Lordstown plant workers, families forced to make tough choices

The Davis family, from left, Aubrey, 5, mom Tiffany, dad Tom and Brian, 10, talk about how the General Motors decision to idle the Lordstown plant has affected their lives. The couple has decided to wait to see how things shake out with the national UAW contract, which expires in September, rather than Tom seeking transfer to another facility. Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple

WARREN — Tom Davis sent a text to his wife the morning of Nov. 26 with news that sent their life into upheaval — his employer since 2001, General Motors, was stopping production of the Chevrolet Cruze and placing the Lordstown plant on “unallocated” status.

“I was standing there with my friends and after the announcement, we kind of looked at each other and were like, what does ‘unallocated’ mean? They didn’t say they were idling or closing, so basically, we just don’t have a product right now,” Davis said. “We were kind of confused.”

Tom’s wife, Tiffany, didn’t know what to make of the announcement either. She asked her husband questions he didn’t know how to answer.

“I came home and we just talked about it as a family,” said Tom, 37.

” And every day thereafter,” said Tiffany, 35.

“We were like, OK, what are our options. We just weighed our options, sat back and thought … what is the worst-case scenario. Should we put in for a transfer? Should we wait?” Tom said.

The announcement the Lordstown facility was among five in North America that GM intends to idle in March created waves of uncertainty and worry among employees and their families about what the future has in store.

Employees with enough time under their belt could retire. Those who could not retire could volunteer to transfer to another GM plant, a decision that meant uprooting their lives and in some instances, dividing families.

Some workers not eligible to retire and not yet willing to leave are staying through March 8 — the planned last day for employees — to wait to see where the chips fall when a new bargaining agreement is struck later this year.

The national United Auto Workers contract with GM expires in September.

Tiffany and Tom are going to wait. Natalie Skaggs and her husband, Rodney, both GM employees, didn’t, and are already working at the Fort Wayne, Ind., plant, where the light-duty Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra are produced.

The Skaggs are among 52 ex-Lordstown workers who transferred to the facility.

Tiffany and Tom

The couple from Girard were high school sweethearts. He graduated in 2000 and she, in 2002. They married in 2005, the same year they moved into their home on West Second Street, where they now raise their children, Brian, 10, and Aubrey, 5.

Tom started in the plant the summer after his graduation as summer help and was hired permanently the next year. He said he’s worked multiple jobs inside the facility, but now he works in the trim department connecting wiring harnesses in the trunk of the Cruze as it makes its way along the assembly line.

“Picture every minute reaching into your trunk to grab a bag of groceries,” is what Tom likened the work to.

Tiffany is a fifth-grade language arts and social studies teacher in the Lordstown Local School District. She works on a year-to-year contract.

She said she continued about her day normally when Tom texted her the news.

“I was trying to let it sink in, but I was trying to hide it from my students, too, because so many of their parents work at the plant,” Tiffany said.

Both said they talked, and talked, and talked about what to do and concluded to stay and wait.

“I think we talked about it after work every day. It was even during Christmas break, it was a source of our conversation all the time about what to do,” Tiffany said.

Said Tom, “a friend of mine put it this way at work … no matter where I go, it’s not going to be appealing,” so let GM make the decision for me.

Leaving means moving away from friends and family and other established support systems, putting a house up for sale and taking children out of school and school activities.

“Our whole support system is here,” said Tiffany, including Tom’s mom, who Tiffany said is like a “third parent” to the kids for all the help she provides. She also lives just three blocks away.

If her teaching contract is renewed for another year, Tiffany will be in the middle of it when the new UAW contract becomes effective.

It’s at the bargaining table that local UAW officials hope they can strike a deal to keep the Lordstown plant open and producing a new vehicle, but if that’s not the case, Tom will transfer and Tiffany and the children will eventually follow.

She would end up staying through the end of her school year because the couple doesn’t want to pull Brian and Aubrey out of Girard City Schools and she has a contractual obligation with Lordstown schools she wants to honor.

Employees who transfer to a plant that’s far — outside a 60- or 70-mile range of their home plant — are eligible for up to $30,000 in transfer assistance from GM.

It’s not that simple, however, Tiffany said.

“It’s just not about picking up and leaving. It’s about leaving your life,” Tiffany said. “All of us will have to make a change to follow him. I’ll have to leave my career so he can keep his. That’s not an easy choice to make.”

Natalie and Rodney

The former Champion residents already live in Fort Wayne and work at the assembly plant there.

“We are blessed,” said Natalie that she and Rodney were able to go away and work for the same pay and benefits without facing some of the greater hardships as many of her co-workers are.

The two did not have to think about relocating children — Rodney’s son and daughter are adults. His son is 25 and a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army. His daughter, 24, is living in San Diego and working toward a doctorate degree in psychology.

“We just had to get to the same plant, that was the scariest part of this,” Natalie said. “There was a little bit of a gap in our seniority … I was very worried we would get opposite plants.”

When they first received their transfer papers, he was placed in Toledo and she was placed in Fort Wayne, but it worked out the two were assigned to the same plant.

Some of her co-workers and friends at Lordstown were forced to leave behind their families.

“My heart breaks for people I’m in orientation class with here from Lordstown,” Natalie, 40, said. “They had to leave their kids.”

Natalie and Rodney, 46, met at the plant, “another General Motors romance,” she said. They’ll be married for 13 years on July 1.

She grew up in Bazetta, a 1997 graduate of Lakeview High School, and he was raised in Champion, a 1992 graduate of Champion High School.

He began at the plant in 1995. She began in 2000 after a spending some time in college, which “just wasn’t kind of for me.”

Her father was employed at the Lordstown plant, and when she left school, he asked if she wanted him to submit her name for a job. She said yes.

“I like the work we do,” said Natalie. “I like working with my hands.”

Both, like Tom, survived the eliminations of the third production shift in 2016 and the second production shift in 2018. The Skaggs built a life in Champion, where they have lived since 2006, but now the home she loves is up for sale.

“We figured if we were going to make a decision like this, we needed to embrace it,” Natalie said.

The two plan to make their lives in Fort Wayne and don’t anticipate returning to Champion. But that means leaving behind both of their mothers, who are both widows.

Natalie and Rodney live in an apartment, where they figure to stay for about a year while getting to better know the Fort Wayne community. There’s also a nagging fear what happened with GM may happen again.

“I almost feel like we don’t want to buy a home again and get attached. I don’t know if that fear will ever go away,” she said, adding the Silverado and Sierra are “great” products, but so was the Cruze, and “I thought that would never go away.”

“Lordstown will forever be my home. I’m just really and truly still praying something will happen there … for us and our situation, we feel 100 percent good with our decision,” Natalie said.

Transfers

The Skaggs are among 372 hourly employees at Lordstown who volunteered to leave and have been placed in new jobs.

The most, 132, were assigned to GM’s Spring Hill Manufacturing Plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., to prepare for the launch of the new Cadillac XT6 crossover, while 93 transferred to the Flint Assembly Plant in Flint, Mich., to support the launch of the new heavy-duty Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra.

Fifty-two are in Fort Wayne while the rest went to either the Toledo Transmission Plant in Toledo or Bedford Castings in Bedford, Ind.

rselak@tribtoday.com

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