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‘Tight labor market:’ Will Rock County have enough workers for Amazon?


Amazon soon will be looking for 500 workers for the distribution center it’s building in Beloit, but the international marketer is not the only company with help-wanted signs out in Rock County.

Unemployment rates here have been low for the past year, hovering above and below 3 percent. Will employers find the workers they need in this labor market?

Amazon is optimistic and has done its homework, said company spokeswoman Jen Crowcroft.

“We look at the workforce and found talent in abundance in Wisconsin,” Crowcroft said via email. “We’re also responding to customer demand and want to make sure our fulfillment centers are close to customers.”

Amazon will offer a $15 minimum wage, comprehensive health care from date of hire and a 401(k) retirement plan with 50 percent match.

Forward Janesville President John Beckord, a longtime observer of the local economy, said employers can attract all the workers they need, if their wages are high enough.

Amazon is offering less than the going rate for warehouse-distribution work, Beckord said.

Economist Russ Kashian at UW-Whitewater said he has students who have worked for $20 an hour in summer warehouse jobs.

Beckord said a company’s benefits package could help in some cases, and Amazon has some attractive offerings: up to 20 weeks paid parental leave, a flexible “ramp back program” that allows new parents to ease back to work with reduced work hours and a leave-share program that allows employees to share their paid leave with their spouses or partners.

There’s also an educational benefit. Amazon will pay up to 95% of the tuition in selected skill areas, which include game design, visual communications, nursing, computer programming and radiology, the Beloit Daily News reported.

The 1 million-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center (about one-fifth the size of the former Janesville General Motors plant) now under construction is looking to hire 500 people in time for the 2020 holiday season, according to the Beloit Daily News.

As workers consider whether they should jump from their current jobs, wages will be key, Kashian said.

“The benefits sound good, but you can’t buy dinner with benefits,” Kashian said. “At the end of the day, your primary consideration when you’re making $15 an hour is how I pay the bills today. Benefits are wonderful, but they don’t pay the bills today.”

But $15 an hour is better than some other jobs, and “anything that puts pressure on low-end wages to push them up because of competition is a good thing because it will benefit the people who are most in need,” Kashian said.

Rhonda Suda, CEO of the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board, said wages are a top concern of workers, but a comfortable, welcoming workplace also plays a role as workers tell each other about their employers.

“We are in a very tight labor market,” Suda said, and that means many companies have to look at how to be efficient and automate as much as they can.

Amazon employees in Beloit “will work alongside Amazon robotics to pick, pack and ship small items to customers like books, electronics or consumer goods,” Crowcroft said.

Having good middle-management that knows how to manage and motivate employees is also key, Suda said.

Part of motivating workers includes the opportunity to move up in response to job performance and the feeling that the company they work for is involved in their community, Suda said.

The state Department of Workforce Development provided a statement saying it is “confident” the economy can produce enough workers for openings in Rock County.

“In fact, the JobCenterofWisconsin.com website has over 3,000 active job seekers in Rock, Green, Walworth, and Jefferson counties alone,” said spokesman Ben Jedd.

Andrew Jahnke, economic development director for the city of Beloit, is similarly optimistic.

Janke noted Dollar General built a distribution center of the same size in Janesville three years ago and found enough workers.

Janke noted many Beloit companies draw from nearby Illinois, where Rockford-area unemployment is about 5 percent.

Look in the parking lots of Beloit companies, and you’ll see Illinois license plates, Janke noted.

Janke pointed to one piece of the local infrastructure that attracts warehouse operations and also brings in workers: “The Interstate is a convenient people-mover for our workforce here.”

Anthony Wahl 

A man walks through Lower Courthouse Park in downtown Janesville as snow begins to fall Saturday evening. Forecasters had expected between 4 and 10 inches of snow, but it was a Friday night ice storm and winds that wreaked the most havoc locally. Alliant Energy reported 2,000 Rock County customers without power. As of mid-evening Saturday, Alliant reported power restored to those affected, including a few hundred customers in Janesville. Full forecast on Page 9A.

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Racial justice: Beloit professor achieves long list of firsts


All the students were white when George Williams walked into his first classroom at Beloit College more than two decades ago.

Williams immediately broke the ice.

“Yes, I am black,” he said.

