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Economic disaster befalls NC

The disaster might be invisible in Cabarrus County, N.C., but the sense of despair is palpable.

BY SUSAN KIM | CABARRUS COUNTY, N.C. | August 27, 2003

"We are seeing a lot of people who need medicine."

—Betty Jean Prewitt

The disaster might be invisible in Cabarrus County, N.C., but the sense of despair is palpable.

Pillowtex Corp., a textile company, declared bankruptcy July 30, displacing 4,800 people in North Carolina's largest-ever layoff. In the week after Pillowtex's closing 42.5 percent of workers were behind in rent or mortgage payments. And 10.6 percent had already been evicted, according to a study conducted by Research and Training Specialists.

The study compiled survey results of 717 workers who attended informational sessions offered at the Kimball Memorial Lutheran Church in Kannapolis in early August.

"Many people were laid off six to 12 weeks before the plant closed," explained Betty Jean Prewitt of Christian Cooperative Ministries (CCM), a North Carolina faith-based nonprofit that is working with government agencies and local churches to help Pillowtex workers. CCM operates a food pantry as well as a variety of other programs designed to help meet people's emergency needs.

And the needs of many former Pillowtex workers have grown urgent by now. More than 92 percent of them said they could not get or afford health insurance. And more than 40 percent of them have children.

"We are seeing a lot of people who need medicine," said Prewitt.

Pillowtex, a self-insured company, stopped health insurance the day the plant was shut, Prewitt said. Insurance will get reinstated Oct. 1, she said, but former employees have to sign up by the end of August. "Not many people have signed up," she said, because they believe they can't afford it.

Pillowtex has asked a bankruptcy judge for permission to spend $2.5 million of the company's assets to pay off outstanding medical claims for workers who lost their jobs. Unpaid medical expenses that were incurred by workers before the July 30 bankruptcy could total $5 million, Pillowtex estimated. It said it would request authority to negotiate partial payments to some health providers.

In addition, some workers still have not been compensated for vacation they accrued in 2002.

As financial strain in the community reaches a breaking point, churches and government agencies are working closely together to bring hope back to Cabarrus County, said Prewitt.

CCM has opened a satellite food pantry at the First Presbyterian Church in Kannapolis. And, at the Kimball Memorial Lutheran Church, CCM and other agencies have continued to work together to assess ongoing needs.

Workers are receiving an average of $1,100 a month in unemployment. But that money is going quickly: On average, they must pay about $455 in rent or mortgage each month, and another $209 on prescription drugs.

Aside from being behind in paying for housing, up to 34 percent of workers also reported being overwhelmed by their car, telephone, electric, gas, water, cable or credit card bills.

The survey indicated workers were juggling bills by staggering payments, leaving them behind across the board. Also, more than 32 percent said they've had to borrow from their 401(k)s or insurance plans.

The numbers don't show how high emotions are running in the community, added Prewitt, who said the collective stress is pronounced. "People are angry at the mill."

The Rev. Joe Crawford at the First Presbyterian Church compared the emotional and psychological aftermath to that of a significant natural disaster. "There is a great sense of despair here even if this is less visible than a natural disaster."

About half of the mill workers don't have a GED or high school diploma, Crawford estimated. "In the long term, we are worried about stress, depression, abuse, even suicide," he said.

Yet workers have maintained some sense of hope. More than 95 percent have expressed interest in receiving training for a new job, though many don't know how to go about finding such training.

The state will receive a $4.67 million federal grant to help displaced workers across the state pay for tuition, books and related fees if they're enrolled in retraining.

Pillowtex plans to close all 16 of its plants, and will lay off all 7,650 workers. More than half are in North Carolina.

National response groups have been supporting local efforts in the state. Working through the Presbytery of Charlotte, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is offering financial support for the First Presbyterian Church as it works with other churches and social service agencies to meet basic needs from food and housing to medical supplies and health insurance.

The North Carolina Lutheran Synod was also responding.

The United Church of Christ's Wider Church Ministries program was researching the possibility of pharmaceutical companies that may be willing to donate prescription medications, said Susan Sanders, who was in contact with St. John's United Church of Christ in Kannapolis.

Because the misfortune hitting Cabarrus County and Kannapolis is considered an economic disaster, not a natural disaster, many faith-based disaster response groups can't direct funds toward people's needs there, since they must focus their limited resources on natural disasters the mission their donors know and support, explained Sanders.

"These situations are so difficult, as the need is so great and there is so little we can do," she said. " And the same situation is occurring across the country."

Prewitt said response in Cabarrus County could become a national model. "I'm really proud of folks. It's a very different response. Nobody did this for those folks with Enron," she said. "I think this is a real piece of history in the making."

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