PATTERSON -- Mariano Chalaca has shown up at Patterson Vegetable Co. ready to work for the past 20 years. Today is his last day.
On Saturday, Chalaca will join 36,600 unemployed workers in Stanislaus County as the processing plant for frozen vegetables closes its doors for good.
"It's just really sad, because there are so many people working here," Chalaca said in Spanish.
The company, founded in 1946 as Patterson Frozen Foods, is closing the plant after union employees rejected cuts in wages and benefits needed to pay for plant upgrades, the chief executive officer has said.
The plant has stood at Las Palmas Avenue and First Street for 66 years and once was one of the largest employers in Patterson.
Chalaca and his wife rent a home just down the street from the plant. Like others, he walks to work with his hard hat on and lunch pail in hand.
He is 73 and well into retirement age, but he needs to find another job.
"A lot of us here have debt," Chalaca said. "And you know those bills will just keep on coming in. Nothing is going to slow them down."
He plans to apply for unemployment benefits and might consider looking for a job harvesting produce in the area, even though he says it's back-breaking work.
"You have to do what you have to do," Chalaca said.
The plant's closure will put 350 employees out of work, about 225 full-time employees and 125 part-timers. Some jobs are seasonal. The chief executive officer has said the company doesn't plan to reopen with nonunion workers.
Karen Williams, 59, of Empire said she is relieved the labor dispute is over but sad about the hundreds of people who will lose their jobs.
"I'm really proud of these people who stuck to their beliefs," said Williams, who has worked at the plant for 29 years. "I just hope all these people are taken care of and they find new jobs."
She plans to retire, spending more time taking care of her elderly father. She believes the workers at the plant are resilient and will bounce back.
Nevertheless, the reality of never returning to the plant has started to set in.
"Leaving these people behind is what's going to be tough for me," Williams said. "There's going to be some tears shed."
Hopeful about finding work
Jose Torres, 58, of Keyes works in the plant's refrigeration area, using a hand lift to move fresh vegetables into the freezer. It gets as cold as 20 degrees below zero, so he brings with him to work a protective suit to keep him warm.
"It's hard to think about all the years I've been here," Torres said in Spanish. "You feel little sad. I've made a lot of friends here. Now, we're all leaving."
With his unemployment benefits and the salary his wife, Maria Mendoza, earns at an almond processing plant, Torres thinks they can survive until he finds another job.
He also has experience using a forklift and is considering welding and mechanic training, but he speaks little English. Torres, however, remains hopeful he'll find work elsewhere.
The laid-off workers can get help with unemployment benefits, job searches and training under a plan crafted several months ago, according to Alliance Worknet. The Central Valley Opportunity Center will focus on the many Spanish-speaking workers at the plant.
Torres' brother-in-law tells him there is always work available harvesting produce, but he said that's meant for younger people.
"That kind of work is tough," said Torres, who has worked at the frozen-food plant for 23 years. "It's not for older people like me."
For plant employees such as Julian Tafoya, 48, of Ceres, remaining undeterred is the only way to handle the plant's closure. "Of course, we're going to look for another job," Tafoya said in Spanish. "We have to find a way to support our families."
Oralia Vasquez, 49, of Turlock sees the plant's closure as an opportunity to find a job better suited for her. She worked as a truck driver for three years hauling containers to the Port of Oakland before joining Patterson Vegetable Co. She's worked at the plant for a year and a half.
"I don't want to go back to driving," Vasquez said about 15-hour days in her former job. "You really don't realize the damage you're doing to your body."
At the plant, she made sure the spinach was frozen as it passed her on a conveyor belt. She'd pull out any unfrozen or poor-quality spinach.
Worried about others
Vasquez said her union held a job fair and she spotted some possible job opportunities. She has some computer skills, so she would like to find clerical work.
She's more worried about other plant workers, many of whom are much older or speak little English.
"They've been doing this for so long, they might not be able to find other work," Vasquez said.
She said there are some families that have multiple plant workers who all will be out of a job at the same time.
Maria Gallegos, 47, of Patterson has worked at the plant for 23 years. Her husband has worked there for 30 years. They have four children, but three of them are adults and have moved out on their own.
She said they'll start their job hunt soon. "We're both going to have to find another job," Gallegos said. "I don't know, we'll have to figure it out."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2394.
For additional photos, go to this story at www.modbee.com/local.