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Economy

Small Business Commission holds listening session in Guntersville

Brandon Moseley

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Monday, the Alabama Small Business Commission held the first of four listening sessions with small business owners across the state ahead of the 2020 legislative session.

Lieutenant Governor Will Ainsworth (R) said that the public meetings and the surveys that participants fill out helps the Commission know what the concerns of the small business owners are concerned with so that the Commission can recommend legislation to the legislature to address those issues.

There has been a lot of efforts by the state to lure large business to the state; but most job growth comes from small business growth and expansion Ainsworth said.

The State Director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) Rosemary Elebash said that the Alabama Small Business Commission was created by the legislature during the Great Recession when more small businesses were closing than opening.

The NFIB is the nation’s leading small-business association.

“It is the duty of the commission to formulate policies encouraging innovation of small business in the state to discuss issues critical to the economic growth of small independent businesses and their interests,” Elebash said. 99.4 percent of all businesses in Alabama are small businesses and over half of the jobs in Alabama are with small businesses. The largest sector in Alabama are agriculture and forestry followed by construction.

Elebash said that five members of the commission have rolled off when their terms expired and Ainsworth has appointed new members. State Representative Joe Lovvorn (R-Auburn) is one of the new members, The members are diverse and include members from all of the business sectors in the state.

Elebash said that the Commission has printed decals honoring the veterans who own businesses. The decals recognize the 25,000 veteran owned businesses in the state.

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“We passed legislation that if you deliver less than $10,000 in sales to a municipality you do not have to get a delivery vehicle license in that municipality,” Elebash said. “One municipality in the Birmingham area decided that every business delivery vehicle must have a license.” The commission helped pass legislation that stated that there was just one license per business, not per vehicle. One North Alabama town decided that every business vehicle that drove through their town, whether they delivered anything there or not, had to have a business delivery license. We passed legislation to stop that.

Elebash said that the Commission lobbied the Public Service Commission so that small businesses who pay their bill on time and operate for a period of time can get their security deposits on their utility bills back and not at the close of the business. Alabama Power Company will now do a free inspection of a building for energy efficiency before a small business opens.

Elebash said that the Commission promotes Small Business Saturday. This was the tenth year to have done it. Across nation $19.6 billion was spent in small businesses this year on Small Business Saturday.

The Commission also helped create Atlas Alabama, a website for small business owners. There they can get statistics and information useful to small business owners.

“Alabama has worked hard to create a business friendly climate that encourages the creation of new businesses and an opportunity for existing business to expand,” Elebash said. “Working together business owners and community and government leaders will continue to serve and support small businesses across the state.”

One of the businessmen in attendance said that the apprenticeship program would work better if the state had a longer summer vacation break. By the time you get a high school student trained and up to speed they are going back to school.

Ainsworth said that the workforce development commission will look at that issue.

Ainsworth said that workforce development is the largest crisis we have in our state and that state leaders are looking at Pre-K and are looking at apprenticeships. The state has hired two consulting companies that are working on a master plan for K-12 and a master plan for apprenticeships.

“The best country on that (apprenticeships) is Germany,” Ainsworth said.

“You can’t have an apprenticeship of any value with that short of a summer,” the business owner said.

Ainsworth said that a few years ago, nobody thought of Alabama when you thought about Pre-K now through the efforts of Jenna Ross and the Department of Early Childhood Education we are recognized as having the best Pre-K program in the country. “We want to do the same thing for apprenticeship as we did with pre-K.”

Elebash said that the unemployment trust fund in Alabama is funded only through employer contributions. As unemployment has dropped the Commission has successfully pushed through reforms that decreased the amount of time a person can draw unemployment from 20 weeks to 14 weeks. Last week the trust fund had $723 million. Once the trust fund reaches $800 million, likely after April 21, that will trigger a reduction in the rate that employers contribute to the unemployment trust fund.

“You as businessowners will save $45 million from this change,” Elebash explained.

Elebash said that the booming economy has meant that more people are joining the workforce.

“We are getting people who have not been working,” Elebash explained. Training them in those soft skills, showing up for work on time, not being on their cell phones during work, not leaving before their shift ends, looking at customers when they speak to them, etc. has fallen on business owners.

Many of the business owners agreed that developing those soft skills has been a problem.

One business owner said that as the economy has improved there are fewer people applying that come from households where no one is working. This has made it harder to find people who will qualify for existing job training programs. Most applicants now are either already working or come from a household where somebody is working.

“They almost have to be homeless or making minimum wage to qualify for these training programs,” the business owner complained.

State Senator Garlan Gudger (R-Cullman) said that Stonebridge Wedding Chapel in Cullman fought the lodging tax that was being charged on them on the chairs they set up, the tables they rented, venue rental etc. They challenged the Alabama Revenue Department and won; but the Revenue Department appealed the ruling and the chapel won again. “We codified that lodging tax is lodging tax” and does not apply to renting wedding venues, tables, chairs, plates, etc.

Elebash says that fighting state agencies is difficult because they have attorneys on staff while you have to pay hourly fees.

One business owner said that the state needs to incentivize recycling for businesses so that material that could be recycled is rather than going to a landfill.

Elebash said that this is an ADEM question we have to refer.

One business owner wanted the schools to teach soft skills to the work force.

Elebash said that the community colleges have started a pilot program teaching graduates to look a customer in the eye, to clock in and clock out and be on time.

State Senator Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville) said that this is the read to work program.

“They need it expand it and get it in to the high school level,” one business owner said.

“Alabama made products should get preferred vender status,” from state government one businesswoman state. Alabama state bid law has a preferred vender status in the law for products made in Alabama, but that is often ignored by state agencies.

