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Local businesses, individuals navigate pandemic with eye to future
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Communication experts believe the vast majority of human interaction is nonverbal.

Northfielder Carolyn Manderfeld, who is deaf, knows that first-hand. Lip-reading, deciphering facial expressions, gauging the emphasis behind spoken words and comprehending other body language are cues that helped Manderfeld navigate daily conversations.

That all changed last March when Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz implemented a statewide mask mandate he said was needed to control the spread of COVID-19, a virus that has infected more than a half million Minnesota and is blamed for the deaths of nearly 6,800 in the state alone.

One year later, Manderfeld, who wears hearing aids in both ears, is battling severe social anxiety.

She fears going out with friends for fear of communication challenges, and faces additional hurdles all while being anxious about the possibility of contracting COVID-19.

“I avoid talking to people wearing the mask in public,” she noted. “Before the pandemic, I was very social and always happily greeted them. Now, I avoid greeting people or starting a conversation because of the frustration in communicating with them or explaining my disability. While not working, I am in social isolation.”

Despite the challenges, Manderfeld believes the pandemic and its effects will benefit the hearing impaired and society as a whole.

‘I learn to accept it’

Manderfeld, who has been deaf since birth and is a part-time Kwik Trip employee, first mastered lip-reading as a child while learning American Sign Language with a speech therapist. School staff would use sign language and helped her develop the skill she uses during everyday conversations.

Manderfeld attended the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth and worked in the private sector before securing public school positions assisting students who were hard of hearing.

“I always wanted to be a teacher,” she noted.

Decades of mastering nonverbal communication made Manderfeld unaware of how quickly that could change until the mask mandate made reading such cues nearly impossible and placed more pressure on her eyes during daily conversations.

“I didn’t realize that it affected my communication,” she said. “It was extremely exhausting … my eyes tire very easily.”

Despite the return of students to in-person learning, Manderfeld says she won’t accept a job in education again until mask mandates are lifted. The challenges of instructing hard of hearing students while wearing a mask are just too great, she says.

“Face masks wiped out lip-reading, tone of voice, sound and facial expressions which I rely on 100% for communication,” she noted. “The eyes are the only clues that can give me but it doesn’t help much.”

Manderfeld has sometimes worn clear masks to help restore visual clues while assisting students who are deaf or hard of hearing. If mask mandates continue for too much longer, she encourages people to wear clear masks to communicate better with others.

However, she’s noticed that society is improving at recognizing the needs of the hard of hearing. During medical appointments, health care workers make sure they are looking at her while talking. Some have used their phone to communicate with her or temporarily pull down their masks if socially distanced. She appreciates Gov. Walz for what she said is his support of the deaf and American Sign Language communities, and supports his work to control the spread of the virus. Manderfeld also spoke highly of the governor’s ASL interpreter, Nic Zapko, who regularly appears with Walz during press conferences.

“It’s much better now that the media is aware,” she said.

Navigating pandemic, starting a new business

Tanya Henson, owner of downtown Owatonna retailer Hat Chic Clothing Co., was forced to close her store from last March until June 1, 2020, after it was deemed a non-essential business.

“It was very tough,” she said. “Luckily our business was able to shift online. We have a website and we were able to utilize that and the support of the community, and our shoppers kept us going, and we were able to make rent April, May and June … we were thrilled to be able to pay that.”

Henson realized how willing her customers were willing to shop online, and, with her newfound free time, she finalized a plan to start a new business in June 2020, Box Babes, which sends boxes of items to people through a monthly subscription-based system. She has undertaken the effort with Lauren Kozelka of Kottke Jewelers, Lisa Cochran of Owatonna Shoe Co. and Nicole Winter of Urban Loft. The items have sold out every month since.

The business now ships 75 boxes containing unique products from the business to a growing list of subscribers. Eighty percent of Box Babes’ subscribers have signed on either for three months, six months or one year.

“It’s been great,” Henson said.

Hat Chic maintained its presence throughout the rest of the pandemic even during the second shutdown late last year.

“People were really good about supporting small business,” Henson said.

Hat Chic relies on local athletic events such as fun runs, walks and the sale of golf shirts, hats and T-shirts. Those sales are still being impacted because a lot of businesses that typically purchase those products aren’t yet fully operational in-person.

Henson sees the business coming back as more fans are allowed at local sporting events and vaccinations ramp up.

