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Workers return in droves to businesses across the U.S.

By Hannah Flanders

Across the U.S., employers are seeing workers return following a mass reshuffle in employment. Beginning in 2021, the year following the initial shock of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of employees began seeking new opportunities with different companies or shifting entirely to different industries. However, as competition continues to grow and COVID precautions subside, many are beginning to return to their previous employers.

COVID Gives Way to New Opportunities

The Great Resignation, spurred by aspects of the pandemic, gave individuals a push to reconsider their employment. The combination of COVID stimulus checks, early retirement, lack of childcare, and reluctance to return to the office caused many — over 47 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — to voluntarily quit their jobs in 2021.

While many of these individuals — 53%, according to Pew Research Center — did not completely exit the workforce, workers seeking higher pay orgreater benefits — including remote options — were presented with a greater opportunity to find a new employer.

Not What They Expected

The beginning of 2022 marked a new wave for employees — the Great Regret — or the reversal of the Great Resignation. Some in client-facing, technology, and consumer industries quickly realized that new roles or companies may not have been the best fit. With increasing turnover, onboarding within many companies became less personal and individuals were often not allotted enough time to get comfortable in their new environment. In addition, remote work offered fewer social interactions and work-life balance sometimes took a backseat.

Seventy-two percent of employees surveyed by Muse in early 2022 stated that they had experienced surprise or regret in connection to what a new job opportunity led them to believe. Of the 2,500 individuals surveyed, 80% stated that it would be acceptable to leave a new job before six months if it didn’t meet initial expectations.

Additionally, as widespread access to COVID-19 vaccination continues, businesses and schools across America have re-opened their doors and many individuals are reconsidering their desire for fully remote work. A survey conducted by PwC reported that around 83% of employees have already returned to the office at least two days of the week.

Boomerang Employees

Each year, the number of boomerang employees — or those who return to a previous employer — continues to rise. In 2021, according to data presented by LinkedIn, 4.3% of all new hires were previous employees whereas 10 years prior, these individuals only represented around 2% of new hires.

Rehiring former employees is strategic for both the employer and the employee, but it’s important to consider why they departed initially. While the business regains knowledgeable talents who may not need extensive onboarding, the employee often returns with a higher salary or new position (given their gained experience during their departure and increased negotiating power) and is familiar with the workplace culture.

According to Glassdoor, recruiting former employees could save organizations up to $20,000 per hire. While of course not every former employee may be the perfect fit for the position, considering boomerang employees could tap Wisconsin businesses into “new” candidates that have the ability to fill important positions and reduce costs in today’s competitive job market.

Returning to the Workforce

As pandemic precautions subside and employees rethink previous career changes, many individuals are returning to their previous employers. According to a study conducted by Joblist, more than one in four people who quit their previous job regret their decision.

Although boomerang employees remain a small but growing percentage of new hires each year, the Great Regret has shown the return of many individuals who had previously left the workforce due to the pandemic, including those lacking childcare or entering early retirement.

Be it to combat rising inflation or to explore new opportunities outside of the home, 2022 has shown millions of individuals returning to work. Just this year, unemployment rates in Wisconsin hit record lows thanks to more individuals feeling comfortable with returning to the office, parents sending their children back to in-person classes, and previously retired Americans rejoining the workforce in droves.

Whether it be considering “boomerang employees” or welcoming back those who exited the workforce as a result of the pandemic, businesses throughout the state are seeing more opportunities to regain workers lost to the Great Resignation and benefit from the growing talent pool.

By Hannah Flanders

Following one of the deadliest pandemics the world has seen, U.S. government officials, businesses, and individuals alike have naturally begun to reassess what safe health practices look like. In banks throughout Wisconsin, this is certainly no different. From plexiglass to constant reminders to sanitize, cover your mouth, and stay home when you are sick — these lessons aren’t a byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic but rather knowledge that has subtly been around us this whole time without us really noticing.

From buffet sneeze guards to “employees must wash hands before returning to work” signs, safe health practices were evident in public spaces long before COVID. What the pandemic did bring about, however, was the general public’s awareness to safety and health practices.

At the onset of the pandemic, bankers across Wisconsin assembled plexiglass screens and masked up for the protection of themselves, their coworkers, and every customer. Unlike before, health protocols were broadcasted on the news, posted on doors, and mentioned at every meeting. This hyperawareness, while effective in helping stop the spread, has highlighted specific efforts needed to accommodate the safety of every member of the community.

