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Economy

Birmingham company uses technology to allow corporations to operate remotely

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama is now in its sixth week of the forced economic shutdown ordered to combat the spread of the novel strain of the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

The COVID-19 global pandemic has forced companies to implement social distancing, telework, and keep operating despite bans on travel and of groups over ten. One Birmingham firm is helping businesses operating in this challenging online environment.

Help Lightning has a high-tech solution allowing technicians to remotely guide on-site equipment repairs and perform other mission-critical tasks for customers in manufacturing, health care and other industries. The company has seen demand for its services soar since the coronavirus crisis began.

“In the last month alone, the number of calls made using Help Lightning increased over 400 percent as existing and new customers ramped up to deliver expertise remotely,” Help Lightning CEO Gary York said.

Help Lightning’s solution uses mobile augmented reality technology.

Earlier this month, Atlanta-based Cox Communications, the nation’s largest private telecom company, announced a partnership with Help Lightning to launch its “On-site with Virtual Assist” service.

Help Lightning’s technology allows Cox technicians to handle service requests from outside a customer’s home, without the need to go inside to troubleshoot a repair. This protects both the customer and the technician.

“One customer had a critical piece of equipment go down in Milan right when Italy started their lockdown,” Yor said. “Using Help Lightning, they were able to get it back up without sending someone – even faster than if they had dispatched a technician. They avoided exposure of their employee to the virus and resolved the problem.”

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Greg Canfield is the Secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce.

Canfield said that Help Lightning is a prime example of an innovative Alabama technology firm providing real-world solutions to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Help Lightning and its cutting-edge technology are helping many businesses overcome difficult conditions in today’s challenging times, while demonstrating to the world that a high level of innovation is taking place in our state,” Secretary Canfield said.

Help Lightning actually got its start through the work of Dr. Bart Guthrie, a neurosurgeon at UAB Medical Center and prolific inventor. Dr. Guthrie wanted to share life-saving surgical techniques with doctors in other parts of the world. He knew that simple video wouldn’t do the trick given the complexity of the surgical procedures.

To properly guide the other surgeons Guthrie would need to be there “virtually,” with his hands and instruments in the field of view.

York said Help Lightning’s patented Virtual Interactive Presence technology was the outcome of Guthrie’s work. Guthrie is still at UAB and serves on the company’s board.

The technology developed by Dr. Guthrie has applications in other fields, as well as the brain surgery it was designed for. The company launched in 2016 and found a market in companies conducting field service and customer service activities.

“Anywhere that an organization had to send out a technician to repair a piece of equipment, Help Lightning could be used to virtually bring an expert on-site and guide a technician or customer through the repair,” York said.

Help Lightning serves Fortune 1000 companies with a presence in over 90 countries around the world.

York said the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating adoption of its remote expertise platforms.

“I absolutely believe that business is being changed forever. Many of these changes were being adopted by more forward-thinking companies over the past four years,” he said. “This crisis has become the catalyst for adoption and use of remote expertise solutions. The pandemic has been an inflection point.”

The technology allows companies to shift their workers to provide remote service. Help Lightning is being used in hospitals to perform virtual pre-surgical patient visits, reducing the risk of spreading infection and the need for scarce personal protective equipment.

Economic developer Dr. Nicole Jones told the Alabama Political Reporter, “The technology provided by Help Lighting is an example of innovative solutions created by Alabamians that are especially useful amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Industries utilizing Help Lightning’s services are now able to assist in customer and patient care in a safe manner. The virtual assistance seems to be the next best alternative to in-person service (in a non-pandemic environment.”

“Help Lightning serves many major medical device companies that are ramping up now to support more testing and to deliver critical medical equipment,” York said. “A few of our customers have declared Help Lightning as an ‘Essential Business’ in their supply chain. We are glad to do our part to bend the curve on the impact of the virus and to blunt the impact of the economic downturn.”

The Birmingham company has 30 employees with most of them located in Birmingham.

“Birmingham is home for me,” York said. “We have received tremendous support from our community as we have raised funds, sought top talent, and grown to support companies all over the world. Innovation Depot is a treasure for our city. And our community always seems to come together to make Birmingham a better place to live.”

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Economy

Ag commissioner concerned about collapsing beef prices

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries Commissioner Rick Pate (R) is concerned about dropping cattle prices and the impact that that is having on Alabama’s farmers and ranchers.

“We have been very dialed into the crisis Alabama Cattle Producers are up against,” Pate told the Alabama Political Reporter. “We will continue to closely monitor this dire situation and the market impact it is having on Alabama’s cattle farmers . . . as well as consumers.”

