Manitowoc Foodservices local employees have formed a family of sorts.
Its easy to do when youve worked with the same folks for 20, 30 or 40 years.
Weddings, babies and graduations the co-workers have celebrated them all. Theyve stuck together through the tough times, too: Death, divorce, layoffs and bankruptcy.
Now theyre facing the worst time of all – the loss of their jobs as Wisconsin-based Manitowoc moves production from 111 N. Hadley Road to Cleveland.
For some members of Sheet Metal Workers International Association Local 237, building restaurant conveyer ovens is the only real job theyve ever had. Now in their 40s, 50s and 60s, they are faced with entering the job market for the first time in decades.
The Journal Gazette met recently with a group of union members to talk about life after Manitowoc closes its local production plant on Dec. 31. The 10 workers have a combined 289 years with the company.
Mark Alexander has delivered parts to the oven assembly line for 41 years.
The 59-year-old said four decades of driving a forklift over the uneven factory floor have taken a toll on his body. He takes five prescriptions every day. His wife takes three.
Those eight daily pills mean Alexander has to find another job quickly after Manitowoc shuts down. His wife works, but she doesnt get health insurance through her employer.
I dont know what to think, he said. Its just been pouring on me for the past year, one thing after another.
One of those things is his mothers health. Alexander spends about an hour a day helping so she can continue living at home. He also tries to be a good husband to his wife of 10 years. They recently bought their first house together. He worries that being out of work will force them to default on the mortgage.
But hes trying to stay positive as he launches his first job search since President Nixons first term in office.
Alexander got help from his wifes boss to create a résumé. He admits that its pretty skimpy, though.
Under experience, he has only one job listed.
Some legacy hires
Leonard Schlotter has spent 48 years – almost three-fourths of his life – working in the companys research and development department.
The 71-year-old cant summon the energy to launch a job search, so hell retire when his job moves to Ohio. Schlotter had hoped to work at least a few more months.
Its a shame that its going, he said.
Schlotters father was one of the companys first workers, along with Virginia Stewarts father.
Almost 50 years ago, Fort Wayne native Dean Rhodes decided to stop outsourcing cookware production to a Georgia factory. He offered those experienced workers an opportunity to work directly for Lincoln Foodservice Products Inc. in Fort Wayne.
Nine families accepted the deal and moved north, forming the core of Lincolns workforce. Manitowoc bought the business from an interim owner in 2008.
Stewart, a 51-year-old large oven assembler, hired on 30 years ago. Her daughter and nephew – the familys third generation – worked there, too, before being laid off. The union represents 173 active workers and about 50 on layoff.
When co-worker Bonnie Creech hired on 40 years ago, the place really felt like a family.
The 66-year-old warehouse shipper remembers when the president of the company used to walk the factory floor, talking to everyone. She also recalls one particularly profitable year when Lincolns owners handed out Christmas bonuses to everyone, a thank-you for contributing to the companys success.
Creech, who plans to retire, worries about her younger co-workers. Some are in their 50s, people with kids who wont have health insurance after the plant closes.
Im devastated, she said of the scheduled closure. You put your heart and soul into a place.
The backbone snaps
When someone like Bonnie Creech feels beaten down, its tough on everyone.
Shes the emotional backbone of the workforce.
When I got divorced, I went and talked to her, said Jim West, 53. People go to Bonnie. They do.
West, a large oven assembler who has 34 years with the company, is a single father with two grown children.
After he got over the shock, West realized he needs to find another job. If nothing else, he really needs the health insurance. But a recent job-hunting experience left him discouraged. West saw about two dozen people behind him, waiting to interview for the same opening.
As theyve started looking for work, the union members have found that many employers dont pay what theyre used to. The workers make $19 an hour on average.
Thats been a problem for Michael Banks, one of the younger workers. Hes been back on the job for about a year after being laid off for almost two.
The 41-year-old is ready – even eager – to start over after spending 15 years fabricating the sheetmetal parts that make up the ovens. Banks is working toward a two-year degree in computer-aided drafting and design technology at Ivy Tech Community College.
Now Ive got an opportunity to do something different, he said. I look at it as a blessing.
Banks, who is still taking classes, will be qualified for a CNC job. Theyre the in-demand workers who program machines to make specialty parts for industries such as defense, aerospace and orthopedics. CNC is shorthand for computer numerical controlled.
Ive been getting opportunities, but its half the pay, Banks said. They make it sound good, too, until they get to the pay part. And most of them are through temporary services, where you dont get benefits.
Banks doesnt need the daily medications some of his older co-workers do, but as the single father of two active sons, hes concerned about keeping health insurance coverage in case one of the kids breaks an arm or something.
A double whammy
Robert and Rebecca Nellum are one of several couples who rely on the company for all their income – when theyre working, that is.
During their three-year marriage, the couple has spent a combined three years on layoff, scraping by on one paycheck and unemployment.
Their budget doesnt include extras like cable TV or cellphones that require annual contracts.
Robert Nellum, a large oven assembler, didnt bother looking for another job when he spent three months laid off last year aind another three months this year. The 44-year-old, who has 17 years with the company, drew unemployment benefits and waited.
Hed seen others called back to work, so he knew it was just a matter of time.
Rebecca Nellum, who was out for 2 1/2 years, was called back to work in large oven assembly just four months ago.
The 55-year-old worked a lower-wage job in Albion for a while, but her paycheck wasnt doing much more than paying for gas to and from work.
Rebecca Nellum wanted to return to the workplace where shed spent 14 years. She missed the money, sure. But she also missed working in a unionized shop, where she thinks people are treated better.
Longtime co-workers are another benefit.
Like family members, they have sometimes sacrificed for each other over the years.
Tony Koop, 60, once accepted a two-month layoff to save the job of a co-worker.
With 33 years on the job, the die setter wasnt in danger of receiving a notice of his own.
But he figured that because hes single with no dependents and no looming debts, he could afford to miss work more than the other person.
A lot of people did that, he said, shrugging off praise.
Koop, who is in good health, is thinking of going back to school after the plant closes.
Ill survive, he said.
Even the most pessimistic among these co-workers had no idea the clock was ticking on their jobs.
Robert Nellum took it as a good sign that some laid-off workers, including his wife, were being called back. He thought production was gearing up to prepare for a sale on conveyer ovens.
But those hopes evaporated with the companys announcement on Sept. 7.
About 12 employees will continue working for Manitowoc at a local satellite office that will focus on customer service and technical support for restaurants using Lincoln-brand ovens, a company spokesman said. The rest, he said, will lose their jobs.
Mark Mettler, president of Local 237, worries about his members.
The 45-year-old warehouse shipper, who has 17 years with the company, has been busy fighting for severance pay for unionized workers. The issue is going to a mediator. Salaried employees, he said, already received an offer from the company.
Mettler wonders how quickly – if ever – some of them will rebound from this setback.