“Often times, customer ‘protocols’ are framed negatively in the eye of the customer,” says Mike Parnon, architect at Brookfield-based BrandPoint Design. “It is important that banks are able to find a balance in improving overall customer experience by conveying their attentiveness to both financial and physical health.”

Mandates set in place during COVID at the state and federal level stressed the importance of complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). This civil rights law, and code for contractors, emphasizes the accessibility of public spaces. The pandemic highlighted for businesses throughout the state the need to further prioritize safe, accessible spaces for all.

Be it expanding mobile banking applications, so customers have access to their money wherever, or integrating more private spaces into bank designs — Wisconsin banks have taken full advantage of these COVID-19-related constraints to create opportunities for their customers.

“The health, safety, and well-being of our employees, customers, and community will always be a top priority for Bank First,” said Rachel Oakes, marketing communications manager at Bank First in Manitowoc. “While office cleanliness and sanitation were always a part of our procedures, COVID has redefined many things. We will continue enhanced sanitation procedures and offer hand sanitizer at our offices.”

During the peak of the pandemic in 2020, banks throughout the state established COVID committees tasked with monitoring, planning, and communicating critical information related to COVID-related guidance onto bank employees and customers. As guidance, even today, continues to evolve, one thing remains the same — daily cleaning and sanitation of all workstations and high-contact surfaces continues to be implemented at most Wisconsin banks.

While some procedures have been eradicated since early 2020, many of them have provided opportunities to further invest in the interest of both the customer and bank employees. “There is a greater awareness of health and public safety and [Bank First] has found that staff and guests are very understanding of any continued procedures and are thankful to see the end of some stricter protocols.” added Oakes.

Since the onset of COVID, community areas in bank branches have shifted their look and feel as well. While many areas remain open for additional seating, coffee and snack stations have either closed or shifted to individually packaged items. In addition, some banks, such as National Bank of Commerce in Superior, have closed their restrooms to the public unless specifically requested by a branch.

“National Bank of Commerce’s approach to protect our associates, customers, and the community, driven by our Business Continuity Plan, helped inform our desire to do what is right for our community,” said Lindsey Growette Stingle, senior vice president — human resources at National Bank of Commerce. “I believe that our associates have adapted well to the ever-changing environment and have shown a willingness to be flexible with the ultimate priority being the safety of their fellow associates, customers, and the community.”

As banks continue to balance differing customer needs in terms of health and safety in their offices, many continue to offer optional protection measures. “At National Bank of Commerce, hand sanitizer, masks, and (requested) rapid tests are still available to all associates,” says Growette Stingle. Additionally, many other Wisconsin banks continue to offer plexiglass shields at teller lines for bankers and customers who wish to use them and have incorporated remote options — either on a case-by-case basis or for those whose position allows.

“Educating the customer is critical in an institution with environmental changes,” states Parnon. “Finding productive ways to inform clients of [the bank’s] position regarding health, safety, comfort, and service is the first step in achieving good practices.”

While banks continue to update their COVID-related guidelines for both their staff and customers, creating safe and healthy spaces for community members has always been a priority for Wisconsin banks. While this may mean the sanitation of pens or the closure of specific areas, it is all done with the best interest of the community in mind.

Although the number of COVID cases throughout the state continues to decrease, banks carry on their commitment to their communities in everything they do. While these positive health-related activities are far from unheard of (even pre-COVID), the heightened public awareness of safe, hygienic spaces caused by the pandemic has allowed room for more solutions that encourage both accessibility and connection.

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The second in a series exploring the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on banks in Wisconsin.

By Hannah Flanders

As COVID restrictions continue to subside and the days of isolation have since passed (we hope), bankers and customers alike return in droves to their community banks. However, the challenges
presented by the pandemic will forever leave a lasting impact on the way banks operate.

Like most Americans, banks were forced into the confusion and chaos of the COVID-19 lockdown with little to no time to prepare. With disaster plans in place, many banks quickly turned remote, began servicing loans through drive-ups or in the parking lot, and relied on technology to stay connected to their team and customers.

The pandemic’s ongoing impact has allowed banks around the country to reassess the needs of both their customers and staff in connection to the bank and its physical or online branches.

For well over a century, brick and mortar banks have been the cornerstones of communities throughout Wisconsin. Be it for the safety and security of their money, or the personal connection associated with meeting in person, consumers across the state highly value their local, physical bank branches. However, many banks are rethinking their approach to the ‘traditional’ bank.

