July 3, 2003
Over a final round, Vernay employees adjust to closings
Last Friday afternoon, when they would normally be at work, seven Vernay Laboratories employees sat at Bogeys at Rocky Lakes bar on U.S. 68 drinking beer and laughing about old times.
The four men, who are still employed at Vernay, kept the glasses full for the three women who had just punched the clock for their last shift with the company. The employees, who at one time worked in Plant 3 together, were the last hourly employees to work at the company’s largest Dayton Street plant when it ceased its manufacturing operations.
“I just clocked in and left,” Rhonda Weller said. “It’s been terrible because I loved my job.”
The 20-foot rubber mixers and giant roller mills in Plant 3, where Weller worked most of the time, now sit idle, as if they are now part of a museum commemorating 20th-century industries. The few molding presses that remain lie agape, and the plant’s characteristic carbon-black pigment stains the empty floor space where, only a year ago, production equipment was churning out millions of rubber parts per day.
Employees worked hard and prided themselves on doing a good job, Weller said of the time after she had moved up to the molding presses. Workers would post their production output numbers at the end of every shift, and Weller said that she would always try to do better than the worker before her.
“You wanted to help Vernay’s, even if it took an extra five minutes for my job, if they needed more parts we all wanted to get that done for them,” she said. “I always tried to do my best.”
Diane Estridge, who was laid off last month from Vernay and who joined the group at the bar on Friday, recalled that employees got very close joking around with each other and having many birthday and retirement parties as well as wedding and baby showers in the lunch room. Going to work was actually considered fun.
“You just didn’t want to miss work because you just had a really good time,” she said.
But being needed is something workers have not felt in the past few years, Estridge said. Especially in the last year, as layoffs continued and Plant 3 operations diminished, workers have been spread thin, and the plant has felt empty and cold, employees said.
“It didn’t even feel like you were working for the same company,” Estridge said. “Your heart’s not in it, and you’re just kind of marking time waiting for your time to end.”
Since last year the company has hired contract riggers to load ready-made products and equipment from Plant 3 onto skids for transport to Vernay plants in the South for reinstallment. One cutter goes to South Carolina, another extruder goes to Milledgeville, Ga.
Now that the hourly workers are completely moved out of Plant 3’s production areas, only a small amount of the large machinery needs to be relocated or sold, according to Gregg Gearhardt, vice president of North American manufacturing at Vernay.
Another 25 engineers, accountants and information technology specialists will work at Plant 3 until the building is leased or sold, at which time the remaining employees will transfer to Vernay’s facility on East South College Street.
But after the plant closing and layoff schedules were modified last fall, the numbers kept fluctuating right up to the layoff date, and workers got tired of trying to figure out when they were leaving to plan ahead for the event.
“It is tremendous pressure for them, and a lot of it is the information you hear that you can’t trust,” union leader Ralph Foster said. “The ones who are leaving are relieved it’s over, but it’s going to continue to be the same for the people who are left.”
The urge to speed up the inevitable was present around the table at Bogeys last Friday. Marcos Harding, who still has a job at Vernay, expressed frustration with prolonging the end. “I asked [management] and they said Plant 2 was expected to be closed by the end of the year,” he said. “I hope it’s Monday.”
The uncertainty is most crucial for those whose retirement is coming up in the next year. Dave Furay, who has been with the company for more than 29 years, will be eligible for retirement in November. But conflicting information about Plant 2’s closing schedule has him wondering if he will even make it that far.
“I sincerely hope I’ll get to retire, but you can’t take nothing for granted,” he said.
Several workers say they’ve asked both Gearhardt and Vernay President and CEO Tom Allen when Plant 2 was expected to close.
“Tom said his preference would be to shut it down at the end of this year if they could get it done,” Foster said. “But if not, then it would be the first quarter of next year.”
But in a separate interview Allen said the company would only start moving jobs out of Plant 2 this fall, saying, “we won’t have it done this year, there’s no way.” Allen had previously said that Vernay would begin closing the smaller plant at the beginning of next year.
“My goal was to work there 30 years and retire,” she said.
Now at 55, Estridge has to start over or come up with another plan for her retirement. She says she just feels depressed, but her aging husband worries about what will happen to her when he is no longer around. Though she feels too old for another career, she is thinking about going back to school for new training.
As workers who were laid off two and eight months ago can attest to, life after Vernay has not been easy. Richard Whittington had been working part-time in retail since he was laid off in October, and recently found employment, through a former Vernay coworker, as a snack bar supervisor for Cedarville College. The job gives him benefits, but the pay is a fraction of what he made at Vernay.
Some workers, such as Cheryl Claypool, a single mother of four, prepared way ahead for her layoff. She signed up for nursing classes last November when she realized she would soon be let go. Since she left the company at the end of April, she waited only ten weeks to get into a Licensed Practical Nursing program. In the meantime, Claypool has continued to work at her part-time job at Young’s Jersey Dairy and to take care of her family, including a son who is severely disabled.
“I was tired of spraying, tired of working nights, and I was ready for a change,” she said. “I still have 18 years of work ahead of me.”
to do something’
“This forced me to get a new job, it forced me to do better,” Claypool said. “I’m going into the medical field where I’ll always have a job, this is never going to happen to me again.”
After decades of hard work and struggling to cram in overtime hours, workers are now taking advantage of their time off. Claypool took a trip to Arizona, took nursing aid classes and painted her house in Clifton. Estridge has done some gardening and spent time with her three children. And since Friday, Weller has been able to take her mother on a day outing, and Vicki Bridgette has spent a day swimming with her grandchildren.
The former Vernay employees still meet regularly and keep in touch with each other. Before the group broke up at the bar on Friday a group of women organized a gathering for the following week.
“We can meet everyday now, what have we got to do!” someone yelled before everyone burst out laughing.
The group at the bar continued to slip a joke in between every somber moment. Though not many employees live in Yellow Springs anymore, the workers maintain they’ve supported local businesses by buying gas and food, belonging to the Yellow Springs Credit Union and frequenting the bars and cafes.
There was so much kidding and laughing going on, it was hard to tell that half of the group sitting around the table was unemployed and the other half would be in months.
“We have to stay in a nice mood to keep from getting depressed,” current employee Art Works explained.
The initial period is tough, they all conceded, but not one in the group expressed a hopelessness about the future. Though Estridge has only had a month to adjust to life without Vernay and she has not decided exactly what to do next, she expects to return to school.
“I’ll have an opportunity to do something I like,” she said. “I have to look on the positive side otherwise life wouldn’t be worth leading.”