On a typical day, Krista Harris leaves Walmart during her lunch break and walks to her home nearby to eat with her two young boys. On Friday, she made an extra stop.
Harris was one of about 45 Walmart employees who attended a “mini job fair” hosted by the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development specifically for the 168 Walmart employees losing their jobs when the store closes Feb. 4.
Under the fluorescent lights of the Gruening Park recreation room — only a few streets down from Walmart — store employees exchanged words, and in some cases résumés, with representatives from a handful of local employers, including Home Depot and Fred Meyer.
“If one person got employed today, then we’ve done our job,” said Lisa Mielke, statewide coordinator of the DOL’s Rapid Response Team. Mielke and her team, which helps workers after large layoffs, helped organize Friday’s event in conjunction with the Juneau Job Center. “I’ve heard that there were several job offers today, so it was successful.”
More than half of the job fair’s participants will likely be offered jobs, according attended the event. Harris may be among them. She hasn’t yet secured an offer, but she said things are looking up after she was able to set up an interview with Juneau Youth Services, one of the employers present.
Harris has only worked for Walmart for the past six months — one of about 50 employees hired in a recent employment bump — but she said the sudden news of Walmart’s imminent closure hit her hard nonetheless.
“I felt like somebody was pulling a prank on me. I didn’t believe it,” she said. “I was really hoping it was just a prank. The first day was pretty hard for everybody. There were a lot of tears.”
Harris was not the only Walmart employee shocked and dismayed by news of the store’s closure. Donald Stokes, a second-shift supervisor at Walmart has worked for the company for almost eight years, six of them in Juneau. He transferred to the Juneau store from San Diego in 2010.
“It was devastating,” Stokes said of learning about the closure. “Just a couple months ago, they were talking about big plans for the store. They were talking about putting a gas station in the parking lot and a Heritage (Coffee) in, so it was definitely a shock.”
Stokes’ wife, Shawn, also works for Walmart so the news was a “double whammy,” he said. Both attended the job fair. Stokes said he is interested in looking into the Juneau Construction Academy, which was present at the fair. But he is unsure if he is willing to let go of his career at Walmart, which he said has “always treated him really well.”
After the store closes, Stokes and his wife plan to visit her dad who lives in Arizona. “It’ll be kind of a working vacation,” he said, because while he’s there he plans to check out the nearest Walmart. He might transfer down there if he is able.
“I don’t want to give up my pay, and I’ve got three weeks of vacation,” he said. “That’s not something I just want to give up.”
Southeast Region Employment Service Manager Michael Hutcherson oversees DOL job centers in Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka. The job centers provide resources for people who are between jobs or out of work entirely. Friday’s job fair was one of these resources.
Hutcherson has been with the DOL for 27 years. During that time, he’s helped organize several job fairs, but never following a store closure as “devastating” as this, he said.
“Unfortunately, through the years we’ve had to do a few of these,” Hutcherson said. “It’s never pleasant because they’re your friends. They’re your neighbors. It’s not just a line item on a budget. There’s a person attached to that.”