“After I was contacted by a number of Alabama’s stockyards and Cattle producers expressing concern with regards to market inconsistencies and increased consumer prices…… I wrote a letter to Senators Shelby and Jones requesting that they join in on a push for an investigation of the meat packing industry,” Pate said. “I am encouraged by the support we are getting from both Jones and Shelby. It’s also great to see Alabama Producers joining in together in an effort to formulate a strategy to address the current situation.”

Commissioner Pate shared the April 6 letter.

“Over the last five days, I have been contacted by many stockyards and cattle producers concerning the seemingly inconsistent drastic reduction in futures prices for cattle while at the same time consumers are purchasing more beef at grocery stores than at any time in recent memory and at the same time grocery store shelves are empty of beef,” Pate wrote the Senators. “There is concern from many in the cattle industry that the large meat packing companies are manipulating markets to put cattle produces and local stockyards at a disadvantage during a national crisis. Due to depressed cattle prices and uncertainty over cattle prices multiple stockyards will not conduct business this week.”

“I understands that Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Mike Rounds of South Dakota have recently asked the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies to investigate whether the large packing companies are manipulating beef markets to fix prices at a level that negatively impacts beef producers,” Pate wrote. “I urge you to join your fellow senators in calling for this investigation to make certain that Alabama cattle producers are not suffering from artificially low beef prices.”

COVID-19 has impacted many areas of our lives. That includes at the grocery store where selection of beef, pork, and chicken products can be a hit and miss proposition for shoppers due to hoarders and to less cattle, hogs, and chicken being killed because of slaughterhouses suffering high absenteeism due to COVID-19. The big four major packers: Tyson Foods, Cargill/Excel, J.B.S. Swift, and National Beef process over 80 percent of the cattle. When their daily productions dropped there was an oversized effect on cash and futures markets, because of the lack of competition and because 70 percent of the cattle they process are forward contracted. If a feedlot was not forward contracted they often could not sell their cattle at any price.

The spot market or cash market generally determines live cattle prices. Some in the industry have accused the big four meatpackers of engaging in an “allied strategy” to manipulate the spot market so that the four major companies can profit at the expense of farmers and ranchers.

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Sen. Grassley praised President Donald J. Trump’s recent call for an investigation into possible anticompetitive behavior in the beef industry. Last month, Grassley lodged a similar request with the Departments of Justice and Agriculture.

“While consumers are facing record-level prices at the meat counter, America’s Beef producers are being forced to sell their cattle to meatpackers at a loss, if they can sell them at all,” Sen. Grassley said. “Consolidation in the meatpacking industry has exacerbated the market pain on both sides of the supply chain, and producers and consumers need to know whether unfair business practices by packers are to blame.”

“I’ve called on the Trump administration to look into unfair or anticompetitive practices and I’m grateful that President Trump has made this issue a priority,” Grassley added. “USDA is looking into unfair pricing practices. DOJ must also examine if any collusion within the packing industry has taken place in violation of our antitrust laws.”

Grassley has long raised concerns about consolidation in the meatpacking industry and pressed USDA to protect independent producers.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association recently called for an investigation into the business practices that lead to unfair marketplace for beef producers. R-CALF filed suit against the Big Four packers last year alleging that the four companies are engaging in an “allied strategy” in defiance of U.S. anti-trust law.

Rick Pate is a cattle rancher in Lowndes County. The Pate family has raised Charolais beef cattle in Alabama for decades.

(Original writing and research by Montgomery area writer Amy McGhee contributed to this report. McGhee’s parents have a Black Angus beef cattle farm in Tennessee.)

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Economy

Talladega will hold GEICO 500 on June 21 without fans in the stands

Brandon Moseley

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The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) has announced that the GEICO 500, MoneyLion 300 and General Tire 200 automobile races have all been rescheduled for the weekend of June 20 to 21.

They will be raced without fans in attendance.

“We are excited that NASCAR has announced the rescheduling of our April race weekend to June 20-21,” said Talladega Superspeedway President Brian Crichton. “While we will have cars on track, in the interest of the health and safety of all involved, including fans, NASCAR will be running our three races – the GEICO 500, MoneyLion 300 and General Tire 200 – without fans in attendance in accordance with the State of Alabama, CDC and public health agency standards and protocols.”

The Cup Series GEICO 500 will be held on Sunday, June at 2:00 pm CST.

The Xfinity series MoneyLion 300 will be held on Saturday, June 20 at 4:30 pm CST.

The ARCA series General Tire 200 will be held on Saturday, June 20, 2020 at 1:00 pm CST.

“NASCAR, like Talladega Superspeedway, prides itself in being fan-friendly, and the fans drive everything we do,” Crichton said. “The decision to race without fans is focused on the long-term health of you and our sport. NASCAR has a great respect for the responsibility that comes with a return to competition, and after thorough collaboration with public officials, medical experts and state and federal officials, NASCAR has implemented a comprehensive plan to ensure the health and safety of the competitors and surrounding communities.”

