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American Workers Bid Adios as Jobs Go South

Impact of freer trade is softened by US federal aid and retraining program

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STANLEY Lewis's job assembling video- game machines was putting food on the table and his wife through Seattle University. Then, Nintendo of America Inc. dropped a New Year's bombshell: The factory was moving to Mexico. Mr. Lewis and 135 other American workers were pink-slipped.

But the blow was softened by the North American Free Trade Agreement safety net. Legislation approving NAFTA, with its cuts in trade tariffs, also provides generous benefits designed to help those who lose jobs as a result. The assistance is turning the layoff a year ago into what Lewis, a 25-year-old high-school graduate, calls ``an answer to prayer.''

Under NAFTA, his unemployment insurance is extended for up to a year beyond the standard 26-week limit. The program, called NAFTA -

Transitional Adjustment Assistance (TAA), also pays for up to two years of retraining for a new career. For Lewis, who had planned on more education anyway, the NAFTA-TAA means getting a two-year accounting degree without having to hold down a job at the same time.

Lewis is not unusual. After a year of doing business under NAFTA, many of the expected job casualties have already picked themselves up and moved on, often using Uncle Sam's help to prepare for higher-wage careers. A booming job market in many regions - for 1994 at least - has helped. Moreover, analysts say, only about half of the 15,837 people who have been certified as eligible for NAFTA benefits owe their job losses to production moving to Mexico or Canada.

So should Americans forget Texas billionaire Ross Perot's warnings about the ``giant sucking sound'' of jobs going south?

Mike Yeubanks of Springfield, Mo. doesn't think so. He and 430 workers at a Zenith Electronics plant are slated to lose their jobs by next April. Again, production is moving to Mexico.

``You gave the best years of your life away and they turn around and move,'' comments Mr. Yeubanks, who has worked at the Zenith plant for 25 years.

Though unemployment in Yeubank's mid-sized Missouri town stands at just 2.7 percent, he says the newer jobs often pay near minimum wage. Zenith pays workers $8.50 an hour, plus benefits.

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