Lazy: ‘An easy excuse for the decision makers’ | News


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As industries across Alabama struggle to find employees to meet their current demands, experts are concerned, that without intervention, the current labor shortage will get worse long before it gets better.

Locally, it would seem that you wouldn’t be able to throw a job application in any given direction without it landing on the doorstep of a business with a help wanted sign in its window. Businesses have been adjusting hours and closing earlier to accommodate fewer employees.

Cullman Economic Development Agency (CEDA) Director Dale Greer said all sectors of business are struggling to maintain a workforce.

“I don’t think there’s any particular industry or job classification. If you drive around town you’ll see help wanted ads at restaurants, at retail stores, at gas stations and convenience stores, manufacturers, and at the distribution centers. I think it is businesses across the board,” Greer said.

Recently, Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville discussed the labor shortage when speaking at a Forum Alabama breakfast presented by the Mobile Chamber of Commerce.

“What’s happening in our country right now, we’re getting too many takers in our country,” Tuberville said at the event. He later added, “They don’t want to go to work. We’ve got to get Generation X [a spokesperson for Tuberville later clarified that he misspoke and had intended to reference the much younger Generation Z] and these Millennials to understand that you have to tote your load,” Tuberville said.

Those with a background in economics say Tuberville’s picture of a lethargic workforce causing the current labor shortage isn’t true.

“His statement is a repeat of certain beliefs within the system, because some people think that there are lots of people not working and are sitting on their hands. There’s really not,” said Senior Research Economist and Associate Dean for Economic Development with the University of Alabama Sam Addy. “Those of us who look at the economy, we know that [millennials] are not lazy. We just know that it is an easy excuse for the decision makers.”

Record low unemployment

On Friday, the Alabama Department of Labor (ADL) released its monthly report that indicated a statewide unemployment rate of 2.7% — a slight uptick from the lowest rate in 20 years of 2.6% last month. Unemployment looks even better locally. The same report showed Cullman County having the state’s second lowest unemployment rate of 1.9%. Alabama is also experience historically high numbers of the amount of employed people. October reports show 2,233,106 residents have steady employment.

While Hutchinson said there are exceptions — like voluntarily leaving a job due to workplace discrimination or harassment — the general rule of thumb is that in order to qualify for unemployment a worker must have lost their job due to no fault of their own. According to Hutchinson, these cases typically involve temporary layoffs, furloughs, or a business closing or relocating. Benefits range from $45 — $275 (determined based upon a worker’s base period earnings) and are generally distributed for between 14 and 20 weeks. In order to continue receiving the weekly benefits an unemployed worker is required to contact at least one potential employer every week. Alabama Senate Bill 224 — sponsored by Senator Arthur Orr and set to take effect in January — will raise the number of potential employers that will need to be contacted from one to three.

Director of Communications for the ADL Tara Hutchinson, said that the difficulty employers currently have finding workers is not a new problem brought about by the pandemic, but are the resurfacing of issues the labor market was experiencing in 2019. When compared to the most recent numbers, September of 2019’s unemployment rate of 2.9% and 2,207,294 residents showing employment, workforce data is similar pre- and post-COVID.

“When we’re talking about a labor shortage it’s important to remember that we were facing these issues prior to the pandemic. Also at that time, we were also experiencing record low unemployment. Just like in 2019, Alabama was facing a labor shortage then and we’re facing a labor shortage now, and some of those same issues still apply,” Hutchinson said.

Attract, keep employees

In April — nearly a year after the extended COVID relief benefits ended last June — 4.4 million Alabamians took part in the national phenomenon being referred to as “The Big Quit” or “The Great Resignation.” Addy said that a more accurate title would be “The Great Re-Hiring” saying that the former descriptions imply that employees are simply quitting, when in reality they are transitioning into other — often times better paying — roles.

Hutchinson said this was especially apparent in lower paying industry sectors such as retail, transportation, and leisure and hospitality. She said that workers in these industries have been leaving those jobs in droves, forcing employers to respond by increasing wages at an unprecedented rate.

