Indian job losses hit home

Following her husband losing his job when Indian Motorcycle

– Johnny and Vanessa Peña have a 21-month-old daughter, a 7-week
old son, a rented house, two cars with monthly payments and fees
for weekend college classes.
Financially, that’s a lot to support, but they got by on
Johnny’s paycheck from Indian Motorcycle Company.
GILROY – Johnny and Vanessa Peña have a 21-month-old daughter, a 7-week old son, a rented house, two cars with monthly payments and fees for weekend college classes.

Financially, that’s a lot to support, but they got by on Johnny’s paycheck from Indian Motorcycle Company.

But Indian closed shop in Gilroy on Friday without any notice or severance pay for its 380 employees. Now the Peñas and hundreds of other area families are scurrying to radically adjust their lives.

Before Indian shut down operations, the Peñas were living “pretty much paycheck-to-paycheck,” according to Johnny. They have a small fund for emergencies, taken from Johnny’s overtime pay, but it’s not enough to last long.

On Monday, therefore, Vanessa will go back to work on a full-time schedule, the first time she’s done so in two years. She’s lucky to get her old job back – she’s a phlebotomist, someone who draws blood – but her pay will be significantly less than Johnny’s was and without benefits. With Johnny’s unemployment checks, however, she expects their income should be “about the same, maybe a little bit less” than before, after they pay out-of-pocket for health insurance. Johnny’s job at Indian came with a health plan.

They’ll have to live under a tighter budget, they said. Eating out is no longer an option, Johnny said, and they’ll be more frugal with their house’s air conditioning.

It could be worse – and is worse – for some of Johnny’s former coworkers, the Peñas said. One may have to return a new car he just bought, they said; another recently purchased a house.

Johnny said he feels bitter about the suddenness of the announcement and the lack of severance pay. Employees had proven their commitment to the company by going above and beyond the call of duty in the past, he said, and severance pay would have been a way to return the favor.

Recently, for example, Johnny said Indian had to recall many of its motorcycles’ gas tanks. To fix them, the company asked employees to voluntarily work overtime. The workers agreed. Johnny said he and many others worked 12-to-16-hour days, seven days a week, for about four months.

“When they asked us to bend over backwards for them, the employees did it to fix their messes,” Johnny said. “Now that we’re in a bind from losing our jobs, they don’t seem to be bending over slightly.”

Until Friday afternoon, Johnny worked at Indian’s paint shop on Railroad Street. He had worked four-and-a-half years for Indian and before that for California Motorcycle Company, a custom bike maker that merged into Indian. He was in the middle of a job when he was called away – only to be told he didn’t have a job after all.

“I was getting ready to paint when they told me they were calling an emergency work meeting,” Johnny said.

He and the other Railroad Street workers quickly locked the shop, intending to return shortly. When they arrived at the corporate headquarters on Tenth Street, they found the entire staff assembled in the employee parking lot with Lou Terhar, Indian’s president and chief executive officer, standing in the middle.

Acccording to Johnny and several other former Indian workers, Terhar told the employees their jobs were finished and that Indian had ceased its manufacturing as far as Gilroy was concerned. Terhar said Indian had been negotiating with a large investor for months and that the deal had fallen through earlier that week.

Peña said he was shocked. He was still thinking about his work back at the paint shop.

“I asked my boss, ‘Hey, can I go back and finish those pieces?’ ” Johnny said. “I didn’t want to leave this stuff half-painted.”

No more work was done that day, however, and Indian employees were only allowed to return to the building in small, escorted groups to quickly collect their belongings.

“I asked him why he was home early, and he said, ‘I don’t have a job,’ ” Vanessa said. “I said, ‘You’re kidding.’ I didn’t believe him. He said, ‘No, really. Look, here are the pictures from my locker.’ ”

The impact of the situation didn’t hit Johnny until that night, he said. It was hard to deal with.

“I’ve been working full-time jobs since I was 15,” he said.

He didn’t plan on working in a factory his whole life. On Aug. 4, he started classes on weekends at Monterey Peninsula City College. He didn’t plan to leave his industrial job so soon, though, he said. Now more than ever he’s pinning his future on that education.

“This was why I went to school, in case something like this happened,” Johnny said. “This was my back-up plan.”

One good thing about all this, the Peñas said, is that Johnny will get to spend more time with the children. He’ll be staying home with them on weekdays while Vanessa works.

While Johnny Peña is bitter about the layoffs, his response is mellow compared to that of his father, 55-year-old Rudy Peña. Rudy angrily said on Tuesday that he considers his time working for Indian “wasted.”

“The worst thing that happened was not getting severance pay,” Rudy said.

The next most offensive thing to him was getting no advance notice about the closure. He said Indian officials could and should have explained the company’s financial crisis before it reached this point. They could have given workers options, like voluntary pay cuts or opportunities to invest in the company. Rudy said he would have taken up to a $2-an-hour pay cut to keep working for Indian and thinks other workers would have, too.

“The thing is, they didn’t come to us and be honest with us,” Rudy said. “We’re not little kids. … If (employees) give you respect by being there every day and building quality bikes, you ought to give them respect back.

“We’re human beings; we’re not robots.”