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Published: Thursday, March 29, 2012

  • Mark and Annie Mulligan / The Herald

Voices of the mill: Shari Helgeson, 53, of Everett

Quality Control, 29 years

In this series, we're telling the stories of what the Kimberly-Clark mill closure means for workers and for Everett, which has been defined by mills for more than a century.
Shari Helgeson could run her fingers along a length of paper towel and tell just by touch whether it's made in Everett and whether it's right.
She spent her days in a lab at Kimberly-Clark, pulling, picking, tearing and measuring paper towels. She calls it destructive testing.
The Viva towels she tested feel thick, supple and soft. She's proud of the product.
“The other brands are full of air,” she said. “They try to fool you as a consumer.”
When something wasn't right, it was her job to walk down to the factory floor and stop the line so a less-than-perfect product could be tossed.
It's a job Helgeson worked hard to get.
She started at the plant when she was just 23 years old, looking for a job that would provide her a good income and keep her on her feet. She likes to stay moving.
She didn't know what she was getting herself into.
One of her first days on the job, her boss handed her a jackhammer and told her to dig out some boilers.
“I thought they were testing me to see if I would last,” she said.
She did. Before long, she was a hand-packer. Her job was to grab five paper towel rolls at once and throw them in a box — all day long.
She got through by making it a game, to see if she could throw them perfectly in the box.
She would wrap her wrists in Ace bandages to prevent wear and tear on her joints, but after three decades of work, she can feel the pain in her elbows, wrists and shoulders.
She worries the towels she made here won't be made in the same way some place else. Mostly, she said, she'll miss her coworkers.
“Where else would you go and see 700 people and know all their faces?”

The Last Smokestack: Go to the main series page

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