Willamette Workforce Partnership has been a pipeline between employers and job-seekers. With the economic crisis, it has even more to do

Parker-Llerenas is the executive director of the Willamette Workforce Partnership, an economic development nonprofit that matches businesses with people looking for work. (Jake Thomas/Salem Reporter)

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As record numbers of Oregonians lose their jobs during the coronavirus outbreak, Kim Parker-Llerenas finds herself getting busier.

Parker-Llerenas is the executive director of the Willamette Workforce Partnership, an economic development nonprofit that matches businesses with people looking for work.

As Salem restaurants, retailers and other employers have shed jobs as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, Parker-Llerena has been working long hours to find ways to keep businesses from closing while directing workers to new opportunities.

The tasks keep coming.

Gov. Kate Brown’s office wants detailed data on local layoffs. There’s an unexpected source of funding suddenly available to help busineses. Then there’s the six employmentcenters that laid-off workers are turning to but are partially closed in response to the outbreak.  

“I have worked harder in the last two and a half weeks than I have worked in the last two and a half years,” said Parker-Llerenas in her office off of Northeast High Street in a building shared with Chemeketa Community College. “It’s just because when the economy goes down, our work goes up.”

Describing herself as “very much an interactive person,” Parker-Llerenas is now spending more time on the phone with employers and government officals while getting the hang of holding virutal meetings with her staff.

Parker-Llerenas has spent over a decade working in workforce development, starting in Clackamas County during the Great Recession. She said she’s stuck with the work because she’s seen the importance of people having meaningful work, both economically and psychologically.

She said the current crisis will generate a new respect for gas station attendants and grocery store workers. 

“I think that work is an essential part of our community and it very important to people,” she said. “I think all work can be meaningful.”

For decades the federal government has funded workforce programs and Willamette Workforce Partnership has been trying to put workers and the businesses in tandem.

The recent economic downturn is an abrupt about-face for Willamette Workforce Partnership. Parker-Llerenas said that with the economy humming in recent years, so many employers were hungry for workers that her group had to put on waitlists for slots at job fairs. She recalled how companies were even interested in hiring people coming out of jail or prison or who had other barriers.

Marion County Commissioner Colm Willis, who sits on a council that oversees the partnership, said that it’s facing an unprecedented situation. But he said that the workforce partnership has strong relations with existing businesses that have grown out of training programs.

“They have her phone number and have been calling her a lot,” he said.

Patricia Callahan-Bowman, chair of the group’s board and owner of Express Employment Professionals, said she expects a shift in the partnership’s work as the economic situation shakes out.

“I don’t think anyone knows for sure what a shift it’s going to be,” she said.

Willamette Workforce Partnership is one of nine such organizations in Oregon that help local businesses with their labor needs. With a budget of $4.5 million, the group operates six WorkSource centers in the four counties in the mid-Willamette Valley where job-seekers can get connected with employers or job training.

Parker-Llerenas said she provides access to other services she has under contract to get people who walk in the training they need for available jobs. She said that might mean helping someone get a GED or a certification to become a nursing assistant or welder.

She recalled how her group has helped one company train its employees to become middle managers. Her group will, in some cases, pay half the wages of employees who might have a barrier.

The partnership has identified transportation, warehousing, distribution, health care, manufacturing and construction as priority industries. Parker-Llerenas said that her group helped set up an in-demand much-needed trucking school at Chemeketa Community College.

While she said many of its core strategy and functions will remain the same, Parker-Llerenas said her operation is retooling.

She recalled that around Christmas she first heard about the coronavirus emerging in China on the radio. As the virus advanced, she sent out an email to her staff of seven with the message, “Be smart; be safe. If you need to work from home let me know.”

But after Chemeketa Community College shut down in response to the outbreak, her staff began working remotely. That’s meant lots of video calls for Parker-Llerenas.

“At the end of the day yesterday, my head ached so bad because I had had my earbuds in and was looking at a screen all day long,” she said.

It’s created other complications.

She said that her group now can’t easily plug someone into a training program at Chemeketa. WorkSource centers are partially staffed by the Oregon Employment Department, whose employees can reached by appointment or telephone. WorkSource centers can’t process unemployment claims and the state’s online unemployment system has been overwhelmed.

“So what do you do?” said Parker-Llerenas. “You go down to the local office and see if you can get some help, which they can’t really do anything.”

But she said that the WorkSource centers can help with resumes, interview skills or connecting people with places that are hiring. She said that grocery stores and companies involved in the distribution of goods, such as Amazon, have jobs.

Callahan-Bowman said that partnership will need to identify the needs of people who are newly unemployed, particularly hourly workers.

But Parker-Llerenas said she’s not sure what the economy will look like after the expected recession. She suggested that laid-off restaurant workers might start looking to become welders, for instance. Whatever its direction, Willamette Workforce Partnership has less money to help, recording a 40% drop in funds since 2009, according to one of its reports.

She said that partnership is considering shifting its budget and operations to focus on helping keep businesses afloat. She said that when businesses call, she often directs them to the federal Small Business Administration for financial help.

Parker-Llerenas said that the partnership has $173,000 in special funds, available as grants to local businesses. She said that funding,  limited to $20,000 per company, could mean paying employees or covering rent. She said the money is still being awarded but there is flexibility on how it can be spent. She said she heard one company wanted to use it for rental cars for deliveries.

She said that despite the economic upheaval the partnership still aims to help workers keep their jobs, providing a bus pass to get to work or helping with childcare expenses.

“They are even more important today than they were a month ago,” she said.