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Retailers, experts warn of slim pickings, high prices this holiday season
  • Updated

As shoppers gear up for the holiday season, some products might sell out quickly and remain gone, while others might be more expensive.

The inability to restock some products and the increase in prices both stem from a problem that began with the pandemic and has worsened since: disruptions to the supply chain that brings materials and products from other countries into the United States.

Galveston County consumers who don’t get an early start on holiday shopping might be facing limited options on store shelves, higher prices and shipping delays, industry trackers warn.

“The supply chain has been stretched from end to end for the better part of the pandemic,” Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation, said.

The disruption to the supply chain stems from several areas, Gold said. In addition to the increased demand for many products, there’s also a shortage of vessels to ship products across the ocean, a shortage of empty containers to hold those products and problems finding people to unload the products at ports and then transport them on trucks, he said.

“It seems like with every piece of the supply chain there are different challenges,” he said.

It began in early 2020, when the pandemic began shutting down factories. And although many factories have resumed operations, sporadic COVID outbreaks make operating difficult, said Gordon Smith, a professor of supply-chain management at the University of Houston C.T. Bauer College of Business.

“If you’re the kind of person that likes to shop in December, the options might be limited,” Smith said. “Not that you won’t have options, but they might be limited.”

‘SOMETHING DIFFERENT’

Delays in shipping might mean stores run out of products faster and be unable to replace them.

This is the concern of Stan Terry, owner of Busy Body, Winston Fitness and Fitness Unlimited, which has a store in Friendswood.

“If we have it right now, buy it because there’s a chance that we’re going to run out,” Terry said.

Terry’s stores were able to build up some inventory in time for the holiday season partly because some of the orders placed last year arrived this summer, he said. But with shipments running six to 12 months behind, it’s hard to quickly replace products that sell out, he said.

“Whether its COVID-related or just the demand for whatever product it may be, we just can’t get the containers here fast enough,” he said.

Larger companies like Terry’s are better equipped to build up inventory. Smaller stores, like Annette’s Emporium in League City, don’t have that same luxury. The store sells only U.S.-made products, and many of the items are made by artists, owner Annette Conwell said.

In past years, Conwell had been able to place orders in November and get them in time for the holiday season, but this year is different, she said.

As companies rush to place their orders earlier so they can get them in time for the holidays, artists she works with are booking up faster, she said.

“The business is good for them,” she said. “It just means I have to find something different.”

INCREASED PRICES

Even if the product is still there, the price might be higher, Terry said. Many manufacturers have increased the price of their products, forcing companies to pass that price increase onto their customers.

“It’s going to be cheaper today than it is going to be tomorrow,” he said.

Like Terry, Conwell has also seen the prices increase. Some of the vendors she works with have had trouble getting the materials for their products, and many have had to raise their prices to cover the increased cost of shipping those materials into the country, she said.

“The price increases that are taking place now are not 10-cent price increases,” she said. “Items are going up a dollar. They’re going up 75 cents.”

Although Conwell tries not to pass every price increase on to her customers, there are times when she has no choice, she said.

ARRIVING LATE

For local business owner Kris Burr, the delayed shipping has been particularly devastating. Burr is the president of Adventure Sports & Outdoors, a Hitchcock store that sells kayaks and fishing equipment.

When the pandemic first began and there was an increased interest in outdoor activities, that meant an increased interest in Burr’s kayaks. To meet that demand, he ordered additional containers of kayaks last September. But they didn’t arrive until August, months after peak kayak season ended.

Now, Burr is left with an abundance of kayaks he can’t sell.

“You can’t get stuff when you need it during the up-season,” he said. “And the vendors are delivering it during the off-season.”

‘EARLY AND OFTEN’

When the supply crunch will end remains unknown, but some large companies like Target are attempting to bypass the blockage by chartering their own ships or switching to air freight instead, Gold said. Although this might ease some of the problems, the disruption has been going on for so long it isn’t a solution.

A clear solution hasn’t presented itself, and the attempts to fix the problems only help so much, Smith said.

“We find an issue, we attack it. We find another one, we attack it,” he said. “But we don’t know where the next one is going to come from.”

For now, the recommendation is to start shopping early to avoid running into problems later in the year.

“I would say shop early and shop often,” Smith said. “And be certain you get ahead of the game on your Christmas Day or Thanksgiving turkey.”


Business
AP
Senate dodges US debt disaster, voting to extend borrowing

WASHINGTON

The Senate dodged a U.S. debt disaster Thursday night, voting to extend the government’s borrowing authority into December and temporarily avert an unprecedented federal default that experts warned would devastate the economy and harm millions of Americans.

The party-line Democratic vote of 50-48 in support of the bill to raise the government’s debt ceiling by nearly a half-trillion dollars brought instant relief in Washington and far beyond. However, it provides only a reprieve. Assuming the House goes along, which it will, Republican and Democratic lawmakers still will have to tackle their deep differences on the issue once more before yearend.