“Those wages — in leisure and hospitality especially — were going up tens of dollars per week over the course of 12-18 months. Usually, in that type of industry, that kind of wage growth would take over a decade,” Hutchinson said.

While she said that wage growth benefits employees, smaller and locally owned businesses are unable to compete with rising wages, and were forced to permanently close. Some found alternative ways to attract and maintain employees, such as Rumor’s Deli and Hank’s Sports Bar. Owner Aaron Coombs said that they have added benefits and rolled over several policies from previous owners, and try to cater to other aspects for their employees by creating a positive, fun, and healthy working environment.

“That’s how we find we maintain people more is by creating more of a family atmosphere,” Coombs said.

Coombs said that they also don’t ask employees to clock-out when taking lunch breaks and provide their meals. They have also partnered with Aflac to provide employees with the option to receive health insurance. To build a stronger sense of camaraderie, Coombs organizes staff get-togethers outside of business hours.

“We just try to provide a fun, healthy atmosphere. We know when it’s time to be serious and when it’s time to play and have fun. When people come to work, yes it’s work, but it’s also a sort of home away from home,” Coombs said.

Sarah Morrow, who developed the concept for, and now manages and operates Hele Bowls in downtown Cullman, said that as a fledgling locally owned business — they opened in the spring — it is impossible to compete with the higher wages being offered by larger corporate owned competitors. Instead, Morrow said that she offers flexible hours, and treats her staff members with courtesy and compassion rather than as a commodity.

“If they can’t make this their whole life, that’s perfectly fine. This place is my dream and my baby, I don’t expect them to make this their top priority. If they give me the hours that they can give me, and work their butt off while they’re here, that’s great. … I will treat them with the utmost respect that they deserve as a human being,” Morrow said.

Despite her efforts, Morrow said that she has continued to have difficulties with hiring new employees. She said that at the moment Hele Bowls staff consists of her, and only one other employee.

Transportation is another industry being heavily impacted by the current worker shortage. Haynes Farm Inc. — a family owned shipping company just over the county line in Blountsville — hired Zack Qualls as full-time Director of Operations when they began noticing a shift in the mindsets of drivers several years ago. As Qualls describes it, he was hired to manage “People, Problems, and Projects.”

Qualls estimates that transportation is one of the industries that typically experience one of the highest turnover rates, particularly when it comes to truck drivers. He said that their fleet has been able to maintain lower than average turnover rates by streamlining their operations to offer drivers more time at home with their families, more flexible scheduling, and more paid time off.

To make this possible, the company has made an effort to move the bulk of services in house. A full parts facility was added to reduce repair times for the fleet’s trucks, a driver’s lounge complete with a flat screen television was added to accommodate driver’s down time, and they attempted to provide an in house washing and detailing service. As workers began to demand more flexible schedules and higher wages though, the facility and remaining workers were repurposed.

What Qualls has done is go directly to his employees and adjust the business model to fit into the changing mold of what employees are demanding from their employers.

“Pretty much what we’ve had to do is just make changes. I will say it’s been trial and error, there’s not really a playbook for how to get good, quality people. We just had to quit looking at the budget and talk to people,” Qualls said. “We’ve asked people ‘What do you want? What are you looking for? What are your goals?’ and we’ve had to start aligning our goals with theirs. Nowadays, people don’t want to go somewhere for a job, they want to go somewhere that they see a future.”

Haynes Farm Inc. has been offering its employees that opportunity through their diesel technician apprenticeship program, providing employees with the tools they will need up front to be repaid on a weekly basis. But with the higher wages offered by larger and more established competitors, they have found many workers will begin to seek jobs elsewhere after becoming certified.

“People have more options than they’ve ever had before and they know it. So, you have to listen to what everybody wants a lot more than you had to in the past,” he said.

It’s cheaper for a parent to stay home

One reason Addy gave as to why people are choosing to refrain from returning to work is the lack of affordable childcare and eldercare.

“One thing in Alabama, is that we don’t have a very well-developed care system with childcare or eldercare,” Addy said. “Because of that, a lot of folks end up staying at home to take care of children and parents.”

