Local news

Building slump leads to layoffs

Liberty Lake cabinetmaker Huntwood Industries laid off at least 120 workers this week, cutting costs in the wake of a slowdown in the U.S. wood products industry.

Officials from the privately held company contacted Washington state officials this week, asking for assistance in giving laid-off workers information for finding new jobs or filing unemployment claims.

“They told us they were letting the people go immediately and could we bring some packets of material they could hand out, for helping apply for unemployment insurance,” said Dan Lambert, an employment services supervisor with the Washington state Employment Security Department.

His office was asked to bring 100 information packets on Thursday, said Lambert.

Company workers who had not been laid off said the actual number on Thursday approached 120. They said an undisclosed number were also let go on Friday.

Earlier this year the company moved into a massive new production building in Liberty Lake. As of July Huntwood employed 850 workers, making it the largest manufacturing company – by head count – in Spokane County and among the largest in the Inland Northwest.

But contractions in the national housing market and slowdowns in customer orders for new cabinets forced company owners to start the layoffs this week.

Company President Tim Hunt, reached Thursday, said he could not say how many workers were being let go.

“I don’t have any number today. I will next week,” Hunt said, adding, “I don’t even want you to say that much. There’s no sense in making people nervous before they need to be.”

When asked if more cuts were coming next week, Hunt declined to answer.

As Thursday’s shifts ended and within two hours of Hunt’s statement, supervisors told groups of workers that their jobs were over, said a Huntwood office worker, who asked not to be identified.

Huntwood’s entry-level jobs pay in the $9 to $11 per hour range, depending on experience.

“The mood there really is awful. It’s chaotic,” said Bonita Miles, who worked in the door-making area for three years. She was laid off Thursday and was told by others that company managers let another group go on Friday.

“I was told it was as many as 100,” said Miles.

Miles said she might have been fired because she had tried to organize Huntwood workers. Dan Wilson, president of Local 338 of the United Steelworkers of America, confirmed that his union had worked with Miles earlier this year on organizing cabinet workers in Liberty Lake.

Said Miles, “I do feel my involvement with the Steelworkers was a contributing factor in what happened to me after working for this company for three years.”

Calls to Huntwood officials were not returned Friday.

Another former Huntwood employee laid off Thursday said he had been a production supervisor for five years. He declined to be named because he’s searching for a new job. “I had to round up eight people in my department to be let go (on Thursday),” he said.

At the end of the shift, he too got a pink slip. “I kind of saw it coming,” he added.

Hunt said his company’s cabinet sales have slumped in the past 30 days. The company sells most of its finished cabinets across the Western United States.

“All we do is respond to what our customers are doing. We’re still up (in sales) from last year, but in the building industry nationally there is softening. And people are sitting on inventory longer, which slows down orders,” he said.

Company chaplain Gary Warrick said he knew about the planned layoffs earlier this week. He tried to connect with some of the workers let go as they left the company building, Warrick said.

“It’s a tough time now,” he added. “People there are going about their jobs. My main concern now is to care for those people who seek me out.”

Like many other wood products manufacturers nationwide, Huntwood has ridden the housing boom for the past five years. In July, Hunt announced his cabinet company was doing so well that it needed to add 200 jobs by the start of 2007.

But declining home sales and residential construction sent the market in the opposite direction. Hunt, in his comments Thursday, even suggested a silver lining in the declining price of wood products, considered the lowest in nearly five years. “We might want to tell people with a big ad that lean times are good times” if anyone is in the market for cabinets, he said.



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