The plant, which manufactures the Blue Bird Vision model school bus body, will close in August. It employs about 350 people. According to one Bluebird employee, workers were sent home after the announcement was made Thursday.
Walker County commissioner Bebe Heiskell said she was told about the closing Thursday afternoon.
Industry Week Magazine named the company one of the top 25 plants in North America for 2005 and 2006. In 2007, the company was in the top 10 of plants in North America. The American Association of Manufacturing Excellence named the company the southeast region award winner and the national runner-up.
The Walker County Chamber of Commerce awarded Blue Bird North Georgia with 2008 Manufacturer of the Year.
Here is the news release Thursday from Blue Bird regarding the closing:
“The Blue Bird Corporation announced today that it would be centralizing all large bus assembly operations into its Fort Valley, Georgia location. As a result, the company will cease operations at the Blue Bird North Georgia facility located in LaFayette, Georgia effective August 30, 2010.
“Greg Bennett, Blue Bird’s President and CEO, said, ‘This was a difficult decision, and one not arrived at without significant deliberation. However, in the face of the challenging U.S. economic climate, the school bus industry has declined in recent years and we recognize that we must adjust our production capacity to meet demand in order to remain competitive. Moving North Georgia’s Type C body assembly operations to Fort Valley centralizes all production operations, technical staff and services into a single facility which includes its Corporate Headquarters. This centralization will facilitate significant efficiencies.’
“Over the past three years, Blue Bird has taken steps to increase capacity at its Fort Valley location. In 2007, Blue Bird divested non-school bus related product offerings and in 2008, it purchased a dedicated facility in Fort Valley to relocate its fabrication operation. In 2009, Blue Bird announced its strategic Micro Bird joint venture and moved Type-A production to Micro Bird by Girardin’s Canadian facility. Blue Bird’s Fort Valley facility is now positioned with the capacity needed to absorb all Type-C production as well as future market growth.
“Blue Bird’s North Georgia facility has been in operation since 1988 and currently has approximately 350 employees. Company spokesman, Michael McCurdy, emphasized that, ‘Our decision to centralize assembly operations was in no way a negative reflection on the North Georgia facility or its capable workforce. The employees and management at Blue Bird North Georgia have been recognized for producing a high quality school bus, and we thank them for their years of dedication.’
“Blue Bird is committed to working cooperatively and compassionately with its employees at the North Georgia facility through the transition. The Company will provide severance, continued benefits and assistance with unemployment benefits. Blue Bird will also work closely with the Georgia Department of Labor and be in contact with other area employers to assist employees with employment opportunities.”
Here are some facts about the plant in 2008, when it was named Manufacturer of the Year in Walker County:
The plant was 271,000 square feet.
The plant had about 480 employees, including 455 hourly workers.
The company produced 25 buses each day on one 14-hour shift.
49 percent of Blue Bird employees lived in LaFayette, 21 percent in Summerville, 15 percent in Chickamauga, and 5 percent in Chattanooga.
The plant’s annual payroll was $17 million, with $145,000 in local taxes.
The plant’s utilities ran about $1.2 million each year.
The plant’s local vendor expenditures — what it spent locally — was more than $1 million.
Total operating expenses were more than $10 million annually.
Letter to employees
Blue Bird employees received a letter from the plant advising them of the decision to close the plant and offers severance pay to those employees for the equivalent of four weeks who work to the official last day of the north Georgia plants operation.
The letter reads:
“As we advised you in our meeting today, June 24, 2010, the decision has been made to permanently cease opera-tions at Blue Bird North Georgia located in LaFayette, Georgia. Production is scheduled to cease approximately on August 27, 2010.
“It is with much regret that we must notify you that your employment with Blue Bird will terminate at the end of your scheduled shift week ending August 27, 2010. A required WARN Notice will be provided to each employee with this letter.
“We recognize that this is difficult news for you, your family and the community. Please be assured that this de-cision has not been made hastily. We know that this will have a significant impact upon your life, as well as others affected by this closure.
“It is important that we can continue to count on all the employees to conduct themselves in a professional man-ner, to perform all duties and responsibilities assigned, and act in the best interest of Blue Bird at all times. We also trust that a satisfactory record of attendance is observed.”
Blue Bird will continue to make its regular employer contributions on the employees’ behalf to continue their coverage under all of its employee benefit plans until the last work day.
“If you work until the official last day scheduled, you will receive the equivalent of four weeks of straight time pay (this includes vacation, attendance and holiday pay). If you leave for any reason before your job actually ends, your pay and benefits will cease immediately and you will not receive this additional pay,” the letter said.
There will be a “Perfect Attendance Program” beginning during the closure period for July and August and em-ployees that work that scheduled time without being absent will receive an additional $100 per month until the plant closes.
Blue Bird will provide medical coverage for all eligible employees until December 31, 2010, as long as the em-ployees work their jobs until its closure.
“In addition, we will coordinate with local and state officials concerning unemployment compensation, employ-ment re-training, resume and job search skills training and local employment opportunities. Local employers will be contacted regarding their interest in having job fairs conducted at Blue Bird in Fort Valley, Georgia,” the letter said.
According to the letter, there will be full-time employment opportunities available in Fort Valley and on Mon-day, June 28, interest forms will be distributed for employees to complete if those employees are interested in working in Fort Valley.
Blue Bird will “possibly” offer some temporary work after August 27 in LaFayette, but it is not certain and em-ployees will be notified if the possibility becomes a reality.
“We fully understand that this closure is disappointing news for you, but we appreciate your understanding and assistance during this difficult time. We also thank you for your past service and wish you all the best in your future endeavors,” the letter ends.