“[The ways in which] banks interact with clients and where employees get their work done has changed,” says Laurie Richards, vice president and partner at LERDAHL, a workplace interiors company and WBA Associate Member. “Bank branches are remodeling their locations to accommodate a wider variety of expectations that have emerged over the last two years as competition increases for clients and employees.”

A key component of embracing post-pandemic life for Americans around the country has been implementing the lessons learned — and this is certainly no different for Wisconsin bankers. As new branches — including Capitol Bank on Madison’s east side and Farmers and Merchants State Bank in Lake Mills — pop up around the state, new challenges arise as to how banks reimagine themselves in their communities.

As the pandemic proved, accessible banking is the most important factor to both banks and consumers. “Horicon Bank has a renewed commitment to innovate the way we help our customers. The needs of our customers are changing — and in 2020 they changed rapidly,” says Grace Bruins, marketing officer at Horicon Bank. “We’ve had to take a look at the things that make us unique — personal service, community commitment — and find a way to offer that in a digital environment as well as a physical one.”

Throughout Wisconsin, community banks envision new ways of exceeding the expectations of their customers. “Our plan is to continue to invest in our people and technology to help the bank grow and be successful,” says Prevail Bank President Nathan Quinnell. Many banks throughout the state have made upgrades such as e-signatures, ITMs, and online chat functionality for customers — Prevail Bank also hopes to upgrade their online mortgage process, add online account opening functionality, and sustain remote employees.

While many banks offered remote options during lockdown, many Wisconsin bankers have returned with full force to their branches and remote employment is considered on a case-by-case basis. Finding ways to leverage technology and space within the office is not only critical to staying relevant to customers in a world with increasing interest in digital banking, but to finding and retaining talent in a competitive job market.

“As we are in the relationship business, in addition to valuing our customers, we value the presence and safety of our employees,” says Capitol Bank President and CEO Ken Thompson. With insight from having successfully navigated the challenges created by the pandemic, Thompson understands the value this new space adds for both his customers and employees.

The combination of private office locations balanced with the increasing need for open, conference-style spaces planned for the new Capitol Bank location highlights a shift from individual to collaborative work and supports the idea that the type of task, privacy, and level of collaboration required is flexible throughout the day. With the assistance of technology, bankers are now able to maintain the office environment and culture as well as offer support to branches across towns, cities, or the state.

“As well as providing legendary customer service, embracing future technology is an important aspect of nurturing our current and future customer relations,” says William Campbell, Farmers and Merchants State Bank president and CEO.

“As we transition into our new Lake Mills branch, offering secluded spaces where customers can meet with Lake Mills staff as well as virtually meet with Waterloo and Marshall team members, will not only allow for an easier transition but offer our customers a variety of services,” adds William Hogan, Farmers and Merchants State Bank CFO.

In reimagining accessibility, bankers have considered new ways customers are able to interact with bankers — via the drive-up, ITMs, and through their digital branches — and explored elevating
existing offerings.

“Since the pandemic started, [Horicon Bank] believes there are more customers looking for digital banking services,” says Horicon’s CFO Robert Traylor. Whether it be mobile banking or the desire to digitalize services already offered at the bank — there is no doubt to bankers that the use of technology in some capacity offers customers a greater personalized banking experience and, in the case of online banking, allows their money and other banking services to become accessible to customers no matter where they are.

Accessibility, be it of the physical branch or the online services, continues to be amplified by the days of COVID-19. In understanding the need for both brick and mortar and virtual banking practices as well as approaches to combine the two, Wisconsin bankers hit their stride and continue their growth looking beyond the pandemic.

Community banking is, and always has been, concerned with the relationship built between the banker and the customer. Providing safe and productive spaces — both in-person and online — that offer the relevant tools and foster growth for both the employees and clients, is ultimately beneficial to the success of any community bank.

 

By Hannah Flanders

It has been two years since March 11, 2020, yet its transformation is still felt far and wide. A time marked by swift transition and angst among all — bankers will recall the call to action by their community members to be there through this time of uncertainty.

2020 and 2021 were marked by Wisconsin bankers’ quick action in providing Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans to local businesses, increased digitalized services, and defense from COVID-related fraud. Bankers continually step up to the challenge of providing critical support and the sense of stability to communities throughout Wisconsin, a tradition as old as the industry itself, and the events of the last several years have only highlighted the dedication they have for one another.

