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'Tsunami' of unemployed Minnesotans converge on work centers

Maria Garcia, left, and her brother, Angel, use computers Tuesday at the Kandiyohi County Workforce Center as they perform an online job search. Angel said he has a job interview scheduled Thursday. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- During a year of "unprecedented events" when there were seven job seekers for every job opening across the county, Minnesota's WorkForce Centers saw a record number of unemployed residents seeking assistance last year.

There was a "tsunami" of clients, Barb Chaffee, chief executive officer for Central Minnesota Jobs & Training Services, told the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.

Central Minnesota Jobs & Training Services is a nonprofit employment and training agency and a partner in the Minnesota WorkForce Center System. The WorkForce Centers are operated by the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.

In the 11-county service area that includes Kandiyohi County, there were 108,495 visitors to the offices in 2009, compared to 63,000 the year before.

There were 12,424 visitors to Kandiyohi County's Jobs & Training office in Willmar, she said.

Yet of the 11 counties, Kandiyohi County has felt the least effect with an unemployment rate of 6.5 percent for 2009, up slightly from 6.4 percent in 2008.

By contrast, Kanabec County's rate is the highest at 13.5 percent for 2009.

In some offices there "are not enough buildings or chairs to hold the people looking for jobs," said Chaffee.

After the layoffs at the 3M facility in Hutchinson, Chaffee said 3,000 people showed up recently to apply for 42 job openings at the plant.

While trying to meet the needs of clients, 11 of Minnesota's 16 WorkForce service areas are out of training and support money "and the other five are close behind" and expected to be out of funds by the end of the month, she said. People are on waiting lists, she said.

The centers are still helping clients by assisting with job-search tasks and resume writing.

Federal stimulus money was especially helpful in funding youth employment programs last summer.

Chaffee said the "devastation and hopelessness" felt by the unemployed is coupled with home foreclosures, inability to pay bills and family units that are put at risk.

Chaffee said she believes the positive agricultural economy is one reason why Kandiyohi County's unemployment rate has been able to maintain a lower rate.

The Kandiyohi County Commissioners approved a new contract for services Tuesday with the WorkForce Center.

In other action:

- Bids were opened for a project to replace a timber bridge with box culverts north of Raymond in Edwards Township. There were 10 bidders for the project, estimated at $246,452. The bids ranged from $190,610 to $295,518. Action will be taken next month.

- The commissioners denied a request by Mark Schmitt for forgiveness of a penalty for late payment of property taxes. Although the commissioners sympathized with the economic difficulties the businessman is experiencing, they said they couldn't set a precedent. "You're not the first person that's come before the board to ask because of the economy," said Chairman Richard Falk.

- The commissioners approved a request from Bushmills Ethanol of Atwater to allow a lender to have a subsequent mortgage on the plant. Because of the county-issued general obligation taxable abatement bonds to finance a portion of the initial construction costs, the county holds a mortgage on the property. The change will not jeopardize the county's financial security.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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