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Family together for the holidays despite tough economy

GM employee follows job to Ohio; family stays behind

POSTED: December 5, 2008 5:00 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Leon and Pam Barrett relax in their East Hall home. Leon has come back to Georgia from Ohio to be with his family for Thanksgiving. He works for General Motors and had to move north when GM's Doraville plant closed.

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LULA — Walking around his yard, Leon Barrett noticed that some of his landscaping projects need his attention.

"I’ll have to look after that during my vacation next summer," said Barrett, 53.

For 29 years, Barrett has worked for General Motors Corp. He joined the company in August 1979 on the assembly line at the company’s Doraville plant. In 1999, he left the line and became a member of management.

Earlier this year, the plant where Barrett had worked for his entire career was closed.

In July, he accepted a transfer to the GM assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio, about 60 miles southeast of Cleveland, near the Pennsylvania border. The plant makes the Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5.

His wife, Pam, an associate vice president of Brenau University, remains at home while Leon shares a two-bedroom apartment with another transferred worker from Doraville. They are among a group of 13 Georgians now working in Lordstown.

At work, he keeps his mind off of being 700 miles away from home and family.

"The hard time is when you come home in the evenings and you’re there by yourself," Barrett said. "There is no one that you know. There are guys that you work with, and I’ve known them for years, but we’re just co-workers."

The Doraville group lives in the same apartment complex in Niles, about 10 miles from the Lordstown plant. They decided to live in the same place in case of trouble during the potentially brutal winters about 50 miles from Lake Erie.

His current roommate is his second one. The first was able to retire shortly after going to Lordstown.

"A lot of these guys went up with 30 years in hopes of getting a buyout. Now, GM doesn’t have any money, so the big buyouts are gone," he said.

GM workers are eligible for full retirement when the combination of their age and years of service totals 85.

"Being 53 and having 29 years, I’m still a little short, so I’m looking at a couple of years," he said.

The Cobalt and G5 were selling well when Barrett arrived in Lordstown. However, the sluggish demand for new cars in general has left the plant with a significant inventory of cars. A third shift has been cut, and the production line is being slowed.

Lordstown, a small community where steel mills once were a part of the economy, now depends on the GM plant and its suppliers as the major employer, with a little more than 4,000 workers.

When Barrett went to Lordstown, he was working 70 hours a week.

"They were in demand and we just couldn’t keep up," he said.

But now, it’s a different story.

There is no overtime, and 1,100 hourly workers will be idled after Thanksgiving as the plant slows down.

While he worries about GM’s future and particularly, his company pension, Barrett has no regrets about his decision to go to work for the company and is loyal to the automaker.

"It’s been a good life," he said. "We’ve made good money at it, and it’s been a good job. It’s afforded us a good comfortable living."

Barrett hopes the company and his job will continue to be there. Some of the talk among his colleagues is an opportunity to go to work for a GM plant in St. Petersburg, Russia. That’s an idea that Barrett isn’t really interested in.

Pam Barrett is director of financial aid for Brenau. Finding an administrative position in a college in Ohio was unlikely, so she has remained here.

One other reason to stay is because of a reciprocal agreement with other private colleges that allows their daughter, Claire, 19, to attend LaGrange College on a tuition exchange.

"If I left my job, I not only would lose my salary but this fringe benefit," Pam Barrett said. Tuition at LaGrange is around $20,000 per year.

She admits having her husband away is not easy.

"The first several weeks it was really tough," she said. "Now, it’s tough when he comes home and goes back. I cry at the airport."

She said she misses their social life and simple things, like going to a movie.

This week, Leon came home to Lula and the couple left for a family Thanksgiving in Florida. He will be back for two weeks at Christmas.



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