Workers face uncertainty after Maytag plant closure

Mayor Vic Ritter never thought Maytag Corp. would turn its back on this blue-collar town, where it operated a washer-and-dryer factory and enjoyed its status as the jobs king.

"I just thought they'd make it bigger, better," Ritter said.

He was wrong. The plant's 60-year run ended Friday, eliminating about 1,000 jobs and casting uncertainty into the lives of many around this 11,500-resident community southeast of St. Louis just days before Christmas.

"These are just darned-good people," Ritter said. "They didn't deserve this."

Ritter, like others in town, learned the plant would close by year-end when Michigan-based Whirlpool Corp. bought struggling Maytag in the spring. At the time, Whirlpool said keeping the Herrin plant open was not in its plans.

There's no denying Maytag's importance to this region. Ritter said that not long ago the plant drew workers from 16 counties, and officials said the plant closure would wipe out an estimated $30-million payroll spread among nearly 100 towns within an hour's drive.

The loss of the jobs, which pay about $15 an hour, is expected to trickle through the region's economy, affecting restaurants, theaters, filling stations and many other businesses. And the closure has turned many lives topsy-turvy, forcing the newly jobless to retire, scramble to find other jobs, consider relocating or -- seeing the plant's demise as an opportunity -- go back to school.

The plant's union-backed workers will be given some severance pay. They will get $650 for every year of employment, up to 26 years or $16,900. They're also getting one week of health coverage for every year at the plant -- benefits ranging from four weeks to 26 weeks.

The affected workers also have been offered help in finding new jobs, aided by as much as $2 million the state has released.

All of it is little consolation for 37-year-old Jo Anna Broom after more than seven years on the plant's assembly line. She has lately worked fastening back guard shields on washing machines and now finds herself feeling uneasy.

Broom, a single mother of two teenagers, said the job had her household living comfortably -- at least worth her 20-minute commute from her home in Benton, Ill. Now that she's out of a job, she plans to attend community college and eventually work in a doctor's office or hospital.

"I never thought at this point in my life I'd be going back to school," living on unemployment checks along the way, she said. "I'm trying to be optimistic, but sometimes it's hard to be."

Pam Forbes knows how that feels. Since her husband got laid off from his job a year ago and was denied unemployment benefits, the 39-year-old woman -- a Maytag worker for nearly eight years -- has seen their once "pretty decent" savings account plunge by about $4,000 to pay bills and buy food.

"These are pretty hard times," she said. "I'm a little scared, just wondering what's going to happen. There's not much here, and [Maytag] is the best-paying job around."

Ritter, who has lived in the area for about 50 years, believes the area is resilient.

"It's not time to be mad anymore," the 67-year-old Ritter said.

"It's time for everyone to get on with their lives, and I think people will do that."

Those who have lost their jobs may find comfort in unexpected places, such as the First Baptist Church, which has posted a sign out front that reads, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the Maytag employees."

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