Unemployment marks North Adams economy

As the national recession enters its second year, unemployment remains a marker of economic distress in North Adams, affecting both small businesses and larger institutions. According to the North Adams Transcript, (“Berkshire County jobless rate falls to 7.7%,” Nov. 25) unemployment in North Adams currently hovers at 8.8 percent, above the Berkshire county rate of 7.7 percent, but below the Massachusetts rate of 8.9 percent and the national rate of 10 percent.

North Adams provides a unique example of unemployment in the area – while local joblessness definitely reflects the current financial climate, the current unemployment rate is still a vast improvement over that of 25 years ago. In the mid 1980s, 14 to 19 percent of the North Adams population was unemployed, according to Mayor John Barrett III. Barrett emphasized that North Adams’s economy has matured since he came into office in 1984. “We are in a better position than we have been in the past,” Barrett said. “But boy, we have felt the effects of a national downturn.”
Mike Supranowicz, CEO of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, also spoke to North Adams’ historically higher unemployment rates. “Unemployment in North Adams has traditionally been higher than just about the rest of the county for quite some time,” he said.

Supranowicz attributed this long-term problem largely to the lack of public transportation that would allow North Adams residents to travel to Pittsfield or further south in the county where many of the culture- and tourism-related jobs are. Supranowicz also pointed out that the state never built a road bypass that would allow manufacturing companies to transport their materials to North Adams and establish business in that way.

Barrett explained that North Adams was able to pull itself up through means of a diversified economy, and that the range of small businesses contributed to its growing strength before the recession. Nonprofit institutions like the College, North Berkshire Health Systems (NBHS) and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) all also pull significant weight in the North Adams economy.

According to Katherine Myers, director of marketing and public relations at Mass MoCA, the museum has 62 full-time employees, with an additional six part-time employees in the summer. Myers said that the recession has not forced the museum to cut any workers. “By the time the economy turned south, we still hadn’t as yet had the luxury of having any non-essential employees hanging around,” Myers said. She said that the museum is not planning any layoffs in coming months, but that the economy is affecting jobs at Mass MoCA indirectly. “We are replacing employees lost through attrition at a slower rate. Economizing by foot dragging,” she said.

The College has implemented a hiring freeze in light of the recession, and Barrett cited that policy as contributing to unemployment in the North Adams area. Although the College is in neighboring Williamstown, it rivals NBHS as the largest employer in Berkshire County, and many of the employees it draws live in North Adams.

NBHS includes the North Adams Regional Hospital, which is the largest employer in North Adams with 475 employees. According to the Transcript (“Negotiations at NARH break down,” Dec. 5), NBHS has incurred a combined operating and investments loss of $8.1 million this year, which has translated into reduced benefits and hours for employees. The hospital has been negotiating unsuccessfully with 174 of its employees who belong to the Service Employees International Union since August. The hospital workers have planned an official strike beginning this Saturday at 7 a.m. should the employees and NBHS not reach a contractual agreement before then.

Leah Katzelnick ’10 got involved in the hospital employees’ struggle last month, when she attended a union rally on Nov. 24 to support the workers’ cause. “It seems really unfair, even looking at both sides of the issue,” Katzelnick said.
She added that there were workers who had been at the hospital for 40 years and that even if NBHS was not imposing layoffs, reduced hours and benefits posed a severe enough challenge for employees. “They were trying to show they had power together as a group,” Katzelnick said of the mood at the rally.

Katzelnick was the only student from the College at the event. “It’s an important issue and it’s something that affects students because it’s our hospital,” she said.

Other large employers in the area have not had the same employment controversies as NBHS. MountainOne Financial Partners is the third largest employer in North Adams, with 199 employees. According to Pat LeClair of the MountainOne Human Resources department, the institution has had no layoffs and does not expect any in the coming months. MountainOne hired 25 new employees this year, and LeClair said that number probably would not have been much different in a healthy economic period.

The recession has arguably put the most visible stress on small businesses, and although tough times have not necessarily translated into mass layoffs, those businesses are also rarely looking to expand employee numbers and often resort to cutting worker benefits. Supranowicz attributed this hardship largely to the increased insurance rates that businesses face every year.

Excelsior Printing Company, which has been established in North Adams for 113 years, currently has 40 employees, according to Vice President of Sales and Marketing Michael Burke. Burke said that Excelsior let go of eight workers last February, but has since hired several more and does not anticipate any more layoffs in the coming months. According to Burke, the layoffs this year represented both “a restructuring to make our company more lean and a reflection of the times,” he said. Excelsior has also eliminated dental insurance for employees.

Burke noted, however, that Excelsior just signed a formal agreement to do as much local business as possible. Crane & Co., the larger printing company that used to encompass Excelsior, is planning in five months to relocate from North Adams to Pittsfield. Although the 200 employees who work for Crane in North Adams will not be laid off, the move represents another of the employee-related inconveniences that comes from a business’s efforts to consolidate.

Local patronage has helped keep other businesses in North Adams, such as MisterTire, afloat. According to store manager Larry Davis, MisterTire has 10 employees, and although the business has not had any layoffs this year, it is not looking for new hires either. Davis noted, however, that North Adams residents who remain faithful customers help the business substantially. “There’s a great amount of loyalty here, locally,” Davis said.

Indeed, although a proposed new North Adams Walmart Supercenter would create 85 new jobs, according to the Transcript (“Supercenter expected to create 85 new jobs,” Dec. 4), some North Adams citizens are worried that the huge chain would shift business away from smaller stores like MisterTire. North Adams resident Joshua Field started a Facebook group that has 211 members to protest the Supercenter. “I’m really just a concerned citizen that wanted to call attention to the issue,” Fields said. “Increasing Walmart’s footprint in North Adams is not the right way to grow our local economy.”

Still, the 85 jobs the Supercenter would provide might serve as a boon to the community. North Adams resident Miriam Serrano spoke to Walmart’s potential to boost the economy. “I’m no authority on Walmart or unemployment,” Serrano said. “But I don’t see how this store could hurt this area by bringing people here.”

At the same time, Serrano thinks that small businesses need customers to survive. “Many people are afraid to spend their money, which affects small business,” she said. “We need to get things moving in North Adams any way we can.”
Indeed, both Supranowicz and Barrett emphasized that the recession is affecting business and industry indiscriminately. “I don’t know that you can single any [industry] out right now. There’s just less money to spend everywhere,” Supranowicz said. Barrett joked that funeral homes are the only business unaffected by the recession.
Supranowicz added that the Chamber of Commerce has conducted research to determine if wages have been decreasing in Berkshire County, but concluded that they were not. “It’s been nice to see that the average wage has not dropped – it’s just less people working,” he said to sum up the picture of local employment.

Overall, Barrett predicted that North Adams is one to two years away from the economy truly improving, and that expansion of businesses in town would serve as an indicator of a turn towards the better. “We’re going to be okay,” Barrett said. “Our economy is like the national economy – it’s not strong, but it’s not falling apart by any means.”