A `Living Hell' In Indiana

Joe and Patty Belew often felt the Whitehall Laboratories Inc. factory where they worked was almost like home. The Elkhart (Ind.) couple met there in 1980 and married five years ago.

Last November, that home broke up. Whitehall, a subsidiary of American Home Products Corp., closed the plant, leaving behind 800 workers. Today, the Belews subsist on $248 a week in unemployment insurance. Neither has health insurance, and Patty is a diabetic. Despite sending out 100 resumes, Joe, 49, can't find work. They're using their Visa card to pay bills, including medical costs, but they have only $500 left on their credit line. Says Joe: "We don't know what's going to happen."

HEAVY TOLL. Many folks in Ypsilanti, Mich., may feel the same way after General Motors Corp.'s Feb. 24 announcement that it would close the Willow Run plant there, laying off 4,014 workers. Unlike GM workers, though, the Whitehall employees may have some recourse in the courts. On Feb. 26, they filed a $1 billion federal suit against AHP, alleging the company closed the plant and illegally shifted the jobs to Puerto Rico to enjoy federal tax breaks. But even if they win in court, the plant closing already has exacted a heavy human toll.

Gary Gilbert landed a job at Whitehall eight years ago after being laid off twice elsewhere. He mixed the ingredients for Anacin aspirin and made $35,000 in a good year. But when AHP announced in September, 1990, that Whitehall would close, he started to drink heavily. "The last 18 months has been a living hell," he says. Unable to overcome depression or to control his drinking, Gilbert, 38, sought treatment. Although counseling helped, he's stuck with $5,000 in medical bills he can't pay. His wife's father is paying the $660 monthly mortgage. "I don't feel like a provider or a husband," he says.

A layoff often makes an already bad situation worse. Finess Smith and her husband filed for bankruptcy after they took a double hit: She lost her job at Whitehall just when her husband's child-support payments were increased by $100 a week. Angie and Norm Roll's new marriage snapped after she lost her job. "I got really irritable," she admits, and they separated. But they've gotten back together, vowing not to allow Whitehall to ruin their marriage.

The plant closing carried a special sting because jobs at Whitehall seemed so secure. The factory produced such popular drugs as Anacin, Advil, and Dristan, and the average tenure of the work force was more than 20 years. The Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers International Union, which represented some 550 Whitehall workers, won successive raises, boosting the average wage to $14 an hour. Most manufacturing jobs in Elkhart, a city of 45,000, pay half that.

The layoffs have rent Elkhart's social and economic fabric. Elkhart County's unemployment rate jumped to 7% in December from 6.2% in November, when the final 300 workers hit the streets. Fewer than half the laid-off workers have found jobs. And the economic impact of the Whitehall shutdown has rippled through the community. Franklin Press Inc., a commercial printer, says it lost 20% of its sales when Whitehall left.

Those aren't the only statistics worth mentioning. As the recession struck Elkhart last year, the Elkhart Police Dept. and Indiana State Police say battery arrests jumped 33%, to 427. Patricia Barber, director of Switchboard Concern, a local suicide-prevention hotline, says depression calls spiked in 1991 (chart), partly because of the Whitehall closing. Last year, the agency received 65 calls from suicidal people, compared with 53 in 1990. Calls for depression jumped 184%, to 460.

VENGEFUL. More telling, perhaps, are the calls that weren't made. Ted Field, 56, grew morose after losing his job of 35 years. "He began to sleep a lot more," says Becci Mossey, his daughter. In early February, he died of a heart attack. "He'd never been sick," says Mossey. "I think losing his job killed him."

Former Whitehall workers hope to exact a measure of revenge in the courts. AHP maintains that it didn't violate U.S. or Puerto Rican laws that prohibit companies from closing plants on the mainland to take advantage of tax breaks in Puerto Rico. The Elkhart plant, an AHP executive says, was an inefficient operation closed during a restructuring. That's a common corporate explanation these days. Will Elkhart's post-shutdown experience become just as common? That's something the people of Ypsilanti will have to worry about.