SOME COMPANIES HIRING DESPITE THE GLOOM

Les Leech, president of Fremont Beef Co., said his company is among those that are trying to hire more employees amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic has plunged the economy into despair, but it has also produced opportunities for some professions, businesses and industries.

While many workplaces have slowed or stopped, and while unemployment has surged along with the number of COVID-19 cases, some businesses are humming with activity.

"Fremont Beef Company is hiring," said Les Leech, president of that company in Fremont. So are Greater Omaha Packing Co. in Omaha and Lincoln Premium Poultry in Fremont.

And Walmart. And supermarkets. And Omaha Steaks. Some health care entities and a hodgepodge of other industries say they are hiring.

The need for more workers in some of those, such as cleaning services and health care operators, is obvious. And some businesses would hire now regardless of whether the virus had upended the economy. But the fact that certain businesses need more employees now contrasts with the picture of a work world that has stalled completely.

"Business is pretty good. Everybody is still eating, maybe eating more than normal," Leech said. "Our job load has really increased."

Although the restaurant business is in dire shape at the moment, people have flooded stores for meat, among other things, to prepare at home. Leech said he's looking for 50 to 55 workers who know how to use a knife professionally, drive fork lifts, load trucks, run packaging machines and do other jobs. Leech was frank about much of the work. Many employees wear hairnets and gloves. Sanitation is vital anytime and especially now, with the virus among us, he said. And conditions on the production floor can be cold.

"Our work is not real easy," he said.

Ten workers tested positive for the virus last week in a Grand Island meatpacking plant, JBS USA.

"We're taking as many precautions as we can at work," Leech said. "We're taught to be clean. We have to be."

Some providers of health care and other care services are hiring, too. Kathy Bressler, chief operating officer for CHI Health, said health care "is a booming industry even without COVID-19."

The health system, which includes hospitals and physician clinics from Kearney, Nebraska, to Corning, Iowa, is seeking 300 people throughout the system, the majority in nursing, pharmacy, respiratory therapy and radiology services, and about 30% in nonclinical roles, said Aaron Austin, division vice president of human resources.

Bressler said CHI Health aims to hire people in permanent roles. "We need more people on our teams at all of our campuses."

Mosaic, an Omaha-basic organization that provides long-term services and support to the developmentally disabled and others, had 127 openings in Nebraska, 100 in Iowa and a total of 476 in its 10 states across the country late last week. The workers help people with daily needs, assist in Mosaic care facilities, provide recreational outlets and do other tasks.

"The primary requirement is that somebody needs to have a heart" for helping others, said Parker McKenna, Mosaic's senior vice president for human resources.

Andy Gorman, general manager for the Omaha franchise of Home Instead Senior Care, said his company needs "as many caregivers as we can get."

Gorman said the COVID-19 surge has accelerated demand for home care of senior citizens. He didn't cite a specific number of caregivers needed in Nebraska, Iowa or Omaha, other than to say the need is obvious and ongoing.

"We are actively hiring," he said. Hill Bros. trucking in Omaha seeks dozens of drivers with commercial licenses. "Gosh, we could put 50 people to work right away," said Al Hill, president of Hill Bros. The greatest demand is for drivers of refrigerated freight trucks, carrying meat and other food to stores and companies.

Many of those jobs involve longhaul trucking, which keeps a driver away from home for two weeks or more. Others are regional, in which a driver gets home at night, and some are local.

"Our drivers are helping to keep the country moving," said Hill Bros. General Manager Rob Sauer.

Omaha Steaks needs roughly 50 temporary workers in its Omaha operations. Spokeswoman Kelsey Bugjo said the jobs include work in distribution centers and retail shops. About 50 more are needed at Omaha Steaks shops across the country, Bugjo said.

The uncertainty of the period has confounded many. Brent Pohlman of Omaha-based Midwest Laboratories said his company had a strong March and first quarter, and he considered increasing his workforce considerably. But he held back as the coronavirus became more threatening. As it is, he's looking for one maintenance worker and a few temporary lab workers and shipping-receiving employees.

"Things are changing so fast," Pohlman said. "This whole recruiting of the workforce is going to get really interesting over the next few months."

Omaha-based Midwest Laboratories provides food-safety testing for food growers and production plants.

Pohlman also said it's hard to tell what impact unemployment compensation will have on available workers. Unemployment claims hit a record 6.6 million last week, the federal government said. The compensation tides laid-off workers over for several months, depending on the state and the situation.

"It's going to be hard to get workers," he said.

In Nebraska, unemployment compensation can last up to 26 weeks, and the just-approved federal stimulus allocation provides 13 more weeks, the Nebraska Department of Labor said.

Others are hiring in big numbers. Retail giant Walmart plans to add more than 1,500 workers in Nebraska, 2,300 in Iowa and 150,000 nationwide this spring, said spokeswoman Tiffany Wilson. She said the jobs include part-time and temporary positions, but some will convert to permanent jobs.

Jobs at Sam's Club and Walmart distribution centers are included in those numbers. "We know millions of Americans who are usually employed at this time are temporarily out of work, and at the same time we're currently seeing strong demand in our stores," Wilson said by email.

Target encourages filling out applications for in-store and distribution center jobs. Pharmacy company Walgreens said it is hiring, and rival CVS Pharmacy said it needs 50,000 people for sales, delivery and distribution centers. Amazon, the online retailer, said it has thousands of part-time and full-time openings nationwide in delivery and other roles.

Hy-Vee and Baker's supermarkets also said they are hiring. "We're having to stock shelves faster," said Tina Potthoff, HyVee's senior vice president of communications in West Des Moines. Potthoff said Hy-Vee might need several hundred temporary and part-timeworkers in its eight-state territory.

Sheila Lowrie of Kroger said Baker's wants full-timers, part-timers and temporary workers. She said Baker's has positions available throughout its stores and in the pickup services.

Valentino's Vice President Anthony Messineo said delivery drivers are always in demand. With restaurant closures, delivery and carryout have increased, he said, and the shops in Lincoln and Omaha have part-time jobs available.

Back at Fremont Beef, Leech argued for the benefits of working at his company. Fremont is only 20 minutes from west Omaha on a comfortable four-lane highway, he said.

When you drive to Fremont from Omaha in the morning, the sun is at your back, he said. And when you drive home from Fremont in the evening, he said, the sun is at your back again.

rick.ruggles@owh.com, 402-444-1123

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