Policy Watch Investigates

Newly unemployed face the unknown

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Trina and Michael Craig Miles were among 950 employees who lost their jobs when the Hoke County plant closed. (Photos by Ricky Leung)

When Trina Williams Craig Miles clocked out of her final shift Thursday at the House of Raeford plant, she, along with 950 colleagues, joined the ranks of the unemployed in North Carolina.

She took her new status in stride, offering up her yellow jeans on impulse last Thursday to colleagues to sign as a way of memorializing the years they spent on the job turning live turkeys into meat ready to cook.

She’s worried about what’s ahead.

Trina Williams Craig Miles had her co-workers sign her jeans memorializing the years they spent at the House of Raeford.

Trina Williams Craig Miles had her co-workers sign her jeans memorializing the years they spent at the House of Raeford.

“In Raeford, there’s not a lot of jobs,” Craig Miles said. “The turkey plant, it was the main thing around here.”

The House of Raeford had been running the turkey plant in the Hoke County town since 1975, but turkey’s decline in popularity as a food and high grain prices that made profits slim led to the company’s announcement this spring they were shutting down the plant.

The closure comes in a part of the state burdened with unemployment from 9 to 16 percent, a discouraging scenario for the 950 displaced workers who will become the first large-scale test of North Carolina’s new unemployment system that curtails the length of time and amount workers can collect benefits.

Both Craig Miles and her husband, Michael Craig Miles, who worked overnights at the plant for the last eight years, are optimistic they’ll find new work to replace their $11 and $12 an hour jobs. She wants to go back to school to work towards a job in the health care field while he hopes to get one of the 90 new production-lines jobs at a Mountaire poultry processing plant in nearby Robeson County.

The couple, like most of the workers interviewed for this story, were hopeful that they’d quickly find new jobs and careers and were laughing and joking freely with co-workers.

But there was also plenty of somber reflections as workers punched out for their last shift at the House of Raeford slaughterhouse and hugged co-workers or shared final cigarettes at the picnic tables that served as break time gathering places.

“Nobody expected this to happen,” said Weldon Locklear, an employee for the last seven years at the plant. “I never thought I’d see turkey go away.”

The House of Raeford plant will still be the town’s largest employer by keeping open a cook plant that employs 400 and turns turkey and chicken products into ready-to-eat food items.

The town is bracing for the loss of its biggest water customer, an expected drop in revenue of $1 million yearly that will mean individual water bills will rise by $5 a month this year.

Gas stations, restaurants and convenience stores will also see sales drop as well, without the influx of 1,000 workers at the plant that helped brace the local economy.

“You’ll see a death in this town in about two months,” said Locklear, whose parents worked at the plant as well when he was growing up. “There’s going to be a lot of damage to a lot of people.”

He hopes to start his own landscaping business.

The House of Raeford job wasn’t easy, as the swollen hands and sore arms of workers can attest, but it was a guaranteed paycheck in an area of the state where unemployment runs in the double-digits in many areas. It was also one of the few places where those with criminal records or without high school degrees could find work.

Unemployment figures based on May 2013 data.

The nearly 1,000 without jobs will unwittingly become the first large-scale test of controversial new rules governing the state’s unemployment insurance system. The unemployed, as of July 1, saw their maximum weekly benefits cut from $535 to $350 a month, and instead of six months of coverage will now have between 12 to 20 weeks of benefits.

The changes were passed by the Republican-led legislature and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory to pay back more than $2.5 billion borrowed by the system, which is funded by participating businesses, during the height of the recession. The July 1st start date also prevented 70,000 long-term unemployed from receiving federally-funded benefits, making North Carolina the only state to reject the federal money.

McCrory and lawmakers defend their actions by saying the system needed to quickly pay back the borrowed money to help the economy recover while critics contend that workers, and not businesses, will be the ones to absorb most of the pain of the new changes.

 Marcus Nicholds had been looking for work for two years before landing the job at the plant in June.

Marcus Nichols had been looking for work for two years before landing the job at the plant in June.

Marcus Nichols is holding out hope he’ll be eligible for the unemployment, having only been with the plant since June.

It’s the first full-time job he’d had in two years, after he left the Mountaire plant in Robeson County when the transportation costs cut too much into his paycheck. He tried looking for new work afterwards, but says he couldn’t find a job.

He donated blood plasma twice a week to get by.

The $9-an-hour House of Raeford job brought back the satisfaction of once again earning a weekly paycheck to support his four children and the home he shares with his girlfriend, who works as a cook in the Cumberland County schools, and her two children.

He plans on looking for new work immediately, but knows he’s not the ideal hire with a recent conviction of a conspiracy to commit armed robbery charge. He says now he was desperate and broke, and making decisions he’ll regret for the rest of his life.

Now enrolled at Fayetteville Technical Community College, he has a year left before completing a program in heating, ventilation and air conditioning repair. His grades have been high enough to qualify him for a $2,000 academic scholarship, and he wishes he could put down his high marks on applications to show potential employers there’s more to him than his criminal record.

“It’s not like I don’t have the brain power to work,” Nichols said. “If I get a job, I’m grateful to the employer for trusting me.”

He also knows what will happen to him without a job, even work like that at the Raeford turkey plant that took a toll on his body with the repetitive motions that made it difficult for him to unclench his fist or sleep through the night without pain.

“If I don’t go to work and hurt a little, I don’t eat or I’m homeless and on the street,” he said.

N.C. Policy Watch will be checking in periodically with the House of Raeford workers we’ve written about in this article as well as a previous piece. If you have questions or comments, you can reach reporter Sarah Ovaska at sarah@ncpolicywatch.com or (919) 861-1463.

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(Photo by Ricky Leung)

 

 

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