Central Valley

Area's mass layoffs are cutting deep

Al Ehrler says he never called in sick a day of his working life.

For the last 37 of those years he was at the paper mill in Ripon -- well, one day he had to leave early on account of a headache so bad he was afraid he might hurt someone with his forklift.

But perfect attendance is no match for economic downturn, and June 30 he was among the last employees to leave Neenah Paper Inc. when it closed for good.

"I still get up early," said the 63-year-old from his home in Modesto. "I have it in my blood, I'm a worker. I worked all my life and figured on working a couple more years."

Ehrler and the mill's 100 employees are among the thousands of California workers whose livelihoods disappear as part of a wave of mass layoffs across the state.

Large employers are cutting jobs at a record-setting pace. Federal figures show that more than 2,700 employers laid off 50 or more California workers in the first five months of 2009, the state's largest number of mass layoffs for any similar period on record.

In the first three months of the year alone, nearly 127,000 California workers lost their jobs during such mass layoffs, also a record, according to state data.

Notifications triggered

In the first half of 2009, 560 Stanislaus County workers received notices of layoffs large enough to trigger the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act.

The WARN Act requires employers to give their employees 60 days' advance notice of plant closings or mass layoffs involving 50 or more workers.

The surrounding counties of San Joaquin, Merced and Tuolumne had almost 1,300 workers who lost their jobs in mass layoffs through June.

"This is very abnormal," said Bill Bassitt, chief executive officer of the Stanislaus County Economic Development and Workforce Alliance. "To see the layoffs occurring in the quantities they are and the magnitude they are at individual companies is a reflection of how badly companies are being affected by the recession."

The biggest hits statewide have come in manufacturing, construction, retail sales and banking.

In addition to large-scale work force reductions, the Central Valley also has seen a number of outright plant closures. Along with Neenah Paper, Gottschalks and the NI Industries ammunition plant in Riverbank have shuttered this year.

The paper mill had been an institution in Ripon for 48 years, at its peak employing more than 200 workers.

Ehrler was laid off two years before he planned to retire.

He was among the five employees with seniority chosen to stay on past the end of May when manufacturing stopped and the bulk of the work force was let go.

Along with a handful of managers, they cleaned up and disassembled what was left of the plant.

Now that that work is done, Ehrler has chosen to go into early retirement. He said the reality of his situation and the current recession is simply too much to fight.

"I am done," he said. "How am I going to find a job at my age? I know with the economy the way it is my chances of finding a job would be real, real rough."

Some plants might not be returning

Making it rougher is that some of the plants that have closed are in industries without much prospect of making a comeback.

"A business like the (paper plant), they'll never start another one like that in California," said Ehrler, who worked in raw materials receiving. "It was a good job for 37 and a half years. It put food on the table. I would have liked to work more, but what can you do?"

Sanjay Varshney, dean of the College of Business Administration at California State University, Sacramento, said it's difficult for areas to absorb jobs in specialities that no longer exist locally.

"(Mass layoffs) for specialty jobs are very harmful," he said. "The economic damage is much higher."

Regional outlooks can suffer, too

But it's not just the former employees who bear the burden when an employer leaves town. Mass layoffs and closures can hurt a region's business outlook.

Bassitt said prospective companies look at an area's work force history before deciding to move in.

"They want to see how stable the business community is in any community," he said. "It's a real vicious cycle that is impacting some communities more than others; unfortunately, we're one of those communities."

Back at his college neighborhood home, Ehrler shows off a few items he salvaged from the scrap heap at Neenah Paper. One is a large sign with the then Fox River Paper Mill Co.'s "Quality Policy," along with a few packages of paper bearing the changing company insignias of the mill over the years.

"I can remember when the mill would run seven days a week, 24 hours a day," he said. "People were crying for a day off. Things change."

The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or 578-2284.

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