Huntington UTEC Employees Feel Forgotten

Mar 15, 2017

Layoffs have now started at the United Technologies Electronic Control factory, or UTEC, in Huntington, Indiana. Although its parent company United Technologies announced more than a year ago that UTEC and its sister company Carrier would move to Mexico, the first round of layoffs just started last Friday, according to a company spokesperson.

FAMILY BUSINESS

Jenni Lobdell had been working at United Technologies Electronic Control for about five years when she got pregnant with her son Mason. Now, 18 years later, Mason also works at UTEC.

When her son was hired, Lobdell says many of her coworkers remembered when he was born.

“For the first two months, that’s all everybody said was, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re Jenni’s son.’ They remembered me pregnant with him, and now he’s working there,” Lodbell said.

Lobdell has worked at UTEC for 23 years now. Her husband Chad has worked there for 18. But when their son Mason took the job last year, he knew it would be temporary. United Technologies, a Connecticut-based company, is moving its Indiana factories, Carrier and UTEC, to Mexico.

BACKGROUND

In February of 2016, United Technologies announced the move, which will cost more than 1,000 Hoosier workers their jobs. About 740 of those jobs will be in Huntington, 40 miles west of Fort Wayne.

"My concerns are for the financial and emotional well-being of employees."

The city has a population of 17,000 people. Its mayor, Republican Brooks Fetters, says he thinks the displaced workers will be able to find other jobs in Northeast Indiana.

"I am watchfully concerned. But my biggest concern is not for the financial well-being of the city. My concerns are for the financial and emotional well-being of employees that are affected by this,” Fetters said.

But UTEC employee Lisa Southerland disagrees.

“The mayor says, ‘Oh, we can absorb…’ Really, seven hundred and some jobs you can absorb? Is he crazy?” she asked. 

"It's hard to think about this chapter of our lives being over."

Southerland is a single mother who has relied on her UTEC salary for more than a quarter of a century. She is currently going to school to become a medical assistant, but she’s 52 years old, and worries about her ability to transition to a new career at this age.

Lisa Southerland (far right) with two coworkers.
Credit Courtesy/Lisa Southerland

“It’s hard to think about this chapter of our lives being over, but it’s even worse thinking about what we’re going to do in the future,” Southerland said. “At least together we have each other. When we’re separated, we lose that.”

The future is unclear for many of the workers. There was some hopeful optimism from employees and city officials that President Donald Trump would be able to save some jobs in Huntington. But the focus during the election was on Carrier, UTEC’s sister company in Indianapolis.

Shortly after Trump was elected, United Technologies announced it would keep some jobs in Indy, and Trump declared his negotiations with the company a success. There are disputes over the number of jobs President Trump saved, but none of them were in Huntington.

Mayor Fetters says he’s tried to call attention to United Technologies’ Northeast Indiana factory. He says he’s tried to contact former governor and now-Vice President Mike Pence.

“Back in the fall, I sent an email to Gov. Pence, didn’t hear anything back from him or his staff,” Fetters said. “I understood he was a little busy at the time, but certainly would have expected to hear something from someone.”

"I think the biggest hit for us is the loss of meaningful jobs that have meant something to people who call this area home for the last 30 years."

Despite feeling left behind, Fetters says the city will move forward. He says laid-off workers should be able to find new jobs in Northeast Indiana, but he’s concerned they won’t pay as much as UTEC.

“I think the biggest hit for us, tangible, is the loss of meaningful jobs that have meant something to people who call this area home for the last 30 years. They’re going to miss out on a lot of friendships, a lot of camaraderie,” he said. “There’s not only the economic piece, but also I think for the employees there, the emotional piece.”

MORE THAN A JOB

It will have an emotional impact on employees like Lisa Southerland, whose husband also worked at UTEC. They met as coworkers in 1991, started dating, and married in 1995.

Lisa Southerland (middle) with her daughter and husband. The photo was taken a year before he died.
Credit Courtesy/Lisa Southerland

But in 2011, he died of a sudden heart attack. Her coworkers at the factory were a huge support system after her loss, but she worries they won’t keep in touch after the factory shuts down.

“You say you’re going to, but you know how that is. Life happens,” Southerland said. “You’ll try, but will it be the same? No. That’s going to be our past.”

Although Southerland worries about caring for her 16-year-old daughter alone without a job, and although Jenni Lobdell worries about what will happen to her family now that she, her son and her husband all face unemployment, everyone I talk to says the same thing: they worry about those who have it worse. They worry about people in their 60s who had planned on working a few more years until retirement, but are now unlikely to find a new job. They worry about people without any education, who don’t even have a high school diploma. There are many stories like this.

The first layoffs started March 10, with 50 employees voluntarily leaving, according to a UTEC spokesperson. Layoffs will continue until the factory is completely shut down in 2018.

Southerland says some employees wanted to go because they didn’t want to watch the factory, which has been their lives for decades, disappear. But others, like her, want to hang on until the very last day, when she envisions her close group of friends and colleagues huddled together in the empty factory, saying their goodbyes.