Yale Lock employees struggle to find work

Laid-off Yale Lock employees on road back to work

By Hugh G. Willett-knoxnews.com

A year ago this month, the Yale Lock Co. announced it would close its 60-year-old Lenoir City manufacturing facility as a part of a corporate consolidation.

According to former Yale employee Joe Williams, the announcement eliminated 246 jobs, including his own. Layoffs began in August. At the end of February, another 61 workers left the company. The last 15 employees will leave at the end of March.

The company offered one week of severance and one week of insurance for every year of service. Of the hundreds laid off last year, Williams said he knows of about 25 who have found full-time employment. At least one is trying to start a business, and there are rumors that another might be homeless.

“It has been a tough year,” said Williams, who started working at Yale immediately out of high school in 1977, when the operation employed about 1,200 workers.

“We were going full blast. Running three shifts,” he recalled.

Although the employment numbers dropped steadily through the past three decades, Williams never thought his job was in danger. Banners posted on the walls declared that the factory was a leader in productivity among other plants operated by parent company Assa Abloy of Sweden.

As a longtime employee, Williams, 54, has kept a paternal eye on those laid off. He meets regularly with groups of former employees to hold barbecues and share stories about the search for work. Although he has had a few job offers himself, he hasn’t found the right opportunity yet.

“I thought about starting a business or going back to school. I’d planned on retiring at Yale,” he said.

The closure of Yale is a sad ending to what seemed to be an almost perfect marriage between a small town and a big company. The company offered good wages, benefits and a family atmosphere. Those laid off included mothers and

daughters and at least five husbands-and-wife couples.

“Almost everyone in Lenoir City has a relative or knows somebody that worked at Yale. It was always like a family,” said Rita McDonald, a 14-year employee.

McDonald doesn’t know what she will do when she leaves. She does not expect to find a job comparable to the wages and benefits she enjoyed at Yale. Insurance is a big issue because her husband does not have insurance through his employer.

“I’ll never get insurance like that again. I’d work just for that insurance,” she said.

Williams and McDonald were not the only ones surprised that Yale would close one of its most productive operations.

At the time of the announcement, Loudon County Economic Development Agency President Pat Phillips remarked that the county usually benefits from corporate relocations. He said it was unusual for a company to leave Loudon County for the Northeast, which is generally considered more expensive.

Lenoir City Mayor Tony Aikens had enough hope that the closure could be averted that he organized, along with county officials, an incentive package that included a 10-year, 100 percent property tax break. Assa Abloy quickly declined the offer.

Aikens said the closure of the plant has been hard on locals, many of whom are his friends. The loss of the jobs has also had a ripple effect on the local economy.

“When somebody loses a job, they’re not going to be going out to eat at restaurants in town or buying a car at one of the local dealerships,” he said.

Williams said he thinks there had to be more to Assa Abloy’s decision than economics. He blames corporate politics. He said he was told by a manager that “if you guys offered to work for free it wouldn’t make difference.”

Susie Williams, 41, worked 15 years at Yale. She has her own ideas about the closure. She thinks Assa Abloy wants to manipulate the Yale brand and move it away from competing with Sargent Lock, a competitor also owned by Assa Abloy.

She is thinking about going back to school for computer classes. With two children to support, she and her husband will probably have to get by on less income. She said she can get reduced rate on insurance by going back to school but that she wouldn’t be able to work.

“I had to take classes to learn how to write a resume for the first time,” she said.

McDonald, Williams and former Yale employees have taken advantage of training programs offered by the Advanced Materials and Training Education Center at Roane State Community College.

AMTEC is a state program funded by a federal grant that is designed to help the unemployed and underemployed develop computer, resume writing and job interviewing skills, said Nolan Nevels, director of AMTEC.

“We worked with the human resources manager at Yale to design a modified program to help get them back in the job market,” he said.

Nevel said the program has already worked with three or four groups of former Yale employees. AMTEC also put the word out among local employers that the former Yale workers were available.

Because Yale moved part of its Lenoir City operations to Mexico in 2010, laid-off employees also have support from Trade Adjustment Assistance.

TAA is a federally funded program that provides assistance to workers that have been affected by job loss or had their hours and wages cut because of increased imports or a shift in production to a foreign country. Services include re-employment, retraining, job search allowances, relocation allowances and a health care tax credit.

Assa Abloy did not respond to requests for comment.