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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Janesville residents struggle to adjust to loss of GM plant


By Rachel Hahn
When Janesville was founded by hardworking farmers and entrepreneurs, it was a thriving town. Its location by a river and proximity to the major cities of Chicago, Madison, and Milwaukee fueled growth as the city grew from a agricultural community to a manufacturing community, first building tractors and other industrial goods then making cars as the General Motors plant opened in 1919.

The General Motors Assembly Plant became the main business in Janesville employing over 60 percent of the workforce in 1925. The GM plant remained a staple in Janesville’s economy throughout the “golden age of the autoworker” providing the city of Janesville with employment and economic prosperity. However, this stability for the plant and many of Janesville’s families, including my own, did not last.

As the American economy took a downturn, the auto industry was hit hard. There was reduced demand for vehicles, especially large trucks and SUVs. This was bad news for GM, the Janesville assembly plant, and thousands of Janesville families who depended on the automotive industry.

In April of 2008 came the announcement that the General Motors plant was cutting back to a single shift. There was talk about the future of the plant, and it suddenly became the focus of my town. Current employees, including my father, were discussing job options should the plant close. Retirees, like my grandfather, were concerned for their pensions and health insurance. The news that everyone was expecting came in June of 2008: the Janesville plant would close by 2010. Meanwhile, 750 jobs were cut in the month of July as the feeling of doom and defeat descended on Janesville.

As the panic grew, many people talked of relocating, going back to school, or pursuing other career options. I personally know many people who have followed each option.

My father decided to relocate to Detroit to work at a different GM facility. Unfortunately, the facility in Detroit began to lay off workers, and my dad had to choose between staying with GM and finding a new career. Eventually my dad decided to pursue other work and found a job in Madison.

My uncle, who had worked at General Motors in Janesville, decided to move to Kansas City to work at that plant. He commuted home on weekends, but the toll of the travel was hard. His family decided to move to Kansas City with him. They are in the process of adjusting to a new home, new friends, attending new schools, and making life without our extended family.

Lear Corporation provided seating for the vehicles made by the Janesville plant and laid off 760 hourly workers when the plant closed. Another uncle of mine worked at Lear Corp. and lost his job. He was able to attend technical college to become a dental assistant and now works in a dentist's office in Madison.

These stories were repeated again as LSI closed it’s doors, laying off an additional 235 people.

These personal sacrifices were made by necessity. Although my family was lucky and did not remain on unemployment benefits, many families in Janesville are still struggling to find any form of income and employment. Unemployment benefits are terminating for most people. Benefits were eventually expanded to 99 weeks through a combination of Unemployment Insurance provided by the state, Emergency Unemployment Compensation, and Extended Benefits both funded through the federal government.

However, most people are reaching the end of these weeks. The federal government has been exploring extension options, but there is currently no legislation concerning extending benefits past the 73 weeks of federal unemployment. Recently Congress and President Obama passed an extension on benefits until the end of November. These extensions apply retroactively, but not to people past the infamous 99 weeks of unemployment.

I encourage policy makers to look into ways to extend benefits beyond the current number so the unemployed can find ways to provide for themselves and their families.

My community has been rocked to its core by the loss of the Janesville GM plant, the ripple effect of the layoffs, and the separation of families. As Janesville was once a town built upon the hard-work of its founders, I know my community will find a way to reinvent itself through its citizens. The town and citizens could just use a little help from the government in the form of extended unemployment benefits.

-- Hahn, who attends Janesville’s Craig High School, is one of four Cullen interns working in the Capitol this summer and learning about government at all levels. She works in the office of Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan, D-Janesville. The internship program is funded by a foundation established by Tim and Barbara Cullen.

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