Labor data shows recent increases in wages and workers in Alabama’s leisure and hospitality industry, though the number of workers has not reached pre-pandemic levels and some restaurants still are scrambling to hire help.
One Birmingham restaurateur says he’s still dealing with major staffing shortages.
“It’s crazy … I work more now than I did 50 years ago, when I first came to the United States,” said George Sarris, owner of Southside’s Fish Market, who came to Birmingham from Greece.
The pandemic had a major effect on restaurants and their workers. Dozens of Birmingham-area restaurants closed their doors due to the pandemic. The research firm Datassential reported in late March that 10% of all restaurants in the country had closed permanently since the pandemic started.
But hospitality employment numbers have improved recently, both throughout the country and in Alabama. Read more.
Pfizer released trial results Monday of a COVID vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 that uses one-third the dosage given adults, a move one pediatric expert called a foretaste of developments to come.
Pfizer should have the results before the Food and Drug Administration later this month, said Dr. David Kimberlin, professor and co-director of UAB and Children’s of Alabama’s Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases.
“(Dr. Anthony) Fauci has said it would be authorized before Halloween,” he added.
Pfizer said its study shows “a favorable safety profile and robust neutralizing antibody” for the 5-11 age group.
The study gave Pfizer the results the company wanted to see, Kimberlin said. The study used one-third the adult dosage for children, which was selected for its safety, tolerability and immunogenicity, according to Pfizer.
MONTGOMERY — More than $5 billion of unemployment benefits has been blocked from being sent out in Alabama due to concerns of fraud during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Alabama Department of Labor.
That is an unprecedented amount and a problem seen all across the country, ADOL Secretary Fitzgerald Washington said.
“Since the pandemic, ADOL has received more claims than ever before, which has significantly increased the risks of fraud,” Washington said in a statement to Alabama Daily News. “Federal programs with increased weekly benefits made it even more appealing to criminals looking to defraud the system.” Read more.
For the first time in the history of Alabama, COVID-19 last year pushed the state’s death rate higher than the birthrate.
“The state population is shrinking, and we have never seen that happen before in the history of Alabama,” Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said Wednesday.
In fact, more people died in Alabama last year than any other year on record.
The Alabama Department of Public Health reports that 7,181 people died from COVID-19 last year. Read more.
Researchers say there always will be new variant strains of the COVID-19 virus, although all the strains won’t be as deadly as delta.
The delta strain has made COVID more deadly for the unvaccinated. It is responsible for 90% of the 40 million COVID cases in the U.S and the deaths of 648,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It spreads much faster and may cause more severe cases than other variants, according to the CDC.
The delta strain is not alone. There are many variants being studied by researchers and scientists.
Last Friday, the World Health Organization added the mu strain to its list of COVID variants of interest. It joins eta, iota, kappa and lambda on the list. Read more.
About 75 persons – most of them first responders and military veterans – climbed 110 floors of stairs in the parking deck at the Riverchase Galleria Saturday to represent the experience first responders had climbing the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 21, 2001, on a mission to save lives. The event was one of several in the Birmingham area held Saturday to memorialize that day. Read more.
Monoclonal antibody therapy to lessen the severity of COVID’s delta strain may be the only drug at this time on which vaxxers and anti-vaxxers can agree.
Some anti-vaccination advocates are counting on being able to get the therapy if they contract COVID, while people who are vaccinated but still get the virus turn to it to lessen the effects of the disease.
Antibodies are proteins made by the immune system to clear infections. For viruses such as COVID-19, these proteins are critical to stop the infection.
But the bottom line is that the therapy does not work unless it is given in the first 10 days of COVID symptoms.
“The problem is that our immune system takes two to three weeks to make good antibodies,” said UAB professor and Dr. Turner Overton. Read more.
Cal Markert chuckled a little when he said his first name was Cal. That’s not quite accurate, as he was born Ralph Calloway Markert.
“My mother’s dad was Ralph,” he explained. “But I go by Cal.”
Already, some have begun calling him by his new title — county manager. The Jefferson County Commission recently selected the deputy county manager to succeed retiring Tony Petelos in that role.
