A Herff Jones employee deals with impending unemployment.
Steve Rozek crossed his living room and took a seat on the couch next to his wife, Terry, who was relaxing with her feet up just one cushion over. The two had just finished cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, as they do every night, but the scent of homemade beef roast and mashed potatoes still lingered in the air.
For a few minutes, the couple, both 56, reminisced about some of the routines they have settled into over the years, like splitting household chores, eating pizza at Betty Jo’s on Friday nights and attending church on Sunday mornings.
Steve leaned back into the couch, thoughtfully stroking his gray and white beard for a moment.
Then softly, he began to describe the one routine that he has known for almost all of his adult life; his morning drive to work.
For the past 35 years, Steve has started every workday the same way. He climbs into his truck, and while on his drive to work, Steve slowly sips down his first cup of coffee. Though it is roughly a 13-mile drive from his home in Winona to the Herff Jones photography lab in Lewiston, Minn., where he is the Equipment Maintenance Manager, Steve said he enjoys his long and quiet, early-morning drive to work along the scenic bluff-lined highway.
Shortly after arriving to work on the morning of Jan. 9, the vice president of Herff Jones’ photography division met privately with Steve and the other managers at the Lewiston plant.
The vice president read aloud a prepared statement, announcing that Herff Jones, a company that makes yearbooks, memory books and other recognition items, is shutting down the photography lab in Lewiston.
Steve explained that due to the upsurge in digital photography, there has been a downturn in the photo industry.
Because of this downturn, Herff Jones is consolidating its operations, so all of the equipment from the Lewiston photography lab will be packed up and moved out to the plant in Charlotte, N.C.
Steve said that the vice president finished reading the statement to the managers, and then they got the hardest news of all.
“We didn’t have any clue it was coming so everybody was just stunned and basically speechless… catatonic, almost like zombies,” Steve said. “We just couldn’t believe it was really happening, like this is a dream and I’m going to wake up tomorrow and this was just a bad nightmare. Well, turned out; that was a Thursday; Friday, everybody woke up and we were still out of jobs.”
Though Steve took the news very hard, he said he feels that his bosses at Herff Jones were very understanding of everyone’s feelings. After the news broke, managers allowed the grieving employees to take the rest of the day off, with pay.
Steve explained that the majority of employees will stay on through early March, so the earliest to go were given 60 days notice.
He said a few of the maintenance guys who work under him will stay on until sometime in June to help pack up and move equipment, but as manager, Steve will be the last to go in August.
This reminded Steve of another daily routine he had.
Steve began as a maintenance technician about 35 years ago, just two months after his older brother Mike started work there.
He and Mike had different jobs within the company, but Steve said that for more than 30 years, the two of them would spend their lunch breaks walking around the streets of Lewiston together.
Terry knew about Steve’s lunch routine with Mike, as he often had stories to share from their walks, so she was more than surprised to see him when he walked through the door that Thursday afternoon.
Terry works part time at Cotter High School as the Activity Director’s secretary, and also at St. Anne’s and Callista Court as a front desk worker, but that day she was home sick with the flu.
Steve typically puts in more than 8 hours of work a day, so when he arrived home several hours early, Terry immediately assumed he had come home sick as well.
“I asked him, ‘Honey, are you sick,’” Terry said, mimicking herself.
Steve jumped in with, “I said, ‘Yes I’m sick, I just lost my job.’”
Shaking her head, still in disbelief, Terry looked to Steve and said she was just shocked and sad for him because she knows how hard it is for him.
At 56 years old, Steve said he does not feel financially or emotionally ready to retire, much less lose his job.
Steve joked, saying he has always wanted to retire from Herff Jones after 45 years so he could receive the grandfather clock,
“I’m about 10 years short of that,” Steve said quietly to himself.
Since he will still be working until August, Steve sometimes has a hard time believing this is actually happening because not everything has sunk in yet.
He said it is hard to nail down what part has been hardest for him because it is all very hard in different ways.
Both Steve and Terry agreed that without his full time job and benefits, the uncertainty of the economy makes them fear more for their financial security, health and well-being.
Terry works two part-time jobs, but does not receive benefits, so she said if they don’t find fulltime work or an alternative option by August they will be paying for insurance out of their pockets.
Aside from financial concerns, the loss of his job has hit Steve hard emotionally.
Terry says that his job at Herff Jones hasn’t just been his livelihood; she says he has friends and a life there that are a very big part of his world.
Terry explains that Steve is not just worried abouthimself, but he’s worried about his close friends and co-workers who also lost their job and are facing some very serious struggles and challenges of their own.
“When you drive to the same place for 30-some years and work anywhere from 10 to 12 hours a day with the same people,” Steve pauses to collect himself. “Well, those people become like a second family to you.”
For the time being, Steve and Terry feel fortunate that they at least have a few months to plan and prepare for the next step.
Terry says she is proud of Steve for working to update his resume and start sending it out.
In addition to the years of maintenance and management experience he has gained at Herff Jones, Steve says he has a lot of understanding and experience with computers and networking.
Terry gives Steve another nudge and smirks noting that he is also quite the handyman, or jack-of-all-trades, as he has done most of their own home repairs and additions.
Steve says they have family and friends and roots here in Winona, so he and Terry don’t want to move away.
However, they haven’t closed the door on that possibility yet.
He hopes to be able to find a job in the area that will support them, but that he may also enjoy.
Until then, the couple says they are preparing for the next several months by taking a serious look at where they can cut costs and tighten the belt.
“Maybe when the clouds clear a little I’ll find a job I’ll like even more,” Steve says with a hopeful smile. “We just have to try and look for the little things to keep a positive attitude.”
Terry recalls the sermon given by a visiting priest at their church shortly after Steve was told he was being let go from Herff Jones.
She says she felt that hearing that sermon about the economy and the trials and tribulations everyone faces made it a bit easier for both her and Steve.
“We all have to struggle at some point in life and we’ve been lucky up until this point, so who’s to say we should be that way all the time,” Terry says smiling with tears in her eyes. “Hearing that sermon, it felt like it was just for us, though I know it wasn’t. I’m glad we were able to hear that together because it really put things into perspective.”