By Melissa Behling
For 95 years, Oscar Mayer had been a top supporter of the United Way of Dane County, since the Madison nonprofit was founded in 1922. Oscar Mayer himself was a member of the original United Way Board of Directors and helped institutionalize a spirit of volunteerism throughout the company.
Then in November of 2015, Oscar Mayer employees suddenly found themselves on the receiving end of the United Way’s services.
When officials announced the plant would be closing after almost a century in Madison, Ann McNeary, AFL-CIO Community Services Liaison for United Way, went to the North side plant to conduct a rapid response session. She met with hundreds of people from both the corporate offices and plant, helping them understand their options for unemployment benefits, financial planning and health care.
“I always feel like the mom or the big sister or something, like ‘we can do this,’” McNeary said.
McNeary also teaches job application skills. She said many of the plant workers had never filled out a resume because the company hired many people based on whether their family members already worked there.
“Most people don’t like to talk about themselves, and really sell how cool they are,” McNeary said. She says it’s about saying “I met my production standards” instead of “I made weenies all day.”
To further complicate the process, many of the older employees have limited experience filling out online forms.
“These are people that have worked a very physical job and they can work circles around maybe even some younger people,” McNeary said. “But a computer, it’s like ‘well I got the on/off button figured out.’”
Many of the workers feel hopeless, McNeary said, not just from the loss of income and benefits, but because they are losing part of their identity. “So much of when you meet people it’s like ‘oh, where do you work?’,” McNeary said. “So for some people it’s really hard to [not be able to say] ‘I work at Oscar Mayer’ anymore.”
Rapid response sessions also included information about crisis counseling services, like the United Way’s 2-1-1 line, to help newly unemployed people cope and take care of their mental health.
Commitment to service
Oscar Mayer has been top sponsor of the United Way’s Days of Caring Campaign for almost twenty years, said Jocelyn Harmon, Executive Vice President of Community Engagement and Marketing.
The company pledged about $30,000 each year to sponsor the event, plus an average of about 200 workers. Overall the company has donated over a half a million dollars to the United Way in the last five years.
The employees have contributed $1.65 million in the same five years.
A former Oscar Mayer employee herself, Harmon said everyone who worked there had a lot of pride in the city of Madison. “There was a recognition from Oscar Mayer that engagement with the community was absolutely important,” she said. “It was absolutely a key aspect of retaining talent, giving back to the community and keeping people engaged and liking their work.”
This commitment to community service continues when employees retire. In 1993, retiring Oscar Mayer employees founded an organization called Retired Employees Are Dedicated Individuals. Annually the group volunteers for 5,000 hours on 50 different projects, including monthly service at Second Harvest and St. Vincent de Paul food pantries and special events like Race for the Cure and Taste of Madison.
READI board member Steve Stocker said volunteering has always been in his blood. While volunteering with his family around Madison, he found himself at some of the same events as the READI group.
“It replicated exactly what I was doing with my family: that we could share a commonality of working together for a good cause and volunteer our time while still bonding and having that camaraderie,” Stocker said.
Light the Night is Stocker’s favorite event. He coordinates the READI volunteers who distribute food at the annual benefit for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. “It’s my favorite because it’s probably the most emotional,” Stocker said. “We try to target causes that hit home to people and their families.”
Stocker worked in the I.T. and payroll departments at Oscar Mayer for over 38 years. He said he stayed at the company for so long because he enjoyed his job, but more importantly valued his relationships with his co-workers.
“The biggest angst of retirement was not leaving my job, but leaving the people I worked with,” Stocker said. “That’s why it’s so important to transition to READI… you can still stay connected with your coworkers – your extended family.”
When the plant shut down, READI lost funding. Now it is affiliated with the United Way and is looking to expand membership to everyone who wants to serve the community, not just former Oscar Mayer employees.
The Family Atmosphere
As Madison’s Oscar Mayer plant enters the final clean-up process, READI volunteers hope people remember the family atmosphere that existed at the company before Kraft Foods bought it.
“I learned a lot from the Oscar Mayer family,” said Frank Alfano. “They appreciated people and their work. The company was generous in sponsoring employee activities and brought people together.”
Alfano said one of the hardest things he had to do was move Oscar Mayer out of his office when he was retiring. “There were a lot of tears from a lot of adults when he was leaving,” he said.
He joked that the worst part, though, was packing up all of Oscar Mayer’s knickknacks he collected while he travelled. It took him three days.
Dolores Ebert said Oscar Mayer did a great job of learning everyone’s names and making everyone feel important. “I think a lot of what we were exposed to when we worked there has carried over into the READI organization,” she said.
The READI volunteers said the company atmosphere changed after the corporate buyout.
“When Kraft took over, there was less company spirit,” said Dave Grothman. “We have a hard time getting volunteers now because people don’t have the connections with the company that we did.”
The volunteers mentioned an annual children’s Christmas party and retirement parties that stopped once Kraft owned the plant. “It was a different company back then,” Alfano said.
Loss for United Way
Jocelyn Harmon said the Oscar Mayer sponsorship is a huge loss because it was consistently the number two or three corporate sponsor. Now American Family Insurance and Cuna Mutual Group are the top contributors.
“It’s part of a larger thing going on that you can’t count on big corporations to fund United Way anymore,” Harmon said. “You have to count on smaller organizations, startups, technology [companies] to provide that investment.”
But Ann McNeary said it will be hard for new companies to make up for the loss of Oscar Mayer. Even when their contributions began to decline in 2013, the combination of corporate and employee gifts from Oscar Mayer totaled $622,000.
“That’s a huge chunk,” McNeary said. “Even if you get 20 new companies, like a high-tech startup or whatever, they’re not going to be making up [that amount] very easily.”
In her first decade at the United Way, McNeary said there were no layoffs. “People were healthy, they were employed, and unfortunately with the change in the economy in 2008, things just fell apart and plants started to shut down.”
She recalls responding to layoffs at the Rayovac plant that used to produce batteries just blocks away from the United Way.
“Unfortunately I’ve talked to thousands of workers in the last ten years,” McNeary said. “It’s just so sad seeing people’s lives fall apart.”
During another response session to layoffs at G.E. Healthcare, McNeary saw a familiar face. A woman approached her and told her she attended one of her response sessions before, when she lost her job at Rayovac.
At their first meeting, McNeary had suggested she go back to school, so she did. The woman got her degree from Madison College and thanked McNeary for giving her hope.
McNeary said stories like that are why she’s able to continue in this emotionally-taxing role. She lets people know there are resources available and teaches them how to talk about their positive qualities when applying for another job.
“To me that’s a success,” McNeary said.
Melissa graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Madison with a degree in journalism and certificate in digital studies. She is pursuing a career in broadcast news production at WISC-TV, Madison’s CBS affiliate. In the future, Melissa hopes to attend graduate school to earn a master’s degree in documentary filmmaking. She loves to play the drums for Wisconsin Cheeseheads and whatever you call Milwaukee Bucks fans.