Markert, 49, officially becomes the county’s second manager on Oct. 1. His tenure with the county goes back to his 2005 hiring to lead the county’s Roads and Transportation Department.
County Commission President Jimmie Stephens often referred to Markert as “Can-Do Cal” because he tended to accomplish the missions assigned to him.
“He was very, very receptive to what the needs of the people were,” Stephens said. “That’s unusual in today’s environment. The world is filled with bureaucracy right now and people that work through the system and with the system.
“Cal has been unique in that he has worked around the system to make sure that our infrastructure and our citizens are well-served,” he said. “That didn’t go unnoticed, nor unappreciated.” Read more.
MONTGOMERY — No final decisions were made about what racist language should be taken out of the Alabama constitution on Thursday, but discussion is ongoing about why certain sections should be removed that may not appear obviously racist.
Sections of the constitution that mention segregation of schools or a state poll tax have more explicit language that led to the discrimination of Black Alabamians, but other sections regarding incarcerated labor or public-school systems may be harder to navigate, leaders said. The committee designated to make the edits decided to hold off on taking any votes until the public comment period ends Sept. 7. Read more.
Sewell, Alabama’s Lone Congressional Democrat, Seeks to Strengthen Voting Rights, Defeat Party Infighting
Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, the lone Democrat in Alabama’s seven-member congressional delegation, is seeking to grow the party with a two-pronged approach — countering Republican-backed voting restrictions while raising money to protect Democratic incumbents against challenges from the left.
First elected in 2011, Sewell has for four successive congresses introduced legislation to restore much of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, legislation that mandated federal oversight of election laws in areas with a history of racial discrimination. That historic legislation was largely struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. The court’s ruling that the law’s requirements were outdated led to state legislatures issuing a ream of voting restrictions in the wake of that decision.
This year, Sewell again introduced the bill, House Resolution 4, newly named the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in honor of the Alabama-born Georgia congressman and civil rights icon who died last year.
As the newly reelected mayor of Birmingham stepped to the stage upstairs at The Fennec in the Parkside District, a few hundred people chanted, “We’re With Woodfin,” and “Four More Years.”
Indeed, they were with Randall Woodfin at the ballot box on Tuesday. As a result, the incumbent pushed aside seven challengers and earned another four-year term in office.
“The energy in this room tonight doesn’t reflect me,” he said. “It reflects us. The energy in this room is the definition of Team Birmingham.”
In total, 36,790 Birmingham residents went to the polls Tuesday, for a voter turnout of 25.27%.
Incumbents did well in the City Council election, with six of the nine incumbent councilors being returned to their seats outright and two more heading to an Oct. 5 runoff. Incumbents on the city’s board of education didn’t fare as well. Read more.
Though two of them will have to fight for their seats in an Oct. 5 runoff election, Tuesday’s municipal election proved friendly to incumbents on the Birmingham City Council, with six councilors retaining their seats outright, despite a crowded slate of challengers.
Councilors facing multiple challengers had to receive over 50% of the vote to avoid triggering an Oct. 5 runoff election with the second-place candidate. Most were successful, but two — District 4’s William Parker and District 9’s John Hilliard — were not and will faces runoffs on Oct. 5.
Two members of the Birmingham Board of Education, including President Daagye Hendricks, were defeated in Tuesday’s election, and a third incumbent was forced into a runoff.
Challenger Derrick Billups got 55% of the votes to oust District 4 member and board President Daagye Hendricks.
District 2 incumbent Terri Michal fell to Neonta Williams, who collected 56% of the vote in the two-candidate field.
In District 1, challenger Sherman Collins Jr. narrowly led incumbent Douglas Lee Ragland in a three-way race, but neither got a majority and they will meet in a runoff Oct. 5. Each got 43% of the vote, with Collins leading by 13 votes.
Taliban Takeover Leaves Americans More Vulnerable, Says Father of First American Killed In Afghan War
WINFIELD -– With the Taliban again in control of Afghanistan, Johnny Spann says he does not expect the Islamic fundamentalists to be any different than they were when his son Mike died there in the fall of 2001.
