Brundidge loses 297 sewing jobs

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 10, 1999

Features Editor

Published Sept. 10, 1999

The news from Russell Corporation was bitter-sweet in Brundidge yesterday.

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JERZEES Activewear announced that it will invest $300,000 in its Brundidge facility to convert it into a cutting operation.

However, the consolidation will require phasing out sewing to make room for the additional cutting production that will be moved from the Wetumpka facility that is currently a cutting, automatic sewing and dry finishing operation.

There are currently 117 employees at the Wetumpka operation which will be closed.

When the conversation is completed, the Brundidge plant will employ about 170 people. There will be 297 sewing jobs eliminated and 70 new cutting jobs added to the 100 jobs that will not be affected by the change. The consolidation is expected to be completed by the end of November.

"While we are extremely glad that Russell will still have a presence in our town and feel very fortunate for that, the downsizing will mean a net loss of 227 jobs and that is a great loss," said Mayor Jimmy Ramage.

The change will impact the town in other ways.

"About 12 percent of our utility usage is Russell," Ramage said. "Those 227 jobs that are being lost are people who were operating sewing machines. That is bound to reduce their utility usage and could affect us as much as four to seven percent."

Ramage said fewer people working in the town will mean different spending patterns and that will affect sales tax.

"We don’t know right now what impact this will have and probably won’t know until about this time next year," he said. "But we have to look at the bright side. Russell is still here and, if everything works out, they said they could expand this facility. We are hopeful."

Ramage said the town weathered a similar situation in 1994-95 when Fruit of the Loom closed its doors putting 800 employees out of work.

"Russell came in and put 450 of those people back to work," he said. "We survived then and we have faith in our future. We have to be thankful to still have a plant operating here – look at what has happened in other towns. We are still fortunate."

Nancy Young, vice president of communications for Russell, said no one knows what the future of the sewing industry is in the United States but the fact that JERZEES (Russell) is spending money on conversion can be read as a good sign.

"Converting to a cutting facility should make the Brundidge facility as stable as anything can be in the sewing industry," Young said. "The issue with sewing is that it is labor intensive. The focus of cutting is technology and there is nothing that can be done to reduce that cost outside the U. S."

Even though there is a silver lining to the dark cloud that passed over Brundidge yesterday, there are those who are having a hard time seeing it.

"We’ve been through this before," said Ann Baker. "Now good, hard working employees have to face this bad situation again."

Joan Sawyer is one of those good, hard working employees. She has been employed at the facility for 35 years.

"I came to work here with the glove factory and then with Fruit of the Loom and now Russell," Sawyer said. "Sewing is what I know. Now I don’t know what I’ll do."

Sawyer said around 1 p.m. yesterday, the employees were called together in the middle of the sewing room and a representative from JERZEES read them a letter.

"What it said was our jobs would be eliminated," she said. "We weren’t exactly shocked but there was a lot of sadness. Some of us cried. But then we had to go back to work. We’ll know more tomorrow about what’s available to us. I just don’t know what to think or how to think right now."

Dean Riggs, vice president of operations for Russell, said while the company regrets the impact this change will have on many of its employees at the Brundidge plant and at Wetumpka, it has become a business necessity and will also help the company maintain an operation in Brundidge.

"This consolidation will help us create a more efficient operation and will provide better use of our existing facilities, equipment and employees," Riggs said.

Employees who are not able to transfer to other jobs at Brundidge or other locations will receive a severance package based on years of service. The company will also continue to pay its portion of health insurance for 90 days or the length of severance whichever is longer.

Additionally, JERZEES will provide an aggressive job replacement program that includes funds for relocation and retraining, if needed, as well as outplacement services.

JERZEES Activewear, a division of Russell Corporation, manufactures and makes a wide variety of popularly priced fleece and lightweight activewear in the retail and imprintables market.