Feds deny funds for Hershey workers

OAKDALE -- Even though they are losing their jobs to Mexico, workers at The Hershey Co.'s plant here may not get any help from a federal program that was set up to aid workers laid off because their company shifts production to a foreign country.

Hershey is shuttering the plant, along with several others in the United States and Canada, as part of a restructuring plan to move some candy production to a new facility in Monterrey, Mexico.

Shortly after Hershey made the closure announcement in April, Stanislaus County work force officials applied for money from the federal Trade Adjustment Act.

The act helps trade-affected workers who have lost their jobs as a result of increased imports or shifts in production out of the United States, granting up to $10,000 for each worker to help with basic living expenses, job retraining and other services.

"Hershey is the classic scenario that this was designed to address," said Jeff Rowe, director of the county's Alliance Worknet. Rowe applied for the federal funds on behalf of the plant's 575 workers.

But the application was denied, on the basis that an investigation showed Hershey hasn't started making chocolate in Mexico yet. The company is scheduled to open its plant in Mexico by the end of October.

"If you go by the letter of the law, I guess the workers aren't eligible," Rowe said. "The spirit of the law is to provide assistance for workers who've lost their jobs because of production going to another country."

Rowe submitted an appeal in July to the Department of Labor, which administers the fund. He outlined the workers' eligibility, noting that the machinery from Oakdale will be shipped directly to Mexico.

Again, it was denied.

"They are denying it because of technicalities and regulations," Rowe said. "People are losing their jobs, and they don't have the assistance they need."

Last year, the Trade Adjustment Act received 204 petitions from California. About half of those requests, or 107 petitions, were approved.

Participants in the trade program tend to be older, more experienced workers, with no education beyond high school, according to the Department of Labor. On average, a participant has almost 10 years of tenure with his or her employer. Most participants, 74 percent, have a high school degree or less.

County turns to Radanovich

The Trade Adjustment Act program provides financial assistance for a number of services, including job training, weekly income support, relocation allowances and a Health Coverage Tax Credit.

Frustrated by the repeated denials, the county's work force officials are asking for help from Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, whose district includes Oakdale.

"We are going to do whatever we can on our end to (work) with the Department of Labor," said Radanovich's spokesman, Spencer Pederson. That includes lobbying members of the Department of Labor, he said.

"The congressman is interested in looking to see if either there was a mistake made, or the criteria for eligibility for the funds is unreasonable in any way. From looking at it, it seems that (Hershey workers) should be eligible," Pederson.

Help may come late for most

If the Labor Department doesn't reverse its decision, Rowe said, the Alliance Worknet will reapply for the program in October, when Hershey begins candy production in Mexico. But by that time, most of the Oakdale employees will be out of work.

It is considering seeking judicial review, the step after the initial petition and appeal are denied.

Meanwhile, the Alliance Worknet has enough money from its budget and a state grant to help 65 workers with job retraining assistance, Rowe said, although that leaves more than 500 employees without adequate funding.

The Alliance Worknet is holding meetings with groups of Hershey workers, advising them on how to apply for unemployment insurance and directing them to free, state-funded training programs. It will hold a job fair specifically for dislocated workers Oct. 11.

The Oakdale plant is shutting down in phases. The first round of layoffs came in July, for 99 employees from the Hershey's Kisses and Kisses With Almonds production lines. The second round of layoffs, which will affect 294 employees, will take place Oct. 1, and the plant will close permanently in January.

Bee staff writer Christina Salerno can be reached at csalerno@modbee.com or 238-4574.