Smithfield plant to close

Published 11:04 am Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Smithfield Foods Inc. will close one of its two packing plants in Smithfield by year’s end, officials said Tuesday.

Work at the Smithfield Packing Co. South facility, which does case-ready fresh pork production, will be moved to the adjacent Smithfield North plant and a facility in North Carolina by December. Some 1,035 of the 1,375 Smithfield South employees will be offered transfers. About 745 will have the opportunity to work at the Smithfield North plant.

The net job loss for this Isle of Wight County town, where Smithfield Foods has its corporate headquarters, will be more than 600.

Smithfield Foods also will close plants in Elon, N.C., Plant City, Fla., Great Bend, Kan., New Riegel, Ohio, and Hastings, Neb., company officials said. In all, between 1,500 and 2,000 jobs will be eliminated.

“Layoffs and plant closings are difficult but necessary decisions,” said C. Larry Pope, Smithfield president and CEO. “We know that this will create adversity for the employees affected, and we will work with union officials and others to determine how we can provide assistance to our employees to find future employment.”

Standing outside the plant, employee Dexter Bailey said he wasn’t surprised by the announcement.

“I heard rumors that this might happen,” he said. “It’s going to be a difficult time for everybody.”

Bailey said the adjustment would not be easy for those whose jobs are moving. “The way they do things over there at the North plant is totally different from what we do. It’s going to be hard for people to switch their mindset to a different system.”

Bailey said his only concern is that the company has not announced any buyouts or settlement package for employees close to retirement.

“I think the company should give those of us who are eligible for retirement some sort of package or choice before just sending us to another plant,” said Bailey.

News of the closing spread through town swiftly. At Hair Worx beauty salon in Smithfield Plaza, stylists and customers discussed what the closings would mean for the community.

Customer Carolyn Blanchard, who is an instructional assistant for the Isle of Wight school system, said the news was “heartbreaking.”

“My husband text messaged me while I was sitting in a classroom. I looked at the children’s faces and I knew some of their parents were going to be affected by this,” said Blanchard.

John Smolak, president of Franklin Southampton Economic Development, said news like this is becoming more common.

“It is certainly difficult for corporations that have to make these hard decisions to restructure,” he said. “While it’s unfortunate, companies are trying to get back to the basics and find a way to remain viable in the future.”

Smolak said his team is working hard to help the area weather a difficult time that has already seen many other layoffs and closings.

“We will certainly do our best to look at job opportunities for those who are displaced, he said. “We are busy working to attract some other companies into the Isle of Wight, Franklin and Southampton area.”

Smolak said he received the Smithfield news while in Richmond to talk with lawmakers about local economic concerns.

“We were in Richmond today lobbying the legislature to continue some of its economic incentives that make Virginia a great place to do business,” he said. “Hopefully those type measures will bring in new industry to the area and save some of the companies already existing.”

Union Representative Anthony Foster declined public comment until after an opportunity to speak with Smithfield officials.