PITTSFIELD — It was just before noon Wednesday and at least four employees of United Technologies Corp. Fire and Security had gone to Vittles Restaurant on Main Street for lunch.
More UTC employees would be there later, a thought now weighing heavily on restaurant owner Robert Phelan. UTC announced Tuesday it will close next year, resulting in lost jobs for most of the 300 workers, about a quarter of whom live in Pittsfield.
“At about 3 o’clock this morning, I was thinking it’d be about 6 percent of my clientele that I’d lose,” Phelan said during lunchtime Wednesday. “It’s not a deal-breaker, but it will certainly affect my growth.”
The closing announcement came as a shock to employees, town officials and residents, who were still digesting the news and its consequences a day later. The Pittsfield factory specializes in technology products, services and fire security to the global building and aerospace industries, and those operations will be moved to the company’s North Carolina, Mexico and China locations, which do similar work. It’s scheduled to be shuttered by March 1, 2015.
Up to 100 employees may be able to transfer to the plant in Lincolnton, N.C., company and town officials said Tuesday.
But for now, employees are trying to get used to the idea of the plant closing.
A group of UTC employees, none of whom would give their names, gathered for a cigarette break in the parking lot Wednesday afternoon. One employee said, “Everyone was dealing with it as well as they can.” Others said that they did not see the announcement coming and that the mood of workers was subdued.
The company said it is working with the Pittsfield employees.
The blow to Pittsfield — a town of roughly 4,000 people, which is no stranger to large factory closings and layoffs — will be felt in several ways, according to Town Manager Kathryn Ruth.
About 75 percent of UTC employees come into the town from neighboring communities and many of them patronize Vittles and other area businesses.
“We have all these out-of-town employees coming in and buying gas and eating lunch and buying items at our stores,” Ruth said Wednesday. “That’s why it’s so important that UTC work with the town so we can market the building and bring another employer in. It’s a huge space. It’s a manufacturing facility that you can make adjustments to.”
In 2008, Texas-based shoe factory SAS Shoemakers closed its Pittsfield plant, costing the community 150 jobs. The following year, the UTC plant, then GE Security and owned by General Electric Co., laid off 110 workers.
“If the decision to close is irrevocable,” Ruth said, “we’re well-versed in working with all regional state and federal organizations to bring in jobs and provide resources and training grants for affected employees.”
Ruth said she hasn’t heard from many employees of the factory in the day following the announcement, but she thinks employees were still trying process the news.
“I think the shock is still setting in,” she said. “It’s still a shock. I think people need to digest the information, because we’re talking less than 24 hours since we found out.”
Ruth expects Pittsfield’s seventh annual job fair, scheduled for May 14 at the Warsaw Middle School, with businesses like T-Mobile and Redington-Fairview General Hospital expected to attend, will be slightly more important than in years past.
Meanwhile, the company repeated its statement Wednesday that it is meeting with employees “to review options including consideration for open positions at other facilities and severance benefits,” spokeswoman Ashley Barrie said in an email.
Tuesday, the company said in a prepared statement that the factory’s closure is part of the company’s effort to “ensure continued competitiveness.”
“We are working closely with the team at Pittsfield to ensure this reorganization is handled as best possible,” Barrie said in a statement Wednesday.
Benefits the company will discuss with employees include placement assistance and continued access to UTC’s Employee Scholar Program, under which qualified employees can get tuition, books and fees paid for up to four years, Barrie said.
The Maine Department of Labor was notified of the closing on Tuesday, according to Director of Communications Julie Rabinowitz. The Labor Department will help employees with its rapid response team, which consists of staff from the bureau of employment services and the bureau of unemployment, assisting them with unemployment claims and information, as well as opportunities for career training.
Rabinowitz said a couple logistical hurdles — the 100 possible transfer positions the company is offering and the length of time until the phasing out of employees — will delay the rapid response program from working directly with employees, but did say they are already talking with UTC’s human resources department.
“A lot of that has to be sorted out first,” Rabinowitz said. “But the earlier we have it in place, the more assessments we can do.”
One program Rabinowitz said could be helpful for employees expected to lose their jobs is the labor department’s commitment to training a natural gas workforce for installation and maintenance, because of the growing demand of the energy resource. Rabinowitz said that if any employees or their family had any questions about the upcoming closure or what opportunities were open to them, to call the Skowhegan Career Center at 474-4950.
“We have 12 career centers in the state that act as a boots on the ground facilities,” Rabinowitz said. “They help assist people with job search and applying for re-training.”
United Technologies, based in Farmington, Conn., provides technology products and services to the global building and aerospace industries, specializing in fire security. Barrie said the Pittsfield plant “Manufactures fire and security products such as commercial fire products from our Edwards brand, including detectors, fire panels and signaling equipment.
When UTC bought the plant in 2010, a spokesman for the company declined to comment on potential effects the purchase had on the Pittsfield plant. General Electric Co. bought the plant in 2005, when it bought SPX Corp., owner of Edwards Systems Technology, for nearly $1.4 billion. The Pittsfield plant opened in 1956.