Career counselors to join counselees … as unemployed in the Oxford Hills

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PARIS — In an ironic turn of events, 14 employees with Western Maine Community Action (WMCA) in the Workforce Development division – who assist the unemployed with job training to get them back in the workforce – received layoff notices last week due to lack of funding from the state.

The notices were issued on Wednesday, Sept. 27, informing the two dozen employees in Oxford, Franklin and Androscoggin counties that their last day of work is Tuesday, Oct. 31.

“We have notified the staff of the impending layoffs so they can make plans,” said WMCA Workforce Development Program Manager Jim Trundy. He is one of the 14 who will lose his job at the end of the month. “We will be meeting with the staff to transition benefits and insurance and that kind of stuff.”

Those working in WMCA’s housing, health and nutrition, and energy and utilities programs will not be affected by the layoffs, Trundy said.

WMCA, which is a part of the Maine CareerCenter system, was only given funds through Saturday, Sept. 30.

Diane Peet, who works in the Paris satellite office, said she has been telling her clients one by one about the impending layoffs.

“The people seem to be handling the news in a lot of different ways – surprise, disbelieve, anger, sadness,” Peet said, adding some of them are calling their state representatives.  “A lot of them at the same time, they are thanking me for my years of service. That kind of makes me a little bit emotional.”

Trundy explained what precipitated the layoffs.

“The governor has decided to not contract out at this point and he’s looking to get less administrative money between the state and the local board so there is more money in the local service providers, us,” Trundy said about Gov. Paul LePage. “Until he can negotiate that will happen, he has not extended the contract.”

Trundy is referring to the $8 million the state received in federal funds as part of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which “is designed to help job seekers access employment, education, training, and support services to succeed in the labor market and to match employers with the skilled workers they need to compete in the global economy,” according to the state.

“The governor is trying to be clear – he is not turning the money away … but he is not contracting services,” Trundy said. “At this point, there are 14 staff that will be affected. It’s not just affecting WMCA, it is statewide. … In conversations I’ve had with our state partners, there are nine state employees that are affected.”

Last month, The Associated Press reported LePage has wanted the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act funding to be distributed from one consolidated statewide agency instead of the current three workforce development boards. Those requests were denied by former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump.

WMAC has two service centers in Wilton and Lewiston, along with satellite offices in Paris and Rumford.

“Diane won’t be doing the satellite work she’s been doing at the Norway [Memorial] Library two days a week with job seekers,” Trundy said. There, Peet works those who are unemployed or underemployed and helps them find jobs, create resumes and navigate the state’s job bank portal.

“I know the Western Maine Community Action closing will have an impact on people who do lose their jobs, especially the ones who don’t have any skills,” Peet said. “I feel bad for them.”

By the end of the month, those working in Paris, Rumford, Wilton and Lewiston also will no longer be able to serve job seekers, as they will become job seekers themselves. Trundy noted WMAC’s staff have helped roughly 315 people in finding jobs and securing training over the last year.

“After Oct. 31, we won’t have a satellite, we won’t have anything. … It all goes away and so do I,” he said.

Peet said she is still in a bit of shock about the news about the layoffs. She noted she is sad, but also hopeful.

“I guess I will have to take the advice I give my clients: Start job hunting on day one, don’t sit on your laurels,” she said. “When one door closes, another one opens.”

Trundy said some alternative programs will remain to assist job seekers, such as the Competitive Skills College program and Trade Act money for those affected by jobs going overseas, such as workers in the shoe and paper industries. Peet said those needing help navigating the state job bank or unemployment will have to travel to Lewiston to get assistance.

“That is going to be hardship for a lot of them,” she said.

Trundy added the state Workforce Board met on Friday, Sept. 29, to deal with the issue.

“The board is working hard to figure out a plan that the governor will accept,” Trundy said. “It would be a tight squeeze right now to get contracts through the Bureau of Purchases in 30 days. There could be a lapse and we’re hopeful people will figure out a way to get this money out to us.”

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Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect information provided by Laura Hudson, director of communications for the Maine Department of Labor. There are no plans at this time to close the state’s 12 CareerCenters.