Layoff is an ugly word.
You see it almost every day as more workers around the region get the ax.
People like Bill Sanders, 69, of Gastonia. People who loved every minute of their jobs and made positive contributions to their companies.
We talked by phone on Sept. 24, the day Sanders lost his job at the Hanesbrands Inc. yarn plant.
He spoke with passion about a textile career that had started at age 16 and ended 53 years later.
Sanders and 139 other employees in the Gastonia plant were caught up in a major cutback. Hanesbrands Inc., the Winston-Salem-based underwear maker, eliminated 8,100 workers in the U.S. and Central America, including more than 1,300 in North Carolina.
Numbers like that don't really sink in until you connect with the people.
Sanders had stuck in my mind. I wanted to know more about his life in textiles.
So I called him again and we met at his Gastonia home two days after the layoff.
By then, he could smile a little. But you could tell he was still hurting.
Sanders told me about showing up at the plant around 7 a.m. on Sept. 24. As usual, he'd been looking forward to work. But a strange silence hung over the plant that day. Machines stood idle. When he tried to punch the time clock it didn't work.
He suspected a power outage until he met co-workers in the canteen. It looked like a funeral in there.
News of the layoff brought hugs and tearful farewells.
Sanders got back home around 10:30 a.m. Then it hit him: His whole life had changed.
Coming full circle
Arlington, Aberfoyle, Rex, Mutual, Imperial: The names of Gaston's mills are road markers in Sanders' life.
Both of his parents worked in the mills. So did his grandparents.
On summer nights, he went to sleep lulled by the hum of machinery in a nearby plant.
For him, machines didn't make noise; they made music. It was comforting.
As his family expected of him, Sanders dropped out of school at 16 and went to work at the Arlington Mill. It was a way of life and he accepted it. He earned 53 cents an hour as a “yarn boy.”
“When I first started it was so hot your clothes would be wringing wet in the summer,” Sanders said. “In the winter, you nearly froze to death.”
In an old photograph made shortly after he joined the Arlington, Sanders was a skinny kid who stood out in a work force made up mostly of women. It wasn't the greatest job. But he was glad to have it.
From “yarn boy,” Sanders moved on to sweeping and running cards and roving – learning one job after another.
The mill was his classroom.
In time, he'd get a more formal education at the Vocational Textile School in Belmont. After graduating in 1969, supervisory positions began to come his way.
In 1999, Sanders went to work with China Grove Textiles, the old Mutual plant in west Gastonia.
This was significant for him: He'd landed at the sister plant of the old Arlington Mill, which had stood right across the street and where his textile career had started.
He felt like the journey had come full circle.
“I said, ‘This is where I'm going to retire,'” Sanders recalled.
Over the years, the plant changed hands several times, finally becoming part of Hanesbrands Inc.
Throughout the changes, Sanders' outlook remained the same: He loved the job and the people he worked with.
A serious bout with lung cancer in 2001 didn't slow him down for long; three years later, when he had to have a pacemaker installed, he missed less than a week of work.
Downsizing, adjusting to new machinery and increased production: Sanders took it all in stride. In fact, the way he saw it, “everything was getting better.”
Until the layoff.
The day we talked, Sanders had gotten up at 5 a.m., had breakfast and read the paper.
And sat there. Wondering what to do next.
Maybe he'd go shopping with his wife, Sandra, even though he didn't need anything in particular. Maybe he'd go hunt for some gas. Anything to get out and get his mind off things.
But he couldn't help thinking about his changed circumstances.
As I got ready to leave, I was glad to see Sanders getting a little mad about the situation.
He'd started thinking about the future. He worried about younger folks who'd lost their jobs. His advice to them: Go back to school and learn another skill.
“And don't ever get down,” Sanders said. “There's a brighter side to everything.”
He meant it. The fire was building in him. It must have hurt, but Sanders told me he knew working in textiles again wouldn't be an option. That was over.
But he knew something else was out there waiting for him. Something he could do well – and put his heart into.
Instead of sitting at home dreaming of the past, he would be out looking for that job, whatever it was.
Retirement, when it came, would be his idea – not somebody else's.
Stay mad, Bill. Don't ever let them get you down. Forget about the doors that close and think of the ones that may open soon.