Northeast Kingdom Continues To Struggle

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Visit Hitting Home: The Struggle Continues

(Host) In Vermont’s cash-strapped Northeast Kingdom, it’s never easy to make ends meet, and workers often hold down two or three jobs. Until, that is, they get laid off.  And many were, last year. 

In our series Hitting Home, VPR’s Charlotte Albright reports that people in the Kingdom are starting to find work again, but many are making less money, doing jobs for which they are overqualified.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­(Albright) The US Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t keep an exact count of  workers who are under-employed. But economists estimate that in this recession, as unemployment hovers nationally around ten per cent, another ten per cent of American workers are, as the government puts it, "underutilized."  Cindy Robillard sees plenty of those clients in St. Johnsbury, where she works as an employment counselor for Vermont’s Department of Labor.

(Robillard) "And that process is not always easy to watch because it takes time for people to get to the point where they understand that taking something for less money at a lower skill is really going to be important. We have to really constantly be working with folks to say, you know, "Is it better to not be working at all or would this make some sense?" And so there are definitely people out there in our communities that are highly skilled that are working at jobs that – we call it stopgap or survival employment – and that’s what they’re doing."

(Albright) Beth Ferraro knows all about "survival" employment.

(Ferraro teaching at Barnet School)

On this winter afternoon, she’s substitute teaching a seventh grade class in Barnet, for $65 a day-a small fraction of the hefty salary she used to make designing air filters for Lydall Manufacturing, which closed its St.Johnsbury plant last May.

Since then Ferraro and her two teen-age daughters have survived on her unemployment checks and occasional substitute teaching. The company paid for a short-term health insurance plan. Ferraro has cut out non-essential expenses, but she knows she needs to find another full-time job with benefits in another five months.

(Ferraro) "I guess when I left Lydall it was May so that was nine or ten months ago. It was way in the distance. Now I can see that pendulum dangling there."

(Albright) And even though she tries to keep an upbeat attitude, you can sense the menacing swing of that pendulum as time grows short. It’s not that Ferraro hates getting a phone call between six and seven in the morning, asking her to fill in at a school somewhere in the Northeast Kingdom. In fact, she enjoys working with kids:

(Ferraro) It’s the same set of skills whether you’re dealing with a customer, whether you’re dealing with a co-worker or whether you’re dealing with a thirteen- year -old, you’re explaining something, you’re teaching something, you’re conveying knowledge one way or the other.

(Albright) But subbing is not nearly lucrative or steady enough to pay the bills that could start to mount when her severance package and unemployment benefits run out in another few months. So she’s been sending out resumes and building a clientele for free-lance design work.

She’s determined to find work close enough to home to avoid uprooting her kids. But she says didn’t get much help from a temp agency just across the New Hampshire border. 

(Ferraro) "My feeling when I went there was not a warm and fuzzy feeling and she even blatantly said, "We don’t find people jobs."

(Albright) But at Westaff Staffing Agency in St. Johnsbury, Regional District Manager Jeannine Erpelding says they bend over backward to put people to work.  And she sees a glimmer of sun on the horizon.  She praises some local manufacturers for staying in Vermont despite the lure of higher profits elsewhere. 

Some, like Columbia Forest Products in Newport, are beginning to re-hire-not directly, but through staffing companies like Westaff.  Erpelding says that can be a good stepping stone back into the workforce.

(Erpedling)"It’s a very scary thing in today’s recession to be laid off because you never know when you’re going to get back to work and that’s been the problem for everyone nationwide. At least with us you can try the job on usually without it becoming a menace. You don’t need to worry about your decision if you know that you’re trying it before you decide, yes, this is the place for me."

(Albright) Erpelding hates the word "temp." She says there are about 125 "employees" on Westaff’s payroll, farmed out to positions ranging from professional to clerical to manual work.  She admits that many of those workers no longer get all the benefits they once had, and sometimes take a cut in salary.

Still, they are lining up. Right now, she says, her staff in St. Johnsbury have greeted, tested, and advised about 2100 job seekers who are still hoping the phone will ring-even if the work isn’t really up their alley.

For VPR News, I’m Charlotte Albright in St. Johnsbury.

Return to the series page Hitting Home: The Struggle Continues

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