That debate will take place as lawmakers also work to fund the federal government for the new fiscal year and as they keep up their bitter battling over President Joe Biden’s top domestic priorities — a bipartisan infrastructure plan with nearly $550 billion in new spending as well as a much more expansive, $3.5 trillion effort focused on health, safety net programs and the environment.

Easing the crisis at hand — a disastrous default looming in just weeks — the Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, offered his support for allowing a short-term extension of the government’s borrowing authority after leading solid GOP opposition to a longer extension. He acted as Biden and business leaders ramped up their concerns that a default would disrupt government payments to millions of Americans and throw the nation into recession.

The GOP concession to give up its blockade for now was not popular with some members of McConnell’s Republican caucus, who complained that the nation’s debt levels are unsustainable.

“I can’t vote to raise this debt ceiling, not right now, especially given the plans at play to increase spending immediately by another $3.5 trillion,” Sen. Mike Lee of Utah shortly before the vote.

And Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said the Democrats had been on “a path to surrender” on the process used to lift the debt cap, “and then unfortunately, yesterday, Republicans blinked.”

But Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was among those voting to end debate and allow a vote on the bill.

“I’m not willing to let this train go off the cliff,” she said.

Eleven Republicans voted to end debate, providing the threshold needed to move the bill to a final vote. However, no Republicans sided with Democrats in the final vote for the measure. McConnell has insisted that the majority party will have to increase the debt ceiling on their own.

Congress has just days to act before the Oct. 18 deadline after which the U.S. Treasury Department has warned it will quickly run short of funds to handle the nation’s already accrued debt load.

The House is likely to return to approve the measure next week.

Republican leaders worked through the day to find the 10 votes they needed from their party to advance the debt limit extension to a final vote, holding a private huddle late in the afternoon. It was a long and “spirited” discussion in the room, said Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri.

McConnell allowed for an airing of all views and ultimately told the senators he would be voting yes to limit debate.

The White House signaled Biden’s support, with principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre saying the president would sign a bill to raise the debt limit when it passed Congress. Jabbing the Republicans, she also said, “It gives us some breathing room from the catastrophic default we were approaching because of Sen. McConnell’s decision to play politics with our economy.”

Wall Street rallied modestly Thursday on news of the agreement.

The accord sets the stage for a sequel of sorts in December, when Congress will again face pressing deadlines to fund the government and raise the debt limit before heading home for the holidays.

The $480 billion increase in the debt ceiling is the level that the Treasury Department has said is needed to get safely to Dec. 3.

“I thank my Democratic colleagues for showing unity in solving this Republican-manufactured crisis,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. “Despite immense opposition from Leader McConnell and members of his conference, our caucus held together and we have pulled our country back from the cliff’s edge that Republicans tried to push us over.”

McConnell saw it quite differently.

“The pathway our Democratic colleagues have accepted will spare the American people any near-term crisis, while definitively resolving the majority’s excuse that they lacked time to address the debt limit through (reconciliation),” McConnell said Thursday. “Now there will be no question: They’ll have plenty of time.

McConnell and fellow Senate Republicans still insist the Democrats go it alone to raise the debt ceiling longer term. Further, McConnell has insisted Democrats use the same cumbersome legislative process called reconciliation they used to pass a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill and have been employing to try to pass Biden’s $3.5 trillion measure to boost safety net, health and environmental programs.

On Wednesday, Biden had enlisted top business leaders to push for immediately suspending the debt limit, saying the approaching deadline created the risk of a historic default that would be like a “meteor” that could crush the U.S. economy and send waves of damage worldwide.

At a White House event, the president shamed Republican senators for threatening to filibuster any suspension of the $28.4 trillion cap. He leaned into the credibility of corporate America — a group that has traditionally been aligned with the GOP on tax and regulatory issues — to drive home his point as the heads of Citi, JP Morgan Chase and Nasdaq gathered in person and virtually to say the debt limit must be lifted.

“It’s not right and it’s dangerous,” Biden said of the resistance by Senate Republicans.

Once a routine matter, raising the debt limit has become politically treacherous over the past decade or more, used by Republicans, in particular, to rail against government spending and the rising debt load.


News
Senior care facilities in Galveston County struggle with nursing shortages
  • Updated

FRIENDSWOOD

Galveston County senior- living facilities are struggling to find and keep employees to care for their most vulnerable patients in an industry upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although some acute challenges caused by COVID-19 have eased, industry experts warn nursing shortages are chronic and will require targeted recruiting to ensure demand doesn’t outpace supply.

At least one study reports almost 90 percent of senior- living facilities found it harder to hire staff during the most recent three months and more than 70 percent said the problem was severe enough to force them out of business. Some experts are calling for state regulators to step up and ensure shortages don’t undermine the health and safety of residents.

Sterling Oaks Assisted Living Memory Care in Friendswood had trouble during the pandemic finding qualified workers, Director Kris Barton said.

