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At Carrier, the factory Trump saved, morale is through the floor
[NEW YORK] By the time the sun comes up, Nicole Hargrove knows if it'll be a struggle to meet her quota at the Carrier furnace factory in Indianapolis. Six days a week, she's on the assembly line by 6am, when a buzzer sounds and starts a shift that is supposed to conclude with 1,100 newly built units.
But lately, the line sometimes grinds to a premature halt, as supervisors wait for employees to straggle in — or give up and pull people off forklifts to fill in for no-shows. At the end of shifts like that, Ms Hargrove and the others who bothered to come in have only 800 furnaces to show for their efforts.
Twenty months ago, a freshly elected Donald Trump came to Carrier to claim credit for disrupting management's plans to shut the factory and shift its jobs to Mexico. The plant stayed open, and more than 700 workers kept their positions. The deal dominated the news and became a political Rorschach test: Trump's critics saw a minuscule victory, bought with tax credits, but for many of his supporters, the episode was proof that the incoming president would revive Rust Belt fortunes by sheer force of personality.
After three earlier visits, I wanted to know what Carrier workers themselves thought of the outcome, long after Trump and his media hurricane had moved on. From afar, one might assume the picture is rosy: Indiana has an unemployment rate of just 3.3 percent, and for people without a college degree, few employers offer the kind of salary and benefits that Carrier does.
But when I got to Indianapolis in July, I found that the factory Trump is often credited with saving is plagued by rising absenteeism and low morale.
"People aren't coming to work, which is sad because we really need these jobs," said Ms Hargrove, who has worked at Carrier for 15 years. "They had a chance to prove that staying was good, but this is ruining it for everybody. It's killing us. It's pushing us out the door that much sooner."
What's ailing Carrier isn't weak demand. Furnace sales are strong, and managers have increased overtime and even recalled 150 previously laid-off workers. Instead, employees share a looming sense that a factory shutdown is inevitable — that Carrier has merely postponed the closing until a more politically opportune moment.
In some ways, the situation is a metaphor for blue-collar work and life in the United States today. Paychecks are a tad fatter and the economic picture has brightened slightly, but no one feels particularly secure or hopeful.
"People still don't trust Carrier," said Paul Roell, a group leader who has worked at the plant for 19 years. "They still have the warehouses and the factory in Mexico, and they can move down whenever. We all know that Carrier has the money to do whatever they want."
Several times in late July and early August, so many workers were missing that the furnace line had to shut down in midday — even more disruptive than an early morning halt. That hadn't happened in years, employees said. Some workers cite illness, while others claim days under the Family and Medical Leave Act, saying they are taking care of sick relatives.
On a Facebook page open only to Carrier union members, there have been several posts a week complaining about the absenteeism and occasionally attributing it to abuse of family medical leave. "Boggles my mind that there are complaints about the company shutting down because people aren't coming to work," reads one from Aug 3. "When they shut the doors, guess who will be crying the most, the ones who don't come to work," says another post, from July 18.
Robert James, the president of United Steelworkers Local 1999, which represents Carrier employees, said he had heard about the absenteeism from union members. "None of us are sure what's going to happen with Carrier staying, and I don't know if we will ever be sure again or have a positive attitude towards the company," he said.
On the worst days, according to one group leader, up to one in five workers are out. It's true that the company has been running the factory hard — up to 60 hours a week with mandatory overtime, six days in a row — and some absenteeism could be due to sheer exhaustion, Mr Roell said. But "bad blood," as he put it, is at least as much to blame. "Workers feel like Carrier is going to leave," he said, "whether we come to work or not."
According to Carrier, absenteeism has not increased. In a statement, the company said it was "proud of the great work being done by our Carrier employees at our Indianapolis plant." Moreover, the company said, "we recently added a new gas furnace production line and continue to make investments in the facility, including skills training for our employees and product improvements." Carrier declined to comment further.
In February 2016, two days after Mr Trump won the New Hampshire primary, a 3-minute video shot on the Carrier shop floor became a YouTube sensation. In the clip, a hapless executive informs employees of the company's intention to shift operations south of the border. "This is strictly a business decision", the executive says, to boos and curses.
