December 19, 2002
front page
more news
ad information
contact information


Vernay employees Leo Zawanda, left,
Jimmy McKee and Sim Morris.

Vernay Labs employees try to adjust to a different life

This holiday season will be a tough one to remember for Rick Day, who will be laid off from Vernay Laboratories on Dec. 20. The same is true of the 14 other production workers who have been with Vernay for 7 to 10 years and are being laid off in the company’s second wave of terminations.

The Day family, however, won’t just lose one income. Day’s wife, Nicole, was laid off from Vernay in October, as was his brother.

“Hard times are getting ready to come upon us, and everything’s going to have to change,” Day said. “It’s going to be real tight, it’s going to be rough.”

Many workers say Vernay felt like a family, and many families worked there. Richard Whittington and his brother Timothy, who live together in Xenia, both worked at Vernay. Brenda Weaver and her brother David Lloyd worked there after their mother did, and Weaver’s son had hopes of working there too one day. But not anymore.

In June, Vernay announced plans to close its two plants on Dayton Street, eliminating 185 jobs. The local operations will be moved to the company’s facilities in the South, though its headquarters will remain in Yellow Springs.

By next September, when the largest plant is scheduled to close, most of the employees will have had to face the same thing: finding another job.

All the workers say the current job market is difficult, and many have been looking since they first learned of the plant closings. Those who have already been laid off have been sending out applications since as early as August, and very few have heard anything back. Finding a comparable manufacturing position with equal pay after making upwards of $13 an hour with benefits at Vernay makes the search even more difficult.

Joe Regan lives in Yellow Springs and has been with Vernay for over 25 years, yet he won’t be quite old enough to retire when he loses his job next year.

“Factory work in the U.S. is a dead end,” Regan said. “The good paying jobs are moving out of the country or they’re going down South where the companies have a right to work their employees at low wages without benefits.”

Rick Day, who lives in Xenia, has been looking far and wide for a job that pays close to his current wage of $16.28 an hour. He has applied for jobs with the ABF trucking company in New Carlisle, the Bob Evans slaughter house distribution center in Springfield, a SuperValue warehouse in Washington Court House and other places in Xenia. He has house payments, car payments, credit card debt and an 11-year-old son to take care of. The almost guaranteed cut in pay, at least for now, will be an adjustment.

He and Nicole will both be drawing unemployment by next week, about $500 combined every two weeks, Day said, though they and Rick’s son won’t have health insurance.

Brenda Weaver is in a similar position. She lives in Xenia with her husband and two children. She was laid off on Oct. 11, and the best offer she has been able to find is a job starting at minimum wage and topping off at $10 an hour.

The employees believed “the plant would never leave Yellow Springs, so you go out and you buy a home, you buy new cars, everything,” Weaver said. “They tell you they’re going to be there and then they kick you out and you can’t pay all the bills.”

Vernay offers its employees a severance package of $150 per year of service if they stay until their layoff date and if they sign away the right to file any future claims against the company. The employees are also given the option to buy continued health care coverage at 25 percent of the cost for six months.

Workers say a few people just quit on the spot, but most couldn’t afford not to work as long as possible. The Whittington brothers did not sign up to receive their severances, but they took the health insurance offer.

“It depends on each family’s situation,” Richard Whittington said. “That’s not bad for me, but I’m single. If you have one or two kids, you’re going to be putting out a good deal of money” for health insurance.

Day could get a $1,500 severance, but he said he and Nicole couldn’t afford to pay for the health insurance, which would take almost their whole unemployment check. He will most likely relinquish the right to sue in order to get his severance.

“I’d rather do it that way because once I sign the papers and leave, I’ll never have anything to do with that company again, and I’ll be done with it,” Day said.

But workers whose retirement money is tied to Vernay won’t forsake the company altogether. Vicki Bridgette is scheduled to be laid off next June, when she will have 25 years in with the company. She won’t be old enough for retirement benefits, but it will be right around the bend, and she wants to make sure Vernay can pay for it when the time comes, she said.

Regan had hoped to retire early and live comfortably on his pension, company stock dividends and other investments. Now he will have to work 10 more years until he reaches federal retirement age, when his pension won’t be worth as much as it would be right now.

“What I lose is insurance until I can retire and early pension benefits,” Regan said. “I don’t have a stake in the company’s success, I’m only hoping they don’t become bankrupt so I can get my retirement.”

For now it’s back to the job hunt. Most workers say that even with their severance and the money they’ve tried to save the past few months, they can only sustain their lifestyles a few months before something has to give.

Workers say Greene Works, the county’s unemployment service, has been helpful. The program provides job training in areas such as computers, healthcare and truck driving, plus it extends unemployment benefits for continuing education courses for up to a year. The agency also posts job listings and helps prospective employees to improve their strengths through skills and comprehension testing for favorable job placement.

Timothy Whittington, who was laid off in October, went to Greene Works for a two-day computer training course.

“The test shows you what you’re good at and what you like, and the guy at Greene Works suggested I learn computers,” Whittington said. “You learn the basics of how to operate a computer, you get some interest in it, then you can take more advanced courses.”

But Whittington wants to find a job before he takes more classes because he doesn’t want to have to limit his work schedule to accommodate school. It makes sense but, he said, if he needs the skills before he can get the job, he might be operating in an unfortunate cycle.

Day has plans to get his commercial driver’s license through a three-week Greene Works training course. His brother did it and he already has his CDL, though he hasn’t found work yet, Day said.

“He might have to look for ‘over the road’ work, where you’re gone pretty much all the time and you’re lucky if you’re home at all on the weekends,” Day said.

In spite of the hardship and adjustment Vernay’s employees have had to make, they say they aren’t bitter toward the company as a whole and that their sadness and distress is no one’s fault.

“Except maybe Tom’s,” Regan said, referring to Vernay’s president and CEO, Tom Allen. “One day last week Tom came through the plant and we all stood up and gave him a standing ‘boo’vation,” he said.

But most say they like their jobs, their co-workers and the financial stability they had with Vernay. Vicki Bridgette said she feels very connected to her co-workers.

“You have your home family and your work family,” she said. “Most of the 20 people I hired in with are still there. We all thought we’d retire from there together.”

Weaver tried for two decades to get a job with the company.

“I had put four applications in since 1977 until they finally hired me about 20 years later,” she said. “If they offered us back our jobs I’d go — I loved my job.”

Many employees said that the Yellow Springs community could have been more supportive of them and the company. The village is not oriented toward big business, they said. Some said they had shopped in town, put their money in the local bank and credit union, paid local taxes and found little appreciation for their participation.

“We didn’t see any letters to the editor about trying to save people’s jobs, and no one has called about absorbing some of us for openings at other industries in town,” Bridgette said.

The focus for those who have left is finding another job. Those still at Vernay are doing the best they can to maintain a calm working environment, as layoff notices continue to be posted every few months, bringing morale down a few more notches.

“People are still trying to work, but there’s a lot of distrust,” Bridgette said. “People are wondering, will they stick to the layoff plan? When will my time finally come? What’s going to happen to me?”

—Lauren Heaton