Laura Lee McDermeit is trying to look at the bright side — but it’s difficult. After 20 years at Haldex Brake Corporation, she’s unsure what the future holds.
“I’ll just see where God can take me,” she said.
Once Haldex closes its doors for sure, that is.
Until then, she, like most other Haldex employees, is working overtime.
“The machine shop is running seven days a week” trying to build up inventory for the imminent move of the company’s production lines from Iola to Monterrey, Mexico, she said.
When the first of the 40 to 50 lines do move, sometime in early October, McDermeit intends to go along for the ride.
“When they asked for volunteers to help set up the lines in Monterrey, I said, ‘I’ll do it,’” McDermeit said. “I saw it as an opportunity.”
McDermeit, along with seven other line workers, two engineers and four supervisors, will make up two teams that will set up production lines and help train new workers in their use.
“A lot of people are bitter, but it’s not Mexico’s fault,” she said of the Sweden-owned company’s decision to move Iola’s production to Mexico.
Instead, McDermeit blames the shift in American factory work south of the border squarely on Washington.
“It’s our government that did it,” she said. “Ever since the North American Free Trade Agreement was passed, the jobs have been moving south.”
NAFTA was initiated in 1992 under the administration of President George H.W. Bush between Canada, the United States and Mexico. It became law in 1994.
THE CLOSURE of Haldex will impact not only the factory’s 160 workers, but all of Iola, McDermeit said.
She mentioned several couples who both work at the brake plant. Other employees had made major purchases, banking on a solid future.
McDermeit pondered how those families will now make car payments or pay their mortgages.
“Sure, we can go on unemployment, but where’s the insurance? That’s gone.”
Benefits at Haldex, she said, were very good.
“That’s why we worked there,” she said, “that plus the five weeks of vacation.”
McDermeit said she’s been shopping for health insurance over the Internet. It isn’t cheap, she said, wondering if unemployment benefits will suffice to purchase both insurance and food.
Still, she admits, she has it better than some.
“My house is paid off. My car is paid off.”
Before her husband, Doug, died of cancer 10 years ago, McDermeit said, “he made sure we had the house and the cars paid off.”
Plus, she said, employees will get a severance package that includes a set number of weeks of insurance, based on the number of years they had worked for Haldex.
In addition, she said, employees are eligible for a government program — the Trade Adjustment Assistance Act — that pays for them to return to school to be retrained for other careers.
“I know a lot of the engineers are going back to get more education and then they’ll probably move on,” she said.
While she’s trying to teach herself computer skills, McDermeit does not intend to join her coworkers in shifting to student life at Allen County Community College.
What she would like to do is find another job.
“But in Iola, we’re limited. There’s not a lot of options here. You’ve got Herff Jones, Russell Stover and Gates,” as far as manufacturers, she said.
She also said the transition will be made more difficult because most Haldex workers are accustomed to working in an air-conditioned environment, an amenity not offered by Iola’s largest employer, Gates Rubber.
“I couldn’t work there,” McDermeit said.
SO, UNTIL she finds another job — at 59 she’s too young to retire — McDermeit intends to accept unemployment insurance — “at least until the end of the year.”
One thing she will not do is leave Iola.
“I’ve been here too long. This is where my husband and I moved to raise our kids.”
The McDermeits came to Iola from Denver in 1978. Doug’s family was from this area, she said, and he wanted to raise his family in a quieter place.
McDermeit believes Iola’s leaders need to be more visionary to help attract new industries.
“If we had an indoor pool, kids could swim all year round. It would have made jobs all year round. It would give the elderly some place to walk.”
Iola’s mayor “Bill Maness is really working on” trying to get another industry to move to Allen County, but “he’s lost his job, too,” she noted.
Unless other options emerge, she feared, workers like her will be forced to leave.
“You don’t want to lose these people who have lived here all their lives and know people,” she said. “A lot of the elderly depend on Iola.”