- Associated Press - Saturday, December 26, 2015

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. (AP) - On the night of July 23, Richard Jones, an auto plant robotic specialist at Mitsubishi Motors North America, began hearing rumors that he didn’t want to believe.

His co-workers were saying Mitsubishi officials were about to announce the Normal plant founded 30 years ago was preparing to close by the end of the year.

“Someone texted us,” said Jones’ wife, Lori. “We Googled and discussed it but went to bed thinking that we wouldn’t worry about it until we heard from the company.”

The next day, MMNA made it official, announcing plans to halt production at the plant and lay off almost all of its 1,200 workers before the end of the year. The decision left employees, including many who had worked there with friends and relatives for decades, contemplating an uncertain future.

“It was a slap in the face,” said Richard Jones.

The day after the announcement, he went to lunch with a friend, Chuck Evans, owner of Evans Repair Shop in Bloomington.

“He wanted to buy me lunch since I would be out of a job,” said Richard Jones. “Through that lunch, though, I ended up buying his business.”

The initial fear and dread that came with the factory’s closing vanished when Jones agreed to buy the auto repair shop from Evans, who was interested in retiring anyway.

“I had never really seriously thought much about it before. I always wanted to, of course,” said Jones, 50, who has been around cars since he was a teenager, including working with Evans at his shop and on cars in his own garage.

“I came to the realization that I can’t worry about things I have no control over,” he said. “But what are the chances of a good friend who owns a body shop and was ready to retire at the exact same time the plant closes?”

His wife agreed that the plant’s closure was the push he needed to start his own business.

“We had to do it,” Lori Jones said. “If something happens or if it fails or whatever, we still won’t have any regrets because we took the chance. If we had done this when he still had his job, we may have looked back and had regrets.”

While Jones’ future may be set, others aren’t so lucky.

The last official production day was Nov. 30, a day when all but about 100 employees will report to work, sign exit papers, turn in their badges and leave. After that, a skeleton crew will stay on to build service parts until the plant closes for good on May 31.

Maryl Salisbury of Normal, who has been at the plant for more than 26 years, remains employed but on medical leave.

“I’m going to be OK because I am at the age where I will be able to get my pension and in a couple of years, then retire,” she said. “It’s sad, though.”

Relatives who have worked at the plant include a brother, a son, a daughter, two nephews and her granddaughter’s father.

“So, to us, it really is a family affair,” she said. “It was a wonderful place to work. I met a lot of wonderful people and made a lot of great friends. It’s heartbreaking for me.”

Richard Jones said stories like Salisbury’s are common throughout the plant.

“In my group, I know there are a lot of people who have no idea what they are going to do next,” he said. “Some of them don’t know how to make a new resume because when you are at one place for so long, you don’t ever expect to need it.”

He said the news came as a shock because the company had been hiring, recently installed new robots and had plans for more. “Things were looking great,” he said.

Rich Ledbetter of McLean, who started in April 1989, also has a lot of emotions tied to the job.

“I was ticked off the way we found out,” he said. “We had taken concessions during the last four or five contracts to keep our job and then we found out they built a plant in Indonesia, building the same cars we are building here now.”

But, Ledbetter said, not all of his feelings are negative. Employees received a severance package and most employees received a lump-sum payment, insurance benefits and pension, based on a sliding scale determined by seniority. The agreement was approved Oct. 15.

“I have almost 27 years here and was able to do some nice things, like raise a family,” he said.

But he also doesn’t know what the future will hold.

“I don’t have a clue,” he said. “I have it better than most guys. Many are in their mid-50s, and people don’t want them. They are in between that age of being young and getting close to retirement. It’s going to be hard.”

Richard Jones said the hardest part may be not seeing colleagues who became friends over decades of working together.

“There is a lot of camaraderie there,” he said. “I’m going to miss that the most.”

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Source: The (Bloomington) Pantagraph, https://bit.ly/21MoI6I

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Information from: The Pantagraph, https://www.pantagraph.com


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