Tyson set to shut its plant on Shore

650 to lose jobs in phases, with closure by year's end

Poultry complex needed upgrade

April 22, 2003|By Bill Atkinson and Chris Guy | Bill Atkinson and Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

BERLIN - In a blow to Maryland's Eastern Shore, Tyson Foods Inc. disclosed yesterday that it will begin slashing about 650 jobs at its Berlin poultry complex this week and expects to close the plant by the end of the year.

Tyson, which is based in Springdale, Ark., and is the country's largest food processor, also said it had signed a letter of intent to sell its feed mill in neighboring Westover, Md., to Mountaire Farms Inc. of Selbyville, Del., for an undisclosed price.

The mill employs 20 workers, all of whom will be offered jobs at Mountaire, said David L. Pogge, president of Mountaire Farms.

He also said the company plans to enter into contracts with about half of Tyson's 155 poultry growers in the Berlin complex.

"We will start talking with them right away," Pogge said. "They can choose to go with us or not. It is their choice."

Tyson is shuttering the plant because it is 40 years old and needs an upgrade, company executives said.

The company acquired the Berlin plant in 1998, when it bought Hudson Foods Inc. of Rogers, Ark. Tyson has since battled Maryland regulatory officials and state environmentalists over chicken waste produced at the plant and agreed in May 1998 to pay a $6 million fine.

"It's an older operation," said Ed Nicholson, a Tyson spokesman. "There is a need to upgrade equipment, make it operate more efficient."

Tyson's decision deals Worcester County a serious blow because its unemployment rate, which fluctuates widely because of seasonal work, was the second highest in the state last year at 8.2 percent. Its unemployment rate jumped to 15 percent in January, the latest figure available.

"Not a good day for a lot of people who work in the Eastern Shore," said Vernon Thompson, deputy secretary for the state's Department of Business and Economic Development. "I would like to say it is not [a blow], but it is. That is our reality. It is things like this that obviously knock us back a bit."

Most of the Tyson employees - about 550 - who will lose their jobs, work at the processing plant, where they slaughter about 1 million chickens a week. The remaining employees work in the company's hatchery, live production operation and feed mill.

Nicholson said Tyson will try to place employees in three other plants in Virginia, which are in Temperanceville, on the Eastern Shore; Glen Allen, near Richmond; and Harrisonburg, more than 250 miles west of Salisbury.

"There will be some other opportunities available for them," Nicholson said. "We will be helping them if they are interested in going to work at some of the other Tyson facilities in the region."

He said competitors might also pick up some of its workers.

Some Tyson workers weren't surprised by the company's decision because there have been rumors for at least six months that the plant might close. In February, there was an unsuccessful attempt to sell the facility to Allen Foods Inc., according to workers.

David King, a line mechanic for eight years at the Berlin plant, said he has been looking for another job since the rumors started.

"After all you've heard, you can't say it's a real surprise," said King, 31, who said he has other skills to fall back on if his hopes of landing a job as a police officer don't pan out. "I figure, if you know how to turn a wrench you'll always find a job somewhere."

Ellen Truitt, 46, a Berlin native who grew up just blocks from the hulking plant that, along with the silos of a Perdue Farms grain processing center, straddle the rail line at the north end of town, said she is not sure what she will do.

"Right now, I think there's a lot of confusion in people's minds," said Truitt, a 15-year employee who has been on light duty for months since knee surgery.

Many employees will have just a few months before deciding their next move. Tyson officials told workers that one shift will be shut down by July 4, with the final closure set for around Thanksgiving.

Growers such as Arlene Watson, who raises 192,000 birds a year on her farm just west of Berlin, are waiting to hear the details of the company's plans at a series of meetings scheduled tomorrow.

Watson, who said her chicken houses were built in 1968 and 1970, is considering contacting a local builder who wants to turn her 39-acre field into a subdivision.

"If they want me to make any expensive changes, everything's already paid for, and I can just shut down," said Watson, 75. "I just pity the younger growers with big investments. They might be in a tough spot."

Tyson's decision to pull out of the Eastern Shore is another example of the problems the region has had keeping large manufacturers.

Last year, Black & Decker Corp. announced plans to close its Easton plant, cutting 1,300 jobs this year. Two years ago, the Wayne Division of Dresser Equipment Group said it would close its gas station fuel pump manufacturing plant in Salisbury and laid off about 300 workers. And Campbell Soup Co. closed its Salisbury plant in 1993, cutting more than 800 jobs.

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