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Tourists hike along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in Grand Canyon, Ariz., in February 2005.

Raising the bar: In tight labor market, Idaho companies increase pay for workers

TWIN FALLS — Jayleen Miller is no longer living paycheck-to-paycheck.

The young Twin Falls resident had been working customer service at a loan agency when many of her customers talked to her about Clif Bar. Miller, who had previous temp experience at Chobani, decided to apply for a sanitation job at the bakery when the opportunity came up in the spring of 2016.

Though the benefits were what really drew her attention, the higher wages were certainly appreciated.

“I was able to pay off my debts,” said Miller, now 28.

With help from a company incentive, she bought a 2013 Toyota Prius. And she saved up for that travel trailer she’d been wanting.

Miller isn’t the only Twin Falls resident now benefiting from a higher-paying job. The Bureau of Economic Analysis in March reported that Idaho led the nation in earnings increases from 2016 to 2017 — and local data shows that in Twin Falls County, average wages are still on the rise.

“The wages increased in part due to the growth in employment,” Idaho Department of Labor Regional Economist Jan Roeser said in a statement. “As more jobs are created, more folks are working, reducing the labor pool. Because we’re in a tight labor market, employers are increasing their wages to retain existing and attract new workforce.

“It’s good news for workers,” she said.

In comparing wages over a one-year period ending the third quarter of 2017, total wages in Twin Falls County grew 5.6 percent, with average wages growing 2.8 percent. The area’s food manufacturing, agriculture and construction sectors were major contributors to state wage and employment growth.

But Idaho’s wages still lag behind the rest of the country. In 2017, Idaho ranked 44th in the U.S. for per capita personal income. The average wages in south-central Idaho and Twin Falls County were even lower than the state’s.

Clif Bar, which opened its Twin Falls bakery in 2016, employs just shy of 300 workers. When production started, the bakery had 220 employees, but it since added a third line and went to a 24-7 operation on two production lines.

The company offers what it calls a “living wage” — where the lowest paid wage at the company is enough to support a family of four with two wage-earners, General Manager Dale Ducommun said.

“Everyone believes that’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Even so, Clif Bar takes stock of the competitive market and adjusts wages about every two years.

“We are thinking of moving it to an annual basis because of the market how it is,” Human Resources Manager Susan Potucek said.

But for today’s workers, even higher wages aren’t necessarily enough to encourage them to change jobs.

‘The cherry on top’

Christina Wilson had been working for Lamb Weston for several years when she heard about Clif Bar coming to town.

“I waiting and waited until they broke ground,” said Wilson, who had been doing computer-aided drafting.

And then, in September 2016, her dream job opened up: a similar position with more responsibilities and learning opportunities at Clif Bar.

“I told my boss ‘This is my job. Call me,’” Wilson recalled about her job interview.

What made Clif Bar so attractive? It wasn’t the wages. Though slightly higher than her previous job, they were just the “cherry on top,” she said. What she’d been waiting for was a company where she felt like family.

“You don’t want to feel like a number at a company,” she said. “With a lot of the manufacturing companies around, that’s what you feel like.”

At Clif Bar, she said, you feel like you can truly be yourself. In fact, it’s expected. Interviews at Clif Bar may include questions such as “What is your favorite Disney princess?” — things that can’t be learned from a resume, Ducommun said.

“As a company, we want the whole self,” Potucek said.

At the end of each year, the company recognizes people for “just acting the way we wish everyone would perform.” Miller last year got an award for how she interacts with other people. The award itself came with a monetary bonus.

Other incentives the company offers includes a stipend for energy-efficient vehicles, paid time to work out and employee stock. Workers also get paid days to do service projects in the community.

Raising the bar

Clif Bar certainly isn’t the only Magic Valley company that boasts of competitive wages. As unemployment continued to decline in 2017, Amalgamated Sugar raised its starting wage for harvest positions and Jerome Cheese Co. sent out flyers advertising its starting wages increased as much as $4 per hour or more.

The city of Twin Falls also got on board. In February 2017, the city raised wages for cops and firefighters, and all city employees got pay increases in October.

Police Chief Craig Kingsbury said it’s a little early to tell whether the raise has helped with employee retention. As of this week, all but three of 77 allocated positions in his department were filled.

“I think that the pay scale did a lot to increase morale and meet the financial needs of the police officers within the department,” Kingsbury said.

He still lost one officer to Meridian about a month ago, but that officer took a pay cut to move where his family wanted to be. The Twin Falls police department tries to be competitive with Treasure Valley agencies, specifically Meridian and Nampa, Kingsbury said.

