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HomTex switches to making face masks in Alabama

Brandon Moseley

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Due to the coronavirus crisis, HomTex Inc., a Cullman based manufacturer of bed liners and other items, has shifted its focus to making cotton face masks for businesses and individuals.

The family owned company also plans a major investment at its facilities in Cullman County to manufacture the pleated, 3-ply surgical masks used in hospitals and nursing homes.

Jeremy Wootten is the President and Chief financial officer of HomTex.

Wootten said that the company is using its connections with Asian manufacturers to acquire fully automatic, advanced surgical face mask production equipment.

The $5 million project will create 120 jobs in Cullman and position HomTex as a permanent U.S. producer of personal protective equipment, or PPE, at a time when domestic production of the gear is seen as a national security priority.

HomTex has already turned out one million cotton face masks since the coronavirus crisis began last month.

“This equipment will make us one of the largest domestic manufacturers of this product, and it will all done right here in Cullman,” Wootten said. “We are going to make hundreds of millions of these surgical masks. The production capacity will be about 350 million of these annually.”

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The company secured a $1.5 million loan from the Cullman County Economic Development Agency to cover the down payment on the equipment. It has worked with Alabama Department of Commerce and others on incentives to accelerate the project.

“Our goal is to start operations in June and be at full production in July,” Wootten said.

Alabama Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield said that HomTex has the capability to become a key U.S. production source for disposable surgical masks needed by health care workers across the nation today and in the future.

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“The coronavirus pandemic has clearly demonstrated that our country needs a dependable domestic production pipeline for PPE, and the Alabama operation of HomTex can be an important player in filling a portion of that critical need,” Secretary Canfield said. “In fact, we would be like to see Alabama become a U.S. hub for the production of these materials.”

Economic developer Dr. Nicole Jones told the Alabama Political Reporter, “HomTex is a fine example of an Alabama company retooling to meet a critical PPE need during an unprecedented time in United States history. The washable, reusable masks are reasonably priced, environmentally friendly, and manufactured by a family-owned business, qualities that make us proud to say, ‘Made in Alabama.’”

Many Alabama companies have pivoted to temporarily produce protective gear during the crisis, but HomTex is one of the first firms in the state to make plans for a major capital investment to establish PPE production, he said.

China is the largest exporter of PPE in the world. The coronavirus strain that causes COVID-19 was first identified in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China in November 2019. Once the Chinese government accepted that they had a real problem, they grasped that PPE would be essential in stopping the spread of the virus and containing the crisis to Hubei Province. The largest exporter of PPE suddenly began importing global stockpiles of PPE, much of it originally manufactured in China. When the virus first became a problem in the U.S., doctors office and hospitals had difficulty obtaining the PPE supplies they order routinely because those warehouses were empty and Chinese manufacturers were still manufacturing for their domestic needs.

“At the beginning of March, it began apparent that we had a shortage of PPE in this country,” Wootten said. “We were having calls from people having all sorts of needs. We looked at what we could do to support that. We’re in a unique position because as a large domestic sheeting manufacturer, we had a large stock of cotton fabrics. Face masks seemed to be a major need.”

In March the Alabama Department of Commerce embraced the recruitment of personal protective gear producers as a new strategic priority. Secretary Canfield and his team have been personally engaged in the effort.

The HomTex team is led by the company’s head engineer who has experience with the once vibrant apparel industry. They produced a face mask design in a just a few days. After some testing, a mask bearing the company’s DreamFit brand went into full production in late March.

Demand has been across the board. Commerce asked for 1,000 masks for its staff and the employees of AIDT, the state’s primary workforce development agency. Local officials have purchased DreamFit masks. Three Alabama election committees acquired masks for use during primary elections in July.

“The majority of the business is going to private industry like utilities, manufacturing operations, and companies that are anticipating opening back up need the product so they can re-open,” Wootten said. “We’ve also serviced thousands and thousands of individual orders placed on our web site. We’ve shipped as far as Washington state.”

Wootten said that 75 percent of HomTex’s production has been shifted to the cotton face masks as retail orders for its bed linens and other products have dried up amid the coronavirus forced economic shutdown.

HomTex was founded by Wootten’s father, Jerry, who is still active in the business. The Alabama owned company operates five production facilities and has offices in China and India. The company has 300 employees, including 136 in Cullman County.

Expanding into PPE production means a major growth spurt for the company’s Cullman operation, Wootten said.

The project has the support of the state’s Legislative leadership.

State Senator Garlan Gudger (R-Cullman) said, “This will almost double our employment here in Cullman, and these are good-paying jobs. We’re running state-of-the-art, highly technical equipment. Based on the investment, this is not a one-time thing for use. This PPE business is a new venture for us.”

