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Economy

Forestry industry is driving the rural economy

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama Department of Commerce released a new report this week showing that the forest industry is having a large impact on rural economies.

In 2018, Westervelt Company, Rex Lumber and Great Southern Wood all announced plans for production facilities in Alabama. All combined, over 300 jobs were created at the facilities alone.

In 2018, fifty-one forest products companies created almost 2,000 new jobs across the state and invested $1.3 billion into new facilities and expansion of existing facilities.

The Commerce Department said that this has become a trend in recent years. With 4,500 new jobs having been created over the last three years by the forest industry and investments of nearly $4 billion in new facilities and expansion of existing facilities. The forest industry accounted for 22 percent of total capital invested in Alabama during that time frame.

“Forestry continues to be one of the top industries investing in Alabama’s economy, averaging $600 million dollars annually and creating more than 1,000 new jobs each year over the last 10 years,” said Chris Isaacson, Executive Vice President of the Alabama Forestry Association. “23 million acres of well-managed forests, mostly owned by family forest owners, providing an abundant source of raw material along with an excellent business environment make our state a very attractive place to invest capital.”

These capital investments are particularly important for Alabama’s rural economy. In 2018, the forest industry was the largest capital investor in 15 rural counties and was the largest employer throughout much of rural Alabama.

Economic developer Nicole Jones told the Alabama Political Reporter, “Forestry and paper products is one of the state of Alabama’s targeted industries. Alabama has the second largest timberland base in the nation, with over 23 million acres dedicated to forestry. Recent data shows that Alabama exported 1.3 billion dollars of forestry products annually, and the industry contributes a total of over 23 billion dollars annually to Alabama’s economy. These numbers continue to attract companies (and more jobs) to our state.”

To support this growth, the Alabama Forestry Association and the Forest Workforce Training Institute (FWTI) have implemented a workforce development program (ForestryWorks) to ensure a steady supply of workers across the forest industry. FWTI staff work alongside career counselors, teachers, and school administrators to expose students and parents to the growing career opportunities in forestry, especially in rural parts of the state.

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“Just as we plant trees to grow future forests, we will continue to invest in today’s students to grow tomorrow’s forestry workforce,” said Isaacson.

You can learn more about the Forest Workforce Training Institute here.

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Economy

Department of Labor closed Birmingham unemployment office as COVID-19 spread

Eddie Burkhalter

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The number of people applying for unemployment in Alabama continues to skyrocket amid the COVID-19 outbreak, but there are fewer people handling those claims this month than last. 

The Alabama Department of Labor closed an office in Birmingham and let some workers go earlier this month. That staffing shortage, coupled with an onslaught of new claims, has slowed the time it’s taking to process them, one worker told APR

Approximately 74,056 people filed unemployment claims during the week that ended  March 28, according to the department’s preliminary data. That was far more than had ever been filed for any week going back to 1987, when the U.S. Department of Labor began keeping data on weekly unemployment claims. 

“Where we would have alerted a claimant that it would take two to three weeks, now the verbiage is, as soon as administratively possible,” the employee at the department told APR by phone Saturday. The person asked not to be identified as they’re still employed with the state. 

It’s currently taking between six and seven weeks to process claims, the worker said, and people who have applied are expressing concern over the long wait. 

“It’s an issue,” the worker said. 

The employee said workers at the now-closed Birmingham office were called into a meeting on Feb. 18 and told the office would close for good on March 13. Anyone who wanted to continue working for the department had to report to the Montgomery office on March 16, the worker said, or they would be “considered to have quit.” 

In a response to APR’s questions, Alabama Department of Labor spokeswoman Tara Hutchison wrote that “Eleven employees found other positions in a career center or tax office, three employees resigned in lieu of transferring, two are retiring, and six conditional employees were separated.”

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There was no discussion in that Feb. 18 meeting of the novel coronavirus or the possibility of mass filings, the workers said. There was discussion of what might happen if another recession hit, the person said, but administrators didn’t have a plan for that. 

China informed the World Health Organization about the novel coronavirus on Dec. 31. President Donald Trump on Jan. 31 banned foreign nationals entry into the country if they had traveled to China within the last two weeks. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention there were 18 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. as of Feb. 18, the day workers were told the Birmingham office would be closing. 

A day after the Feb. 18 meeting at the Birmingham office Iran’s COVID-19 breakout began. 

By March 8, eight days before workers were ordered to show up to the Montgomery office, Italy ordered a lockdown of 60 million residents. Three days later the World Health Organization classified COVID-19 as a pandemic. 

