(March 24, 2009 by Madhavi Acharya-Tom Yes, BUSINESS REPORTER)
When Wendy Morris wanted to say thank you to the Workers in Motion Action Centre at the Midtown Mall in Oshawa, she brought in a loaf of whole-wheat bread to share.
It was the first loaf she baked at cooking school, a place Morris, who has spent most of her working life in factory jobs, never imagined she would be.
"It was hard as rock, but still good," Morris says. "They told me when I started school that I had to share with them. And I don't mind at all."
After 13 years working at the Lear auto-parts plant in Whitby, Morris was laid off in December. She thought she would visit a local resource centre to look for another manufacturing job.
But when the centre's staff asked Morris about her interests, they quickly realized she had a penchant for cooking and helped her sign up for a six-week cooking course at a nearby school.
"I was nervous at first about going back to school, but everyone was so supportive," Morris says.
She doesn't know exactly what she will do next, though a job in a kitchen somewhere would be nice. Morris, 45, knows it may not happen, but she is still grateful for the centre and the new options opened up by the staff's assistance.
"Those guys helped out a lot," she says. "I love that place. They're great. They really want to see you get on your feet."
A pink slip from an employer is rarely an easy thing to bear. For manufacturing workers who have spent a decade or even two on an assembly line, the prospect of starting over can be especially daunting.
For some, the challenge can be overwhelming. It means hunting for work in a world of electronic job boards and email, sometimes with just a Grade 10 education, which was all they needed back when they set off for the jobs they thought they would hold until they retired.
Worker action centres, as they are known, can provide a soft landing. Set up jointly by employers and the province, laid-off workers can get help with resumés, cover letters, preparing for interviews, upgrading and college information. The centres also offer access to job boards, community service directories, computers and photocopiers.
What sets these centres apart from other agencies is who's offering the help – the assistance comes from other workers who have also lost their jobs. That gives the place a feeling of community – a circle of folks to lean on in these lean times.
The Workers in Motion centre opened its doors in Oshawa in December 2007 after Lear Corp. laid off 323 workers at its Whitby plant a few days before Christmas.
The workers' union, the Canadian Auto Workers, had advocated for the centre and Lear agreed. It found a home at the Midtown Mall, halfway between the dollar store and the grocery store. Though originally set up for Lear workers, it is open to anyone who is unemployed.
The first thing a visitor notices when they walk into the centre is the mural on the wall, made up of dozens of rainbow-coloured handprints. Staff put it up on the first day, workers dipping their hands in paint and pressing on the white canvas.
"We wanted to put together a symbol of us, that we're a team," says Connie Snelgrove, a former Lear employee and action centre co-ordinator. "Just like it took many hands to produce one thing at the plant, we're going to build this centre together and we're going to move on to other opportunities together."
Every day at the Workers in Motion centre, stories of success collide with tales of struggle.
Kevin Smith, 43, was laid off from Lear after 15 years with the company. With the centre's help, he has been accepted into a seven-week small business course he hopes will help him start a roofing company.
It's a return to the same work he did in his younger days. He has kept it up casually, working for friends and family members during his years at Lear.
"I was one of the lucky ones in that I had a trade background, not just working in the factory," Smith says. "I used to joke with everybody, you never know. I may have to do it again for a living."
Dan Doucet, 36, spent 17 years at Smurfit-MBI Inc. He was hired by the box maker the week before he turned 19. "I should have went to college, but I screwed up on paying my tuition, so I went to work full-time instead. It was that simple for me."
In September, he will attend Durham College to study as a mechanical engineering technician in non-destructive testing, a course he hopes will land him a job in the energy sector or construction. In the meantime, he goes to the action centre every day to help out, sometimes with computer assistance, sometimes with advice.
"People don't know what's going on," Doucet says. "You tell them, `You're a factory worker, your job's probably gone. This is where you need to get to.'"
Steve Farnell is still trying to get there. The 39-year-old was 17 when he was hired at A.G. Simpson Co. Ltd., which later became AGS Automotive Systems Inc. He worked there from 1989 to 2007 as a machine operator. He then spent a year at Phoenix Automated Systems Inc. in Oakville before losing his job.
"You know how I got hired? It was like "you're f'in hired.' Just like that. The problem is when people get hired like that, keep a job for 25 or 30 years, you get out of touch with what's going on in the real world," Farnell says.
Snelgrove has helped him update his resumé. "This is the most helpful resource centre – ever," Farnell says, adding, "I'm a good worker and I want to work. I don't have an attitude. I just want to get out there and work."
He and his wife, who works at a coffee shop at Durham college, have been struggling to pay the bills. They have a 13-year-old son.
"It's no good. It makes you want to go into a corner and bawl. I have little boy. I want to do well for him. I want to get on with my life."
It's a struggle that Snelgrove, in particular, understands. Before her job at Lear, where she worked for only two years, the single mother had always held down three jobs, two during the week and one on the weekend, to make ends meet.
"I knew when these guys got laid off, they were going to face some serious obstacles that they had never even seen before because they'd been making good money for so long," Snelgrove says. "So it was really easy for me to bond with them."
Snelgrove and other co-ordinators help with resumés, with the computers and the forms required to go back to school. But mostly she serves as a role model for others. When people said they felt embarrassed about not having a Grade 12 diploma, she says, "`It's okay. I didn't have one either and I had to go back to get my own,'" she says.
There's a comfort level for the action centre's clients, says Lori Rosdobutko, an employment case manager with Northern Lights, the agency that provides job counselling for Employment Ontario.
"Part of it is the resources that they offer, but part of it comes from learning from each other," Rosdobutko says. "Once they know someone else has done something, they can talk to them and find out what's involved and help generate ideas from that."
Any employer can create a resource centre for employees who are being laid off, but they tend to be more prevalent in unionized workplaces. The Canadian Autoworkers Union is a vocal advocate, and operates about 25 to 30 centres around the province.
"It's workers helping workers and it can make an enormous difference to morale and the ability to move on and make some tough decisions in some cases," says Laurell Ritchie, national representative with the CAW.
"It's somebody who can take a little more time with the individual and who knows the job that person did," Ritchie says. "Somebody who doesn't let them simply put down `I'm an ABC machine operator.' That's not going to help in the larger labour force. You need to be able to talk about the underlying labour skills."
The laid-off workers who staff the centres also know about the complex set of emotions their peers are experiencing, Ritchie says.
"People may be encountering difficulties at home. People may get depressed. They may go on a bit of a roller coaster, ecstatic one week that they're free of a demanding job and despairing a few weeks later having lost the job that they thought they had secured as a replacement."
It costs about $600 per laid-off worker to get an action centre off the ground, with costs shared by employers and the province's Adjustment Advisory Program. The bulk of the funding goes to securing a location and paying staff.
The Workers in Motion centre was scheduled to close this month, but in a grim sign of the times, there has been a huge demand for its services. Lear laid off another 145 workers in December and Smurfit also closed its doors, sending over another 123 people.
What started as a volunteer position for Snelgrove has become a paying job. The centre is now expected to remain open until summer of 2010 after securing additional funding.
Through last year, the centre averaged about 250 visitors each month. That has recently ballooned to about 345, Snelgrove says. She estimates about 100 of its clients have found other jobs. Another 70 or so are in school and about 35 have applied to school and are waiting on acceptance.
"It's not just about finding a job or getting retrained, it's about building lifelong relationships that will get you through the tough times," Snelgrove says. "We have to face the obstacles. It's a lot easier to face them together than to face them alone."