The monthly data from the Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL) paints a very rosy picture of Bartow County’s job numbers. The figures from April 2019, for example, indicate the county’s unemployment rate decreased to just 3%, with the unemployment rate for the county labor draw area — which includes Bartow’s surrounding counties — dropping even lower to 2.9%.
But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. The GDOL figures only factor in active members of the local labor force, which is comprised of those currently employed and those who are unemployed and have been “actively looking for work” over the last four weeks.
Furthermore, the GDOL’s definitions of “employment” doesn’t differentiate 40-hours-per-week employees from part-timers — or even those who work fewer hours. Per GDOL standards, “all individuals who worked at least one hour for a wage or salary, or were self-employed, or were working at least 15 unpaid hours in a family business or on a family farm, during the week including the 12th of the month” are technically counted as “employed” individuals.
Data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) represents a sharp contrast to GDOL’s employment figures. According to BLS estimates, the labor force participation rate among working-aged adults in Bartow actually decreased from 61.1% to 60.8% from 2017 to 2018, with projections presented at a Cartersville-Bartow County Department of Economic Development meeting earlier this year anticipating the final 2019 rate to slide even lower to 60.4%.
Which means, according to federal data sets, almost 40% of Bartow’s working-age adults simply aren’t a part of today’s 3% unemployment rate economy.
For District 14 State Sen. Bruce Thompson (R, White), such figures are confounding — especially in a local job market where major employers are beset by a pronounced labor shortage.
“The jobs are there, maybe they don’t know where to look to get the jobs,” Thompson said at a town hall event Saturday morning at the Clarence Brown Conference Center. “But almost every business I know is looking for people — they’re limited on their growth ability. So it could be fast food, it could be the manufacturing, trucking companies, you can make a good living being a delivery driver right now.”
That led to a discussion of several correlated social matters — most notably, substance abuse, transportation issues and a lack of local affordable housing.
“What disqualifies people? One of them is being able to pass a drug test,” Thompson said. “We certainly have the collision course right now where we have employers — some because it’s a decision they made internally, some because of their insurance — they’ve got to be a drug-free society, it’s a drug-free workforce.”
Thompson said he’s amazed by just how many employers can’t hold onto workers due to drug usage.
“It’s probably unparalleled what I’ve heard, compared to years past, how many applicants can’t pass a drug test,” he said, “from being a forklift driver to truck delivery to operating equipment, whatever, across the board.”
Bartow County School Board member Tony Ross was in attendance at Saturday’s function.
“I’m working somewhat in the lower end, and a lot of people come to me ‘Where can I get a job?’ I tell them, they go, they get hired and two weeks later, they’re not working there anymore because their drug test failed or they can’t get to work,” he said.
Transportation is definitely a major barrier to employment, Ross said — especially for the county's most destitute.
“I can get guys jobs anywhere in this county, it’s getting them from outside the tent city to the job site,” he said. “They can’t ride a bicycle 10 miles, five miles. They’re willing to work, it’s just how do we get them there?”
Thompson said he believes solving that issue is a vital part of addressing the county’s labor difficulties.
“If you didn’t have it situated right in the populace area where they had quick access to things, how do they get to the doctor, how do they get to the grocery store if they’re disabled?" he asked. "You’re going to have to figure out the transportation piece.”
On the issue of opioid abuse, Thompson recalled receiving pushback from other lawmakers when he introduced legislation seeking to tackle the subject about four years ago.
At that time, he said many lawmakers just didn’t consider it to be that big of a statewide issue.
“Society, for the most part at that point, was looking at opioid overdoses as it was a certain segment of the population that was kind of unsavory,” he said. “People were like ‘Oh, well that’s a drug addict.’ It was an attitude that, frankly, as you dug in, you realized real quick ‘Hold on a second, this wasn’t what you thought of back in maybe the Woodstock days’ … a lot of these were middle class or wealthy families.”
But there are few under the Gold Dome now, Thompson said, that don’t see opioid abuse as a humongous social challenge.
