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County’s unemployment expected to reach more than 22 percent

Stanley Furniture, the largest employer in Graham County, announced it would be closing its manufacturing plant, laying off about 400 workers in this county of about 8,600. Gwen Albers/Carolina Public Press

Worried to death.

That’s how John Siler feels as he puts in his final days at Stanley Furniture in Robbinsville.

A 30-year-old father of three whose wife is a stay-at-home mom, Siler is among 400 who will lose their jobs when Graham County’s largest employer closes at the end of the month. The Stanley Furniture plant makes Young America furniture designed to carry a child “from crib to college.” The company’s board of directors on April 1 announced it would close the facility, saying it was no longer profitable.

The jobless rate in Graham County, which is traditionally about the highest among North Carolina’s 100 counties, is expected to double from 10.6 percent in April to 22.1 percent, said Robert F. Mulligan, who heads the department of accounting, finance, information systems and economics at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.

“This is devastating to the local area — Graham County has a very small workforce, about 3,500 people,” Mulligan said. “The total impact will be greater because the loss of so many jobs will impact lots of other businesses, like retailers and restaurants, which may also have to lay off workers in the face of declining revenues.”

Mulligan doesn’t expect the plant’s closing to have a severe impact on Western North Carolina.

“But the impact localized on Graham County will be pretty severe,” Mulligan said. “In recent years, we’ve seen a great deal of manufacturing migrate to where it can be done with lower labor costs.  When the textile industry migrated out of the United States for lower-cost labor, industrial carpeting manufacture stayed behind because of the high cost of transporting the final good, which is extremely bulky, heavy and expensive to ship, so manufacturers benefited from producing the product close to the final buyer.”

“Furniture manufacture has some of the same advantages,” he continued. “But Stanley’s Young America line had a very low profit margin, which is typical for compactly packaged, assemble-at-home case goods. Higher-end luxury furniture has much more of a mark-up, but there’s a much smaller market for it.”

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“With Stanley’s closure coming, Graham’s workers, community still banking on furniture”

While Siler remains with Stanley, many left after hearing that Ashley Furniture Industries chose not to buy the 500,000-square-foot facility. The largest manufacturer of furniture in the world with retail partners in 123 countries, Ashley considered buying the plant from the High Point-based Stanley Furniture after the closing was announced.

“When we found out Ashley (was not going to buy the plant), over 100 walked out that day,” Siler said.

Ashley expected to spend millions to upgrade the plant, a company spokesman said. Company officials do not believe the market for the nursery and youth line is strong enough. In addition, the plant would need some 1,200 workers for it to run efficiently.

Siler, who lives in Andrews, has applied at ConMet, a manufacturer of molded plastic interiors of tractor-trailers in Bryson City. Last week, he participated in an eight-hour employment training course at Southwestern Community College required for all ConMet applicants.

In the meantime, Siler will collect $200 in unemployment a week – a far cry from the $900 he had been making every two weeks as a machinist at Stanley Furniture. His benefits will run out in 15 weeks with a possibility of a one-month extension.

Siler said he has no savings, and he cashed in his 401K retirement to help with family finances.

“I’m taking it day by day,” he said.

Melissa Adams, supervisor of economic services for the Graham County Department of Social Services, said her office is preparing to help furloughed workers.

“I know there have been a lot of packages offered to the workers there, through employment services, but what we are preparing for is (receiving) more applications for food nutrition services (food stamps) and Medicaid (health insurance),” she said.

Her office doesn’t expect to see Stanley employees until early August.

“Some people will receive their severance packages,” Adams said. “That might get them through for a while. Of course, we will assess everyone for every service we offer.”

A community outreach committee has been formed, which includes the state Division of Employment Security and Tri-County Community College in Murphy.

Mulligan encouraged workers to take advantage of retraining opportunities and start retraining programs as soon as possible, even though there is still tremendous uncertainty about what kind of jobs will be available in the future, where and how soon.

“The broader, more versatile, and more flexible your job retraining is, the better,” he said. “There may even be a silver lining from the closure — the existing plant may still be purchased by another manufacturer, or retooled to produce some other kind of product — in the best case outcome, there may be more jobs at this plant than before. Otherwise, some laid-off workers may have to leave Graham County for their next job.”

Gwen Albers

Gwen Albers is a contributing reporter to Carolina Public Press. Contact her at galbers_reporter@yahoo.com.

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