Freightliner not hiring as fast as company pledged
By Emily Ford
CLEVELAND — Despite the pomp and circumstance of Daimler Trucks North America’s announcement in January, only half of the 1,100 new jobs planned for the Freightliner plant have materialized.
Ramped-up production was supposed to provide work for all Freightliner employees laid off in 2008 who wanted a job.
Gov. Bev Perdue and other officials gathered in Cleveland seven months ago to hail the return of a second shift at the Freightliner plant as evidence of an economy on the rebound.
Since then, roughly 550 workers have been recalled. The plant stopped hiring before 173 people on the recall list were rehired, according to Daimler.
Former employees say even more laid off workers did not get called back.
Those who were not called back have lost their recall rights, meaning if they ever go back to work for Freightliner, they would start at beginning pay with no seniority.
“It was real encouraging to think that I might be going back to work,” said Mark Peoples, who was laid off in June 2008 and hasn’t worked since. “I have had no health insurance all this time.”
Starting in February, Daimler planned to exhaust the recall list and hire additional people. The new shift was scheduled to be at full strength by September.
Peoples, who had been unemployed for three and a half years when Perdue appeared in Cleveland, waited for his recall letter.
It never came.
Instead, he received a letter last month saying he’d lost his seniority, effective July 22. Based on the 2010 contract negotiated by the union, Peoples lost his recall rights because he had been laid off for longer than he’d been employed — four years and one month.
“It was a big letdown,” said Peoples, 56.
During his four years at Freightliner, Peoples worked his way up to top pay — $24 per hour. If he were to apply for a job at Freightliner now, he would have to compete with younger people for a job making $11 per hour, he said.
Daimler has hired about 50 percent of its stated goal for 2012 at the Cleveland plant, said David Carson, general manager of human resources for Daimler.
“The projected volume and demand that created our staffing plans at the beginning of 2012 have not materialized to the full extent forecasted and therefore, we have not yet reached the full employment levels envisioned,” Carson said in a statement.
The Cleveland plant is running on two shifts as announced, Carson said, “and will continue to do so as long as market conditions allow.”
About 2,100 people now work at Freightliner.
“The employee recall list has been essentially exhausted, and any additional hiring would be new hires to the company,” Carson said.
According to Daimler, 173 people lost their recall rights due to union contract provisions.
Blaming the contract negotiated by the union is a “cop out,” said Corey Hill, president of UAW Local 3520.
Without the contract, no one would have recall rights, he said.
“For a right to work state, we had very good, strong language,” Hill said. “We had one year of recall rights for every year worked. That’s about as good as it’s going to get with the labor laws here.”
Hill said close to 600 people were called back.
Former employees refer to people who lost their recall rights as “the 134.” They missed joining the second shift by months or even weeks before the plant stopped hiring.
Former employees also refer to “the 75” — 75 people they say were invited back to work at Freightliner but never received a start date.
The company disputes that number and says 39 former employees were contacted for pre-employment screenings in preparation for a potential work force increase at the plant.
Hill puts that number at 31 and said the union is going through a grievance process on their behalf.
“We are still fighting for their rights,” he said.
Gerry Adams of Mooresville was one of those former employees.
While working at Freightliner from April 2004 to June 2008, Adams had reached the pinnacle — top pay.
He received one paycheck for nearly $25 per hour, then a pink slip.
After struggling for years to make ends meet and paying twice as much for health insurance — $600 per month — through his wife’s employer, Adams said he was thrilled to hear Perdue and Daimler announce 1,100 jobs and a second shift.
“I was ecstatic,” he said.
He figured within three years, he would earn close to $200,000 for his family, including three children in the house and four adult children.
Adams received his recall letter on April 12, giving him three days to answer. He responded immediately — yes, he wanted to return to Freightliner.
He took a day off from his lawn care business to complete a physical and paperwork.
Then he waited. A week went by, and Adams heard nothing. Rumors swirled about a hiring freeze.
A summer went by, and on Aug. 5, Adams finally heard from Freightliner, but the news was not good. The letter stated his recall rights had been terminated.
“I’m over the anger part,” Adams said last week.
What hurt the most, Adams said, was going through the motions and then not hearing anything for months.
“It’s hard when someone else is in such control over your life, even though you’re not working there,” he said.
Adams moved from Indiana in 2004 to take a position with Freightliner, which offered the highest paying manufacturing jobs in the country, he said.
Now, Adams owns and operates Personal Touch Lawn Care. He’s up to 60 accounts and works 10 to 12 hour days from February to November.
Next year, he plans to hire help.
Peoples has switched gears too.
For several years after he was laid off, Peoples spent day after day applying for jobs.
“You do get dejected,” he said.
While looking for work, Peoples went back to school and earned a business adminstration degree from Davidson County Community College.
Now that he’s lost his recall rights, Peoples spends his time studying for the state pharmacy technician exam.
Peoples and his wife, who has multiple sclerosis, are living on savings and her disability check.
“We are getting by the best we can,” he said. “It’s OK. We are happy.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.