How former Potlatch employees are faring about four months after the mill closing is the subject for an ongoing survey.
But the community strategy team hopes to have more success in order to complete a database designed to help both dislocated workers and meet economic development goals.
From a list of 630 dislocated employees, survey workers made 393 successful contacts. After several unsuccessful phone calls were left with some contacts, letters were mailed to 237 people last week. The survey goal is to determine whether dislocated workers stayed in the community, if they are commuting, if they entered training options, if they found jobs and at what pay levels and what jobs they are still looking to find.
So far the survey found 53 employers from 23 communities hired 96 former Potlatch workers. Commutes varied from one worker who drove 120 miles one way to work to eight driving 40 miles or more, 15 people driving 15 to 40 miles and 29 who drove less than 15 miles to their new jobs.
Jobs listed included accountant, bar host manager, carpenter, engineering technician, housekeeper, kitchen manager, millwright, pipe fitter, purchasing agent, quality director, receptionist, teacher and welder.
At least 50 percent reported wages that were slightly or significantly less than what they were making at Potlatch. Many were working without benefits.
Pat Rafferty, who was hired by Job Service to conduct the phone survey to all dislocated workers, said people who were making $18, $20 and $25 per hour in wages were now earning $9 and $10 per hour.
The survey found 12 people are self-employed in a new business and three of those met with the Small Business Development Center at Central Lakes College.
From those participating in the survey, 127 dislocated employees stated they are still looking for work. Survey results included: 85 workers who entered training, 12 are considering training programs and 73 have approved training programs with 37 in programs expected to last more than a year. Rural Minnesota Concentrated Employment Program reported 175 people have approved training plans for this fall and 130 people are enrolled in long-term training. Long-term training is considered more than a year. And 45 people are enrolled in short-term training. Most popular educational institutions were Central Lakes College in Brainerd and Northwest Technical College in Wadena.
Most popular classes were computer networking and support, nursing, construction electrician, business management, accounting, medical secretary and mechanical drafting.
Fifty-two people listed themselves as retired, but 13 said they are still looking for employment. Three people stated they were unsure of their plans.
The community strategy team numbers indicated there may be 70 people who retired and about 100 people employed in other positions. Twenty-five people are still working at the mill.
Gary Sorensen, regional manager for Job Service covering the Brainerd area WorkForce Center, said people are still grieving and in the anger stage now and some are just ready to talk about it at this point.
Nearly 200 people are estimated to still be in transition at this point. Craig Nathan, operations manager at the Minnesota WorkForce Center in Brainerd, said the demographics from those still in transition is significant.
About 100 of them are age 50 to 54 and about 50 people are age 55-59. Nathan said this group of people still in transition will be the hardest to serve. A goal is to look at direct training at specific job sites. The WorkForce Center is implementing a project aimed at matching client skills with employer needs. A goal is to contact 280 employers for direct placement or on-the-job training programs.
The majority of those responding stated they planned to stay in the lakes area with 337 people saying they plan to stay, 23 planning to go and 13 unsure.
Getting a handle on what wages employees were now earning proved to be more difficult with surveyed workers responding to wage and benefit expectations instead.
"That benefit issue is really important -- almost more so than the wage right now," said Rafferty.
Rafferty, Cass County Economic Development Corp. director, said former Potlatch employees are now facing health insurance costs such as $800 per month for family coverage with the mill's benefit package reaching its end.
One question remaining is whether employees would come back if a mill buyer was found. And the group wants to keep up with the employee survey in order to retain a master database, considered important to the resale efforts and for other economic development issues.
Becky Best, Central Lakes College dean of external studies, said 120 former Potlatch workers applied at the college and 84 are actually attending. She said the number difference is not uncommon as people change plans between application and starting classes. About nine people who were interested in nursing programs were able to go to classes in Wadena.
Jerry Walseth, Brainerd School District superintendent, said tracking indicates about nine students are no longer in attendance and the school is continuing to follow up on those affected by the mill's closure.
Successes have included helping older workers who are also veterans get help from the Veterans Administration when it came to health issues and health care costs. Negotiating a boosted starting wage with specific businesses has also been a bright spot.
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