At the onset of the pandemic, many bank branches in Wisconsin closed their lobbies and non-client facing employees were sent home to work. As restrictions have eased throughout the last two years, bankers not only have returned to the office with a greater sense of commitment to their communities, but a new perspective on their role within the bank.

“Even as the pandemic seems to be winding down, our bank’s focus continues to be protecting the health and safety of our associates, clients, and communities,” says Paul Hoffmann, president and CEO of Monona Bank. In an effort to provide this for the Monona Bank team, Hoffmann explains the bank’s effort in establishing a ‘COVID team’ responsible for keeping fellow employees updated regarding recent trends.

From IT departments and marketing officers to the frontline staff, many experienced a major shift in the way their position impacted the bank.

One of the immediate changes Loni Meiborg, senior vice president of organizational development at Fortifi Bank, Berlin, noticed as the pandemic wore on is the need to do more with less. “[Fortifi was] already running with lean branch staff, and we had to prepare for the worst — the potential of a total sweep of our team,” said Meiborg. “This led us to cross-train more aggressively, ask the team for schedule flexibility, and deploy support staff to front-line environments to remain open in some circumstances. We felt our integrity and reputation rested on the clients’ access to their money. Even when lobbies closed, we found a way to reassure clients that we’re here and open through this.”

Additionally, Meiborg’s role as senior vice president of marketing transitioned to its current title of senior vice president of organizational development during the pandemic to allow Fortifi Bank to further understand the functionalities of the bank in addition to prioritizing the strong relationship between employee and client. This trend was hardly exclusive to Wisconsin community banks, as bankers throughout the industry took on greater responsibility in ensuring the bank continued to operate smoothly and that it was also meeting the needs of both the customers and its employees.

The roles of bankers were also dependent on the physical location. Front-line staff faced the challenge of assisting customers in ways they never previously had and became responsible for
making bank offices and lobbies COVID-friendly. Those working partially or fully remote grappled with PPP-related coverage, assisting in departments apart from their own, and engaging with customers from a distance. However, though these challenges proved difficult, bankers were able to adapt to their circumstances, grow as team members, and gain valuable work experience in other aspects of the bank. These involuntary exercises in team building have given bankers a greater perspective on the operations of their bank and have helped prepare staff for the potential of future interruptions.

“Each spring, Westbury Bank holds a celebration for its staff and their hard work over the past year,” told Lisa Dixon, senior vice president of retail banking. “The final stages of planning were brought to a screeching halt in March 2020. Between remote workers, alternating branch staff, and limited in-person meetings, our staff quickly began to feel a sense of isolation. It was important for our bank to find new ways to engage team members safely and meaningfully.”

These activities included Friday bingo, weekly trivia, designing masks, and pumpkin carving shared via the intranet. Dixon explains that it continues to be important for banks to foster an environment of unity for the betterment of employee culture — even as bankers return to their offices and COVID-related restrictions subside.

Recently, the media has shown strives to rebound to the “way things were” before March 2020. Individuals and businesses alike have seen a dramatic shift in their day-today operations, but efforts to embrace the realities of the future in every opportunity and challenge it provides should not be forgotten.

In addition to the ways the roles of bankers have changed, the tools bankers now use to perform daily functions have adapted to the digital world. Technology streamlined through remote  work — Teams, Zoom, digital signatures, and many others — continue to be resources bankers rely on to perform their tasks and meet the needs of customers.

The digital evolution of banks and their bankers were critical in limiting exposure during the virus’s peak and continue to be important in talent retention and attracting new customers. During the pandemic, it was critical that banks invest in the technology that would keep their staff and customers connected. In the aftermath, these advancements have been important in keeping the banking industry relevant among constant development.

“Increased usage of our mobile app for banking, along with the desire to move toward an ‘appointment’ approach for our bankers, had been on our agenda for quite some time,” says Dixon. “The pandemic gave us the opportunity to further promote those services we knew our customers would love. They’ve [since] embraced them whole heartedly as it gives them the ability to bank on their schedule.”

Over the course of the pandemic, bankers throughout Wisconsin expanded their reach, reinforced their bonds with community members, and established loyal customers who understand the importance of banking local. “Clients have come to rely on us for guidance in the market, business economics, and planning for their future,” says Meiborg. “We proved that we were reliable when the world wasn’t.”

