HAGERSTOWN, Md. — The ice cream keeps coming down the line, morning, afternoon and night: Klondikes, Toasted Almonds, Strawberry Shortcakes, Fudgsicles, Popsicles.
Gail Yeargan is a hand packer at the plant. She makes boxes, jams the Good Humor and Breyers treats in, and shoves the packages into a taping machine. Her job repeats itself every eight seconds.
“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.
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.
On the flip side, there’s a growing pool of more educated workers for new companies to draw from, although that provides little comfort to those being displaced at the ice cream plant.
“We’re scared, and we’re frustrated,” said Larry Lorshbaugh, president of the United Steelworkers Local 9386, the last steelworkers outpost left in Hagerstown.
Lorshbaugh has worked at the plant since its beginnings in 1983, when it was owned by Gold Bond Ice Cream. He is a pasteurizer. His hands are gnarled and battered, and so, too, is his psyche — from defending his union against Unilever, against city officials he says haven’t been supportive to the union and even against the international union his workers belong to.
He and other workers say United Steelworkers officials didn’t fight Unilever hard enough and consider the local a lost cause. Union officials deny such accusations but have placed Lorshbaugh’s local under administratorship, suspending its bank account — a standard procedure in plant closings, they say. Lorshbaugh insists those actions aren’t standard.
Sitting in his union office — the United Steelworkers charter hangs on one wall, the U.S. flag on the other — Lorshbaugh recalls a simpler time in Hagerstown, when people around the city delighted in knowing so much ice cream was produced here. Ice cream treats regularly turned up at community events. The workers inside the plant were so proud of their craft that they hung gleaming signs in the factory parking lot displaying the names of machines they worked on.
“Where else are they going to make ice cream better than we can make it here?” Lorshbaugh said. “They can’t. They will never make it better than they can make it here.”
True or not, the company thinks it can make ice cream cheaper elsewhere. In interviews, company officials wouldn’t put a figure on how much money they expect to save, but Lorshbaugh said he was told his plant’s ice cream bars cost 14 cents more a dozen to produce compared with those of the company’s other plants.
Ken Wells, the plant manager, said energy and labor costs were key factors in the “ice cream network restructuring.”
Economists and trade group representatives say the high cost of manufacturing in Maryland, particularly in areas close to big cities, helps explain why the state has shed manufacturing jobs while other parts of the country are winning them back.
“This is just a more expensive place to live,” said Gene Burner, president of the Manufacturers’ Alliance of Maryland. “Housing is more expensive, transportation, electricity. By virtue of our location, people have to make more money because it’s more expensive.”
In Hagerstown, city and county officials have had some success in landing and expanding higher-paid, higher-skilled manufacturing jobs. Volvo, for instance, has committed to expanding engine-production facilities in the city. But many of the jobs there and at other newer manufacturing firms require skills that less-educated workers simply don’t have. Volvo relies heavily on robotics and computers. Lorshbaugh doesn’t even own a cellphone.
The ice cream plant “was probably one of the last plants to close that offered an opportunity for unskilled or low-skilled people to find employment,” said Peter Thomas, executive director of the Western Maryland Consortium, a job training group. “The manufacturing jobs that do exist all require a lot of specific vocational prep and background. The level of sophistication in manufacturing has increased significantly both globally and locally.”
People who once relied on more basic manufacturing jobs for their shot at the American dream are being left behind.
“This hammers away at Maryland’s middle class,” said Anirban Basu, an economist and founder of the Sage Policy Group in Baltimore, which has studied Maryland manufacturing. “The gap between the haves and have-nots continues to expand with disproportionate pace in Maryland in part because of the ongoing erosion of the manufacturing sector.”
And now, in Hagerstown, the question becomes: Can you teach an older worker new skills?
Each employee losing an ice cream job will receive up to $4,500 in state assistance for education, which officials say is enough to earn a certificate or make significant progress toward a truck driver’s license or some other license. Nevertheless, there is deep fear among workers that no amount of retraining will be enough.
“I’ve got a lot of catching up to do,” said Brooks, the assistant pasteurizer. “They are really leaving all of us in a rotten position.”
Lorshbaugh, also a single father, probably needs an operation on his hand before he can get another job. But he hopes his work ethic and his willingness to endure 12-hour days are still valued by employers. And he will be thankful if someone just gives him a shot.
“I could be very, very helpful,” he said, “and I could be a very big asset to any company that would hire me.”