Originally created 05/04/02

Former workers struggle for jobs

Ronald Walker shoveled potatoes and carrots for nine hours and 16 minutes as a day laborer and took home $38.88.

It was quite a comedown for the 40-year King Mill employee who lost his job a year ago today when King Mill abruptly closed after its parent company, Spartan International Inc., went belly-up.

"I ain't been out of work since I was 16 years old, and here I was 61 years old and had no job," Mr. Walker said.

The night after working as a day laborer, Mr. Walker, now 62, had chest pains and shortness of breath. His wife, Cheryl, refused to let him go back because he had heart trouble that prompted a quadruple bypass six years ago.

A few weeks later, a woman from the Labor Department called and said that one day's work might make him ineligible to receive the 13-week unemployment check extension.

"She said they'd have to have a hearing on it," Mrs. Walker said.

As it turned out, the Walkers heard nothing more from the Labor Department, and the checks kept coming.

After the plants closed, Spartan's principle creditor, General Electric Capital Corp., went to court and had a receiver appointed who began selling off Spartan assets until a group of former King Mill employees filed an involuntary bankruptcy petition. The Spartan estate is in the hands of a trustee appointed by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in South Carolina.

Augusta lawyer John B. Long, who represents the former employees, said he is still fighting to get medical benefits for them.

"We were able to get 23 employees long-term disability benefits, which kept some of them from going bankrupt," he said. "But the wheels of justice have not moved as swiftly as I wish they had."

The former employees' long-term disability checks were cut off after October because the insurance company that administered the account hadn't been paid since the plants closed last May.

In February, the trustee in Spartanburg said $1.6 million in employee contributions was sitting in a South Carolina bank and could be used to resume payments to the employees.

The overlooked account shows that no one involved in the mill closings cared what happened to the employees, Mr. Long said.

"Nobody gave a damn about anybody else," Mr. Long said.

U.S. Sen. Zell Miller said he has great sympathy for the King Mill workers and is working with Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., to get an amendment included in the Trade Promotion Authority Bill to help the estimated 700,000 textile workers who have lost their jobs since NAFTA was passed in 1994.

"The bill would retroactively help with their unemployment and health benefits," said Sen. Miller, D-Ga. "Yesterday, Sen. Tom Daschle (DS.D.) and some of the Senate leadership put in an amendment trying to help the steel workers retroactively. Well, along those same lines, I want to help these textile workers who have lost their jobs retroactively."

And at Mrs. Walker's request, U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood's office is investigating whether to launch a congressional inquiry into Spartan's closing and subsequent loss of employee benefits, spokesman John Stone said Thursday.

Meanwhile, hard times have come to the Walkers and many others who lost their jobs. Retirement funds and health insurance disappeared overnight when Spartan turned over its keys to GE Capital on a $35 million debt. The move threw 1,200 people in plants in three states out of work. More than 300 worked at King Mill, which had been operating on the Augusta Canal since 1882.

The Augusta Chronicle has kept up with several of the King Mill workers the past year. Some, such as 48-year-old Ruby Gilliam, were able to find work almost immediately.

Some, such as Ricky Hughes, were rehired by Standard Textile Inc., the company that bought the mill equipment and resumed operations. Mr. Hughes' wife, Donna, was not rehired, but she eventually found work at the Western Sizzlin restaurant in North Augusta.

But others, including Mr. Walker, have not found jobs and have no health insurance when they need it the most.

Mrs. Walker has multiple health problems and must take more than $13,000 worth of medicine a year to stay alive.

"Cheryl's condition is worse than before," Mr. Walker said last week. "She needs surgery again, but she can't get it because her Medicare don't go in effect until June 1. The doctor said if she didn't get that hernia fixed soon, it would strangle her bowels."

The Walkers will file Chapter 7 bankruptcy in an effort to save their home, Mr. Walker said.

"It's been rough," he said with a sigh.

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


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