ORLEANS — At 59 years old and after 40 years of working for the same furniture manufacturer, Mitchell’s Steve Covert hadn’t seen himself hunting for a job.
But the announcement in October that the Paoli Inc. plant in Orleans would be closing this year forced Covert to think differently. He joins a few hundred people whose livelihoods are affected by the decision made by HNI, the parent company of Paoli Inc., to phase out its manufacturing operations in Orleans.
“I was quite worried at first,” Covert said.
“I hadn’t thought too much. There had been some old rumors back a few years ago, and people were getting kind of concerned with the way things were going. ... We wondered if someday they might move this out,” he said.
About 350 workers were employed at Paoli Inc. when they were notified in early October the plant would be closing. At that time, Gary Carlson, vice president of community relations for HNI Corp., told The Times-Mail, “We will continue to work with people on the transition and offer severance packages.”
Covert worked as a chair frame assembler.
Even though he knew his job was ending, he didn’t start looking for a new one, because he knew that leaving before his scheduled departure date would have come with a cost. “I would have lost everything that was coming to me,” Covert said. His last day of work was March 24, and he received his severance pay last week.
But Covert now is ready to actively pursue a new job. “I’ve got a strong faith in the Lord,” he said. “Things will work out. I just try to pray for the best.” He believes the job market is favorable. “I’m optimistic that something will come along,” he said.
Paoli’s Danny Hickman has even more time with Paoli Inc. than Covert. Hickman graduated from Paoli High School in 1972. About two weeks later, he went to work for the company, then based in Paoli and known as Paoli Chair Factory.
Hickman turned 63 last month and believes his age gives him an advantage. “I’m probably going to be semi-retired rather than job hunting,” he said. “I’m in a lot better shape than some of them are. I may do a little part-time.”
He said some people who worked with him already have taken jobs elsewhere — some at the Jasper Seating plant in Paoli. “They decided just to forgo their severance pay and to take a job while they had a chance to get it,” Hickman said. “They were younger, and I don’t blame them at all. For the older guys, it was smarter to stay and get the severance package.”
HNI reports the phasing-out process is going as planned. “We are on the schedule that we thought we would be,” Carlson said. “We still have a couple of hundred that are working here. We will continue to manufacture products as we continue to wind down the operation. We will still be manufacturing here until most likely mid-October. That’s still the plan.”
“You always have some people that do have other career opportunities,” Carlson said. “You try to work through that with them as well. You want to encourage people to be able to move forward. … You’re kind of balancing your workforce on that.”
The plan called for the plant to close Oct. 12. “We’re still on target,” Carlson said.
Upon learning the massive building on Orleans’ south side would be vacant, local economic development leaders began considering future possibilities for the site.
Jeff Quyle, chief executive officer of the regional economic development group Radius Indiana, said in October the building offered advantages to companies seeking a location for doing business. “Construction is done in the relatively modern industrial era,” Quyle said in an earlier Times-Mail story. “It’s going to have a lot of quality in terms of ceiling height, sprinklers, electric available. … That’s going to make it attractive.”
But, Quyle emphasized on Thursday, the time for active marketing hasn’t yet arrived.
“We are trying to prepare, but also to be mindful that we need to wait,” Quyle said. Radius Indiana is based in Bedford, but Quyle said his office is working closely with Lloyd Arnold, who leads the Orange County Economic Development Partnership.
Quyle said Paoli Inc.’s parent company has “established a relationship” with a large real estate firm. He said the company is one that has “a wide and deep relationship with a number of industry clients.” Quyle said the real estate company “will market that (building) as effectively as it can be done.”
He added, “Everybody is trying to be prepared and have their best foot forward when the time comes that marketing begins.”
As for the Paoli Inc. workforce, Quyle said, “I know individuals are making their own decisions about how long they will be there.”
He said, “I think the job market is fairly robust. Unemployment rates are low. Folks who have skills in manufacturing, folks who have experience and understand the modern mechanisms of machinery, those folks are seen as a great commodity by other employers. … Individuals, or course, are going to have to weigh their own prior wages and the wage offers they receive.”