BELFAST, Maine — The slowdown in U.S. military involvement overseas had an unwelcome effect this week in Belfast, as a manufacturing company that employs people with disabilities to make high-tech gear announced it must lay off nearly half its workforce by March.
“I’ve seen better days,” Salvatore Garozzo, executive director of Group Home Foundation/Little River Apparel, said Monday afternoon.
Earlier that day, he told about 60 employees their jobs would be eliminated by spring. The nonprofit organization currently employs more than 120 people at the manufacturing center located at the Belfast Business Park. It sold more than $20 million worth of apparel last year.
“They were devastated,” Garozzo said of the employees’ reactions to the news of the impending job cuts.
The U.S. Department of Defense is the organization’s largest client, with contracts to produce 5,000 chemical biological suits every month. But with troop activities winding down, the numbers for Belfast just dipped to 2,667 suits per month.
“There’s less requirement for the chemical biological suits because there’s less active combat,” he said.
Three years ago, about 70 workers at the company were temporarily laid off when material for the chemical protective suits needed to be re-engineered, according to the BDN archives. The organization employed 240 people at that time.
Garozzo said Monday he and others at the Group Home Foundation are actively seeking other apparel projects in hopes they can rehire several of the workers. Nearly 75 percent of employees at Little River Apparel have cognitive, intellectual or developmental disabilities, and doing good, valuable work is crucial to them, he said.
“We were quite honestly all very, very upset about the fact that these individuals would be losing their jobs. We’re committed to helping them find work,” Garozzo said. “It’s meant the difference in the quality of their lives, as well as their contribution to the community.”
Little River Apparel will continue to make technical apparel for the Department of Defense and for other clients, including outdoor clothing company Patagonia. Workers in Belfast make cold weather and rain jackets for Patagonia, which is doing something special for Little River Apparel this spring — judging a fashion show.
“In an effort to help the organization get through these difficult times, we are working on the opportunity for a designer fashion competition with Patagonia,” Garozzo said.
Sewers at the Belfast company can design a little black dress and jewelry that will be shown at the show, which will be held at Point Lookout in Northport on May 15. A Patagonia designer will select the winners and may decide to incorporate the design into the company’s catalogue.
“That’s entirely up to them,” Garozzo said, adding he is hopeful more work can be found. “I just don’t know how long it will take for us to get it.”
The workers at Little River Apparel are well able to do work for established apparel companies, he said.
“Our biggest hope is that a manufacturing facility like New Balance will take a look and say, ‘Hey, maybe there’s something we can do for them,’” he said. “There’s a lot of capability that the workers have.”
Garozzo said the 1973 Javits Wagner O’Day Act — now known as the AbilityOne Program — enables the government to set aside contracts for qualifying organizations that employ people with disabilities. Little River Apparel workers have made the chemical protective overgarment for the Department of Defense since 1997 and more recently began producing wet weather rain gear and a lightweight insulated jacket for the military.