(8 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)
cross posted from The Dream Antilles
On Friday the nation’s recession, the big, ugly one that so many people feel directly in foreclosure of their homes, at the gas pump, in the cost of health care, in towering credit card debt, in the cost of heating their homes, in job and income insecurity, in lack of consumer confidence, in diminishing retirement funds, paid a personal, uninvited and unwanted visit to the county in the Hudson Valley of New York where I live.
The county’s fourth largest employer, Kaz Incorporated, a maker of humidifiers, announced that it was moving its production facilities from Columbia County, New York to Mexico. The announcement that about 350 workers were losing their jobs came on the heals of a similar announcement from LB Furniture earlier this year, that it was closing and that 150 production workers would lose their jobs. That’s 500 production jobs lost in 2008 in a small county with a population of about 62,000. That can modestly be described as an economic disaster.
Join me in Columbia County, New York.
Columbia County, New York is absolutely beautiful. And quite rural. It is about 25 miles SE of Albany and abuts the Berkshire and Taconic mountains and the Massachusetts line. About 9% of the families live below the poverty line; about 92% of the people are white. There are many second home owners who do not work here, but infuse the local economy with cash made elsewhere.
In Columbia County the six largest employers are
Columbia Memorial Hospital
Taconic Farms, Inc.
Hudson, breeder of lab rats and mice
Hudson City School District
Hudson, educational programs
Hudson, electric housewares and fans
Berkshire Farm Center & Services
Canaan, educational programs
Mellenville, human services
For a rural county that’s not much of an economic base. Only two businesses in the top six made anything. Four of the top employers are supported by tax revenues or are not-for-profits.
The mayor got it right when he said:
“I know exactly where [Katzman, the owner of Kaz] is coming from. He needs to compete,” said Richard Scalera, mayor of Hudson. “But that doesn’t make it any better for those waking up this morning and not knowing what to do next.”
“That has a devastating, gut-wrenching effect on our economy,” Scalera added. “In the short-term, it’s almost impossible to replace these types of jobs.”
In the long-term, Hudson and Columbia County officials must start defining a new economic development strategy, Scalera said.
“We know we can’t hang our hats on manufacturing jobs anymore, because those are too fragile,” he said. “We have to change our economic ways here.”
Meanwhile, as you’d expect, the closing has an utterly devastating affect on the low wage employees who worked in these production jobs, including many in the county’s vibrant immigrant population:
The workforce at Kaz includes people from the local African American, Bangladeshi and Latin American communities. The loss of employment will force many of these employees to move elsewhere for work, disrupting these communities.
County Supervisor Billy Hughes (D-4th Ward) says many of these employees don’t have a high school diploma or limited ability to speak English, so opportunities for employment in a worsening economy may prove few and far between.
The result will be displacement of these workers from their homes to other places in a search for work.
There is, of course, no local solution for those who will now lose their jobs. And this is the latest event in a trend in our community:
Mohammed Rony, a student at Columbia Greene Community College, and has lived in Hudson most of his life. Mr. Rony says that this is not the first time his community has faced a major employer closing, but this one could be the worst. “Bangladeshis began immigrating to Hudson because they were able to find work at the Emsig button factory in the early ’90s. Until 1998 there was 100 people, 20 families,” says Mr. Rony.
“When the button factory closed in 2001 about 80-to-90% of the employees were Bengali. It shook us up, but most people found jobs at LB furniture, Kaz and other factories in the area,” he says. “Recently there has been a huge increase in migration. I’d say 50% of the Bengalis in Hudson now have moved in the past five years. They went to work at LB and Kaz. With the closing of LB and now Kaz, people won’t be able to stay in Hudson. There aren’t any manufacturing jobs in the city anymore, which for many of them is the only work they can do. Many of these people barely speak English, and though some have master’s degrees from Bangladesh, those degrees mean nothing here.”
Alderman Abdus Miah (D-2nd Ward) says that lack of jobs is the primary problem facing all Columbia County communities, not just the Hudson Bangladeshis. “We need jobs to keep all our communities in place; its bad that people will be moving,” he says.
The only current “hope” for the laid off workers seems to be extensive unemployment benefits:
Some short-term help is on the way. Officials from the state Workforce Investment Office met with Kaz officials Wednesday to coordinate assistance for those soon to be out of work.
M.A. Wilse, director of the local office, said the Kaz plant will host a Career Resource Room, where employees can go for help in conducting job searches.
And Kaz is applying for coverage under the Trade Adjustment Act, a federal program that provides tuition assistance and extended unemployment benefits for workers whose jobs are moved out of the country under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
All laid-off workers at Kaz are eligible for 26 weeks of unemployment benefits from New York, plus another 13 weeks from the federal government. Those in certified training programs can receive up to two more years under the Trade Adjustment Act.
This is bleak news. The problem is the economy. The pain from the economy, as you’d expect, is most acute to those who have the lowest wages and the least assets. They lose their jobs, their homes, their communities first. But the losses aren’t confined to those people. The losses spread eventually in waves to everyone.
In a rational, undistracted, attentive, focused nation, the connections between our government’s economic policies of the past 8 years and the present recession they have created, and the obvious and pervasive pain these policies have caused, should be if not the main issue, an extremely important issue in the coming election.
A continuation of the present policies means that factory closings and losses of jobs like the ones that have struck my home county are going to continue to spread across the nation. Will the present administration be held responsible for its policies? Will voters require the candidates to propose policies that will end the present trend? Or will we continue to distract and entertain ourselves while everything falls apart around us? Will people actually vote for a continuation of the pernicious policies?