise lines ― Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian ― voluntarily agreed to suspend services. Since then, each has continued to extend the suspensions month to month while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keeps a no-sail order in place within U.S. territorial waters. At the end of 2020, voyages in territorial waters still had not resumed.

The outbreak also forced Disney to shutter its theme parks in the United States, Asia and Europe from March until May. Most of the parks have since reopened with the exception of California’s Disneyland, which will remain closed through the end of the year.

Disneyland Paris also shut down again late last month after France imposed a second lockdown amid a resurgence of the virus. Disney plans to lay off 32,000 employees as lower attendance at the theme parks continues to hurt the company’s bottom line.

2. Historic unemployment grips nation

Unemployment in the United States reached unprecedented levels in 2020 and set numerous records over several months as the coronavirus prevented Americans from going to work. The pandemic forced stores and restaurants to shut down for months, and sporting and entertainment events were canceled around the world.

The government declared certain sectors of the economy essential services, such as gas stations and grocery stores, which were able to continue operating as part of America’s critical supply chain.

A wide segment of Americans were able to maintain an income by working remotely from home, however, millions more were not as fortunate. By late April, the Labor Department reported that 30 million people had filed for unemployment over the previous two months, with 5.2 million Americans filing during the week of April 20 alone.

The surge in layoffs pushed the unemployment rate to the highest levels seen since the Great Depression, according to some estimates. Joblessness was also worse this year than during the Great Recession when Barack Obama was president.

Reports in April said nearly 3 million people had stopped paying their mortgages. Congress passed a $2 trillion stimulus package in March that provided emergency relief for American workers and businesses during one of the worst economic crises in U.S. history.

Since the summer, state governments have allowed businesses to reopen under social distancing restrictions, which has allowed for a hopeful-but-uncertain comeback for commerce.

Nine months into the outbreak, the economy has recovered barely half the 22 million jobs that were lost. U.S. employers added 638,000 jobs in October, a solid pace though far fewer than needed to regain most of the jobs lost to the pandemic recession just as new viral cases are setting record highs.

1. Stock market plummets amid pandemic

The U.S. stock market kicked off 2020 with a full head of steam, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average closing bullishly at 28,868.80 on Jan. 2. The Dow dropped more than 3,000 points over three days in late February. By March 12, the day after the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, the Dow had given up nearly all of its gains since President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, tumbling to 21,200.62. It was the worst U.S. economic downturn since 2008, when the country was in the depths of the Great Recession.

The pandemic threatened to wreak havoc on the global economy as companies everywhere shut down to stop the virus from spreading.

By March 19, banks were warning investors that the longest U.S. economic expansion on record was over and that the country had entered a new recession. Remarkably, however, by late November the Dow had erased nearly all of its 2020 losses, closing at 28,653.87 the day after Thanksgiving. It also topped 30,000 for the first time.

Other stories in the series

»Top 5 sports stories

»Top 5 politics stories

»Top 5 weather stories

»Notable deaths

»Top 5 coronavirus stories

»Top 5 social justice stories