The small memory-care facility, 505 N. Clear Creek Drive, requires specialized nurses, she said.

“Just like everybody else, people were really fearful to even go to work,” Barton said. “Where before you would have lots of applicants that were interested, until there was a vaccination available, you had fewer applications.”

The pandemic was particularly hard on nursing homes, where COVID ripped through residents in the early months and facilities shut out families in an attempt to keep patients safe.

Sterling Oaks also asked its part-time employees to choose only one facility to work at during the peak of the pandemic to minimize spread of the virus, she said. Before the pandemic, many assisted-living facilities used the same pool of transient workers.

“We ran a lot of overtime,” Barton said. “We just all worked together. We didn’t want the care that our residents got to be impacted at all. We used our existing team and they contributed more overtime.”

Concord Assisted Living, which has two Galveston locations, also struggled at recruiting people during the pandemic, owner and administrator Judy Johnson said.

Although the pandemic made it worse, those recruiting problems existed before COVID, she said.

“I did notice it, but just not as bad,” Johnson said. “I noticed people would come for a couple of weeks and then leave. That did happen.”

Johnson’s staff has been picking up overtime as well, she said.

Johnson isn’t really sure what’s causing the lack of interest.

“I’m a little concerned about it,” Johnson said.

Although the pandemic might have exacerbated staffing challenges, industry observers had been predicting a shortage of nurses for years, said Kathryn Tart, founding dean and professor in the University of Houston’s college of nursing.

By 2030, experts predict a 57,000-nurse shortage in Texas, Tart said.

“It’s an issue,” Tart said. “Nurses are being pulled in all directions. There’s a huge need.”

Nurses are being drawn to the facilities that can pay them the highest — and that’s not always nursing homes, she said.

In a survey, 86 percent of nursing homes and 77 percent of assisted-living facilities had reported their staffing situation worsened in the past three months, according to American Healthcare Association and National Center for Assisted Living.

About 78 percent of nursing homes and 71 percent of assisted-living facilities surveyed said workforce shortages might force them to close, according to the report.

The shortage also bodes ill for residents.

An Associated Press analysis found the average resident had 21 fewer minutes of staff contact per day, or about 11 hours a month.

“I think the regulations that we have are incredibly important at times like this,” Tart said. “Regulators need to make sure they’re doing everything to keep these people safe.”

Now that vaccines are available and people aren’t as afraid to work in settings with lots of others, Barton has found it’s easier to attract applicants, she said.

Texas is a growing state and nurses will continue to be in demand, Tart said.

“More people are moving into the state of Texas,” Tart said. “Our population is increasing. We have fewer nurses per population. Our population is getting older.”

There are things leaders in the industry can do, including attracting more nursing faculty to teach more nurses and attracting more men to the predominantly female profession, she said.


Free
After three arrests, Galveston cop pleads guilty to bond violations

GALVESTON

A former Galveston police officer is scheduled to face punishment after pleading guilty to violating terms of a bond agreement struck in connection to domestic violence and stalking charges for which he was acquitted.

Justin Popovich, 40, of Galveston, pleaded guilty Wednesday to a felony charge of violating a bond or protective order, according to the Galveston County District Attorney’s Office.

Popovich in July 2020 was accused of violating court orders at least two times in 12 months.

Popovich entered a guilty plea in the 212th District Court. A punishment hearing was scheduled for Friday in the same court. Judge Patricia Grady will decide his punishment.

Popovich faces from two years to 10 years in prison, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Ott Roth said. He also could be sentenced to probation or punishment might be deferred, she said.

The bond violation stems from other charges filed against Popovich in January 2020. He was arrested and charged with domestic violence on Jan. 23. He was accused of hurting a woman he was dating during an incident at her home in June 2019.

A jury earlier this year found him not guilty of the domestic violence charge.

Popovich was released on bond after the initial charge. Then, in April, he was arrested three times over the course of four days and accused of violating terms of his release by trying to make contact with the woman he was accused of abusing.

After the third arrest, Popovich was charged with stalking.

Prosectors allege Popovich violated his bond by entering the woman’s house, by possessing multiple handguns and by calling the woman more than 20 times, according to police records.

Prosecutors this week dismissed the stalking charge but continued to pursue the bond violation charge, according to court documents.

Popovich was a sergeant for the Galveston Police Department. He was suspended in October 2019 when the domestic violence allegation first emerged. He was suspended without pay after being indicted in January 2020.

After his arrests in the spring, Popovich was indefinitely suspended by Galveston Police Chief Vernon Hale.

An indefinite dismissal is equivalent to being fired. Under state civil service rules, however, officers can appeal a dismissal and potentially get their jobs back. The city of Galveston didn’t respond to a question Thursday about whether Popovich had appealed his suspension.

Under state law, a person who is convicted of a felony is disqualified from being a police officer.


Coming Saturday

Newly released documents shed light on the Galveston National Laboratory’s early efforts to work with China on COVID-19 research.


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