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Unilever ice cream plant in Hagerstown closes

Some workers have started to take advantage of job retraining services offered by the Western Maryland Consortium

July 25, 2012|By DAVE McMILLION | davem@herald-mail.com
  • The Unilever ice cream plant on Frederick Street in Hagerstown is for sale. The factory will close its doors on July 25, leaving 391 hourly and salaried employees without jobs, a plant worker said Wednesday.
By Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

By the end of Wednesday night, production was expected to be over at the Unilever ice cream plant on Frederick Street and the 391 employees who will lose their jobs were dealing with the shutdown with “mixed emotions,” according to a plant worker who is also a United Steelworkers union official.

“I’m glad it’s over so I can move on with my life,” Teal Beard, who has had the prospect of the plant closure hanging over his head for three years, said Wednesday.

Beard, who has worked 21 years at the plant doing stocking and forklift work in a freezer unit, said he did not have any plans beyond taking some time off and enjoying the rest of the summer.
Beard said he “will go from there.”

“There’s jobs out there, you just have to find the right one,” said Beard, who is financial secretary for United Steelworkers Local 9386, which represents workers at the plant.

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Although Unilever officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday, Teal said it is his understanding that the company hopes to sell the plant.

Unilever officials told employees in 2009 that the plant at 1100 Frederick St. would close around the end of 2011, but that date was delayed. In September 2011, the company announced plans to close the plant in August 2013. That closure date was later changed.

Teal said Wednesday afternoon that he expected all production to be completed at the plant by 6 or 7 p.m. Wednesday. Workers were to then start shutting down equipment, cleaning it and preparing it to be shipped to Unilever plants in Covington, Tenn., Sikeston, Mo., and Henderson, Nev., Teal said.

About 42 workers will stay at the plant until the end of October to continue decommissioning equipment and cleaning the plant, Teal said.

Meanwhile, some Unilever workers have started to take advantage of job retraining services offered by the Western Maryland Consortium, said Peter Thomas, executive director of the organization.

Thomas said Western Maryland Consortium officials have been working with Unilever officials since March to plan job retraining services for displaced workers.

On July 3 at Hager Hall Conference & Event Center, Western Maryland Consortium officials met with Unilever workers to explain the consortium’s service to the employees, Thomas said. Because the consortium’s services are only available to Western Maryland residents, Thomas said his office has coordinated with job service agencies in Pennsylvania and West Virginia to offer job help assistance to the estimated 110 Unilever employees who live in those two states.

Thomas said his agency has helped about a dozen Unilever workers so far but he expects that to increase as time goes on.

“It is certainly a tragedy at the human level for every person that’s affected and every family that’s affected,” said Brien J. Poffenberger, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

He said the Unilever plant’s production over the years is an example of a success story from an era when manufacturing drove Washington County’s economy.

The challenge now is how to leverage that legacy into something that fits a new, higher-tech economy, he said.

Poffenberger said Washington County has many “homegrown assets,” including an airport and interstate highways, to build upon.

Daniel Pheil, the chairman of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission, called the plant closure a “substantial job loss.”

Two strong possibilities lie ahead, he said — one for the work force, one for the property.

Pheil said that job retraining for Unilever’s employees could lead to opportunities for them at other manufacturing plants, such as Volvo Powertrain North America and Parker Plastics, or at Cinetic Landis, of which Pheil is president and CEO.

Pheil said this could help bridge the gap between people who need jobs and the county’s relatively high unemployment rate.

The Unilever plant, he said, has distinctive features, such as a pretreatment facility, that make it attractive as a food processing plant.

More than one company in the food processing field has asked about the property, he said. Once Unilever moves out, Pheil expects those companies to show more of an active interest.

For many years, the plant was known as Good Humor-Breyers for the ice cream brands that were produced there. Good Humor and Breyers are Unilever companies.

Staff Writer Andrew Schotz contributed to this story.

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