Jamaica’s Hostess factory workers face unsure future

Jamaica’s Hostess factory workers face unsure future
Robert Sookraj of Ozone Park works his last day at the Wonder Bread factory in Jamaica. Photo by Christina Santucci
By Christina Santucci

After the closing of the Hostess Co.’s Wonder Bread factory in Jamaica last week, many of the plant’s 175 former workers were left wondering what they would do next.

Woodhaven resident David Drysdale, 46, spent half of his life in the engineering department after taking the job at age 23. Now he hopes to find a position in the same field.

“Nobody is happy losing their jobs,” Drysdale said outside the main entrance at 168-23 Douglas Ave. on his last day. “I will miss this place. Everybody became like family.”

Hostess officially shut the doors to the Jamaica factory last Thursday. Built in 1870, the building was first the Shults Bread Co. Hostess, Wonder Bread’s parent company, announced the closing late last year, saying the 100,000-square-foot facility was in need of modernization and that the company did not have the money to pay for the update.

“We appreciate the years of dedicated service by many of our employees and regret the impact the plant closing will have on them and their families,” a spokesman for Hostess said in a statement.

The company said that at least 15, and possibly more, workers would be reassigned within Hostess.

To help some of the 175 laid-off workers find employment, City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) — in conjunction with the Greater Jamaica Development Corp. and the city’s Workforce 1 job counseling program — organized a job fair at the plant last week.

“There’s no doubt that those companies want these guys. There still is hope for them,” Comrie said of the Wonder workers.

In addition, Councilman Ruben Wills (D-South Ozone Park) said his office was also working to find new jobs for the bakery’s employees.

“There was a lot of frustration, but now a lot are using that frustration and channeling it into finding a new job,” Wills said.

Several factory employees seemed cautiously optimistic about last week’s event, while others noted the low pay offered by prospective employers.

“It was fair,” Drysdale said. “We will see what the results are, if they can help us find something.”

Robert Harvell, 56, opted to retire after more than three decades working in the shipping and transportation department. Harvell said he mentally weighed his pension package against future wages at another job, and retirement seemed like the better plan.

“I was making $21 an hour, and now I’m going to work for $8?” he asked.

Now that he is retired, Harvell plans to spend time with his two grandchildren and maybe travel. Once the winter is over, he said he might try to work as a limo driver.

“As far as physical, manual labor, I’m done with that,” he said.

Still, he said, he had no regrets about his time with Hostess.

“The bakery, it was good to me. I worked there 32 years. I put three kids through college and I got one more to go,” Harvell said.

Several workers bemoaned the loss of friendships formed at Wonder Bread.

Earl Millington and Ukeini Bartlett both started in the engineering department 4 1/2 years ago.

“It’s very said, it became a home,” said Millington, while wearing his 2010 top engineering performer jacket. Millington pointed out that Bartlett had earned the honor the year before.

Robert Sookraj, 58, of Ozone Park worked for 14 years in the factory — first in sanitation, then production and finally in shipping, where he was responsible for securing the bread within the trucks before the vehicles left the Jamaica facility. Since the factory closed, he has visited shops on Liberty Avenue seeking employment and even traveled to Brooklyn to see about openings.

“I have a little education, I have my license for driving, so I prefer driving,” he said Monday, “But if anything comes along, I have no choice.”

Sookraj, who has three grown children, guessed that he would be all right financially for a few months, but when asked if he was hopeful about landing another job, he said, “No, not really.”

Reporter Ivan Pereira contributed to this story.

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