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Oven door is slamming shut

Most being laid off by Manitowoc have never had another job

Manitowoc Foodservice’s local employees have formed a family of sorts.

It’s easy to do when you’ve worked with the same folks for 20, 30 or 40 years.

Weddings, babies and graduations … the co-workers have celebrated them all. They’ve stuck together through the tough times, too: Death, divorce, layoffs and bankruptcy.

Now they’re 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 they’ve 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.

One-line résumé

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 doesn’t get health insurance through her employer.

“I don’t know what to think,” he said. “It’s just been pouring on me for the past year, one thing after another.”

One of those things is his mother’s 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 he’s trying to stay positive as he launches his first job search since President Nixon’s first term in office.

Alexander got help from his wife’s boss to create a résumé. He admits that it’s 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 company’s research and development department.

The 71-year-old can’t summon the energy to launch a job search, so he’ll retire when his job moves to Ohio. Schlotter had hoped to work at least a few more months.

“It’s a shame that it’s going,” he said.

Schlotter’s father was one of the company’s first workers, along with Virginia Stewart’s 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 Lincoln’s 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 family’s 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 Lincoln’s owners handed out Christmas bonuses to everyone, a thank-you for contributing to the company’s success.

Creech, who plans to retire, worries about her younger co-workers. Some are in their 50s, people with kids who won’t have health insurance after the plant closes.

“I’m 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, it’s tough on everyone.

She’s 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 they’ve started looking for work, the union members have found that many employers don’t pay what they’re used to. The workers make $19 an hour on average.

That’s been a problem for Michael Banks, one of the younger workers. He’s 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 I’ve 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. They’re 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.

“I’ve been getting opportunities, but it’s 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 don’t get benefits.”

Banks doesn’t need the daily medications some of his older co-workers do, but as the single father of two active sons, he’s 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 they’re 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 doesn’t include extras like cable TV or cellphones that require annual contracts.

Robert Nellum, a large oven assembler, didn’t 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.

He’d 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 wasn’t doing much more than paying for gas to and from work.

Rebecca Nellum wanted to return to the workplace where she’d 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 wasn’t in danger of receiving a notice of his own.

But he figured that because he’s 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.

“I’ll survive,” he said.

The unthinkable

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 company’s 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.

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