The pool of available officers is shallow compared to previous years, he said, making it harder to fill positions.

When companies choose to offer higher wages, Ducommun said everyone benefits because employees have more money to spend in the community. He certainly hopes Clif Bar’s wages and philosophy will have an impact around the Magic Valley.

“I just think that companies need to realize that in order to attract and recruit people, they need to change their philosophy on how they treat people,” he said.

As Twin Falls companies are committed to retaining workers, Economic Development Director Nathan Murray expects the city’s average employment and total wages to remain strong.

“There aren’t enough people for the jobs that are out there,” Potucek said. “We are all recruiting from the same pool, so we have to be competitive.”

Despite Facebook privacy scandal, Magic Valley schools aren't planning big communication changes

TWIN FALLS — Of the myriad uses for Facebook, one common one for parents: checking the social media giant for announcements and photos from their child’s school.

But privacy concerns with the social networking site have surfaced in the wake of a scandal involving 87 million users whose data was swept up by the political data mining firm Cambridge Analytica.

As a result, some schools nationwide are taking a closer look at how they’re using Facebook — such as to communicate with parents and share school announcements — but few are making any changes or deleting their pages, Education Week reported April 6.

Here in the Magic Valley, a handful of schools are monitoring their audience’s engagement with their Facebook page to see if anyone is leaving the site, but haven’t noticed any major differences and are still posting as usual. But some are improving non-Facebook options that people can use to find information about school happenings.

“We want to showcase and highlight the positive aspects of school life, as well as use it as a communication tool,” Cassia County School District spokeswoman Debbie Critchfield said. “But we’re also mindful of the privacy aspect and that we’re dealing with minors.”

The desire to publicize school happenings never trumps privacy concerns, she said.

Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg testified earlier this week on Capitol Hill. Some legislators touted their various proposals for privacy protections, including bills introduced this week responding to the data mining scandal.

At the College of Southern Idaho, spokeswoman Kimberlee LaPray said she’s monitoring engagement with CSI’s Facebook page to see whether privacy issues have scared anyone away. “We haven’t seen a dip in engagement yet. It may get worse.”

CSI plans to keep posting events and notes about things happening on campus, she said. “We will continue what we’re doing now until we see some sort of dip or negative turn in our numbers or our analytics.”

But college officials are being more vigilant about keeping CSI’s website more up-to-date with news and events, LaPray said. It’s a project the college’s information technology staff was already working on, but recent news about Facebook “proves it to be more important to get it done so people have an option to look in different locations.”

For those who choose to access CSI news via Facebook, “our information will still be there,” she said. “For those who choose to go elsewhere, our website is available and updated.”

Twin Falls School District spokeswoman Eva Craner said she has been following stories closely about the Facebook data mining incident, but “my understanding is it applies more for individual users rather organizations.” But “the privacy of our students and families is something we take very seriously,” she added.

In addition to following the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act — which protects certain student educational records from being disclosed — the Twin Falls School District asks parents to fill out a media release form each school year.

It allows parents to decide whether they want their child to appear in photos posted on social media websites and the school district’s website, for instance, or in news stories. Parents can pick and choose which platforms they’re comfortable with or decline to have any information released about their child.

In Cassia County, the school board doesn’t have any plans to talk about the impact of the Facebook privacy scandal, school district spokeswoman Debbie Critchfield said.

The Cassia County School District was an “early adopter of social media” — particularly Facebook, which it has used for about eight years, Critchfield said.

Critchfield is the primary person who manages the school district’s Facebook page, and posts on it two or three times a day. But school employees manage their individual school’s Facebook page.

Since the school district started using Facebook, it has set strict guidelines. That includes getting parental permission and not using any student names.

“We’re very conscious of being able to protect the privacy of students and teachers,” Critchfield said, “and not being able to have someone clearly identified by all the information we gave.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

If you do one thing

If you do one thing: Fiddlers of Idaho state championships feature adult fiddle competitions from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. at Community Campus Performing Arts Theater, 1050 Fox Acres Road, Hailey; free admission. Judges concert follows at 7 p.m. at the theater; $12 adults, $10 seniors, $7 youth.


Wendell's Salvador Tenorio blocks during practice Monday, Aug. 14, 2017, in Wendell.

Water system triggers fire alarms, mass evacuations on north side of Twin Falls

TWIN FALLS — More than 20 automatic fire alarms were triggered across Twin Falls Thursday morning after a surge in the city’s water system.

