A Tornado’s Double Tragedy

Here’s a story of great personal interest to me that I hope will affect you as well. I (Paula Brantner, WF’s Program Director) work from a home office in Kansas City, Missouri, and live less than two miles from some of the areas hit most hard in Sunday’s (5/4) deadly tornadoes. (See Tornadoes Rank Among Worst in Bistate History.) Like many other Kansas City residents, I huddled in my basement wondering if my home would be destroyed, and like most, but not all, breathed a sigh of relief once the storms passed and my immediate vicinity remained unscathed. On Sunday night and Monday, like many residents, I watched television reports, read newspaper accounts and drove to see what I could of the damage. (And as I write this on Thursday, the region is under another tornado watch–the third of the week–and a severe thunderstorm warning in some areas. It looks like weather.com and I may remain very good friends for a while.)

The first place I traveled to where massive damage was readily apparent was the nearby town of Riverside, Missouri, located along the Missouri River. There I saw what appeared to have been a body shop or repair facility, but most of the large building housing the operation was gone, and trucks were strewn nearby, many completely overturned and/or demolished. The facility, I later learned, was called America’s Body Co., and was a truck-detailing facility employing 41 employees. (See 5/6 KC Star article.) One of America’s Body’s employees, Operations Manager Steve Bowles, was in the building preparing the weekly schedules when the tornado passed through on Sunday; he was one of the extremely lucky survivors featured in multiple newscasts and newspaper articles, after watching the building disintegrate around him while he huddled next to a concrete barrier (See Witness to Storm Has Reason to Respect Nature’s Power.)

On Monday (5/5), the employees of America’s Body Co. reported to work, some even wearing the company polo shirts with the ABC insignia. As noted by local columnist Barbara Shelby,

They at least looked sharp for the gawkers, whose ranks included motorists who slowed traffic along Missouri 9 [like myself!] and railroad engineers who gaped, open-mouthed, as their trains rolled by. The workers, clustered at the edge of the company’s parking lot, were gawking as much as anyone. The flat-roofed, T-shaped building just north of the Missouri River resembled a scrap heap.

(See Tornado Leaves Workers’ Jobs in Limbo.) But employees could see the handwriting on the wall:

Some employees talked about their jobs in the past tense. America’s Body Co. provided steady work at competitive pay, they said. “Looks pretty good right now,” someone mused.

“I thoroughly enjoyed working here,” said Amber Flachs, who signed on just a month ago. “What a way to be unemployed.”

Mechanics said their main concern was retrieving their tools from the building. That is their ticket to another job.

On Wednesday, storm survivor Steve Bowles had another most unenviable duty. He had to tell ABC workers that the company would not be reopening, and that their jobs were no more. (See Tornado Takes Jobs … and Hopes.) Workers were told Tuesday night that they should assemble at the business in the morning. Many wore their uniforms, in case they were going to work. When they arrived, Bowles relayed the unhappy news from company headquarters in Cleveland: The business was gone and it wasn’t coming back. Most of the 41 employees were terminated as of Monday, two days ago. Vacation time would be paid to those who had it coming. Medical insurance would expire at the end of this month.

The employees took the news hard. This is a very difficult time for anyone to be employed, and some of the workers affected are sure to have more dark days ahead. Mechanic Dennis Falk has a health condition requiring medicine costing about $6,000 a year and can’t go long without insurance. “What am I going to do?” he asks. Mechanic Joe Nichols, who lost the job he’d had for 17 years, said “I’ll start looking for a job. I gotta work,” but acknowledged “I’m 55 and there’s not a demand for older people.” No doubt there are others who will face some difficulty finding new jobs, given the current state of the economy.

Who is to say what the company should have done in these circumstances? Admittedly, the company suffered massive losses given the total destruction of the business, although much if not all of the cost may be borne by insurance. However, it seems at a minimum, given that the local office is part of a national enterprise which is still in existence, that more support could be provided for the Kansas City employees, by extending their wages and benefits longer than this week and the end of this month respectively. And while the company is under no legal obligation to rebuild, there would be disaster relief funding and strong community support here for doing so. The last few days have been filled with many instances of neighbors helping one another and the local community supporting those most affected by the quake, so we hope that someone will step up to the plate to help these 41 workers. As Shelby points out, “today’s workplace doesn’t specialize in happy endings, and theirs was not going to be the exception.” But the story has not yet ended, and the publicity drawn to their plight may ultimately result in jobs for all or most of the newly unemployed ABC workers.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.