“Americans are more vulnerable today than they have been in 20 years because of what is going on in Afghanistan right now,” Spann said Monday in his real estate office on the edge of downtown Winfield, not far from a memorial park that is named after his son, a former Marine and CIA officer who was killed during an uprising of Taliban prisoners at the Qala-i-Jangi fortress near the northern Afghan city of Mazir-i-Sharif on Nov. 15, 2001.
Mike Spann was the first American to die in the U.S. response to the Sept. 11, 2011 ,terrorist attacks on the U.S. mainland. A section of highway in the Winfield area bears his name and, for now, so does a monument at the site of his death in Afghanistan. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Beadie Bell has been a teacher in the Bessemer City School system for 20 years now. As a pre-school educator, she has seen many teachers come and go over the years but said she has seen a particularly “surprising” number of educators who have chosen to retire this past year.
According to 2020-21 numbers provided by Alabama’s Teacher Retirement System, 3,515 employees retired during the school year, the highest number since 2010-11. It’s a trend many school systems throughout the state have seen in the past year, and the number keeps growing.
That trend has left many school systems looking for new teachers even as they begin opening their doors for the new school year.
Jefferson County’s school system, for instance, has 63 open slots for certified teachers, counselors and coaches posted on the Alabama Department of Education’s site as the system nears its Aug. 10 opening date. Birmingham City Schools had 56 open teaching positions listed on the DOE site and 29 open sports coaching positions as schools started Tuesday. Read more.
More on the upcoming school term:
State Hiring Marketing Firm for Teacher Recruitment
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” — Al Pacino from The Godfather Part 3
Tony Petelos could have recited Pacino’s famous line except the retiring county manager knew he wasn’t out. At least not yet.
Cal Markert, the deputy county manager who was recently hired to be county manager, was called on to present the report of the county manager during Tuesday’s committee meeting of the Jefferson County Commission. Markert mentioned that Petelos was in his office, taking in the meeting via livestream. Hearing that, commissioners asked Petelos to join them for his final committee meeting.
“I’ve said once and I’ve said it again and again and again,” Petelos said. “We have good staff in place. I feel confident about the staff in the county. You commissioners work well together. You don’t agree on everything but you do work well together.” Read more.
USA Economy Lodge has had 151 calls over the past six months. The Birmingham City Council is giving it eight weeks to turn the operation around and could revoke its business license. Read more.
The proposed plan to build new prisons in Alabama would also allow the purchase of the empty, privately owned prison in Perry County to hold parole violators who are crowding some county jails around the state.
The Perry County Correctional Facility “has always been the Rubik’s Cube of the prison problem that no one’s ever been really able to figure out,” Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Parole Director Cam Ward told Alabama Daily News.
Built in the 2000s, Ward said, it’s a good 730-bed facility but its remote location and distance from medical care has been a challenge to operations. At one point, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement used the space.
“But it’s never been used to capacity,” Ward said.
Ward and other state leaders will meet with GEO Group, the private prison company that owns the site, this week, about the possible purchase.
Alabama’s unemployment rate continued to tick downward in August to 3.1%, down from 3.2% in July and 7.1% in August 2020.
“Alabama continues our streak of dropping unemployment, getting more of our people back to work and able to provide for their families, and we are seeing our jobs count and wages consistently rise,” Gov. Kay Ivey said in a written statement Friday. “Employers in Alabama have jobs to fill, and they’re doing so at a good pace. We’re proud of the progress Alabama is making as we continue to overcome the challenges we faced due to the pandemic. Alabama is working again, and we know our work is not done yet.”
The rate hit a pandemic high of 13.2% in April 2020. It was in the 2% range prior to the virus’ arrival in the state and subsequent slowdowns and shutdowns.
Jefferson County Commissioner Joe Knight displayed a more relaxed countenance Thursday when it became clear the 2022 Jefferson County budget would be balanced and approved.
“Since about the middle of July, it’s been one thing after another,” said Knight, who chairs the commission’s finance and budget committees. “The best part of my year is going to be Monday when me and my wife take off for a week.”
