February 12, 2018Environmental Attorney Noelle Wooten Joins Nelson Mullins in Charlotte
August 16, 2017
For two days this week, the Speaker of the House’s Rural Development Council (“Council”) held meetings in north Georgia. During these discussions, the Council, under the leadership of Chairman Terry England (R-Auburn) and Chairman Jay Powell (R-Camilla), delved further into Georgia’s infrastructure and labor and training and education issues.
The August 15 hearings were held in Ellijay, Speaker Ralston’s House District. There were welcomes from Charlie Paris and Al Hoyle (County Commission Chairman and Mayor, respectively) and a more in-depth presentation made by Paige Green, local Chamber of Commerce president.
Ms. Green accented the poverty situation (around 24 percent) in the Ellijay area, noting that there were both pockets of poverty and wealth. Ellijay is located in Appalachia which has historically been plagued with poverty issues. She also noted that Ellijay had one of the lowest average wage rate, with individuals earning less than $620 weekly. Quality, accessible healthcare is a basic need and key to economic development. Other key essentials Ms. Green noted include transportation (in her area, there are many two income households with only one vehicle). Other concerns are having broadband access. Ms. Green did note that a challenge to her community is the growing opioid and drug problem which is pervasive – she stated it was a stretch for the public safety system, judicial system, workforce and children’s services. She also noted that there was a lack of child care, causing employment concerns. There are a great number of individuals ages 25-64 in the Ellijay area who are not working; she recited almost 40 percent. The “out migration” of working age individuals is another impact to the area. She noted that employers need to incent their employees to telecommute to keep folks at home in the community which would also decrease traffic. Most employers are also finding it difficult to find employees – they have training costs, onboarding issues and other challenges. She stated that these jobs’ concerns were for skilled and unskilled labor. Employees no longer have longevity with a company as many will leave merely for a $.25 per hour increase. Move on When Ready program was a good start but more work-based training/learning is needed. Youth need to learn about holding a job.
Tim Mercier, the owner of Mercier Orchards, spoke about agri-tourism and its relevance to Ellijay. There are a number of positives in the north Georgia area with its lakes, hiking trails, national forest and other attributes which allow for quality of life. Mr. Mercier reminded the Council that agri-tourism extends the value of crops.
Jimmy Matthews, the Executive Director of the Georgia Rural Water Authority, spoke to water issues. This entity is a 501(c)(6) and has been extensively involved in the agricultural water metering issues as well as the Florida-Georgia water wars. Water is a large infrastructure issue in the State impacting many small and rural areas. Mr. Matthews was asked about challenges – such as with the State’s grants or loan programs. Mr. Matthews indicated that one issue he had experienced was with local systems raising rates of their system; such raises were not popular with residents. He noted that water is cheap and they promote the use of tap water over bottled water. Workforce is an issue that his Association also experiences. Rep. Darlene Taylor (R-Thomasville) inquired what local governments can do – such as when arsenic is found in a local water supply. Mr. Matthews did remark that in Lowndes County there are 300 water systems – a large number.
Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Camila Knowles was another presenter. She outlined some of the Department’s infrastructure financing tools which include:
Under Georgia’s Community Development Block Grant, the state has two streams: entitlement programs and small cities program. Georgia has several “entitlement communities” which manage their own entitlement programs. The State receives approximately $70 million annually and of that $35 million goes towards the entitlement programs. These communities are Albany, Atlanta, Brunswick, Dalton, Gainesville, Hinesville, Marietta, Rome, Roswell, Sandy Springs, Savannah, Smyrna, Valdosta, Warner Robins, Cherokee County, Clayton County, Cobb County, DeKalb County, Fulton County, Gwinnett County, Henry County, Athens-Clarke County, Augusta-Richmond County, Columbus-Muscogee County, and Macon-Bibb County. The other $35 million is utilized through the small cities program - $27 million of that amount is competitively awarded annually. Another $8 million goes towards the Employment Incentive Program; $1.5 million towards the Redevelopment Fund; and $500,000 for the Immediate Threat and Danger initiative. She stressed to the Council that there was a requirement for low-moderate income for the competition awards. There are caps on the awards – such as $750,000 for a single purpose project or $1 million for multipurpose effort. The Employment Incentive Program awards are capped at $750,000. The Department does conduct a process for these competitive awards – the process starts with an annual workshop for applicants. OneGeorgia does not have a requirement to be economic It does have eligibility requirements based on the location of the county development. EDGE is a program with “deal placing” funds. EDGE does require an economic development component – showing that it is an interstate effort and needed for Georgia to be competitive. Applicants for EDGE may apply at any time. REBA has a statewide reach and is a grant effort. REBA has requirements for the company so that if it does not fulfill the obligations/objectives, then the State may clawback those REBA awards. Rep. Robert Dickey (R-Musella) inquired about telecommunications and how to get high speed internet throughout the State. Commissioner Knowles indicated that there is flexibility in her programs now for broadband but it is a matter of funds. The Council also made some inquiries about regional authorities making applications for funds; however, the funds are for counties and municipalities to make applications. Rep. Patty Bentley (D-Butler) inquired about the Planned First Community effort – this is a designation given and relates to a community’s comprehensive plan. Communities, per Commissioner Knowles, apply annually for benefits – if awarded, they may obtain lower interest rates on GEFA loans (these applications are annually). Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta) inquired about the entitlement program and its criteria as she is in Marietta. Population is one metric; a local community decides how it wishes to administer its dollars. Rep. Cooper was inquiring if Cobb County could roll off such entitlement; Commissioner Knowles indicated she had not seen that done previously but if so the county would go through HUD (the federal government determines the allocations that each entitlement community receives). Rep. Penny Houston (R-Nashville) asked about the oversight of these entitlement communities’ funds – that falls to the federal government and not the Department of Community Affairs.
Kevin Clark presented on behalf of GEFA which is investing in Georgia’s energy, land and water resources. He highlighted a number of issues impacting rural local governments including deteriorating infrastructure, capital for maintenance and improvements, customer base, costs versus rates, and regulatory compliance. During the economic stimulus days, there were programs established so that American products were required to be utilized in construction efforts – such as steel rebar. (Chairman Terry England liked this idea.) GEFA helps with water and sewer financing, solid waste financing and land conservation financing. There are two pots of financing programs within GEFA: state funding and federal funding. Under State funding, these include the Georgia Fund and Georgia Reservoir Fund. Under the federal program funding, it includes clean water SRF and drinking water SRF. The funding is made available to cities, counties, water/sewer /solid waste authorities, community improvement districts, and development authorities.
Georgia Department of Labor also made some remarks at this meeting. It utilizes federal funds to help get individuals back to work. The Department does post jobs at its career centers. Recruiting is a major issue; it was noted that they may have thousands of applicants for jobs but once screened only a handful will be qualified for the positions. Turnover for jobs is also around eight percent. Rep. Houston inquired about the Department’s budget which is around $4 million (using 65 individuals across the State to carry out its work). The Department has been very successful in its customized recruitment efforts with technical schools. They also promote on-the-job training for individuals who may have been laid off from their jobs, are receiving benefits or are on federal assistance. Case managers review jobs and have 119 assessments used – employment applicants are pre-tested. Small employers can take advantage of the Department’s screening tools. She noted that 169 were placed last year in a 15 county area with wages of up to $15.44 per hour.