Her business makes American flags; but she recently lost the bid to provide the state of Alabama flags to a company that makes their flags in China.

“Alabama made should be number one, American flags should be number two, and foreign made should be a last resort when there is more than a five percent difference in price,” the textile plant owner said.

One business personal complained about the personal business property tax that is charged. They have to pay 16 to 17 counties and everyone of them calculates it differently.

“This has been a bur under my saddle for years,” Elebash said. She favors its elimination but since it all goes to the education trust fund (ETF) it would have to be made up by something. Elebash said that it should at least follow the federal depreciation schedule.

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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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Economy

Alabama Credit Unions announce policy on coronavirus

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama Credit Association says that Alabama’s credit unions have been working diligently to meet the financial needs of the states’ families and businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.

“On behalf of our credit union members, we want to share the following important information with you,” the Alabama Credit Union Association said in a statement.

The association said financial institutions are prepared and able to be a source of strength for the communities they serve, and money is safe in National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insured financial institutions.

“Not a penny of deposits insured by NCUA has ever been lost,” the ACUA assured depositors. “The safest place for our money is in an insured depository institution. Up to $250,000 is the basic amount covered by federal insurance for single amounts at any insured institution. Additional coverage may be available depending on the account type and structure.”

Greg McClellan is the administrator of the Alabama Credit Union Administration.

“The Alabama Credit Union Administration is continually communicating with credit unions to offer assistance during this pandemic,” said McClellan. “Credit unions are insured by the NCUA up to $250,000. Credit unions we have been in contact with have been striving to provide excellent service to their members, and we continue to provide assistance to them.”

State Rep. Chris Blackshear, R-Phenix City, is the chairman of the Alabama State Committee on Financial Institutions.

“In these uncertain times, it is great to see the Alabama Credit Union Association and their member credit unions stepping up to ensure Alabamans that their money is safe and secure,” Blackshear said. “I also want to thank all of Alabama’s credit unions for stepping up to help their members and communities as we adjust to the new normal in our great state.”

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Patrick La Pine is the CEO of the League of Southeastern Credit Unions.

“Alabama’s credit unions remain open and ready to serve their members during this difficult time,” said CEO La Pine. “Credit unions are integral parts of their communities – and they understand the challenges their members face. During this trying time, Alabama credit unions will continue to do what they’ve always done: help consumers, families, businesses and communities through their challenges. Credit unions are also doing everything possible to make sure their teams are safe while still offering personalized service.”

“As always, in Alabama, we pull together, we do the right things for the right reasons and we come out stronger at the end,” said State Senator Tom Whatley, R-Auburn. “Our credit unions are no exception. They understand what difficulties may lie ahead for their members, our constituents and they’re helping now, not later before it’s too late.”

“Many people across the state of Alabama rely on credit unions to handle their financial needs, and they should continue to feel confident in investing their money in NCAU-insured and backed credit unions during the COVID-19 pandemic,” explained Rep. Jeremy Gray, D-Opelika. “Credit unions across the state are taking every proactive measure they can, in conjunction with the League of Southeastern Credit Unions and the Alabama Credit Union Association, to ensure they can meet the needs of all of their current and new members.”

More information on NCUA insurance coverage is available here.

The ACUA said that consumers and businesses should know “credit unions are working proactively with borrowers experiencing challenges in the current environment.”

“Each credit union is eager to work with you for a solution customized to your situation,” the association said. “Financial institutions have responded positively to all Gov. Kay Ivey’s and President Donald Trump’s directives. Furthermore, business continuity plans were already in place and are being exercised.”

The ACUA added, “Lobby access may be restricted at certain credit unions, but we’re open for business.” For more information about your institution, check your financial institution’s webpage or LSCU’s list of CU changes. “Drive-through service, when available at a branch, is open for transactions.”

Individual appointments for in-person meetings are being scheduled; while technology platforms give ready access to online services like bill pay, remote depositing of checks and ATMs for cash. You can also take advantage of the United States’ world-class payments system and use mobile payment channels and debit cards or credit cards to make purchases.

Many criminals are using the coronavirus to scam consumers. Be on guard for potential scams.

The Alabama Credit Union Association is an affiliate of the League of Southeastern Credit Unions and represents credit unions in Alabama. The LSCU & Affiliates represents 333 credit unions in Alabama, Florida and Georgia, with a combined total assets of more than $120 billion and more than 10.3 million members. The LSCU provides advocacy and regulatory information; education and training; cooperative initiatives (including financial education outreach).

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Economy

Alabama jobless claims soar past 40,000 this week, breaking records

Chip Brownlee

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More than 40,000 people filed a jobless claim to receive unemployment compensation in the first four days of this week, the Alabama Department of Labor says, more than quadrupling the number of claims filed last week when layoffs began hitting the state.

Alabama Department of Labor spokesperson, Tara Hutchison, said Thursday that 40,628 people filed an initial jobless claim from Sunday to Wednesday, according to the department’s preliminary data.

About 9,500 people filed initial claims last week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s data published this morning. That was a seven-fold increase compared to the week before when only 1,800 people filed an unemployment claim.

The number of people who filed a jobless claim in the first four days of this week is 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.

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 increasing trouble accepting and processing the filings. WSFA reported this week that some people have not been able to file.

The Alabama Hospitality Association has estimated that some 225,000 hotel and restaurant workers will be laid off during 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 Thursday that more than 3.28 million people across the country filed unemployment claims last week. That shattered the Great Recession’s peak of 665,000 in March of 2009, according to CNBC.

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Alabama’s total from the first three days of this week, which were not included in the U.S. Department of Labor’s numbers released today, are more than the entire month of March of 2009.

This story will be updated.

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