Hope Floats For Struggling Houseboat Maker

Like so many Americans, Faye Womack and Jim Hadley of Columbia, Ky., are trying to wait out the recession.

Womack has worked what she calls a "public" job since she was 15 years old. For her, a public job is something different from babysitting or working at home. It's "a job that you get paid at — with insurance and benefits," she says.

But she's been without a paycheck or work benefits for almost a year now. She sewed seat cushions at a houseboat factory in Columbia until last summer, when the economy collapsed and orders for new houseboats stopped dead.

"I can't wait to go back to work," she says.

I first met Womack a few months ago. I was on the road for the first 100 days of the Obama presidency, talking to people about the economy. Though there are signs that the economy is limping back, unemployment remains high and could reach 10 percent before the worst is over. I called Womack last week to see if she'd been called back to her old job yet. Nothing yet.

Womack talks to her old boss Jim Hadley every day. She checks in and asks if he has anything for her to do.

At the Majestic Yachts factory, CEO Jim Hadley is confident that someone out there will order a houseboat soon. Last year's drop-off in new orders forced him to lay off his entire workforce — 27 people.

Hadley and the two other owners had a long winter picking up odd jobs to pay the bills on the factory.

Now, he has a plan to start making boats again. He has created the Tommy Yacht: a smaller, cheaper houseboat for these leaner times. A few workers came back to build the demo — the first houseboat to come out of the factory in a year. "We're hoping with that design, and the cost cut, we can bring all our people back to work," Hadley says.

The Tommy Yacht hit the water a few weeks ago, and it was a big event. "The mayor and local media were here all day," Hadley says. "The hope that it has generated to be able to bring jobs back to the community has been tremendous."

If he got just four or five orders for the Tommy Yacht, Hadley says, he could hire all of his people back. "We're kind of like an old rock band," he said over the winter. "We've been together a long time and hope to be together a whole lot longer."

Womack agrees. Even if she finds another job, she says her heart is with her former co-workers: "No matter where I worked, I would come back to Majestic if they called me."

Her sewing skills won't be as useful for the small new yacht, since it doesn't have as much upholstery as the yachts Majestic used to make. "I'll do whatever they tell me to do," she says. "I try whatever it is."

While she waits for orders for the Tommy Yacht to come in, Womack has had plenty of time to think about her long unemployment. She now believes it brought her an unexpected gift: She had time to spend with her ailing mother, who died this summer.

"I saw her every day and talked to her three to four times a day," she said. "It's just odd that I was laid off the same time that mom passed away. And I just felt like it was meant to be that way."

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