The $882,750,611 budget, passed unanimously by the commission, includes a 3% across-the-board raise for county employees. That accounted for an additional $3.3 million to the payroll. “Then you add $1.7 million of merit raises in that next year,” Knight said. “That moves that starting point up $5 million.” Read more.
Though more people are dying in Alabama because of the COVID-19 virus, and particularly its delta variant, there may be signs of hope that the latest surge may be turning for the better.
In the periodic BirminghamWatch analysis of the state’s pandemic data, the death toll is increasing at the highest rate seen so far in the summer surge, with the 7-day moving average heading past peaks reached two weeks earlier.
The Alabama Department of Public Health reported Wednesday on its online dashboard that 66 people died because of the COVID virus in the past day, matching a daily high set on Aug. 28. The 7-day average is now at 42.29 deaths per day, moving past a peak set on Sept. 1 but more than double the 19.57 eight days ago. The fatality reports have seen large swings due in part to the Labor Day holiday period, during which many reporting agencies were closed or operating with skeleton staffs.
The city of Birmingham will apply for state and federal grants to purchase new license plate readers and high-definition surveillance cameras, the City Council decided Tuesday.
It also increased its contract for computer-aided dispatch maintenance services. The city plans to launch its “real-time crime center” later this month to combat the city’s rising rate of violent crime. Read more.
MONTGOMERY — Student test results released Thursday showed overall disappointing scores in the first statewide data revealing the impact of COVID-19 on learning.
State Superintendent Eric Mackey said the low scores were expected because of complications with learning during the pandemic last school year.
“When students don’t have a teacher in the classroom with them, it is much more difficult for them to learn,” Mackey said. “We need students in the classroom with teachers as much as possible, and so the scores did go down and that is a trend we are seeing all across the country.”
Just more than half of the state’s third graders tested as proficient in English language arts, while 40% tested at basic grade level and 10% tested below grade level. Among eighth graders, 52% tested as proficient in ELA, while 40% had basic grade-level skills and 9% were below grade level.
Math scores were worse. Just 30% of the state’s third graders tested proficient in math, while 37% tested at basic grade level and 33% tested below grade level. Among eighth graders, just 14% tested proficient in math, while 60% had basic grade-level skills and 26% were below grade level. Read more.
For the first time in 15 years, tax receipts in the state’s Education Trust Fund are hitting double-digit growth, prompting the Senate’s budget chairman to say it’s time the Legislature considers some possible tax cuts.
While there are still several factors that could influence revenues in fiscal 2022 and 2023 and some growing expenses, Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, told Alabama Daily News the Legislature should consider reducing the income tax burden on some fixed-income seniors and families making around $50,000 a year or less.
“If the stars align correctly, and that’s a mighty big if, I think it’s time to have that discussion about tax cuts and sending money back home, back to the people,” Orr said this week.
When a natural disaster strikes a community, residents go to shelter. Public safety workers and journalists go to work.
News organizations usually prioritize the safety of reporters in the field during such events. Often, it’s the reporters who will push the limits on safety in order to deliver vital news to the public. Ethical managers talk them out of it.
But there’s no shortage of instances of reporters subjecting themselves to the brutality of nature to report a weather story. Their aim is to show the public the truth about the conditions. Their critics call it reckless showboating. Read more.
MONTGOMERY — About $15.5 million in pandemic Emergency Rental Assistance had gotten to 2,308 Alabamians as of last week, according to the Alabama Housing Finance Authority, the entity charged with distributing up to $263 million in federal funding.
Through Sept. 1, 35,664 applications had been withdrawn because the applicants started but failed to complete the application process, the authority said.
950 applications have been denied;
5,389 applications have been deemed viable for final review;
7,468: applications are in various stages of follow up with applicants for missing or incomplete information;
12,135: applications remain started by applicants but have yet to be fully submitted.
The authority provided Alabama Daily News with this data in response to questions about a letter it and Gov. Kay Ivey received last week from U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., chair of the House’s Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. He wants to know why Alabama hasn’t been quicker in distributing the millions of dollars in rental assistance to those who need it.
Former U.S. Sen. Doug Jones is forming a new political action committee, Right Side of History PAC, according to papers filed Thursday with the Federal Election Commission.
