Katherine Espinal is six months pregnant and worked at WB Frozen in Frankfurt for two and a half years until last month.
The bakery, formerly known as Weston Foods, Maplehurst and Granny’s Kitchen, announced in February that it would close its facilities on May 23, leaving Espinal and more than 200 employees out of work.
With the layoff date approaching, it remains unclear to whom many of these workers will turn to find employment.
To help displaced bakers, a job fair was held May 4 at MVCC’s Jorgensen Athletic Center with dozens of employers seeking to fill entry-level positions. The fair was hosted by the New York State Department of Labor, Oneida County Office of Workforce Development, Herkimer County Employment and Training and the Center.
About 15 workers attended the job fair, said David Mathis, director of the Oneida County Workforce Development Office.
“It was very disappointing,” he said, adding that attendance at job fairs had been low recently.
“It’s just a disconnect between those who were unemployed and those who are looking to employ them,” he said. “It’s something we’ve seen and haven’t been able to figure out for the past two years.”
Mathis said there could be several potential reasons for the low turnout: the continued fear of the pandemic, the eligibility of workers to claim unemployment, the possibility that some workers might move, as well as the 40 days of severance pay workers receive.
What challenges do employees face?
The situation has created hardship for bakery workers like Espinal, who said many workers wait to start new positions until their severance ends so they don’t lose their benefits.
Benefits that many cannot afford to lose. Espinal, who worked as an operator at the factory, said she had to work because she was pregnant and had a small child.
Espinal said the bakery is doing a good job of helping displaced workers, giving them time to find new jobs. Some workers are still working at the bakery until the end of the month, she said.
For now, she plans to find a temporary job and work for about a month until she gives birth, but it has been a challenge for her and other workers.
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“It’s hard to find a job, especially when you’re pregnant,” Espinal said in Spanish. “It’s also difficult because there are people (workers) who are older and others who don’t understand English.”
While Espinal speaks some English, other workers like August Say, who speaks Karen, face a language barrier, making it harder to find a job.
Say, who worked in packaging and refrigeration from December 2020, said he and other colleagues were informed of the company’s closure at a meeting called by WB Frozen.
Say said through an interpreter that he loved his job and was unhappy with the news because he had bills to pay and a family to support.
Say’s last day was March 23, and he is still looking for a new job, and said he had no preferences and would pursue “whatever is available to him.”
While some bakers plan to work as soon as possible, others will take the time to learn more English. This is the case of Min Naing, who will start taking ESL classes at BOCES, his wife said through an interpreter.
For now, the severance packages workers receive are helping workers and their families get back on track before finding a new job.
Helping WB Frozen workers with language services
The Center participated in the MVCC job fair to help employees with limited English, providing interpretation services between workers and employers. The agency also placed many workers at the Frankfurt Bakery a few years ago, said Ashley Bustos, Career Pathway Builder at the Center.
Bustos said the agency has been trying to contact those same workers to help them find new jobs, but it’s been difficult because many have moved or changed phone numbers.
Brandon Whiting covers community and neighborhood trends in Herkimer County for The Times Telegram. Email him at BWhiting@gannett.com.
Maria M. Silva covers food, drink and culture in the Mohawk Valley for the Observer-Dispatch. Email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter.