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Fingerhut limbo: Workers consider how, and whether, to move on
By Jeff Horwich
Minnesota Public Radio
June 11, 2002

Fingerhut's remaining workforce got a little smaller when fifty more layoff notices went out to Minnesota workers last week. About 700 employees remain at Fingerhut's biggest location in St. Cloud. Fingerhut's future is still uncertain, six months after its parent company announced it would liquidate or sell the catalog retailer. With an offer on the table workers hover between a future with Fingerhut, and a future without it.

Dan Fiecke and his horses
Dan Fiecke and wife Holly have two new foals this summer at their house near Morrill
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

Dan Fiecke has worked 20 years at Fingerhut. His wife Holly has worked there for 17 years. Dan used to spend all day in a fork-lift seat; now he often drives 45 minutes from their home in rural Morrison County just to find there's no work to be done.

Dan describes Fingerhut limbo in terms of the family's hobby-farm, raising quarter horses.

"We got two babies this year. We wanted to expand on that, wanted to buy some more horses, but money's tight, everything's on hold, we're waiting," Dan says. "We don't know what we're going to do. Sell everything and move or what? I don't know. It really stinks. Life is pretty much just on-hold."

Dan predicts that even if an offer from Twin Cities businessmen Ted Deikel and Tom Petters falls through, he'll pick up a paycheck through the fall. He says he'll worry then about what he'll do next.

Holly is worrying now. She's already lost her job as an order-picker in the warehouse. She's just started the trips into the St. Cloud Workforce Center for info sessions, aptitude tests and computer training. But she admits she has "no clue" where she's going from here.

"I think the number one thing is to find something that keeps the money coming in and the benefits," she says. "You could do part-time and (go back to) school, but I don't know. How can I do that with kids and a family?"

Worker at a computer
Former Fingerhut project manager Karen Hoffman works with the computer-based job-search programs at a St. Cloud State University career expo this spring.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

Education, updating job skills and job-hunting itself can be a full-time endeavor. In a perfect world, every worker would like to invest the time and land a job at the end with health insurance and other benefits. But many turn to low-wage, stop-gap jobs because they need cash-flow in the short-term. It's an unwelcome detour, and maybe a dead-end, on their ultimate mission: finding a position with benefits that match their standard-of-living at Fingerhut.

It's a problem faced by many laid-off workers, no matter what the industry. But local UNITE union president Jane Palmbach also says in this case, the question of benefits can make it psychologically hard to leave Fingerhut behind as long as there is still hope of a deal.

"A Fingerhut job was worth fighting for," she says. "These are jobs that aren't that common any more. When people trumpet the new economy, we're basically talking about the Wal-Mart economy now. So people can't really walk away from a job that offers them a standard-of-living where they can afford a home and have healthcare for their children."

The St. Cloud distribution center employed 2,700 people. A recent count finds fewer than 500 enrolled for the benefits of the state Dislocated Worker program. A few hundred more have attended initial orientation sessions.

Sign for enrollment session
Even though numbers have been lower than might be expected, Fingerhut workers have still been filling the information sessions at the Minnesota Workforce Center in St. Cloud.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

A small number of workers are still on the job; some former Fingerhut workers have undoubtedly found satisfactory new jobs; others may have found all the career resources they need in the internal job center set up by Federated Department Stores, Fingerhut's parent company. But like forklift-driver Dan Fiecke, many more may be saving their energy for a final resolution of the company's future.

All indications are that a Deikel-Petters Fingerhut would be smaller and might do different things than the old Fingerhut. But workers are keeping the faith. Part of it seems to be personal faith in former Fingerhut CEO Ted Deikel, who workers refer to simply as "Ted." Another factor is the long tenure of many Fingerhut workers. Employees of ten or twenty years are commonplace, making the concept of a fresh start especially daunting.

Minnesota Workforce Center officials say it's not their role to speculate on workers' motivation, or to convince workers it's time to move on. Benno Kuhl is a senior career planner at the Center who is working with Fingerhut employees.

"Everybody has a unique situation, based on their background, their experience, their personal situation and personal choices," Kuhl says. "And our job is to provide and make services available, and make sure they know the services are available, and help them when they're ready and when they want to."

Kuhl says more than half of Workforce Center traffic is related to Fingerhut, and that number seems likely to increase as workers are forced into some tough choices. Some workers with shorter tenures at Fingerhut will see their severance packages run out soon. And many laid-off workers will see their two extra months of health coverage come to an end.

More from MPR
  • New deal could save Fingerhut jobs May 22, 2002
  • Lights out at Fingerhut April 4, 2002
  • Public Money for Fingerhut? February 26, 2002
  • Life after Fingerhut: Workers check out their options February 5, 2002
  • What happened at Fingerhut? February 1, 2002