"I've been pretty lucky," Allan Kerbe, who was laid off by General Motors Corp. in mid-1981, said a few weeks ago.
"This year I've been working regular. It's not what you call 40 hours a week work, but it keeps the wolf from the door--that and food stamps."
Last week Kerbe, who is married and has two children, was laid off from his job with a small home improvement company, the job that had kept the wolf from the door.
Kerbe is one of the masses of "indefinitely laid off" industrial workers, the human wreckage of the recession. What has happened to Kerbe and others like him who have lost--at least temporarily--their well-paying industrial jobs is one of the issues behind the industrial policy debate.
What these workers have found, in many cases, is a world where years of hard work in auto plants, steel mills or copper smelters can add up to very little, a world where life savings are exhausted and cars are repossessed.
It is a world where jobs are hard to find, a difficulty compounded in many cases by the fact that these are workers who went into their jobs right out of high school and have little or no experience in looking for work. The difficulty is compounded again by the fact that prospective employers fear that the workers will return to their old, better paying jobs, given a chance.
The jobs that do exist tend to be low-paying jobs in construction or fast food, where both job security and benefits such as insurance scarcely exist.
Kerbe worked at GM's huge Broening Highway plant in industrial Baltimore, where about 3,000 are now employed. Another 2,000 are still on indefinite layoff.
In March, the plant will shut down for 20 weeks for a major modernization, complete with lasers and robots. Speculation is that the plant, when it reopens, will produce a new down-sized van. Depending on whether that is true and what the market is, additional workers could be recalled. However, the modernization is also aimed at productivity gains that presumably will reduce the numbers of workers needed.
Even if production of the new mini-van requires two shifts and results in massive recalls, "that's a year away," said Kerbe.
At GM, Kerbe made $11 an hour, plus substantial benefits. In his job with the home improvement company, installing windows and guttering, he started at minimum wage and worked his way up during a year on the job to about $5 an hour, he said.
Since the layoff from GM, he lost his car and his health insurance. "Right now we're doing without a lot. I just manage to keep my life insurance up," he said shortly before being laid off from his new job. "I've got two kids and school's coming. My wife puts in applications, too, but she hasn't found much" and nothing that would do more than match the cost of the babysitter that would be needed if his wife and he both worked, he said.
Kerbe considered taking computer and television repair courses. The course he looked at cost $6,800 for two years, but he could have gotten only a $1,700 loan to attend school, he said. "Six months after you finish school you have to start paying it back. There's no guarantee you're going to get a job, and then you're stuck paying $60 a month that you don't have."
Kerbe is afraid of taking on any debt. "I just can't go out on that limb again," he said. "My income last year was below $8,500. That's what they call poverty.
"I feel like a walking doormat," he said. "As soon as you put GM down on a job application that's an automatic no."
Kerbe still hopes to return to work at GM. Among other reasons--he was just short of 10 years' service and being vested in the pension.
"I'd like to find a permanent job and work 40 hours a week again," he said. "My hope's kind of dying out."
Ron Metzger was laid off in 1981 at the same time as Kerbe and approximately 1,800 others. "Geez, I guess I've had a half dozen jobs, just small jobs," said Metzger, who is working now as a plumber's helper for about $230 a week, or half what he made when he worked for GM.
"I never had a full-time job before this, other than GM," said Metzger, who rolled right into GM after high school. "It's pretty hard to go out into the big world and have to make a living. I feel like a 33-year-old 18-year-old.
"At first it was just heartbreaking," Metzger, who has a wife and three children, said about the new realities that confronted him. "But then you just have to wake up and do something about it. I'm one of the lucky ones. I've managed to keep afloat, but I still don't know from month to month if we'll be able to pay the bills."
Metzger believes that fewer than 100 workers stand between him and his regaining his job at GM. Retirement and attrition will eventually put him back to work at Broening Highway, he believes. "I kind of hoped to make it this summer. Now I hope to make it by Christmas."
Kevin Betlejewski is one of the lucky ones, too. Laid off in 1980, Betlejewski worked for awhile at a McDonald's restaurant, doing maintenance for $3.83 an hour. When he left GM, he was making $9.33 an hour, including a night differential.