By March 13, the day the Birmingham office closed, there were 2,611 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. 

The worker said just 15 of the 37 employees made the move to the Montgomery office, and those who did are faced with an overwhelming workload and are spending hours each day doing jobs that others had done before the move. All but one of the 15 adjudicate claims, the person said, meaning they process them and determine whether the person should receive unemployment benefits. 

Hutchison told APR that the decision to close the Birmingham office was made because of funding and budget issues. 

“The Unemployment Insurance program’s budget has been cut repeatedly for several years.  The building’s rental and overhead costs were eliminated by transferring those employees to the Montgomery Call Center,” Hutchison said in the message. 

The worker questioned, however, why the department waited until a month before the planned closure to inform the staff, and expressed concern that there 

“As you know, we are taking in remarkable numbers of new claims due to COVID-19.  There was no way to know at the time that this situation would occur. We are working constantly to improve service, and one of those ways is by reutilizing those employees who transferred to other positions, and having them accept claims,” Hutchison said. “We are also looking to bring back those conditional employees who have separated, if they haven’t found other work.  Additionally, the federal government is providing increased funding to assist with staffing issues.”

The Birmingham office was already short-staffed enough to have been allowing staff there overtime pay to handle existing claims, the employee said. 

“This just added just a whole new level,” the person said. 

The workers said staff at the department want the public to know that they care and are working hard to get claims processed as quickly as possible. 

“We want to make sure that we’re doing the job right. We want to make sure that we’re following guidelines that we’ve had in place all throughout our employment with how to do these claims,” the person said. “If the public knew that, that would be great.”

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Freelancers, gig workers can begin filing unemployment claims

Chip Brownlee

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Employees like freelancers and the self-employed can now file for an unemployment claim in Alabama, the Alabama Department of Labor said Tuesday, under the CARES Act, the coronavirus response bill passed by Congress and signed by the president last week.

The Alabama Department of Labor is encouraging employees who believe they may qualify for programs under the CARES Act to file a claim.

These employees will also need to certify weekly to continue to let the department know that they remain unemployed.

Although ADOL does not yet have technical guidance or a start date regarding the CARES Act programs, benefits may be paid retroactively from the time the employee separated from his or her job or otherwise became eligible under the federal CARES Act, not from the time the application was submitted or approved.

In Alabama, many freelancers, independent contractors and the self-employed are not typically able to file for unemployment insurance.

Last week, more than 70,000 people filed an initial jobless claim. Claims can be filed online at www.labor.alabama.gov or by calling 1-866-234-5382.

The Department of Labor is asking for patience when trying to file a claim.

ADOL says employees who may be affected include:

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  • The self-employed
  • Church employees
  • Non-profit and governmental employees
  • Independent contractors
  • Gig economy workers
  • Those who have exhausted their regular UI benefits.

These employees should also meet one of these conditions:

  • The individual has been diagnosed; or
  • A member of the individual’s household has been diagnosed; or
  • The individual is providing care to a household or family member; or
  • A child or other person for which the individual has primary caregiving responsibility is unable to attend school or another facility as a result of COVID-19; or
  • The individual is unable to reach the place of employment because of a quarantine imposed as a result of the COVID-19 public health emergency; or
  • The individual is unable to reach the place of employment because the individual has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine; or
  • The individual was scheduled to start work and does not have a job as a result of COVID-19; or
  • The individual has become “the breadwinner or major support for a household because the head of the household has died as a direct result of COVID-19”; or
  • The individual has to quit their job because of COVID-19; or
  • The individual’s place of employment is closed because of COVID-19.

This list is not exhaustive.

Further details regarding the CARES Act programs will be forthcoming, the department says, including information regarding Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, which provides for an additional $600 a week in unemployment compensation benefits.

The additional $600 weekly benefit will only be available for weeks beginning March 29, 2020

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Economy

More than 70,000 people filed unemployment claims in Alabama last week

Chip Brownlee

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More than 70,000 people filed a jobless claim to receive unemployment compensation last week, the Alabama Department of Labor says. That number is about eight-times the number of claims filed the week before when layoffs began hitting the state.

Alabama Department of Labor spokesperson Tara Hutchison said Monday that some 74,056 people filed an initial jobless claim during the week that ended March 28, according to the department’s preliminary data.

More than 40,000 filed during the first four days of the week last week, with the number jumping past 70,000 by the end of the week.

About 9,500 people filed initial claims during the week ending March 21, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s data published last week. That was also a seven-fold increase compared to the week that ended March 14.

