When a manufacturing facility in a large city cuts jobs or closes down it can become a national story. That’s what happened last year when Carrier announced it was laying workers off. Even President Trump got involved to try to keep workers at the Indianapolis plant.
When it happens in a small community, it doesn’t often garner as much attention, but the effects can be even more devastating.
Peg Franz runs a volunteer program that delivers Christmas gifts to seniors as well as mentally and physically challenged adults. She’s rounding up all the gifts and getting them ready to go out for delivery before Christmas.
It keeps her busy, but she has a lot on her mind. Her husband Steve has worked at Paoli Incorporated making office furniture for 22 years.
About two weeks ago officials announced the factory is closing for good and the Paoli line will go away altogether in the first week of February. That’s not a lot of notice for a place that’s been one of the area’s largest employer for more than a century.
Orleans doesn’t have a mayor or an economic development department. As the Clerk-Treasurer, Robert Henderson handles a lot of the town’s official business. He says the announcement came as a surprise to everyone.
“Christmas time couldn’t come at a worse time,” Henderson says. “Many of the people who worked there were long time employees. Some of them had worked there for decades.”
After a contract extension earlier this year, Peg thought David would stay at the facility until June.
“We have a breather, we can take some time and relax and enjoy the holidays and not have to think about this all the time and think about this case scenario and that case scenario,” Franz says. “And then he comes home and it’s like the rug was pulled out from underneath us.”
HNI purchased Paoli Incorporated in 2004. It’s the second largest furniture manufacturer in the world. HNI announced last October the plant would be closing and that it would be phasing down production over the year. But workers thought they’d be able to hang on at least through the summer.
The plant has gone from about a thousand workers to only about 120.
Many of the laid off workers have taken lower paying jobs in Orange County or relocated elsewhere to find work. That’s having a ripple effect throughout the region.
This spring, the county reported the highest unemployment rate in the state at of 5.9 percent.
Paoli, Inc. Has Lasting Effect On Local Economy
William Windhorst’s furniture and appliance store sits right on Paoli’s town square, a short 10 minute drive from the Paoli Incorporated factory.
He estimates that during Paoli Incorporated’s heyday it accounted for at least 15 percent of his customer base.
“Those jobs were good jobs and they were long term jobs. So customers could come in and buy furniture could use financing options without fear that they are gonna be laid off tomorrow,” Windhorst says. “So that’s one thing we saw pretty quickly was people were less likely to buy as quickly, because what does the future bring for us in Orange County?”
He says the plant closing is on everyone’s mind and has become an emotional burden for those in the area.
[pullquote source=”Robert Henderson, Orleans Clerk & Treasurer”]”I am cautiously optimistic that something will happen before the year’s end…so that would be a wonderful Christmas miracle.”[/pullquote]
“It comes up here at work, what are they gonna do this week? Or somebody might come in looking to repair an appliance and they say I am getting laid of next week so I wanna go ahead and get this fixed now while I still have money coming in,” he says.
Many people in the region are hoping that someone will come in and buy the 30 acre manufacturing facility and bring good paying jobs back to the county.
Robert Henderson says he’s trying to get a buyer for the plant. He’s working with the Orange County Economic Development Partnership to do just that. At this point he thinks that the right buyer can be found for the site.
“I am cautiously optimistic that something will happen before the years end, we’re hoping that something good can happen there.” Henderson says “So that would be a wonderful Christmas miracle if that could come about.”
Meanwhile, the Franz’s are in limbo and they can’t afford for Steve to be unemployed.
Peg Franz says the best scenario they see right now is that Steve will be able to transfer to another HNI plant, but that would mean a move to North Carolina. That’s a daunting notion for Peg, who has lived in Orange County her entire life.
“I had never thought of it being the stage of life where we are uprooting our life here and all our support systems and moving somewhere where we don’t know a soul,” she says.
The number one employment sector in Orange County is now tourism. The county is home to a number of hotels and resorts, including Paoli Peaks Ski Resort, French Lick Resort and West Baden Springs Hotel.
About 10 percent of the county’s 19,000 residents work at hotels or in the service sector. But a lot of those jobs are part time with salaries far below the factory jobs and often no benefits.