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Shock and unemployment in rural Pa. as one county’s top employer closes

Just under 1,000 employees lost their jobs Monday at Wood-Mode, a cabinet maker in Snyder County

Employees walk out of Wood-Mode in Kreamer on Monday, May 13, 2019, after employees were informed the custom-cabinet maker is closing permanently.
Employees walk out of Wood-Mode in Kreamer on Monday, May 13, 2019, after employees were informed the custom-cabinet maker is closing permanently.Read moreMarcia Moore/The Daily Item

A few months after Michele Sanders graduated high school, she took a job a few miles away, and like many in Pennsylvania’s rural Snyder County, that job became a steady life.

Sanders, 40, started working as a laborer for Wood-Mode, a custom, high-end cabinet manufacturer in Kreamer, in 1996, and as of 3 p.m. Monday, she was making about $40,000 a year with overtime. But right about that time, Snyder County’s largest employer informed its 938 workers that it was all over. Employees had minutes to collect their stuff.

“We never expected it,” Sanders said. “A lot of us don’t have anything else to put on our resume but Wood-Mode.”

Wood-Mode’s owners did not return requests for comment but said in a statement issued to WKOK-1070 News Radio that worsening financial problems and a potential buyer that backed out prompted the closure. The owners, the statement read, “truly regret the impact of this action to our employees, the community, and our loyal customers and suppliers.”

According to a report published in the Sunbury Daily Item, Wood-Mode was exempted from issuing a 60-day notice on its impending closing because it was seeking new capital or business to stay open and filing the notice might have ruined the company’s opportunities, a spokeswoman from the state Department of Labor and Industry was quoted as saying.

The shuttering of such a large employer, at the company’s only manufacturing facility, leaves a big hole in Snyder County, about 150 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The county, unlike anthracite coal regions just east of the Susquehanna River, has never had a large manufacturing base.

“We’ve always traditionally been a farming area,” said Lee Knepp, a county commissioner.

Knepp said there had been “rumblings” of financial troubles within Wood-Mode, which opened in 1942, but he said the company never approached the county about its troubles or plans to close. In January 2018, Gov. Tom Wolf toured Wood-Mode’s plant to highlight the company’s participation in job-training programs. This week, in light of the closure, Wolf said his office was working “to find out more details of this sudden announcement.”

“I know from visiting there that Wood-Mode was more than an employer, it was part of the community,” Wolf said in a statement.

Wolf said the state’s Department of Labor and Industry would be mobilized to help former employees deal with employment insurance, and health and pension benefits. Local lawyers have offered help, and on a Facebook group for Snyder County, dozens of posts are trying to direct people to local jobs and fairs. Many have vented their despair in the comments.

The unemployment rate in Snyder County, as of last month, was 3.7 percent, slightly lower than the state average of 3.9. Knepp said Snyder County, population 40,500, is not getting one of the state’s mini-casinos and is not home to any medical marijuana facilities. Top employers in the county, aside from Wood-Mode, included Susquehanna University, local government and school districts, and Walmart. A new greenhouse facility is expected to bring 50 new jobs there, but the Wood-Mode losses may also result in families moving elsewhere for decent pay.

“It’s going to be a huge impact on this county,” Knepp said. “It’s very traumatic.”

For Sanders, the choices are limited and difficult. Her roots in Snyder County are deep. Come September, her daughter will start high school and she said she could have an hour commute to get a decent-paying job at a Walmart processing facility.

“For this area, what I made was a good salary,” she said. “Most jobs around here are going to pay less than $15 an hour and that’s about a $10,000 to $12,000 pay cut.”

In her haste to leave Monday, Sanders left behind photos of her children at her workstation, where she sanded expensive cabinetry. She said Wood-Mode was the “Cadillac” of the the cabinet business. She said some of the cabinets they built were “worth more than some of the homes we live in.”

Sanders said some couples worked at Wood-Mode. Parents worked alongside their children. She had uncles and cousins who worked there, too.

“We’re a tight-knit group of people,” she said. “We were a family.”