“That will continue to turn things around for our business, so I have high hopes,” she said.

“People are anxious to get out and continue getting out, and the support of small business, I don’t think is going to go away soon, and that’s exciting.”

‘We feel really lucky’

The initial fear Dundas-based Keepsake Cidery owner Nate Watters faced at the beginning of the pandemic was ensuring that all staff were safe and healthy. Keepsake, along with similar establishments in the Twin Cities and Rochester, have all been severely impacted by the closing or bars and restaurants. Keepsake, which adapted to a to-go-only format, did not have the chance to benefit from sales of large quantities of beer or lower-end liquors.

“It was a really interesting time,” he said.

In June, Keepsake seated customers outside and continued that option until late fall, when COVID cases again exploded and a second round of statewide shutdowns was initiated. But by the end of 2020, Keepsake had made up enough ground revenue-wise with off-sale sales to near the prior year’s revenue.

Now, the establishment is open at 20% indoor and 50% outdoor capacity as COVID-19 cases fall, though that’s weather-dependent.

With the help of the Personal Paycheck Protection Program, along with state and county funding, Keepsake kept its three full-time and three part-time employees working to produce cider and continue working with other businesses in fostering a cohesive operation.

“We feel really lucky,” Watters said of his customers, staff and other area businesses. “It’s just incredible, this community.”

Richie Eye Clinic expands during pandemic

At Richie Eye Clinic locations in Faribault and Northfield, preventative work was not available for two months last spring following the onset of the pandemic. Richie Eye Clinic went through a COVID-19 plan at both locations to ensure proper social distancing and personal protective equipment were on-hand once the locations reopened for non-emergency services again last June.

Nine months later, Chief Operating Officer Kate Tonjum said the business is “thriving,” and seeing similar patient volumes to before the pandemic. She noted that no staff has been lost, and two additional doctors have been hired.

Richie Eye Clinic plans to open a LASIK center in May and offer such surgeries in Northfield and Faribault. Every staff member who has direct patient care has reportedly been able to receive a vaccine, and a majority have received both doses. Social distancing is still being practiced in the waiting rooms, and staff is waring masks and scrubs and are expected to continue to do so.

“We are essential to patients’ health and having healthy outcomes with their vision,” Tonjum said.

Medford employees end union affiliation as officials promise change

After more than a year of negotiations with union representatives, city staff in Medford elected to stop exploring unionizing and give the new administration a “chance to make things right.”

City Clerk Beth Jackson said city staff began initial negotiations to unionize in December 2019. After nearly a year of negotiations between union representatives and the city over who would be included in the union, Jackson and two public works employees officially joined the Local 49 Union in November.

“The reason we went that way is no secret,” Jackson said. “We have no benefits and our pay is extremely low compared to many other cities, and honestly, we felt that we weren’t getting anywhere with that administration.”

Since the employees joined the union, former City Administrator Andy Welti resigned from his position, and Danny Thomas was elected as the city’s new mayor, defeating incumbent Lois Nelson in the November election. In February, the city hired Jed Petersen, a former public works employee as the administrative director of operations — a hybrid of the administrator and public works supervisor jobs that both were vacant.

Working with the new administration has been a game changer, according to Jackson, and the employees unanimously voted to end union negotiations.

“I have complete faith that they are going to make this an environment where employees are going to want to stay, and the revolving door that is the city of Medford will end,” Jackson said.

During the City Council meeting Monday, Petersen presented the 2018 city’s pay equity study which showed Jackson’s salary was well below what city clerks in comparable Minnesota towns are making.

“Beth has an associate’s degree in accounting; she is a certified municipal clerk and a Minnesota certified municipal clerk,” Petersen said. “She is so far below what she should be making … (in) a study that is already three years old.”

According to the 2018 study, the minimum pay for a city clerk/treasurer in comparable cities was $29.36/hour, with an average of $36.22/hour. Jackson is currently making $23.68/hour, roughly $49,000 annually.

The council unanimously agreed to give Jackson a raise, approving the minimum compensation represented in the study as her new salary.

“Before this administration, we were only given raises once a year that were only based on reviews, and it was always roughly a 3.5% increase,” Jackson said. “It would have taken me nine years to get to the minimum wage in the study, but that was all you were ever going to get. That is why we really thought the union was the only option we had.”

