By JOHN S. McCRIGHT and JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Bristle manufacturer Monahan Filaments on Wednesday said it will layoff 54 employees, or more than half of its Middlebury workforce, by late June.
When the layoffs take effect, the company’s workforce will have fallen by around 100 employees in a year, leaving between 30 and 40 workers at the Case Street plant, which makes synthetic monofilaments for household, janitorial and industrial brushes and other applications.
“It’s the economy,” said Jon Monahan, president of Monahan Filaments in explaining the reason for the job cuts. “Orders are down more than 50 percent from last year.
“This is not a plant closure,” he hastened to add. “At the end of 60 days we’re going to resize the plant.”
Monahan management was required by the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN Act) to notify its workers 60 days in advance of a mass layoff.
John Stanley is president of United Here Local 2624, the union that represents a majority of the Monahan Filaments’ Middlebury workforce. He said Monahan officials shared news of the upcoming layoffs on Tuesday, revealing that 42 union members would be let go as well as 12 management (non-union) employees.
Workers will be let go based on seniority, with the least-tenured employees to go first, according to Stanley. The layoffs will take effect during the week of June 21, he said.
Management told workers that the layoffs are necessary to show lenders that the company is taking steps to “stop the bleeding,” according to Stanley.
While Monahan said the ailing economy was 90 percent responsible for the layoffs, he acknowledged some missteps, including the decision to keep capacity at too high a level for too long.
It was in January of 2007 that Thomas Monahan Co. (TMC), an Illinois-based manufacturer of brooms, brushes and mops, won the right to purchase the former Specialty Filaments plant out of U.S. Bankruptcy Court with a successful bid of $3.125 million. That price included the 120,000-square-foot plant at 3046 Case St. and 60 acres.
The Vermont Economic Progress Council had awarded TMC $758,806 in financial incentives in its bid to acquire and reopen Specialty Filaments.
Specialty Filaments employed around 175 people at the time of is bankruptcy.
In a further attempt to strengthen their position, TMC renamed the company Monahan Filaments, sized the workforce at around 140 employees, and announced its intention to expand sales in overseas markets.
When it bought the company, Monahan executives hammered out a new three-year contract with Local 2624.
As times got tight, managers in the company took what Monahan said was “a huge pay cut,” and officials early this year asked union employees to forgo an annual raise mandated in their contracts. Union members early this month declined to change the contract.
Monahan said on Wednesday that the pay cut issue didn’t weigh upon the decision to make the job cuts.
“That wouldn’t have mattered,” he said. “The overriding issue was (a fall in) orders.”
Stanley, the union president, said there is currently “not a lot of trust” between workers and management.
“The mood is pretty somber,” he said. “A lot of people are wondering what they are going to do.”
Stanley added workers are also wondering about the long-term viability of the company in Middlebury, if it indeed drops to 35 workers.
“It has a lot of people wondering how they can sustain things,” Stanley said.
Robin Scheu, executive director of the Addison County Economic Development Corp., said she was concerned about news of the impending layoffs.
“I think many businesses are struggling, and it’s not just manufacturing,” Scheu said. “My hope is that there won’t be any more layoffs — we want to make sure that Monahan survives and thrives in Middlebury.”
Scheu said she expects the Vermont Department of Labor will extend support services to Monahan workers affected by the reduction in force.
Monahan said the company’s product mix is changing, but there were few bright spots in customer demand. The one bright spot he pointed to was Monahan’s sales of fiber filaments for concrete, which are used in big infrastructure projects.
“Those customers are the only the only ones still talking,” he said.
Monahan said he settled on the number of workers to cut based on what the company’s top brass believe is the workforce needed to carry through the remainder of the year.
“We had to position the company to make it through this trough,” he said.
Monahan said he hoped the broader economy — and thus orders for Monahan Filaments products — would improve by 2010, but he wasn’t ready to bet on that Wednesday.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” he said.