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Help wanted: High Country labor pool remains shallow

HIGH COUNTRY — To say that summertime in the High Country is one the most important times of the year for the local economy would be an understatement. However, as the summer season looms, many businesses are experiencing an alarming shortage in the available workforce.

Melissa Appleby, who owns and operates Absolute Comfort Hot Tub and Pool Repair alongside her husband, Dave, is one of the numerous High Country business owners who is looking for individuals willing and able to work. Appleby says that the difficulty in hiring new employees has persisted over the past year.

“Last year at this time we had seven people on staff, and as soon as Covid broke out it slowly dwindled away. You just couldn’t hire anybody because everybody’s drawing unemployment. If they’re drawing $1,000 a week, why would they work for us, you know? I’ve talked to electricians, plumbers and other types of service businesses and it’s the same thing. They can’t get any help. It’s ridiculous,” Appleby said.

Melissa and David serve more than 100 customers a week by performing maintenance work and balancing chemicals for hot tubs, saunas and pools, although staffing shortages have forced the business to cut back on its services. The couple’s staff now consists of themselves and their son, whom the family is working on sending off to college, and a cousin who is employed part-time.

“We’re down to bare bones. We basically have three people trying to keep the company afloat,” Appleby said. “We just got flooded with so many people in this area so fast, there’s more people that need services than there are people who are willing to work.”

The sentiment is mutually shared by businesses who serve the housing industry as well. Allen Jenkins, who owns and operates Jenkins Construction, says the number of employees at his business has dwindled over the past year, as generous unemployment benefits have incentivized people to stay home.

“I have three employees still out on Covid checks right now. I think the problem is not the shortage of people but the shortage of people willing to come to work when they can sit at home and get free money. I definitely need 10 more guys right now, and I’m stuck with six,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins Construction specializes in residential construction, such as home repairs, remodels, room additions, windows, doors, deck and other general construction, yet the labor shortage has the business cutting back on projects for commercial construction. Moreover, the influx of new homeowners and residents in the area over the past year has placed an added strain on contractors since there are not enough workers to fulfill the demand for home repairs and other services.

“I’m turning people down,” Jenkins said. “We’re booked up until the end of the year already, but that depends on how many people I can hire. Everybody is moving up to the High Country to get out of the city, and they come up here wanting to remodel their houses or add on to their houses. The last two years have been the busiest years since the building boom in ’04 and ’05.”

In the restaurant industry, labor shortages have had to close local businesses. At times in the past year, fast food chains such as the Burger King in Boone, Bojangles in Boone on US 421 and the Hardee’s in Newland closed for short periods due to staff leaving to go on unemployment.

Darrin King, owner of the Western Sizzlin restaurant on Hwy. 226 in Spruce Pine, depicted a similar scenario at his business, as employees left or refused to come back to work in order to continue collecting unemployment.

“That’s what’s killing us, the unemployment and people taking advantage of it. That’s what’s hurting us, and it’s just the beginning. It’s going to get worse going into (summer),” King said. “Before the pandemic, we had 54 employees a year ago and now we’re running on 36. The sad part is I’ve lost a ton of servers and they make more than anyone in the restaurant, which makes absolutely no sense. For a four- or five-hour shift max, they’re making over $200, which is just unbelievable that you can’t find anyone. I guess people just don’t want to work face-to-face with people at the moment.”

King said that his business has been inundated with to-go orders, which has caused sales to increase dramatically and the business to be busier than ever, despite the pandemic.

“Our sales were actually up over March of 2019, which was a record March and we were up 28 percent this past March. Even with 50-percent capacity, our sales have been skyrocketing, and that’s everything we could do with almost half the staff. (To-go orders) are up 75 percent of what they used to be. It used to take two or three, but now it’s requiring five people in the kitchen, but you just can’t find enough people to fill the positions,” King said.

The labor shortage is not simply relegated to the High Country, but persists across the state. According to the North Carolina Department of Commerce, the most up-to-date figures show that unemployment is down to 5.7 percent as of February 2021 after having reached a high of 13.5 percent at the onset of the pandemic in April of 2020. For comparison, the unemployment rate the previous February was at 3.4 percent.