Demand for PPE is likely not going away. The winter of 2017/2018 saw over 60,000 Americans die from the flu, which is spread similarly to the coronavirus. That was the worst flue season of the last forty years. The CDC estimates that 48,000 Americans died in the 2019/2020 flu season and this year’s flu vaccine was the least effective version in years. This has been followed by the Wuhan coronavirus plague. Any hope that this would be easily contained has been dashed. As of press time, 1,035,454 Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19. 59,266 have already died with 2,470 Americans dying of COVID-19 on Tuesday alone. 142,162 Americans have recovered from their illness; but 834,261 Americans are still fighting COVID-19 and there is an unknown hundreds of thousands out there spreading the virus without feeling any symptoms. Leaving our homes, going to Church, and doing our work while wearing a face mask is likely to be the new normal for America.

“It will be long term, and we’re excited that we will be able to make it right here in Alabama.”
Wootten said. One legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic will be a better understanding of the strategic importance of the U.S. textile industry and its production capabilities.

HomTex also manufactures: sleeping pillows, mattress pads, protectors and toppers, top-of-bed collections, throws, blankets, decorative pillows, and towels.

“If anything good can come from this situation, it’s that the country begins to realize that our domestic textile industry has just about vanished, and that has caused a strategic disadvantage in our supply of PPE,” Wooten said.

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Economy

Alabama Farmer’s Federation starts a relief fund for farmers impacted by Sally

Brandon Moseley

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A satellite image of Hurricane Sally. (VIA NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE)

The Alabama Farmers Federation said Monday that it has established a relief fund to help farmers from across the state whose farms were damaged by Hurricane Sally.

“When disaster strikes, I am always impressed by the people of Alabama and their giving spirits,” said Alabama Farmers Federation President Jimmy Parnell. “As we started receiving photos of damaged crops, barns and equipment, we also started getting questions from people about what they could do to help our farmers, and that’s why we’ve established this fund.”

All the donations to the relief fund are tax-deductible and may be made online or by check payable to Alabama Farmers Agriculture Foundation at P.O. Box 11000, Montgomery, AL 36191. Please include “hurricane relief fund” in the check memo line.

“Most of our farmers had as good a crop as we’ve ever seen, and it was so close to harvest for cotton, soybeans, peanuts and pecans,” Parnell said. “It’s devastating to lose a crop that had so much promise. Our farmers are great people who are assisting each other with cleaning up the damage, and we’re so grateful to everyone across the state who is helping in some way, like donating to the relief fund.”

Hurricane Sally made landfall near Gulf Shores as a category two storm Sept. 16 with maximum sustained winds of 105 mph. Official reports from the National Weather Service show more than 20 inches of rain in Baldwin County.

The combination of heavy rains and high winds damaged crops, structures and equipment from Mobile and Baldwin Counties in the southwest through Russell County in the east.

It has been a difficult few years for farmers.

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While the general economy had been doing well prior to the coronavirus global pandemic, the farmers were caught in the middle of an international trade dispute over tariffs and fair competition.

Chinese retaliation against Americans farm products depressed commodity markets from 2018 through early this year.

When it appeared that the U.S. and China had come to a trade accord in January, the coronavirus hit along with massive disruptions in the supply chain.

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Farm bankruptcies were already up pre-COVID-19. The loss of the 2020 crop could push some already struggling agribusinesses over the brink.

The Alabama Farmers Federation is Alabama’s largest and most influential farmers’ organization.

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Economy

Applications open for Alabama’s CARES Act Marine Industry Relief Program

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Marine Resources Division announced this week that it is currently accepting applications for its CARES Act relief program for fishery-related businesses.

The program was established to provide financial relief for losses suffered by the state’s marine fishing industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For more information about the program, visit this website.

Congress awarded $3.2 million of CARES Act money to the state of Alabama to address financial losses caused by the pandemic that occurred in the state’s seafood industry between March 1 and May 31, 2020.

To qualify, fishery-related businesses must have experienced revenue losses greater than 35 percent between the dates listed above. The 35 percent revenue loss is compared to the average revenue earned between March 1 and May 31 in the preceding five years of 2015-2019.

Only Alabama residents and tribal members that are licensed as saltwater commercial fishermen — those that possess licenses for fishing, taking/catching of oysters, taking/carrying shrimp, gill net fishing, and “crab catching” — seafood or oyster aquaculture operators, non-retail seafood dealers or processors, live-bait dealers and for-hire vessel owners-operators are eligible to participate in the program.