Mr Trump made the incident a staple of his stump speeches. In his telling, Carrier was thriving and its factory was profitable, yet it was still planning to send jobs to Mexico — an injustice that he alone could stop. Mr Trump's focus on Carrier paid off when industrial workers in states like Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan helped him prevail over Hillary Clinton.
A week after the election, the president-elect called the chief executive of Carrier's parent, United Technologies. They worked out terms: Carrier would lay off 632 of its roughly 1,350 blue-collar employees in Indianapolis, but in exchange for US$7 million in tax breaks, it would keep the plant open and invest US$16 million in new equipment. A little more than half the workers would keep their jobs.
One was Robin Maynard. With more than two decades at Carrier, he had enough seniority to avoid the layoffs. In July, I spoke with him and his wife, Candi, at the kitchen table of their 1,350-square-foot home; they recently relocated from a larger place to save money.
Mr Maynard described Trump's intervention as a valuable insurance policy. "As long as Trump is in office," he said, "I will have a job."
It's not just any job, either. At 54, he earns US$24.83 an hour, a third more than is typical for most local jobs available to workers without a college degree. Last year, Mr Maynard earned US$55,000 with overtime, enough to give him and his wife a tenuous hold on middle-class life and help their youngest daughter with her college tuition. She hopes to become a pediatrician — a goal the family can support only as long as Robin Maynard is employed at Carrier. If he were forced to take a lower-paying job at, say, an Indianapolis warehouse, he pointed out, his daughter's dream wouldn't come to pass.
These days, more than on my previous visits, the Maynards feel anxious about the factory's future. "He'll come home and say, 'If people don't start showing up to work, they'll close it down,'" Candi Maynard said. A former teacher, she had to give up classroom work for health reasons, making the Maynards even more dependent on Carrier.
"We always planned on going on a cruise to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary," Candi Maynard said. "Instead, we went to northern Indiana for the weekend in June."
At Carrier, Robin Maynard supervises a part of the line where control boards are attached to furnaces, making sure there are enough components and troubleshooting when machines break down. Several times a week, though, one of his 14 workers doesn't show up, and Mr Maynard has to cover. He dons a special vest, puts straps on his shoes to prevent sparks, and takes a spot on the line.
"There have been a few days when three people don't show up and I've had to work on the line all day," Mr Maynard said. "The attitude, the demeanor — they're not grateful that they have a job. The absenteeism is real bad. A lot of us need our jobs. Others look at it and they don't really care anymore."
The bad vibes can be catching. "It makes it so depressing you don't feel like going in," he added. "I need the job, but some days you just want it to be over with."
The sense of abandonment at Carrier didn't spring sui generis from the factory floor. A few days after the deal with the president-elect in December 2016, the chief executive of United Technologies, Greg Hayes, sat down for an interview with Jim Cramer of CNBC. Things looked considerably brighter for the company, then worth US$88.5 billion, than for its employees.
The conversation took place at the Connecticut headquarters of Pratt & Whitney, another United Technologies division, and the two men were surrounded by gleaming aerospace components as Mr Hayes dismissed the Carrier viral video as "a little bit of bad luck."
Yes, Mr Hayes said, the company would invest in the Carrier facility, as it had promised Mr Trump. But those funds were earmarked for automation, and would ultimately mean fewer jobs in Indianapolis, not more. Assembly-line positions there were not ones "that people really find all that attractive over the long term," Mr Hayes said. There were "great, great people" there, he added, "but the skill set to do those jobs is very different than what it takes to assemble a jet engine".
The Carrier faithful didn't appreciate the slights.
Some employees, like Ms Hargrove, remain committed to the factory, even if the love doesn't seem to always be requited from the executive suite. "There are days when I'm hurting and I'm tired but when I walk through that door, I'm going to give 100 per cent," she said. "The Bible says an honest day's work for an honest day's pay, and I try to live by that."
"They're paying you to do a job," she added. "They're not paying you to be happy." Her work is physically exhausting yet precise. Standing on her feet for the entire shift, Ms Hargrove inserts tweezerlike strips of metal thousands of times a day into a tube that forms part of the heat exchanger in each furnace.
