Roseau reacts to layoffs at Polaris plant
At the Job Service office in Roseau, Bonny Stechmann has seen a steady stream of newly unemployed workers the past two weeks.
Some are scared. Some are upset. But few are surprised that the national economic downturn has touched Roseau County with the recent layoff of 110 Polaris workers.
"There's some animosity from those who have lost their jobs after working there for four or so years," Stechmann said. "That's a very common emotion when laid off, like part of the grief process before you climb up the hill to think positively.
"But, by all accounts, Polaris is considered a great place to work. People here believe Polaris would never do this unless they needed to."
The out-of-work number likely will be more than the official layoff total of 110. Westaff agency temporary workers at the Polaris plant typically are off work in mid-December and return to work in March. Because they're not full time and not scheduled to begin work in January, they're not considered to be layoffs. More than 100 workers at the plant fall into that category. So, if the plant doesn't return to full capacity by March, theirs will be more lost jobs.
"And because Polaris will have less production, we've seen some of their vendors also laying people off," Stechmann said.
Looking for work
Sherry Roush is a Westaff temporary worker who had high hopes of soon becoming a full-time Polaris employee. But she wasn't disappointed at the news because she expected it.
"I knew this was coming from watching the economy," Roush said. "Polaris is a play toy. When times are tough, you pick food over play toys."
Roush was earning $12.75 an hour as a worker on an ATV assembly line. She said she'll probably now seek work in Thief River Falls because it has more employers. She and her husband also have beef cattle.
"We're good through the winter because we heat with wood," she said. "But I'll need a job by summer because we have to buy lots of diesel for the cattle operation."
As a temporary employee, Roush does not qualify for unemployment. Those who do qualify typically receive half of their regular salary for at least 26 weeks, and most get it for 39 weeks, Stechmann said.
Dave Anderson, director of Roseau County Social Services, said his office already is busy. Most are seeking food support and medical assistance.
"If you're living paycheck to paycheck and you have a house payment, that's a lot of stress on those families," he said.
Believing in Polaris
Coast True Value owner Tim Erickson and former owner Norm Flagstad added the Roseau's Civic and Commerce banquet Monday when Mark Karl, director of operations for the Roseau plant, talked about the layoffs. Letters to laid-off workers went in the mail a week earlier, so Karl was responding to swirling rumors.
Flagstad characterized Karl's talk this way: "He said the company was just being cautious and hopefully the layoffs were just temporary. I feel confident that he meant what he was telling us, that they were doing the best thing for the company and the people of Roseau."
Erickson said Karl's tone was convincing, too. "I was impressed that when Mark talked about the layoffs, it looked like it hurt him and bothered him on a personal level."
Karl declined to comment Thursday, saying, "It's no one else's business."
With 1,600 employees, Polaris is the reason for Roseau's existence, just as Marvin Windows is the reason for Warroad's existence down the road. About half of the winter jackets seen downtown Thursday carried the Polaris logo. So, harsh words about the manufacturer of ATVs and snowmobiles are rare.
"We love Polaris, and we love snow," Flagstad said. "There's not a bad economy up here. The store had a great year."
Peaks and valleys
The irony, Stechmann said, is that Roseau County had "an acute shortage" of workers in the summer. Roseau County had a 6.9 percent unemployment rate in December, compared with 4.7 percent in December 2007, suggesting a manufacturing slowdown before Polaris' cuts.
"That's the peaks and valleys of manufacturing," Stechmann said.
Roseau has experienced several peaks and valleys since a 2002 flood covered most of the town. Roseau has been rebuilt, but it still awaits federal money for its main flood control project, a diversion ditch east of town.
Mayor Jeff Pelowski said chances of landing the money have never been better than this year because of the expected stimulus package on top of the federal water appropriations bill.
At his downtown barber shop, Larry Ness shakes his head at the town's roller coaster ride. "The flood sets us back. Then, we're coming back good. Then, the economy slaps us upside the head."