Councilor Chad Merritt said he would like to see the city figure out a way to provide benefits for its employees to help put an end to a high rate of turnover. According to Thomas, in the last six years 14 employees left the city, including a number of wastewater treatment operators. Former city leaders blamed better pay in nearby cities for the turnover in those positions.

Currently, city staff is offered insurance through Aflac, but employees pay 100% of those costs. Petersen was directed to explore benefit package options and present something to the council by this fall.

Councilor Chad Langeslag agreed with Merritt, stating that when looking at the 2018 study, there is a clear trend in comparable cities that Medford is lacking.

“Cities are either offering good pay and not-so-good benefits, or not great pay but really great benefits,” Langeslag said. “We are offering low pay and no benefits, so that has to change.”

Thomas said he was happy to learn city employees changed their minds about unionizing and that they trust the new administration.

“I think their change of heart came because of trust and the working relationship we have been able to build, especially since bringing Jed on board,” Thomas said. “They are now willing to sit down with the city and work through any issues and — most importantly — they feel comfortable doing that.”

Since his January swearing in, Thomas has advocated for a team approach to running the city between the council, the administration and the staff. He said the only way Medford will reach its goals is to lean on its staff and work together.

“We want to get an environment we can all succeed in and that means taking everyone’s input, experience and knowledge,” Thomas said. “We are slowly starting the process and building what we believe is going to be a good team. On Monday night everybody rallied behind Beth because they see her reaching her full potential as a part of the city. We want that for every employee.”

Steele County board expands on goals in strategic plan


As the Steele County Board of Commissioners crosses the finish line of adopting their five-year strategic plan, emphasis is now on the stewardship the government serves over taxpayer dollars.

During the regular board meeting on Tuesday, County Administrator Scott Golberg presented the commissioners with a couple selections of an updated vision statement to consider.

“I think stewardship is really connected to the foundation of what we do,” Golberg said. “We are stewards of taxpayer dollars, so it certainly fits in the government context.”

Golberg said the suggestions came from multiple work sessions, employee surveys and work focus groups regarding the strategic plan. The vision of Steele County now reads: “First in service. First in stewardship. The County of choice … today and tomorrow.”

Aside from an updated vision statement, the strategic plan expands further in some of the primary goal areas the county has had over the years. While collaboration and partnerships, technology, workplace/workforce and supporting a changing demographic remain the primary goal areas, the new strategic plan goes into further detail on actions that will be taken to achieve these goals.

For collaboration and partnerships, the county identifies coordinating resources with other entities to deliver cost-effective service as the key goal. Actions listed to achieve this goal over the next five years include exploring opportunities to coordinate resources with other local government entities, counties and other agencies, and pursuing, tracking and reporting developed coordinated resource efforts in the areas of cost savings and increased level of service.

Key goal coordinators for this area were identified as Golberg, Public Health Director Amy Caron, Technical Clerk Kristi Blum and other county department heads.

Several key goals have been identified for technology, including researching new technologies to leverage workforce needs and increase efficiency, identify and mitigate threats to infrastructure and systems and improve service delivery to the public. Director of Information Technology Dave Purscell, GIS Coordinator Nick Flatgard and Assistant Director of Human Resources Gina McGuire will be the coordinators for each of these goals. Golberg will also be a coordinator for the service delivery goal.

Actions that the county will take to achieve the technology goals include, but are not limited to, reviewing and prioritizing technology initiatives for all departments, identifying and addressing both security and physical threats (i.e. power outages), enhancing the website and systems to meet ADA compliance and improving communication and awareness with the public about available services.

In supporting a changing demographic, key goals include supporting the county’s changing demographic by creating and implementing an action plan and educating the youth about county government. Actions to help education the youth include developing a strategy to incorporate middle/high school age students in active learning of government activities and positions, implementing youth field trips/tours of county buildings and facilities, coordinating with surrounding colleges to utilize interns, and reviewing options for “Bring Your Child to Work Day.”

Coordinating this key goal are Public Health Nurse Heather Fast, Technical Clerk Katie Barden and Recorder Rick Kvien.

Goals and action plans for the area of workplace/workforce remained largely unchanged moving forward and include, but are not limited to, attracting and retaining employees, utilizing performance reviews to identify growth and development opportunities, and explore innovation and best practices. Coordinators for this area include Human Resources Director Julie Johnson, Community Corrections Officer Tim Schammel, Assistant County Attorney Sasha Henning, Accountant Erin Edel, Golberg and department heads.