Douglas Turner Jr., treasurer of the Jones campaign, said Jones intends to use the PAC to advocate for causes and candidates he supports. “He intends to better the causes that he’s been involved with – voting rights, civil rights, racial justice,” Turner said. “It’s not a big ‘D’ democratic effort.” Read more.
Four-year universities in Alabama are using incentive programs to get their campus populations vaccinated against COVID-19 as students return to campuses.
The state’s two largest universities, along with several other schools, have incentive programs.
Students are not required to show proof of vaccination to go to universities in Alabama, thanks to a law passed earlier this year by the Alabama Legislature. But schools can still offer perks to encourage vaccinations.
Community colleges around the state are also participating in incentive programs.
MONTGOMERY —While state officials have held off offering any kind of statewide COVID-19 vaccine incentives, more than a dozen Alabama community colleges are offering perks for students and staff who get the shot. Read more.
Joe Knight was bearing gifts when he arrived at Tuesday’s meeting of the Jefferson County Commission.
The District 4 commissioner brought awards from the Association of County Commissions of Alabama. But beyond the awards – which included administrator of the year for retiring County Manager Tony Petelos – Knight had a prize he received, having been elected vice president of the state body of county commissions.
“We haven’t had anybody from Jefferson County in over 20 years who has been involved as an officer of that organization,” Knight said. “I, along with some encouragement from some people, decided to put my name in the hat, was nominated and then was elected last Thursday.”
Plans to redevelop the former Ensley High School into a 244-unit apartment complex took another step forward Tuesday, despite the continued misgivings of District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt.
The former high school, abandoned since 2006, was sold in April to the North Carolina-based developer Zimmerman Properties for $50,000. Zimmerman, in conjunction with the Housing Authority of Greater Birmingham, plans to redevelop the property into 244 apartment units for those earning between $16,000 and $45,000 annually.
On Tuesday, in a largely procedural vote, the council approved assignment of the project to 2301 Ensley LP, a single-purpose operation created to “protect the project and (its) grant funds in the event of an accident at other properties in the Zimmerman portfolio,” Cornell Wesley, the city’s director of innovation and economic opportunity, told councilors. Read more.
What looked to be a $500,000 cleaning bill for a month raised the eyebrows of Jefferson County Commissioners during their committee meeting Monday morning.
The sheriff’s office had asked for more money during the final weeks of the 2020 fiscal year. The apparent reason was a hefty cleaning bill at the two county jails.
But commissioners learned that increased expenses for feeding prisoners brought on by pandemic protocols contributed to the large request. Read more.
Eleven months ago, Anderson Lopez Castillo was a recent graduate of Auburn University’s School of Nursing. His first job was in the Covid unit at UAB Hospital.
“It has been a roller coaster ride of emotions, and emotionally draining,” Castillo said Thursday. “I am doing everything that I can for this patient, and the staff is doing everything they can, and we just can’t get ahead.”
He said the worst part is losing a patient and then walking into another patient’s room. “You have to think this patient may have a shot at getting out of here.”
Nurses in hospitals across Alabama, and particularly those in intensive care units, are feeling growing pressure as COVID-19 cases surge, complicated by the ease with which the delta variant spreads. With one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation, Alabama has seen a dramatic increase in recent weeks in the number of new cases and the number of patients in hospitals.
Paying for information is a much frowned-upon practice in journalism. Fortunately, it rarely happens.
Except, of course, when a media organization pays for a newsworthy photo or video.
Or for breaking news tips from sources (think TMZ paying police officers).
Or to cover a source’s pre-interview expenses.
Or for subject experts to appear regularly on shows.
Or for coaches and athletes to do weekly programs.
Or for event broadcast rights.
The latest incarnation is emerging in the world of sports, where college athletes can now make money from endorsements, appearances and interviews. Read more.
The Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to approve using $18 million in American Rescue Plan funds to cover unexpected extra costs in construction of the city’s Bus Rapid Transit system.
The BRT project, which will create a 10-mile, higher-speed public transit corridor through 25 neighborhoods, broke ground in December. But last week, Charlotte Shaw, the city’s deputy director of capital projects, told councilors that the project had run into rising costs in the construction industry — a “perfect storm” resulting from COVID-19’s strain on the market. Even with significant cuts, she said, the city would need at least $14 million more to complete the BRT, which originally had been budgeted for $45.8 million. Read more.
