A factory closes

Interviews by Elizabeth Dwoskin

PHOTOGRAPH Annie Collinge for Bloomberg Businessweek

On Jan. 4, 2009, Leviton closed its light switch factory in rural Ashe County, N.C., moving some of its production to Mexico. Four years later, many of the plant’s 211 employees have found work, some after long stretches of unemployment. Dozens went back to community college to learn new skills, helped by Trade Adjustment Assistance, a federal program that pays to retrain workers whose jobs are shipped overseas. Most are earning less money.

GARY GRAYBEAL, 51

New job: Quality engineer, American Emergency Vehicles

“Real estate was so bad you couldn’t sell your house. You could take a job in Texas, and you could lose that job too. Everything’s a gamble.”

GLENDA LUTHER, 38

New job: Volunteer coordinator, Ashe County Senior Center

“You always think in the back of your mind, which factory is going next? Learning a new field, learning a new trade, and having education to back it up make me feel very fortunate.”

SHIRLEY MILLER, 54

New job: Financial services representative, State Employees’ Credit Union

“To walk out of a place you’ve been for 28 years, there was a lot of sadness. I was concerned because of my age and because of my lack of education. Here I was, 50, not old enough to draw retirement, not old enough to draw Social Security, no health insurance.”

TERESA WILES, 57

New job: Assistant manager, Roses department store

“At Leviton, I was making $12 an hour, plus overtime. Now I’m making $8.50 an hour as assistant manager. I’d go back in a heartbeat.”

JAMIE LEWIS, 35

New job: Machinist, GE Aviation

“I had just had a kid. I stayed at home with my infant daughter. Pretty much did Mr. Mom stuff. That’s one of the small perks I got from losing my job. But I am in more credit-card debt. I have no savings, because I spent it all on health care. There are some scars there.”

BRETT LEWIS, 35

New job: Machinist, GE Aviation

“Nobody goes to college thinking they are going to work third shift somewhere. The plan is that you’re gonna better yourself. When Leviton shut down, I went back to school to get my teaching certification in industrial technology. I thought, maybe this is my chance to go back and finish.”

LISA ABSHER, 45

New job: Office manager, Ashe County building inspections department

“Even when you know it’s happening around the country, when it happens to you and people you’re close to, you realize how devastating it is. It really hit home because, in all my years of working — I’d worked since I was 14 — I’d never lost my job.”

JOYCE LEWIS, 63

Retired early

“I felt like my world was jerked out from under me. I tried to apply for insurance, but they wanted $1,800 a month. If I have no job, how can I pay $1,800 a month? I applied for a job, and people were like, ‘Uh-huh.’ My health issues and age had a lot to do with it.”

LIFE AFTER LEVITON

Of a sampling of 40 former employees, three now work at another Leviton plant

15 - MANUFACTURING

4 - HEALTH CARE

4 - ASHE COUNTY GOVERNMENT

3 - RETAIL

1 - IT

1 - BANKING

3 - RETIRED

6 - UNEMPLOYED

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