By Mark Wineka
A week from now, Fran (not her real name) and her husband will work their last shifts at the Freightliner plant in Cleveland.
The couple will take their place among the 1,290 second-shift workers being laid off at the truck manufacturing plant. Their prospects of ever returning are grim.
"This is not like previous layoffs when folks felt some certainty they'd be called back," said Jeanie Moore, vice president of continuing education programs at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
"I do expect we will see more people coming to us with the intention of going back to school."
The laid-off employees' hopes of finding new jobs are bleak in a county where the unemployment rate is approaching 10 percent.
Fran and her husband have two young children and two house payments. They upsized to a larger home last April but haven't been able to sell the smaller house.
They've always had good credit, but that will be "out the window" if foreclosure takes the one house, Fran says.
The couple, both of whom have worked at Freightliner for more than 10 years, have been calculating whether they can make house payments and still put groceries on the table or gas in their cars.
On the not-to-distant horizon, after their six months of health insurance coverage expires, they wonder how they'll pay for their son's expensive asthma medicine.
"I try not to worry," Fran said. "It's not going to help you none. ... But there's no one out there hiring, not even McDonald's. That's the scary part of it."
The Freightliner layoffs promise to burden agencies already overwhelmed by the unemployed. Fran and others asked not to be identified in case Freightliner would call them back to work months down the road.
They also didn't want to sound like complainers to potential employers.
"My heart goes out to the ones who have children," said one worker who will be hitting the jobless ranks next week on the 11th anniversary of his hiring. "They've got bills and no jobs to be found."
The man said he carries no anger or bitterness toward Freightliner. "The economy is not their fault," he says.
But he expressed disappointment in the company's opening of a new truck manufacturing plant in Mexico. That $300 million, 1,414-employee plant, which observed its grand opening Tuesday, is manufacturing the Cascadia truck, the same one that dominates production at the Cleveland plant.
"What really bothers me," says Milt (again, not his real name) is that we made them such a profit last year — one of the largest they ever had. They built us up and then, all of a sudden, bam, they sent our work to Mexico."
Company officials have said the Cleveland plant remains the primary facility for production of the Cascadia, but Milt has his doubts.
"Now it looks like Cleveland will be the overflow plant," he says. "I understand the economy being slow, but it seems like the company and union could have put off the Mexican plant for awhile.
George Drexel, president of United Auto Workers Local 3520, reported the union sent a delegation to Raleigh and Washington, D.C., in February to make elected officials aware of the seriousness of job losses at the Freightliner plants.
Freightliner will be eliminating a total of 2,137 jobs in Cleveland, Mount Holly and Gastonia plants next Friday.
The union delegation met in person or with staff members of U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue and U.S. Reps. Mel Watt, Sue Myrick and Larry Kissell.
They also delivered 4,400 signatures from Freightliner workers, including 2,400 signatures gathered in one day at the Cleveland facility.
"The job losses are NAFTA and economy driven," Drexel said in a report to his membership.
In earlier correspondence with union members, Drexel blamed the North American Free Trade Agreement for allowing multi-national corporations to pay workers below the federal minimum wage of $6.55 an hour "by paying Mexican workers $2 an hour."
Rapid Response teams, led by the Employment Security Commission, have conducted informational meetings at the Freightliner Training Center to explain unemployment benefits, while other community agencies have offered their services.
The laid-off Freightliner workers might qualify for the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, designed to help workers who lost their jobs because of imports.
The program provides training money for another job or career. It also offers weekly cash payments if a worker's unemployment benefits are exhausted and the worker is in an approved full-time training program.
Job search and relocation allowances also might be available.
Moore, the Rowan-Cabarrus Community College official, said her school has been part of the Rapid Response teams, informing the soon-to-be laid-off workers how they might access funds to return to school. The school also introduced workers to its R3 Center in Kannapolis, which provides many services for the unemployed and underemployed.
For now, Moore says, it's too early for RCCC to know what the impact of next week's layoffs will be on registration at the community college.
"We're kind of watching it with bated breath," Moore said. The school is investigating whether the recently passed economic stimulus package might help in providing some funds to take the pressure off burgeoning enrollment.
So far, RCCC has been dealing with high spring enrollment by expanding class sizes and putting more load on faculty. But the school's real concern is the tight state budget and not having adequate funding to provide more classes, add additional faculty and expand program offerings as demand increases.
Lou Adkins of the nonprofit Salisbury Community Development Corp. said her office has been receiving calls for at least a month from some Freightliner employees who will be part of next week's layoffs. She expects to be inundated after next week.
"A lot, this time, will go back to school and want to apply for a loan," Adkins predicted.
The CDC office provides U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-certified housing counseling and tries to help people delay or avoid foreclosures. It also links people with the Home Protection Program through the N.C. Housing Finance Agency.
The program provides interest-free loans to displaced workers who opt to return to school.
The loans pay qualified workers' mortgages for up to 24 months, then gives them 15 years to pay off the note.
Adkins also received news Wednesday of the new Home Affordable Refinance Program, which could assist displaced workers in reducing their mortgage payments.
"It looks pretty good," said Adkins, who planned to sit in on a two-hour conference call Thursday to learn more about the program. "I think it's going to help a lot of people."
Adkins said all of the lenders she and counselor Robbie Stevens deal with are more willing in recent months to discuss mortgage modifications, "because they don't want all these houses."
The Rowan County United Way program that used to offer laid-off workers a one-time mortgage payment is no longer available, Adkins said.