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VALLEY AND VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS

8 Laid-Off Price Pfister Workers Using NAFTA Recipe to Retool Skills

Jobs: The former factory employees are in a college cuisine class as part of a federal program for those who lost positions due to the trade pact.

May 20, 1997|JULIA SCHEERES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After nine years spent on an assembly line piecing together faucets for Price Pfister, Celia Magallon, 50, was laid off when her job was transferred to Mexico.

Now she spends her evenings learning how to assemble balanced menus, chicken cordon bleu and julienned zucchini, hoping that her new skills will lead to a stable job.

She and seven other former line workers from the Pacoima-based company are enrolled in a Cuisine Arts class at Mission College, part of a federal program for U.S. workers who lost their jobs as a direct result of the North American Free Trade Agreement due to either increased imports from Mexico and Canada or to a shift in production to those countries.

Since the trade pact's implementation in 1994, more than 124,600 U.S. workers have been certified to receive retraining, income support and relocation allowances under the program, which is administered by the Labor Department and individual state employment agencies.

In California, more than 11,000 people have qualified for the benefits, most when their employers decided to cut labor costs by manufacturing in Mexico, where the minimum wage is only $3.35 a day.

But at Price Pfister, only a handful of the more than 500 laid-off workers have been reemployed. Most face two formidable setbacks: They don't speak English and have only a few years of elementary school education.

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"It's very difficult to place the monolingual population, and this is a unique challenge for us," said Gabriel Garcia, an employment specialist with the Northwest San Fernando Valley Comprehensive Jobs Assistance Center.

Out of a double-wide gray trailer, in a parking lot behind the factory, Garcia oversees an orientation program for workers who qualify for the NAFTA benefits.

For most of the program applicants, filling out paperwork to apply for the federal benefits, let alone understanding the byzantine guidelines, is a struggle.

Some have spent decades working at the factory and, now in their 40s and 50s, worry about their prospects for getting another job.

Take Joaquin Garcia, who sits outside the plant in the shade of a makeshift tent that serves as headquarters to a small group of ex-workers who are picketing the company for a better severance package.

After 22 years of working in the company's foundry, he thought his job was secure. Now he finds himself jockeying for reentry to the job market at his age--51--and with physical impediments that have accumulated over the years, including cataracts and pain in his left arm that sometimes immobilizes his hand.

"What job can I get now at my age with this problem? Maybe I should go try to pick grapes," he said, laughing harshly.

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Meanwhile, inside the trailer, five former Price Pfister workers sat nervously around a conference table as Carmen Marraccino-Roa talked to them in Spanish about the job market.

"We have to think of ourselves as products . . . as a one-minute television commercial. The goal of an interview is to sell yourself--your skills, your experience, your personality," said Marraccino-Roa, who proceeded to instruct them in resume writing.

After completing the orientation, workers choose between training courses offered by Mission College, Pacoima Skills Center or North Valley Occupational Center in subjects ranging from computers to cosmetology.

But to Manny Barbosa, the head of Teamsters Local 986 in Pacoima, the government's effort is simply not good enough.

"Bottom line--they're retraining very few and they're placing very few," said Barbosa. "What about the maintenance workers? The line workers?"

In truth, no one knows how effective the effort has been--the government keeps no record of the number of retrained workers hired after the program and does not track what they study.

A follow-up system was not built into the NAFTA provision because its authors anticipated that U.S. labor law would undergo a comprehensive reform in July 1994, said Labor Department spokesman Tom Edwards.

Since 1994, more than $172 million has been appropriated for the program. The money is funneled to the states, which must decide how much is spent on individual beneficiaries. California has set a cap of $10,000 per person.

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Nevertheless, the few studies that have been published on the earnings losses of displaced workers show that they are generally forced to seek employment in the service trades, which pay much lower wages than manufacturing jobs.

Magallon, for example, who was making $9.85 an hour (with benefits) assembling faucets, hopes to become a cafeteria worker with the Los Angeles Unified School District, a position that pays $7.21 an hour (without benefits)--a 27% pay slash.

But even this may be out of her reach, according to Rudy Garcia, the executive chef who teaches the Mission College cooking class.

"Most of them will end up in fast-food chains," he said--jobs that don't exactly require skills in haute cuisine and barely pay $5 an hour.

Magallon's case is symptomatic of displaced workers who invest a lot of time at one company, said Bob LaLond, an economics professor at Michigan State University.

"The longer they stay at a job, the harder it is [for them] to reenter the job market," LaLond said. "And once they do find work, they're never going to get back to where they were."

This worries Daniel Aragones, 35, who spent more than nine years at Price Pfister and left making $10 an hour.

He may still need government help to make ends meet for himself, his wife and three school-age children if he can't find a job at similar wages.

One of the few men in the cooking class, he hopes to one day manage a restaurant. "At least they give us the opportunity to study and learn new things," he said.

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