Some Jeep workers still worry about tensionsWritten by Matt Zapotosky | | email@example.com
Sharie Plewa was not surprised when she heard one of her Jeep co-workers, Archie Cox, had walked into a North Toledo convenience store two weeks ago and shot two people before he killed himself.
She was also not surprised when she heard a different Jeep co-worker, Myles Meyers, walked into Daimler Chrysler’s North Toledo assembly plant five months ago and shot three of his supervisors – killing one and injuring the other two – before he killed himself.
Plewa said she is upset nothing has been done to ease the workplace tension she and other employees believe contributed to both shootings.
”There were tensions before the shootings,” Plewa said. ”We would sit around and joke around wondering when somebody’s going to go ’postal.’ We would have conversations about it, and then it happened.”
Plewa did not know either of the men. She had worked near Cox over a year ago and described him as a ”regular guy.”
”But I guess everybody is until they go off,” Plewa said.
Plewa said tensions exist at Jeep between management, the union and employees because of forced overtime and unreasonable attendance policies.
”We understand it’s a corporation and they’re there to make money, but the overtime is never going to end,” Plewa said. ”At 2:25 (p.m.) every single day, when it should be time to go home, all you hear is pounding and screaming through the whole plant … People are tired.”
Tom Hunter, a tool and layout inspector at the Wrangler plant, said the tension is related to workforce reductions and employees being forced to do more tasks than normal.
”They’re pretty comfortable with getting rid of a person, and then they’ll figure out how they have to break up the responsibilities,” he said. ”I don’t think they’re interested in addressing this issue because they’ve got an agenda that doesn’t take into consideration the fact that people have a life other than being in Jeep.”
Union officials acknowledged tension exists at the plant but said the level of tension is not unreasonable and not necessarily between management and union.
”There’s always tension in any business anywhere,” said Dan Henneman, chairman of the United Auto Workers Local 12 Jeep unit. ”I get more tension between my own folks than I do with union and management.”
A Chrysler spokesman also acknowledged tension exists at the North Toledo plant but said the level of tension is not unusual compared to other plants.
”We believe things are going as well there as they are at other plants,” said Ed Saenz, a spokesman for Chrysler. ”How do you quantify the amount of tension between 4,000 individuals there? It’s similar to other workplace situations.”
Chrysler and union officials also said the shooting by Cox was not motivated by workplace stress and is wholly separate from the first shooting by Meyers.
”How could (tension at the plant) tie to this domestic situation?” Saenz said. ”The situations are so clearly different that I’d be surprised to see anyone attempt to draw a tie.”
Cox shot and killed his estranged wife, Susan Cox, and her co-worker, Shantel Hedrix, at Barney’s Convenience Mart in North Toledo. Meyers shot and killed Roy Thacker, a supervisor at Jeep, and shot and injured Paul Medlen, a team leader, and Michael Toney, another supervisor, at the North Toledo jeep plant.
Detective Bob Schroeder of the Toledo Police Department, is investigating the Cox incident. He said stress at work was not the primary motivator in the shooting.
”I have no information to say that stress at work motivated the shooting,” he said.
Schroeder said the shooting was apparently motivated by domestic issues between Cox and his estranged wife, Susan Cox. Schroeder said the couple had been separated four times prior to the shooting and were separated at the time of the shooting.
Jeep’s Employee Assistance Program had been in contact with Cox regarding his personal problems, but Cox declined to receive help, Henneman said.
Jeep Employee Assistance Coordinator Lee Herbert said he could not confirm or deny whether he talked to Cox.
Saenz refused to release any disciplinary action taken against Cox but said he was an employee in ”good standing.”
Neighbors described Cox as a ”quiet guy” who was rumored to be having relationship troubles with his estranged wife, but none said Cox ever complained about stress at work.
”He seemed all right; I never had too many problems with him,” said Dave Kesling, Cox’s neighbor. ”He would always wave when you drove by.”
’A little push’
Plewa said Cox’s situation might have been motivated primarily by domestic issues, but tensions at the Jeep plant might have tipped Cox over the edge.
