Originally created 12/03/01

King Mill at Christmas

Cheryl Walker takes only half the dose of the prescriptions she needs daily to stay alive. She saves the rest for her husband, Ronald.

The Walkers haven't had the money to buy Mr. Walker's medicine since he lost his job and health insurance when King Mill abruptly closed in May. His unemployment insurance ran out last month.

The Walkers and other former King Mill employees expect to have a bleak Christmas this year unless a federal bankruptcy judge in Columbia agrees in two weeks to pay them the wages and medical benefits they say they are owed from the assets of the mill's parent company, Spartan International Inc.

John Brown, who was a machinist for King Mill, and his wife, Ruby, won't be buying presents this year but say they are grateful to still have their home, food and each other.

Donna Hughes finally found a minimum-wage waitress job at a Western Sizzlin' and says she is thankful to have it but finds the work grueling at age 45. She, too, has serious health problems and has cut back on her thyroid medicine because she can't afford it.

The Walkers still haven't made their November house payment. Mrs. Walker's eyeglasses are held together with a rubber band. And last week, Mr. Walker went to the construction job he was able to pick up with 6 cents in his pocket - not even enough to buy a soft drink, Mrs. Walker said.

"It's just hard," she sighed. "You've got to put your faith in God. I keep thinking there's something good that's got to come out of it."

Mrs. Walker is confined to bed much of the day because of multiple health problems, including congestive heart failure, chronic disease of the lungs, diabetes and osteoarthritis.

Mrs. Walker could have gotten insurance under COBRA - the federal law that guarantees the continuity of employee benefit rights - from her former employment but was deprived of the right because Mr. Walker's insurance was canceled without notice. She is now uninsurable, she said.

She was able with the help of daughter-in-law Colleen Mekara to get most of her medicine free through a special program. She takes more than $13,000 worth of medicine a year just to stay alive. But the couple can barely scrape the money together for Mr. Walker's six prescription medicines. He has diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems.

Mr. Walker, who is an experienced mechanic, just turned 62 and hasn't been able to find another job because of his age and lack of a high-school diploma. His self-confidence has plummeted, his wife said.

While the Walkers struggle to stay alive and keep a roof over their heads, the legal wrangling over who will get the assets of Spartan International continues in the federal courts in Spartanburg and Columbia.

A trustee appointed by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Spartanburg is overseeing the disposition of the assets.

In May, a group of King Mill employees filed an involuntary bankruptcy petition in an effort to get 60 days of wages and benefits. Their lawyers are hopeful the trustee will pay the employees from the assets before paying Spartan's principle creditor, General Electric Capital Corp.

The employees say they are entitled to at least 60 days' wages and medical benefits because the plant closed without the federally required 60 days' notice.

Spartan International closed five plants in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina on May 4 when GE Capital foreclosed against a $35 million debt. About 1,200 employees were thrown out of work without the required notice and with no medical insurance or retirement funds.

The Walkers and other former Spartan employees have received several notices from the bankruptcy court, the latest a notice to file proof of their claim against the assets.

Mrs. Walker hobbled over to a bureau where the notices were piled. A recent swelling in her heel makes it painful for her to walk. She needs treatment but can't afford it.

"We don't know what to do with this," she said breathlessly before collapsing on the bed again. "We don't know how to show proof of what we're supposed to get."

Things are not much better for the Browns, although Mrs. Brown has her health. Mr. Brown hasn't been able to find another job. The couple is living off money she earns keeping children in their home.

They are still getting doctor bills from an illness he had before he lost his job. His insurance should have paid for that treatment but didn't, even though premiums were being deducted from his paycheck.

"Things are just really tighter since the unemployment ran out, so right now things are hard," Mrs. Brown said.

It would take a "miracle" for the Browns to do any Christmas shopping this year, she said.

"My 12-year-old gave us a list the other day," she said. "I just looked at it and smiled. I haven't said anything to him."

The Browns are thankful they will be in their home and have some food.

"And we have two little precious grandchildren we would love to do something for, but we'll be together," she said. "I learned one thing after September 11. I'm so thankful for my children and grandchildren. It would be nice to do things, but we'll be happy to be together."

Meanwhile, Betty Cushman, 60, who worked at King Mill for 29 years, said she is "just hanging in there" and "worrying about those bill collectors."

"My husband is on disability," she said. "It's not much, but that's all we've got coming in. I'm sending the hospital $5 a month. I've been calling the doctors up and saying, 'It's in the courts."'

The Cushmans owed about $75,000 in medical bills from her husband's March surgery. She lost her insurance before the bills could be processed and paid.

They won't be doing any Christmas shopping either.

"We'll have food," she said. "My young'uns will buy the food, and I'll cook it. That's as far as that goes."

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or sylviaco@augustachronicle.com.

A U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge in Columbia will hear arguments Dec. 17 on a motion by General Electric Capital Corp. on payment from the assets of King Mill's bankrupt parent company, Spartan International Inc.


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