In October of 2015, Crystal Snyder, a single mother of two, lost her job. She was working at a t-shirt factory in West Virginia. “There were no women who ran the machines. And so, I kind of raised hell because I wanted to run a machine. You know, I wanted to make more money. I wanted to have more responsibility.”
Crystal says the men earned more pay at the t-shirt factory, but it was more than the money that bothered her. “I was just kind of bored catching shirts at the end of the driers and it just kind of rubbed me the wrong way that no women were operators. So I may have ruffled some feathers.”
She’s always thought of herself as a tough person; before working at the factory she worked as a landscaper, and she’s proud of her strength. She isn’t afraid to do work that men typically do.
“I kind of like non-traditional, or like men’s jobs. I like jobs that people might be surprised that they might see me doing, or, I don’t know, I just like to be different.”
Crystal asked to be promoted to work the machines, but her supervisor told her no and didn’t consider her for a different job.
Sexism at Work
Crystal didn’t file a discrimination suit against the company for that, or for the sexual harassment she says she endured at the factory.
Crystal didn’t complain because she figured it would just make things worse if she wanted to keep her job.
But one thing she didn’t tolerate at the factory was racism. Some of her co-workers put up giant rebel flags on their trucks, and said racist things. Crystal is white, but when the racism went unchecked, it bothered her.
“It was like all I could take and I just went to the boss and I was like, this isn’t right, this isn’t a good environment to work in. It was like a week or two later the boss came to me and said business had slowed down and I was being laid off. And I was like, ‘It’s because I complained’. He was like, ‘no that doesn’t have anything to do with it’.”
Keeping Faith After She Lost Her Job
Even though she still believes she was unfairly terminated, Crystal didn’t seek legal counsel after she lost her job at the t-shirt factory. She didn’t want to get anyone in trouble, and she didn’t want to deal with the stress of courts and lawyers.
Because none of this was resolved in court, and since the company went out of business in 2016, we’re withholding the name of the company where she worked.
After she was laid off, money was tight. Crystal got behind on some of her bills. During the holidays, she got help from her ex to buy a few presents for her kids. “They had something, but yeah, it was definitely a tough Christmas,” said Crystal.
Still, she tried not to worry, and stayed busy looking for work. This wasn’t the first time she had to figure out how to survive as a single mom.
Financial Stress of a Single Mom
She’d struggled three years earlier, right after she divorced her second husband. It was a brief marriage, and things ended abruptly.
“I just found myself like I’ve got rent and bills and I’ve got to buy food and gas, and how am I gonna do this? I went from having help, like we’d split all the bills, to just me. It was really scary, and I remember the house felt like dark and cold.”
Although the t-shirt factory eventually became, as she puts it, a toxic place to work, she was happy for the money. Still, she says she’s glad she isn’t working there anymore.
“I’m thankful for the job, but it wasn’t a happy place. It wasn’t someplace I wanted to stay. But I didn’t really know what I would do. I thought, maybe when the kids grew up I could go to college and do something. I didn’t know what.”
After she lost her job at the t-shirt factory, she kept faith that she would find another job. And she did.
“A friend knew I got laid off and he sent me a link that they were offering a free job training classes in Huntington.”
The job training workshop was through a non-profit called Coalfield Development. When she was at the class, she heard they were hiring for a new farmer-training program.
“And that’s how I found Refresh Appalachia. So I’m happy I got laid off. I’m proud to be in the field of agriculture, I’m proud to be on this journey. I don’t know where it’s going but it’s going somewhere good.”
New Job Offers Hope
Like Colt, Crystal spends a lot of her time working on an old farm in Milton that sits right beside Interstate 64.
There’s an old, grey barn with a giant American Flag, a tiny green farm house where they have work meetings on the porch. One of the best parts about the job, for Crystal, is that she’s treated as an equal, and gets to do the same work as the men. Crystal was beaming one afternoon last summer when she told me her boss, Ben Gilmer, taught her to drive a John Deer tractor.
“And he was very patient and he taught me how to drive it! And he believed in me and told me to get up there, and I did, and I plowed half that field there. It was awesome!”
Back to School
The program also requires participants to go to school. It’s been about 7 years since Crystal was in a classroom.
When she got married at 16, she dropped out of high school, and ended up getting her GED three years later. She took a couple of college courses, but going to school, while working, and raising her two kids- it was just too much, and she eventually dropped out of college.
But getting a job that helps her go to college was a game changer.
“That associate degree, that’s what I’ve got my eye on. Just the fact that I can earn an associate’s degree in two years and earn half of my credits while I’m working. And I’m also getting paid a stipend while I’m in class. So that’s just huge. One class is hard, I can imagine trying to take two and work full time. I just don’t think I could do it. This is the way I can. And I don’t want to stop with the associate degree. I want to keep going. I want to get a master’s degree.”
But before she gets there, she has to pass her classes. And that’s been challenging.
“The hardest thing is balancing it all. Working full time, and going to school, still taking care of a house and a yard and kids and dinner. Just keeping everything going is the hardest thing. I don’t want to be negative, but I don’t know if it’s possible! No forget that, it’s possible.”
Balancing Work, School and Parenting
A few months after she began working with Coalfield Development and started her first semester of college, it became more and more difficult for Crystal to find time to spend with her two kids, Morgan and Aaron.
“I can’t focus on learning if I know my kids are bored. They need my attention. That’s just, that’s the hardest part.”
She’s also been struggling financially. And though she loves her job, she makes less money than she did at the t-shirt factory. She says her bank account is typically a few hundred dollars in the negative.
“So sometimes I get discouraged and feel like the weight of the world is on my shoulders. Those feelings don’t last too long. I can usually jump out of it really quickly. But, it’s been hard, just trying to balance everything financially.”
In June of 2016, Crystal started her first semester at college. She took an English class, which she loved because it taught her to write. But it was a summer class, which means it only lasted 5 weeks. The class brought more challenges, as she tried to maintain a balance of work, school and parenting.
More next time on The Struggle to Stay.