MURRAY — While talking in advance of Tuesday’s roundtable discussion on how the Murray-Calloway County community can offer assistance to soon-to-be-displaced workers at Murray’s Briggs & Stratton plant, West Kentucky Workforce Board Director Sheila Clark expressed her hopes for a big turnout.
She got her wish, and then some. Nearly every seat available in a conference room at the Springhill Suites by Marriott Hotel was taken as representatives from local, state and federal government, as well as numerous local nonprofits and other agencies known for assisting people suddenly facing hard financial times, came and filled the air with ideas and suggestions.
There also was another person at the table whose presence seemed to take everyone by surprise — longtime Briggs & Stratton Murray Plant Manager Greg Wyatt, who offered his first public comments since the August announcement that the plant would close next year. His thoughts seemed to mirror those of everyone else, as he said he wants his workers to flourish once their time at the plant ends with their layoff dates.
“Let me just say, on behalf of the employees at Briggs & Stratton, thank you to everyone for coming to do this today, but also thank you preemptively for all of the services and the help you’re going to provide as we transition these employees to where they want to be and where they need to be,” Wyatt said near the close of the the nearly hour-and-a-half meeting. “Now, we don’t know what those services are going to be just yet because we don’t know what the needs are going to be just yet.
“But, going forward, each and every one of you in this room is going to be critically important to helping these employees get to where they need to be.”
Wyatt’s presence did not escape the attention of Josh Benton, deputy secretary of the Kentucky Education & Workforce Development Cabinet. He addressed Wyatt openly near the end of the discussion.
“I’ve been to a lot of announcements for companies, especially some for expansions of companies, but I’ve also attended meetings like this as well in my 15 years of doing this. I want to tell you that this is the first time I’ve seen a company representative who’s tasked with a significantly challenging job right now, to attend one of these and show such significant leadership,” Benton told Wyatt face to face. “We appreciate your work on behalf of this community.”
This exchange came at the end of a meeting where the plan of attack for the community in tending to Briggs & Stratton workers began to take shape.
West Kentucky Workforce Board Director Sheila Clark told the 35-or-so officials gathered that one of the first parts of this plan has been underway for several weeks: finding a location for a temporary career center where displaced workers can go for a variety of services, including training opportunities, along with financial assistance. No site has been chosen, but she said several places are being considered and a decision will be announced shortly.
Clark also said this site needs to be determined quickly because the first layoff date, Oct. 25, for Briggs & Stratton workers is fast approaching.
“We are seeking funding to what we feel those needs will be,” Clark said, noting that first part after determining a site for the career center will be staffing it. Then training programs will be incorporated in which partners, namely from Murray State University and West Kentucky Community and Technical College, will have personnel come to the center to conduct workshops. “So we will be asking the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet for assistance on that, probably a little more than $500,000 over a two-year period.”
She also added that a request for another $2 million to the United States Department of Labor — again, mainly for training — has already been submitted.
In addition, the Murray-Calloway County Chamber of Commerce is coordinating a resource fair to showcase all of the services available to displaced workers that is set for Nov. 7 at the Glendale Road Church of Christ. Also, Julie Allen, who is the coordinator for the Workforce Board’s Rapid Response program that is designed to meet individually with every worker about to be displaced, said that numerous sessions are being planned for Briggs & Stratton workers, especially the ones whose final day will be Oct. 25.
“What we do is we meet with all of the employees and give an overview of services available to help them through something that is no fault of their own,” Allen said, giving a brief overview of questions that will probably be asked: “How do I make this work for my family? How do I get ready for my next job? How do I apply for unemployment or disability? How do I prepare for my next job, even with a disability?
“The main thing we’re trying to tell them is, ‘Here’s what you can do right now to help yourself.’”
Clark, Benton and Murray Calloway Economic Development Corporation President Mark Manning also covered what has been a central theme since word of the plant’s imminent closing began to circulate. Briggs & Stratton workers should not have to settle for job that pays less than what they were making and involves less skill than they have displayed in their time at the plant.
“I don’t want families affected by the closure to have to suffer any more than absolutely necessary,” Manning said. “We do have three major components that are taking place simultaneously. One, and I’m very, very proud to be part of it, is the immediate assistance to dislocated workers and their families for things like food and clothing. I don’t want any child to have to show up at school this winter without a coat and I don’t want any family to have to decide on whether or not they’re going to pay their electric bill or eat.
“The second step is what this group is here for today, getting that career center in place that will have all of the resources for these people. And the third aspect is one you all are going to be part of, bringing in other companies to pick up the slack. We’ve got something very valuable to sell (the employees at Briggs & Stratton).”
Manning also took the occasion to promote a T-shirt that is available at the Murray Calloway County Need Line. The shirt features a heart, but in the red, white and black colors and style of the Briggs & Stratton logo. It reads, “Murray-Calloway County TOGETHER.” The shirt was designed by the Murray-Calloway County Chamber of Commerce.
“This is the logo we’re using for this. And the next time we’re here, I want to see every one in here wearing these shirts,” he said. “These are to go directly to providing resources for the people who need them.”