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Laid Off!

For factory workers in America—especially those 45 and older—job security is a dying dream. In recent years record numbers of employees have gotten pink slips. But some are managing to bounce back.

When a factory closes, the impact on older workers can be far-reaching, hurting not just those who were employed at the time of the closing but also already-retired employees who were drawing company benefits. This is especially true when a corporation declares bankruptcy. (See "How Safe Is Your Pension?") In 2004, the Kaiser Family Foundation surveyed 2,700 of the 200,000 retired steelworkers who lost their health coverage when LTV Steel and Bethlehem Steel failed earlier this decade. Among the retirees just shy of Medicare age, about half had postponed doctor visits, 53 percent had skipped taking medication or split their doses, and 29 percent went without needed hospital care. Many were forced back to work despite their own poor health. "The course of their lives was changed," says Michelle Kitchman Strollo, the Kaiser policy analyst who authored the report.

Stephen Skvara, 61, knows only too well the consequences of losing health coverage for family members. He worked for 34 years as an electrician at the LTV Steel plant in East Chicago, Indiana. Even when an auto accident forced his early retirement in 2000, he and his wife, Sandra, "had a generous pension plan, and our health care was included." After LTV's bankruptcy, Skvara's pension was cut by a third. Worse was the loss of his wife's health insurance. He qualified for Medicare because of his disability, but Sandra was too young. And the couple couldn't afford private insurance.

Skvara, who serves on the executive board of his local United Steelworkers retiree group, wasn't alone. One day at the union hall, a retiree came to him asking for advice. "He was supposed to sit down with the doctors and discuss his wife's cancer treatment—she had just had a breast removed. But the hospital wanted to know how he intended paying. I sat with him and said, 'I don't know what I can do for you.' "

In 2007, Skvara was chosen by the steelworkers' union to ask candidate John Edwards a question during the AFL-CIO-sponsored Democratic presidential debate in Chicago. "Every day of my life I sit at the kitchen table, across from the woman who devoted 36 years of her life to my family, and I can't afford to pay for her health care," he told Edwards, his voice cracking. "What's wrong with America?"

Despite all the barriers older workers face after a factory closes, a determined minority do reinvent their careers. The people who rebound fastest, say career-assistance professionals, are those who research where the jobs are and what skills are needed—and who stay flexible about their options. They take advantage of government retraining and placement programs posted at their local unemployment offices. And they remain upbeat and confident. Louise Kursmark, president of Best Impression Career Services in Reading, Massachusetts, urges older laid-off workers to accentuate the advantages that come with age. "You have experience, knowledge, and loyalty," she says. "Be positive about your value."

Sally Stewart's story is testimony to the power of persistence. After Visteon laid her off, she refused to waste time fretting. It was her second factory closing in a decade, so she decided to train for a job that couldn't be sent abroad. She settled on the medical field. Stewart learned that physical-therapy assistants were well-paid and in demand, so she applied to the government for funding to cover her training. "What better opportunity for me to get an education than to have the government pay for it?" she says. "I've paid taxes for all these years. I've been a good worker. I'm gonna get everything that I can."

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