One of the lengthiest presentations came from downtown Dublin. Tara Bradshaw (Executive Director, Dublin Downtown Development Authority) and Joshua Kight (Attorney for City of Donalsonville) spoke to their work in Dublin. Dublin’s population is 16,000 with Laurens County population around 50,000. Over the last few years, Dublin has invested more than $30 million on its downtown area. It has been a “main street city” since 1989. Mr. Kight indicated that a population’s decline was not solely due to the lack of jobs – it is also about a mindset, poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of something to do, etc. Business is the result of jobs and energy – thus, he urged the Council to address “mindset.” Downtown Dublin has focused on finding modern uses for its historic buildings in an effort to create beautiful public places to attract individuals. Dublin’s projects have included a renovation of a 1912 building, known as the Skyscraper (it is the tallest “eyesore” between Macon and Savannah). The Downtown Development Authority got $50,000 from SPLOST so as to hire a tax credit consultant, architect, and get a cleanup of the project so as to make it attractive to potential investors/developers. They took before photos and collected stories about the building to share with developers which led to the location of a developer and tenant for a total investment of $4.2 million ($1 million in historic tax credits). It is now being utilized by Georgia Military College. The city of Dublin also spent another $300,000 for a parking lot behind the project to help provide for parking to this building and neighboring buildings/businesses. Georgia is home to Deano’s Pizzeria which has been nationally recognized as the best pizzeria in Georgia. The location of the business in Dublin is now back on the tax rolls as it relocated and acquired property using a downtown loan fund. The City also invested $1.1 million for its Bicentennial Plaza, closing a city street to create a pedestrian corridor to link a number of public spaces including its theatre, farmer’s market and etc. There are now 15 businesses around the Plaza and which will pay for the Plaza over the years. The downtown theatre was reopened in 1996 as Theatre Dublin – Ms. Bradshaw said it was the best decision the City had made. Now, that theatre sees 30,000 folks attending events annually and those activities drive individuals to local shops and restaurants. The theatre accesses parts of the hotel/motel tax received for its 100-150 annual events. This fall, the Martin Movie House will reopen with new equipment. In 2006, the Market on Madison was opened. It has added five new retailers in the last two years. Dublin created its local historic district in the 1970s and has expanded that over time. They provided the Council some numbers on the 2016 community impact – such as numbers of promotional events (87); attendance at promotional events (more than 58,500); numbers of volunteer service hours (11,000); total number of completed building rehabilitation projects (three for a cost of $325,000); number of public improvement projects (three for a cost of $84,750); etc. They showed that net jobs were 24 and only two businesses closed.
The final presentation of the afternoon came from Piedmont Mountainside. Piedmont took control of the hospital located in Ellijay, opening its emergency room. Denise Ray, CEO of Piedmont Mountainside Ellijay; Thomas Worthy, Vice President of Piedmont Health System; and Lindsay Gard, Ellijay’s Finance Director spoke to the Council. The Ellijay emergency room project was described as a “case study” or pilot for rural hospitals. Piedmont purchased the facility when it had 37 beds; now they have 52 beds at Mountainside. Mountainside has also received a number of awards but the one which Ms. Ray highlighted was the Leapfrog award on quality and safety which it has received, getting an “A” for the last four years, which she indicated was not an easy task. Few hospitals have no serious safety events for more than 840 days – Mountainside enjoys that accolade. Further, she noted that Mountainside is one of 182 hospitals with the “A” rating from Leapfrog (from national hospitals list). Mountainside’s capital investment was expensive – especially due to technical and technology advances which occur daily. Over the last 13 years, Piedmont has invested $33 million on capital improvements – including an expanded emergency room, more CT and imaging equipment, etc. She noted that now the facility receives 17.9 percent reimbursement on each dollar. In 2016, Mountainside’s indigent care load was a cost of $15.6 million, with most of the care coming from the emergency room. Reimbursement issues are not unique to Mountainside or Ellijay – they are pervasive with all hospitals and a national struggle. Ms. Ray and her colleagues noted that many of the larger facilities around the country have problems, even those with philanthropy dollars available. Reimbursement decline is linked to the payer mix. Commercial pay for services was helping but now that has shifted. Ms. Gard provided the Council an example on the cost of a hip replacement using those DRG codes. Piedmont Mountainside and the Ellijay emergency department serve three counties – Gilmer, Pickens and Fannin, primarily. In these counties, there is large level of poverty. The Gilmer County North Georgia Medical Center closed in 2016; thus, this caused a total lack of acute care in the area (35 miles). There was a need for emergency room services which led to Piedmont purchasing the facility – Ms. Gard and Mr. Worthy outlined the challenges the facility encountered such as questions on moving individuals to higher levels of service as well as the State