Midwest Factory Has Workers Paint, Garden And Sell

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Vice President Kerry Rhodes at the company's garden. i

Vice President Kerry Rhodes kneels alongside Midwest Control Products' 2-acre garden. The company has put employees to work in nontraditional ways in order to prevent layoffs. Rich Egger for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Rich Egger for NPR
Vice President Kerry Rhodes at the company's garden.

Vice President Kerry Rhodes kneels alongside Midwest Control Products' 2-acre garden. The company has put employees to work in nontraditional ways in order to prevent layoffs.

Rich Egger for NPR

As thousands of businesses have been forced to cut jobs in order to ride out the recession, one factory in a small Midwestern town tried a different approach.

It put its employees to work on tasks that it used to hire out — keeping them on the payroll during tough times.

Bushnell is a small farm community of about 3,300 people. Situated in western Illinois, it's located between the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, about an hour-and-a-half drive from the Quad Cities.

Read More About The Impact Of Rural Layoffs.

You won't find any chain stores in its downtown. But there is a small cafe, a furniture store, some law offices and a few small factories.

At the north end sits a big red-brick building. It's the home of Midwest Control Products — a company that makes ball joints, rod ends and other metal products for the agriculture and trucking industries.

And lately, this company has become known for one of its innovations.

"We're trying to do something different that is self-sufficient," says Kerry Rhodes, the company's vice president. "And we're making it work. And we'd like to see more people take an approach like that instead of creating spending programs."

Instead of laying off any of its 68 workers, the company set up what it calls an "alternative work program."

Employees now do maintenance work that the company used to contract out. They're cleaning offices, tuckpointing the brick, painting the factory and repairing the machinery.

"The fellow that took charge of doing all the ceiling painting — he has a sideline business as a house painter," Rhodes says. "But he's a welder for us. He was happy to do something different, and it's something that he enjoys doing."

A lot of factory work can be repetitive. So, in a way, this type of program gives the employees an opportunity to break up the monotony of the workday.

Digging In The Corporate Garden

"They probably express that as much as anything — that it's fun to do something different, and especially this time of the year when the weather's nice," Rhodes says. "A lot of it, they get to go outside."

Going outside means working in a 2-acre garden situated behind the company's other factory on the edge of town.

Jason Garzee normally works as a press operator here. But on a breezy and cool summer day, he's digging weeds.

"It works for me because I ain't laid off," he says. "As long as we're staying busy and we got jobs, and a paycheck, it works for me."

Corn and tall sunflowers line one edge of the garden. Small hand-painted wood signs mark the plots of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and other plants. Workers also spend some time selling the produce.

Factory workers selling produce at a farmers market. i

Factory workers Tracie Howell (left) and Nicki Hardin sell produce for Midwest Control Products at the farmers market in Macomb, Ill. Rich Egger for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Rich Egger for NPR
Factory workers selling produce at a farmers market.

Factory workers Tracie Howell (left) and Nicki Hardin sell produce for Midwest Control Products at the farmers market in Macomb, Ill.

Rich Egger for NPR

From The Factory To The Farmers Market

On a recent day, drill press operator Tracie Howell is at the farmers market in nearby Macomb. She's selling corn from the bed of a silver and black Ford.

Howell likes this innovative program because it keeps her working.

"It makes you feel like the company's actually thinking about the employees and not just making a quick buck," she says.

By thinking that way about its workers, Midwest Control Products was able to stabilize its finances. In fact, Rhodes says it has remained profitable every month during the recession.

He says he won't worry, though, if orders remain slow during the third quarter, because there's still a long list of alternative work projects for workers to complete.

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