CF bankruptcy puts workers behind the 8-ball

In the wake of the spectacular blowout of the 73-year-old Vancouver, Wash., trucking giant Consolidated Freightways (CF), 15,500 laid off or soon-to-be-laid-off workers are facing tough choices about what to do.

Most of the company's drivers and clerical workers in terminals all over the country, and company managers and office support staff in Vancouver were laid off immediately after the company's Labor Day announcement of bankruptcy.

But some were called back to complete delivery of in-transit shipments, and at CF's Vancouver headquarters at least 300 unionized office workers remained as of press time.

With the news coming so suddenly, not only are the newly unemployed unprepared for the economic hardship of lost wages, but they're suffering from shock, as well as grief from the severing of social connections.

"There were a lot of tears," said mailroom worker Perry Garrett, a member of Office and Professional Employees Local 11.

"We didn't have a chance to say goodbye," said Merritt Breazile, a seven-year CF employee and union member who was in the first wave of 80 layoffs at the Vancouver headquarters. Breazile said she found out she was losing her job when she got a phone call from a friend who'd heard it on the news.

Many workers felt that the company's behavior after the announcement added to the indignity - returning to pick up their personal belongings, security guards followed them to their desks and checked their bags as they left, to make sure they hadn't stolen office supplies.

Breazile, the single mother of a 12-year-old boy, said she doesn't know how she'll cope with the loss of her $30,000-a-year job in CF's pricing department. "I'm going to be getting $299 a week on unemployment," Breazile said - too much to qualify for food stamps, and too little for her to afford COBRA medical insurance payments of nearly $500 a month.

Breazile and other workers face uncertain prospects in a recessionary economy that has driven unemployment rates in Oregon and Washington to the highest in the country.

And the anecdotal evidence can be daunting. Take for instance a job opening in the Northwest Natural mailroom that pays $24,000 a year reportedly drew 600 applicants.

"The Portland-Vancouver labor market area has had a two-year battering, with ongoing layoffs," said Lori Province, a dislocated worker specialist for the Washington State Labor Council. "These workers are going to be very challenged to return to jobs at their former wage."

Local 11 has been organizing meetings for newly laid-off members, with staff from state employment departments and the union health trust presenting workers their options and answering questions. The meetings have proved to be an emotional reunion for co-workers who might otherwise not have a chance to see each other again.

"You know, you spend more waking hours with your co-workers than with your family," said Local 11 Secretary-Treasurer Debbie Sluyter. "These people have lost a social network, a sense of purpose."

Workers have lots of questions and few answers about why their company suddenly declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy after 73 years of operation. They know it wasn't their fault the company wrecked. They also sense there's no going back.

September 20, 2002 issue

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