Reeling from being laid off, many former Caterpillar workers started their job search at a job fair across Lone Tree Drive from the manufacturing plant.

Amber Cox and Shiiana Godwin were among the unemployed attending Workforce Solutions of the Golden Crescent’s job fair, Red, White & You, on Thursday at Victoria College’s Emerging Technology Complex across from the Caterpillar plant.

Godwin said she had worked at the plant for about seven months when she received a call after work Oct. 29. She was asked not to return to work the next day.

Caterpillar officials confirmed Oct. 30 that the company had laid off 120 employees they classified as temporary.

“Before this all happened, we had a meeting and they said, ‘Oh, no one’s going to get laid off,’” Godwin said.

In Texas, an at-will employment state, private companies can lay off any employee, temporary or permanent, at any time – so long as the employee isn’t unionized and doesn’t have a contract term.

Maureen Jennings, a Houston-based attorney specializing in labor and employment law, said the distinction between temporary and permanent doesn’t really matter.

“It doesn’t matter what they call you. It’s what you are,” Jennings said.

Hours worked per week determine the more important distinction: full-time versus part-time, Jennings said.

Like permanent employees, temporary workers can be laid off at any time. However, temporary jobs generally lack benefits, such as paid vacation time, disability insurance and a 401(k) retirement savings plan, that are customarily offered in permanent positions.

This employment reality may become more common.

A 2010 Intuit study projected that 60 million people, 40% of the workforce, would be contractors, temps or self-employed by 2020.

When Heather Lowe was hired at Caterpillar about nine months ago, she worked a minimum of 40 hours per week.

“I wasn’t really applying for temp,” Lowe said. “To get hired on at Caterpillar, it’s supposed to be you start off temp and then you have a 90-day evaluation. Your supervisor can recommend you (to be a permanent employee), and mine did make a recommendation.”

Similarly, when Godwin started working 10 hours a day for five days per week, she said she was under the impression that she would get hired on to permanent staff. In her time with the company, she said, she met about 10 people who had been with the company as temporary employees for about two years.

Although employees like Godwin, Cox and Lowe were called temporary, they’re still considered “full-time” under the Affordable Care Act’s definition, which requires working an average of at least 30 hours per week. Consequently, Caterpillar was required to offer certain employee benefits.

However, Lowe said the lackluster benefits plan for temporary employees and the expectation of getting promoted to permanent staff led her to reject the coverage Caterpillar offered her.

“They get almost no benefits,” Jennings said of temporary employees. “That’s one of the reasons people hire them.”

Caterpillar did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Lowe said she first began to worry about her job security when she noticed a decrease in production at the plant.

“We were making around 18 (excavators) a day for a while, and then our build went down to only making nine in a day,” Lowe said. “We all knew they were cutting certain things to help them save money.”

Caterpillar has cited the trade war with China as a factor leading to the layoffs. In September, analysts at Moody’s Analytics estimated the trade war had cost almost 300,000 jobs in the United States.

In spite of recent job losses, the U.S. unemployment rate still hovers around 3.5%, a 50-year low.

Carmen Lara, managing director of workforce centers for Workforce Solutions of the Golden Crescent, said the recently unemployed should have hope because “it’s a job seeker’s market.”

Some of Lowe’s former co-workers said they would wait and hope to regain their jobs at Caterpillar when the market goes back up, she said.

“They said that when, and if, they start rehiring, we will be top priority,” Lowe said.

But Lowe said she plans to seek employment elsewhere. She said she plans to apply to at least four jobs per week, the minimum to receive unemployment benefits.

Between filling out applications, Lowe said she’s happy to be spending time with her young daughter.

“The one good thing is now I can pick her up from school,” Lowe said.

Morgan O'Hanlon is the business and agriculture reporter for the Victoria Advocate. She can be reached at 361-580-6328, mohanlon@vicad.com or on Twitter @mcohanlon.

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