‘And they called my name’: Houston, others scramble for income

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 17, 2005

Jesse James Houston’s night shift at Linden Lumber Company Wednesday began like any other. It ended like something out of Houston’s worst dreams.

“We went in to work, and everything was fine,” Houston said.

The plant was humming along as usual, until around 3 a.m. “That’s when they called everybody in, and said if you hear your name called, go to the break room.

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And they called my name.”

What awaited Houston in the break room was a sudden pink slip. “They said our job had been eliminated,” he said. “Didn’t matter what work you did, whether you were an operator, supervisor, whatever…a whole line just got kicked to the curb.” When asked if he had any idea the layoffs were coming, Houston shook his head and quietly offered a cold one-word response: “No.”

Houston, who lives in Thomaston, had worked for Linden Lumber for five years and four months. He now faces a suddenly threatening pile of bills – which include child support and medical expenses for a child – without any certain income.

“You gotta find somebody [to work with], or you gotta start taking unemployment,” he said with resignation.

According to a notice filed with the state Workforce Development Division (WDD), 152 other former Linden Lumber employees, some of which had been day-in-day-out workers for the company for as long as 22 years, are dealing with the same struggle. The apparent suddenness of Linden Lumber’s decision, in addition to creating hurt and anger among those laid-off, may also have made their struggle for employment harder, by slowing state-run efforts to help.

The Alabama WDD oversees a program called the “Rapid Response Team,” which works in conjunction with local employment offices and Human Resources staff to create on-site presentations before major lay-offs. These presentations, according the WDD website, allow employees about to be laid-off to “receive information about unemployment compensation, pension benefits, job training, employment services, health insurance, credit counseling, and many other services.” Work on arranging these presentations often begins within hours of the WDD’s notification of the layoff.

However, according to Larry Childers in the ADECA office of Communications and information, Linden Lumber’s official notice for the lay-offs arrived in the WDD office on Thursday-after the company had already begun dismissing employees like Houston that morning.

This has forced the Rapid Response Team to “schedule small groups” for the presentations, according to Kelly Lee in Demopolis’s Alabama Career Center. Although these smaller meetings will include the “same information,” communication with the laid-off employees will become much more difficult, and attendance could likely suffer.

Laid-off workers are able to study some options at the Career Center, which had spoken to as many as thirty ex-Linden Lumber employees as of Friday afternoon, with “more to come next week” according to Center staff member Larry Jowers. Jowers said that registering with Employment Services, one or many programs partnering at the Center, allowed them to “search for openings in the [job referral] system that match the worker’s skills,” such as truck driving or industrial maintenance. The Career Link program offers job training for a new career, and the Center is prepared to work “hand-in-hand” with those looking to file an unemployment claim. Applicants are also informed of immediate job opportunities, such as the job fair running throughout Saturday at the Weyerhauser plant in Pine Hill. Those interested in entering school can still register at Alabama Southern Community College, which is extending its Spring registration period specifically to accommodate the lay-offs in Linden

The search for these kinds of opportunities is what led Mr. Houston, among others, to the Career Center Friday morning. “You gotta do something,” he said, a sentiment many in the area will identify with this week.