Alabama’s hospitals are caring for more children with COVID-19 than ever before, the latest development in an increasingly dire situation for the state’s health care system. Read more.
Hospitals across the state have moved into “uncharted territory” as they struggle to keep up with the influx of COVID-19 patients while responding to patients with heart attacks, strokes and other serious illnesses, the president of the Alabama Hospital Association said Wednesday.
There were 2,731 Covid patients in 111 hospitals across the state on Wednesday, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. That is 360 patients more than the total a week earlier, and the count is approaching the single-day high of 3,084 on Jan. 11.
UAB reported that it was caring for 184 patients who were admitted for the coronavirus.
The crisis faced by hospitals is directly tied to the sharp increase in the number of new infections, which ADPH reports is now regularly surpassing 4,000 cases per day.
MONTGOMERY — The Alabama State Board of Education on Thursday passed a resolution banning the teaching of critical race theory in public schools, a move that supporters said preserves intellectual freedom and opponents said will stifle how history is taught.
The resolution doesn’t appear to have any enforceable power behind it, and state Superintendent Eric Mackey said he believes that no teacher in Alabama will be punished as a result of it.
“We don’t think there is anything in our courses of study — we’ve done a deep dive — that will be in conflict with the current resolution,” Mackey said. “So it really has no effect on our current course of study.”
One day after the Senate passed a $1 billion infrastructure bill, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge visited Birmingham Wednesday. Read more.
The delta variant and rising hospitalizations are among the reasons vaccine recipients cite. Read more.
For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, the men and women who run Birmingham’s hospitals and the head of the Jefferson County Department of Health appeared jointly before the news media to discuss the latest surge in cases.
But all were unified in one message that’s been repeated many times in the past few months: If you haven’t been vaccinated for the virus, it’s time to get the shot — and quickly.
In the online press conference, the heads of Ascension St. Vincent’s, Brookwood Baptist, Children’s of Alabama, Grandview, Hill Crest Behavioral Health, Medical West and UAB hospitals answered questions about the latest surge in the COVID virus. New cases have skyrocketed to more than 3,000 per day for the past few days, and hospitalizations have jumped from less than 200 statewide to more than 1,700 in less than a month. Read more.
Alabama can be daunting for newcomers, especially when there are cultural and language barriers. More than 20 years ago, Isabel Rubio founded the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama to assist Latinos who migrate to the state and to push for economic equality, civic engagement and social justice. Last month, Rubio announced she would step down as CEO of the organization at the end of the year.
WBHM’s Janae Pierre spoke with Rubio about her time leading HICA, who discussed how Alabama’s Latino community has changed over the years, the effect of the state’s immigration law, and her proudest moments with HICA.
JaTaune Bosby, the first Black woman to lead the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, took the job during a tumultuous time in the country with the pandemic and last year’s summer of racial reckoning. Read more.
Residents of Mountain Brook may be relatively few in number, but they sent a message about their views on the Republican Party in campaign finance reports filed last week by candidates running to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby.
Although Mountain Brook’s population is just more than 20,000, people who live in the affluent Birmingham suburb contributed far more than any other municipality in the state to Katie Boyd Britt.
Donations from residents of Mountain Brook signal support for Britt from the traditional, business-oriented wing of the Republican Party. Read more.
The number of students graduating from Alabama high schools and entering state universities and colleges dipped by 5% in 2020 to 41%.
While that decrease can in part be blamed on COVID-19-caused disruptions, it’s also part of a larger decline that education officials say is a sign of a strong economy. In 2011, 53% of high school graduates went directly to in-state colleges.
“I think it mostly can be attributed since 2011 to an improvement in the economy,” Jim Purcell, executive director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, said. Post-Great Recession, more jobs have been available to people right out of high school.
But as the state works to find more skilled workers, higher education leaders are trying new ways to reach them. Purcell said that as people’s careers advance or manufacturing jobs become more automated, training and courses are available.