Saint Jean Industries announced on Friday that it was laying off 300 of its employees. The company, which was once promoted as one of the highlights of Cleburne County economic prosperity, informed employees the previous day the layoffs would take effect December 31st.
In an official press release issued Friday, plant manager Patrick Bowens told the public that a turnover in contracts can lead "to excess capacity in plants and a need for fewer employees. Unfortunately, due to these circumstances, Saint Jean has been one of those suppliers that have been affected by their customers. Therefore, yesterday, Saint Jean deployed the WARN act to 300 of our employees" Bowens went on to say that the company was working with new customers and state officials "to acquire new businesses and bring the company back to where it is today and beyond, allowing the employees to return as soon as possible."
The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) requires that employers with 100 or more workers notify employees 60 calendar days in advance of plant closings and mass layoffs.
The state of Arkansas and Cleburne County devoted substantial financial incentives to bring Saint Jean to the area and held it up as a shining achievement of economic progress to the county. This news is a significant blow to that image and some in the community have called into question the amount of energy and money devoted to keeping the industry here. Joe Holmes of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission reinforced that the state was paying close attention to the situation at Saint Jean and was working to assist all of those affected in the downturn. "Saint Jean is a great international company with a solid workforce in Heber Springs," said Holmes. "While we cannot speak for Saint Jean, we have been working extremely closely with Saint Jean's leadership to assist the company in any way we can. As designs and needs change in the automotive industry, parts suppliers like Saint Jean can experience turnover in contracts with auto manufacturers, leading to excess capacity in plants and a short-term need for fewer employees. This is the situation Saint Jean finds itself facing, today. Governor Beebe and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission have been directly involved with efforts to identify opportunities for Saint Jean to fill excess capacity in its operation in the short term and limit the impact on the company's employees. The State of Arkansas has enjoyed a great partnership with Saint Jean and remains committed to the company and its employees."
We spoke with a few of the employees affected by the news. While most didn't want to go on record talking about the incident, one employee, who asked for his name to be withheld, agreed to share his thoughts on the news. "I don't know what I'm going to do," said the employee. "I was just hired there a couple of months ago and they didn't say anything about possible problems. They had to have known something was wrong. This kind of thing don't just happen overnight. I feel like they just used me and are throwing good, hard workers like me away. Look at the people laid off and the ones they kept. The people that made the bad decisions keep their job while we're thrown aside."
Page 2 of 2 - Cleburne County Economic Developer Dara Samuel said her office wasn't informed of the decision until the day it was announced to the public. "This was done at a state level," said Samuel. "It's going to have a huge impact on the county. Our unemployment rate could possibly go from 7.2% to 9%. I've been in contact with Congressman Rick Crawford's office as well as Senator Missy Irvin and we are committed to doing what we can to help the people of Cleburne County get through this." Samuels said she would be working with Saint Jean and the state to do what she could to assist the unemployed. "Judge Jerry Holmes and myself stand ready to assist in any way we can," said Samuel.