However, the rate of unemployment claims may provide a better indicator of the state’s labor situation. From March 15, 2020 to April 19, 2021, a total of 3,611,763 unemployment claims have been filed, which equals about 1,486,984 people filing these claims since a claimant may file multiple claims to receive benefits from various unemployment programs. Out of the number of people who have filed claims, 66 percent, or 983,165 people, have received payments, while the remaining 32 percent, or 484,222 people, were denied eligibility. For comparison, total employment for the state was at just less than 4 million in 2019, according to the US Census Bureau.

In total, North Carolinians have received more than $11 billion in unemployment payments as of April 23, with $6 billion coming from federal pandemic unemployment compensation. Federal funds were mostly made up of the $600 that people on unemployment received through the CARES Act each week.

Currently, the weekly federal allotment for those on unemployment is $300, which was made available through the American Rescue Plan and is set to expire on September 6. Moreover, the maximum weekly benefit amount in North Carolina is $350, meaning that as it currently stands, someone could be making up to $650 on unemployment each week. For comparison, a worker who makes $15 an hour and works full-time makes $600 a week before taxes. It is also worth noting that other pandemic unemployment programs, such as Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation, the Increased Benefit Amount and the Lost Wages Assistance programs, all expired by the end of last year. These programs provided between $50 and $300 in additional weekly unemployment compensation.

The copious unemployment benefits were enacted to provide for those who lost their jobs due to the pandemic, as well as to encourage people to stay home and not spread the virus. However, with 38.1 percent of the state’s population at least partially vaccinated and 29.9 percent fully vaccinated and increasing each week (according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services), there will come a point when the presence of the virus may no longer justify the government to pay people to stay home.

Gov. Roy Cooper and the General Assembly have already begun to act with this reality in mind, although recent measures will likely not do enough to motivate workers to return to their jobs. At the beginning of March, Gov. Cooper signed an executive order that established a “flexible” work search requirement for all new claimants who apply for unemployment benefits on or after March 14. Additionally, in Gov. Cooper’s budget, which he revealed in February, he called for the maximum duration of benefits to be increased to 26 weeks, as well as the maximum benefit to be increased from $350 to $500.

Nevertheless, it is not only Democrats who are pushing for an extension to unemployment benefits after 72 percent of those age 65 years and older, the population most vulnerable to COVID-19, have been fully vaccinated. A bill introduced by Republican Senator Chuck Edwards (Hendersonville) and signed into law by Gov. Cooper in late March allowed for back-to-back extended benefit periods for unemployment claims in 2021.

In spite of these actions, Appleby points out that the particular position that she has been struggling to hire for is not one in which employees are likely to be exposed to someone with the virus.

“The best thing about most of these jobs is that they’re outdoor jobs. People don’t have to have contact with people. What’s going on right now is people not wanting to work. Period,” Appleby said. “Unemployment is killing small businesses, killing it because you can’t get anyone to work. They’re opening a Bojangles in Newland, and I’m interested to see if they can even get enough staff to get it going.”

While unemployment provides a temporary fix to an economic problem, those on unemployment, as well as politicians who advocate for the expansion of government benefits for political purposes, typically do not take into account the money that low-skilled and entry-level workers miss out on in the future by choosing not to work for a year or more. As Economist Thomas Sowell describes in his work “Economic Facts and Fallacies,” people do not tend to remain in particular income brackets throughout their lives. In fact, less than one percent of the US population permanently remains in the bottom 20 percent of income earners throughout the duration of their lives. Instead, income tends to increase with age and experience.

Appleby points out how this principle works in her own profession.

“The learning experience more than anything gives them opportunity to learn this area, for one, because you have to drive to all these different houses to do the services. If they want to start their own business as an electrician or a plumber or whatever, then they’ll know the area. They’ll learn it firsthand,” Appleby explained. “David would be good at teaching them electrical work or plumbing as long as they’re willing to learn. A lot of the high schools right now are pushing labor-type jobs, electrician, plumber, carpentry, because you can name your price right now. If you’re a kid graduating from high school and you get in under an electrician or a plumber and get your license, you can go out on your own and name your price.”

Jenkins pointed out that similar opportunities can also be found in the construction business.

“We pay time-and-a-half for overtime, five paid holidays a year, competitive pay based on experience and we’re training people. We don’t care if they have experience, as long as they’re willing to work,” Jenkins said.

Lastly, Appleby shared a worst-case-scenario related to the unemployment situation and how some people have gone about attempting to abuse the system.

