Jobless workshop poorly attended

Posted March 31, 2009, at 7:53 p.m.

CALAIS, Maine — Washington County’s unemployment rate in February is significantly higher than the state average, but only a handful of people attended a daylong video workshop here Tuesday on how to deal with unemployment issues.

“Moving Forward Day,” sponsored by the County Transition Teams from Washington, Hancock, Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, included a video presentation originating from Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor and fed through the state’s polycom network to participants at Washington County Community Col-lege in Calais, the CareerCenter in Machias and Dover-Foxcroft.

The workshop covered topics such as how to avoid foreclosure, health insurance options and CareerCenter resources.

The preliminary seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for Maine in February was 8 percent, according to a press release last week from state Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman. That figure is up from 7.7 percent for January 2009 and 4.9 percent for February 2008. The national unemployment rate was 8.1 percent for Febru-ary, up from 7.6 percent for January and 4.8 percent for the same time last year.

The nonseasonally adjusted rate for the state is 9.1 percent, according to Labor Department statistics, while the rate for Washington and Piscataquis counties is 13.6 percent, the highest among the state’s counties. Washington County’s rate is expected to climb when the more than 300 employees from Domtar Corp. in Baileyville join the ranks of the unemployed after May 5, when the mill is idled indefinitely because of economic conditions.

With such high figures, a larger turnout of unemployed or soon-to-be-unemployed workers was expected for the well-publicized workshop, but only a handful attended at the Calais and Bangor sites.

Three Domtar employees attended the Calais workshop. WCCC spokesman Darin McGaw said the daylong event was being recorded and made available to Domtar employees at a later date.

Domtar employee Derek Howard said he had expected to see more millworkers at the workshop, but also noted that next week the Department of Labor’s Rapid Response Team will be in Baileyville. Its job is to help millworkers address training, health care and other issues

“Maybe most of the mill population expects to get all of the information they need at those meetings, but I am here to prepare for the worst and I don’t know about health insurance. I don’t know if there is any help out there for mortgages or any kind of financial help,” he said.

The CareerCenter is host to Maine’s largest electronic job search database, and CareerCenter staff were on hand to answer questions in Calais and Machias.

The workshop covered a wide range of topics.

Glenn Blair from USDA Rural Development in Bangor talked about resources available to avoid mortgage foreclosure. He said his agencies have programs in place that can help displaced workers who qualify to get “over the hump.” He said loan and grant programs are also available. The Rural Development agency has offices all over the state. “We also have a wide variety of public programs that assist local communities,” he said.

Lisa Webber of Consumers for Affordable Healthcare in Augusta handled the health insurance portion of the workshop. She talked about health insurance options available for laid-off workers, including MaineCare and Dirigo, and how to apply for them.

She also discussed medical centers around the state that have sliding-scale fees so people who can’t afford health care are not turned away. There are seven such clinics in Washington County.

The afternoon session focused on an overview of services offered by the state’s CareerCenters, how to search for a job and how to file an unemployment claim online.

BDN writer Nok-Noi Ricker in Bangor contributed to this report.

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