Campbell workers, area cope with plant closing

July 31, 1993|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Staff Writer

SALISBURY -- It's Arlena Deshields' cousin who lost her job Thursday. So why is Ms. Deshields worried?

Because her beauty shop on Route 50 is nearly within sight of the Campbell Soup Co. factory that officially closed yesterday, eliminating one of every 50 jobs in Wicomico County. That's 2 percent of the jobs -- but, she figures, probably 20 percent of her customers.

"It's going to be a hard hit" for everyone in Salisbury, she said. And how does she plan to make up the business? "I have no idea."

The economic facts of the TV dinner plant's closing are as cold as the rooms where the company used to freeze its soup. The 800 jobs lost add two points right off the top to Wicomico County's unemployment rate, already 7.1 percent. But David H. Stoddard, a safety and training supervisor for Campbell, measured the impact another way.

"It's an area of 50,000 people and you're taking away a [yearly] payroll of $21 million," he said.

The Salisbury plant has been on death row since February, when Campbell announced it would share the fate of the company's former frozen food plants in Crisfield and Pocomoke City. Capable of pumping out 120 million Swanson Hungry Man dinners, Le Menu meals, Great Start breakfasts and chicken pot pies annually, it will soon be converted to a lunch meat factory owned by Mountaire Corp. offering only about 125 initial jobs, and at lower pay.

Unemployment in Wicomico County is already well above the state's jobless rate of 6 percent, said Marco Merrick, a spokesman for the state Department of Economic and Employment Develop ment. And more is to come: Defense contractor Grumman Corp. will close its 244-worker Salisbury plant, the county's fifth-largest employer, by the end of next year.

Workers and managers alike at the Campbell plant, which employed mostly low-skilled workers, said the area would have trouble generating similar jobs that pay as much as the $8.50 to $9.56 an hour earned by most of the plant's production workers. Several said yesterday that they would retrain themselves for new jobs.

"As far as my field of secretary, the jobs aren't paying as well as Campbell," said Arnetta Mills, a 33-year old personnel assistant with nine years at the plant. She's going back to college to get a teaching certificate and living with her parents to make it possible.

While officials say only about 15 people have enrolled in retraining programs coordinated by Campbell and the state, spice supervisor Mary Candie said she's going to train to be a licensed practical nurse. And Ms. Deshields' cousin, Peggy Snead, said she would go back to school as well, possibly to become a cosmetologist.

"I'm nervous," said Ms. Snead, who, like other workers, will get a week's severance pay for each year she spent with the company. "No job. I have bills I have to take care of."

"The problem from Salisbury's angle is that these are good jobs and the ones that will replace them are not," Mr. Stoddard, the Campbell official, said. "Most of the new industry coming into town is pretty small stuff."

He said the growth locally has been in fields like retailing and smaller-scale manufacturing.

Odetta Perdue, head of the Lower Shore Private Industry Council, a federally funded job retraining consortium, said computer operations, health care and maintenance jobs are the skills most requested by employers.

But Wicomico might be in a better position to bounce back than other Shore counties that have gone through plant closings, said Pat Fennell, executive officer for the City of Salisbury.

Mountaire, the company that bought the Campbell plant, hopes to employ 450 people there five years from now, Mr. Fennell said. The city is optimistic that it will find a new user for the Grumman plant, which offers a highly skilled work force. And, he said, the city has been pleased with the progress it has made in nurturing small-scale manufacturing.

"We're not a one industry town," Mr. Fennell said. Mr. Fennell said Wicomico County's unemployment rate has been improving sharply, falling from the 8.3 percent reported earlier this year. About 100 Campbell workers have been placed in other local jobs since the closing was announced.

Barbara Phillips, a personnel administrator for Campbell's, said an additional 110 Salisbury workers are eligible for pensions and 40 of those have indicated they plan to take it. Mr. Stoddard said about 15 others have been transferred to other Campbell facilities. In the end, the mood in Salisbury seems to be that people will get by, even if they're not sure how.

"I may lose 25 percent of [my business]," said Earl Finney, who owns a luncheonette next to the plant. "Still, this community will come around even if they're laid off from Campbell's Soup. . . . I think we'll be all right."

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