Alarms in Walmart, the College of Southern Idaho, St. Luke’s Magic Valley Clinic and other businesses and institutions in the northern part of the city were tripped at the same time, causing mass evacuations.

The alarms were triggered because of a fluctuation in water pressure, said city spokesman Josh Palmer. The fluctuation happened while the city was reprogramming a communications system as part of planned upgrades to the Twin Falls water system. Some fire suppression systems, Palmer said, are designed to trigger an alarm when they detect a change in water pressure.

The Twin Falls Fire Department was dispatched to the buildings where alarms were triggered.

“It’s not typically a fire problem when it happens all at once,” said Twin Falls Fire Chief Les Kenworthy. “But we still need to go out and check those and make sure they’re not fires.”

Other businesses and institutions affected included Sportsman’s Warehouse, Canyon Ridge High School, Bed Bath and Beyond, the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple, Bridgeview Estates, Winco, La Quinta, Gold’s Gym and the Shilo Inn.

Trump puts off Syria strike decision, will talk to allies

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday put off a final decision on possible military strikes against Syria after tweeting earlier that they could happen "very soon or not so soon at all." The White House said he would consult further with allies.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned such an attack carried the risk of spinning out of control, suggesting caution ahead of a decision on how to respond to an attack against civilians last weekend that U.S. officials are increasingly certain involved the use of banned chemical weapons. British officials said up to 75 people were killed.

The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said in a brief statement after Trump met with Mattis and other members of his National Security Council: "No final decision has been made. We are continuing to assess intelligence and are engaged in conversations with our partners and allies."

Sanders said Trump would speak later with French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May.

The Security Council scheduled another emergency meeting for this morning at Russia's request.

Although Mattis noted that military action carried risks, he also emphasized that Syrian use of chemical weapons should not be tolerated. And he insisted it remains U.S. policy not to be involved directly in Syria's civil war.

"Our strategy remains the same as a year ago," he said. "It is to drive this to a U.N.-brokered peace but, at the same time, keep our foot on the neck of ISIS until we suffocate it," referring to the Islamic State extremist group.

Mattis' remarks at a House Armed Services Committee hearing followed a series of Trump tweets this week that initially indicated he was committed to bombing Syria but later suggested he was awaiting further advice and assessment. Trump wrote in a Thursday morning tweet that an attack could happen "very soon or not so soon at all."

Later Thursday he was noncommittal. "We're looking very, very seriously, very closely at the whole situation," he told reporters.

Mattis said options would be discussed with Trump at a meeting of his National Security Council on Thursday afternoon. That meant airstrikes, possibly in tandem with France and other allies that have expressed outrage at the alleged Syrian chemical attack, could be launched within hours of a presidential decision.

Meanwhile, a team of inspectors from the international chemical weapons watchdog was on its way to Syria on Thursday to begin an investigation into the chemical weapons attack that has brought the war-torn country to the brink of a wider conflict, amid Western threats of retaliation and Russian warnings of the potential for "a dangerous escalation."

The fact-finding mission from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was expected to head to Douma, where the suspected attack took place and where Russia said rebels had now capitulated to government control. The Syrian government said it would facilitate the mission's investigation, which was to begin Saturday.

Syria and its ally, Russia, deny any such attack, which activists say killed more than 43 people last weekend.

Speaking at the United Nations on Thursday, Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, said the top priority had to be to avert a wider war, and he didn't rule out the possibility of a U.S.-Russia conflict. Speaking to reporters after a closed emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, Nebenzia said Russia was very concerned with "the dangerous escalation" of the situation and "aggressive policies" and preparations that some governments were making — a clear reference to the Trump administration and its allies.

The U.S., France and Britain have been in extensive consultations about launching a military strike as early as the end of this week, U.S. officials have said. A joint military operation, possibly with France rather than the U.S. in the lead, could send a message of international unity about enforcing the prohibitions on chemical weapons.

Macron said Thursday that France has proof that the Syrian government launched chlorine gas attacks and said France would not tolerate "regimes that think everything is permitted."

After May met with her Cabinet, a spokesperson issued a statement saying it is highly likely that Syria's President Bashar Assad was responsible for Saturday's attack that killed dozens outside Damascus. The Cabinet agreed on the need to "take action" to deter further chemical weapons use by Assad, but added that May would continue to consult with allies to coordinate an international response.

Mattis said that although the United States has no hard proof, he believes the Syrian government was responsible for Saturday's attack. Initial reports indicated the use of chlorine gas, possibly in addition to the nerve agent Sarin. Trump's ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, told NBC News on Thursday the administration has "enough proof" of the chemical attack but was still considering its response.