By Carrie Spitler

Three weeks ago most of Santa Cruz County was eager for the holidays and anxiously anticipating the New Year. However, at Birds Eye Foods, Inc. In Watsonville, the final wave of 550 laid off employees said goodbye to their jobs.

Many of the workers had spent upwards of 16 years at the Watsonville plant, which was closed after the New York-based frozen food company decided to narrow its focus to producing solely name brand products.

Due to a lack of similar jobs in the county, the generally low skill level of employees, and the agricultural off-season, many workers are extremely frustrated with the difficulty they are having in finding new jobs. Some of the workers can’t afford to live in Santa Cruz County anymore and have decided to leave altogether.

"Many families are moving to cities like Fresno because of the agriculture industries there, and because it’s easier to retire and cheaper to live there," said Workforce Career Center Manager Emily Balli, who has been working closely with the former Birds Eye employees.

Balli and other county agencies and city officials are putting a great deal of effort into supporting the unemployed workers. Through Workforce, many of the former employees are being trained for new jobs in the computer, medical, trucking and construction industries. Workforce has also set up English classes with emphases in learning words specific to the particular jobs they are looking for.

"This is a glass-half-full group; they seem very positive and many workers see this as an opportunity to do something different," Balli said. "Without [the closure] they would not have had the push to leave. Some think they would have stayed there forever."

According to Eric Alexander, state labor market analyst for the Monterey Bay region, the numbers are hopeful for former Birds Eye employees seeking new work.

"Santa Cruz County is enjoying its lowest unemployment ever, and at least this is occurring at a time when Santa Cruz is experiencing a good economy," Alexander said.

In addition, many local companies looking to hire are especially attracted to the commitment displayed by Birds Eye workers, some of which had been at the company for over 30 years. One seed company in Gilroy has specifically requested to hire former employees of the frozen food plant.

Janeen Dittrick, manager at the state Employment Development Department in Santa Cruz County, points out the appeal that many Birds Eye workers hold to potential employers.

"Work ethic is much more important than a certain skill," Dittrick said. "They have shown that they can be dedicated to their job."