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Aurora, Minn. — A few customers are having a late lunch at The Abbey, a restaurant in downtown Aurora. Downtown is three blocks long. About 2,000 people live in Aurora, and another 2,000 live just up the road in Hoyt Lakes. The towns are 20 miles from Eveleth, and just like Eveleth, they're mining towns. LTV was the big employer around here for almost 50 years.
"You want the hand-cut fries?" Terry Olmsted asks a customer.
She's the afternoon cook at The Abbey. She grew up in these parts, and her dad worked at the LTV mine. So did her husband, Larry -- for 27 years. Larry Olmstead was 47 when the mine shut down in 2001 -- too young to retire. The company went bankrupt and slashed his pension. Terry Olmstead says they lived on just her job until Larry found work.
"It hasn't been the greatest pay lots of times, but he's been working," Terry Olmstead says of her husband.
But the work hasn't been steady.
"The first eight months he found nothing," she says. "Then he had a great job doing mechanic work for like three and-a-half months, and he got laid off again. And then he went a couple months and he worked at a golf course. And then he got another job over in Virginia, which was better pay of course, so he went there. And then, the day he got laid off there, he got a new job, which is where he's working now."
Larry Olmstead is working in another mine. He has to drive and hour-and-a-half each way to work, but he's happy to have the job, the paycheck, and the insurance.
Back when the LTV mine shut down, Larry Olmstead and 1,000 other workers signed up with the local jobs training office. Since then, one-fourth of them have gotten new jobs in other mines.
Another one-third of the laid-off miners are still out of work. And another third found work outside the mines.
Tony Michels is waiting for his fried chicken to cool off a little before he digs in. Michels stopped at the restaurant on his way home from the golf course at Giants Ridge resort, just down the road. It's early May, but he already has a tan.
Michels took an early retirement package from LTV when the mine closed. He was 51. Then LTV went bankrupt, and he lost his medical coverage and one-third of his pension. Now he works at the golf course doing maintenance.
"Doesn't pay much," he says with a shrug, "but I worked inside for all those years, and I enjoy working outside. And that's great. I hope I can work there every summer."
Michel's wife works at a motel in Virginia, and her health insurance covers both of them. Michels says, when he looks around, he figures he has nothing to complain about.
Several hundred LTV workers ended up like Tony Michels. They got jobs in something other than mining.
Some of them went to school and then got carpentry or masonry jobs. Others got assembly jobs in factories in neighboring towns. Some are doing clerical work -- processing medical and dental claims. One former LTV worker opened his own welding shop. Another one went into business designing Web pages.
Where the hell you going to move to? And who in their right mind is going to hire some gray-haired, pot-bellied old guy?
A few businesses have opened branches in Aurora and Hoyt Lakes. The problem is, new jobs in these towns are measured in the dozens, but people out of work are still measured in the hundreds. There are still 350 former LTV workers looking for jobs.
You can find some of them a couple of blocks from the restaurant, at a single story brick office building. It used to be the headquarters of the United Steelworkers Union local. Now the union is gone, and a sign out front says, "Northeast Minnesota Job Training Office."
Bill Skradski coordinates the office. He helps laid-off mine workers sign up for school, or apply for jobs. Skradski says many of the LTV workers had no idea how to look for a job in the modern economy. They got their jobs at the mine 20 or 30 years ago.
"It was basically 'Fill out an application,'" Skradski says. "Now it's a little bit different. There's a hiring process that a lot of employers will follow. They want resumes. Some of them want on-line applications."
Skradski's office helps LTV workers get email addresses, write up resumes and get ready for interviews.
Mining jobs paid in the neighborhood of $30 an hour. Skradski says people taking jobs outside of mining aren't making that kind of money, but they're not starving.
"The majority of the individuals outside of the mining company jobs are at least in the $10 to $13 (an hour) range," he says.
While Skradski is talking, Darwin Bailey walks into the office. Bailey, 56, worked at the LTV mine for 36 years. And he's among the one-third of the laid-off LTV workers who still don't have jobs.
"Are you a diesel mechanic?" Bill Skradski asks him.
"I'm not a mechanic," Bailey says. He's a welder.
Bailey says he had a temporary job last summer at another mine. Other than that, he's been out of work since LTV closed two and-a-half years ago. His wife is sick -- she has heart problems. Bailey says their medical insurance just doubled to almost $800 a month.
Bailey's hair is messed up, and his eyes are wild. He paces over to a bulletin board at the job training office.
"Read this," he says, pointing to the board.
About half-a-dozen jobs are listed. Some light assembly. A delivery truck driver.
"Eight dollars an hour," Bailey says with disgust. "No insurance, no nothing. Part-time. Temporary."
Bailey says people ask him if he and his wife will move away.
"Where the hell you going to move to?" he says with a snort. "How do you pull that off when you're asshole deep with these medical bills? How do you pull that off? And you tell me, who in their right mind is going to hire some gray-haired, pot-bellied old guy? That doesn't even make sense."
Bailey says he doesn't know what to do.
"You're f----d," he says. "Simple as that. You're doomed."
Some people have moved away from Aurora and Hoyt Lakes, but not many. School enrollment has dropped by only 25 students since the layoffs at the mine. There aren't a lot of houses up for sale.
The Job Training Office is getting ready to leave town. It got money to operate here for 30 months. It will close its doors at the end of June. Two of the job counselors will go to the new office down the road in Eveleth.
More than 300 workers at the EVTAC mine have already filled out applications with the Job Training Office. Those workers expect to hear sometime this week that EVTAC is closing down indefinitely.