Two decades of the General Electric Appliance Park East in Columbia come to an end Tuesday when the plant officially closes, but about 65 of the remaining employees will be able to continue working there for at least another year with a new employer.
The employees are among about 140 workers GE laid off Friday. They have been hired by Holman Contract Warehousing, the contractor chosen to operate the center until the operation moves to Aberdeen in Harford County.
Holman is based in Portland, Ore.
The workers who will keep their jobs "applied with everybody else, but they had a natural priority because of their experience with GE," said Peter W. George, vice president of Holman and its 125-year old sister corporation, Holman Distribution Center of Oregon.
The company, which officially takes over the Columbia facility Tuesday, started its only other contract warehouse last summer in the Albany, N.Y., area, and also handles GE products.
The warehouse employees' work under the new employer will differ very little, if at all, George said.
George estimated the warehouse will have a staff of about 125, working for an hourly wage averaging between $10 and $10.50 per hour. GE's pay averaged about $11.50 per hour. Although Holman's pay scale is lower than GE's, George said, it is comparable to the area's prevailing wages for the same type of work.
The GE employees hired by Holman were told the center would be moving to Aberdeen in a year, "and we are hopeful that we won't lose too many in the switch," George said.
The new 880,000-square-foot facility in Aberdeen, which a GE spokesman said is going to be more efficient than the Columbia center, is expected to be built and operating by fall, George said.
The switch from a GE-run distribution center to an outside contractor is not unusual, George said.
"This a fairly major trend around the country for larger manufacturers and has been going on for several years," George said. He added that the Columbia center is one of the last GE-run warehousing operations in the United States.
The distribution center is the last operating component of the Appliance Park, which opened in 1970, promising to be the county's largest employer and the cornerstone of manufacturing in Columbia.
The park was expected to employ 10,000 but peaked at only 2,800 employees in 1974, when GE closed its air conditioner plant, partly because of a demand for more energy-efficient air conditioners. That was followed by closures of the microwave plant in 1986 after GE started buying microwaves from Japan and Korea and the range plant June 30 after the company acquired another plant in Georgia with three times Columbia's production capacity.
On Tuesday, the Rouse Co., which originally sold GE the property, will take control of the range plant building and begin renovating it for an office/industrial park. Rouse's neighboring Columbia Gateway office park was also built on land bought back from GE.
GE's Employee Assistance Center, which is providing retraining and job referral for the 650 laid-off range plant workers and 140 warehouse workers, will continue to operate for another six months.
Nearly 200 former range plant workers have gotten jobs and about 160 are in job training, said Rita Carey, the center's director. Wages for the new jobs have ranged from $8 to $16 per hour.
"A lot of people were held here to make (retirement) dates," said David Twigg, manager of manufacturing, engineering and facilities at the range plant. At age 59, workers become eligible for retirement and a pension, he explained.
Twigg, already 59, has been put in charge of dismantling equipment and shipping it out to other GE plants, selling it or scrapping it. He expects to finish the process by March.
About 45 GE employees waiting for retirement dates stayed on to help with the cleanup, Twigg said.
When Holman moves out of the distribution center, Twigg said, he will spend another four months or so emptying the building before the Rouse Co.
"I'll probably retire at that time; might do a little consulting," said Twigg, who lives in Ellicott City.
Twigg said he's learned a great deal about factories since he first reported to a GE office on Red Branch Road 20 years ago.
"I came because I wanted to help start a plant. . . . It's a career goal anyone would want," he said. "Now I've gone the whole circle, back to how to empty it up and turn it over to someone else. It's been an experience."