“It’s certainly not a crisis that’s limited to the family, it’s not limited to a segment of the population. It affects everything, including that workforce,” he said. “There’s a lot of blame that can go around — some would blame the pain doctors who are openly writing prescriptions — I think you also have some responsibility that lies with the people, every time we have an ache or a pain we want to take a pill … as a society we have got to start looking at we can’t be doling out medication without actually having a good, collaborative communication between facilities.”
When it comes to the topic of affordable housing, Thompson said there’s no readily available solution to the community’s housing stock shortage, adding that Bartow is far from the only county in Georgia experiencing the problem.
“Affordable housing and opioids are universal,” he said. “Cobb’s got the issue, Cherokee’s got the issue.”
For Ross, the affordable housing issue raises a deluge of questions — yet hardly any obvious answers.
“The typical person who’s on disability, do you know what the average amount of money they get a month is? $750 a month,” he said. “So unless you have multiple people go in on the rent for a place, how can you live on $750 a month?”
Not that the “affordable housing” that currently exists in the community is all that “affordable” in his eyes.
“Efficiency units will run you between $250-$300 a week,” he said. “Where do we put them? How many do we have over in the woods right now that can’t go into a covered shelter because there’s nothing available?”
All of those social problems, Thompson said, are certainly impacting the county’s economic situation.
“Is it an opioid issue? Is it a transportation issue? Is it an initiative that they want to work? I don’t know, but I can promise you, though, there’s jobs,” he said. “We have people who want to work, we have a ton of employers who want workers. Somehow, we have this disconnected. Society’s not doing a very good job of mirroring these up if that need is really there.”
Thompson also touched upon several other state-related issues — as well as a few international ones — that could have considerable bearing on the 2020 Legislature.
Top of mind for Thompson was House Bill 481, Georgia’s controversial “heartbeat” abortion bill which is set to become law in the state on Jan. 1.
“I realized it was going to be controversial when I introduced it on the Senate side,” he said. “The reality is not trying to take away a right — because I don’t know if it’s your right to ever take away someone’s life — it’s to recognize how valuable life is, period.”
The bill, he said, was designed to provoke a Supreme Court challenge. And according to Thompson, that judicial litmus test could have ramifications on far more than just abortion.
“So what happens when guys like you and I, we get to be 65 and all of a sudden our families decide ‘You know what, it’s too inconvenient for me to take care of you,’ or what happens when the hospitals say ‘We’re overcrowded and we don’t get the funding and we don’t have enough Medicaid or Medicare or anything else to take care of you?’” he posed at the town hall meeting. “And now they choose whether or not we live or die … that’s, I think, the danger right now in what we have.”
Despite the vocal criticism, Thompson said he nonetheless doesn’t believe major film and television productions will actually make good on their promises to back out of Georgia over HB 481.
“I hear the comments that Hollywood’s going to pull out, I personally don’t think they’re going to pull out because even though, socially, Hollywood disagrees with the heartbeat bill … they also have a business to run,” he said. “We gave them massive tax credits, it was an investment, and in turn, we got a good return on them.”
But if those major productions do indeed exit the state, Thompson said the economic consequences could be severe.
“If Hollywood truly does pull out, regardless of where we are on our social views, it’s a big part of what we committed to on tax breaks and/or some of the jobs that are inner city jobs,” he said. “A lot of these are food vendors and people that their small businesses rely on … that could become a big issue for us. What do we do to replace them?”
As heavily divided as Georgia’s political landscape may be at the moment, Thompson said international instability remains a bipartisan issue.
“If a recession is coming — and again, you talk to economic people and you talk to the banks and so on, all of them are pointing towards there is a downturn coming of some kind — I don’t know what that looks like, I don’t know how deep that looks, I don’t know if that is more of a fear, or do we have an Iranian situation that blows into it, or do we have the China tariffs that really blow into it,” he said. “The sad thing is, if the markets react and it’s sustainable what they react to, it’s going to affect our economy, big time. And all of a sudden, that could become a legislative issue.”
With geopolitical conflicts intensifying across the globe, Thompson said the start of the next General Assembly session could carry an entirely different tone.
“The big issue could not just be Georgia, the big issue could be as America, how do we unite together to solve problems?” he said. “I hope it doesn’t take another major catastrophe for us to be able to set those [differences] down and find out what’s really important.”