“For our June 20-21 events, we hope you will enjoy watching and listening to the 3- and 4-wide racing at the sport’s Biggest and Most Competitive track via our broadcast partners FOX, FS1 and MRN Radio,” Crichton concluded. “We will persevere through this together.”

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Ticketholders may elect to receive a credit for the full amount paid plus an additional 20 percent of total amount paid to apply towards a future event, including, but not limited to, grandstand seating, infield, camping, fan hospitality, and Talladega Garage Experience. The 120 percemt event credit can be used in a single transaction during the remainder of the 2020 season and entire 2021 season for a NASCAR sanctioned event at any NASCAR-owned track, subject to availability. Elections for an event credit or refund must be submitted by June 14, 2020.
Ticketholders may apply here:
https://www.talladegasuperspeedway.com/Vanity-Pages/2020/Assistance.aspx

Motorsports are the only major pro sports league that has resumed play after the coronavirus global pandemic struck in mid-March. The NBA is considering a proposal to playout the remainder of their season and playoffs sequestered at the Wide World of Sports complex at Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida with no fans present. The NHL is in the process of considering a similar proposal to finish this year’s hockey season. Major League Baseball has not played a single game of their season yet. MLB owners have made a proposal that the league play an 80 game season without fans present. The idea is meeting with skepticism from MLB players due to a controversial proposal capping players salaries for this season in a 50:50 revenue sharing agreement. The proposal that would dramatically reduce MLB players’ salaries for this season. Horse racing and mixed martial arts have held some sporting events in recent weeks.

NASCAR has already held two races at Darlington and one at Charlotte after resuming racing on May 17. Kevin Harvik won the Real Heroes 400 driving a Ford and Denny Hamlin won the Toyota 500 driving a Toyota in the first two Cup Series races since NASCAR resumed racing after a ten week hiatus. NASCAR intends to run a 36 race season this year.

Motorsports are the only major professional sports league played at a major league level in the state of Alabama. In addition to the Talladega Superspeedway, the state is also home to the Barber Motorsports Parks near Leeds. The Barber facility hosts both professional motorcycle racing and the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, a NTT Indycar series event. That event was cancelled due to efforts to shut down the economy to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

The COVID-19 global pandemic has already killed 98,705 Americans through Sunday morning.

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Economy

Alabama nonprofit hopes federal food aid for children continues through summer

Eddie Burkhalter

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Almost half of Alabamians experienced a loss in income since the COVID-19 crisis began, and more than 13 percent said they hadn’t had enough to eat during the prior week, according to a recent survey, but there is help for families with children struggling with food insecurity. 

Two federal programs combined can help keep Alabamians fed during coronavirus’s continued impact on health and finances, but there’s work to be done to ensure those programs are fully used, and will continue to help during this time of need, according to Alabama Arise, a nonprofit coalition of advocates focused on poverty. 

Celida Soto Garcia, Alabama Arise’s hunger advocacy coordinator, on Friday discussed the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s  Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows schools with high poverty rates to serve breakfast and lunch to all students, regardless of a parent’s income. 

There are still a little more than 100 school systems in Alabama that would qualify under the program, but haven’t yet applied to do so, Garcia said. 

“Schools that had implemented CEP prior to the pandemic made it a lot easier to distribute food. They didn’t have to worry about eligibility and delayed distribution,” Garcia said. 

Garcia said the coronavirus crisis has brought attention to the CEP program and that some school board officials and child nutrition professionals are beginning to identify which school systems could qualify for the aid. 

“So that of course was a benefit prior to the pandemic, and now there’s just an increased need for it,” Garcia said. 

Carol Gundlach, a policy analyst at Alabama Arise, discussed with APR on Friday the pandemic Electronic Benefit program (P-EBT), which gives parents of children who receive free and reduced lunches a debit card loaded with value of each child’s school meals from March 18 to May 31. The cards can be used at any grocery store. 

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Immigrant families with children enrolled in school can also receive the P-EBT cards, Gundlach said. 

“We of course hope that Congress will see their way to continuing pandemic EBT for the remainder of this summer, because of course, children still have to eat, whether school is in or not, and families are still going to have to pay for those extra meals,” Gunlach said. 

Just more than 13 percent of Alabamians polled said they didn’t have enough to eat during the week prior, according to a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, and 43 percent said they’d experienced a loss of income due to the COVID-19 crisis. 

“So clearly parents are going to have a very difficult time continuing to feed the whole family through the summer,” Gundlach said. “It’s really a serious crisis and continuing Pandemic EBT would make a really big difference.” 

Many individual school systems across the state are working hard to supply sack lunches to students in need, but without federal aid it will be hard to keep those meals coming all summer, Gundlach said. 

