In this town of 11,000 people settled among the reedy headwaters of several Eastern Shore inlets to the Chesapeake Bay, toolmaker Black & Decker Corp. has long been a benevolent corporate citizen. The park where the high school baseball team plays is Black & Decker Field. When children's soccer teams needed a place to practice, the firm let them use the manicured grounds next to its power tool factory, built in 1974.
But Black & Decker's connections to Easton were more tenuous than many residents here knew.
The company told workers Monday that the Easton plant, the second-largest employer in town, will close, putting 1,300 people out of work. Most of the jobs will move to Mexico. It will leave the company, a Maryland corporate stalwart headquartered in Towson, with no large manufacturing plants in its home state.
"We all thought we could retire from Black & Decker," said Rosie Royer, 47, a forklift driver at the plant for 22 years who was at the Choptank Inn last night. "This job search, it's going to be rough."
The shutdown of the Easton plant, which is to occur gradually beginning in March, is a milestone in the long, steady decline of manufacturing that is remaking the Maryland -- and U.S. -- economies.
Fewer and fewer Maryland workers make physical objects; there were 170,000 manufacturing jobs in the state in October, according to the Labor Department, down 20 percent over the past two decades. Total employment in the state has risen 48 percent in that time. And that, many economists believe, is one of the reasons for widening income inequality in the state and a cause of acute pain for towns -- which will likely now include Easton -- that pinned their economic future on big factories.
"This is devastating," said Anirban Basu, chief economist of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University of the Black & Decker plant closing. "But it is nothing new to Maryland."
Manufacturing has long been one of the few lines of work where relatively low-skilled workers can earn middle-class wages. As plants close, however, $20-per-hour assembly line workers are forced to take jobs as $10-per-hour retail clerks. Maryland has the fourth-largest gap between middle-income and high-income residents among the states -- a phenomenon Basu attributes largely to the collapse of its manufacturing base.
Economists attribute the nation's shrinking manufacturing employment in large part to falling barriers to trade between nations. With fewer tariffs and other inhibitions to trade, companies find it more economical to manufacture goods in a place like Mexico, where wages and other costs are low, than in Easton. With the value of the dollar strong relative to other currencies, American manufacturers are at all the more disadvantage.
The plant is being closed, Black & Decker said in a statement, as part of a plan to cut costs by moving labor-intensive manufacturing operations to Mexico, China and the Czech Republic. In January, the company said it would cut 2,400 jobs in the United States under the plan. Black & Decker will move a small number of jobs from Easton to a North Carolina plant.
Most economists agree that this trade is beneficial to the U.S. economy in the aggregate. Millions of consumers might pay slightly less for cordless power drills made in Mexico than they would if they were made in Maryland, a savings that more than makes up for the lost jobs. But while slightly lower prices are diffuse and hard to measure, the pain caused by the move is discrete and severe. The plant generates 10 percent of the town's revenue from property taxes, or about $500,000 a year, city officials said.
Shirley Brooks was in the room at the Black & Decker plant on Monday morning where corporate bosses from Towson told her and her colleagues that the plant would close.
Brooks, a 45 year-old mother of two, has been at the plant for six years, working the first shift assembling drills. Yesterday evening she was pushing a cart around the Food Lion in Easton, her 13-year-old daughter, Nichole, with her, picking up some Fruity Pebbles cereal and Ritz Crackers.
When she and her co-workers heard the news, "some of them cried, some of them took it well and some were not really surprised," she said. And what of the global economic currents that put her back on the job market? "Nothing I could do about it. Life goes on."
Local development officials said they are confident that workers like Brooks will find work relatively quickly, in part because of a shortage of laborers in the area. Indeed, she has already lined up a job for when the plant closes at the local hospital.
More worrisome, said Talbot County Economic Development Coordinator Durrie Hayes, are the fates of the higher-wage, higher-skilled workers at the plant. Given the relatively small job base in Talbot County, he worries that they will have too few options and will either find themselves unemployed for a long time or be forced to leave to get work.
"This is pretty traumatic," said Hayes. "We've never had this many people laid off at once."
It could have effects well beyond the sprawling, low-slung Black & Decker. "This is going to have an impact on the businesses that cater to Black & Decker," said Easton Economic Development Director Alexander M. Bond. "Everyone is concerned about it."
On Washington Street in the quaint downtown, James Merida, worries not so much about losing business but losing his employees. He owns Bountiful home furnishings boutique, one of numerous small shops that cater to the many wealthy residents of the county; Talbot is one of the Eastern Shore's favorite locales for second homes of well-heeled Washington families. Merida worries that an employee whose spouse works at the plant will end up having to move away to find work.
There's a personal impact, he said. "Everyone in Easton knows at least someone who works at Black & Decker."