Survey finds Little Rock is attracting workers willing to make longer commutes

Data shows long commutes to city are worth it for some

Traffic moves along Interstate 30 near downtown Little Rock in this June 30, 2022 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)
Traffic moves along Interstate 30 near downtown Little Rock in this June 30, 2022 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)


Amy Winberry-Longstreath's hair was falling out.

It was late 2022 and that's how bad things were for the 57-year-old Monticello resident in her job at the time.

She had been working in a position related to the medical field for roughly eight months, at a company she only had to drive 10 minutes to each day.

"The work environment was not a very good work environment," Winberry-Longstreath recalled in a phone interview. "It was a hostile work environment."

The toxic environment resulted in her boyfriend coming home to find her "crying" and "griping," in addition to her hair loss.

While she could drive home for lunch, "it wasn't worth the stuff I was going through."

In December, the Shreveport native cut bait on the job from hell and went in search of a new opportunity.

However, as someone with an associate degree in medical assisting and trained in insurance, what Winberry-Longstreath was seeking wasn't really available around Monticello, the town in Drew County with an estimated population of just over 8,000 people, according to the U.S. census.

While the town has Drew Memorial Hospital, the University of Arkansas at Monticello and some doctor's offices, "it's limited to what I wanted and where I needed to be."

In April, four months after leaving her job, Winberry-Longstreath found herself interviewing for a position as an insurance specialist.

It was everything she wanted.

"I interviewed and I just felt like this is where I need to be," Winberry-Longstreath said.

There was just one catch.

The job was at the surgical pavilion in the Hickingbotham Outpatient Center at Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock.

That's located 1½ hours from Winberry-Longstreath's home in Monticello.

Hired "on the spot," Winberry-Longstreath joined a small group of Arkansans who commute an hour or more each day one way to get to work.

THE EXTRA MILE

How far are you willing to go to work?

In Central Arkansas, some people are willing to go the extra mile -- or like Winberry-Longstreath, the extra hour -- on a daily basis.

A combination of data collected by the Little Rock Regional Chamber, Metroplan and interviews with those who make the trip tell their stories.

According to data provided by Metroplan and taken from the American Community Survey from 2016-2020, there were roughly 351,000 workers in the Little Rock metropolitan statistical area in that time.

That data found that commuters from 54 counties in Arkansas drove to jobs in the Little Rock MSA.

"Of course, the vast majority of commuters come from within the region or the counties immediately beyond the region," said Jonathan Lupton, Metroplan's senior planner of publications, in an email.

The average commute time into the region was about 23.1 minutes -- a bit below the U.S. average of 25.6 minutes.

The largest commuter category, 16.7% of the Little Rock metro workforce, consisted of commutes of 15 to 19 minutes.

The smallest category consisted of people who drive 60 minutes or more each day.

They made up 4.4% of the Little Rock metro workforce, compared with 7.7% for the U.S. average.

"While these stats suggest we have shorter-than-average commutes as a whole, this does not of course contradict the fact that large numbers of people may drive lengthy distances to get to work in our region," said Lupton.

Enter the Little Rock Regional Chamber.

For roughly six years, the organization had advertised to companies looking to have a presence in the Port of Little Rock/Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport area, where employees from 23 Arkansas counties worked in the port each day.

In May, the chamber conducted a ZIP code "heat survey" in order to update its numbers.

"The point of the survey and our intent was to be able to showcase how far people are willing to drive and where our workforce is coming from," said Jack Thomas, the vice president of economic development at the chamber. "There were really three things that we requested: the ZIP code of the employee, the associated wage of the employee and the associated tenure."

The survey, covering 6,800 employees at 31 companies at the port/airport, was finalized in July. It found that the average employee wage was $26.74 an hour ($55,619 a year), above the median income for Pulaski County.

It also found that 48 counties in Arkansas were represented in the surveyed area.

The top counties represented were the obvious: Pulaski (3,266), Saline (563) Lonoke (41), Faulkner (263) and Jefferson (228).

The ZIP code with the most representation: 450 people who reside in ZIP code 72209, located in Little Rock's Ward 7 and 2 and stretching from the Deer Meadow to Fairview neighborhoods.

On the flip side, the survey found around 470 people have addresses that are 51 miles or more from the port.

According to the information made available, among the farthest-away addresses on file in the state was one in Blytheville, 188 miles away in Mississippi County.

Other addresses include 11 out of state, including one as far away as Flower Mound in North Texas.

According to Thomas, three companies in the port area -- Amazon, Revolution and Lexicon -- had employees that had addresses on file that were 60 miles or more away.

Attempts to arrange interviews with applicable employees at the companies were unsuccessful.

We did speak with one person who -- temporarily -- works in the port.

Kailey West lives in Mount Vernon, which is 55 minutes north from the port -- or 1½ hours depending on traffic.

She currently drives to the port each day to train as a 911 dispatcher for the city of Little Rock. After her six weeks of training, she'll work downtown.

In an email, West wrote that Mount Vernon only provided job opportunities if "you're a farmer or work at the gas station or post office. I couldn't really find anything in closer neighboring cities that I would enjoy and was financially appealing, so I branched further out."

Working as a 911 dispatcher "is an amazing opportunity to help people at the worst times of their life, and that alone is enough for me to be willing to travel this far," said West. "However, ... I'm compensated plenty enough to make it financially worth it."

Her work shifts are currently eight hours. Once her training is completed, she'll work 12-hour shifts.

"This means that, including travel time, I'll be gone from my family for 14 [hours] a day," West wrote. "But either way, it still comes out [to] about 10 [hours] of travel a week. I wish I lived closer, but in the line of work that I'm in, I feel like the travel time will serve as a good opportunity each day for me to mentally prepare myself for my shift."

While West deems the time invested in her commute financially worth it, her example may go against the grain of what Thomas found in the port-related data.

Thomas went into the survey with the expectation that individuals who drive the longest distances to work would be the ones with the highest wage levels.

"Think about it. Would you be willing to drive 60 miles for a job that is in the $17-$18 an hour range?" Thomas posited. "When aggregated, the data actually says the farther away that we move from the port of Little Rock and the airport, wage actually goes down."

The chamber's survey also found out that the average tenure of an employee at a facility in the port was just under eight years, which Thomas believes is "very strong," especially given the new nature of some of the jobs there.

"You think about Amazon, who represented a large portion of these numbers," Thomas said. "They've only been in operation for two or three years. So that's going to bring down the average tenure pretty substantially. To say eight years, especially given the fact of how much turnover there's been in all industries as a result of the pandemic."

However, as employees' addresses of residence move further away from the port, that length of tenure drops.

"If you're driving from 60 miles every day, there's a chance that your quality of life could increase if you could find a job closer to home," Thomas said.

Right now, West and Winberry-Longstreath are content with their respective commutes.

To fill the time, West occupies herself with "private concerts along to my Apple playlists [that] typically feature loud, off-key singing and dancing off beat."

Winberry-Longstreath listens to podcasts (the "Dateline" podcast being a favorite) and talks to her children or grandchildren.

To ease her travel burden, she occasionally stays a night or two at her mother's home in North Little Rock.

Right now, she's able to "pay my bills and have leftovers."

Finances aside, the commute is the least of her worries given where she was in December.

"You want to work somewhere that you enjoy working and you feel like it's part of your family. You spend more time with your coworkers [than] you do your real family if you think about it; you're with them eight hours a day," Winberry-Longstreath said. "So it makes a big difference if you're happy there, and I'm happy there. My hair is not falling out. I'm not crying. I'm not depressed or upset.

"I'm a happier person."


  photo  Port of Little Rock employees
 
 


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