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Lincoln Pius X’s Charlie Easley (34) and the Thunderbolts celebrate at the buzzer after their 62-59 overtime win over Omaha Skutt in the Class B state semifinal Friday at Pinnacle Bank Arena. 

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Lawn and leisure trade show gives storefront for small local businesses

Punxsutawney Phil may have predicted an early spring this year, but the tall snow banks bordering the Lancaster Event Center’s parking lot Friday would beg to differ.

However, inside at the 17th annual Husker Lawn & Leisure Show, locals were provided a tease — along with a taste of the coming spring.

With about 200 booths offering items and services for homes, yards and acreages, attendees could lean back in comfy lawn chairs, replace their ancient lawn mowers and shop for a new swimming pool because, believe it or not, the weather will eventually get warmer.

“Everybody has been fed up with snow for weeks now, and this show really gives them something to look forward to,” said Paula Widholm, promotions manager for the event.

Since the show’s inception in 2002, its purpose has been to provide local contractors and small-business owners a place to showcase their products and grow their customer base, Widholm said.

“For a lot of these businesses, they don’t have a storefront or anything like that,” she said. “This gives them a chance to interact with customers personally and show their wares that way.”

The weekend show is invaluable for young businesses such as Robotic Yard Solutions, which is trying to expand its client base. Territory manager Mike Steffensmeier spent Friday showing the company’s Husqvarna automowers. The show floor gave him enough space to let the robot lawn mowers move around similarly to Roombas.

The company has had an office in Lincoln since 2016, and this weekend was Robotic Yard Solutions' first appearance at the show.

“We’re still pretty small here, but Lincoln is a great community and we want to keep growing,” Steffensmeier said.

Some larger companies began their success stories at the trade show, Widholm said. For example, Lincoln-based Outdoor Solutions found its first customers and sales at the show, according to founder and owner Bob Hendricks.

“Everybody gets all cooped up and wants to go outside and we spend the winter looking for work,” said Hendricks, whose company sells landscape and construction materials. “This show lets us interact with everyone and get to know people right before the weather gets nice. People, this is what it’s all about.”

Even businesses other than the norm make their presence known at the show. Champion Family Chiropractic has a booth this year to show off its thermography imaging.

“A lot of people who come here are guys that do a lot of heavy lifting and are on their feet a lot,” said Christie Cain, who works for the chiropractic firm.


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Is this the snowiest winter ever? Depends on who you ask

Depending on what source you use, this has been either the snowiest or second-snowiest winter in Lincoln's history.

The National Weather Service said in a tweet early Friday morning that the 55.5 inches recorded at the Lincoln Airport since the first flakes flew in mid-October is the most ever. However, its records for Lincoln only go back to 1948.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln's local weather and climate website, on the other hand, says Lincoln's biggest seasonal snowfall occurred in the winter of 1914-15, when 59.4 inches were recorded. It gets its data from the High Plains Regional Climate Center.

The two distinct records, both listed by reputable organizations, have led to quite a debate as well as some sleuthing.

Suzanne Fortin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Valley, said Friday morning that the organization has decided to look into why its snowfall records for Lincoln only go back 70 years.

She said that the Weather Service has used the Lincoln Airport as its official data-gathering location since 1948. Possible reasons for not having data before that include a change in the data-gathering site or missing data before that point.

Later in the day Friday, the Weather Service said it was sticking with its official total at least for now.

"The official period of record goes back to 1948. There are data before 1948, but those data exist in monthly format, not daily, which is required for the official record," the tweet said.

"Officially, the previous record in Lincoln was 54.3 (inches) set in 1959-60. The 55.5 inches this year is the new record. Unofficially, there may be higher amounts, and we're going to investigate them."

UNL's data, which dates to 1887, comes from wherever the official data-gathering point was at the time, a location that has moved around the city.

Ken Dewey, a UNL regional climatologist, said in an email that before 1948, weather data was collected at the "Lincoln university weather bureau," ostensibly some site on the UNL campus.

A Facebook page run by an Omaha-area meteorologist said in a post Friday that it believes the UNL snowfall data for the 1914-15 winter season is inaccurate.

The meteorologist researched data from the National Centers for Environmental Information, which showed only 53.6 inches in Lincoln that winter.

"(B)ased on official records from NCEI, the 2018-2019 winter season snowfall total for Lincoln of 55.5 inches is in first place for records dating back to 1903, with an asterisk that we likely had something close in the winter of 1947-1948," a Friday post on the page read.

