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Immigrant Learns New Skills After Plant Closes

Recession In The South Bay: A Special Report

May 19, 1991|GEORGE HATCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Until two months ago, Torrance resident Diana Patla's work world revolved around the manufacture of such devices as gas valves, burner pilots and thermocouples.

For the entire 27 years since emigrating from Poland, she had been employed in the same place--a Honeywell heating and air-conditioning equipment factory in Gardena.

But all that changed in March. Patla, 52, lost her $10-an-hour parts inspector's position when Honeywell closed the plant in an effort to cut labor costs.

These days, Patla is learning medical terminology and basic office skills at El Camino College, supported by her husband's $400-a-week machinist's pay, $210 a week in unemployment benefits and government retraining assistance. Grappling with such anatomical terms as tarsal, fontanel and manubrium, she hopes eventually to find work as a medical assistant.

"I know in my heart that, if someone else can do it, I can master it," she said at the El Camino campus recently, taking time out from a round of computerized tests. "At least I'll give it a try. What have I got to lose?"

Like many South Bay residents feeling the effects of the recession, Patla was left stranded by the flight of manufacturing jobs from the Los Angeles area. Experts say her response--to try to learn a new vocation--provides an example that other unemployed factory workers in the region would do well to follow.

"People are not always ready to face the fact that they need to retrain and go into another sector," said Nick Kremer, faculty coordinator for El Camino College's economic and community development division. "It's trite to say, but I think we're looking at a fundamental restructuring of the economy. Some of us haven't caught on to that yet."

Patla landed a job at Honeywell's Gardena plant in March, 1964, just three months after emigrating to the South Bay from western Poland with her husband, Jan, and their two sons, Richard and Roman, who are now in their 30s. Patla's mother, who had immigrated to the United States earlier, sponsored the family, which was eager to escape Communist rule.

Initially, Patla was paid $1.57 an hour to work on the assembly line, which produced controls for home heating and air-conditioning systems. When she was laid off in March, she had been working for four years as an inspector at the plant, bringing home $280 a week after medical insurance payments, taxes and other deductions. Along with her husband's employment, her job helped generate a joint income of about $700 a week, or more than $35,000 annually.

It also made for interesting work, she says. As an inspector, she monitored the quality of parts as they emerged from the plant's machine shop, its metal plating unit and outside plating shops used by Honeywell.

"I always had a lot to do," Patla said. "I was walking around constantly. . . . I loved that job."

Her layoff did not come without warning. Honeywell had begun shifting labor-intensive assembly work from Gardena to a factory in Tijuana, Mexico, in May, 1988. In February of this year, it announced that the Gardena plant would be closed outright and its general offices and parts fabrication facilities moved to San Diego, so they could be near the Tijuana operation.

Honeywell spokeswoman Anne Drake says the Gardena unit ran up losses "in the millions of dollars" for seven consecutive years before the decision was made in 1988 to send assembly work south of the border.

"They tried and tried to cut costs there in Gardena, but they couldn't cut enough," Drake said. "It was a real money-loser." That, Drake says, prompted Honeywell to make a decision: "It was a matter of either trying to get this operation profitable or simply getting out of that type of business."

Despite the company's signals, Patla says news of the plant closing came as a shock. Only three years short of qualifying for early retirement, she had hoped the facility would remain open--and her job safe--at least until 1994. Instead, she will receive a reduced level of benefits.

And for the Patlas, this year was not a good time to become a single-income couple. In 1987, they bought a townhouse in Torrance's Windemere development for $180,000, moving out of a rent-free apartment owned by Patla's mother. The monthly mortgage payments on the Windemere home, not including insurance and other costs, are running $1,200 a month.

"When I lost my job, it worried me a lot," Patla said. "My husband was saying to me, 'Well? I wonder where we'll get another job now?' And I have to pray he can keep working. Otherwise, we'll be in trouble."

The solution, she has decided, is the medical field. Soon after losing her job, she signed up for unemployment benefits and sought training assistance from the Carson-Lomita-Torrance Private Industry Council, a federally funded job service.

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