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Maytag Project: What the Future Holds for the Aging Maytag Worker

By Ryan Sweikert, Class of 2010

GALESBURG -- In a virtually non-existent local job market, older former Maytag workers had a harder time than younger ones landing full-time jobs that would provide a suitable replacement for the income they earned at Maytag.

According to those polled in the Maytag Employees in Transition survey, the current median household income for all ex-Maytag workers is $10,000 less now than when the plant closed in September 2004. Before the closing, Maytag workers reported a survey-wide median household income of $40,000 to $50,000 a year at the factory. Today, their median household income is between $30,000 and $40,000.

However, when the data is broken down by age group, the youngest employees surveyed, those in their 30s, report increased household income, rather than a decrease. That may be largely because they were paid less at the plant to begin with.

Furthermore, other job considerations, such as number of hours worked, success of retraining and the need to have a combination of jobs in order to make ends meet all play into an employee's current sense of life satisfaction. The youngest Maytag workers at the plant seemed to have less trouble recovering from the plant's closure. Indeed, many have been able to improve their financial situations by developing more lucrative careers.

Survey data shows that at the plant, those in their 30s reported a median household income between $30,000 and $40,000 a year, which was $10,000 less than the median factory income for all workers. Current median household income for those in their 30s is as much or more than median income at Maytag. In fact, workers in their 30s stand out in the survey as the only age-group whose median household income is more now than it was at Maytag.

The Maytag Project

During 2010, Knox College professors and students conducted a survey of workers displaced by the closing of the Maytag plant in Galesburg in 2004, hoping to find out how the workers fared after the closure. The survey covered a wide variety of topics, including personal economics, education, current employment, and life satisfaction.

In 2011, the Galesburg Register-Mail published survey results, along with in-depth analysis and personal profiles of selected workers written by Knox students and edited by Marilyn Webb, Distinguished Professor of Journalism.

The Maytag Project welcomes responses from former Maytag employees who have not filled out a survey. Links to a survey form and all the stories are on the Maytag Project home page.

Median household incomes have fallen from the last year at Maytag for all other age groups 40 years and older. For respondents in their 40s, the median household income was $40,000 to $50,000. Now it is $30,000 to $40,000 a year. For those in their 50s, it was $50,000 to $60,000, but it is now $40,000 to $50,000. Those in their 60s reported median household incomes at $40,000 to $50,000 during their last year, but it has now dropped to between $30,000 and $40,000.

Younger workers who had less time and effort put in at Maytag were the quickest to bounce back. Survey responses indicate that some young workers viewed the closing as an opportunity to try something new.

"The closing of Maytag was a blessing for me personally," said one 34-year-old male survey respondent. "It forced me to apply myself and get back to school."

"For my family it was a blessing," echoed Mark Semande, 38. "The Maytag closing allowed me to find a job I liked more and earn more money doing it."

The number of workers making as much or more in their current work than the median income at the plant diminished by age. It is important to note, however, that because those surveyed were the last group to be laid off and had the most seniority, the majority of those workers surveyed were in their 40s and 50s. They were at the plant the longest and therefore had the highest earnings.

Only 48 percent of those in their 40s, 39 percent of those in their 50s, and 35 percent of those in their 60s are making as much or more now than the $40,000 to $50,000 median annual household income at Maytag. Those who had the most time invested in the plant, and were not yet eligible to receive a full pension, were the hardest hit by the plant's closure.

"Our lives changed with the closing of Maytag as far as a sense of security," wrote a 55- year-old female respondent. "I thought I could retire from there and never have to work again."

The boon of retraining

In 2002, when Maytag employees were first told of the impending layoffs, they were informed about job retraining assistance provided by the government. Employees had the option to retrain for two years in a field of their choice at local colleges or vocational schools. Sixty-seven percent of those in their 30s, 79 percent of those in their 40s, 49 percent of those in their 50s, and 17 percent of those in their 60s decided to take advantage of retraining programs. Of those who retrained, 40 percent in their 30s, 58 percent in their 40s, 55 percent in their 50s, and 40 percent in their 60s were able to land a job in the area they studied.

Obtaining a job in the chosen field of training, however, did not always equal success for many workers.

"Retraining does not help if there is not satisfactory employment available," wrote respondent Wilden McKown, 61, who attended classes for a Commercial Driver's License (CDL) after Maytag only to discover a complete lack of local driving jobs.

