Douglas County weathers staggering jobless claims

Alomere Health, one of the largest local employers, has not issued layoffs or furloughs, but has cut staffing hours by about 30%.

The Pro Staff employee staffing agency has seen about a 20% to 25% increase in the number of people looking for work and do have clients that are hiring (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)

In the month since Gov. Tim Walz ordered the closing of many businesses, organizations and schools in order to suppress the coronavirus, 4,288 residents of Douglas County have filed unemployment claims as of Monday, April 27.

That affects 20.4% of the county’s 2019 workforce, and places it eighth highest among Minnesota counties in terms of the percentage of job loss.

Those staggering numbers do not seem to have landed a knockout blow to the county, however, as generous unemployment checks have cushioned the fall for many laid-off workers, government loans have eased the fallout for small businesses and some of the area’s largest employers say they remain strong.

“It’s currently not in our outlook to have any layoffs or furloughs,” said Tony Jensen, human resources director at Douglas Machine. “Our orders are strong enough to keep us going.”

‘One step away from the abyss’

Among those who laid off workers, Douglas County has brought back about six of the 22 employees laid off as of April 6, said county coordinator Heather Schlangen.


Still laid off is reference librarian Kristin Woizeschke, one of 11 who lost work when the Douglas County Library closed its doors to the public. Four have been hired back so the library can begin offering curbside service.

“It wasn’t a surprise,” Woizeschke said. “We knew this was coming.”

Her experience mirrors the soft landing others have felt in the Alexandria area, at least for now. She was able to keep her health insurance for April, which helped her family. Her call to the state unemployment office went well, she said, adding that she spoke to a woman named Holly who proved “so lovely, so sweet and so kind.”

During her down time, she has baked and cooked, decluttered, listened to audio books and learned to make yarn from T-shirts.

“I’m in a much better situation than a lot of people,” she said. “As long as it doesn’t go on longer it hasn’t been too bad.”

And while she has been enjoying her time at home, she is mindful that if her unemployment situation drags on, things could get more dire.

“You realize how you’re one step away from the abyss,” she said.

Alomere cuts hours, salaries

Those laid off include hair stylists, wait staff, cooks, event planners, and ad sales representatives. In the Northwest Planning Region, which includes Douglas County, food service has been the industry hardest hit by layoffs, followed by the health care industry as Walz ordered a halt to elective surgeries.


Alomere Health, one of the largest local employers, has not issued layoffs or furloughs, but has cut staffing hours by about 30% since February as patient load dropped by more than half, said Edward Reif, director of Alomere’s community relations and development.

More than 130 employees have voluntarily taken a leave of absence while maintaining benefits such as health insurance and dental insurance. Some employees have seen reduced schedules and duties, although they have the option of working in the Alomere Health labor pool where they work as greeters and screeners, Reif said.

Also, all of Alomere’s non-contract salaried employees are taking a 20% pay cut for 90 days and are also working less, he said.

Large numbers of construction workers, retail employees and certain production workers have also found themselves without jobs in the Northwest Planning Region, which covers 26 counties. Women have lost jobs in greater numbers than men, and the 25-35 age bracket have seen more layoffs than any other age bracket.

But some areas, such as e-commerce, manufacturing and food processing have grown in the nation as well as in Douglas County, said Nicole Fernholz, executive director of the Alexandria Area Economic Development Commission.

Bright spots include speedy federal programs and loans to help small businesses, the Paycheck Protection Program that pays employer to keep paying their employees, even though there may be no work to do, and the unemployment program added workers that historically have not qualified, such as individuals or independent contractors.

“It’s not been quick or smooth, but it’s a work in progress,” Fernholz said. “The damage to our labor market is profound, but our cities won’t stay in lockdown indefinitely.”

‘The eye of the storm’

Job agencies report an increase in people looking for work, but not at the levels seen during the Great Recession of 2008.


“We’re in the middle of this, the eye of the storm,” said Julie Sachs, who oversees Douglas and other counties for the Job Service division of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, which runs the CareerForce agency. “People are in a waiting period. … We do believe we are going to get very busy.”

During the 2008 financial crash, the Douglas County CareerForce office had to hire more staff to handle the rush of jobseekers.

There are a couple differences: CareerForce is ramping its virtual assistance so that it can offer training to hundreds of jobseekers at a time statewide, so it doesn’t need to hire more staff members.

Also, those recently laid off are finding a cushion that didn’t exist before. In normal times, they would receive about half their average weekly wage up to a maximum of $740, according to the state unemployment website. During the pandemic, they are receiving that plus $600 weekly from the federal government, meaning that some are making more than they did while working.

A little math: Those making $15 an hour would earn, before taxes and other deductions, $600 a week. If laid off, they would receive about $900. Unemployment compensation is taxed as income in Minnesota.

Workers might find it difficult to return to lower wages once their unemployment ends. However, Sachs said they can use their time off to train for higher-wage jobs such as welding or operating boilers.

Pro Staff regional manager Kathy Pesta said her agency has seen about a 20% to 25% increase in the number of applicants, and they do have employers still hiring.

“We want to be optimistic,” she said. “There are still great opportunities out there.”


She added, “We’re in uncharted territory right now.”

According to job boards, companies hiring now in Douglas County include Central Specialties, Inc., which does road construction and is not feeling the effects of COVID-19 shutdowns, Human Resources manager Tiffany Marthaler said. UPS is also looking for workers, and other openings include drivers, machinists, cashiers and even a hair stylist.

“We’re missing the feel of shears in our hands, the sound of hair dryers around us, and the art of mixing color at our fingertips,” says the help wanted ad for a hair stylist at Fantastic Sam’s. “We know times are difficult and uncertain, but through all of this, we know our guests will be eager to get back into our salons and when they do, we will help them get back to feeling like the most fantastic version of themselves.”

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