GARNER — When ConAgra Foods closed its meat-snacks plant last year, longtime worker Lawanda Harris became discouraged after months of searching for a new job.
She decided it was time for a change.
“I said, ‘I might as well just go back to school,’ ” Harris recalled.
So 21 years after she finished high school, Harris, of Clayton, found herself back in a classroom.
The 40-year-old single mother of three just finished her first semester at Johnston Community College, where she is studying business administration. She figures a degree will help her chances of eventually landing a management job at a manufacturing company.
A lot has happened in the three years since an explosion sparked by natural gas rocked the Slim Jim plant on Jones Sausage Road on June 9, 2009. ConAgra, a Nebraska-based company, donated the 106-acre site near Interstate 40 to Garner, which is using the tragedy as an opportunity to redefine itself.
The town is making plans to tear down the plant and recruit biotechnology companies to the property, and a consulting firm has suggested renaming the road in front of it to something less indicative of the decades-long meat production that occurred at the site.
In April, a Johnston County jury awarded a total of $14.6 million in damages to seven former workers who were hurt in the blast and had sued a contract company blamed for the explosion.
It’s unclear exactly where most of the plant’s 900 workers before the explosion have ended up.
ConAgra didn’t keep tabs on its employees after it closed the sprawling plant in May 2011. Local community colleges haven’t tracked how many students worked for the company, and the N.C. Division of Employment Security didn’t count how many filed for unemployment benefits.
Eleven former workers transferred to other ConAgra plants around the country, including Michigan, California and Troy, Ohio, where Slim Jim production shifted.
Some, like Harris, have returned to school, hoping a college degree will set them on a new path. Others have landed coveted jobs in a still-tough economy. And some are still looking for work to pay their bills as physical and emotional scars from the blast continue to heal.
Before the plant closed, the Rapid Response program through the N.C. Department of Commerce dispatched a team to talk to ConAgra workers about retraining and educational opportunities, along with help for home foreclosures and other issues. The group can offer the services when companies lay off workers.
About 78 percent of the nearly 60 ConAgra workers who were surveyed at the time said they were most interested in training, including school and on-the-job training. Some said they wanted to learn more about how to receive food stamps or how to get help to pay their rent or mortgage.
“A lot of the ones we talked to definitely wanted to start over,” said John Saparilas, associate vice president for student services at Wake Tech Community College, which took part in the program.
That’s exactly what Harris wanted to do. The meat snacks plant was all she had known for 16 years.
Four years after she graduated from Clayton High School, Harris was working two jobs – at Taco Bell and a Kroger grocery store. When she landed a job at the meat plant in 1995, the pay of about $9 an hour was enough to make ends meet.
Harris worked her way up at the company. She started as a packer who put the snacks in boxes, then became a machine operator and later a lead worker who made sure production ran smoothly. Shortly before the explosion, she was promoted to a supervisor position, doing paperwork and running shift meetings.
The pay of $28.50 an hour covered the mortgage and then some. Harris took her kids on two cruises. They visited the Kings Dominion amusement park in Virginia. And the family ate out a lot at places like The Cheesecake Factory and Kobe Japanese Steakhouse.
Harris said the unemployment benefits she receives now make up less than half of her former salary. These days, dinners at home have replaced evenings out. Harris made her teenage daughter choose between taking part in the school marching band or dance lessons; it was too expensive to do both.
But Harris is taking it in stride. “I’m very happy, I am,” she said. “I can’t do all the things that I used to do, but as long as we’re living and we have the lights and we have food, that’s what’s important.”
It’s been a long journey from the day of the explosion, though. The day three of her coworkers died under the rubble and dozens more were injured. The day she bandaged others’ burns and cuts and calmed those who fled the building. The day her Ford Escort was crushed beneath a crumbled wall.
Harris was in another part of the plant when the blast occurred as workers installed a new water heater. She ran to offer first aid. In the weeks that followed, Harris was assigned the task of visiting injured workers in the hospital and the families of those who died.
“It made me feel good to know I was there for them,” she said.
ConAgra scaled back production, laying off 250 workers five months after the explosion and nearly as many in a second round of cuts.
Unemployed after three months
Watson Salapo, 47, was laid off in April 2011, after about three years with the company.
Salapo immigrated to the United States in 2004 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, hoping to find new opportunities. He was happy to land a job at ConAgra, where he made $15.60 an hour cutting meat.
He hasn’t found another job. He’s running against the clock to find something – anything – before his unemployment benefits run out. Salapo wants to get work close to home so his whole paycheck won’t go into his gas tank and he’ll have enough to support his wife and four children.
Salapo has enrolled at Wake Tech, where he is studying economics and hopes to one day work for international companies.
“Now you can’t find a job making $15.60 an hour,” Salapo said. “It’s rare. You need to have some degree.”
Eventually, Garner leaders hope jobseekers will be able to find work with new companies at the former ConAgra site.
Sanford Holshouser, an economic development consulting firm in Raleigh, has recommended the town tear down the aging plant and change the name of Jones Sausage Road to lure life-sciences companies that will offer competitive wages.
The Garner Economic Development Corp., which owns the site, plans to hire a company in the coming weeks to raze the building, said Bruce Andrews, president of the group. It will take six to eight months to tear it down, he said.
The building, parts of which went up in the 1950s, likely wouldn’t serve a modern company’s needs, Andrews said.
“It’s just not practical,” he explained. “It’s like having an old home somewhere and not having indoor plumbing. It’s just antiquated.”
Taking time to find right fit
The plan is to recruit companies that offer an average salary that meets or exceeds Wake County’s average annual income of $46,800. Companies should create at least 440 jobs and should bring a tax base of at least $55 million.
With those guidelines in place, the town will need to be patient as it markets the site to potential businesses, said Tony Beasley, Garner’s economic development director.
About a dozen companies – mostly food manufacturers – have expressed interest in the site, but they often don’t pay high enough wages and wouldn’t create enough jobs, Beasley said. Someone even called and asked about setting up a flea market there.
There’s no need to take “a piece of low-hanging fruit when you don’t have to,” Beasley said. But he hopes businesses will commit to the site in three years or so. Construction would likely take another one to two years.
In the meantime, Harris is enjoying her new life as a college student. She earned three As and one B in her classes last semester.
She hopes the hours of studying will help her get a good job some day soon.
Harris said she had always wanted to go back to school, but she never got around to it. She had hoped to take college courses while still working at ConAgra.
In some ways, she said, all the hard work is for her children, who are 15, 12 and 10.
“I like to set an example,” Harris said. “I have three kids that look up to me.”