PITTSFIELD, Maine — A day after Pittsfield’s second-largest employer announced it would close its doors within the year, a cloud of uncertainty hung over employees’ heads.
Workers’ lips were mostly sealed — they had been directed not to speak with reporters. But a group of employees smoking outside the manufacturing facility in the early afternoon Wednesday had more questions than answers.
One woman said that while the company, United Technology Corp., had announced it would make layoffs in waves between this fall and next spring, no one knew exactly when they would be asked to leave.
“We won’t know when it’s our time until they tap us on the shoulder,” she said.
Another woman wondered aloud whether Gov. Paul LePage could do anything to convince UTC to stay. The company employs just under 300 people at its Pittsfield plant, where it manufactures fire and security equipment under the Edwards brand name.
The company announced Tuesday that it would close the Pittsfield facility in an effort to decrease operating capacity worldwide. The work being done in Maine will be relocated to a plant in North Carolina, and others in China and Mexico.
“We are working closely with the team at Pittsfield to ensure this reorganization is handled as best possible,” said company spokeswoman Ashley Barrie on Tuesday. “We are holding ongoing meetings with all impacted employees to review options including consideration for open positions at other facilities and severance benefits, which include placement assistance and continued access to UTC’s Employee Scholar Program.”
UTC bought the facility in in 2010, the most recent in a long string of businesses to occupy the roughly 120,000-square-foot building since manufacturing first began there in the 1950s. For five years before then, the plant was operated by General Electric Security. Prior to that, a company named SPX operated there. There were others before that too, but all along, the products produced were the same, with many employees staying on as the plant changed hands.
In Augusta, the gears have already begun turning to respond to the impending closure: The Maine Department of Labor’s rapid response team has kickstarted the process of reaching out to the company and employees — many of whom were placed there by a local temporary staffing agency — to see what forms of assistance may be available.
The plant is located a stone’s throw from the small downtown neighborhood in Pittsfield, not far from the town office and Cianbro, the town’s largest employer. Bob Phelan owns Vittles Restaurant on Main Street, a short walk from both UTC and Cianbro. He said the shock of the closure was visible on the faces of the plant’s employees who had been in his restaurant Tuesday.
“We see them every day. I know what they’re going to eat, what they’re going to drink,” he said. “This is devastating.”
While some downtown were still absorbing the news Wednesday, others were already thinking about the future, and what may be done to bring new jobs to Pittsfield to make up for the loss of UTC.
The company has said its decision to leave Pittsfield had nothing to do with the business conditions there, but was an internal decision. Kathryn Ruth, the town manager, said there’s nothing the town or state could have done to prevent the closure.
If the UTC shutdown is indeed inevitable, some are hopeful a new business will see opportunity in the Pittsfield location. The town’s mayor, Gary Jordan, said Pittsfield is in constant contact with businesses looking for real estate.
“The town is constantly working with people who want to locate in the town, and frankly, sometimes we don’t have the space they want,” he said. “So this building size might be very attractive to someone.”
Mike Raven, a Pittsfield resident and Cianbro employee, said he was hopeful a new company would make a move for the building in time to take over when UTC moves out for good next year.
“They’ve got until next spring, so hopefully something can get worked out by then,” he said. “I really hope they do. It would be a shame if they didn’t.”
The state Department of Economic and Community Development has already assigned an account executive to reach out to the town to discuss the plant’s future.
“Certainly, we will be doing all we can to see what opportunities may exist for businesses to either get into this facility that’s already there or to bring in another string of business to hire these workers,” said DECD spokesman Doug Gray.
Meanwhile, area lawmakers say the emphasis must be on assisting the workers who will be out of a job when UTC closes its doors. Sen. Colleen Lachowicz, D-Waterville, said she and Pittsfield Rep. Stanley Short Jr., also a Democrat, would be meeting with the company and workers to try to come up with a plan.
“We have to do whatever we can to help these people,” Short said on Wednesday.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.