Out of work

Their plight rocked the state’s political establishment. The unemployed are
our Mover and Shaker of the Year.
By Arthur O. Murray

Esther Lentz sighs, hushing the ticking of a clock in her sparsely furnished living room — a couch, two chairs, an ottoman and a 32-inch television on a wooden stand. The walls are cracked throughout her 1,400-square-foot house in Concord, but the paint is clean. The hardwood floors shine, a contrast to the dark mood.

She sighs again. The words don’t come easily. Neither will another job. She is 49, with no high-school diploma and few skills. Truth is, she’s not even looking right now. Her energies go to renewing her unemployment payments, going to school and barely keeping afloat by cutting expenses wherever she can. “We’re still making it,” she says, brushing a strand of faded brown hair out of her face. “I don’t know how.”

She’s one of more than 5,000 North Carolinians who lost their jobs when Kannapolis-based Pillowtex Corp., the state’s 10th-largest manufacturer, closed July 30. Like Lentz, about 40% of them didn’t finish high school.

While employment statewide was 3.8 million in October, roughly the same as it was a year earlier, jobs have churned. Nearly 13,000 textile jobs disappeared in 2003. So did about 3,400 furniture jobs. Some of the state’s largest employers were vulnerable. R.J. Reynolds said in September it would lay off at least 1,600 tobacco workers in Winston-Salem. And the bleeding wasn’t confined to manufacturing jobs in North Carolina’s traditional industries. US Airways laid off 600 Tar Heels. IBM idled 90 in the Triangle.

Still, Pillowtex cried out as the largest single job loss in state history. A month later, a Republican North Carolina con-gresswoman flayed President Bush over textile losses. In October, a national poll by Chapel Hill-based FGI Research showed that, if the election were held then, 60% of voters would not return Bush to office. Their No. 1 issue: his handling of the economy. People across the country had finally noticed the job losses. And they feared being Esther Lentz. That’s why the displaced worker is Business North Carolina’s Mover and Shaker of the Year.

The Pillowtex shutdown shouldn’t have surprised anyone. The company had been struggling, and the state has been bleeding textile jobs for 30 years. Since 1973, 230,000 — more than 60% of the state’s textile and apparel jobs — have vanished. At first, it was because of modernization: machines replacing people. But since 1993, when the North American Free Trade Agreement and other pacts relaxed import restrictions, the job losses have accelerated. Imports — from China, Vietnam, Pakistan and other places where people work cheap and employers can dodge environmental rules and unions — cost less than it takes to make yarn and fabric in the United States.

Textile jobs have always followed the path of least pay. That’s why they came to this country from Europe, why they migrated South, why they moved to Mexico and Honduras and why they’re going to China, where mill workers make 30 cents an hour. In North Carolina, the average textile wage was $13.82 an hour in 2002, not bad for someone without a high-school education. But it’s nothing industrial recruiters can brag about. As the jobs slipped away, politicians and pundits — on the pages of this magazine and elsewhere — did little but mutter about market forces. That changed after Pillowtex. If they failed to feel the pain, they couldn’t help but smell the fear.

Within days of the closing, a steady stream of pols — Mike Easley, John Edwards and Elizabeth Dole among them — descended on Kannapolis to offer comfort, if little else. Then Sue Myrick, a congresswoman from Charlotte, made headlines when she criticized Bush, saying he was out of touch. “There comes a point, if he doesn’t care about us, we won’t care about him when election time comes,” she said in a speech in Gastonia.

She was the first Republican to break ranks with the president over the trade agreements she once voted for. “You don’t want to criticize your president. But they weren’t listening.” Others followed her lead, and the administration issued quotas on knit fabrics, bras, dressing gowns and robes in November. The quotas won’t save U.S. textiles. But Myrick believes the first restrictions will spur movement on other issues. “They’ve finally started talking about it with the Chinese. The Chinese know they have to do something about it, but they’re going to hold off as long as they can.”

China is a long way off to Esther Lentz, who has lived in Concord all her life. She started in 1988 as a spinner at what was then Fieldcrest Cannon, after her second child started school. Her father, Raymond Allman, worked there his entire career. She quit once to work in a sock factory but came back after a month because the money was better. She was laid off for three or four months in 2001, but the job came back. It won’t this time.

Her husband, Aaron, lost his electrician job more than a year earlier and hasn’t worked since. Whereas she’s beaten down, he’s bitter. He blames imports, immigrants, Pillowtex management, the government — practically anyone or anything will do. Right now, they’re living off her $1,100 a month in unemployment benefits. The mortgage takes about $825. That doesn’t leave much for utilities, food, clothing, gasoline and other expenses. Initially reluctant to accept charity, she goes to the food giveaway at First Presbyterian Church every month. When another church gave out bags of Thanksgiving food, the Lentzes got one. “It was good, but we found out when we got to the Food Lion that the gift certificate for the turkey was only good for $5.”

Her hope is school. She started classes in August at the Concord campus of Rowan-Cabarrus Community College to prepare for her General Educational Development test. She goes to class 6 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday but struggles with the essay she must write and with math — “fractions, decimals and all that new stuff they’ve got out.” She hoped to pass the final pretest in December and get her GED by February.

But another clock is ticking. The state will pay for only two years of school, and she hopes to get enough training to find another job. She has some ideas. One is to be a game warden, but the community-college program for that is offered only in Winston-Salem or in Spruce Pine, and she refuses to leave Concord. Another idea is to be a real-estate agent. “I like that one,” her husband says. “There’s going to be a lot of real estate on the market here.” But her shyness — she often closes her eyes when she thinks — poses a roadblock. It’s hard to picture her putting together a deal.

She closes her eyes now. “I don’t know. There’s a lot of ideas out there.” When she mentions radiology or criminal justice, it sounds like an 8-year-old’s dreams of being an astronaut or a dirt-bike racer.

Would she go back to the mill if it reopened? In August, the answer was no. Now, as the year is ending, she hedges. “Have you heard anything?” she asks, eyes open — and flashing. “I’d stay in school, but I’d consider going back, financially.” When she realizes that nothing is imminent, she sighs again. “I might go back.”