Of those in their 40s who retrained, only 58 percent got a job in their chosen field. Of those who were hired in their chosen occupation, 42 percent are earning a better wage than at Maytag. Compare that to a lower 22 percent of retrained workers in their 50s who earn a better wage now than when at Maytag.

Fifty-five percent of those in their 50s who retrained reported receiving work in their chosen field. All of those in their 60s who retrained now make less than the median household income for those in their 60s at Maytag.

For those in their 30s who got a job in the area they retrained in, 100 percent are making more now than the median of all workers at Maytag. The data shows that although the retraining had its flaws, it did aid many workers in landing a job.

"My life has changed 100 percent for the better since Maytag," writes a 48-year-old female respondent who studied business during retraining and got a job in the field. "College was the best transition for me and gave me confidence and skills that I need for my current job."

But age was also a factor in the success of Maytag workers who retrained. Though fewer ex-Maytag employees in their 30s were surveyed, the data suggests that those in their 30s had a greater success rate via retraining than any other age group. The ability to retrain successfully, obtain a job in a new career path and make as much or more than at Maytag seems to correlate directly with the age of the worker. For some older workers, factory work was the only career they felt they were capable of.

"It is really hard to get a job having no experience other than factory work," wrote a 51-year-old female respondent who had worked at Maytag for 28 years.

Others identified so strongly with their work at Maytag that to start all over in a new career was horrifying.

"After leaving Maytag, I lost my sense of worth," writes one 57-year-old female respondent. "Our lives were turned upside-down, not knowing how we were going to survive."

For whatever reason, retraining seemed to work less toward the success of older Maytag workers. However, it is worthwhile to note that whether they obtained a job in their chosen path or not, 21 of 22 respondents who reported household incomes of $60,000 or more are 40 years or older. Current household incomes for all but one respondent in their 30s were capped at $60,000, which means that while younger workers seemed to bounce back quicker, the amount of money they now make is limited.

Of those who retrained, 25 percent of those in their 60s, 13 percent in their 50s and 24 percent in their 40s have household incomes between $60,000 and $100,000 a year. Still, there were several employees surveyed who did not retrain who now bring in double the household income they had at Maytag.

Working longer, harder for less

Although employees in their 30s report greater household incomes than they had at Maytag, they also work longer hours now. Eighty percent of those in their 30s work overtime in their current work, an average of 52 hours a week. Thirty-eight percent of those in their 40s and 37 percent of those in their 50s work overtime, but their average hours per week are lower. Those in their 40s reported working an average of 41 hours per week, while those in their 50s worked an average of 41, and those in their 60s averaged 35 hours a week.

And while younger workers report working more hours than older, more of those in their 40s and 50s have had to work multiple jobs in order to arrive at their current income. Although the majority of each age group works one full-time job, 45 percent of those in their 40s and 28 percent of those in their 50s currently work more than one job, sometimes three or four, in order to make ends meet.

Unemployment, too, seems to rise with age. None of those in their 30s are currently unemployed, while 11 percent of those in their 40s, 12 percent of those in their 50s, 38 percent of those in their 60s and all of those in their 70s are currently jobless. Most of those in their 60s and 70s who are unemployed receive pensions from Maytag and have retired. For many, however, a pension alone is not enough to live on, although Social Security income increases the pot for those now eligible.

Retirement and employment

Those who received a full pension from Maytag, after 30 years of service, are comprised of those in their 50s, 60s and 70s. Of those in their 50s who receive a pension, 41 percent now work a full-time job and 28 percent work two jobs in addition to the pension they receive. Twenty-four percent of those in their 60s work a full-time job in addition to a pension, and 14 percent work two jobs.

"I was very lucky to get my 30 (years) in and be eligible for a pension," said Russell Koerner, 55. "Receiving that money along with what I make on the job I do now has kept me moving without missing a beat."

Those who had 30 years put in at Maytag could draw a pension regardless of their age. Those with 30 years or over draw $32 for each year of service per month, in addition to a supplement of $825 per month until age 62, when the supplement drops off and the pensioner can begin to draw Social Security. At age 55 and older, workers have the option to draw pension at a reduced rate. Those who chose to begin drawing pension at 55 received half of what they would get at 65. For employees in their 30s and 40s, as well as many of those in their 50s, the additional and often crucial pension payments were out of the question.

"I was forced to retire," wrote one 58-year-old female respondent, of her Maytag layoff. "(Then) after just a few months I was forced to go back to work while my husband drove 60 miles one-way for a job that paid $8.50 max."

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Printed on Friday, December 8, 2023