and federal requirements to open the emergency room. The project’s appeals ended in October 2016 but there were still hurdles including gaining approval from the Department of Community Health’s architect and State Fire Marshal. It took five plus months to get the location to open – however, it was difficult for the hospital to communicate with the community as to why it was difficult. CMS also raised billing issues because of revocation of billing (but that was not necessarily unique to a free-standing emergency room). There were other issues with getting approval by the State Board of Pharmacy as well as DEA. Finally, on April 3, 2017, the facility opened. Mr. Worthy indicated that it was full of red tape and a grueling process. There was a need to preserve the Gilmer Certificate of Need (CON) and Piedmont worked with the interim owner of SunLink on this effort. Survival takes visionary changes. There were other concerns relating to the bed license. Worthy noted that Piedmont was a “strident supporter of Georgia’s CON” but there were changes needed relating to the steps for a bed license. Rural facilities will potentially close – he noted in particular Stephens County which is now looking for an investor. Seven hospitals statewide have closed since 2010; several others have been rescued by larger systems (such as the Hart County facility and Baldwin County hospital). Systems can provide “branding.” Worthy urged the creation of “micro hospitals” which are not presently used in Georgia. For these types of facilities, it would likely need a change in State law as it would limit the number of inpatient beds (now it requires 50 beds for a hospital). Presently, some of the small, rural hospitals have only two patients on a daily basis. Emergency rooms can be used to stabilize and transfer patients. Incentives, though per Mr. Worthy, are needed to get investment purchase of bed licenses. He also noted the contiguous county limitation (this is the 35 mile limit rule per CMS). He also urged the State to define “acquiring hospital” (which would include the marrying of that definition with federal law) and to decrease the cycle time line. Rep. Penny Houston (R-Nashville) noted that the contiguous county idea was not easy – noting Calhoun County’s concern. Rep. Rick Jasperse (R-Jasper) gave kudos to Piedmont as Mountainside is in his House District and noted the vision it took for the Ellijay facility. Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta) inquired more about CON, noting that she had chaired the last Committee to review CON changes. She asked if the hospitals were working together, noting in particular the delays caused by Wellstar. She also asked if Mr. Worthy had spoken to other hospitals about the proposed changes to CON; Mr. Worthy indicated he had not. Rep. Cooper seemed to want to support changes to CON; however, she noted that it would require some thinking “outside of the box” as it relates to rural facilities. They could also possibly look at other CON changes as well, but such would take encouragement of the Council members to do so. She also asked if it would be possible for the regulations to be changed without the actual statutes. There seemed to be some interest in accomplishing the goals without opening the statutes but it was not certain if such could be accomplished. According to Ms. Ray, micro hospitals could have x ray, lab, and perhaps two to ten beds with 24-hour observation as they cannot provide all of the beds through the emergency room. However, 50 beds are not sustainable. Chairman England noted that not all hospitals can or need every service and the business model just does not work. At Ellijay, they have expended $2.2 million to upgrade the emergency room, pharmacy and lab services. The facility is now operating 24/7, but it is not a trauma center. Reimbursement is not different as CMS sees their facility as under the same tax identification number. Rep. Darlene Taylor (R-Thomasville) asked about psychiatric patients seen; Ms. Ray said that was a major issue. Piedmont contracts system-wide for these services using that company to evaluate patients. They further pay the contractor to take the patient to their facility if necessary. Now, they have an average of 6-10 patients daily with psychiatric issues. There were some questions on treatment of obstetric patients – generally, the facility will stabilize and transport the patient. Rep. Don Parsons (R-Marietta) asked about indigent care loads and asked why there were large differences between 2005 and 2015 – this generated a discussion of gross charges and the basis of charges on acuity levels. They also mentioned that individuals with high deductible health plans are now forcing the facility to generally have “no pay” as individuals will perhaps make their first co-pay and never meet a deductible to get coverage. Thus, this causes a problem shifting the patient to “self-pay.” Bills are based on charges and not cost; they explained the average total charges over time periods (Medicare, Medicaid and commercial insurance). 52 percent of the Mountainside patient base is on Medicare. Many remaining patients are pediatric patients on Medicaid. They were asked about the projected losses for the first twelve months; initially, Piedmont expected $1 million, but it will likely be three times that amount. Rep. Cooper inquired about the hospital’s negotiation of rates with insurers – Mr. Worthy indicated that the Council should “stand by” on this issue. Rural hospitals typically have problems negotiating with insurers. Rep. Taylor inquired about the numbers of emergency room beds: Jasper (18) and Ellijay (8). Money raised for the Piedmont project in Ellijay came from its economies of scale.
