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Freightliner laying off 1,180 workers

By Paris Goodnight

Salisbury Post

CLEVELAND — Freightliner cutbacks that have been hinted at for months finally hit Friday: 1,180 workers will be laid off at the Cleveland plant.

A company letter announcing the cuts was posted at midnight at the Cleveland truck manufacturing plant, according to several employees.

The layoffs, which officially start April 1, will be based on seniority, with those hired after May 19, 2004, losing their positions first. Workers hired before that were told they’d be working every other week starting in April, and the company plans to cut the third shift completely.

Officials at the Cleveland plant referred all calls about the layoffs to company headquarters in Portland, Ore.

The Rowan County Chamber of Commerce listed the company as the top local employer with 4,500 workers when it compiled its 2006 ranking. The No. 2 employer is Rowan-Salisbury School System, with 2,905 employees.

“It’s a sad day in Rowan County,” said Arnold Chamberlain, chairman of the Board of Commissioners. He added that such layoffs are “not unusual in this industry and in the United States at this time.”

“This is not the first time and it’s not the last time,” said Chamberlain. “I think most people who work there understand that.”

Chamberlain said he hated that Freightliner officials didn’t “think it was prudent to have any kind of heads up discussion with county officials.”

Debbie Davis, Rowan JobLink manager at the Employment Security Commission, said the company hadn’t sent any official notice of layoffs to her organization by Friday morning. But she said since the shutdown of Pillowtex in 2003, “We’ve had experience with huge layoffs.”

Many of the processes affected workers need to go through are automated, Davis said, and anyone who is laid off can fill out the forms online.

Cleveland Mayor Jim Brown said he understood that most workers had enough notice that the cutbacks were coming to be prepared for it, especially the ones who started recently. “Most knew when they were hired,” he said.

He said he knew of one person hired about six months ago who had no problem signing on, even with layoffs looming, because the pay was $6 or $7 an hour more than he could make elsewhere.

Brown added the economic ripple effects from the lost jobs will likely be felt throughout Rowan and the surrounding counties. But he said any employers looking for good, experienced workers will have an ample supply to choose from now.

The Department of Labor’s Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, enacted in 1988, requires employers to give notice 60 days in advance of covered plant closings and covered mass layoffs.

A Freightliner release said that notice was given to employees and United Auto Workers officials Friday regarding a planned reduction in force of up to 1,180 workers at the Cleveland plant.

“Rehiring plans and timing will depend on market recovery and resulting customer demand,” the release added. “No specific information is available at this time.”

The company also said Friday it plans to lay off 800 of its 1,700 union workers in Portland, Ore., at the Swan Island plant, ending six decades of Freightliner-brand truck production in Portland.

Cutbacks had hit earlier at a Freightliner plant in Canada, where 800 workers were displaced in December.

Freightliner, the heavy truck division of Germany’s DaimlerChrysler AG, enjoyed banner sales as fleet operators and other buyers loaded up on 2006 model year trucks. But new diesel emission exhaust standards that took effect Jan. 1 also have boosted the price of 2007 models, while raising some concerns about their road performance.

An earlier Freightliner announcement said new engine prices would raise the cost of a vehicle $4,600 to $12,500.

Freightliner also said officials expect the demand for heavy trucks to recover in the second half of the year.

The company has also announced plans to build a new $300 million plant in Saltillo, Mexico, which will manufacture Freightliner and Sterling trucks, starting in 2009. It will be Freightliner’s second Mexican plant, joining the company’s Santiago Tianguistenco plant, which produces Freightliner-brand heavy- and medium-duty trucks for sale throughout North and South America.

“This new facility underscores our confidence in the NAFTA truck market and our bullish mid-term outlook for industry recovery post-2007,” Freightliner CEO Chris Patterson told Assembly Magazine. “Frankly, we were not able to produce what we could have sold in 2006 due to capacity constraints.

“We expect another surge in customer demand in 2009 prior to the next round of EPA emissions regulations, and the construction of this new plant will ensure that we are fully prepared.”

Staff writer Jessie Burchette contributed to this report. Contact Paris Goodnight at 704-797-4255 or pgoodnight@salisburypost.com.

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