Road Dept. needs workers, supes hear

Published 2:49 pm Wednesday, April 22, 2020

An aging workforce in the Panola County Road Department has caused manpower shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic, supervisors heard this week. A policy adopted in March required all county employees 65 years of age and older to be sent home, with pay, in an effort to protect the health of the most vulnerable workers.

In the road department, that meant 11 full time employees were instructed to stay home. Road Manager Lygunnah Bean told supervisors he needs eight new hires, besides the 11 that are on furlough, because the workload is too much and there’s no indication when conditions will improve enough to have those employees return to the regular positions.

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The supervisors bristled at the request to hire eight new workers in a year when budget shortfalls are now guaranteed because of the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus.

Bean said his existing budget for road department employees does include funds for some new workers, but agreed that amending the budget would probably be necessary if supervisors agreed to hire eight people at once.

Board president Cole Flint asked Bean if eight hires were necessary, saying he believes the county could pay more money and get better qualified workers who could bring more skills to the workplace.

“It looks like to me we have too many men that can only do one thing and when they aren’t there you are telling us there’s nobody to do their job,” Flint said. “Maybe you need to look through the applications and find people who can do more things even if the pay had to be a little more.”

Supervisor Chad Weaver said the fact that so many workers were immediately disqualified to work through the pandemic because of their age and overhaul health was a setback for the county.

“With all we have going on, and as far behind as we are in this county on road work, we need a thriving workforce and eleven men that are already over 65 years of age is not getting the job done,” Weaver said. “I mean no disrespect to anybody, but this county needs a road department with employees that can come on board and get after it.”

Bean reminded the supervisors that he has a large file of applications from younger people, but many are unable to pass the county-required drug screen, or have other problems, such as obtaining a valid driver’s license.

“I’m not in a position to argue with you, and so I won’t,” Bean said. “I will just tell you that right now we need more help.”

Bean has already announced his retirement for the summer. Applications for his replacement were first due no later than March 31, but the deadline was extended to the end of April after the Shelter in Place order was issued.

Supervisor John Thomas agreed with Flint’s point that the road department would be better served with a more diversely-trained workforce, and one with a lower average age of employees.

Thomas also noted another consideration is the employment availability of skilled workers in the county.

“Some of the best workers in this county are sitting in our jail,” Thomas said. “There’s folks out there that can drive the wheels off any piece of equipment we have and are good workers, whenever they can work.”