Now, ironically, Betlejewski works for Toyota at a parts distribution center in Baltimore making $7.95 an hour. He went to work part-time last year, but at the end of summer was offered a full-time job. "I said, Whoa, I wasn't going to turn it down.
"When they called me up and said, come on down for an interview, I felt kind of funny, going back to the auto industry," he said. "But it's a job and it's better pay, so I figured I'd better take that chance."
Another major factor was that the job provided health insurance coverage. When Betlejewski worked for McDonald's, he had none. During that period, he had a serious scare at one point, when it appeared that his daughter Rachel Lynn might need an operation.
Initially, Betlejewski was concerned about how people might regard a former GM worker taking a job with Toyota, one of the foreign manufacturers that American auto workers regularly blame for their dilemma. That worry was dispelled, in part because Betlejewski's father, who works at GM, "was tickled pink about it," he said.
With the job at Toyota, Betlejewski's wife was able to quit her job at McDonald's and the couple are expecting twins.
Betlejewski still would like to go back to GM. "If it doesn't happen that I go back, at least I've got a job. That's the blessing."
By many assessments, a lot of industrial workers will never return to the jobs that they once took for granted. Compared with the 766,000 production workers in the motor vehicle industry in 1978, in June of 1983 there were only 577,000.
Sheldon Friedman, director of research for the United Auto Workers, said he believes that many of those jobs will never be recaptured. "We'll get some market growth from the very depressed levels, but offsetting that is the new technology which is producing productivity gains," he said. In addition, foreign manufacturers will capture some of the growth.
"In general, we know that lots of these people have either not gotten any job or had to take major cuts in pay," Friedman said.
GM has recalled 65,000 workers since the first of the year. Another 107,000 have not been recalled, including 41,000 who have been laid off longer than they had worked for the company.
The New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations of Cornell University did a study of auto workers who lost their jobs when Ford shut down an assembly plant in Mahwah, N.J. The study found that about half of the workers were still unemployed two years after the plant closed.
It also found that, compared with slightly more than half who had family incomes of at least $20,000 a year before the shutdown, only 11 percent did after the shutdown, and nearly half had family incomes of less than $10,000.
One major problem for the autoworkers was that the skills they had learned in their jobs were not transferrable to a new job, said Jack Kaufman, who directed the study.
The school ran an experimental program to help train some of the out-of-work auto workers on how to look for work. "The one thing we had to disabuse them of was the notion that the plant was going to reopen. They have that hope," said Kaufman.
"Even in a closing, they think someone is going to buy it and reopen it," he said. "Assume there's a chance of another job at half the salary--they'd rather hold on to that hope," he said.
As a result, Kaufman said, "Employers won't hire them, because they think that the guy will go back to his old work." In addition to better pay and benefits, industrial workers are anxious to recapture seniority that they had built up.
A case in point is Ronald Bricker, the former steel worker who handed President Reagan his resume during a question-and-answer session at a computer training center in Pittsburgh in April, and had a job arranged for him by the White House doing computer repair work for Radio Shack.
In July, Bricker was recalled by the steel firm where he had worked, so he quit the new job.
Economist Barry Bluestone is conducting a joint study of what has become of laid-off workers for the Social Welfare Research Institute of Boston College and UAW Region 9A (New England and New York). Although much of the data is still untabulated, some of the early results suggest the serious nature of their plight, he said.
Of the people surveyed, 24 percent had used up their life's savings and almost 47 percent had used up half or more of their entire savings. Nearly half were still unemployed, and 22 percent had no health insurance, he said.
Even industrial workers who have retained their jobs have been somewhat scarred by what has happened in the past few years.
"People are not saying very much right now because GM is so unpredictable," said Dan Sheets. Sheets was never laid off, but was off last year when the Broening Highway plant was shut down temporarily.
The workers at the plant "don't feel as secure now as they did before all this happened. We don't know how many people are going to be laid off once they get the modernizing done," he said.
"It looks pretty good, I think," said Jimmy Lee, who was laid off in June 1981 but is back at work. "If they're putting money into the place, it looks pretty good."
Still, Lee acknowledges the possibility that the modernization might not result in a second shift and that there may be more layoffs ahead. In that case, "most likely I would be back on the street again. That's a little scary.
"It keeps you from getting into any debts. Now we even save more of what we've got," Lee said. "We're saving so that, if it does happen again, we hope to survive it again."