He could feel the tension lift in the room.

For many students, Williams was the first black instructor they ever had.

Since 1999 when Williams moved to Beloit, he has achieved an impressive list of firsts, including becoming the first full-tenured African American professor at the college.

Along the way, he has demonstrated a steady commitment to social justice on campus and in the Beloit community.

The YWCA Rock County was set to present the 2020 Racial Justice Award to Williams on Saturday during a Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration at Blackhawk Technical College, but the event was canceled because of hazardous weather.

Cecil Youngblood, dean of students/chief diversity officer at Beloit College, nominated Williams.

“Professor George Williams, Jr., has continuously engaged in bridging the racial divide between the Beloit community and Beloit College…,” Youngblood wrote in the nomination form.

From the day Youngblood met Williams, “he brought with him a commitment to diversity and social change,” Youngblood said. “Almost immediately after he arrived on campus, he contacted my office and his words were simple: ‘How can I help?’”

Youngblood said Williams brought knowledge, energy and a “let’s-do-something-and-stop-talking attitude” to the work of social change.

He also called Williams “very direct,” especially when it pertains to efforts and questions about race, power and privilege.

At the same time, Williams is “a very caring person who has no ulterior motives in his work or his words,” Youngblood said. “This resonates and attracts people to him and compels us to listen and work with him.”

Two decades of firsts

Soon after arriving on campus to teach visual arts, Williams became the first black professor to chair a department. As chairman of the art and art history department, he worked with people to build bridges.

“I had to be accessible and approachable,” he said.

In 2000, he was part of a committee to diversify the teaching staff.

“Beloit College was not a very diverse community at the time,” Williams said. “Housekeeping was the most diverse group on campus.”

The committee brought in a full spectrum of qualified doctoral candidates who were not only racially diverse, but also were diverse in their disciplines.

“Some people’s eyes were opened,” Williams said.

In 2004, Williams became the first tenured black professor in the history of the college, which was founded in 1846.

“I always tell people I shouldn’t have been the first,” he said. “There were others before me who should have been.”

In the same year, he became the first black professor to speak at a Beloit College convocation.

“My subject was racial justice, and I talked about how the campus had to change and diversify,” he said.

He emphasized that diversity is a strength, not a weakness.

Williams is unafraid to speak what he feels.

“If you speak your truth, you can live with yourself, and you can sleep at night,” he explained.

Because he is tenured, he voices the opinions of others on campus and in the community who do not speak as freely.

“When I first met people in the community, I did not tell them I was a professor at the college right away,” Williams said. “I wanted them to get to know me as a person first. I felt the title would be a barrier. I wanted to know how they felt about the college. Then I shared what they said with the college.”

He added: “Saying what is difficult brings about change.”

In 2010, Williams achieved full tenure and was the first black professor to do so.

The same year, he was the first black professor to serve as graduation marshal.

His attempts to bring dignity to all people reached into the community, as well.

During the past decade, Williams has taught college writing to students from Beloit Memorial, South Beloit and Beloit Turner high schools.

“We get them to be critical thinkers,” he said.

Williams also co-founded Academic Pathways, a mentoring and tutoring community-based program for students of all ages who needed help with academics and literacy.

Beloit College students and Beloit residents tutored students in the former program.

“My intentions are to build strong coalitions among people,” Williams said.

A better life

Williams moved to Wisconsin from Southern California with his wife, Shirley, and young family to improve his quality of life. He was working at four different colleges and, because of long hours, thought his young children didn’t know him well.

“In one year, I spent four months of my life in a car,” Williams said of the traffic congestion that plagues Southern California.

He teaches both traditional painting and drawing and nontraditional graphic design. Williams also paints and shows his works at galleries and museums.

He includes the multicultural voices of philosophers and artists in his classes.

“We go across disciplines so people can see themselves in those spaces,” he said.

Williams said the college has made strides in bringing diversity to campus among professors and the staff.

“We have progressed in many different ways,” he said.

He looks forward to more diversity initiatives.

Williams works daily in an office where he keeps posters and photos on the wall of people who inspire and remind him of the greater good.

Included are photos of Angela Davis, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who are giving raised-fist salutes after the 200-meter race at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games.

