Image: Chuck Madarani and his wife Sanaa
Eve Tahmincioglu
Chuck Madarani and his wife Sanaa. He's an autoworker at the Chrysler plant in Newark, Delaware, which Chrysler announced it will close next year.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/30/2008 3:33:18 PM ET 2008-03-30T19:33:18

It's 4:15 p.m. on a recent Saturday, and Chuck Madarani, 47, is just getting home from his shift at a Chrysler plant in Newark, Del.

His wife Sanaa greets him with great news. His son has been accepted to the University of Delaware, and that means he’ll have two children attending the school come this fall.

While he’s proud his kids will be getting the college education he never was able to, the moment was bittersweet.

After putting in 29½ years as an autoworker at Chrysler he needs to keep working in order to pay for his children’s college education.

But he faces a major dilemma.

The plant is slated to close next year, part of cutbacks sweeping the nation’s ailing auto industry. Unsure if he’ll be able to find a job in the area that pays the $50,000 he now gets at the automaker, plus benefits, he is considering moving to Detroit to work at a Chrysler plant there.

Such a move would be major upheaval for his family. They love where they live, and uprooting themselves after nearly three decades would be difficult.

"I don’t want to leave,” Madarani says. “It’s devastating for everyone in my family."

His wife adds, shaking her head, "It’s too much pressure on him."

Madarani is one of thousands of U.S. autoworkers who face an uncertain future.

Chrysler, General Motors and Ford have all announced an array of cutbacks, layoffs and plant reductions as the industry struggles to keep afloat in a tough economy and with continued pressure from foreign automakers.

In addition to closing Chrysler’s Delaware plant in the third quarter of 2009, the company is cutting back on shifts and looking to reduce 10,000 jobs nationwide this year, says Ed Saenz, a spokesman for the automaker.

"Unfortunately, there’s a perfect storm working against the domestic auto industry," says Patrick Heraty, professor of business administration at Hilbert College. Faltering U.S. vehicle sales have pushed automakers to eliminate more and more workers to cut costs.

But, Heraty adds, "for the vast majority of auto workers there is no substitute and no place to go where they can get a comparable salary and benefits."

Many workers have been offered buyout packages, ranging from $45,000 to $100,000 before taxes and have to decide if it’s worth taking the money. The plan is to replace some existing workers with individuals who would be paid about half of what current employees make.

While the U.S. auto industry has always had its up and downs, it’s never looked as dismal as it does now to workers at the three top domestic automakers.

Once a dominant force among labor, the United Auto Workers now rank 12th among U.S. unions with about 500,000 members, and its ranks keep dwindling.

Robert Rose, who for 14 years worked as a supervisor at a General Motors plant and then as a rank-and-file worker at a GM contractor, was laid off in late 2006. It took him months to land a job, but he’s now working for Daewoo International as a warehouse supervisor.

He got the job through Adecco, a staffing agency that actually pays his salary and benefits. He was making about $70,000 in his previous auto job but is now making only $40,000 a year.

Rose says he’s close to getting hired outright by Daewoo and expects his salary will go up.

But he is also pondering a total exit from the auto industry and seriously considering going back to school at night to become a nurse, especially if he doesn’t get a heftier paycheck from Daewoo.

His uncle, Phillip Mereles, has been working for GM for 31 years and was given the option to take a $45,000 buyout from the company, plus his pension and health benefits.

It’s tempting, he says, but at age 62, he’s got three kids in college and needs his income from GM to support them until they all graduate. “My plan is to hang in there as long as possible,” he says. “A $45,000 buyout is good if you’re ready to go, but I’m not ready.”

There are countless stories like these throughout the nation’s auto industry, men and women at a career crossroads with their financial well-being and that of their families at the heart of gut-wrenching choices.

Experts advise workers in the auto industry to think long and hard before they make any rash decisions, especially in this ever-weakening economy and the prospect that they may be turning their backs on a steady, healthy paycheck.

So, should you take a buyout? For most workers the answer is probably no.

"It’s an unbelievable gimmick on the part of these auto companies. They’re threatening workers that their jobs will be eliminated," says Stephen Viscusi, author of "On the Job: How to Make It in the Real World of Work."

"Unless you really are very close to retirement and really hate your job it’s a mistake to take the buyout, and even then it might not be worth it," he says.

Workers look at it as a panacea, he maintains, that they could quit their job and follow their career dreams, "But God forbid you get sick and don’t have health insurance."

Many workers will never be able to find a job that offers the same benefits and wages; and many may also end up facing age discrimination when they try to get another job, Viscusi warns.

For someone like Mereles, he advises to hang on as long as possible. "He’s sucking the maximum amount of money that he can from GM, and he should keep doing it," he stresses.

If you still want to take the buyout and find a new gig, Debbie White, Detroit-area director for Adecco, says focusing on growth industries is your best bet. Telecommunications, health care and companies focused on alternative energy are all good sectors to target, she adds.

Going through a staffing agency might be a good way to try out a host of jobs so you can figure out what you want.

Individual autoworkers need to sit down with pen and paper and do the math on whether a big lump sum in the short term is really worth it if you can’t find a good-paying job for the long term.

It may also be a good idea to pay for an hour with an independent financial adviser who can help you figure out what makes the most economic sense for your household.

If you really want to move into a new field, you can take a job that pays you less but covers tuition expenses so you can go back to school, says Mark Kollar, who runs retirement and investment planning firm Kollar Financial Strategies.

For most autoworkers, he explains, they should hold on to their jobs or relocate to keep their jobs because in a tough economy having a job is a good thing.

The one caveat when it comes to relocating is whether you’ll be able to sell your house, he adds.

As for Chuck Madarani, who’s pondering a move to Detroit, he hasn’t even begun to figure out the logistics of moving.

"When the time comes to make a decision I will sit down with my beautiful wife and kids. I’ll ask them what’s the best decision," says Madarani, who wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the word "PRIDE" spelled out in red, white and blue.

Madarani is indeed a proud man. He’s proud of his children and his wife, and he’s proud of having been able to give them a good life. But one thing he’s not proud of — his career choice.

"I regret I went into the auto industry,” he says with resignation in his voice. “I don’t want my kids to go through what I did."

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