The House Rural Development Council continued their discussions on Wednesday in Dalton, focusing mostly in this meeting on education.
Pete McDonald, President of Northwest Technical College, provided a presentation He outlined his college’s overview and focus on student success as well as highlighted some student achievements and the school’s partnerships with local companies and school systems. Northwest, like the other technical colleges, utilizes several tools to help businesses with economic development – these include the Georgia Quick Start, CE and driver’s education as well as customized industry training. There are also preparation classes for students, including GED preparation courses, GED testing and assistance with English as a second language. Their students are 67 percent female and 33 percent male. 70 percent receive Pell Grants; 55 percent receive the HOPE Grant; and 30 percent receive HOPE Scholarship. In 2016, they had enrollment of 4,500 students in technical programs and 1,800 in the Move on When Ready program – another 3,250 were enrolled in adult education initiatives. The school offers these career pathways: industrial programs; medical programs; IT and business; and public service. Tuition is $1,335 per semester (with the HOPE Grant it is $330). McDonald provided more specifics on “student access” – such as their academic programs are Pell Grant eligible and they have one percent Georgia Loan Fund for students. It is anticipated that 60 percent of jobs by the year 2020 will require a college degree or some type of specialized certificate beyond high school Northwest’s goal is to have 5,098 additional graduates. He mentioned the “Achieving the Dream College” – a three year program which helps students remain in college and graduate (it is data driven so as to identify students early in need of help and uses a student navigator). The college opened a new campus in Catoosa County in 2015. The college serves nine northwest Georgia counties – seven of which are rural and two were qualified as “distressed” by the ARC. Northwest has apparently successfully invoiced more hours in the Move On When Ready program than other technical colleges in TCSG. The school partners with entities like Mohawk, MFG Chemical, Evco Plastics, Georgia Power, Roper Industries, etc. Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta) inquired about some Quick Start initiatives – they do offer apprenticeship programs in work environments (includes the learning of soft skills as well as work ethics). They also utilize Covey for College Students Success (that program is used throughout TCSG). Chairman England noted that there was a lack of knowledge about TCSG and that the system was addressing that through a marketing program. There will be digital ads used as well as more advertisement seen statewide on television after Labor Day 2017. However, currently, digital ads are being placed by TCSG on Georgia Public Broadcasting, Cox Media as well as each school utilizes their own marketing budget.
Matthew Gambill, Executive Director of the Georgia Association for Career and Technical Education, and Barbara M. Wall, Ed.D., with the Georgia Department of Education, provided a presentation. Georgia receives $40 million annually in federal funds for technical education – half of those funds are utilized by the Department of Education and the other half by the Technical College System of Georgia.
The Georgia Association for Career and Technical Education began in 1926 and is now overseen by a 22 member Board of Directors. It is the second largest CTAE organization in Georgia. The entity is a 501(c)(6) organization and its membership is 2,543. One of the most recent efforts it began is its LEAD CTAE Leadership program which began in 2016; it was modeled after the Georgia Chamber of Commerce leadership program. Last year, this leadership program held four weekend seminars and graduated 150 in its first class.
In 2017, the Association’s member, Leon Grant, is the Carl D. Perkins Community Service Award Winner. Mr. Grant is a teacher at Marietta High School.
62 percent of Georgia high school students take one or more CTAE courses; 54 percent of Georgia middle school students also take one or more. There are 17 career clusters and 130 career pathways. There are opportunities to earn industry credentials from 300 plus assessments. CTAE students have a 95 percent graduation rate. Last year, there were 27,000 students who participated in the Move On When Ready program. There were 437 public high schools participating in Move On When Ready in 2016. The top courses last year were: healthcare service; business and computer services; and architecture and construction.
