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Josh Bergeron: Even in good economy, layoff assistance remains critical service

Jenny Lee, the Rowan County United Way executive director compares her organization to an insurance policy for the working class.

Every year, thousands of people across the country contribute some portion of their regular salary to the organization’s fundraising campaign, which generated about $1.525 million this year for a new funding model that’s focused on new priorities — mental health, substance abuse, healthy lifestyles and basic needs.

But those basic needs, particularly in the event of a mass community layoff, are not predictable. A company may know internally that it will need to cut costs at some point during the fiscal year because of declining demand, but employees and the broad community won’t know that until it’s announced.

That’s regularly the case with the Daimler Trucks facility in Cleveland, where layoffs follow a cycle that’s not entirely predictable. Employees, particularly longtime ones, know layoffs will come eventually, but it can be hard to predict from a point in time when the company will ramp up hiring or when it will cut employment.

In October, the most recent cycle of layoffs hit at the Cleveland plant when Daimler said it would lay of 450 workers as the market returned to normal following 12 months of record sales.

While hard work from its staff and volunteers meant the campaign reached its goal, the layoffs had an effect on the United Way’s fundraising campaign. The company and its employees have and continue to be contributors to the United Way’s campaign.

For some of those employees and their families, it was the United Way helping them instead of the reserve when layoffs were announced.

From December through last week, the United Way had provided $13,000 to the Salvation Army to help with layoff assistance. In turn, the Salvation Army has helped an estimated 15 families pay for a total of $9,100 in expenses ranging from rent to utilities.

“We can’t put a person back together, we can’t replace their job, but we can lessen the blow whether it’s with rent or utility assistance,” said Salvation Army Capt. Karl Dahlin.

Dahlin said 12 of the people were helped with rent and the remainder received help with utilities. And despite the layoffs happening in October, the bulk of the help was needed in December or later because, Lee said, families had some savings that they relied on.

“It’s like an insurance policy in a way because we wouldn’t be able to fund any agency if it weren’t for these companies who make a gift to the United Way knowing that it will go toward services in the county,” Lee said about the United Way’s layoff assistance program. “And if they’re placed in a position where they need help, we have to make sure we take care of the folks that most take care of us.”

Importantly, the United Way provides funds to community organizations that then assist those who face layoffs rather than directly assisting.

In addition to the Salvation Army’s assistance, Lee said the YMCA also provides three months of free membership. That’s to help with a family’s mental health, she said. While it’s certainly good for their physical health as well, there’s something mentally clarifying about a good workout, too.

The United Way officially began providing layoff assistance to locals in 2003 — when the Pillowtex Corporation filed for bankruptcy in 2003 and thousands of people employed at its Kannapolis facility lost their jobs, said Melissa Robbins, the United Way’s finance director.

And even now as the economy is good and companies have more jobs than job applicants, services like layoff assistance are critical.

“You’ve got to remember the transitional time,” Lee said, noting wait times cause by items like applying for jobs, interviewing and passing drug screens and background checks. “These things take time. That’s the importance of layoff assistance.”

So, in Landis, where Parkdale Mills is set to close and layoff all of its employees there, others business may swoop in with employment offers for people who will be qualified for most manufacturing jobs in the community, but layoff assistance will be there if people are at their wits’ end and worried about losing their home or being evicted from their apartment. In a case where it does not have funds to allocate for layoff assistance, Lee said the United Way solicits donations.

The nonprofit also is part of a rapid response team that goes to businesses making mass layoffs or closing down.

In that instance, the United Way is focused on directed people to 211, a comprehensive source of local social services that’s provided by the United Way.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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