“(We had one employee) who as soon as Covid broke out went and filed unemployment, saying that we didn’t have work, and our work increased 33 percent when Covid broke out, because we got flooded with people to the area. (The employee) lied about his income, so he’s having to pay back all the unemployment he drawed,” Appleby said. “He drew $15,000 in 16 weeks.”

For employment inquiries, Absolute Comfort Hot Tub and Pool Repair can be contacted by calling (828) 260-4325, Jenkins Constructions can be contacted at (828) 260-6769, and applicants can go by the Western Sizzlin at 11961 NC-226 in Spruce Pine between the hours of 2 and 4 p.m. to submit an application.

Cooper anticipates majority of COVID-19 restrictions to lift by June 1, will issue new executive order this week

RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper announced April 21 that he anticipates all mandatory social distancing, mass gathering and capacity restrictions will be lifted by June 1.

“Although we’re making progress, we haven’t beaten COVID-19 yet and the virus will still be with us, even after June 1,” Cooper said. “We need to keep being responsible, we need to keep wearing masks. We need to get more people vaccinated and we need businesses to keep paying attention to current executive orders, and future health recommendations.”

Cooper said there will most likely still be some form of mask mandate after June 1, but anticipates lifting it after two-thirds of North Carolinians are vaccinated.

A new executive order will be announced which Cooper said would outline safety restrictions for May.

The current executive order allows restaurants, breweries and wineries, amusement parks, gyms and pools to have 75 percent capacity with 100 percent outdoor capacity.

Conference centers, bars, sports arenas, movie theaters and other live performance venues will be allowed to have 50 percent capacity with safety protocols — such as mask wearing and social distancing — in place. The 11 p.m. curfew for alcohol sales is also ended in the new order. The sports arena capacity includes high school sports venues.

Museums, aquariums, retail businesses and shops as well as barbers, salons and personal care businesses can open up at 100 percent.

Cooper said the state wants to get at least two-thirds of adults vaccinated with at least one shot as quickly as possible.

“With at least two-thirds of adults vaccinated, our public health experts believe we’ll have enough protection across our communities to be able to live more safely with this virus and to begin to put the pandemic behind us,” Cooper said.

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said the state has enough of the vaccine for everyone who wants one.

“If we can get to at least two-thirds of North Carolina’s adults vaccinated, we can get back to the summer activities we all love, like backyard gatherings with family and friends, public fireworks, outdoor festivals or parades, all without wearing masks outside,” Cohen said.

Cohen said the state would be pulling out “all the stops” to make sure it’s as easy as possible for those who want a vaccine to get one.

“As the governor said, it becomes really about North Carolinians literally rolling up their sleeves and doing their part,” Cohen said. “That is really going to be the final arbiter on how quickly we can get to two-thirds. I want to see us get to two-thirds and beyond as quickly as possible because that is the way we put this pandemic in our rearview mirror.”

Because no COVID-19 vaccine is available for those younger than 16 years old, Cohen said there would still be restrictions for places like summer camps and summer school. Cohen said she expects masks will be part of those safety protocols.

Cohen also announced the state would be launching a new “bringing summer back” campaign.

“The campaign creates a space for organizations and individuals to roll up their sleeves and do their part to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Cohen said. “It will run during two weeks in May and two weeks in June, during which organizations across the state will rally together to promote vaccination.”

Mountain Times Publications to welcome Report for America reporter in June to cover environmental concerns in the High Country

HIGH COUNTRY — Mountain Times Publications will join 200-plus newsrooms in welcoming a Report for America reporter in June.

Marisa Mecke will join Mountain Times Publications in June to cover environmental issues in Watauga, Ashe and Avery counties.

Report for America is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization.

“As we commit resources to more investigative and in-depth reporting on environmental concerns in the High Country, Marisa’s appointment through Report For America comes at an optimal time,” said Mountain Times Publications Executive Editor Tom Mayer. “Her experience and desire will allow Marisa to laser focus on the stories in Watauga, Ashe and Avery counties that demand sunshine and thorough reporting.”

More than 300 journalists, which include a number of corps members returning for a second or third year, will join the staffs of more than 200 local news organizations across 49 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam through Report For America.

“The crisis in our democracy, disinformation and polarization, is in many ways a result of the collapse of local news,” said Steven Waldman, co-founder and president of Report for America. “We have a unique opportunity to reverse this decline by filling newsrooms with talented journalists who not only view journalism as a public service, but who can make trusted connections with the communities they serve.”