”I think the tensions that we’re under might take somebody who maybe wouldn’t have done something like that and just give them a little push,” Plewa said. ”I don’t know what kind of record or anything this guy had, but the hours that we work, the heat, it all gets to you.”
Hunter also said many employees in the plant are being pushed to their limits mentally.
”I’ve had people come into the office, and they’ve been pulled in by maybe our union rep, by maybe just another worker or a supervisor … but they’ve come in and just absolutely broken down…just breaking down, breaking down,” he said.
Experts interviewed for this article said there is a strong correlation between workplace stress and workplace violence.
”What you see is when you have a workplace that is stressful overall or stressful for a particular person, they have a tendency to act out inappropriately,” said Steve Kaufer, co-founder of the Workplace Violence Research Institute in Palm Springs, Calif.
Kaufer also said stress at work can lead to violence outside the workplace, though more often he sees stress in other areas leading to violence in the workplace.
”If you have a situation at home that’s not very good, and you get the stress of work on top of that, it can make it much, much worse,” he said.
Psychologist Beverly Smallwood, Ph.D., who specializes in the area of workplace stress, said the first shooting by Meyers was much more likely to have been motivated by workplace stress, but she said stress in the workplace is very strongly correlated with violent behavior anywhere.
”There is a very strong correlation between a toxic environment and violence,” she said.
Smallwood said factors such as reductions in the workforce and transitional changes can increase the level of workplace stress, which can lead to violence.
Henneman said the Jeep plant experienced workforce reductions in 1993, 1994, 1997, 2000 and 2001, but many of these reductions were because of people retiring due to lucrative benefit packages.
Henneman also said about 350 people are currently laid off as Jeep transitions to a new plant, but all of these employees have only been with Jeep since 2001 at the earliest, and about 150 to 200 of these people are working as temporary, part-time employees. Henneman said next summer Jeep will add a third shift, so no employees will be laid off.
”We have a bunch of people left over because of the transition to the new plant,” he said.
Kaufer said what Jeep must do to reduce stress during a time like this is educate employees so rumors do not circulate.
”One of the things is to try to provide information to employees so the rumor mill doesn’t get started … put a positive spin on these so people don’t feel like they’re being abandoned,” he said.
Smallwood said adequate training of managers is also vital in reducing stress.
”The first thing of course is to take steps to create as positive of an environment as possible through training programs for their leadership,” she said.
But Plewa said no steps are being taken to reduce tension as employees are not treated as individuals and continuously forced to work overtime.
Plewa said the attendance policy is one of the most prominent areas of friction because employees receive what is known as an ”occurrence” even if they miss work for a legitimate reason. She said in one instance she was given an occurrence for missing work when gas leaked into her house.
UAW Attendance Counselor Hal Jomaa said an occurrence is the equivalent of a free day off work, and employees can use three occurrences every year before having any disciplinary action taken. Jomaa said an employee receives a disciplinary warning for receiving four, five, six or seven occurrences and receives a 30-day, unpaid suspension for receiving eight occurrences. Employees receive an occurrence anytime they miss a day of work.
Jomaa said the occurrence is not a discipline because no action is taken, and he said a situation like a gas leak is exactly what the occurrence should be used for.
Though union and Chrysler officials said the Cox shooting was not a result of workplace stress, they did express concern that Jeep employees had been involved in two shootings in the past five months.
”It concerns me,” Henneman said. ”One of them (Meyers) was one of my best friends.”
Chrysler and union officials expressed concern that people would unjustly connect both shootings with workplace conditions at Jeep.
”It concerns me because we have Jeep singled out, and if these employees didn’t work at Jeep, I wonder if we would put so much time to it,” Herbert said.
But Plewa and other employees’ biggest concern remains that another shooting could occur because tensions still exist.
”Something has to be done to ease the tensions,” Plewa said. ”We weren’t surprised the first time. We’re not surprised the second time. Many people fully expect it to happen again.”