By Bob Ruff, CNN
(CNN) – What would you do if your company closed its doors, but offered you the same job 1000 miles away?
In December 2008, in the depths of the recession, GM worker Steve Kerl faced that same question. Just 8 years from retirement, his GM assembly plant in Janesville, Wisconsin was shut down. 1,933 workers were out of work.
“What are we going to do?” was Kerl’s first reaction. “Are we going to have our health care? How are we going to come out? We didn’t even know if you were going to have a job.”
Most of the Janesville plant workers took buyouts. But 545 of them were fortunate enough to be offered jobs at other GM plants. The catch? The plants are hundreds of miles from Wisconsin.
What would you do?
Kerl took a job putting fenders on GM SUV’s in Arlington, Texas. It’s hard work. At the end of his 10-hour shifts he goes back to bunk with two other GM workers in a three-bedroom apartment near the plant. Home is 1000 miles away.
Kerl’s wife and two teenage kids remain behind in Janesville. The Kerls didn’t want to take the kids out of school. And they couldn’t face the prospect of selling their house anyway with real estate prices plummeting.
The Kerl family, along with many others who worked at GM in Janesville, is yet another side of the recession. Families physically separated by economic circumstances beyond their control. The sacrifice is palpable.
“In the last couple of months, “ he told us, “I missed all of my daughter’s gymnastics meets. I missed her birthday…I missed my boy’s birthday. So [these] are things you’re never going to get back. You know, that’s gone.”
The sacrifice is spread evenly throughout the family.
“Steve will talk to me on the phone,” his wife, Kristy, told us, “and, you know, get me through it. Hang in there. And then there’s the days that calls come in that he’s like, you know what, I’m not doing this anymore. You know, I want to come home. And I’m like, no! Hang in there!”
Jenessa, their teenage daughter, says it’s “really hard…I mean, what other 16-year-old doesn’t want their Dad around? He’s always been the one that’s at the meets, and always there for support. “
Jeramie Kerl, 19, is their son: “When Dad left I kind of had to assume most of the responsibilities that he did, the outside work…mowing the grass, which he took care of.”
In the midst of all of this, the Kerls have literally opened their Janesville home to the 16-year-old daughter of another former Janesville plant worker and his wife, both of whom have moved to work at an Indiana GM plant. Steve introduced us to Grace, who is Jenessa’s friend. Everyone wanted Grace to be able to finish her sophomore year before moving to Indiana.
“We like to have her here,” says Steve.
As we finished the interview with the Kerls, Steve told us the separation has been too much. They’re moving to Texas. The house just sold, at a loss, and they hope to be together near Arlington before the end of the summer.
As we watched Steve pack for the long trip back to Texas, we saw him trying to figure out a way to squeeze a hunk of Wisconsin cheese into his packed suitcase.
“This will always be our home,” he said.
“You’ll never take Wisconsin out of us,” added Kristy. “We’ll return some day.”