Dewey, however, said the location referenced in the Facebook post was a nearby farm and not the official UNL location for weather data gathering at the time.

Dewey did his own sleuthing using the same source and said he's confident the UNL data is accurate.

"Mystery solved," Dewey said. "HPRCC data are correct."

US wages rise by most in decade even as hiring tumbles

WASHINGTON — The pace of hiring in the United States fell last month to its lowest point in nearly a year and a half, a surprise drop likely reflecting harsh weather and other temporary factors that led most economists to see the slowdown as a temporary blip.

Employers added just 20,000 jobs, down from a blockbuster 311,000 in January. Even with February's anemic gain, job growth over the past three months has averaged a solid 186,000, enough to lower the unemployment rate over time.

And average hourly pay surged 3.4 percent from a year earlier — the sharpest year-over-year increase in a decade. The unemployment rate also dropped to 3.8 percent, near the lowest level in five decades, from 4 percent in January.

All told, Friday's monthly employment report from the government pointed to a still-sturdy job market and economy.

"The U.S. labor market is still in good shape," said Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial. "Slower job growth was expected after huge average gains of better than 250,000 over the preceding four months. Job growth should bounce back in March and through the rest of this year."

Meanwhile, another wave of selling on Wall Street on Friday left the S&P 500 with its worst weekly showing since January and its eighth loss in the last nine days. The sell-off, which lost some strength toward the end of the day, followed the weak jobs report and more signs that the global economy is hitting the brakes.

The S&P 500 dropped 5.86 points, or 0.2 percent, to 2,743.07. The benchmark index has fallen five days in a row, its longest losing streak in nearly four months.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 22.99 points, or 0.1 percent, to 25,450.24. The average briefly fell more than 220 points. The Nasdaq composite declined 13.32 points, or 0.2 percent, to 7,408.14. The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies gave up 1.74 points, or 0.1 percent, to 1,521.88.

Last month's pullback in hiring does follow signs that U.S. economic growth is probably slowing because of a weaker global economy, a trade war between the United States and China and signs of caution among American consumers. Those factors have led many analysts to forecast anemic growth in the first three months of this year.

But most economists still cautioned against reading too much into February's sluggish pace of hiring. The monthly employment data can be volatile. During the nearly decade-long recovery from the Great Recession, job growth has sometimes plunged in a single month — to 15,000 in May 2016, for example, and to 18,000 in September 2017 — only to rebound to healthy levels in the months that followed.

And February's increase in average pay suggests that businesses are stepping up their efforts to attract and keep workers. The year-over-year increase of 3.4 percent in February is up from a corresponding figure of just 2.6 percent a year ago.

Julia Pollak, a labor economist at jobs marketplace ZipRecruiter, said many companies are becoming increasingly hungry for workers. The number of job ads on its site that offer to pay for training, she said, jumped 42 percent last year from 2017. And positions that offer flexible hours soared 110 percent — a trend that could draw more women with family responsibilities off the sidelines and into work.

"Employers are finding all these ways to sweeten the deal and invest in their employees," Pollak said.

Carole Witkowski, vice president of human resources at Batteries and Bulbs, said her 700-store retail chain has raised starting hourly pay for workers at its distribution center from $11 to $12, with additional raises for those working evening and overnight shifts.

The company has taken other steps, she said: Jobs at the distribution center, located outside Milwaukee, don't require high school diplomas and have been plagued by high turnover. Many workers can find jobs elsewhere. Others haven't worked much before and aren't always used to showing up on time regularly. So about 18 months ago, the company started paying $250 each quarter to workers who arrive on time every day.

And in the suburbs outside Chicago, when the company received no applications in response to retail job postings last winter, it offered a $500 signing bonus. That shook loose some applicants.

"We got a little aggressive there," Witkowski said.

Nationally, though, the sluggish hiring and job cuts in February were widespread across industries. Construction cut 31,000 jobs, the most in more than five years, likely because of cold weather. Manufacturing added just 4,000, the fewest in a year and a half, a sign that Trump's trade war has raised costs and lowered exports for many factories.

Retailers cut 6,100 positions, while jobs in a category that mostly includes restaurants and hotels were unchanged.

The unemployment rate fell despite the tepid pace of hiring. The government uses one survey of households to calculate unemployment and a separate survey of businesses to count job growth, and sometimes the results of the two surveys diverge for a single month.