Former Kmart employees share frustrations in tight peninsula job market

Posted: Monday, September 15, 2003

In the past 12 months, the Kenai Penin-sula work force has experienced significant job losses from four major sources. Unocal, Agrium, Big Kmart and the Kenai Peninsula School District combined to eliminate nearly 300 positions since November of last year.

Some remain without work and others have left the area in search of opportunity. Others, however, have been able to cope, rebounding with a little help and resiliency.

"When I first heard about the layoffs, I figured I might not be affected," said Diana Forslund, one of the 65 Agrium employees who lost their jobs in June. "But I prepared myself just in case."

She said she began looking into other things she might be able to do and considering where she wanted to go with her life.

What she decided to do was return to school using a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor's Workforce Invest-ment Act to study to be a radiological technologist.

"I've always been interested in improving myself," Forslund said. "The medical field is one that is really going to be growing."

She currently is taking a full schedule of prerequisite classes anatomy, technical writing and psychology, to name a few at Kenai Peninsula College in preparation for the two-year radiology program at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Forslund said she anticipates a challenge after this first year.

"I'll be competing to get in," she said. "They only take 25 people, so I'm motivated."

Forslund said she learned about the grant that will cover most of her education expenses for the three years she is in school when she met with state labor counselors at the Kenai Job Center.

The state Department of Labor and Workforce Development co-opted with the federal labor department in setting up the Kenai Kmart Peer Project office to help the 132 employees who lost their jobs when the store closed in March. The office is staffed by two former Kmart employees who help out their fellow former employees in a number of ways from providing referrals for jobs, food and housing needs, to helping with job preparations or just being a sounding board.

"You can't go to a layoff doctor to take care of all of your problems," said Laurie Soliz, who worked for Kmart Corp. for more than 20 years and was the Kenai store's human resources manager when it closed.

Along with eight-year Kmart employee Denyse Mitchell, Soliz was elected by her peers to work in the Peer Project.

"We're here to let them vent in a place that doesn't go back to their offices," Mitchell said of members of the Kmart class who sometimes visit just to express the frustration that comes from being laid off.

"It's so hard seeing them go through things and you can't help them. All you can do is be with them."

The peer project provides temporary jobs for Mitchell and Soliz that are expected to last through March. Both said they are debating whether to return to retail or look for work similar to what they are doing now.

Soliz said she and Mitchell are able to connect with their former co-workers because they've all been in the same situation. Among other things, the peer project is a way for people to stay in touch.

"We used to have an employee picnic every summer. They let us have one this summer," Soliz said of the state and federal labor departments that fund the project, and the United Food and Commercial Workers local 1496 in Anchorage, which directs the project.

Counting employee's spouses, the project set out to assist about 160 people when the store closed. Soliz said they have seen about 30 percent take new jobs. The project also produces a periodic newsletter that updates Kmart employees on who has gotten jobs.

"Sometimes it's real exciting to see them move on and know that you've been a part of it," Mitchell said.

Rachelle Stockman is one of those who was able to transition from Kmart to another job. She is the manager at the Kenai Radio Shack and said her new position is better than the closed store.

"I make more money than I did at Kmart," Stockman said.

The mother of two said she was anxious about having to do without a steady income, but she said she found her new job on her own in just over a month after Kmart closed.

"I was let go one hour before they closed," she said. "But I only had 33 days of unemployment."

Fred and Bonnie Miller of Nikiski saw twice the affect of the economic downturn, beginning with Bonnie being let go from her job of two years when Unocal closed its Kenai office in Novem-ber.

"I'm 47 years old. It was going to be my job I retired in," she said. "I really worked hard, doing a primo job, and they very easily let me go."

Just as Bonnie and her husband were preparing to adjust to one income in their home, more hard news hit in late May when Fred Miller learned his position as a mechanical engineer at Agrium was in jeopardy, after 19 1/2 years at the facility.

He said he weighed his options and opted to take one of the voluntary termination packages that were being offered.

"I believe Agrium is a good company, and let's hope that they're around for a long time," Fred said. "I just believe it was time for me to walk away."

Bonnie has returned to school at KPC with the help of the same WIA grant money that is helping Forslund. She said little information was offered to her and her colleagues regarding such opportunities.

"I didn't find out about the Workforce Investment Act until December," Bonnie said. "My goal is to work in organizational development, so I can help companies go through what I went through a little more smoothly, or even prevent it."

Fred is working for himself consulting as a commercial, residential and industrial mechanical engineering. He started his company, FM Engineering, in 1991 as a side venture, but now is able to work at it full time.

"I got a year's severance pay, and that has been my start-up costs," he said. "Walking away from a secure job where it's cozy and comfortable is a risk, but I believe the rewards are proportionate to the risk."

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