July 29, 2008 in Business

Columbia Lighting to shut down

More than 200 Spokane Valley workers will lose their jobs by the end of the year
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Columbia Lighting, one of Spokane’s oldest companies, will close its doors and eliminate more than 200 manufacturing jobs, the firm’s owner said Monday.

Hubbell Inc., based in Connecticut, told 213 workers at the Spokane Valley company they will lose their jobs by Dec. 31.

All Spokane-area workers will receive severance packages plus assistance in some cases to help find new jobs, said Steve Nail, vice president of human resources for Hubbell.

Most of the jobs will end in September and October, said a Columbia Lighting spokesperson.

The company’s Spokane history dates to 1898 when German immigrant Rudolph Doerr and Spokane electrician Joseph Mitchell founded it under the name Doerr-Mitchell. In the 1920s it became the Brown-Johnston Co., headed by Eric A. Johnston.

The name was changed to Columbia Lighting in 1940. Its main products are metal fixtures for fluorescent lights. Those lights are installed in commercial buildings such as hospitals, schools and office complexes.

Hubbell purchased Columbia Lighting in 2002 for $250 million. Company officials have made no secret that the Spokane plant’s work would eventually go away. In 2005 it laid off roughly 50 Spokane-area workers.

And in 2006 it transferred another 75 jobs to South Carolina.

Nail said three reasons forced the closure. Hubbell is leasing the Columbia Lighting building, and that makes it more expensive; most of Hubbell’s lighting customers are on the East Coast, making transport of goods from Spokane more costly; and the Columbia Lighting facility, said Nail, is older than recent plants Hubbell has built or bought for the same purpose.

“Most of the work (from Spokane Valley) will be going to our plants in Bristol, Pa., and Juarez, Mexico,” he said. Those plants are newer and are owned by Hubbell, he said.

About 150 workers at Columbia Lighting belong to Local 73 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Those assemblers earn between $12 and $17 an hour, with health care benefits and a pension.

Nail said one “silver lining” in the closure is “over 50 percent of our work force there is 55 and older.” That makes them eligible to take the severance package and begin drawing on their pensions, he said.

Ken Brown, business manager for Local 73, said losing one’s job hardly qualifies as a silver lining. “It’s not a good severance package whenever you lose your job and it goes to Mexico,” Brown said.

Plus, workers 55 or older will struggle to find similar-paying jobs, he said.

But Doug Tweedy, the regional labor economist with the Washington Employment Security Department, said those laid-off workers, if they’re skilled in metalworking, won’t have a difficult time finding new work. “In general we’ve seen the manufacturing sector doing all right. And the subsector involving metal fabrication is doing well right now,” Tweedy said.

Because some jobs being eliminated are relocating to another country, that makes workers at Columbia Lighting eligible for benefits through the Trade Adjustment and Assistance Act, Tweedy said. Under that law, retraining and job searches are paid for eligible workers.


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