Mecke will graduate from Davidson College in May with a double major in political science and Latin American Studies. During her college years, Mecke has worked as a feature writer for The Davidsonian student newspaper and worked at the student radio. She also currently works at the local NPR affiliate radio station in Davidson.

For the next year, Mecke will cover environmental issues, which she is familiar with. For the past few years, Mecke has worked as an outdoor educator at a nature center in north Atlanta. As part of that job, she would educate people on the ecology of the Southeast region, especially waterways. She’s also worked as an outdoor trip leader at Davidson and is certified in wilderness medicine.

Mecke said environmental issues in Western North Carolina don’t just affect the tourism and agriculture in the region.

“There are people at the center of all of those stories about the environment,” Mecke said. “I’m hoping to do people-centered stories about how our communities in western North Carolina are interacting with the environment and how the environment is interacting with us as well.”

She wants her role as an environmental reporter for Mountain Times Publications to not just be her writing stories, but as an outlet to help the community explore their interactions with the environment.

“Keeping people informed on important issues like how much is constantly happening with environmental policy and environmental degradation will be a really special opportunity and kind of service I can do,” Mecke said.

Gene Fowler, publisher of Mountain Times Publications, said he welcomes the partnership that will bring Mecke to the High Country.

“It will open up new avenues for us to explore topics we don’t typically have the resources to delve into in a community weekly market,” Fowler said. “The newspapers and the community will benefit on the whole from this partnership.”

Mountain Times Publications covers the High Country with newspapers of record in Avery, Ashe and Watauga counties. Mecke will be reporting on environmental issues from each location.

Avery Journal-Times Editor Jamie Shell said it’s a privilege to be able to help Mecke gain experience delving into environmental and societal issues in the area.

“Report for America offers a unique opportunity for journalists to dive deeply into local, issue-oriented reporting that is often missing from a number of newsrooms today, particularly rural, community-centered newsrooms such as in Avery County and our region,” Shell said. “In addition to being able to work alongside talented reporters and photojournalists affiliated with RFA, I’m excited that we can provide an avenue for Marisa and other future journalists who are passionate about journalism and see it as a public service and a difference maker within communities.”

Within the Christmas tree industry of Avery County, Shell added he is looking forward to Mecke reporting about how farmers are utilizing responsible environmental practices when it comes to protection of water tables and use of insecticides and fertilizers, among other issues.

Watauga Democrat Editor Kayla Lasure said she is looking forward to Mecke covering issues in the county such as resistance to asphalt plants, local business sustainability practices and possible barriers to customers obtaining solar power in the area.

“So many of our High Country community members are passionate about living among beautiful mountains and waterways, and protecting our surroundings,” Lasure said. “Our area will truly benefit from a deeper dive into environmental issues facing our communities.”

In Ashe County, Mayer — who is also the editor of the Ashe Post and Times — said he is looking forward to Mecke covering water quality in the area due to previous mining and current farm chemical runoff, erosion and periodic droughts in the area.

“I know that the natural world is such an important part of everyday life in Western North Carolina, and I am excited to explore all of the stories about how we interact with the environment along with the local community,” Mecke said.

Report For America has partnered journalists with newsrooms since 2017, and this year is the first year Mountain Times Publications applied for and received a Report for America corps member.

“As a rural region, where readers still rely on the printed newspaper for news because the internet’s reach is often unreliable, we wanted to bring a top, emerging journalist to cover the environment, an under-covered issue not only in North Carolina but across the country,” said Sergio Bustos, the south regional manager for Report for America.

Bustos said Mecke was an ideal match for Mountain Times Publications because she grew up in the South and has a passion for reporting on the environment.

Corps members are funded through a funding match model. Report for America pays for half of the corps member’s salary, while encouraging and supporting its local news partners to contribute one-quarter and local and regional funders to contribute the final quarter.

“We know that the biggest global challenges of our time — like equitable health care, the impact of climate change and affordable housing — will require trusted, local public service journalism if we are to come together to solve them,” said Charles Sennott, Report for America co-founder and GroundTruth CEO.

Report for America had a nearly $10 million philanthropic impact on U.S. local news in 2020. The total amount donated to Report for America newsrooms grew from $861,000 in 2019 to $4.6 million — a 61 percent increase per reporter.