The down, the out and the unemployed

Published 1:04 pm Saturday, March 14, 2009

Editor’s Note: This is part 1 of 5 in a series examining the effects of the recession in the Austin community

Jim Weber had been laid off again. At 60 years old, he doesn’t know how much more he can take.

“I have gone through this over five times,” he said. “I’ve put in my application at a lot of places, and nothin.’ It’s dead. And it’s going to get worse.”

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Weber farms 120 acres near Austin, but after he lost his job at Minnesota Corrugated Box, Inc. in Albert Lea on Jan. 21, he knew that would not be enough to supplement his income, especially with ongoing medical problems.

“When you’re over 60, you need the benefits,” he said. “It’s getting tough for anyone over 55. They say they don’t want the older people because of insurance.”

Weber was one of more than two dozen dislocated workers seeking a lifeline at the meeting of Austin Job Club on Thursday.

He began attending the weekly sessions on job searching, money management and interviewing to get back in the working world.

“I’ve learned you got to go with the times,” Weber said. “A lot of the older guys are reluctant to learn. Technology is like going from a two-row planter to a four-row planter.”

Unfortunately, Weber is not alone. Not by a long shot.

According to the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), the number of jobs tanked by 20,700 in January alone, bringing the state unemployment rate to 7.6 percent — on par with the national average.

Bob Hass, area manager of Workforce Development Inc. (WSI) in Austin, said the unemployment rate in Mower County has doubled since last year at this time.

“Mower County’s been one of the lowest counties in the state for unemployment,” Hass said.

In fact, Hass believes the unemployment rate might actually be twice the estimated number — some people “have totally given up,” he said.

WSI, located on the campus of Riverland Community College in Austin, is a non-profit agency dedicated to developing and advancing the workforce. Staff have been working diligently to let the public know they have help available — through grants, resources, training and now — funding through the federal stimulus package.

“The silver lining is, there’s training funds available,” Hass said. “This is an opportunity to get training.”

Dislocated workers on unemployment will likely qualify for $4,000 for training and even gas vouchers to assist in their job search.

“There is going to be a lot of federal dollars coming in for jobs programs” in the next couple months, Hass said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of opportunity out there.”

Stacy Edland, placement specialist and career counselor at WSI, said some people who were off welfare programs are now back on them.

“All ages — from upper teens into 50s,” she said of their new clients. “We’ve seen a big increase in all our caseloads.”

On March 4, WSI hosted a Job Seekers Resource Fair at Riverland, one of many scheduled workshops, classes and job fairs in the Austin area recently and in upcoming months to aid the influx of unemployed. The fair provided resources ranging from energy assistance to stress management services.

Zumbro Valley Mental Health Center, which serves Olmsted, Mower and Fillmore counties, with an office in Austin, said the number of people seeking stress relief is skyrocketing.

“We’ve seen a big increase lately with people who are coping with stress,” clinical director Mark Bronson said from their table at the resource fair.

“Usually when a person is under a lot of stress, they don’t do their usual things,” he said. “Everybody knows somebody who’s been laid off and that adds to the stress as well.”

Bronson said about 75 percent of their referrals in Mower County have never had mental health services before.

Debra Salinas, 30, of Austin has been seeking work since August and attended the resource fair to seek out options.

“I have six kids, and I’m a single mom,” she said. “It’s not easy. The point I’m at now, I’m applying for anything.”

Brad Rauen, 20, also stopped by the fair. He was laid off after less than a year at Quality Pork Processors.

He has experience in farming, but has still been unemployed for eight months.

“I have eight applications in and nobody’s called me,” Rauen said.

Job search roadblocks have crossed all age, gender, racial and income lines, the numbers show, though some still have their doubts.

“I’m not looking at retirement until I’m 72,” said Mary Robbins, 54, who was laid off Dec. 4 from her job of nine years as kitchen manager at Sportts Restaurant before it closed.

“I’m just working on resumes, cover letters,” she said after Austin Job Club met Thursday.

She applied for a U.S. Census job, and still owns her business, Express Delivery Service, but it doesn’t cut it. Robbins is now on food stamps and unemployment, with four others — including a 3-year-old — under her roof.

“Experience isn’t it,” she believes. “It’s age, and there’s so many people out there looking for jobs.”