Mr. Gambill accented various pieces of legislation passed in the last six years:
Dr. Wall mentioned some of the drivers at DOE on their CTAE work. Included among those were Pathways to Prosperity Report issued by Harvard University (2011) and the Governor’s High Demand Career Initiative Report (December 2014).
The odds of dropout by students decline when more CTAE courses are taken.
Lack of soft skills by students was repeated throughout the discussion. Finding skills gap solutions are critical – as outlined in the Georgia Competitiveness Initiative Report. When you ask individuals about public education, they want more career technical programs (68 percent of those polled). The lack, though, of employable skills is a problem. Soft skills do not come solely from the classroom. Ms. Wall indicated that the Department of Education needs to listen and respond to its partners. The Economic Development Partnership was developed through a partnership with the Georgia Economic Developers Association. It is focusing on relationships with local school districts and community stakeholders, providing greater opportunities for students while supporting economic development. The Department has hired a CTAE Economic Development/PR Liaison.
There were six regional meetings in 2016 with partners and economic development professionals, teachers, business owners, etc. A number of themes emerged from those six regional meetings – including demand for soft skills and more need for STEM education, knowledge and skills.
Dr. Wall also mentioned the “career ready diploma seals” which kicked off in 2017. These allow for youth science assessments for students in grades 9-12. It is a way to determine a student’s interest and aptitude. These “seals” will show a demonstrated employability skill; leadership development and soft skill development.
Mr. Gambill and Dr. Wall both stated that CTAE resources were reaching rural Georgia and there was a return on investment. They stressed that the State needed to make the most of the time that they have students in class (until age 16).
Roy Bowen with the Georgia Association of Manufacturers provided a presentation. Some of the challenges his members express are addressing a pool of talent; competitive and reliable energy; access to infrastructure; stability of a regulatory environment; education and training; and available tax credits and incentives. He stressed that workforce development is economic development. He brought some of his members to highlight successes which may be replicated statewide.
Brian Cooksey, with Shaw Industries Group, accented the need for partnerships as critical for success. Workforce development is not an easy fix – it is long term work with a required commitment for the long haul.
He explained Shaw’s struggles since 2006 when the recession commenced. They experienced double digit unemployment in the area. There were changes in this time frame on consumer demands for products, consumer product mixes, downturn in the housing market, youth views towards manufacturing jobs changed, etc. The Georgia Work Ready Program was begun and was an incentive to get work ready certification.
Shaw worked with Dalton State College on their plan, including their need for professional skills. Manufacturing is a large umbrella with many needs and types of jobs. They also needed a dedicated technical college partner so they opened a technical school with Whitfield County schools providing space; local industry helped to equip the school. When it began, they had only 189 students and now have more than 1,200. They will relocate their technical school to a new 80,000 square foot facility which is soon to commence construction. In 2012-2013, they worked with Georgia Northwestern on a fast track training program (which consisted of 10 weeks). It was during this time that the drug testing issues emerged. The Department of Labor also stepped in to address rapid development of skills. At Shaw, they have all levels of career growth – they are especially short on individuals with chemistry backgrounds. Georgia Northwestern is now addressing their need for a chemical lab technician program.
Other things that Shaw and other corporate partners have done include creating a manufacturing camp (which was originally planned in three to four months) with a first group of 29 youth; this year, they hosted 130 (partnered with Boys and Girls Clubs) to offer hands on experiences (building soft skills, team building, learning 3-D software, etc.). They utilize the school lunch program to feed the campers; all courses are taught by k-12 and college and industry folks. Since the first camp, three other locations have begun camps. They also have begun Explore Experience so as to test drive a job, permitting students to job shadow someone for three days (this program is for high school juniors). He accented the Move On When Ready/dual enrollment programs as well as apprenticeships. They have the ability to allow students to work eight-hour days three days per week and go to school the other two days per week, permitting them to work in a field they want. This year, there are eight apprentices.
