Life after layoffs

Unions help laid-off workers get back on their feet
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/05/2009

In November 2007, Kraft Canada announced it was closing its plant in Cobourg, Ont. It told employees to prepare for the plant closure, which would happen the following October. Fortunately, the collective agreement with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1230 had a closure agreement, said John Wood, the local president.

This agreement provided the blueprint for Kraft and the local to set up an adjustment committee, consisting of two union and two company representatives, including Wood and an associate HR manager.

By the end of January 2008, the committee had set up a help centre in one of the company’s boardrooms at the Cobourg site. The committee arranged numerous information sessions, with representatives from Service Canada and other agencies, for the 380 employees, both union and non-union, to help them prepare for the layoffs and what to do after. The centre also provided free Internet access for job searches and assistance with resumé writing and interview preparation.

While everyone involved would have preferred the plant had remained open, having nearly one year’s notice made a big difference to the workers, said Wood, who was a forklift operator at the plant.

“We had a lot of time before people were going to be out of work and that was probably the best thing,” he said. “It gives people time to think and make decisions.”

Many of the people who took advantage of the centre’s services before the plant shut down are now working or back in school retraining, said Wood.

Once the plant closed down in October, the Kraft/UFCW Local 1230 help centre moved to the union hall and both Wood and Gary Dunn, the former associate HR manager, work in the centre full time to help former employees. They provide the same job search supports as before the closure, with some extra attention.

“Now that the plant’s closed and people are adjusting, we can provide more one-on-one (time),” said Wood.

Former workers, used to making more than $20 an hour in the plant, need to adjust their expectations of the job market, he said.

“The manufacturing jobs just aren’t out there right now,” he said, adding this presents an opportunity for people looking to retrain for new careers.

Darlene Malcolm is the co-ordinator of a similar centre — the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) Local 195 Community Labour Adjustment Services centre — in Windsor, Ont.

The centre, along with four others in the area, is a joint venture between the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and the CAW that offers laid-off workers assistance for one year following their termination date.

About 1,800 people from more than 30 different companies have accessed services at Malcolm’s centre, including help with employment insurance claims, job searches, resumé writing and access to retraining through Second Career, an Ontario government program that covers up to $28,000 of tuition and other retraining expenses.

The CAW Local 195 centre works with employers to find out what skills they’re looking for to better match jobseekers with openings and help others get the right kind of training.

Many of the people looking for work are tool and dye tradespeople but they needed to upgrade their skills to meet the demands of employers today, said Malcolm. The centre used the information it received from employers and funding from the provincial government to develop a training program at St. Clair College in Windsor to get these workers job-ready.

The centre also helped forklift drivers who only had in-plant licences find a program to obtain province-wide certification.

“We’re always looking for new and innovative ways to get people back to work,” said Malcolm.

While it can still be hard to navigate the bureaucracy of the provincial and federal governments to gain support for laid-off workers, the situation has improved, she said.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes over the past two years. I’ve seen a system that was very tough to access become much more accessible,” said Malcolm.

The Kraft/UFCW Local 1230 help centre will be open in Cobourg well into 2009, said Wood.