Displaced GM workers getting accustomed to long commute
Teri Huber would like to start a support group for men and women in the Janesville area who have spouses who commute to GM plants. Teri’s husband, Scott, commutes to work at the Fairfax plant in Kansas City, Kan. “I know I am not alone,” Huber said. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
One year later
It's been almost a year since SUV production ended in Janesville, triggering layoffs that staggered Rock County. What's happened in the last year to the thousands of workers displaced by the end of production at General Motors and its supplier plants?
Actually, quite a lot, and not all of it has matched the doom and gloom some people predicted.
Sunday: When the benefits end, the local economy will crash. It's a broad statement made by many, but it's based on a premise that's difficult to pin down. Just when will the benefits end, and when can the community expect to see a peak of economic hardship?
Today: Hundreds of former workers at the Janesville GM plant now are commuting to other plants, plants referred to as "Janesville South," "Janesville West" and "Janesville East." The decisions to transfer were painful and life-altering, but those who made them say it was the right thing to do for their families.
Tuesday: Transferring to another plant wasn't an option for hundreds of local workers, particularly those who didn't work at GM. With high hopes for new careers, many have instead decided to go to school under retraining programs for dislocated workers.
JANESVILLE Kathy and Bill Brennan of Janesville drove to Arlington, Texas, a year ago to scope out Bill’s new life. When Kathy was satisfied that her husband of 37 years was settled into his furnished apartment, she boarded a plane and flew back home—alone.
“I cried all the way to Chicago,” Kathy recalled. “I couldn’t help it.”
In the last 12 months, the Brennans have learned how to adapt to a life they never dreamed they would be living. When production of sport-utility vehicles ended at Janesville’s General Motors plant in December 2008, Bill had the chance to continue working as a millwright at a GM plant in Arlington. With a daughter still in high school and other grown children in Janesville, Bill and Kathy were unwilling to uproot their family.
Instead, they decided that Bill would make the move alone and come home for special events, including his daughter’s confirmation and another daughter’s wedding.
“I was one of the first ones to leave Janesville because I had an opportunity,” Bill said. “None of the other plants were calling for anyone yet. It was very painful, but I could not afford to turn down a sure thing.”
He remembers how sad he felt when Kathy, his love since first grade, boarded the plane to Janesville.
“We are not young anymore, and Texas is way across the country,” 55-year-old Bill said. “We cry a lot on the phone. We don’t know how long we will be doing this. I have another daughter who wants to go to college. How do I provide for her?”
Kathy, 54, and Bill have five children and five grandchildren, with another on the way. Kathy and the children came to Wisconsin in 1995, when Bill transferred to Janesville after the closing of a GM plant in New Jersey. Bill came earlier to pave the way for his family.
“We always said nothing could ever hurt us again like that move,” Kathy said, referring to the trauma of being ripped away from relatives, schools and community. “It was so painful. I never thought anything would be that difficult again.”
She was wrong.
To ease the heartache of separation, Kathy and Bill talk daily by phone about family, work and staying strong. They survive by buying plane tickets. Their goal is to get a retirement for Bill. But they do not want to destroy their relationship in the process.
“As soon as we can’t take it anymore, we’ll do an early retirement,” Kathy said. “We’ll make a (financial) plan about how to deal with it.”
Bill and Kathy are Catholics and draw on their strong faith to stay positive.
“We hope God will guide us through all this,” Bill said. “Going to Mass every day is what gives me my strength to continue.”
Bill, who is known as Sparky by friends, has company from other former Janesville GM workers at the Arlington plant. At least 137 others have transferred to build full-size sport-utility vehicles and work in the highly populated Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“We call it ‘Janesville South,’” Bill said. “Because I was one of the first guys here, I’ve been the tour guide for a lot of people.”
He works 50-hour weeks and often right through his lunch hours.
Kathy stays busy as well. She works at St. William Catholic School as a teacher’s aide.
“My job is a big help,” she said. “I’m with 175 kids every day. I love children. My days go very fast. My nights are the hardest part.”
Bill recently came home for knee surgery.
Kathy cannot even think about his return to Texas, even though she has learned how to take care of the house, the car and the yard. She tries to have faith that she and Bill are doing the right thing.
“Some days are not good,” Kathy said.
“Some days we doubt why we do this. Then we go over the reasons and stay focused. It’s been a trying year.”
Kathy and Bill Brennan are not alone in their painful and life-altering decisions after the closing of Janesville’s GM plant. Bill is too far away to commute home every weekend.
Many GM transfers to plants in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Kansas City, Kan., jump in their cars after their weekly shifts and start the long haul to Rock County. Those in Fort Wayne drive up to five hours one way. Those at the Fairfax plant in Kansas City drive up to eight hours, usually after finishing shifts. They carpool. They share apartments or houses. They miss their families and worry about their well-being.
Workers say they commute instead of moving because they don’t want to uproot families, especially when children are in school. They do not want to take big losses on selling their homes in a down economy, even though it means setting up two households. And, after seeing the decades-old Janesville plant close, they need time to feel secure about new jobs in new communities.
Meanwhile, their loved ones at home are learning to live new lives with new roles and added responsibilities. Spouses become single parents during the week. They barely manage working full time while taking care of the children, the house and the yard. They worry about husbands and wives on the road every weekend, especially in winter. They are concerned about lonely spouses who have to get by without their families all week.
