Once-jobless group proves life after layoff can be sweet

As the unemployment rate spikes, the economy tumbles into possibly its worst recession in decades and hundreds of thousands of people lose their jobs, some of those displaced workers might find inspiration in a group of managers laid off 16 years ago in the prime of their careers.

In 1992 the Louis Rich turkey-processing plant in Visalia, Calif., was the largest employer in agricultural Tulare County in San Joaquin Valley. Just two-and-a-half years earlier $100 million had been invested in building the plant. So it came as quite a surprise when then-owner Philip Morris shuttered the business, laid off 1,450 workers and retrofitted the plant into a highly automated Kraft Parmesan cheese plant that employs about 80.

The Visalia plant closing could not have come at a worse time, in the middle of the peak layoff years of 1991-93 when 1.7 million U.S. jobs were lost. Fast forward 16 years. This slump may prove worse. Friday, the Labor Department said 240,000 jobs were lost in October and 1.2 million so far in 2008. More bad news is on the way. A Watson Wyatt survey released last month said that a quarter of U.S. employers expect layoffs in the next year. The unemployment rate hit a 14-year high 6.5% in October, and experts say it's heading toward the 7.8% peak in 1992 — maybe the 9.7% rate of 1982.

While devastating at the time, the turkey plant closing "was a good thing that happened," says Pablo Martinez, 55, and now the owner of two busy Mexican restaurants that employ 24. An immigrant from Mexico, Martinez had worked his way up by 1992 to a $40,000-a-year ($61,000 in today's dollars) job as supervisor of the boning department. He is one of 15 former plant managers USA TODAY has been tracking, publishing stories about their plight in 1996 and 2001, other times of economic distress and mounting layoffs. This third look at their progress provides potential encouragement for the hundreds of thousands of Americans now getting pink slips.

The economy has turned down again, but the lives of the former plant managers in Visalia indicate, anecdotally, that those who lose jobs in recessions can land on their feet, and even thrive. They say being jobless can steel and motivate people to work long and hard hours, teach them to be self-reliant and to distrust safety nets, and to spur them into fields they are passionate about. The result, at least in this instance, is success and contentment, financially and otherwise.

2 stories come to untimely ends

Two of the 15 managers have died. First was Dan Bonnett, who soon after the layoff landed a job as manager of Price/Costco meats, doubling what he made at Louis Rich to more than $90,000 ($137,000 today) a year. In 1996 he told USA TODAY he was the most fortunate among his colleagues. He died of heart failure in 1998 at age 49.

Production manager Mike Neff had diabetes and said the stress of the layoff made it worse by raising his blood pressure. By 1996 he was nearly blind, but he had started a business in ostrich, emu and rhea slaughtering, which turned unsuccessful.

When last interviewed in early 2001, Neff was awaiting a kidney and pancreas transplant while completing his master's degree in animal science at California Polytechnic State University. He was applying to law schools and said he planned to represent food companies before the Food and Drug Administration. He died shortly before Sept. 11, 2001, in a San Luis Obispo hospital at age 36.

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