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Victra begins adding jobs to local economy

While the state and nation continue to experience double-digit unemployment rates, a Raleigh-based company is beginning to add jobs to the local economy.

Victra, the largest independent retailer for Verizon Wireless, has hired more than 50 employees for the new TeleSales Center in Greenville.

Vice President and Customer Contact Center Manager Jake Jacobs said the company aims to have 80 employees on the job by August and then to nearly double that number before 2021.

“We’ve got quite a few more to bring in,” Jacobs said. “The forecast I’ve seen is the potential to be at 150 by the end of the year.”

The City Council in May approved a Job Creation Grant that will provide up to $500,000 over a five-year period to help Victra expand services.

According to the agreement, Victra will provide 200 new jobs to the area by the end of 2025. The jobs must be maintained up to three years after the final grant payment. In addition, the company will make improvements to the property it leases at 1451 Thomas Langston Road.

The 111,898 square-foot office property, built in 1997, is the former home of Wachovia Dealer Services. It became a financial services center for Wells Fargo when the banks merged at the end of 2008. Nearly a decade later, Wells Fargo announced the closure of the center, which employed 600 people.

Jacobs was among Wells Fargo employees who accepted positions in Raleigh. After making the approximately 90-mile commute for a few years, he is glad to be back closer to home.

“I’m very very excited to be part of bringing this building back to life because of what it means for not only Greenville and Winterville but what it means for eastern North Carolina,” Jacobs said. “These are good jobs, and this is a really great company to work for.”

Victra is hiring for leadership positions, human resources personnel, quality assurance managers, training and support staff, in addition to call center representatives, who will make up the majority of the new hires.

Middle management jobs will be in the $38,000-$50,000 salary range, with call center representatives being paid $12-$15 per hour for answering calls as a store support center and Verizon call center.

“I think that most people, when they think telesales, they think about your cellphone constantly ringing from somebody outbound dialing. That’s not what we do. We are an inbound call center,” Jacobs said, explaining that customers, not sales representatives, initiate the calls.

The center expects to be 100 percent operational with Victra calls by the end of the month before beginning to receive additional Verizon sales calls.

Jacobs, who ran the financial services call center on Thomas Langston Road for more than a decade, said the facility was ideal for Victra’s operations. But he said the building’s infrastructure was not what most drew Chief Executive Officer Rich Balot to the location.

“The building presented a business opportunity, but I think Rich is a a guy that was looking for an opportunity to give something back to eastern North Carolina,” Jacobs said of Balot, a Wilson native.

The company founded as a partnership by Rich and David Balot in October 1996 was incorporated as ABC Phones of North Carolina in 1999. Today, Victra employs more than 4,500 people at 1,000 locations across 46 states.

The new call center jobs, which began last month, have come at an opportune time. Pitt County’s unemployment rate grew to 10.3 percent in May, compared with 4.3 percent in May 2019.

Hiring and training employees for a new location during a coronavirus pandemic has not been business as usual. Initial interviews have been conducted via Zoom, although job candidates have been invited for in-person meetings for their final interviews.

“It’s important for them to see the building and to see us and to see the commitment that we’ve made to safety,” Jacobs said. “We’re trying to make our work environment as safe as we can possibly make it.”

Some of the precautions include seating employees about 14 feet apart, separated by high-walled cubicles. Jacobs said that, due to the size of the facility, physical distancing should not be a problem as Victra continues to hire new employees.

For two-week training sessions, employees are seated person one per table, with 6 feet of space between tables.

Masks are mandatory for all employees, as is a temperature check two hours before reporting to work. Upon arrival, employees have their temperatures re-checked at a station that also determines whether or not the worker is wearing a mask.

“It’s all touchless,” Jacobs said. “All you do is look into a camera. If your temperature meets the requirement and you’re wearing a mask, it will green light you and the door will open and you can enter the building.”

Already, Victra is drawing applicants from not only Greenville-Pitt County but also Goldsboro, Wilson and New Bern.

“There are all kinds of colleges within 75 miles of here,” Jacobs said, adding that not all positions require a college degree. “We think we offer a great entry-level job into the business world for folks to learn and develop.

“I think these are great jobs and a great culture,” he said. “I just think it’s a really good opportunity for eastern North Carolina.”

New COVID testing sites to open Monday

State and local officials on Tuesday announced an expansion of COVID-19 testing sites on Tuesday as new daily case totals continued at high levels and hospitalizations reached another new high.

The Pitt County Health Department announced it would operate free testing sites at seven locations starting on Monday. A site will operate from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily at J.H. Rose High School, 600 W. Arlington Blvd. Other sites will be in Farmville, Bethel, Grimesland, Ayden, Winterville and north of Greenville at the health department offices.

