Janesville52°

Former General Motors workers build new lives

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ANNA M. LUX
December 18, 2011
— Three years after her last day at the Janesville General Motors plant, Pam Good has a better appreciation for how people survive on low wages.

"I don't take money so much for granted anymore," she said. "I see how others have had to struggle with the wages they make."


Good earned more than $29 an hour at GM plus excellent health benefits. Today, she earns $11 an hour drawing blood at Mercy Hospital and Trauma Center and has health insurance with fewer benefits.


"When I worked at GM, I knew I could support myself if something ever happened to my husband," she said. "But there is no way I can support myself on this wage."


Good's husband is an ironworker. She has two children, ages 21 and 11.


Like so many former GM workers who did not move to take jobs in other auto-making plants, she has adjusted to a lifestyle built on lower wages.


"We do a lot of cutting back," she said. "You can't afford the extra stuff, even going out to dinner. We don't go to the movies as much. We don't have as many vacations."


The family is spending less on Christmas as well.


Good worked at GM for 23 years.


When the Janesville plant closed for most workers in December 2008, she figured she would transfer to another GM factory.


"I did not plan on going to school," the 44-year-old said. "We were hoping they would change their minds and keep the plant open. By the first of the year, I still thought I would transfer. I was still signing up to go somewhere else."


Eventually, she attended Blackhawk Technical College and let go of the idea of transferring.


"I always wanted to do something in the medical field," Good said.


She became a certified nursing assistant and went to work at Mercy Hospital, where she was trained in drawing blood.


Good took a big pay cut. At the same time, she took a big hike in job satisfaction.


"I really like my job," she said. "I really enjoy interacting with people. It's personal."


She misses her co-workers at GM, but she does not miss assembly-line work.


"Chasing the line, where the vehicles never stop, was hard on the body," Good said.


Still, she is torn.


"If I had to choose again, I probably would have decided to transfer to another plant," she said.


"I probably would have chosen to be an unhappy autoworker with a little extra money than being happy in my job."


***


Scott Schoonover filled out 500 applications looking for work after he finished his one-year diploma in the industrial maintenance program at Blackhawk Technical College. Only two companies called him back.


The second hired the former Janesville GM worker, who was laid off in July 2008 after more than 11 years with the company.


Today, 52-year-old Schoonover works at Uniroyal Engineered Products, Stoughton, where he inspects Naugahyde for quality. He works third shift—from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. He earns $17 per hour, about $10 less than what he made at GM. He tries to make up the shortfall by working overtime.


"You can work a double shift," he said. "The biggest challenge is staying awake on the way home."


Schoonover of Janesville labors long hours for financial security.


After he lost his GM job, he and his family had to adjust to a lower income.


"We have a budget," Schoonover said. "In September and October, we had a glitch. My wife's hours were slashed. That really put a damper on our grocery budget. I tried to make up for it by working as much overtime as I could."


Schoonover and his wife, Julie, have two children, ages 16 and 17. Julie works at Walmart. Schoonover is happy for the overtime, but it takes away from family time.


"My wife is fantastic about picking up slack on the home front while I am picking up some sleep and doing double shifts," he said. "You got to do what you got to do. I am so fortunate to have a family that understands."


Since working in Stoughton, he spends about $80 per week in gas or about twice as much as when he worked at GM. He drives what he calls "a beater" and keeps it running with the help of his son Zach.


Schoonover had a chance to transfer to another plant and continue earning a higher salary. But when he and his family made a list of reasons for moving, the only one they could come up with was money.


"There were too many other reasons to stay here, including both sets of grandparents for our kids," Schoonover said.


He has never stopped being grateful for his family.


"I did not think it was possible to get any closer, but we have," he said. "We look ahead to what we need, not to what we want. But we don't look too far ahead. It used to be day by day. It is now month by month."


Schoonover doesn't know if or when he can retire.


"That is too far out there for me to look at," he said.


He believes the last three years have made him stronger.


"GM closing has made me appreciate what I have," Schoonover said. "It renewed my faith in myself that I am not a quitter. We recently watched, ‘It's a Wonderful Life.' It was a reminder that things happen for a reason. There still are a heck of a lot of people worse off than we are."


***


Gregg Cisneros always thought about being a police officer.


"I saw cops as the good guys," he said. "I wanted to be a good guy."


Today, the 36-year-old is living his dream a lot sooner because the GM plant closed.


He went to work on the line at age 19 and chose the same company where his father had worked in the skilled trades for more than 30 years.


But Cisneros was different.


"I always told myself I wasn't going to spend 30 years there," he said. "I was going to use it as a stepping stone."


In 2005, Cisneros began taking one class each semester at Blackhawk Technical College. He could not take more because he was working 50 hours a week, was divorced and had four young children.


When Cisneros walked out of GM for the last time on Aug. 8, 2008, he already had taken some classes. He then enrolled fulltime at Blackhawk Technical College. Cisneros graduated in June 2010 in the criminal justice program and now is working as a police officer for the city of Beloit. He earns about $42,000 per year, which is more than $13,000 less than when he left GM.


"It's still a good wage," he said. "We gave up a few extra activities, like vacations. But we do not have a huge difference in lifestyle."


When he got laid off, he never considered transferring to another plant because he didn't want to be away from his kids.


Now remarried, he said his family is the reason he goes to work.


"If I moved to another city, I would not come home to my kids," he said.


What Cisneros lost in wages, he has more than made up for in job satisfaction.


"I love my job," he said. "I used to dread walking into GM and doing the same job every day. I don't feel that way anymore. It is 100 times better now."



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