Hobbs closing to hurt Sparc clients, too
Sharon Foust smiles when a stranger asks if she enjoys her work.
“I’m working hard,” Foust says as she folds one piece of paper after another, placing each folded-up set of instructions for assembling widgets known as “push-pull switches” neatly into a cardboard box. “I enjoy folding all sorts of things.”
After a decade of doing such tasks, Foust is good enough and reliable enough to check the work of other developmentally disabled workers -- even though she’s legally blind.
But this particular folding job, and others, will disappear when Honeywell Hobbs closes its plant in Springfield.
Honeywell Hobbs, which has manufactured automobile parts since the 1930s, has contracted with Sparc for piecework for as long as anyone can remember.
Hobbs isn’t the only such employer of Sparc’s developmentally disabled clients. Foust, for instance, sometimes fills small containers with agates and other rocks for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which gives them away at the Illinois State Fair.
But Hobbs is one of Sparc’s most significant contractors, and the paychecks it provides to Sparc clients will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace.
“There are 87 individuals with developmental disabilities who will be affected,” said Barbara Turner, Sparc spokeswoman. “Many of them will not have any work at all.”
Without tasks from Honeywell Hobbs, Sparc will continue giving workers an opportunity to fill plastic bags with things and otherwise practice working, but they won’t necessarily get paid.
Their bi-weekly paychecks range from $300 to less than $1—it takes some folks an entire day to complete a single task. But a paycheck, no matter the amount, is important, Sparc officials say. Getting paid helps with self-esteem, they say, and builds a sense that workers are contributing to society.
Friday was payday at Sparc, and there were plenty of smiles and hugs as workers headed to lunch and talked about going to the circus over the weekend.
Some Sparc workers once lived in institutions, said Greg O’Connor, the agency’s director of vocational services. For them, having money to buy tea and go skating whenever they want is a big deal, he said. Some workers who like sports have pooled their money to buy televisions, he said.
Sparc has been struggling for years as Springfield’s manufacturing base has eroded. The organization now gets regular work from about four or five companies, less than half the number six years ago, O’Connor said.
He says Sparc officials are constants at chamber of commerce functions and other gatherings where they might be able to find work.
Mark Hamel, spokesman for Honeywell International Corp, parent company of Honeywell Hobbs, said Sparc has done a good job for the Springfield plant, but that’s not the only reason to outsource to the developmentally disabled.
“We viewed it as an opportunity to support the community,” Hamel said.
It’s not charity, Turner says. Companies don’t have to provide benefits or pay workers compensation she said.
“It helps us, and it helps them,” said Greg Crowley, plant manager for Aramark Uniform Services, which uses Sparc workers to sort clothes hangers. “Everybody wins.”
With manufacturing plants becoming rare, Jill Bomstad, Sparc assistant program manager, said Sparc has turned to tasks such as packaging dog shampoo.
“There’s definitely an untapped market; we just haven’t figured out what it is,” Bomstad said.
Meanwhile, workers worry. O’Connor and Bomstad said workers have been told they might not be getting paid in the future, no matter how hard they try, no matter how much they get done.
“Folks are folks,” O’Connor said. “All of us get nervous when we face change.”
Bruce Rushton can be reached at (217) 788-1542 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Closing date not set
Honeywell International Corp., parent company of Honeywell Hobbs in Springfield, announced last month that it is closing its local plant and moving operations to Mexico.
The closure will cost 120 jobs. In addition, Honeywell says it will close another plant 60 miles north of Peoria.
Mark Hamel, Honeywell spokesman, said no closure date has been set.
Founded in 1938, Honeywell Hobbs makes switches, light products and other parts for the transportation industry.