When 27-year-old Jessie Costello’s daughter, Jasper, received a cystic fibrosis diagnosis two weeks after she was born at the height of COVID, she had no option but to stay at home while her husband Clay went to work.

“Especially, with COVID being in full swing, it just would not have been good for her health to have her go to daycare. It was also something where we couldn’t afford to have a professional or anything come and stay with her. She wasn’t at a point yet where she qualified for SSI [Supplemental Security Income] or disability that would have paid for someone to come in. So, there really wasn’t much of an option there,” Costello said.

In a statement issued in April by Gina Mailola, spokeswoman for Alabama Governor Kay Ivey’s office, said that the Alabama Department of Human Resources would be using $17.8 million of its 2023 education budget to combat the lack of affordable childcare in the state by incentivizing licensed day care centers.

“Lack of quality, affordable child care is one of the number one reasons people stay on the sidelines, out of work,” Maiola said in her statement. “Gov. Ivey is committed to not only investing in our children, but paving the way for every Alabamian who wants a job, to get one.”

Greer said that he has discussed the issue with a number of industry leaders, and has suggested the addition of childcare facilities as a means to attract workers. This becomes expensive to implement though, with Greer saying that dedicating existing floorspace, meeting state requirements and providing extra accommodations for night shift employees make it unfeasible for many employers.

The Times reached out to 10 local childcare centers. The average monthly cost for a family with two children ranged from $800 — $2,000, with an average monthly cost of $1,104. This is roughly one-third of the median household income in Cullman, according to the latest Census data. The majority of the centers surveyed also said that they currently have zero vacancies to admit more children.

Boomers getting out

Hutchinson said the pandemic led a significant number of older workers to choose retirement, leaving a smaller workforce composed of a younger demographic.

“We do have in Alabama — and this has been true for decades — we do have a higher boomer population than a lot of other states. The pandemic triggered a lot of retirements. Unfortunately, there were also some deaths. So when you have this overnight event that puts a lot of people out of the workforce, that is definitely going to contribute to what we’re seeing now.”

Local numbers from CEDA show a projected population growth of 1.3% by 2028. During that time, the non-farm job market is expected to grow by nearly 11%, while the number of workers aged 20-64 is projected to decrease by 5.7% resulting in a worker shortfall of 16.6%. By 2030 this number grows to 18.5%.

Similar to the way Tuberville pinned the present worker shortage on younger-aged demographics, people could point to Alabama’s higher percentage of workers retiring as creating a void in the job market that younger employees just can’t fill. While the numbers do predict this, Hutchinson said that we aren’t quite there yet.

More jobs than people

According to Hutchinson, the number of Alabama’s Civilian Labor Workforce — the number of people older than 16 who aren’t imprisoned or in the military, and who are able and wanting to be employed — is also at an all time high of 2,294,866. Hutchison said that when combined, Alabama’s numbers are a “perfect scenario,” meaning that there are more people than ever in the workforce, more people than ever who are employed and fewer people than ever who are unemployed. But, employers are still unable to fill positions.

“At some point you just have too many jobs. There are more jobs than there are people to fill them,” Hutchinson said.

As Alabama continues to attract new industries, more jobs are being created. Last year, companies across the state spent $7.7 billion — the second highest amount ever recorded — developing new facilities and expansion projects which are projected to create 10,000 new jobs.

“Alabama experienced remarkable job growth, both over the month and over the year, in October,” said ADL Secretary Fitzgerald Washington in a statement included with the October report. “This growth actually set a brand new record in Alabama for how many jobs our economy is supporting. We have 47,000 more jobs now than we did last year.”

The Job Openings and Labor Turnover report released by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report showed that at the end of September, there were 144,000 available jobs within the state, versus the 61,760 people currently receiving unemployment benefits.

A low participation rate

Despite Alabama’s high civilian workforce numbers, Addy said that the state has consistently seen low percentages in the number of people participating in the workforce. The labor force participation rate differs from the unemployment rate in that it reflects the number of non-institutionalized people over 16 who voluntarily choose to refrain from seeking employment. The BLS defines is as: “Persons who are neither employed nor unemployed are not in the labor force. This category includes retired persons, students, those taking care of children or other family members, and others who are neither working nor seeking work.”