“[Monona Bank] has never had so many unsolicited recommendations and referrals as the past several years, which I attribute to being there when they needed us when others were not,” says Hoffmann. “We helped many clients keep their businesses open and their employees working. This helped us build loyalty and trust with our clients and community.”

Bankers have truly stepped up and into their communities over the last two years. In reassuring Wisconsinites that their community banks were the safest place not only to keep their money, but to obtain trusted guidance and comradery, the industry has proven itself to be a reliable asset to every community. As the banking industry continues to evolve and grow, bankers prove themselves as dedicated and adaptable for not only the benefit of their communities, but for their team as well.

Rose Oswald PoelsBy Rose Oswald Poels

*March 7, 2022 update: Gov. Tony Evers has launched Wisconsin Help for Homeowners Program.

I wish to remind Wisconsin’s bankers of the availability of the Wisconsin Help for Homeowners (WHH) Homeowner Assistance Fund (HAF) Program as another tool to assist homeowners struggling with a financial hardship as of January 21, 2020, due to the coronavirus. Program funding is available from the Treasury through the Homeowners Assistance Fund established under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

The State of Wisconsin, through its WHH partners, will accept and process applications from homeowners within the state of Wisconsin. Homeowner income eligibility requirements are limited to households whose incomes do not exceed 100% of the area median income or 150% of the area median income if the homeowner meets the definition of Socially Disadvantaged under 24 CFR 124.103. Eligible expenses are those that were due on or after January 21, 2020, as described in the Wisconsin Homeowner Assistance Fund and Need Assessment Plan. The plan has recently been approved by the Treasury. The state has implemented the WHH HAF, and applicants can now apply. Funds are limited to $40,000 per applicant.

The State of Wisconsin, through its WHH partners, will be using the Common Data file (CDF) to share borrower information with loan servicers. If unable to utilize the CDF another mutually agreeable format will be used. A borrower general release and information sharing agreement is also required to be executed. All payments to servicers on behalf of borrowers will be disbursed using ACH.

If a bank is its own servicer, the bank could execute a collaboration agreement, and other required documents under the WHH HAF program, and work directly with WHH partners to process WHH HAF program payments on behalf of their borrowers. If a third-party is the servicer, the bank should alert its third-party servicers of Wisconsin’s program so that the servicer can execute the required documents in preparation for assisting affected borrowers.

To participate, several documents need be executed by servicer or borrower, including: a Collaboration Agreement, WHH Contact Information Form, WHH Borrower Consent Form, DOA-6460 New Supplier Form, DOA-6456 Authorization for Electronic Deposit Form, and a W-9 Request for Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN) Certification.

Upon receipt of the above documents, the Collaboration Agreement will be signed electronically by the state’s identified contact and a fully executed copy of the agreement shall be sent to the servicer. Program documents, in addition to those linked above, need be obtained from Wisconsin Department of Administration’s Tamra Fabian at tamra.fabian@wisconsin.gov. Fabian is leading the intake of the Collaboration Agreements.

More details regarding Wisconsin’s Homeowner Assistance Fund Program, may be found at: homeownerhelp.wi.gov.

Ken Thompson HeadshotBy Kenneth D. Thompson

As bankers, our unique position both in our economy and in our community shows us a widened perspective of our daily lives. Jack Uldrich, leading global futurist and author, shared with Wisconsin’s banking leaders during his keynote session at WBA’s annual Bank Executive Conference in Wisconsin Dells that today is the slowest rate of change that we will ever experience again.

Whether we realize it or not, the COVID-19 pandemic has launched us into the future. As our world continues to evolve and community banks lead efforts in digital and technological expansion, the next ten years are becoming increasingly difficult to predict. What once was an “unconventional” practice, is quickly becoming the new normal.

It is clear to me that community bankers are resilient no matter the circumstance. Wisconsin bankers are quite familiar with conducting business in the unfamiliar. Our ability to stay relevant has only strengthened among widespread technological advancement and bank mergers as well as our efforts in approaching PPP loans and growth in liquidity. We have quickly become a source of comfort for our communities during times of uncertainty — something I know each of us significantly values — and our ability to act fast in times of need is critical.

Uldrich advises that we continue to explore the unknown, take time to think further than today or tomorrow, and to always ask questions. Business as unusual means change, and I am thrilled to see how each of us rises to the occasion for the betterment of our communities time and time again.

