BELFAST, Maine — Financial difficulties have caused a Belfast apparel factory which employed people with disabilities to suspend manufacturing, casting about 70 people out of work.
Group Home Foundation, the nonprofit organization that runs Little River Apparel, also will be shutting down a downtown Belfast house that has been the home for a dozen people with cognitive disabilities.
“Our mission really is to help in the lives of these people, and we’re trying very hard to hold true to that,” Mike Nickerson, the chairman of the board of directors of Group Home Foundation Inc., said Wednesday afternoon. “It’s always been to provide them with safe, secure housing and ideally some gainful employment, too, to enrich their lives.”
Little River Apparel hopefully has not closed for good, he said. But in mid-January, the manufacturing facility stopped making the high-tech gear it was known for in better days. Just five years ago, about 250 people worked there making 5,000 chemical biological suits every month for the U.S. Department of Defense.
“We have gone through multiple CEOs and management,” Nickerson said. “When you’re dealing with military contracts, procedures and policies are extremely important. You have to have people there who know how to do them. Well, we didn’t. Military contracts have a certain timeline. We weren’t able to replace management and make sure we had all the policies and procedures in place in time, and had to let those contracts go to another company.”
The last round of layoffs at Little River Apparel began in May and lasted until December, with about 70 employees in total losing their jobs. A previous round of layoffs began in January 2015, when about 60 people were notified they would lose their jobs by March.
The layoffs last winter were very hard for the affected employees, one of whom said it was like losing a lifeline.
The problems at the manufacturing facility affected the whole organization, he said. The foundation was incorporated in 1975 to assist adults with cognitive, intellectual or developmental disabilities. In addition to the manufacturing facility, which was begun in 1997, the foundation also runs four residential living opportunities in the city and manages a community resource center that offers educational activities, occupational therapy and more.
The home on High Street in Belfast received a different kind of reimbursement from the state of Maine than the rest of the programs run by Group Home Foundation Inc., Nickerson said. Its reimbursement as a private non-medical institution did not cover its operational costs. In the past, income from the apparel factory helped to prop up the High Street home and keep it running, he said, but that is no longer a viable option.
“When we had to review our costs, we realized that High Street was just not able to continue to run,” he said.
The foundation is searching for alternative housing for the residents.
“My understanding is they’re going to be in the general area,” Nickerson said. “We don’t want to upset these people’s lives.”