Almost Alone: Hershey ranks will be cut again Friday

Round two of layoffs at Hershey's Oakdale plant will begin Friday as the company prepares to shut down the operation in February.

Some workers who are scheduled to lose their jobs expressed frustration and concern about a lack of job training during a meeting Tuesday put on by their union and work force officials.

Without retraining, most said that they will have to accept lower-paying jobs. Others said they wanted a break from working while they recover from the emotional toll of the layoffs.

"I'm 52. I finished high school in Mexico 32 years ago. I'm tired. I don't want to go back to production work," said Ramona Lopez, who has worked at the plant for 11 years.

The Hershey Co. is shutting the chocolate 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.

Equipment is being dismantled and shipped to a warehouse in Mexico, and the Oakdale plant is switching to a skeleton crew in preparation for its closure, workers and union representatives said. It formerly employed 575.

The first round of layoffs was in July, displacing 168 workers. Friday will be the last day of work for the second wave. The number of employees scheduled to be laid off Friday is listed by the company as 294, but the figure is much lower because some already have resigned, said Don Wilson of Teamsters Local 386, which represents Hershey workers.

Dozens of workers left the plant voluntarily between the two rounds of layoffs because they found other jobs, he said. Most went to companies that actively sought out displaced Hershey workers, including Foster Farms, E.&J. Gallo Winery, Ball Western in Oakdale and California Dairies in Hughson, Wilson said.

Those who are left after this week must stay with the com-pany until the closure, or they face losing their severance packages because their jobs are deemed necessary to keep the plant operating, Wilson said. About 200 will remain.

On Tuesday morning, a group of Hershey workers gathered at the Teamsters hall in downtown Modesto for a session about job services and applying for unemployment insurance. The meeting, which was organized by the Teamsters and the county Alliance Worknet, featured about a dozen presentations from government and nonprofit agencies that provide services to laid off workers.

"I know it's been a roller-coaster ride," said Paula O'Leary, business services representative for Alliance Worknet, which is assisting the workers with job services. "Everyone is here to help you."

Workers said they are worried that there are not enough funds for everyone to receive retraining, especially since the federal government recently denied an application from county work- force officials seeking funding from the Trade Adjustment Act.

The federal act helps 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 qualified worker to help with basic living expenses, job retraining and other services. Officials are appealing.

"I work at Hershey. They are dreaming and hoping for education, but 80 percent aren't going to get it. We were all thinking we were going to get retrained, but that's not true," said Raudel Garcia, 40, who has worked at the plant for 21 years.

Jeff Rowe, director of Alliance Worknet, replied that funds have dried up at the state and federal level, but there are opportunities for free or state-funded education at places such as Computer Tutor or Modesto Junior College.

"Our priority is to get you a job as quickly as possible," Rowe said. "We don't have enough money to send everyone through training. There is some, but we need to determine who really needs it."

That likely won't include workers who can transfer to jobs with comparable wages, he said.

"People are getting trained. There are other sources out there," said career counselor Traci Naylor.

Other workers wanted to know if they could take a break from working while collecting unemployment insurance and their severance packages.

Employment Development Department representative Blanca Villafranco told the group that they must be "able, willing and available" to return to work while collecting unemployment insurance.

After the meeting, Lopez said she found the discussion more helpful than information that has been distributed by the com-pany. She said she hoped to go back to school to become a social worker, although she doesn't know if that will be possible without additional funding.

"I'm a little worried," Lopez said.

Union officials and work force representatives began holding informational meetings for Hershey employees after the closure announcement in April, and will continue to hold them until the plant shuts down early next year.

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

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