The athletes used their medal wins as an opportunity to advocate for racial pride and social consciousness about inequality in their country. The International Olympic Committee president called the action during the national anthem inappropriate and suspended the athletes from the USA team.

Williams was only a child when he saw the men on TV, but he never forgot the impact on him.

“Even as a 10-year-old, I knew what these men were sacrificing,” he said. “I realized where there is injustice, you need to stand up to it, regardless of the price.”

Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

Redistricting power at stake in 2020 legislative elections


The reins of political power in the U.S. for the next decade could be determined in this year’s elections—not necessarily by who wins the presidency, but by thousands of lower-profile contests for state legislative seats across the country.

In many states, the winners of those legislative races will have a role in drawing new districts for Congress or state legislatures based on the 2020 census. If a political party can win control of those state legislative chambers now, it can draw voting districts to boost its chances in future elections.

“The 2020 election is the premier election when it comes to redistricting, because it is the election that will set the players in place who will do redistricting come 2021,” said Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Voters will be electing more than 5,000 state lawmakers in 35 states who will play a significant role in crafting or passing new maps for Congress or state House and Senate districts. Voters also will be electing governors in eight states who could enact or veto those maps.

The Constitution requires a census once every 10 years. That population count then is used to redraw districts for the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislative chambers. States that grow rapidly can gain congressional seats while those that fail to keep pace can lose seats. Migration among cities, suburbs and rural areas also can lead to changes in district lines to try to equalize the number of residents in each voting jurisdiction.

Seven states have only one congressional district because of their small populations. Of the remaining 43 states, eight use redistricting commissions for Congress that leave little or no role for the state legislature. Eleven of the 50 states rely on independent commissions for redistricting their state House and Senate seats. The rest involve lawmakers in the process, and most also give governors a say.

Republicans generally outmaneuvered Democrats during the last round of redistricting by converting big wins in the 2010 state elections into favorable maps for the future. Democrats successfully challenged some of those maps in court, forcing them to be redrawn, but others have remained in place for the full decade.

This time, Democrats are pouring more money into the redistricting fight. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has boosted its fundraising target from about $10 million during the 2009-2010 election cycle to $50 million in the 2019-2020 elections. Various Democratic-aligned groups are kicking in tens of millions more, including the National Democratic Redistricting Committee led by former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder.

“We’ve got the next 10 years of politics at stake in these elections,” said Patrick Rodenbush, communications director for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

The Republican State Leadership Committee, which calls its redistricting campaign “Right Lines 2020,” hasn’t disclosed a fundraising goal for the year. But it had a target of as much as $50 million for state legislative and down-ballot statewide races during the 2017-18 election cycle.

“This is the long-term investment,” Republican State Leadership Committee President Austin Chambers said. “This is about making sure that we have a congressional majority and a conservative majority across the country at the state and local level for the next decade.”

The big four

Four of the biggest redistricting prizes in the 2020 legislative elections are Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Georgia. Those states combined account for 90 U.S. House seats, one-fifth of the nationwide total, and Republicans currently hold more than 60% of them. Texas, Florida and North Carolina all are projected to gain congressional seats because of their population growth, which would give the party in power an opportunity to shape new districts to their liking.

All four states have complete Republican control in their state legislatures, giving them an edge in redistricting, although Florida’s constitution says districts can’t be drawn to favor a political party. Texas, Florida and Georgia also have Republican governors who were elected to four-year terms in 2018.

Texas has 36 U.S. House seats, second only to California, and the potential to gain as many as three more because of its rapid growth.

“The reality is Texas is the crown jewel of redistricting,” said Vicky Hausman, co-founder of Forward Majority, a Democratic organization that is targeting key Republican-led legislatures in the 2020 elections.

If Democrats could flip control of at least one legislative chamber in GOP-led states, they could gain leverage for redistricting compromises that could increase their odds of winning future elections and building their majority in Congress.

“A lot of where we’re trying to win would be disruption, like Texas, that has to force Democrats and Republicans to work together for maps,” said Matt Harringer, press secretary for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

In North Carolina, all congressional and some state legislative candidates will be running under newly redrawn districts this year after state courts stopped the use of prior maps drawn by the Republican-led Legislature. Democrats had argued that the old districts were an example of extreme partisan gerrymandering. Republicans hold 10 of North Carolina’s 13 seats in the U.S. House, even though statewide elections between Republicans and Democrats are usually close.

