Faces of recession: Trying to start over, stay upbeat isn’t easy in this economic climate

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Kathy Chaffin
Encouraging others comes naturally to Kerri Parker.
When her boyfriend was fired from his job at Freightliner last January, she didn’t allow him to stay depressed. She encouraged him to approach finding a job as if it was a job.
“I told him that every day when you wake up, you need to act like you’re going to work,” she says. “You write down the places you need to go to and you do a job search even if it takes you all day long. I told him he has to follow up and call them and aggravate them if he has to.
“You have to let them know that you want a job.”
Today, Kerri is trying to follow her own advice. She is among 1,290 Freightliner employees to be laid off when the truck manufacturing company eliminates its second shift effective March 13.
The boyfriend she encouraged is now her husband. She married Russell Parker a month after he lost his job and moved into his home on Misenheimer Street in Rockwell.
She has already applied for more than 20 jobs since Freightliner announced the reduction in workforce two weeks ago. Kerri, who is taking classes in Charlotte in the mornings to become a nurse, says she searches the employment ads in the Salisbury Post and the Charlotte Observer every afternoon looking for work.
When she saw that S&D Coffee was advertising for a machine operator, she got excited. She had experience as a machine operator, but never got a call back.
She applied for a restaurant job at the new LongHorn Steakhouse next to Interstate 85, but didn’t get a call from that either. It did make her feel better to hear that more than 600 people had applied.
Kerri, who is 32, never heard anything from her applications to fast-food restaurants in the area. In fact, she’s not heard back from a single application/ resumé she has turned in, but she’s not about to give up.
She applied Thursday to work at the new Olive Garden and on Friday for jobs at PGT and Rowan Regional Medical Center.
A year after losing his job, Russell still hasn’t been able to find work, and a grievance he filed against Freightliner with United Auto Workers 3520 is heading into arbitration. The reason given for his firing was that he was a liability to the company, and Kerri says she believes it was based on mangement’s fear that his diabetes would cause him to pass out on the job.
It was because of the pending grievance that Russell declined to be interviewed with his wife.
He was able to draw unemployment benefits, and they did their best to get by. But when Kerri was among 1,500 employees laid off as Freightliner shut down its second shift last year, they began to fall behind on their bills.
Though she had only a week to go in an EMT class, Kerri says she dropped out when she was among 650 employees called to return to work.
After managing to keep their mortgage payments current when they were both out of work, Kerri says the adjustable-rate on their interest kicked in and their payments rose from $600 to $1,200 a month.
They depleted their 401k funds trying to keep up the payments, and their mortgage lender is threatening to start foreclosure proceedings if they don’t come up with three past-due payments ó plus $800 in late fees ó by the end of this month.
Kerri called the Salisbury Community Development Corp. about getting assistance with the mortgage through two programs set up to assist displaced workers, but was told they didn’t qualify because the mortgage was in her husband’s name and he was fired, not laid off.
They tried to get a loan modification from their mortgage company, Litton Financial in Houston, Texas, but their paperwork got lost and they had to resubmit it. They’re still waiting to see if their monthly payments can be lowered.
Russell’s truck is paid for, and Kerri says her father is making her car payments.
“Like I told my husband, we’re the lucky ones,” she says. “We’re both going to school. He starts school next semester to study computers.
“We have to start back over. We can’t just cry and be upset about it.”
Kerri stops, unable to continue, and begins to cry, unleashing a flood of tears that she has fought hard to control.
“I try not to get emotional,” she says after regaining her composure. “It’s just upsetting because you work for a company forever, and they say it’s because of the economy, but it’s not.”
Kerri believes the problems at Freightliner stem from the million-square-foot plant the company is building in Saltillo, Mexico.
She reminds Russell that they are not alone. “The paper is full of foreclosures,” she says. “I told him not to be upset. I’m going to prevent it as long as I can, but I can only keep paying it for so long.”
Kerri listed some of their possessions, including a motorcycle, on eBay, but says nobody seems to be buying right now.
The family’s struggles were reflected in the amount of gifts under their tree this past Christmas. Kerri says her 5-year-old son, Mason, asked why he and his three brothers didn’t get as many presents as usual. “I said, ‘When people don’t have a lot of money, they can’t buy many things,’ ” she says. “I told him, ‘Be happy with what you have because some people don’t have anything.’ ”
Kerri says she understands how Mason feels. Her father was laid off from a Charlotte trucking company when she was 4.
“I remember having to drop out of my dancing class,” she says. “It broke my heart, but my dad said, ‘I lost my job.’ ”
It was difficult for Kerri’s father to find work again. “It was hard times,” she says. “I remember eating bread and bologna for weeks at a time, but this is worse.
“I never thought it would affect me like this.”
This is the fourth time in her working career that Kerri has been laid off. She was able to complete two certified nursing assistant classes when she was laid off from Freightliner the first time from October of 2000 until March of 2001.
Before that, Kerri had worked for Burlington Industries in Mooresville for two years when the company closed, and it took her more than a year to find the full-time job with Freightliner. Working the second shift took time away from her four children, but the generous salary and benefits meant she could provide for them better.
The truck manufacturing company pays 100 percent of health insurance premiums for employees and their families. Losing that coverage is one of Kerri’s biggest concerns.
Russell’s insulin costs more than $1,000 a month, and his diabetes requires regular medical supervision. “He has to be hospitalized sometimes when his blood sugar plummets and he can’t get it back up,” she says.
To continue their insurance on COBRA would cost about $1,600 a month. “What do people do without insurance?” she asks.
Though the U.S. Trade Adjustment Act covers the tuition for some displaced workers to be retrained, Kerri says it wouldn’t pay for her to go to nursing school at ECPI School of Technology in Charlotte. She was able to get a student loan, and her husband is applying for one as well.
Kerri, who hopes to eventually continue her education and become a biochemist, says her four children are excited about her going to school because she’ll be able to spend time with them in the evenings. Her three oldest sons have been living with their father during the week because of her work schedule and staying with her and Russell on the weekends.
If they lose their house, Kerri says they’ll try to store some of their possessions at her father’s house in China Grove and find somewhere smaller to rent.
She admits that sometimes the fear of losing their home keeps her awake at night. But instead of giving in to the fear, she gets up and delves into her nursing books.
At work, she says her co-workers are also worried about not being able to find jobs in the middle of a recession. “There’s a lot of people that don’t even feel like working because they’re so sad and depressed,” she says. “I try to motivate them and tell them they can do better for themselves.”
Kerri says some people may put negative comments about her on the Post’s Web site, but at least she’s trying “and not sitting around. I think people have to get out there. No one’s going to come knocking at my door.”
And even though she’s losing her job, Kerri says she is grateful to have worked at Freightliner for almost 10 years.
“I looked forward to going there every day,” she says. “A lot of people were standing in line to get a job that great. I felt like going in every day to tell them thank you.”
Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249.