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Whelen cuts 148 jobs at Charlestown manufacturing facility

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 7/10/2020 1:18:21 PM
Modified: 7/10/2020 9:46:24 PM

CHARLESTOWN — Whelen Engineering, one of Sullivan County’s largest employers, said Friday it was letting go of 148 employees at its Charlestown manufacturing plant, citing a downturn in sales due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The company also laid off 98 employees at its Connecticut facility.

Whelen, which designs and makes lighting and siren equipment for first-responder vehicles and planes, operates a sprawling four-building manufacturing facility in an industrial park off Route 12A, where it employs 981 people.

The layoffs represent about a 15% reduction of the company’s Charlestown workforce.

“COVID-19 has created significant financial constraints and has resulted in a reduction in our product demand. To preserve our ability to rebuild when this recession is over, we have been forced to make the difficult but unavoidable decision to reduce our workforce,” George W. Whelen V said in a news release issued by the company Friday.

Word of the layoffs began spreading when employees were informed on Thursday that their jobs were being cut.

Whelen does not appear to have given the town much advance warning of the job losses, which are the biggest mass layoff by a company in the area in recent memory, according to local officials.

“This is all news to us,” said Albert St. Pierre, chairman of the Charlestown Selectboard, who said he had “no contact” from Whelen notifying the town.

Whelen on Friday suggested that more changes may be on the horizon.

Whelen’s “job eliminations come as the company re-examines all operations in order to streamline and drive long-term growth in the post-coronavirus world,” the company said in the news release.

Whelen’s business is closely linked to municipalities and their police and fire department fleets. But municipal budgets are reeling from a sharp downturn in tax revenue due to the economic havoc that began in March, with many communities deferring planned spending.

“The global pandemic has greatly impacted the economy including our suppliers, our customers and ultimately our business,” the company said in written response to questions from a spokesperson who refused to give their name. That led to “consistent reduction in product over the past few months,” the spokesperson said.

And despite canceling contracts for most temporary workers, rescheduling shifts, freezing merit pay raises and implementing employee furloughs, “this was not enough,” the company said, calling the decision to lay off workers an “unavoidable decision and a last resort.”

Based in Chester, Conn., where Whelen employs about 600 people, the company opened its Charlestown plant in 1987 with two dozen employees in the twilight of the manufacturing era in the Connecticut River Valley.

Employment levels at the Charlestown plant have fluctuated, but in recent years, more than 1,000 people were working there.

The company has been deeply engaged in the civic life of the surrounding community, such as donating land on Cedar Road where the Charlestown Heath Center, a community health center run by Springfield Hospital, was built, opening their grounds to the public for the Charlestown Police Department to host BBQ and auto shows and offering its facilities for on-site machine tool learning for programs at Sugar River Valley Regional Technical Center.

Former Whelen President and CEO John Olson, who died in 2018, was a longtime champion of manufacturing and workforce education who was a beloved leader in the community.

“This is a blow to the region,” said Bob Flint, executive director of Springfield Regional Development Corp., calling the job losses at Whelen “the largest layoff in quite some time” for an employer in the area. “Hopefully not more to come.”

Some laid-off Whelen employees said in social media comments and Facebook messages that they were startled by the swiftness and seemingly cavalier way they were let go — employees were escorted out of the building shortly after being told on Thursday.

Whelen in its written response to questions on Friday defended its handling of the action by citing the need for “social distancing during the notification process” and enabling employees to be “in the comfort and privacy of their homes.”

The company also said it was important to effect the job terminations “relatively quickly, rather than drawing out the process.”

Privately owned Whelen, now headed by a third generation Whelen family member, did not participate in the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program that was designed to cover payroll costs for small businesses for eight weeks with forgivable loans if they did not lay off employees, according to U.S. Department of Treasury’s recently released list of participating companies.

The company has always pointed out with pride that its products are 100% made in the U.S., refuting conventional wisdom that U.S. manufacturers cannot compete with lower-cost foreign rivals.

Employees who were laid off will receive severance pay — although Whelen didn’t say how the amount would be determined — and the company has contracted with a firm to provide “career transition assistance,” it said.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.




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