Democrats would need to gain five state Senate seats and six state House seats to flip control of the chambers. North Carolina’s governor, a Democrat who is up for re-election in 2020, is irrelevant in redistricting because the office has no power to sign or veto the plans passed by the Legislature.

North Carolina “is going to be one of the top spends for our committee in 2020, and we’re going to do everything in our power to maintain the state House and the state Senate,” said Chambers, of the Republican state committee.

Margins matter

Ohio has long been a top redistricting target for the political parties. After the 2010 census, Republicans controlled the House, Senate, governor’s office and other key executive offices that gave them firm control over redistricting. Republicans still control Ohio government.

But a pair of constitutional amendments approved by voters since the last census have changed the redistricting process to inject greater bipartisanship. After the 2020 census, a congressional redistricting plan must receive a 60% vote in both the House and Senate—including support from at least half the minority party members in each chamber—to last for the full decade. A similar bipartisan threshold is required from the commission of elected officials that handles state legislative redistricting.

Winning control of the Ohio House or Senate would be difficult for Democrats, yet each seat they can gain will increase the number of Democratic votes needed for the Republican majorities to enact new districts,.

Slim margins also could make a big difference in the historically Republican state of Kansas.

Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, will be able to veto redistricting plans passed by the Republican-led Legislature. The question is whether Republicans will have the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto and be able to stick together if they do. In the Senate, Republicans currently hold 29 of the 40 seats—two more than the override threshold. In the House, Republicans hold 84 of the 125 seats—exactly what’s needed for an override.

Split power

In some states with politically divided governments, Democrats will be making a play in the 2020 elections to win full control of redistricting while Republicans will be seeking to hold on to a seat at the table.

Minnesota currently is the only state where Democrats control one legislative chamber and Republicans the other. But the 75-59 Democratic majority in the House is more solid than the 35-32 Republican majority in the Senate. If Democrats gain two Senate seats, they would hold the trifecta of redistricting power, because they already control the governor’s office.

In New Hampshire, the redistricting battle centers around the 2020 gubernatorial election. Democrats currently control the state House and Senate while the governor’s office is held by Republican Chris Sununu, who is running for re-election. In August, Sununu vetoed a bipartisan measure that would have created an independent commission to redraw the state’s legislative districts. Sununu said there was no need for it because the current process—which allows the governor to veto redistricting plans passed by the legislature—is fair.

Pennsylvania and Wisconsin also are redistricting targets for both Democrats and Republicans. Both states have Democratic governors who aren’t up for re-election in 2020 and Republican legislative majorities that remain short of the threshold needed to override vetoes. Unless one party wins big in the 2020 legislative elections, compromise may be necessary during the next round of congressional redistricting.

Redistricting bystanders

The 2020 elections won’t matter at all in some states—at least not when it comes to redistricting.

That’s the case in the nation’s most populous state of California, which will use a 14-member citizens commission to draw its congressional and state legislative districts after the 2020 census. Not only are lawmakers excluded from the commission, but so are other federal and state employees, political party officials, campaign staff members, lobbyists and big political donors. The only role for state legislative leaders is in whittling down the list of applicants before the members—five Republicans, five Democrats and four independents—are randomly selected.

Michigan had been expected to be a big redistricting battleground in the 2020 legislative elections. But a ballot measure approved in 2018 by voters created an independent commission to handle the task that had previously been the domain of the legislature and governor. Michigan’s process is now similar to California’s.

Other states with independent redistricting commissions include Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey and Washington.

Missouri and Pennsylvania use independent commissions only for state legislative districts, not congressional ones, so the 2020 elections still can have an impact on redistricting in those states. Though Republicans aren’t likely to lose their grip on Missouri’s legislature, Democrats are mounting a challenging to the incumbent GOP governor this year.

Obituaries and death notices for Jan. 12, 2020

Albert Boschi

Janet Bremer

Doris “Dodi” DuPont

Clayton M. Foss

Iris L. Guelker

Verna J. Hulick

Alice M. Lintvedt

Eunice Lorraine Nesseth

Lillian C. Niemann

Harold G. Sawyer

Daniel J. Skelton

Clifford O. Storlie Sr.

Mary Ellen Utzig