In a GM town, salaried job cuts sow worry among small businesses

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News
The GM Technical Center in Warren, Michigan on Wednesday, February 6, 2019. General Motors plans to layoff 1,298 workers at the facility.

Warren — The Sweetheart Bakery on Mound Road would fit right in on the streets of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry.

A walk through the door is like a step back in time. The only two chairs in the homey, pink-walled business are covered in cupcake fabric, and the tablecloth on the single table is splashed with hearts. Nothing about the place, including the old-fashioned cash register, screams high-tech or trendy.

Yet, it’s a frequent stop for GM Tech Center employees  down the street — folks grappling with the layoffs of 1,300 colleagues, each of them real-world implications of the automaker’s push to restructure its workforce for the demands of the Auto 2.0 spaces of mobility, autonomy and electrification.

The specialty cakes here at Sweetheart are a big draw for GM hands.

“They come in a lot for birthday cakes and other pastries and they’ll say, ‘We’re so glad you’re here,’” said manager Kathy Melkus. “I really feel for them, and I know it’s going to affect our business because we’re known for our cakes.”

But many of those customers soon may not be coming back, not after the salaried layoffs begun early last week at the Tech Center and elsewhere across GM in the United States.

Melkus continued: “Those workers are going to have to look for other jobs, and I always told myself that our customers are paying our wages. I just hope they’ll still come in and won’t forget about us. There are a lot of very nice people who come in here.”

Bonnie Wilson, 72, of Warren, is one of those customers. She was in the shop buying sweets for the workers at her bank down the street. Her husband, daughter and son-in-law all work at the Tech Center.

“It’s just all so sad,” she said. “My daughter told me there was a single dad who worked there, and they were talking about the layoffs when they agreed they’d just have to pray about it. Then the dad went to his desk and they tapped him. Just like that.”

Pamela Bates, an assistant manager at the bakery, also knows the anxiety of wondering what happens next. Her son is a project manager at the Tech Center.

“You just don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “He’s been asking his manager if he’s safe, and so far, he’s being told his job is OK. But one of our regular customers came in the other day and said ‘I might not see you again because of the cuts.’”

Bates paused and shook her head: “It’s just the way things are today.”

At the Warren Market further down on Mound Road, steps away from I-696, business already is down.

“We’ve been here for 40 years, and I’d say the GM Tech workers make up about 15 percent of our business,” said owner Ryan Orow, adding that Tech Center workers usually come in for the hot food for lunch. “Now, they’re about five percent.

“We usually have two warmers going at the same time, but now we only need to operate one,” he said. “If the Big Three goes down, we go down with them.”

At the Dunkin’ Donut shop in the Village Plaza almost directly across from the Tech Center, counter worker Ashley Diaz already has noticed a drop in business.

“It’s usually really, really busy during breakfast and lunch, but not so much recently,” she said. “I think it’s going to affect us in a really bad way. It’s convenient for them just to come right over here, and some of them I know by face and already know their orders. It’s going to be different now.”