The sites will be operated in partnership with Pitt County Emergency Management and Vidant Medical Center, a county news release said. Federal CARES Act funding is supporting the sites so there is no cost to individuals.

The announcement comes as the health department reported 36 new coronavirus cases were confirmed in Pitt County on Tuesday, bringing the total to 846 since the outbreak began in March.

Statewide, 1,345 cases were confirmed, bring the total to 75,875. A record high of 989 people were hospitalized with the virus on Tuesday. Vidant Health reported that 55 people were hospitalized at its facilities in eastern North Carolina.

The state announced Tuesday that residents will no longer need a doctor’s referral to get a coronavirus test. The order, lasting until Gov. Roy Cooper’s current state of emergency is rescinded, aims to encourage more Black, Hispanic and Native American residents to get tested.

Mandy Cohen, state secretary of Health and Human Services, also announced the creation of up to 300 free temporary testing sites throughout July.

The expansion comes even as Cohen said the state needs more testing supplies from the federal government. Cohen said she and Cooper discussed the need for more chemical reagents Monday with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

While test results previously took 2 to 3 days to get back results in June, Cohen said supply issues have increased current waits to a week in some cases.

“That request (for more supplies) is going to be harder and harder for the federal government to fulfill as we watch all of these states that are really surging with cases around us, they are understandably going to be prioritized for supplies,” Cohen said.

Trampoline park closes under threat of arrest

A Corey Road trampoline park that has operated in violation of state virus control measures since May shut its doors Tuesday after the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office warned the owners they would be arrested.

T.J. and Jamie Saywer, owners Air U Indoor Trampoline Park, announced on Facebook that “under the threat of arrest Air U will be closed until further notice.”

Sheriff Paula Dance later confirmed her office told the owners of the business they would be arrested if they continued to operate because they were violating the section of a state order that closed indoor exercise facilities to curb the spread of COVID-19. The sheriff’s office had already issued more than three dozen citations for violating the order issued by Gov. Roy Cooper.

“A deputy made contact with Air U (Monday) to inform them that we would no longer continue issuing citations; that if they chose to continue violating the order, then arrests would follow instead of citations,” Sgt. Lee Darnell, a sheriff’s office spokesman, said.

The enforcement action comes as the state and county continue to see increases in the daily number of new virus cases and record high hospitalization rates. Pitt County on Tuesday reported a one day increase of 36 cases while statewide the number of people in the hospital with the virus was at 989.

The Sawyers’ announcement also came the same day a superior court judge ruled bowling alleys could reopen if they meet sanitizing and social distancing rules, The Associated Press reported.

The business sits just outside of the Greenville city limits, putting it in the county jurisdiction. Deputies issued 41 citations for the business, the first being on May 28, after receiving a citizen complaint that it was open, Darnell said. Patrol deputies also confirmed the business was open.

In a Facebook post Dance said, “The office of the sheriff was not designed to write laws or to hand pick which laws are worthy of being enforced. As the sheriff of Pitt County, I will always enforce the law fairly and justly for every citizen and business, to the best of my ability.”

The post went on to say Dance worked with the owners, “giving them ample time and opportunity to seek counsel to mount a legal challenge against the governor’s order if that was their wish.”

The governor has vetoed several bills passed by the General Assembly that sought to reopen gyms, bars and other entertainment venues.

“Nothing appears to have changed, and no progress appears to have been made toward becoming compliant,” the sheriff’s post said. “Their opening for business remains an illegal practice. Enforcing the law remains the job of the sheriff.”

According to criminal court calendars on the North Carolina Judicial Branch website, the Sawyers have District Court appearances scheduled for July 20. They also have appearances scheduled for August and October. T.J. Sawyer even has court appearances scheduled in January.

“We are a husband and wife operation attempting to provide a way for our staff and their families to survive and pay their bills as well as for our family while keeping public safety a top priority,” the couple wrote Tuesday. “We are seeking legal counsel and hope to reopen in the near future.”

The couple said they have followed “all safety guidelines” and the facility is “professionally cleaned on a regular basis.” Staff cleans and sanitizes every hour and the business closes early for “deep cleaning and sanitation.”

“Our staff wear masks, our parents wear masks unless they meet one of the listed exemptions,” the couple said. “We offer hand sanitizer before and after participation, we do thermal temperature checks for each staff member and customer prior to entry and we operate at well below the 50 percent capacity allowed for other establishments.

“We do not have and have not had any COVID cases at our facility, proving that our type of facility can operate safely,” they said.

Darnell said the sheriff’s office is currently dealing with two other businesses located in unincorporated areas of the county that are not complying with the governor’s executive order. He said deputies have issued multiple citations but have not told the owners they will be arrested.

“We have received complaints on other facilities being open that may not be allowed under this phase. All but two have been within municipalities, and the callers (were) referred to the appropriate police departments,” Darnell said.