The BLS also excludes retirees and disabled persons from participating in the workforce. In a separate report on workforce participation trends, the BLS found that after peaking in the early 2000’s, workforce participation has steadily declined, with major contributions coming from the extremes of age demographics as elderly workers retired and school enrollment rates among teenagers rose.

“In recent years, the movement of the baby-boom population into age groups that generally exhibit low labor force participation has contributed to the decline in the overall participation rate. From 2000 to 2015, most of the major demographic groups saw a decrease in labor force participation. Teenagers experienced the largest drop in participation, which coincided with a rise in their school enrollment rate,” the report reads.

Alabama’s October Labor Force Participation was 57.4%, under the national average of 62.3%. Addy believes, if the state were able to tap into this unused labor supply, employers would begin to see positions being filled.

“If things continue under a business as usual scenario, then yes, we have a labor shortage and we are predicting worse labor shortages moving forward into the future. However, under what I will call ‘optimal conditions,’ we actually have extra labor. If we were at the national rate — and I don’t see why not — then we could have 115,000-120,000 more people in our workforce,” Addy said.

Employers have been trying this and have seen some success. Hutchinson said that programs such as the Work Opportunity Tax Credit through the ADL, are in many cases able to pay up to 50 percent of an employee’s salary. The ADL has also been actively hosting job fairs and hiring events across the state, the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation has provided funding for nonprofit organizations such as Flourish of Cullman and United Ability in Birmingham that attempt to connect employers with potential workers living with disabilities that would allow them to still perform certain job requirements. Several industries are beginning to offer more on-the-job training and apprenticeship programs, some partnering with high schools and trade schools in their area to attract younger workers.

However, Addy said these efforts are not enough.

“We have to look at the economy as a whole, and some of the answers will come from policymaking rather than the efforts of the employers alone, or the efforts of the workers alone,” Addy said. “It’s not enough until we fully embrace the entire problem. It’s not a problem that you can solve by only looking at one side, you have to solve it comprehensively.”

Immigration and entrepreneurs

Addy believes that another contributing factor is that for decades, U.S. immigration policies have stifled the economy by making it more difficult for new workers to come into the country. He said these policies were made worse during Trump administration, and have caused many jobs normally held by migrant workers, to remain vacant.

“Typically there isn’t a shortage because we had a working — or at least 80% working — immigration system that made it such that we could get workers and not depend only internally on people,” Addy said.

Greer also believes people found alternative forms of employment to provide for themselves through the pandemic and rather than return to a job, and employer, they chose to be their own boss.

“I think there are a number of people who are working from home, maybe they found some things during Covid that they’re doing to generate some revenue and they’re just doing other stuff,” Greer said.

Census data shows that 4,819 (10.79%) of Cullman’s workforce claim some form of self-employment. Globally, the gig economy — defined by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs — ballooned by 30% during the pandemic and is currently on track to overtake the full-time work force by 2027.

What’s the solution?

Addy said that for decades, employers have inflated a belief that workers were privileged to be working in an effort to create a system that they would be able to profit from. The lack of labor shortages in the past have allowed employers to maintain that system. The current lack of workers has now reversed that dynamic to one of employers needing to be competitive in order to fill vacant positions, but Addy said industries can be slow to change.

Of course, Addy said that there are answers — even if they aren’t easy ones. He said that to solve the problem, it will require the combined efforts of workers, employers and policymakers from local, state and federal levels.

“The answers are here. We need to do certain things that will make the Senator Tubervilles of the world stop saying that we are just toiling out help, and that some people are lazy and just don’t want to work. It is a false statement.

“The harder work is for him to sit down and come up with policies that will solve it. It’s easier for him, and for others like him, to say others are lazy. We always find a welfare queen, or somebody to blame for a problem, when the hard work that has to be done is shied away from,” Addy said.

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