Laid-off Austin workers seek help through state job program

Published 6:00 am Sunday, April 7, 2013

AUSTIN — Following Austin Packaging Co.’s decision to eliminate its frozen pizza line, laid-off workers are looking to Workforce Development to find new jobs.

“It’s an employment and training program to help people who get laid off through no fault of their own,” said Bill Hahn, dislocated worker program coordinator at Workforce Development. “We give skills and entrance assessments to them.”

Austin Packaging Co. announced the layoffs of about 125 workers on March 25, but owner Jeff Thatcher later lowered the number to 76. Management notified employees about the cuts shortly before that. Employees at every level, from line workers and mechanics to managers and supervisors — largely from the pizza division — were affected by the layoffs, which went into effect March 29.

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Thatcher said workers received short notice on the layoffs because the company’s customer unexpectedly moved the last day of pizza production from April 26 to March 29.

Those who were laid off did receive a severance package, he said.

The company held a meeting with city employees, Riverland Community College staff and Workforce Development to arrange for a program to help the displaced workers.

Orientation meetings were held at the plant Friday, and several more were held afterward to give displaced workers information on being a dislocated worker.

“The company allowed us to come in on site to meet with them initially,” Hahn said.

The move helped Workforce Development’s outreach efforts, he added, as it can be hard to collect all the affected workers once they are out the door.

After workers attended one of these group meetings, they set up one-on-one meetings with counselors. An assessment will identify what skills the displaced workers have at their disposal, both from their time at APC and from their personal lives. From there, Hahn said they can start to put together a road map for their reappointment, and help them fine tune their resumes.

“We have them work with a career counselor to develop their plan for reemployment,” Hahn said, adding the counselors take an individualized approach because each person’s situation is different.

While Hahn is part of Workforce Development in Austin, APC’s displaced workers do not need to focus on rejoining the local workforce. They can set their sights on jobs in Albert Lea or Rochester, for example, and get help from the Workforce Development chapters in those areas.

Hahn said he cannot estimate yet how many workers will pursue Workforce Development’s help, especially because some workers will take a week off after losing their job to process what’s going on. For those who do take advantage of the program, how long they spend involved with Workforce Development will vary depending on their goals and personal situation.

“We consider anything over six months of training as long-term training,” Hahn said.

The program, which is voluntary, is still accepting displaced workers.

“We’ll keep having orientation sessions until we don’t need to have them anymore,” he said.

One of the most critical skills for displaced workers like those from APC to have is computer and Internet literacy. Many employers rely on internet postings to find new hires, so Workforce Development provides computers for workers to apply for jobs.

“We want to make sure those folks are up to speed,” Hahn said. “Mainly, we’re going to give them the tools to help them get their next job.”