Hitting Home: Layoffs at Ethan Allen
08/10/09 7:49AM By Charlotte Albright  Download MP3
Part of the special VPR Series "Hitting Home: The Recession and Vermont"
(Host) By the end of August, about 250 workers at the Ethan Allen Furniture factory in Beecher Falls will be out of work because the company is consolidating operations.
In this economy, and in this remote corner at the juncture of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Canada, the prospects for re-employment are especially slim.
For our "Hitting Home" series about the recession, VPR's Charlotte Albright spoke with some of the laid-off workers at a recent information session.
(Albright) Normally, this school gymnasium near Beecher Falls is a happy, noisy place. But on this drizzly morning, about 50 middle-aged workers sit downcast and silent at folding tables, learning how to apply for unemployment benefits.
(Albright) State labor counselors explain how to write resumes before hitting the pavement for new jobs. Only there isn't much pavement around here-mostly forests and farmland. Jane Fortin is northeast regional manager for the Vermont Department of Labor.
(Fortin) "I think it's very serious for this community. There aren't a lot of job opportunities up in this area. Individuals who work at this manufacturing are going to have to look for totally different jobs. Re-training will be a must for individuals who work here."
(Albright) A survey taken at this workshop shows most of these workers to be 40 or older, with an average of 20 years at Ethan Allen, and the layoffs run the gamut from white- to blue collar-jobs. Where, wonders Jim Horton, can he apply his woodworking skills now?
(Horton) "You know, I'm 50 years old, I've got a little debt. But if I was to pack up and leave and go down below, I would have an insecure future, with the way the economy is."
(Albright) Even if he could sell his house-a tall order--Horton says he wouldn't clear enough after paying off his mortgage to live further south, where housing is more expensive. His wife lost her job at the border crossing last winter, his daughter is supposed to start college in the fall, and he's worried about how she'll come up with tuition. But he says he's been building things since he was a young man, and he's not planning to stop now.
(Horton) "I really enjoy it and I know there's a continuing future for me in it and we're out there."
(Albright) There are a lot like him out there-not just in northeastern Vermont, but in other places where companies are shrinking their work forces.
(Jim Greenwood) "The downsizing of manufacturing we've seen pretty much statewide."
Last year, many in wood and car-related industries.
(Greenwood) "Well, of course it's of great concern to us. I don't know if it's unprecedented but I would add that there are a couple of areas that are growing."
(Albright) One of those areas is health care. Many workers need re-training for that. Another is renewable energy. And that's of interest to Frank Houle, who will lose his job at Ethan Allen, after 31 years working his way up from stock boy to supervisor.
(Houle) "It was a way of life, you felt secure, and to get up one morning and find it's all over. ... It's like, ‘OK, what do I do now?' And it's looking at every resource there is to see what's the best. But my big interest is looking into the green, see what we can do."
(Albright) Frank and his wife Melody have five grown children. Two are unemployed, and a third just got laid off at Ethan Allen. Melody lost her job at the factory in an earlier layoff in February. The Houles hope to convince a wind power or telecommunications company to erect a tower on their hilly land. His employment counselor calls that a pretty ambitious goal, but tells him there could be some federal stimulus money for workers who weatherize local homes.
In the short term, though, most idled Ethan Allen workers will have to rely on severance pay-up to 72 weeks-and unemployment checks-no more than $425 per week. Not enough to dine out as often as they used to.
Richard Letendresse, a Canadian, owns the restaurant and motel across from the Canaan School. Around lunch time, in an empty dining room, he says business took a nose dive about four months ago, when the Ethan Allen layoffs began.
(Latendresse) "You could tell people were afraid and cut down the expense and instead of coming to dinner here two, three times a week they were coming one and now they skip a week. It's gonna be a big impact and it's gonna get worse."
(Albright) Latendresse says he came to Vermont when work in Canada dried up. Now, he says, he'll probably have to go back and take his chances.
That's exactly the sort of exodus a group of local business leaders hope to avoid as they try to figure out how to soften the blow of the Ethan Allen hit. 65 percent of the workers live in New Hampshire, so concerns and solutions will have to come from both sides of the border.
For VPR News, I'm Charlotte Albright, in Canaan.
(Host) Our series continues every Monday in August. Next week, we'll take a look at the banking industry.