For many of the 938 former Wood-Mode employees suddenly left without a job, the last two weeks have been a whirlwind of job fairs, filling out unemployment compensation applications and meetings with career coaches.
They’ve also been struggling emotionally as evidenced during a two-hour meeting with nine former company employees Wednesday morning.
Tammy Landis worked in the finishing department for 21 years and was proud to be a member of the “Wood-Mode family” where her husband, Alan, and two generations of his relatives were employed.
She broke down in tears describing in detail what she kept at her specially-ordered workstation and the hundred or so aprons she made to coincide with work outfits.
“I lived and breathed Wood-Mode. I loved my job and took every bit of overtime,” she said. “The day that place closed I didn’t honestly comprehend it. I’ll mourn it like I lost family.”
Michele Sanders worked at the plant for 22 years, beginning at the age of 17.
“I grew up in Wood-Mode. I miss those people so much. I worked 10- to 12-hour days,” she said, tears spilling from her eyes. “I don’t know how to move on.”
There were rumors the custom-cabinet manufacturing company was in financial trouble for months leading up to its closure. Despite obtaining a $22.5 million loan and revolving credit two years ago, Wood-Mode struggled to pay its bills “from toilet paper to lumber,” said Paul Hitesman, a former training manager with 22 years experience.
“This isn’t something that happened in the last month,” he said. “We never recovered from the recession, we had outdated equipment and outdated computers. The only thing that kept the plant going was these people and the 930 other employees.”
In a public statement released on the day the plant was closed, Wood-Mode Human Resources Director David Scarr said the closure came about after a deal to sell the company to another firm fell through the week before and Wood-Mode was unable to secure more funding.
Despite the financial troubles, no one expected the plant would shut down without some forewarning.
Teresa Stroup and her husband, Gary, both worked at the plant for decades and when he suggested in the past year that she look for another place to work after 30 years, she wouldn’t consider it.
“I didn’t want to give up everything I had worked for,” she said.
Now families affected by the closure are canceling planned vacations, visiting food banks, reworking household budgets and collecting unemployment compensation.
Jennifer Renninger planned to take her 14-year-old on a charter boat ride while vacationing in Erie but has called the whole trip off.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” she said.
Sanders said her children, 14 and 7, worry. “My seven-year-old sat by me and asked if we were going to be okay,” she said.
The company shut down has “ruined so many lives,” said Mike Brosius, who worked at the plant “33 years minus six days. I never called off sick. I was committed to the job.”
They’re trying to pull it together for loved ones and are finding comfort in keeping in touch with one another on the Wood-Mode Facebook page administered by Brian Wilson where they share information about job fairs, medical insurance, rumors about possible plant reopenings and personal tidbits.
“All of our lives and hearts were in this company,” Wilson said.
Sadness turns to ire when they talk about how they were informed they were being put out of work.
Late on the afternoon of Monday, May 13, most of the employees were finishing their shifts when they were called together by supervisors — some visibly emotional — and each handed a letter announcing the immediate closure.
HItesman said he was notified by Scarr who told him bluntly, “You’re done.”
Four days later, on the evening of Friday, May 17, they received an email informing them that all medical, dental, vision and other insurance was being canceled that night.
“The Gronlunds have yet to make a statement or say ‘thank you,’” said Sanders, referring to Wood-Mode owners, Brooks Gronlund, president and chief operating officer, and his father, Robert Gronlund, chairman and CEO. “We got a letter and an email and both were signed by David Scarr. (The Gronlunds) didn’t even have the decency to sign it.”
Like many who lost their jobs, Anna Snyder, a 19-year employee, said she would just like to hear the owners for whom they worked so hard for so many years take responsibility.
“Just say something,” she said.
“Arrogance” was at the root of the company failure, said Tammy Heeter, a 19-year employee. “At the end of the day, it was the employees that sacrificed and had all the integrity.”