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BUSINESS TODAY

WAGES, BENEFITS UP SLIGHTLY: Workers' wages and benefits grew by 0.7 percent in the final quarter of 2003 as companies remain uncertain about the durability of the economic recovery. The increase in the employment cost index for the quarter was down from the 1 percent advance in the third quarter, the Labor Department said Thursday. The increase was the smallest since the fourth quarter of 2002 and was slightly weaker than economists had forecast.

NEW JOBLESS CLAIMS DROP: New claims for unemployment benefits last week dipped by a seasonally adjusted 1,000 to 342,000, the lowest level since the end of December, a sign that the pace of layoffs is stabilizing, the Labor Department said. Claims hit a high last year of 459,000 in the middle of April. "People who do have jobs should feel a little more secure because the major housecleaning appears to be finished," said Clifford Waldman, economist at the Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI.

HOTEL MANAGER MOVES TO TAMPA: McKibbon Hotel Management, which operates 38 hotels in the Southeast United States, is moving its corporate headquarters from Georgia to downtown Tampa. The headquarters, combined with a regional office, will have 14 executives and staff and open in SouthTrust Plaza on March 1. The privately held company owns and manages 10 hotels in Tampa and Sarasota, including Residence Inns by Marriott in downtown Tampa and the Westshore area.

DIGITAL, CREDITORS IN AGREEMENT: Digital Lightwave has reached settlement agreements with some of its creditors, making cash payments totaling $1.2-million out of $10.4-million in claims and liabilities, the Clearwater company said in filings this week with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The maker of fiber-optic testing equipment also said it has borrowed $1.3-million more this month from Optel Capital, a company controlled by Digital's founder and largest shareholder, Bryan Zwan. Digital now owes Optel about $14-million. The company reiterated its short-term cash concerns, saying it may seek bankruptcy protection if it cannot refinance or restructure remaining debts.

CRYO-CELL KILLS SUBSIDIARY: Cryo-Cell International Inc. of Clearwater has closed its majority-owned subsidiary, Stem Cell Preservation Technologies Inc., following the resignation of Stem Cell's board and management. Cryo-Cell had rejected a restructuring proposal from Stem Cell that would have required more money from Cryo-Cell. Stem Cell had been headed by Cryo-Cell's founder and largest shareholder, Dan Richard. Stem Cell, which was supposed to market programs for collection and preservation of adult stem cells, had tried to register its stock with the Securities and Exchange Commission for nearly two years. Cryo-Cell interim CEO Mercedes Walton said Thursday, "We are extremely disappointed to advise our loyal and patient shareholders of record as of Aug. 31, 2001, that the long-awaited Stem Cell dividend will not be issued."

MBNA GETS AMERICAN EXPRESS: American Express announced its first deal Thursday to allow a financial institution to issue its credit cards in the United States. MBNA Corp. will issue American Express-branded cards this year. American Express also will continue to issue its own cards. The deal was made possible by a ruling in 2001 in an antitrust case in which Visa and MasterCard were ordered to stop prohibiting member banks from also issuing American Express and Discover cards.

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