Labor grant a ray of light for Hershey workers

In a sudden reversal, the U.S. Department of Labor announced Friday that workers who are being laid off from the Hershey Co. plant in Oakdale are eligible to receive thousands of dollars in aid from the federal Trade Adjustment Act.

The act was set up to help workers who lose their jobs because their company moves production out of the United States. It provides up to $10,000 for each qualified worker to help with job retraining, living expenses and other services.

Hershey is closing the Oakdale plant, along with five others in the United States and Canada, and cutting more than 3,000 workers in the two countries. It is shifting much of its chocolate production to a new plant in Mexico, scheduled to open later this year.

The announcement follows two previous rejections from the Department of Labor, and came as welcome news to those who had followed the application closely.

"The greatest thing is that it opens up additional funding for training. Many of these people have worked at Hershey in production for 25, 30 or 40 years and have no other skills. They can now try to qualify for updated skills, such as computers or the medical field," said Don Wilson of Teamsters Local 386, which represents Hershey employees.

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

They were denied twice on the basis that Hershey hadn't begun manufacturing chocolate in Mexico.

Jeff Rowe, director of the county Workforce Alliance Worknet, appealed the decisions by showing that Hershey was shipping equipment from Oakdale to Mexico. Rowe applied for the funding on behalf of the plant's 575 workers.

Hershey cooperated with the Department of Labor, notifying the agency in September that it was moving the machinery. The company posted a memo for employees inside the plant last week, assuring workers that it was providing all the required information.

The act covers all Hershey workers who lost their jobs at the plant after Sept. 26, 2006. The coverage lasts two years, through October 2009. Employees will receive a letter from the state Employment Development Department notifying them of their eligibility.

In addition to receiving money for job retraining and expenses such as relocation costs, some employees may qualify for wage compensation if they accepted a job that pays significantly less. A number of other services are covered, such as weekly income support and a health coverage tax credit.

Qualification for services varies from employee to employee.

"They may impose some rules on qualification, but overall it will be a real plus," said John Souza, leader of Local 386. "They need all the help they can get."

Hershey is closing the Oakdale plant in phases. The first round of layoffs in July displaced 168 workers. The second wave of layoffs was effective Oct. 1, and about 200 workers will remain until the plant closes in February.

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

Related stories from Modesto Bee