BELFAST, Maine — When you think of factories, perhaps you think of rows of anonymous workers toiling away at clattering machines, just waiting until the end of the day to punch the clock and go home.
But that’s not how it is at Little River Apparel in Belfast, where employees say they feel like they are among family. Lately, that kind of close-knit atmosphere has caused many to shed tears, as the management wrestles with how to lay off nearly half its workers by spring — most of whom are people with disabilities.
Little River Apparel, which employs more than 120 people to make high-tech gear for the military and commercial firms in its Belfast Business Park manufacturing center, needs to cut its workforce because of the slowdown in U.S. military involvement overseas. The U.S. Department of Defense, which is by far the organization’s largest client, recently has reduced orders for chemical biological suits from the usual 5,000 per month to 2,667 per month.
News of the resulting 60 personnel cuts has hit the workers hard.
Denise Dusoe of Swanville, who has worked at Little River Apparel for 17 years, will not be losing her job, but she still needed a tissue when asked about the upcoming changes.
“It’s just hard,” she said through tears. “You’ve had these people here forever. They love to come here. I love seeing them.”
Marjorie Cummings of Dixmont, who will soon be 76, said that the 14 years she’s worked at Little River Apparel have been the best time of her life. She said the news that she and her disabled son, who also works there, will soon be out of a job came as a devastating surprise.
“I’m at a total loss,” Cummings said. “I was flabbergasted, to say the least.”
Her 54-year-old son, James W. Cummings, who cannot drive and who depends on his mother for transportation, said that “of course” he is looking for another job. But he believes that the military may be getting ahead of itself with the decision to slow down production of the chemical biological suits. He follows the news, and the reports about the violent actions of Islamic State militants are distressing to him.
“I don’t know whether they should slow down [military involvement] or speed it up,” said the younger Cummings, who makes leg tabs for the biological suits.
The employees said they love their co-workers and appreciate having a job where managers understand about things such as medical emergencies and transportation issues that crop up during snowstorms. They also appreciate the paychecks — on average, workers make $10.40 per hour at Little River Apparel, according to Salvatore Garozzo, the executive director of the nonprofit Group Home Foundation/Little River Apparel.
Those employees also get benefits that include health insurance, dental insurance and paid time off, he said, adding that 78 percent of the workers have a disability. Those include significant intellectual and developmental disabilities, multiple sclerosis, mental health issues and bad backs.
“It’s hard for disabled people to have a job,” Dusoe said. “This has been a comfort zone.”
“And a lifeline,” Marjorie Cummings replied.
Garozzo said he is working hard to try and replace some of the military contracts with new work from commercial apparel companies, in an effort to try and rehire some of the laid-off workers. Workers there have made cold weather and rain jackets for outdoor clothing giant Patagonia since 2006, and they could use their skills to make apparel for many other companies, he said.
“Even though we’re an organization that supports people with disabilities, we have significant talent to offer. We have a skilled workforce,” he said. “We do have other companies expressing interest in looking at our commercial lines.”
The factory workers have been making samples of those products, such as a fleece pullover, to show potential customers what they can do.
While the last few weeks have been tough on morale, Garozzo said he’s hoping that a fashion competition being put on by the company this spring might lift people’s spirits — and, possibly, attract new business. The Opportunity By Design contest is sponsored by the Group Home Foundation, the agency that started Little River Apparel in 1997 to provide more employment opportunities to people with disabilities.
In the competition, lead Patagonia designer Cyndi Davis and other fashion professionals will choose the best-designed little black dress or piece of jewelry. The first place winner for the dress design competition will take home a $2,500 prize, and the first place winner for the jewelry design will get $500. Other monetary prizes also will be given out.
Anyone with sewing experience can enter, Garozzo said, adding that so far, seven Little River Apparel workers have decided to try their hand at dress-designing. The judges will not know who designed which dress or piece of jewelry.
“It’s the judging of the dress, not the person,” he said. “Everybody in our organization has talent.”
For more information about the apparel company or the contest, call 338-6607, write to Little River Apparel at P.O. Box 227, Belfast, ME 04915, or visit www.OpportunityByDesign.org. Designers must submit a $50 entry fee to receive dress material and submit the completed dress or jewelry no later than April 1. The competition will be May 15 at Point Lookout in Northport.