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Employees get teary eyed as the last Reese's roll off Hershey line

Cheryl Vieira drives away from the Hershey plant Friday.  'Thre isn't a dry eye in the building,' she said
Cheryl Vieira drives away from the Hershey plant Friday. 'Thre isn't a dry eye in the building,' she said Modesto Bee

OAKDALE — Much like watching sand in an hourglass, employees knew the end of the line at the Hershey Co.'s plant in Oakdale had arrived Thursday afternoon when an industrial-sized tank of peanuts was slowly drained to make the filling for the final pieces of candy.

Reese's Peanut Butter Cups were the last line to leave the iconic chocolate factory, which opened in 1965 and closed Friday.

"Here we were, drawing the end of the tank," said Tony Fredericksen, an employee for 20 years. "It was like the workers didn't know what to do next. I've never seen it like that. Never."

Friday was the last day of work for 225 employees, who were given their severance packages during a series of morning meetings. Workers filed out of the building slowly, in pairs and small groups, starting about 11 a.m. About 80 employees will remain two more weeks, cleaning and removing equipment.

"It's the end of a chapter in a book in their lives," said Don Wilson of Teamsters Local 386 in Modesto, which represents Hershey employees. "Many of them are 20-, 30- or 40-year employees. Hershey has done good by them."

Fredericksen, 57, will be staying to "shut out the lights" in mid-February, then he's considering going back to school to obtain his four-year degree in business.

The electrical technician isn't worried about finding another job, but he is deeply concerned for some longtime co-workers, whom he describes as "hardworking, salt-of-the-earth people."

"I'm concerned about what's happening to my country and the jobs leaving the United States," he said. "There's a public apathy to these kinds of things happening, until it happens to you."

Support from supervisors

Hershey closed the Oakdale plant, along with five others in the United States and Canada, as part of a restructuring plan to shift some chocolate production to a new plant in Monterrey, Mexico. The candymaker cut about 3,300 jobs from its North American work force.

Plant officials in Oakdale are not permitted to speak to the media and calls to Hershey headquarters in Pennsylvania were not returned.

Several workers said their supervisors at the plant have been supportive in the final weeks, crying alongside employees and granting plenty of time for people to say their goodbyes.

The Oakdale factory had 575 employees when the closure was announced in April. In the months that followed, the Hershey's Kisses, Kisses with almonds, Hershey's Miniatures and chocolate syrup production lines were phased out. The first round of layoffs was in July, and another group of employees was let go in September.

"We've had nine months to think about today," said Debbie Shaw, 53.

She started working as a tour guide at the Hershey plant shortly after she graduated from Oakdale High School 34 years ago. She met and fell in love with a mechanic at the plant who became her husband. A few years later, she joined him on the production floor.

Even though she had hoped to work a few more years, she and her husband, Fred, plan to retire with their severance packages.

Friday was a "day to say goodbyes to my second family," Shaw said. "Everyone was hugging and crying and wishing each other the best."

Employees received a severance package that includes two weeks' pay for each year of service, with a minimum of eight weeks and a maximum of 65. Medical benefits will remain in place during the payoff period, and workers 55 or older will be able to retire with benefits at the end of their severance package.

A handful of employees from Oakdale will travel to Mexico soon, where they will stay for about three months to help train workers at the company's new plant, said the Teamsters' Wilson.

Some employees have found jobs at companies that sought former Hershey workers, such as Foster Farms, Ball Western in Oakdale, California Dairies in Hughson and E.&J. Gallo Winery in Modesto, Wilson said.

Others are seeking retraining opportunities available through organizations such as the county's Alliance Worknet and the Central Valley Opportunity Center in Modesto, both of which have money set aside for Hershey workers.

Similar pay could be elusive

A considerable number of workers, though, are facing uncertainty. Finding a job that pays as well as Hershey, where most workers earned $18 an hour or more, is a daunting task for those who had planned to stay with the company until retirement.

"It is really, really sad to see them lose their livelihood," Fredericksen said. "They bought homes, some with subprime loans, and their costs went up so now they're really freaking out."

Cheryl Vieira, 51, has worked at the plant 19 years. The Oakdale resident said she's facing a "rough road ahead" because she's a few years shy of retirement but young enough to continue working.

"It's really emotional in there," she said as she drove away from the plant Friday. "There's not a dry eye inside."

There remains a small contingent of workers who are holding on to the hope that they soon may be able to return to work at the plant where they've spent most their lives.

A new owner is said to be in final negotiations to purchase the plant, which is for sale for $18.5 million, according to several sources. No one knows who the buyer is, but some employees reportedly have received phone calls asking whether they would be interested in working at the plant should a new owner take over.

As for the name of the company, that remains the "best kept secret in Oakdale," said Frank Clark, director of the Oakdale Irrigation District.

To comment, click on the link with this story at www.modbee.com. Bee staff writer Christina Salerno can be reached at csalerno@modbee.com or 238-4574.

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