Navigating, planning, and embracing change through a global pandemic

By Stefanie Bonesteel

To say the last two years have been a wild ride at Citizens Bank is an understatement. We had both our president and our CEO retire following lengthy careers at the bank. Then we completed a full core conversion, which included several projects and implementations before and after conversion. Next came an upgrade to our online banking and mobile app. As if a change in leadership and a complete system overhaul weren’t enough, like everyone else we were navigating through a global pandemic that brought lobby closures and staffing shortages, among other challenges.

With so many changes in a short period of time, we knew our internal communications would be paramount. Not only did our team members need to know what was coming and how it impacted them, we wanted our team to understand the “why” behind decisions as they were made, in order to gain their buy-in. Through our changes, some of the tactics we employed included:

A solid communication plan:

Just like communications to customers need to be planned out, messages to employees should be mapped out, as well. Thinking ahead helps you ensure all relevant parties are consulted and included, plus it allows you to group points together to cut down on the frequency of messages — which may mitigate the feeling of information overload. Prior to sharing, all communications were reviewed for accuracy and completeness to avoid the need to correct points or share missed details.

One source of information:

At Citizens, our intranet is the hub of what is happening at our bank. At the start of our core conversion, we created a special and separate area on the intranet to be The Spot where everything about the project was posted. Instead of searching through emails for relevant information, our team members knew they could find what they needed on the intranet. Email notifications would alert everyone when new content was added.

Separating the responsibility:

At any given time surrounding our conversion, we had two to four implementations going at once. We quickly realized that because the implementation managers were so focused on the minutia of their projects, we needed someone else who was involved but not quite as deep in the weeds to think about what needed to be shared and with whom. A communications point person for each project helped to keep the big picture in view.

Do your best to stay connected:

Fostering a sense of team is crucial during periods of intense change. While COVID prevented us from meeting in person during much of our transition, we made the most of meeting virtually. We also tasked a group who wasn’t directly involved with the conversion to be our sunshine committee. This got everyone involved while showing extra appreciation to those doing the heavy lifting. Because our team was accomplishing great things in the face of adversity, we adopted a superhero theme for the treats and care packages we assembled and sent out.

 

Bonesteel is senior vice president – marketing at Citizens Bank, Mukwonago and vice chair of the 2021–2022 WBA Marketing Committee.

This column is published bi-monthly in Wisconsin Banker and is written by members of the WBA Marketing Committee.

Ken Thompson Headshot By Kenneth D. Thompson, WBA Board chair, president and CEO of Capitol Bank, Madison

After the challenges of the last several years, I believe I speak for everyone when I say I am continually amazed by the optimism that Wisconsin bankers hold not only for the growth of our industry, but for our economy and communities as well. Although the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc, I expect 2022 to be a year of immense growth and transition within our industry.

As bankers, we are fortunate to have a unique perspective on our economy and communities. As many member CEOs highlighted in WBA’s recent Economic Conditions survey, despite recent obstacles, a majority of Wisconsin bankers rate the current health of the economy as ‘good’ and predict this to stay the same well into 2022.

Our work in providing flexibility to our staff and customers, as well as exceeding expectations of managing liquidity and technological growth in 2021, has absolutely aided in our efforts to provide stability in times of uncertainty. Our industry will continue to be challenged into 2022 as we face inflation; ongoing COVID protocols surrounding vaccinations, boosters, and possible mandates; as well as talent retention.

However, as mentioned repeatedly by Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President and CEO Neel Kashkari during WBA’s annual Midwest Economic Forecast Forum, Wisconsin’s economy and our region as a whole has been on par with the recovery of the nation. Efforts by our community banks have not gone unnoticed and have played, and will continue to play, a substantial role in rebounding our economy.

Of course, innovation will remain the name of the game as banks navigate uncertainty. The next eleven months will certainly show the flexibility, creativity, and expertise of banks in Wisconsin and set our industry apart.

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By Nicholas Felder, MidWestOne Bank, Lancaster

As the 2021 year wraps up and the 2022 year jets off to a roaring start, we, as bankers, prepare ourselves to renew partnerships with customers and prospects alike. Tasks we as bankers regularly undertake are innumerable. We look to assist with financial statement review & projection evaluation, and to challenge producers to look introspectively at their operations in both a macro– and micro-sense. We encourage them to work with their advisory groups more closely or, in some extreme cases, make changes to long-term partnerships that have gotten stale and now lack the drive for symbiotic gains. We assist in capital planning and the rationalization of purchases with 50% to 200% increases in cost if the item being acquired is available within 500 miles. We inquire about the stability of their internal labor force or challenges being faced by suppliers. We also tiptoe around the highly politicized COVID-19 discussion and hope the visit ends without it being brought up. All of this while making sure that family remains a priority in each of their lives. These interactions occur irregularly a few times a year to as often as weekly updates.

