Commuting GM workers coming home for good
JANESVILLE—A good retirement.
That was the light at the end of the tunnel.
It's why General Motors employees such as Jeff Kosharek drove 15 hours round-trip to Kansas City, Kansas, after the Janesville GM plant closed in 2008.
It's why Jon Bartz and his friend Brian Lintvedt piled into their vehicle every Sunday afternoon and drove to a rented home and jobs in Fort Wayne, Indiana. And it's why Bartz's wife, Sue Gibney-Bartz, set the alarm for 3 a.m. and drove to Chicago and back home every day.
Andy Richardson and Steve Glass, too, were among many who worked at far-flung GM plants during the week and returned home on the weekends.
Now, one by one, workers are arriving at the end of the line.
The Gazette recently interviewed six of them. Some choked back tears, telling how they missed years of their children's lives and how they were unavailable to care for aging relatives. They talked of the long hours on the road, the cost of maintaining two households and retiring vehicle after vehicle.
But they also talked of new friends and the support they received from old friends and family back home. They said their marriages became stronger, although they know from others that was not always the case.
People forget the dire times surrounding the closure of the GM plant and its feeder industries, they said.
Houses weren't selling. Good-paying jobs—even not-so-good-paying jobs—just weren't there.
Every worker's situation was unique, each having varying years of GM employment. Some took buyouts or moved families to other GM cities. But others, usually those with kids in school or wives with good jobs, saw no choice but to commute.
Kosharek, 53, of the town of Harmony had 24 years in when the plant closed. In another six to seven years, he would get his full pension.
It was a scary time, he recalled.
The unknowns were unbelievable,” agreed Richardson, 50, of Newville.
“You didn't know what GM was going to do, if the wages were going to stay the same,” said Bartz, 49.
Workers worried that benefits would change under a new contract.
Lintvedt, 56, of the town of Albion had two children in high school. His wife owns an Edgerton business and told him she wasn't moving.
Those who commuted lived as cheaply as possible, bunking with other workers in apartments or rented houses.
Richardson shared a three-bedroom apartment with four buddies. Glass lived in his cousin's basement in exchange for a kitchen remodel.
“Here I am paying for this place, paying for rent, utilities, the gas bill for your car, and asking, 'Is this really worth it?'” Kosharek remembers thinking.
ON THE ROAD
Workers carpooled to save money and for safety.
“We always had a golden rule,” said Richardson, who estimated that 80 people commuted to Fort Wayne at one time. “We didn't want anyone driving alone.”
Kosharek's phone included 100 names that formed a motor pool.
When Kosharek retired in 2016, his family estimated the miles he traveled first to Kansas City and then to Fort Wayne. The total was 255,360 miles—3,792 hours on the road.
Kosharek would leave Kansas City after his shift at 6:30 a.m. Friday and get home about 2:30 p.m.
“When my wife would come home, she'd say, 'Hey, let's go out for fish.' I'd say, 'OK. You want to be up when the kids are up.'”
He'd leave home about 1 p.m. Sunday, stop at his apartment at about 8:30 p.m. and then head to work.
“It was terrible,” Kosharek said. “Your eating, your sleeping, your bowels were screwed up for three years. I didn't have gray hair before I left.”
During football season, workers usually left during Packer games and lost radio reception during the fourth quarter in Des Moines, Iowa.
“That always made us mad,” he said.
Gibney-Bartz, 55, transferred to a job near Chicago, living there the first eight months and commuting with other people the last five. On a good day, she could make it home in less than two hours.
“You just do it,” Gibney-Bartz said. “You don't think about it. It's 3 o'clock, and the alarm is going off, and you hate it. You counted down the years. But you do it.”
Meanwhile, her husband was laid off for a year and then transferred to Fort Wayne.
Bartz and Lintvedt left Fort Wayne after their third shift ended at 6:40 a.m. Friday. They had to consider Chicago traffic and bad weather, which could add hours to the trip.
The workers returned to Fort Wayne at 3 p.m. Sunday, with time zone changes both ways.
“You would think that wouldn't mess things up, body and mind,” Gibney-Bartz said. “But it really does.”
Even when her husband was home, he was thinking about having to leave, his wife said. “And you never stopped worrying about the traveling.”
Bartz and Lintvedt never had an accident or even a speeding ticket, although "Lid"—as Lintvedt is called—did get a warning.
State troopers eventually recognized the commuters, Bartz said.
“They got a few of us, but they left us alone,” he added. “We always stop at Highway 30 to go to the bathroom, and they'd wave to us. 'So, boys, how many years you got to go?' I'm sure the word was out.”
MISSING LIFE AT HOME
The travel was not the worst of it.
“My son was 12 when I left,” Kosharek said, choking back tears. “And he's 18 now, going to college. Those are the prime times of his life for me to be with him. I'll never get that back.”
His mother died while he was gone.
Richardson, too, gets tears in his eyes when he thinks of missing his daughters' activities. He used vacation days to attend softball and basketball games and awards nights.
During that time, his family also dealt with his dad's Alzheimer's disease. His wife stepped up to help his parents.
Glass, 54, of Fort Atkinson worked for 31 years at GM.
He was laid off for two years before he transferred to Fort Wayne on Jan. 17, 2011. His wife had been diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer a month earlier.
She urged him to take the job.
“You gotta go. You have to go down there and make a living,” she told him. “You can't live on love.”
Despite her illness, she kept the family together, including their two boys, Glass said.
Glass never missed one of his wife's chemo treatments, driving home through the night after work.
They got through the treatments with the help of family, friends and a flexible General Motors, Glass said.
He retired in March 2014. His wife died Oct. 16, 2014.
Despite the separations and long hours, workers remember good times.
Bartz always had a project going in his garage, and Lid tended a garden.
Richardson played golf every day in the summer, and he and his friends scheduled card nights.
“I ended up having a whole different set of friends,” Richardson said. “I didn't even know them in Janesville.”
The Wisconsin workers made their marks on other states: The Meijer stores in Kansas City now carry Sun Drop, and restaurants offer brandy for old fashioneds.
Overall, the retirees have no regrets.
They are still young. They have pensions and good insurance.
“We're very lucky,” Bartz said.
Richardson, who retired two years ago, works as a handyman and owns a framing business.
Glass has a construction business.
Kosharek works part time and can get away to go snowmobiling.
He and his wife grew closer over the commuting years, he said.
“I gained respect for her, and she did for me,” he said.
They are grateful to family and neighbors who helped while they were gone.
That first Sunday after he retired, “it was nice not having to get in that car,” Bartz said.
“I still have friends making that drive every weekend, and they're going to have to do it for another nine years,” Richardson added. “I worry about them.”
“But every month," Lintvedt said, "somebody will be coming back home.”