There was an expansion of P-EBT for the remainder of the summer, and a 15 percent increase in regular Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, known as food stamps, in the $3 trillion Heroes ACT, which Democrats in the U.S. House passed last week. Gundlach said she hopes the U.S. senators from Alabama get behind the Heroes Act. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentuky, said last week, however, that if the Senate takes up another round of coronavirus relief legislation it won’t look like the House version, according to NBC News. 

Gundlach also wanted those without children to know that there’s additional food assistance available to them. 

The Family’s First Act temporarily suspended SNAP’s three-month time limit on benefits, and Gundlach said that even if a person was denied assistance before because they hit that time limit, they can reapply and receive that aid.

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Congress

Sen. Doug Jones: COVID-19 relief should not be a partisan issue

Chip Brownlee

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Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, said Friday during a live-streamed press conference that the Senate should begin debating the next COVID-19 relief package, and Republicans in Congress should stop playing partisan politics with urgently needed COVID-19 relief.

“That bill is not perfect at all. There are a number of things in there that I don’t think will be in a final bill,” Jones said of the House’s $3 trillion HEROES Act. “It’s not perfect, but it is something to start talking about. It is a shame that Senate Republicans have made this into a partisan issue, trying to say that this was some kind of Democratic ‘wish list.’ It is not.”

The $3 trillion relief package includes nearly $1 trillion in aid to struggling state and local governments and another round of $1,200 payments to individual taxpayers and up to $6,000 per family.

The bill, which passed the House last week along partisan lines, appropriates billions for COVID-19 testing and contact-tracing and provides money for hazard pay for essential workers, among many other provisions its 1,800 pages.

“It is a wish list for cities and counties, which we’ve been talking about,” Jones said. “The first line essential workers that have been there that we don’t need to lose — so much of our workforces in city and county governments. It’s a wish list for the CDC and the NIH to continue funding for research, not just for a vaccine, but for therapeutics for how to treat this virus until we get that vaccine. It’s a wish list for businesses.”

The Paycheck Protection Program, which provides loans and grants to small businesses and nonprofit organizations, would also get additional funding in the new relief bill.

Jones has called for a plan to give small businesses another round of help in paying employees by using payroll processors instead of banks, which have, at times, been slow in delivering aid to businesses and have prioritized clients with whom the banks had a pre-existing relationship.

Jones urged lawmakers to consider using payroll companies rather than banks when the first installment of the Payroll Protection Program was taking shape.

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The House’s HEROES Act also includes provisions that clarify PPP provisions for small businesses and would ensure that PPP funding can reach underserved communities and nonprofits. It adds $10 billion for emergency grants through the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program.

“It has a form of the program that we have — not as scaled up as much as I would lie, but it’s got a program that will help keep businesses operating and their payroll operating as a supplement, an add on to the Payroll Protection Program,” Jones said. “So it’s a wish list, really, for the American people. It’s just a shame that it has been politicized as partisan, because it should not. None of this should be partisan.”

President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the House-passed legislation were the Senate to pass it, and House and Senate Republicans have decried the legislation as too expansive.

Republican members of Alabama’s congressional delegation have called it Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “wish list” and U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks called it “socialist.”

The 1,800-page bill also includes $175 billion in housing support, student loan forgiveness and a new employee retention tax credit.

Republicans have particularly opposed provisions in the bill that would require all voters to be able to vote by mail beginning in November and another that would temporarily repeal a provision of the 2017 Republican tax law that limited federal deductions for state and local taxes.

Trump has also opposed a provision in the bill that would provide $25 billion for the U.S. Postal Service, which has struggled amid the COVID-19 crisis and could become insolvent without support.

The HEROES Act was declared by some as “dead on arrival” in the Republican-controlled Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has so far refused to take up the bill. Senators returned back to their home states this week until early June.

“The goal when we get back is maybe … enough talks will be going on, that we can pass some legislation in a bipartisan way,” Jones said. “Because there is an urgency.”

Jones said he didn’t believe the bill would pass as it is currently written, and that he doesn’t know what the final version would look like, but “we need to be talking about it. It’s a starting point,” he said.

The legislation also provides $75 billion for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, which public health experts say are essential for reopening the economy safely and avoiding a second wave of the virus in the fall.

On Thursday, Gov. Kay Ivey loosened more of the state’s “safer-at-home” restrictions, allowing entertainment venues to reopen Friday and sports to resume by mid-June.

Jones urged Alabamians to continue adhering to social-distancing guidelines, to listen to public health officials and to wear masks. He said reopening the economy and preserving public health don’t have to be at odds.

“I think the governor has done as great a job as she could to try to be very strategic, to be thoughtful on how to do this,” Jones said. “Unfortunately, I also believe that a lot of people in Alabama are only hearing part of her message. They’re only hearing the message that you can go to church, you can go to the theater, you can go out to eat, and they’re not listening as much to the messages about personal responsibility.”

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