Commodity prices, weather and natural disasters, supply chain management, labor, interest rates, inflation (or sometimes hyperinflation), and on– and off-farm accidents all lead to increases in stress and anxiety for ag producers across this country. Farming is a lifestyle, a business, a legacy. Something that each will give every last breath to retain. One item that I believe is missing from our regular interactions with customers and prospects is a review of their mental health. The quality and future successes of both short– and long-term decisions are highly correlated to the mental well-being of the person making the decisions at that point in time. What can we do to assist in this aspect of our value-added services and increase the likelihood of success?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that rural communities have nearly double the suicide rates of urban areas. It’s pretty obvious what are the two major contributors: 1) daily life and the stressors indicated above and 2) fewer mental health resources due to the rural nature of the communities where they reside. Bankers are often relied upon to act as sounding boards for all sorts of decisions and thought processes. Sometimes even dispute resolution between family or spouses. Successes and failures are not necessarily evidence of the current state of mental well-being and should not be assumed.

With COVID-19 and its resulting isolations from family, friends, and outlets for celebration or consolation, these noted stressors will have been layered upon one another over the past two years. If not appropriately mastered by the individual, this resulting onion will need to be delicately peeled away layer by layer by trained professionals. Newly funded (2021) partnerships of UW-Platteville & DATCP as well as a grant received by SWCAP and UW-Madison are looking to address the mental health needs of Wisconsin farmers and workers. These projects “seek to engage farmers, family members, workers, and the wide range of individuals that provide products, services, technical information and support to those in the industry who produce the food and farm products that keep us healthy and safe during these challenging times.” Farmers are the key to the economic health & success of the entire country as well as the health and success of everyone therein.

These resources can be found at:  https://farms.extension.wisc.edu/farmstress

I challenge each of you to be an advocate for mental health this spring not only for each of your customers or prospects, but also for yourself. Make a point to review how people are feeling and connect those who may need additional assistance with the resources needed to be a productive, successful member of each one’s community.

Felder is vice president, commercial and ag banking, with MidWestOne Bank in Lancaster and currently serves on the WBA Agricultural Bankers Section Board of Directors.

Each day, bankers work for the economic wellbeing of their customers and communities. On January 18, those efforts were brought to the forefront at the State Capitol. Over 100 bankers attended WBA Capitol Day (a.k.a. “Cap Day”) in Madison; for some, it was the first-time stepping foot into a legislator’s office, and for others, it was an opportunity to build on established relationships with their elected officials.

The day kicked off at the Monona Terrace with a panel discussion moderated by WisPolitics President Jeff Mayers. Participants heard straight from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer, and Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley. Discussion topics included: an outlook for the final two months of the legislative session, the state’s economy, the impact the COVID pandemic continues to have on their communities and constituencies, and ways the Legislature can work to address workforce issues.

Scott Jensen and Chuck Chvala, “The Insiders,” covered many political topics and focused on what this fall’s election likely has in store. They covered the Governor’s race, the US Senate race, and how the candidates in those races will affect other races down the ballot. They also took us back in time to the Tommy Thompson heyday several times to illustrate how much Wisconsin politics has changed over the last 25 years.

Over the lunch hour, Department of Revenue Secretary Peter Barca provided perspective on the state’s economy and outlines several of Gov. Tony Evers’ ongoing priorities as we enter the final year of his first term.

The WBA Government Relations team gave a rundown of state legislative topics, a state government 101 review, and an overview of key 2022 political races to watch. After the prep session was complete, participants headed to the Capitol to advocate on key issues with the unique perspectives only bankers can provide. Legislators learned directly from bankers how issues like credit union expansion, banking regulatory modernization, credit card swipe fees, and elder financial exploitation affect their local economies and constituents.

Thank you to the attendees and sponsors — Bankers’ Bank, FHLBank Chicago, the KeyState Companies, Mastercard, and Visa — who made the event a success! This event is the culmination of the work that the WBA Government Relations staff, Government Relations Committee, Advocacy Officers, and civically engaged bankers do year-round. The positive impact is evident in the feedback WBA receives from legislators and bankers alike — Capitol Day makes a difference!