Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler recently recognized 19 employees* with the department’s Excellence in Team Accomplishment Award. The employees work across two sections** of the Structural Pest Control and Pesticides Division. They are specifically either part of the Licensing, Certification and Outreach Unit or the field staff in the Pesticides Section.
During an online meeting, the Commissioner recognized the team members for ways they’ve stepped up and persevered through new challenges during the coronavirus pandemic. Their extra efforts kept farmers, pest control companies and many other types of applicators or dealers up-to-date on licenses and certifications, even when COVID-19 stopped all the traditional ways to do that.
John Feagans, the manager of the Licensing, Certification and Outreach Unit, said it was the speed with which the employees worked that stood out to him most. Training and testing has traditionally been done in-person in meeting venues across the state. When those places closed to the public last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, many pesticide applicators realized there could be a problem getting their proper certifications by the mid-summer deadline that applies to many of them.
“We were going to do everything we could to keep people in compliance,” Feagans said.
He said the team members came together to brainstorm ideas almost immediately.
“These employees have adapted existing rules, created new opportunities and developed solutions to each and every problem that they were presented with this year,” Commissioner Troxler said, adapting words from the award nomination that was written by Feagans along with division director James Burnett, Pesticides Section deputy director Patrick Jones and Structural Pest Control deputy director Victor Lennon.
One clear and early example of the situation was the June 30 deadline that commercial applicators have to get their recertification credits. Many of them were planning on in-person events to get their credits in the first half of last year, but those plans had to change when cancellations began in March.
So a plan had to be developed and implemented quickly. Alternative online options had to be created and publicized, and those alternatives had to be made available in time for applicators to meet their deadline for requirements.
“We didn’t have guide book for this,” Feagans said. “But they’re not allowed to legally operate if they don’t have a legal license.”
During the award ceremony, Commissioner Troxler touched on those legal implications as well.
“To get an idea of just how much their extra work has mattered, think about the fact that requirements for licensing, certification and recertification are not flexible. They are state law,” he said. “If these employees hadn’t figured out ways to work with applicators many people in our state would have been stuck with the decision to shut down their operations or to continue working illegally.
“Again, we’re talking about everyone from farmers to pest control companies – from the businesses selling the pesticides, to the people applying it inside or near your home,” said Commissioner Troxler. “We don’t want these folks operating in a ‘wild, wild west’ mentality.”
The employees who were recognized made sure that “wild, wild west” didn’t come to be.
“That’s a service to the industries involved and to all North Carolinians who count on us to be sure they and the environment are protected,” Commissioner Troxler said.
Without the efforts of these employees, there was a danger of property damage, an increased public health risk and a threat to our state’s agricultural production systems, on which everyone relies.
A deluge of details
Coordinating all the elements involved with the COVID-19 response took a true team effort. Once venues started closing last March and it became obvious that it would affect training and testing for applicators, the Pesticides Section quickly approved five online classes that were available only for people who had a June 30 recertification deadline. That involved working with N.C. State Cooperative Extension to be sure people who attended the online meetings got the proper credit. They also developed ways to be sure attendance was checked and verified.
The Pesticides Section also went before the North Carolina Pesticide Board and requested a 90-day extension for commercial and private applicators to get any remaining credits or take a retest. The Pesticides Section also developed an online exam for private applicators who needed new certifications to use certain pesticides. Presentations had to be recorded and then shared with Cooperative Extension to get them available across the state. Field staff even offered some one-on-one exams in cases of extreme need so that some people could begin working in North Carolina. The Structural Section also got a 90-day extension for recertifications and retests by going before the Structural Pest Control Committee.
The staff took on a very hands-on approach to help applicators meet state requirements by the June 30 deadline or the 90-day extension. They looked through nearly 700 records to check recertification dates and then called 200 applicators who still needed to meet requirements. Most were able to get their credits online because of what the section employees had set up. For the dozens who still couldn’t get their credits, the employees created a special system that helped them through the 90 days with a grace period.
The employees who received the award also played a part in the move to offer online testing to anyone seeking to become certified in any category or phase. The nomination mentioned the big move online, saying “during a time of national adversity and great personal challenge, these dedicated public servants pressed on in their desire to better serve our clients. The development of this online testing option and their accomplishments in moving many of our training opportunities to virtual online classrooms, represent the greatest improvements in our licensing services in more than 75 years.”
Those division leaders also mentioned how the employees handled the additional workload without pushback or complaints. Meetings have been full of contributions that helped the department avoid missteps along the way.
The employees now continue to press forward in the new normal. They’re balancing online options with the possibility for some in-person trainings and exams too. That means they must keep up with rules about group sizes, and they’ve had to contact venues about reserving spaces for fewer people, but more often, because gatherings must be smaller.
“It’s been a moving target,” Feagans said.
Employees continue adjusting to keep the training and testing process going. Fortunately, the pace of change has slowed, so meeting sites and dates are less likely to be changed these days. Staff is still keeping up with crowd-size regulations though as they change. By managing the combination of in-person and online possibilities now, the employees are ensuring certification and licensing continues.
• Manager of the Licensing, Certification and Outreach Unit John Feagans
• Staff in that unit from the Pesticides Section:
o Jacinth McAllister, Chelsea Ricks, Henry Weaver and Lakisha Grant
• Staff in that unit from the Structural Pest Control Section:
o Laura Long, Rhonda O’Neal, Tony May and Michelle Willett
• The Pesticides Section Field Staff:
o Gwen Minton, Paul Ward, Eric Ball, Charlie Jones, Jimmy Merritt, Chris Smith, Jason Williams, Doug Bullard, Clay Hudson and Arthur Watkins.
**The division is comprised of three sections – the Structural Pest Control Section, which oversees businesses such as pest control companies and landscapers that apply certain pesticides; the Pesticides Section, which oversees pesticide applicators and dealers such as farmers and commercial sellers of farm pesticides; and the Sleep Products Section, which oversees the sanitary sale of bedding products.