Shopko workers have help

FAIRMONT — When Shopko recently announced it was closing all of its stores, customers of the Fairmont site expressed surprise and dismay, but the staff at the CareerForce Center in Fairmont immediately began working to assist the 20 full-time and 23 part-time Shopko employees.

“On March 18, when we heard it was closing, I immediately met with Tim Clements, the Shopko manager,” said Connie Hines, site manager at the CareerForce Center. “He and I talked about how we might be able to help the soon-to-be-laid-off workers transition to new jobs, maybe get some training they might need to be able to find other good jobs in our communities.”

Previously called the WorkForce Center and commonly referred to as the unemployment office, the CareerForce Center is converting to its new name to better reflect the mission of the facility, which is located in Five Lakes Centre in Fairmont.

Hines also reached out to the manager of the St. James Shopko while the Mankato CareerForce job counselor contacted the stores in St. Peter and Mankato.

“Right away, we were in contact and offering our services,” Hines said.

The next step for CareerForce Center staff is to have in-person meetings with Shopko employees to answer questions to help them find other work, help with resumes, explain about unemployment benefits and, if they qualify, assist them through the Dislocated Worker Program that has funding to cover the cost of training.

“Whether they stay in the same career path or change their career path, it’s all about the exploration of where they go from here,” said Mary Shumski, Fairmont CareerForce job counselor who administers the Dislocated Worker Program.

The CareerForce staff becomes a mainstay for laid-off workers, offering respect, support and counseling as people cope with the reality and grief of losing their employment. Shopko employees have been on an especially emotional rollercoaster after the January announcement that the store was on a list of sites closing, only to be informed the next day that it would remain open. Then, two months later, the corporation declared that all its stores would close.

“Our saying here is, they’ve lost their job through no fault of their own,” Shumski said. “It (Shopko closing) is devastating to the workers. It’s devastating to the community, so I try to be positive in that transition.”

“I sit in the cubicle next to Mary so I hear her get to a really deep level with them to really explore what would be a good fit,” Hines said. “It’s very individualized. She figures out what they want or need, a direction for each one.”

Some employees might need a computer class or two to alter their career path, and the Dislocated Worker Program can help pay for the class and even transportation to the class.

“Under the Dislocated Worker Program, we can provide on-the-job training where we reimburse the new employer 50 percent of the wage to hire a Shopko worker and train them. The worker still gets their full pay and benefits, and we keep the paperwork to a minimum,” Hines said.

She called the Shopko employees a “corps of some really long-term talented people” who, because of their excellent reputation, often were called upon by its corporate leadership to provide training for others.

Hines is confident these workers will become assets to other employers as they are absorbed into local businesses. The skills acquired in a retail setting such as record-keeping ability, customer service and time-management skills can be transitioned into a medical setting or an industrial setting.

“If you have that, you can teach a company’s particular tasks,” Hines said.

Shumski guides workers as they maneuver through online job applications and uploading a resume.

“Some of these folks don’t have resumes because they have worked in the same place for 25 years. I can help them do a resume,” she said.

Occasionally, clients need help with the basic computer knowledge, like using a mouse or setting up an email account, before then can advance to online job searches and application.

And some long-time employees will be surprised to learn that they no longer need to go to the CareerForce Center to apply for unemployment benefits. That process is all done online now.

“We can’t help them file for unemployment, but we have computers here they can use,” Shumski said. “If they don’t have a computer at home, they can come in here and use our computers. That can be helpful, and they don’t need an appointment.”

And all the services are free.

“Our goal is to help people find good employment in our area and be able to move on,” Hines said. “That’s why when something like this (Shopko closing) happens, we respond quickly. We want them to know we can help.”