Comptroller sees struggles of 'real Maryland economy' during Hagerstown visit

October 04, 2012|By C.J. LOVELACE |
  • Maryland Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot gestures Thursday as he speaks with about 35 former employees of the shuttered Unilever ice cream plant during an event at the UAW Hall in Maugansville.
By Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

MAUGANSVILLE — During a Thursday visit to Washington County, Maryland Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot said that he’s noticed a disconnect between the predominantly public economic approach in the state’s capital compared to the rural areas of Western Maryland that rely heavily on private-sector jobs.

Franchot called the notion the “Annapolis bubble,” explaining that state officials there can get away with raising taxes and borrowing money to keep the local economy healthy, an approach that could cripple the way of life of middle-class families in Washington County.

“Nobody’s going to get laid off (in Annapolis). Nobody’s going to have their pension taken away,” he said. “But the real Maryland economy is different than that.”

The “real Maryland economy” to which Franchot referred relates to manufacturing and warehousing jobs that support middle-class communities throughout Western Maryland, which has been struggling to keep pace during the recent economic conditions.

“They may not have a roof over their head. They may not have food on the table, and that to me is unacceptable,” Franchot said of people struggling to make ends meet. “For the state to focus on its own bubble in Annapolis and not get out and focus on Hagerstown, Baltimore and other areas ... it’s a crisis.”

The latest in a string of large employers to leave Hagerstown, Unilever left about 400 people jobless when it closed its ice cream plant on Frederick Street in late July.

Franchot spoke with about 35 former employees of the plant during a roundtable discussion at the UAW Hall on Maugans Avenue as part of his “Economic Truth Tour” to meet with business leaders, governmental officials, community organizations and private citizens about economic conditions throughout the state.

Many of those in attendance said they had spent 25 years or more working at the plant near the intersection of Kenly Avenue in south Hagerstown, sometimes putting in 60, 70 or 80 hours a week churning out 74 million dozens of ice cream bars each year on average.

“We gave up family time,” said Krystal Collins of Clear Spring, a 26-year employee who started working at the plant when she was 19. “It’s frustrating when you put your whole life into that plant.”

Eighty-three employees lost out on their pension plans that had accumulated for decades when the company closed, largely due to pressure from the United Steelworkers Union that wanted to negotiate a new contract for the plant’s workers, according to Larry Lorshbaugh, a former pasteurizer at the plant and head of the local union.

“That really hurt the economy in Washington County,” Lorshbaugh said. “It didn’t just hurt the economy for the people who worked there. I know a lot of the business owners have contacted me to say that their businesses are hurting because of it.”

Workers were given a severance package — depending on their age and years of experience — when the plant closed, but time will be running out on those within the next year for most and finding jobs has been difficult, according to several who spoke.

Lorshbaugh said Unilever, which took over operations from its subsidiary Good Humor/Breyers in 2009, wanted to dismantle the union and boost profits. Unemployment benefits won’t be honored until severance packages have run out, he said.

The struggle of having to get by on just one income rather than two has been difficult for many families affected by the closure.

“I don’t have a lifestyle anymore,” one former worker said. “They didn’t care about the employees.”

Franchot said it was “heartrending” to hear some of the people’s comments about life since the British-Dutch conglomerate shut down the local plant, sending operations to other Unilever plants across the country.

“Goodness gracious, the pain and suffering that these folks have gone through; their families, and frankly the related community in Hagerstown,” he said. “I call them the Hagerstown 400. And I’m going to take their story back to Annapolis because I don’t want their story to fall through the cracks.

“I’m moved by the good values and hard work,” Franchot added. “You can just look at people’s hands sitting around the table. They’ve put in decades of work and they got the short end of the stick.”

Franchot said he intends to talk with Unilever officials about the status of the shutdown factory, which some in attendance said has garnered interest from other companies that may want to lease or purchase it.

Washington County Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham, who attended the meeting, said that officials with the county’s Economic Development Commission have been looking into finding new suitors for the building at 1100 Frederick Street, but its not a topic that has been brought to the commissioners yet.

Lorshbaugh said he hopes city, county and state officials can work to not only attract new manufacturing companies that will bring jobs in the area, but also to help retain what’s already here to prevent further job loss.

Many of the former employees at the Unilever plant would go back to work even without union support, according to Lorshbaugh.
“Any employer would be proud to have these people as employees,” he said. “... That’s where the middle class makes their money. That’s where the middle class spends their money.”

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