Michael Hanley of Janesville was laid off in June 2008 after more than 23 years at the Janesville plant. He is living in Kansas City with his brother and two brothers-in-law. They all moved together in July to take jobs at the Fairfax plant and share a three-bedroom apartment. They are among more than 300 former Janesville GM workers to take Kansas transfers. Michael’s wife, Laura, talked openly about the impact on families.
“Depression has been a factor in many of the men,” Laura said. “We (wives) don’t want to let them know about the problems at home simply because they can’t be here to help, which also depresses them. The kids have a hard time adjusting. They miss their dad. They now have only one parent to help them, and she is so stressed out … The kids are tired of seeing their mother crying all the time. They are tired of seeing their dad cry every Monday morning before he leaves to return to Kansas. They are helpless to do anything…”
“On top of all this, we are criticized for not moving with our spouses. People who are not in this situation, and never have been, are the first to tell us what a mistake we are making—which adds to the stress level.”
Teri Huber’s husband, Scott, also transferred to the Fairfax plant and commutes home to Janesville on weekends.
“We’ve lived here a long time,” said Teri, manager of the Janesville Farmer’s Market. “My involvement in the community is so entrenched. I’m afraid of moving to Kansas, starting over and having the economy fall out all over again. We feel there is too much security in our home in Janesville to give it up for the unknown.”
Scott was surprised when he got the transfer.
“It would have been irresponsible not to take it,” Teri said. “We are grateful for the opportunity.”
Because jobs are few and far between, she sees anger in the community.
“Much of it stems from fear,” Teri said. “People are afraid of what the future holds for their families, their city, their state and country.”
The Hubers do not know how long Scott will continue commuting. For now, most of his paychecks come back to be spent in Janesville, where the family still is buying groceries and other necessities.
“We try to support locally owned businesses,” Teri said.
She referred to the people who own them as “our friends and neighbors.”
Dan O’Brien of Whitewater became “Mr. Mom” when his wife, Carolyn, transferred to the GM plant in Fort Wayne. The song by the same name plays on his cell phone when he gets a call.
“The hardest thing about being ‘Mr. Mom’ is being without my wife,” Dan said. “The hardest thing is watching her drive away every week.”
Carolyn is among more than 50 Janesville GM workers who transferred to the Fort Wayne plant that makes Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pick-up trucks. She comes home on weekends, except when she works Saturdays.
Dan worked almost 30 years at GM before he got laid off from the Janesville plant in August. He was a United Auto Workers representative who helped people transfer out of state to other GM plants. He also helped them fill out the paperwork for buyouts.
“I could tell you everyone’s name,” he said. “I worked with them for years. I grew up with some of them.”
On Dan’s last day, he packed up his box and left an empty plant.
Eventually, the O’Briens both will move to Fort Wayne, where Dan hopes to get a job on the line. At 47, he said he is too young to retire. For now, the O’Briens keep their Whitewater home because they have twin daughters in high school. Both want to attend UW-Whitewater.
Dan and Carolyn have been married 20 years and raised five kids. Dan graduated from Craig High School in 1980 and started work at the Janesville plant a few months later. He transferred to Fort Wayne to work on the truck line in 1986 and met Carolyn. For years, they worked on opposite shifts. They transferred to Janesville in 1995 and worked on the same shift.
Now they talk by phone at least three times a day.
Six years ago, Dan and Carolyn lost their home to a house fire. That helps Dan keep his current situation in perspective.
“This is another bump,” Dan said.
“We will survive. Life goes on.”
Jane Dohner sat on the front porch and wept the first time her husband, John Jr., left their Busseyville-area home to commute to the Fort Wayne plant. She was in charge of three kids, 13 acres, four horses, five cows, four dogs and ducks and chickens for the first time without his help.
“We still have kids in high school,” she said. “If we sold our house and moved to Fort Wayne, would we ever get what we have now?”
They chose not to move. With 25 years under his belt, John has only five more years before he is eligible for a pension.
At the end of five years, Jane believes she will be able to do everything from changing furnace filters to delivering a calf.
Her two sons and a daughter, ages 15 to 21, help where they can.
“They don’t say a whole lot about the situation,” she explained. “In the beginning, I know they were in shock. They were thinking their dad is going to be gone a long time. They have not vocalized that they are angry or upset, probably because they see me upset. They are trying to step up to the plate and do what they need to do.”
Jane tries not to think too hard about John on the highway commuting with other GM workers, or about the buck that narrowly missed their car this fall, or about the vehicle fleeing police that almost hit them.
John was shop chairman for United Auto Workers Local 95 before he transferred to Fort Wayne in August. Now he works in the body shop as a replacement operator. He leaves his home at 10 a.m. Monday, arrives in Fort Wayne in the afternoon and usually starts work at 5:30 p.m. He is working a five-day week. At the end of the week, he finishes work at 4 a.m. Saturday.
“Then we hop in the car and make the run back,” he says.
He shares driving with other GM workers who carpool with him. He lives with other Fort Wayne workers in a cottage. When he comes home, he has to make a quick adjustment back to daytime hours.
This is John’s second time around at the Fort Wayne plant. He worked there from 1986 to 1993. He does not complain.
“I may not be home,” John said.
“But at least I have a job and can support my family.”