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Published: Monday, 9/27/2010

SHUT DOWN & SHIPPED OUT

4 years after American Lincoln plant closed, former employees struggle to recover

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE PROJECTS EDITOR

BOWLING GREEN - Richard Hitchner's last day of work was March 3, 2006.

He worked his final shift at the American-Lincoln industrial cleaning equipment plant in Bowling Green, where he was paid more than $15 an hour working in the factory's stock room when its doors were shut and its work was shipped to Plymouth, Minn.

Since then, Mr. Hitchner, now 61, has been turned away in job interviews, blown through his $34,000 savings, and relied on his 87-year-old mother for the rent on his trailer lot and some food.

He said his unemployment checks ran out in 2007.

"In my case, losing my job was probably worse than losing a family member," said Mr. Hitchner of Perrysburg Township. "At my age, I still thought I'd be able to go out and find a job, but it didn't work that way. The way I see it, I'm screwed."

Mr. Hitchner was among the 95 factory workers who lost their jobs making industrial floor scrubbers and sweepers when the American-Lincoln plant was closed by Nilfisk-Advance Group, the Plymouth-based North American subsidiary of NKT Holding AS of Denmark. Nilfisk, a professional cleaning equipment maker, acquired American-Lincoln as part of a larger purchase of a competing, insolvent, multinational company in 2004. Nilfisk officials announced their intentions to close the Bowling Green operation the following year.

SHUT DOWN & SHIPPED OUT: A Blade investigation

SHARE YOUR STORY: Have you been affected by factory closings? Share your story here.

Over the last several months, The Blade tracked those affected by Nilfisk's closure in Bowling Green - one of about 140 plant closures counted in northwest Ohio since 2000.

The newspaper conducted a similar study of a Leggett & Platt factory with 146 union workers that was closed in Archbold in 2006 to illustrate the long-term effects when almost any large, out-of-state or foreign company closes a factory in the region.

Through interviews with former American-Lincoln employees, at least 45 of the 95 workers who lost their jobs at the Bowling Green plant are either unemployed, employed but making less than the average $15 per hour they made at American-Lincoln, or are collecting early Social Security. There were also numerous reports of no health insurance, emotional distress, marital problems and divorce, and early cash-outs of 401(k) accounts.

Many former American-Lincoln workers, such as Mr. Hitchner, have struggled to secure work in a tight job market against younger competitors.

"I even applied at Wal-Mart, other stores like that," said Melvin Hill, now 64, of Haskins, Ohio.

Mr. Hill worked at the Bowling Green plant for 23 years and was making $15.50 as a welder and assembler when it closed. Only employed for a period of about six weeks since the American-Lincoln closing - at $10 an hour when he was working - Mr. Hill and his wife are still negotiating with doctors over medical bills that were as high as $20,000. They are trying to hold onto their house with the total of $1,700 they receive monthly from Social Security payments.

"At the time, I was planning on working until I was 65 and retiring," he said. "We wanted to travel a little, keep the house. Now, I'd just like to have health insurance, but I can't afford health insurance."

Jeff Hatfield, 51, of Grand Rapids, Ohio, is among the success stories of former American-Lincoln employees. Mr. Hatfield, who was employed in the plant's engineering department for about $55,000 a year when the plant closed, now makes a comparable salary as a manufacturing engineer at a Toledo firm.

But it took him more than a year to find his current job, and between finding it and the American-Lincoln closing, he collected scrap metal and worked other odd jobs.

"You feel pretty worthless," Mr. Hatfield said.

After making $15 per hour as a production scheduler at American-Lincoln, Patricia Herrick, 49, of Millbury, Ohio, never made more than $11 an hour in any of the jobs she found since. Mrs. Herrick, who said she has a bachelor's degree in business management and is an Air Force veteran, was laid off from her last job with a real estate firm.

Nick Gossett was employed at American-Lincoln for 30 years in shipping and receiving. The 58-year-old from Pemberville said he had been on medical leave for about a year and a half and was planning to return to American-Lincoln when the plant closed. He is employed at a gas station on the Ohio Turnpike, making $9.34 an hour writing receipts for truckers, cleaning, and operating the cash register.

"What they're paying me now is better than what some of the other jobs out there are paying," Mr. Gossett said. "What I am making now is what I was making in 1981-82."

Workers were given severance packages when American-Lincoln closed. At least eight employees were hired by Remtec International, a halon and refrigerant firm that immediately moved into the Haskins Road plant in Bowling Green when American-Lincoln closed.

Many former American-Lincoln employees say they believe they were simply victims of a corporate purchase and consolidation by a former competitor. The Bowling Green work was shifted to Plymouth, where union officials there say the average hourly wage was $21.38 before the most recent contract - far more than what employees were paid in Bowling Green.

In an e-mail response to The Blade, Nilfisk Americas CEO Christian Cornelius-Knudsen said it was not the company's original intention to close American-Lincoln - a brand name that was more than 100 years old - when it was acquired.

"The decision was necessary to make our company more efficient through consolidating our operations," Mr. Cornelius-Knudsen wrote. "Our Plymouth, Minn., facility is larger, has more capacity, and is a more modern facility than the Bowling Green plant was."

He said the American-Lincoln brand from Bowling Green - it's since been rolled into a Nilfisk brand - is still made in Plymouth. Officials with the local machinists union in Plymouth say the only product manufactured there now is a large riding cleaner with internal combustion engines, while other Nilfisk products are made in Arkansas and Mexico.

The Plymouth union also said 130 workers are employed at that Nilfisk plant, but the number could soon be trimmed to 75.

"It was a very difficult decision," Mr. Cornelius-Knudsen wrote of the Bowling Green closing. "We did it for business reasons and to ensure we could continue to employ the other Nilfisk-Advance employees at our other facilities."

Contact Joe Vardon at:

jvardon@theblade.com

or 419-724-6559.



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