Mr Roell, the group leader, is also loyal, despite having to fill in frequently on the line. "I'm going to stay until I don't have a choice," he said over coffee at the cheerfully retro Oasis Diner, not far from his home in Plainfield, Indiana. Mr Roell, 37, said he was grateful that when he deployed to Kuwait for a year in 2010, as a member of the Indiana National Guard, Carrier made up the shortfall between what he earned at the base and his regular salary at the plant.
Something is amiss, though, despite the fact that he's making US$23.88 an hour and last year cleared US$70,000 with overtime, a solidly middle-class wage. "I don't enjoy it as much as I used to," Mr Roell said. "I used to look forward to doing my job and seeing co-workers. But I don't have as much trust as I used to."
Even before the closure announcement, he said, supervisors gathered people from the lines and pointed out, ominously, that their counterparts in Mexico missed fewer days. "I'm worried they will use the absenteeism as an excuse to shut the factory," Mr Roell said. "They aren't doing anything to improve morale."
A few years ago, Carrier would treat workers to a meal before Christmas — a big spread of Kentucky Fried Chicken mains and sides. Now employees bring most of the food, potluck style. The company contributes only the meat.
When Carrier began a round of layoffs in early 2018, Kelli Rowan figured she was senior enough to survive. She had joined the company six years earlier (after losing a job at a nearby Ford factory, which closed), but in the end she was among those let go.
"I was depressed, I was so bored," Ms Rowan said. "I thought I was too old to find something." A 56-year-old mother of two, she shook off her funk and began applying for other factory positions.
Although statistics suggest that the local economy is booming, few positions that pay more than US$15 an hour are available for the laid-off Carrier workers. Nothing Ms Rowan found came close to her previous pay of US$17 an hour plus overtime. Eli Lilly offered US$14.50 an hour, while Roche paid US$13 and change.
Ms Rowan eventually landed a position scanning documents at an acceptable salary, but it was temporary. And she received just two days off per month, forcing her at one point to work 13 days in a row. So when Ms Rowan came home one day in June and found a message on her answering machine from the human resources department at Carrier, she immediately returned the call. Like an on-again, off-again boyfriend, Carrier suddenly needed her.
Ms Rowan had to put aside the hurt and rejection, but it was a small price to pay for a union job with full benefits, vacation and the possibility of overtime. "I don't want to live paycheck to paycheck," she said. "And I'm a tough old cookie."
As fortunate as she feels to go back, MS Rowan is like many other blue-collar workers in that her earning power has diminished over time. Her top hourly rate at Ford, where she worked for 18 years, was US$28.24 an hour, and with overtime, her annual salary peaked at US$86,000. During her best year at Carrier, she earned half that.
How long the new job will last is something Ms Rowan is trying not to think about. Carrier has hired seasonally in the past, adding people in the spring or summer and letting them go by the end of the year.
"Some may get laid off in January, just like they got laid off last January," said Jacque Williams, a former Carrier worker who is determined not to go back. At 56, he has returned to school to earn a certificate as a technician for heating and cooling equipment.
The course is being paid for by a federal program called Trade Adjustment Assistance, which helps workers, businesses and farmers who can show they've been hurt economically by imports.
"I've never had an opportunity to go to school for free," he said. Mr Williams is upbeat about his prospects, and unlike many Carrier workers, he bears no ill will toward the company. "I don't have a gripe," he said. "They gave me an opportunity. God didn't bring me this far to leave me. I'm going to get a better job."
Yet even the most loyal Carrier employees aren't optimistic about their future or that of the broader sector where they've chosen to spend their working lives.
"I come from a long line of people who worked with their hands," said Mr Roell, the group leader, noting that his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all mechanics. "When my son was a toddler, the pediatrician noticed how he used his hands and asked me if I was a mechanic."
Mr Roell doesn't want his son, 10, or his daughter, 15, to follow him into factory work. "We tell them all the time to go to college or trade school," he said. "It's just not stable working in manufacturing. One day, the factory is going to go to another state or country."