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Lack of jobs still plagues Coös County in 'winter of despair'

January 23, 2013
BERLIN — "We're calling it our 'winter of despair,'" said Mark Belanger, manager of the Berlin office of the state Department of Employment Security (NHES), on Friday morning. "We've got to get through this winter to get to the light at the end of the tunnel. Regionally there are not many jobs. For those who are unemployed, there's not a lot of hope of finding a job."

Right now, many people who are unemployed through no fault of their own are coming to the end of their benefits, Belanger explained.

New Hampshire, which used to have a three-tier system, only provides unemployment benefits for 26 weeks. Those who are eligible can receive 14 weeks additional benefits under a federal unemployment extension program.

Once this 40-week period — three-quarters of a year — is over, NHES continues to provide job search services to unemployed workers but also directs them to social services programs, such as fuel assistance.

Two weeks ago so many new workers who had just lost their jobs filed claims for unemployment benefits that two sessions of the standard "rights and responsibilities" orientation talk had to be scheduled, one as usual on Thursday morning and a second on Friday morning.

"This office has been over-the-top busy since 2001 when American Tissue closed the pulp-and-paper mills in Berlin-Gorham," Belanger said. "Then it's been Groveton Paper Board, Wausau Papers, Tillotson, Ethan Allen, The Balsams and mostly recently, Isaacson Steel and Car Freshener, truly a slap in the face. We keep asking, 'What more can we lose? It has got to be over.'"

Right now, however, Belanger explained, typically employers whose businesses have slowed down are laying off one or two employees. "One employer — one who really cares about his employees — came in recently to learn about partial unemployment benefits available for a full-time employee whose hours are cut back to become part-time," Belanger said.

"Some people come in thinking that unemployment benefits are an entitlement program, that money has been taken out of their paychecks and they're 'owed' the benefit," Belanger explained. "Unemployment benefits are 100 percent employer funded, however." Everyone receiving unemployment benefits must conduct an active job search.

The week after the newly unemployed workers learn their rights and responsibilities they attend a workshop to learn how to write a resume and today's job search skills, including how to use the Job Match System (JMS) to connect people to jobs.

NHES provides assistance for all employers looking to fill jobs in a recruiting process, Belanger said. Free services for them can include testing and screening plus setting up a series of interviews in time slots for them at suitable intervals in the office conference room or off site. "Before it was shuttered, Isaacson's Steel frequently allowed us to use its conference room for this purpose," he said.

"In essence our receptionist becomes their receptionist, handling the appointments and traffic," Belanger said. "If there's a high volume of jobs to fill, we set up a job fair."

Although workers from Lancaster and Whitefield claiming unemployment benefits use NHES' Littleton office, employers from these two towns use NHES services at the Berlin office.

NHES also offers some innovative programs. Belanger is high on the Return to Work Initiative that allows eligible unemployed claimants to continue to receive their unemployment benefits while receiving up to 24 hours work for up to six weeks of on-the-job training. The training is unpaid or "volunteer," but allows an employer to see whether a potential employee would be a good fit for a full-time job, has good work habits and a good work ethic, and is able to quickly learn new skills. "This program gives an unemployed worker a chance to get exposure at a company that is planning to hire," Belanger said. "We cover worker's comp costs; there is no employee-employer relationship. The plus to an employer is that their risk of hiring a new worker is reduced as well as the costs of training and orientation."

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