But thanks to an innovative program — and their own courage and persistence — several dozen of the former garment workers are upgrading their language skills and learning new occupations that will make them productive members of the workforce once again.
It's early March and Eddie Calisto-Tavares, president of Options for Success, a local company that helps people integrate into the workforce, is visiting close to a dozen of the former Nyg�*rd workers who are training to become health-care aides.
When she and colleague Brad Tyler-West walk into the classroom, which is equipped with hospital beds as well as desks, they are swarmed and hugged by the grateful students.
It's been a gruelling eight months for them. The transition from work to school last August was tough.
It started with six months of intensive language and essential-skills training. Now the students are learning a new occupation while continuing with their language studies.
Most of the former Nyg�*rd employees were immigrant women — hailing from India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, China, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Some had toiled for the company for more than 30 years.
Calisto-Taveras said that earlier on the students would "hit the wall" from time to time — becoming panicked, frightened that they could not succeed.
"We'd always say to them, 'Borrow our courage. Borrow courage from us right now. We know you can do it because we can see the potential. So, until you can stand on your own, we're right there with you.' "
Calisto-Tavares founded Options for Success 10 years ago. The province, employers and unions frequently hire the firm to provide career and transition services. Last year, the company took on 139 of the laid-off Nyg�*rd workers as clients.
It found that 30 of them lacked even the most basic English skills, and they are enrolled in a special year-long adult-ed course offered through the Winnipeg School Division. Others simply needed help enrolling with educational institutions, such as Red River College, or in honing their job-hunting and resumé-writing skills.
Then, there were another 50 workers who, with intensive language and essential skills upgrading (learning to use computers, fill out forms, follow instructions, work in teams, how to ask questions), could be ready to train for a new career.
One of them was Rose Lozano, an immigrant from the Philippines who had sewn clothes and done quality checks at Nyg�*rd's for 34 years when she got her layoff notice.
Though Lozano worked in the garment industry for decades, her heart lay in the field of elderly care. In fact, for the past 20 years, she'd been moonlighting at Lions Manor, where, because of her lack of training, she was largely relegated to cleaning and laundry duties. Her closest contact with the clients she wished to serve was to bring them down to the dining room for their meals.
"It's my passion to help (the) elderly," the slightly built woman said recently.
Lozano is now part of the group enrolled in the health-care aide certification program operated by St. James Assiniboia Continuing Education at John Taylor Collegiate.
Others are enrolled in culinary arts, early childhood education and hair-styling and other programs at other institutions.
"She is one of the heroes," said Tyler-West, an associate at Options for Success, referring to Lozano and her colleagues and their courageous efforts to better themselves.
In February, a graduation ceremony was held for the 47 students who made it through the first phase of the retraining program. That event drew family and friends, union officials, as well as representatives of the provincial government, which paid the students' tuition fees.
"They were happy," said Joy Santos, a union rep with Unite Here!, which represented the Nyg�*rd workers, recalling that event.
Santos said the initial language and skills training had greatly boosted their self-esteem. "These are different people now. I got tears in my eyes when I saw them," she said.
The health-care aide course, a pilot project involving the provincial Labour and Competitiveness, Training and Trade departments, concludes this summer with a six-week practicum — three weeks at a hospital and three weeks in a personal-care setting.
Health-care aide workers make $10 to $15 an hour.
Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.