“One, two, three,” she said. “I’ve got to make that box and pack it.”
The $17.54-an-hour job makes her hands throb, but for 25 years, it’s been the only livelihood she’s known, the factory smell sticking to her white button-down uniform shirt like a wrapper.
Even as other manufacturing jobs disappeared from this Western Maryland city, Yeargan and her co-workers presumed their paychecks were safe, that Americans’ craving for Popsicles would keep the ice cream coming down the line.
The machines will be shut down Wednesday night. Employees will turn in their uniforms Thursday. The hulking refrigerated trucks that pull up to ferry 60,000 cases of ice cream a day around the country will be no-shows. Consumer-goods giant Unilever is closing the plant, shifting the production to other states, including Tennessee and Missouri, where company officials say they can churn out cold treats more cheaply.
The closing has generated headlines because of possible Good Humor ice cream shortages, but out here off Exit 32B on Interstate 70, less than 100 miles from the White House, the shutdown has deeper, painful consequences. Hagerstown is saying goodbye to more than 400 well-paying jobs and one of the final links to its once-thriving manufacturing sector, which produced airplanes, pipe organs and leather car seats.
Like other battered manufacturing centers across the country, the city hopes to reinvent itself with higher-skilled jobs in precision manufacturing, professional services and even biotech.
“For the community, this closing is painful news, but it’s another data point that represents where Hagerstown was and where Hagerstown is going,” said Brien J. Poffenberger, president of the Chamber of Commerce. “We’d all be happy in 1940s Hagerstown. It was a thriving place. But that’s in the past.”
Getting to the future has been agonizing, with unemployment topping 11 percent two years ago. The jobless rate in the area is now 8 percent, still above the state average of 6.9 percent.
“This job paid the bills, fed the kids, put a roof over our heads,” said Luther Brooks, an assistant pasteurizer and single father of four boys. He’s 49 and has worked at the plant for 21 years, making about $40,000 a year. Now he worries that he and his sons will end up in public housing — a prospect he never imagined.
Influx of people is costly
The forces fueling the ice cream plant’s shutdown have been building for years. While Hagerstown, like other cities, has endured high-labor jobs being shipped to cheaper places outside the United States, it has also become a victim and beneficiary of its proximity to the District and Baltimore.
The population in Washington County has jumped about 12 percent in the past decade as many people moved to Western Maryland for cheaper, bigger homes and a better quality of life. The influx has helped push up the cost of housing — even the price of coffee, with the addition of a Starbucks — but also, in some cases, the cost of doing business.