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The Reality of Retraining

MARTINSVILLE — Mary Woods struggled to understand the acronyms being lobbed at her last month in the cavernous armory hall.

One of 321 workers displaced last year when StarTek moved its call-center operations to the Philippines, she listened as a voice on a scratchy recording recited a seven-page list of rules governing Trade Adjustment Assistance — or, in local parlance, “the Trade.”

With her unemployment soon to expire and her husband laid off from apparel distribution work at Hanesbrands, Woods was hopeful that TAA would allow her to get a community college certificate. The former textile worker-turned-former call center operator has set her sights on a job in a medical office.

“I’m organized, and I remember things like billing codes real well,” she said, recalling a long-ago stint as a nursing home secretary.

But Woods, 51, wasn’t sure she qualified for TAA because she’d only worked at StarTek for 11 weeks before being nabbed in the company’s first round of layoffs last July. The answer wasn’t apparent on the lengthy PowerPoint presentation projected by Virginia Employment Commission staffers after the recording ended, either:

The afternoon sun washed out the slides on the concrete block wall, making them illegible to the 80 attendees.

When a presenter stressed strict attendance by saying, “We’re not gonna pay for you to be in school and find out you’re in Myrtle Beach,” Woods joined a chorus of audible groans.

“Who here has money for a vacation?” she whispered, shaking her head. “I’m worried about losing my house.”

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