Another idea he discussed was the Great Promise Partnership. Students are “coached up” in this program per Steve Hollis with GAP Partners. Students work half days and go to school half days – the employers and students can be flexible with the work schedule based on their needs. Each of the students receives an adult mentor which helps in part with life skills. This effort pays close attention to the safety of the student. The program began in 2011-2012 and in 2016 there were 655 students (they only had a two percent dropout rate). A similar program was started at Southwire. Mr. Hollis indicated it would be best if this program were housed in a State agency to be sustainable; presently it is a 501(c)(3). The average amount of income a student receives annually in this effort is $5,500.
Del Land from Pacesetter provided remarks to the Council. He mentioned the use of the Great Promise Partnership (which helps with education, manufacturing, Georgia’s economy and students). However, he feels the program needs permanence.
One of the major points came from Mark Whitlock and David Keller and the work with the German American Chamber of Commerce on the strategy employed in Coweta County. They noted the passage of SB 2 which essentially Americanized the German effort to provide a post-secondary experience to keep youth in school post the ninth grade. Rep. Cooper inquired if German businesses faced similar struggles with drug screen failures – apparently not, because their laws on drugs are more lenient.
Lloyd Frazier and Betty Bishop were the final day’s speakers. Ms. Bishop, a human relations executive with Pilgrim’s Pride (the second largest chicken producer in the world), spoke about her company’s challenges in finding a workforce. Work ethic and accountability are two major issues. Many of the potential employees come from parents who did not hand out those types of skills to their young. Many of the individuals in the area are trying to get away from working for “the chicken plant.” She stressed the need to begin the soft skills as early as kindergarten. She also mentioned some of her company’s largest expenses – it is a $40 million operation in Ellijay but they have a payroll tax of $9 million and pay $3.7 million for water and sewer needs. Their largest asset is their “team” of employees. They need 1,001 individuals to run their platn; however, they have only around 903 (as of last Friday). She mentioned the certification requirements and some of the pay for various positions – including more than $15 per hour for the live-chicken hangers. In 2017, they experienced a 53% turnover in employees. The average number of terminations at the plant on a weekly basis are between 5 and 10 (many leave for a variety of reasons – incarceration, a new job, absenteeism, three days of no call or no show, etc.). However, Ms. Bishop stated that Pilgrim had a liberal absenteeism policy of one day per month. New hire applications are taken daily; the average number of new hires in a week are between 5 and 10. The quality of applicants, though, has dropped. In January, they had 193 applicants but this number has dropped by more than one half that number in July 2017. Pilgrim’s has ramped up its orientation program; implemented certified pay rates (spending more than $1.7 million on this); allowed for pre-arranged absences (five per year); and permit for emergencies as long as proof is supplied (such as a flat tire). They have also begun having employee recognitions with a monetary benefit. They allow for part-time flexible employment scheduling and conduct “onboarding” of new employees. They have also tried summer internships, working with Gilmer County High School. Pilgrim’s is also allowing employees to attend Chattahoochee Technical College during work hours for free. They have also instituted a $1,000 sign on bonus if the employee makes it through six months with no write ups for behavior. Engineering out of jobs is a large concern, especially, since the plant has made a $4 million investment in Ellijay. They are also looking more at automation efforts (so they can shift 35-40 jobs). They have also begun researching resettlement opportunities (there are 40 percent of these individuals who are not working) – working closely with Catholic Charities (however, their roadblock is housing for individuals coupled with lack of public transportation). They have instituted telemedicine for employees; they will roll out a benefit fair on August 24 so they may have live health on line (if the individual has company insurance). Pilgrim’s also offers an HRA plan for those employees with insurance through Pilgrim’s. She did acknowledge that many of the Pilgrim employees are utilizing the emergency room as their method of healthcare, which is bad. Another idea in the works is instituting child care for employees; she stated that they have looked at the use of a vacant Piggly Wiggly for this child care and may contract out for the services at cost. Chairman England articulated his concerns that employees, not making livable wages, were accessing public benefits. This seemed to be an indication of a need for a scale to be imposed for individuals to not only work but also access necessary services to permit them to continue to work.
Ms. Bishop was asked more about those who fail the drug test; she indicated that there were fewer failures now that Pilgrim’s makes it clear in advertisements that they test for drugs.
The next meeting of the Council will be in Metter on September 6-7, 2017.
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