Ingram Co 'S Move Unsettling To Workers

Former 'Welfare Mothers' Seehopes Dashed

February 02, 1992|By Erik Nelson

In the Sunday, Feb. 2, edition of The Howard County Sun, a story on the Ingram Co. and the Human Development Institute in Baltimore incorrectly refered to the institute's founder Betty Merrill as a welfare mother. Merrill has never been on welfare.

Three years ago DorothyGraham of West Baltimore thought she was going to be on public assistance for the rest of her life.

But that was before spending eight weeks at the Human DevelopmentInstitute, a Baltimore-based "finishing school" for mothers on welfare, and landing a job in a Jessup warehouse.

At first she was a "picker" for $5.83 an hour, walking all day up long aisles of books, picking out titles to fill orders.

"Your feet are killing you -- constantly walking and getting books. To tell you the truth, I didn't think I was going to hang on that long," she said last week.

But sheremembered what Betty Merrill, founder of the institute and once a "welfare mother" herself, had told her: "It might not be what we want,but it's better than what you have, which is sitting (home) on social service."

She stuck it out. Unfortunately, her employer didn't.

Ingram Book Co., one of Howard County's largest commercial employers, is planning to move its book operations and 350 jobs out of its 160,000-square-foot warehouse in the Baltimore-Washington Industrial Park. In early May, the company will begin moving to a 230,000 square-foot facility in Petersburg, Va.

Graham said that after landing and keeping what she thought was a secure job with a well-rooted company, she was surprised when the move was announced three weeks ago.

"People have been out there 15 and 16 years. I thought the company would continue on," said Graham, 31, who supports her 14-year-old son on her $7.18-an-hour wage without any government help.

Graham is one of about 80 people Merrill placed at Ingram from 1989 until about ayear ago, when Ingram stopped hiring. It is unclear how many of those employees remain on the payroll.

Company managers in Jessup refused to comment about the closing.

Several of the employees have contacted Merrill since learning they would be laid off.

"They've stabilized their lives -- they have jobs, they have benefits and all kinds of things, and they don't want to go back on welfare," Merrill said. "I don't want them to go back on welfare, now that they've turnedthe corner."

Merrill had a contract through the state Department of Economic and Employment Development to provide entry-level workersfor Ingram at a time when county businesses couldn't find enough help.

"We certainly did stabilize the company," Merrill said.

Ingram employees will be invited to a "Surviving a Layoff" workshop, organized by the company and the county Office of Employment and Training. They also will be taught job-search techniques and how to cope withthe emotional strain of losing a job.

"Usually what you're seeingnow is employers are interested in participating in job fairs but they're saying, 'we're not doing any hiring, but we are interested in talking to you,'" said Todd Brace, the county office's services supervisor.

The county also plans to provide employment counseling and training in job-hunting skills in conjunction with Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Prince George's counties, said Brace. Theprogram also will involve job fairs, but those events can be disappointing during a recession, he said.

"I'm not really feeling depressed about it, because I've got several months to prepare for it," said an institute graduate and Ingram employee from Baltimore's Park Heights.

"I'm not going to let it upset me to the point where I can'tfunction," said the woman, who asked not to be named. She has supported three teen-agers and one pre-teen for 15 months while working in Ingram's returns department.

Hope and persistence in the face of adversity is one of the cornerstones of Merrill's lessons at the institute. Even after three years, those attributes do not appear to have worn off of graduates facing layoffs at Ingram.

La-Fathia Brown, 40, said she was turned down for every job she applied for before she went to the institute, and believed she wasn't good enough to hold a job or rise above her monthly allocations of $377 in welfare and $200in food stamps.

The mother of three daughters and grandmother of two is worried about keeping up with bills and the rent on her rowhouse in Baltimore's Forest Park neighborhood, but said she by no means envisions herself back on welfare.

"It's kind of confusing. . . . It's a little scary.," she says, but "I figure I can find something here. There are jobs out there, it's just that you got to go out there. You got to go look."

To help in that effort, "they do give you all your sick days that you can use to go look," Brown said.

For those who want to move with the company to Petersburg, the company is offering $2,000 for moving expenses, plus half of the severance pay employees would otherwise be entitled to as a bonus, she said. Brown says that her three years of service as of May 1 entitles her to three weeks severance. But she said she does not want to leave Baltimore, and none of the other institute graduates she knows plan to follow Ingram.

The company is making the move in an attempt to provide next-day delivery to its customers, mostly bookstores and libraries, in southern states, while eliminating overlapping territory with its Avon,Conn., warehouse.

The company will continue the much smaller Ingram Video, a tape distributor, and Ingram Micro, a software distributor, in Jessup, said Sally Dedecker, a company spokeswoman.

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