Norwalk Furniture employees face uncertain future

NORWALK Eating at McDonald's for her wedding anniversary, Debbie Pflieger said she and her hus
Cory Frolik
May 24, 2010



Eating at McDonald’s for her wedding anniversary, Debbie Pflieger said she and her husband felt like the butt of a Jeff Foxworthy joke.

“We don’t go out to eat ever,” said Pflieger, who was laid off from Norwalk Furniture in March. “Well, we did go out to eat for our anniversary. We went to McDonald’s and laughed because it reminded us of Jeff Foxworthy when he said, ‘You must be a redneck if you go to McDonald’s for your anniversary.’ We just didn’t say supersize it — that’s all that was missing.”

After sewing for the furniture company for 15 years, Pflieger received a pink slip when the company’s financial troubles were really just starting.

Fast forward six months, and Pflieger sees many familiar faces at the unemployment office. That’s because Norwalk Furniture announced Tuesday it was permanently sacking its employees.

Not encouraging news

Pflieger, 54, does not have encouraging news to share with her former coworkers: Months of searching for a new job has turned up few prospects.

“There’s nothing out there, job wise — in this area and Ohio period. I’ve had my resume online since March ... but unless you want to move south, or someplace else, there’s nothing,” she said.

Even taking computer classes and enrolling in training seminars has not helped Pflieger’s resume stand out. As she continues to search for new employment, her life has become all about penny pinching.

She and her husband — who is employed about an hour away in Shelby — stay home and watch television for entertainment to avoid stripping too much bacon from the piggy bank.

Negotiations continue

In a speech he gave to laidoff workers gathered at the high school Thursday morning, company chairman Jim Gerken said a deal is in the works to sell the company’s assets, but workers should not hold their breath.

“There are two groups of investors who are continuing to negotiate for the purchase of the plant and the equipment and the inventory, and who are endeavoring to reopen the company,” Gerken said. “I continue to be hopeful that we will be able to secure the funding to reopen the company, but that remains to be seen. We’ve all been disappointed by deals that we thought were done but ended up not to be (successful). It’s important not to put out false hopes, but I’m cautiously optimistic.”

More than 200 workers attended the informational seminar about the resources that exist for unemployed and financially crunched residents.

Even the prospect that the company will be purchased and reopen under new leadership doesn’t provide former employees with much comfort.

Joe Balcerowski, 56, a Norwalk Furniture employee on the recliner line with more than 24 years of experience, said it is unwise to assume anything at this point, especially considering the recent turn of events wherein the two investors pulled out just when it looked like a done deal.

“People should look for a job,” he said. “I don’t think you can rely on waiting to see if they are going to open. And if they do open, will everybody be re-hired?”

Penny pinching

After years — even decades — of employment with Norwalk Furniture, hundreds of local workers are having a hard time getting used to speaking about their jobs in the past tense.

An employee of 23 years, Scott Stiert said it still hasn’t sunk in that the career he knew is gone.

“It’s kind of a shock — not knowing exactly what you’re going to do, what direction you want to go,”Stiertsaid.“Withthejobmarket in Ohio — what with it losing so many jobs, it’s going to be a tough go, but we got to do what we got to do for our families.”

Stiert said he is looking into more schooling or additional training to distinguish himself in the increasingly competitive job market. In the meantime, he said his family is making adjustments to cope with his loss of income.

Also cutting back on his spending is Mike Gildenmeister, an upholster of 14 years.

His family is taking any costsaving measure it can while he searches for a new company where he can hang his hat.

“We’re doing the bare minimum — keeping the lights off, not taking long showers and don’t go out — just little things like that,” Gildenmeister said.

Seeking similar work

With the Norwalk plant’s closure, the market has been flooded with many former furniture employees seeking similar type of work.

Residents say Norwalk Furniture was so crucial to the economic vitality of the city that whole neighborhoods have become “Sleepy Hollows” — places where there are no signs of prosperity.

“I might have to look into another field. There’s not too many furniture places around here, so I may have to consider a new career,” Gildenmeister said.

“Seeing how 500 people just lost their job, there’s going to be 500 people looking for a job, on top of what’s already out there.”

Balcerowski said straightening out his insurance is his first order of business — the union has complained that the company notified employees late about their medical coverage being terminated.

After that, he said he’s not sure what he’ll do next.

Some workers, like Pflieger, say their age hurts them in the job hunt.

“When I made my professional resume, a young girl behind me that works there says, ‘Oh honey, you don’t want to put the year you graduated.’

“Then she says, ‘You don’t want to put your birthday,’ Pflieger recalled. “I said, ‘You’re just trying to be nice to say that I’m at that age where they won’t want me.’”