The number of people who filed a jobless claim last week is far more than at any point since at least 1987. The U.S. Department of Labor’s weekly unemployment claims data only goes back to 1987 for Alabama.

The Alabama Hospitality Association has estimated that some 225,000 hotel and restaurant workers will be laid off during the COVID-19 crisis.

The Economic Policy Institute’s conservative projections have estimated that nearly 200,000 people could lose their jobs in Alabama.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported on Friday that more than 3.28 million people across the country filed unemployment claims during the week ending March 21. That shattered the Great Recession’s peak of 665,000 in March of 2009, according to CNBC.

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In Alabama, you can apply for unemployment by phone or online. There have been issues with people having trouble getting through on the telephone system.

So many unemployment claims have been filed since businesses began laying off people because of the COVID-19 pandemic that the Department of Labor has been having trouble accepting and processing the filings.

WSFA reported this week that some people have not been able to file.

To help alleviate the strain, the state has waived fees that are typically charged when an employer files for their employees.

To be eligible to file for unemployment insurance related to a COVID-19 layoff or firing, you must meet one of the following requirements:

  • Those who are quarantined by a medical professional or a government agency,
  • Those who are laid off or sent home without pay for an extended period by their employer due to COVID-19 concerns,
  • Those who are diagnosed with COVID-19,
  • Or, those who are caring for an immediate family member who is diagnosed with COVID-19.

Workers can file for benefits online at www.labor.alabama.gov or by calling 1-866-234-5382. Online filing is encouraged.

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Economy

UAH researchers and the world’s fastest supercomputer join the fight against the COVID-19 virus

Brandon Moseley

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More and more of Alabama’s brainpower is being redirected into fighting the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Dr. Jerome Baudry is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Dr. Baudry and his lab are involved in a project that is using the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Summit supercomputer to examine compounds to fight the virus that has already killed 34,807 people as of early Monday morning.

The compounds under review include drugs already available with safe profiles, as well as natural products. Compounds identified as possible future drugs will also be studied.

“We are at this point focusing on repurposing existing drugs,” Dr. Baudry said. “That is, to take existing drugs from the shelf and find which ones are active against either the virus itself or can help in treating or mitigating the effects of infection in the severe cases.”

Dr. Baudry said that about 30 researchers are involved in the project, and are working around the clock. The group is studying how the virus ticks, including how it expresses proteins, for clues on how to defeat it.

“We can use high performance computers and supercomputers to look at the entire genome of the virus, see everything the virus’ genome is making and build computational models of all these proteins, and repeat the repurposing process for each of these proteins,” Dr. Baudry said.

Scientists in the group are starting with some proteins on the surface of the virus in an attempt to prevent it from infecting human cells.

“We are also looking at some of the proteins that allow the virus to replicate itself when it is inside the human cell in order to block this process, a bit like for many anti-AIDS drugs,” Dr. Baudry explained. “But we will expand to pretty much everything in the virus’ genome that can be targeted by a drug.”

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Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s 200 petaflop supercomputer allows researchers unprecedented access to solving this and some of the world’s other most pressing challenges.

Researchers have a databases about virtually all existing drugs, natural products or molecules that may not have been tested yet as drugs. There are thousands of them. Then they build virtual models of these compounds using the laws of physics and chemistry to calculate their composition and arrive at a very detailed computational description.

“Then we look at the virus’ genome,” Dr. Baudry said. “We have to build models for all the virus’ proteins, again describing all the atoms, their properties, how they move together, etc.”

The supercomputers then compute how the atoms of a possible drug will interact with the atoms of the virus’ proteins.

“It’s like doing a test tube experiment to see if a possible drug will bind to the protein, except that we perform this in a virtual test tube using our computers,” Baudry explained.

Economic developer Dr. Nicole Jones explained to the Alabama Political Reporter, “Researchers across Alabama are working around the clock to assess potential treatment for the novel COVID-19. The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) and Dr. Baudry are using technology, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Summit supercomputer, to examine compounds from safe, existing drugs as well as natural products. Repurposing existing drugs is a strategy that can expedite the process if a potential cure or treatment is found. The drugs are already on the shelf, why not test them to see if they can be useful? The high performance computers and supercomputers allow researchers to examine the entire genome of the virus and how it reacts. UAH’s latest announcement is another example of the brainpower we have in Alabama and our state’s commitment to combating this pandemic.”

UAB, Southern Research Institute, Hudson Alpha, and Alabama biotech firms are also working on finding drugs that will treat COVID-19 as well as hoping to develop a vaccine to prevent it.

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