This story is part of our series “Rising Tide” about how – or whether - Rhode Islanders are emerging from the deepest economic recession since the 1930s. The question we’re asking is: Does a rising tide really lift all boats, or are some Rhode Islanders still being left behind?
Tri-Mack is a Rhode Island business that crafts specialty plastics for big manufacturers such as General Electric, and Bell Helicopter. During the recession, business dropped off, so the company convinced its workers to take a pay cut. As part of our ongoing economic series Rising Tide, Rhode Island Public Radio’s Scott MacKay paid a visit to the factory floor.
Walking through the maze of manufacturing stations, more than 100 workers clean shavings off freshly minted parts, pour plastics into molds, and die-cut with precision. All are busy making high-technology parts for aircraft engines.
As he makes the rounds on the factory floor, Tri-Mack’s president Ed Mack greets his employees by name. He is the second generation of the Mack family of Bristol to run the company.
Mack and five other family members still run the 20 million dollar company. The tight-knit operation made things that much harder when the recession hit around 2008.
The aircraft industry took a hit in the downturn. As contracted dried up for Tri-Mack, management didn’t want to lay off employees, so in 2009 he tried something else.
“Going to the four day week was sort of, necessity is the mother of invention,” said Mack. “We really wanted to retain talent.”
In this field, Mack said, it takes a lot to build a well-trained staff.
“Skilled employees is an enormous challenge for us, so we have a lot of strategies that involve cross training,” said Mack. “So when you get an employee that’s not only employed to do one thing, but trained to do multiple things. It really hurts when you have to let them go because they’re going to be very difficult to replace.”
These workers make parts of jet engines that must meet exacting standards, and withstand temperatures of up to 350 degrees. So everyone got to keep their jobs, but things weren’t easy for employees, said Jeffery Roe.
“Well you still lost a day of work, there and everything,” said Roe. “It was tough going there, but it’s a lot tougher being laid off.”
Roe’s worked as a screw machine set operator for some forty years at Tri-Mack.
Fellow employee, Mike Lescault, who works as a machinist, agrees.
“You know if you get laid off you got nothing, so I’d take the four day work week and collect the one day rather than get laid off for 3, 4, 5 months or something,” said Lescault. “Things happen you can’t do anything about it if the economy slows down, you’re going to slow down a little bit too.”
To compensate for lost wages Mack enrolled in a Department of Labor and Training program that provided unemployment insurance for the single day employees were out of work. Tri-Mack continued to pay full benefits.
Mack said the company really came together during this difficult period.
“It turned out to be a real defining moment for the company, because everybody gave up a little, but in the end everybody came out a little stronger.”
Mack said going onto the four day work week wasn’t enough.
“The trick with going into a recession like that is that you really need to deal with the financial situation you’re faced currently,” said Mack. “At the same time you’re paddling like hell trying to find new work, and do a lot of analysis to find out where you need to be when you come out the other side.”
And after only two months, business began to pick back up. Business is great today. Mack’s lowest paid workers earn between $15 and $18 an hour, and many earn ``much more’’ he said. The firm has 115 employees, the most it has ever had.
But Mack complains about the high cost of doing business in Rhode Island. If he moved his company to Virginia for instance, Mack said, he could cut his energy costs roughly in half. And he adds health insurance costs for his workers are high.
Yet, Mack has no plans to move. He’s a Rhode Islander through and through – an engineering graduate of the University of Rhode Island, with many nieces and nephews he hopes will take an interest in the family business.
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