Banking on prison jobs

With recent job losses at Bright Wood and Seaswirl, unemployed Central Oregonians are

Nancy Pasternack / The Bulletin /

Published Mar 4, 2007 at 04:00AM

MADRAS - After working at Bright Wood Corp. in Madras for 12 years, Mary Schmidt, 49, learned in February that her administrative job had been ”kind of eliminated.”

”It was a little scary at first,” she said of being unemployed.

Schmidt had been one of 140 workers - 10 percent of the company's regional work force - to get the bad news at the wood products plant.

But less than three weeks later, Schmidt, who is married to a still-working Bright Wood employee and is mother to five children - including four former Bright Wood employees - says she is much less worried about her state of joblessness.

”I've got good prospects,” she said. ”I'm looking forward to working at the prison.”

Schmidt believes she has a strong chance of being selected for an administrative post at the partly constructed Deer Ridge Correctional Institution outside Madras.

The minimum-security portion of what will eventually be a nearly 1,900-bed prison has already been partially inspected and improved for occupation.

A hiring date of July 1 has been set for the first round of new prison employees, which will allow time for training prior to September, when the facility's first inmates are expected to arrive.

An interviewing process for most of the 200 Deer Ridge jobs currently posted on the Oregon Department of Corrections Web site has not yet begun. DOC recruitment drives have been under way for the last two months.

Jobs that have been or that will soon be posted online for Deer Ridge include those in administration, health care, food services, maintenance and security.

Security officers will make up the bulk of the employee roster, said Nancy Heck, human resources manager for the new prison. By the time the medium- security sections of the facility are completed in February 2008, more than 400 employees are expected to be fully trained and working.

Marlin Minson, 52, hopes to be among them.

The former Seaswirl employee who worked at the Culver plant as ”an assembly worker, a supervisor - you name it,” for a total of 19 years, lost his job in late December during round two of what has been a multistage plant closure. Company executives at parent company Genmar Holdings Inc., based in Minneapolis, have said they plan to shut the doors of the luxury boat building facility by the end of April. The closure eliminates 170 jobs, including the one Minson already was forced to leave.

Minson, like Schmidt, is optimistic about his chances of being hired at Deer Ridge. He hopes to land one of the $2,686 per-month-plus-benefits, entry-level security officer jobs currently posted at the Corrections Department's Web site, and ”move up the ladder, just the same way I did in my last job.”

He has applied for jobs at more than a half-dozen companies in Jefferson and Deschutes counties and makes sure to check in at least every other day with potential employers about the status of his application, he said. But he has his heart set on landing a prison job.

Good timing

Heck said she hears this a lot. Wages for security guards ”are very, very good, especially in light of those recent layoffs,” she said.

The prison's annual payroll is expected to exceed $20 million.

”When you're talking about jobs,” said Eric Strobel, business development manager for Economic Development for Central Oregon, ”it's a great thing that (Deer Ridge) is in the community.”

Not long ago, the prospect of a new state prison in Jefferson County had been the focus of controversy among residents and business owners in and around Madras.

”But naysayers to the prison,” Strobel said, ”will turn around real fast in a (layoffs) situation like this.”

During the ongoing first round of hiring, Heck said, about 185 workers will be either transferred from other parts of the state's correction system or brought on board for training. Workers within the Corrections Department are expected to be given first priority by request, for some positions.

According to a Corrections Department survey conducted four months ago, Heck said, the number of current prison system workers who expressed interest in relocating to Central Oregon was smaller than expected. Prison officials said they could not yet determine what the ratio would be of new to existing Corrections Department employees at Deer Ridge.

Regardless of its makeup, the first-round team of employees must be set to begin work, Heck said, on July 1.

For Minson, that seems a long way off. He said he plans to tell other prospective employers that he would accept a job, only with the understanding that it may be temporary. If a Deer Ridge job comes through for him down the road, he said, ”I want to be upfront and honest from the beginning that I'd probably take it.”

With spring just around the corner, the timing of events at the Bright Wood and Seaswirl plants, said Madras Chamber of Commerce Director Holly Van Wert, ”was not as bad as it could have been.”

The county has 19 newly platted subdivisions that are either under construction or near the groundbreaking stage. Some who have been left out of work at those plants are bound to find something suitable in the construction industry. The season's farm work too will pick up shortly and require helping hands, Van Wert said. But the relatively high-paying and stable jobs Deer Ridge offers will be the real paycheck savers.

Jefferson County's 7.7 percent unemployment rate for January - though higher than its neighboring counties and the state - is at one of its lowest dips for the month since 1990, according to figures from the Oregon Employment Department.

”These layoffs are not as devastating as they could be,” she said, ”because the prison is hiring.”

Still healing

Not everyone, however, is a good fit for a prison job.

Lonnie Parsons, 36, a former Bright Wood employee who was laid off in mid-February, is one of the few clients at Central Oregon Intergovermental Council's work force office in Madras who expresses little interest in working at Deer Ridge.

Parsons, who recently bought a home in Metolius, is determined to find a clerical job or one as a dental assistant. Her husband has a good job, she said, and can support the familiy, which includes two teenage children, for a short time.

As tempting as the wages might be, a prison environment, ”would not be right for me,” she said.

Matching people who have been recently laid off with jobs that are truly suitable is not as simple as counting job openings, said Kathy Elaine Morales, who counsels job seekers at the Oregon Employment Department in Madras.

Different people, she said, ”have different skills,” and they might not find an adequate match within their immediate area.

”Some people may have to travel or relocate,” she said.

Prison work ”is not for everybody,” Heck said.

In recent weeks, the recruiter has conducted several informational seminars for area residents - especially those recently laid off from Bright Wood and Seaswirl - who are seeking DOC jobs.

Many are still reeling emotionally from the loss of their old jobs.

Minson found himself commenting aloud at a DOC seminar in Redmond on Thursday, ”I never thought I'd be out of a job for a month and a half.”

”I cried so much,” said Parsons of losing her job at Bright Wood. ”I was very hurt.”

She can't yet bring herself to drive anywhere near her old workplace.

”I miss it,” she said of the job she left in mid-February. ”I miss my friends.”

Statistics about new jobs versus old, after all, can tell only one side of the story, Strobel said.

”Those plants weren't shut down because workers weren't doing a good job.” The workers, he said, ”got the short end of the stick.”

Parsons said she knows that she will probably find a new job that suits her.

But the sting of being let go is still fresh in her mind.

”I'm up at 5 o'clock every morning ready to go to work,” she said, ”but there's no where to go.”

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