Workers at the Energizer battery plant in northwestern Vermont are bracing for the loss of their jobs next year.
Company officials expect a decrease in the demand for batteries, so Energizer plans to shutter its St. Albans plant in September. The drop in demand may be a good sign for the environment, but it’s been a shock for a community that has come to rely on those jobs.
The town of St. Albans has deep roots as a trading community. It was once the headquarters of the Vermont and Canadian Railroad. Its early factories turned out schooners and steamboats; then dairy products and, in the 1940s, storage batteries for electronics.
For 65 years, the manufacturing plant here on Route 7 has produced batteries made famous in the 1980s by the pink Energizer bunny featured in TV ads.
Anyone who’s connected electronically has likely charged their flashlights, clocks and transistor radios with lithium batteries that were made here. But this month – two weeks before Thanksgiving – Energizer announced production won’t keep going. The company says it was a difficult decision, but the line will end next September with a complete shutdown.
"Companies are going to do what they need to do and we’re just going to be the victims of it," says lineman George Bassette.
On the day Bassette learned that he and roughly 165 of his co-workers would lose their jobs, he had a certain sinking feeling. He says others cried. Some got up and walked out.
Energizer had already gone to a four-day workweek in St. Albans, and now it was cutting 10 percent of its global workforce – or 1,500 jobs.
"We knew it was a possibility, but we were all pretty hopeful that it wasn’t going to take place," says Bassette, whose father and aunt had worked at the plant before him.
He says he earns $21 dollars an hour, turning raw material – metal and chemicals – into batteries. "I think it’s given me a good work background so that I can find employment somewhere else, but it is difficult because it was a pretty good wage that we were making there and it’s really hard to find that to start out anywhere around here," he says.
The Chicago-based market research firm SymphonyIRI Group says battery sales have declined 21 percent since 2009. Energizer itself admits that its battery shipments are down more than 10 percent in that same period, and that they’ll continue to drop as more people use smart phones and other devices with rechargeable batteries.
Using fewer batteries may be good news for the planet, but it’s bad news for blue-collar workers in this town.
"We’re letting the dust settle," says St. Albans Town Manager Carrie Johnson, who’s planning to meet with the state this month to identify potential businesses for the sprawling plant.
"If it’s another heavy industrial company – fine," Johnson says. "But we realize that may not be possible, so we’re trying to think outside the box."
"This is a big deal," says Governor Peter Shumlin. "We do have a little bit of time on our side, and we’re going to work tirelessly to try to connect every employee with a job."
On a recent morning, George Bassette has just finished his overnight shift. He’s working with his semi-retired father, who runs a landscaping business.
Bassette struggles with the idea of going from making $40,000 a year as a battery line producer to raking leaves part-time to unemployment. And it’s left him frustrated.
"I understand that the demand is dropping quite a bit and it’s going rechargeable," Bassette says. "Maybe we should have tried to get some of that rechargeable business here to trade out, but that didn’t happen."
Still, at 33 years-old, Bassette says he’s optimistic and ready to start over. He hopes to find a new job with equal pay, even though the economy seems to be worse than he had ever imagined.
YouTube: First Energizer Bunny Commercial