Qualifying individuals and businesses must be able to substantiate their income reduction and complete the application process to be eligible for loss reimbursement. Alabama residents who participate in eligible fisheries in other states as non-resident licensees may also be eligible to participate in Alabama’s program.

Completed applications and supporting documentation can be mailed, shipped or hand delivered to the MRD office in Gulf Shores, Alabama, located at 999 Commerce Drive.

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The applications must be postmarked no later than Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. Completed applications can also be hand-delivered by 5 p.m. that day. Electronic copies including email will not be accepted. For more information about the program, including FAQs and the application form, visit outdooralabama.com/CARES-ACT.

Learn more about the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources by visiting outdooralabama.com.

The coronavirus crisis and the economic shutdowns and business limitations to combat the spread of the coronavirus has been devastating to the American economy. At least 28 million Americans are still receiving unemployment benefits and the S&P 500 index closed on Wednesday at 3,236.9, which is still down 4.4 percent from its February peak of 3,386.

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At least 982,513 people, including 206,598 Americans, have died from COVID-19 and more than 32 million people globally have been diagnosed with the coronavirus including 7,140,137 Americans.

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Economy

Registered nurses, retail salespersons were most sought after employees in August

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Data collected and analyzed by the Alabama Department of Labor’s Labor Market Information Division shows that the five occupations with the most online wanted ads continue to be for registered nurses, retail salespersons, truck drivers, sales representatives and customer service representatives — with more than 8,000 ads placed for those occupations in August.

The HWOL data is compiled from all online job postings in the state, including those posted on the state’s free online jobs database, AlabamaWorks, and other sources such as traditional job boards, corporate boards and social media sites.

Twelve percent of job ads have salaries of $75,000 and above. Fifteen percent have salaries in the $50,000 to $75,000 range. Eighteen percent have salaries in the $35,000 to $49,000 range, and 55 percent have salaries of $35,000 or less.

The top three employers posting ads in August were UAB Medicine with 992 postings, Lowe’s with 770 and the University of Alabama at Birmingham with 502.

These were followed by the University of South Alabama with 404, Diversicare Healthcare & Therapy Services with 331, Huntsville Hospital with 295, Encompass Home Health with 270, Baptist Health with 246, Advance Auto Parts with 240 and Grandview Medical Center with 236 to round out the top 10 employers with the most online ads.

Software developers are the focus of this month’s in-depth analysis by the LMI division. The median annual salary is advertised as $87,802. This occupation develops, creates and modifies general computer applications software or specialized utility programs.

Software developers also analyze user needs and develop software solutions. They may design software or customize software for client use with the aim of optimizing operational efficiency, analyze and design databases within an application area, and working individually or coordinating database development as part of a team.

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Specialized skills in Java and DevOps offer salary premiums based on job ads analyzed.

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Economy

Alabama unemployment rate drops more than 2 points to 5.6 percent

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate decreased to 5.6 percent in August, down from 7.9 percent in July, according to the Alabama Department of Labor. 

The figure represents 127,186 unemployed people, compared to 176,556 in July. It compares to an August 2019 rate of 2.8 percent, or 62,149 unemployed people.

“August showed a larger drop in the unemployment rate than we’ve seen for a few months,” said Alabama Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington. “We are continuing to see our initial claims drop, staying under 10,000 for the past several weeks. We regained another 22,200 jobs this month but are still down more than 86,000 from this time last year.”

Washington said that the number of people who are working or actively looking for work is at its highest level ever, which he described as a sign that people are confident that there are jobs to be found. 

Gov. Kay Ivey said the numbers are good news for Alabama. 

“We have worked extremely hard to open Alabama’s businesses safely, and to put our hard-working families back to work,” Ivey said in a statement. “We know that challenges remain, and we will endeavor to meet them so that we can get back to our previous, pre-pandemic record-setting employment numbers.”

All the state’s counties and metro areas experienced a decrease in unemployment rates from July to August. The most gains were seen in the government sector, the professional and business services sector and the trade, transportation and utilities sector.

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Counties with the lowest unemployment rates were:

  • Clay County – 3.4 percent
  • Randolph, Franklin, Marshall, Cullman, Cleburne and Cherokee Counties – 3.6 percent
  • Blount County – 3.7 percent

Counties with the highest unemployment rates were:

  • Wilcox County – 14.8 percent
  • Lowndes County – 13.8 percent
  • Greene County – 10.9 percent

Major cities with the lowest unemployment rates are:

  • Vestavia Hills – 3 percent
  • Homewood  – 3.2 percent
  • Madison – 3.3 percent

Major cities with the highest unemployment rates are:

  • Prichard – 15.4 percent
  • Selma – 12.9 percent
  • Bessemer – 10.7 percent

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