ST. PAUL, Minn. — When the last Ranger pickup truck rolled off the assembly line at the Ford Motor Co. plant here in December, it came five years after Ford announced plans to close the plant. And yet it managed to catch many employees unprepared for life's next step.
It's a theme that's become all too familiar for union leaders at shuttered plants around the country who have watched workers cling too long to high-paying jobs.
For Travis Johnston, 36, of River Falls, Wis., it made sense to ride with Ford as long as he could. He often worked more than 50 hours a week for $28 an hour plus overtime, leaving him exhausted and with little incentive to find a job that would almost certainly pay less. After 11 years with Ford, he only recently updated his resume and began looking for another job.
"Honestly, the biggest part of it is the pay," he said.
In 2006, Ford announced it would shut down the plant and offered its employees buyouts. Then the company brought back hundreds of workers under special terms and kept the plant running.
"We kept getting these extensions," Johnston said. "When we didn't get it (this summer), it really started to sink in."
The plant had about 1,800 hourly workers in 2006. In 2007, the state's dislocated worker program started signing up employees, helping them write resumes, network and sharpen their interviewing skills, while acting as a gateway to subsidized job training.
State figures show 1,050 employees enrolled and more than 300 finished. Of those who finished, 90 percent got jobs and 96 percent of them were still employed six months later. Forty-six percent of those who finished earned a diploma or professional certificate through the program's training benefits.
Anthony Alongi, director of Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development's dislocated worker program, said such programs never get all employees in a mass layoff. Many transfer to other plants, he said, some retire, others get jobs on their own, and some simply refuse to seek help.
He said more workers might have completed the program if Ford hadn't granted so many extensions keeping the plant open.
"If you were a Ford worker, you could be forgiven for thinking that maybe it would stay open a little bit longer," he said.
Wayne Young, supervisor of the dislocated worker program for Ramsey County, which contracts with the state to provide services to the workers, said the number of Ford workers who showed up for registration events spiked as the final closing date neared.
"It's not unusual for people in large-scale layoff situations to be a bit in denial that it's ending," he said. "I kind of got that feeling from the folks we have been seeing on the past couple of registrations."
Ford spokeswoman Marcey Evans said about two-thirds of the 800 employees can transfer to other Ford locations, including assembly plants in Chicago and Louisville, Ky. Employees who took a $100,000 lump-sum buyout in 2006 cannot transfer, a restriction that affects Johnston and many other senior workers.
Greg Audette, who worked at the plant for 20 years, said he now regrets taking the money.
"If I had known it would be like this, I never would have taken the buyout," he said. "I would be transferring now."
Instead, he said as he walked out of the plant and into the cold as the plant closed, he was going to start looking for work.
"I guess I'll go look for job, take some time off, figure it out," Audette said.
It was a similar situation when Chrysler shut down its assembly plant in Newark, Del., in 2008, said Richard McDonaugh Jr., former president of the local autoworker's union. More than 1,000 workers lost their jobs and only a few of them could transfer to other Chrysler plants. Many who didn't take advantage of job training programs are still looking for work, he said.
"The economy is going down the toilet and they are going down with it," said McDonaugh, who now works for the Delaware Department of Labor enforcing labor laws. Several families have broken up because of the stress, he said, and at least two former employees have committed suicide.
At Ford's St. Paul plant, Sylvia Rutledge was one of the workers who took advantage of everything the state and company offered. A few days before the plant closed, she had plans A, B, C "and C½ and D," she said. "If one plan falls through, I've got another to fall back on."
Rutledge passed up the $100,000 buyout and picked a Ford severance program that paid for college tuition. She used it to get a medical assistant's degree, studying on a laptop during breaks when she was called back to work. She figures she's only a year of study away from earning a nursing degree.
Once her daughter graduates from high school in the spring, she might try for a transfer to the medical department at Ford's Louisville plant, work as a medical assistant or go back to school to finish her nursing degree.
"I got a few options," she said. "That's what everybody should have done because we've been knowing about this for five years. I don't plan on being caught unaware."