• WBST 92.1 FMMuncie
  • WBSB 89.5 FMAnderson
  • WBSW 90.9 FMMarion
  • WBSJ 91.7 FMPortland
  • WBSH 91.1 FMHagerstown / New Castle
Indiana Public Radio, a service of Ball State University

Huntington UTEC Employees Feel Forgotten as Plant Moves to Mexico

By Lisa Ryan, IPB News | Published on in Business, Economy, Statewide News
b854a726-7f86-476d-90d8-b3d0514c1554
Outside of the UTEC factory in Huntington

Layoffs have begun this month at Huntington’s UTEC factory.  The United Technologies’-owned sister plant to Carrier in Indianapolis wasn’t the focus of political talking points, even though its move to Mexico was announced at the same time.  Now, as Indiana Public Broadcasting’s Lisa Ryan reports, UTEC employees are having to look to a future without a job some have held for decades.

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.

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.

UTEC workers (Courtesy of 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.”

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.”

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.

MORE THAN A JOB

Lisa Southerland and her future husband met as UTEC coworkers in 1991 and started dating.  They married in 1995.

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

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.