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When the plant closes

To keep jobs, some leave Bay State - and family - behind

By James O'Brien
Globe Correspondent / April 26, 2009
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The hardest part was leaving behind his wife and children.

Jorge Constanza had worked for Standard-Thomson Corp. in Waltham for 20 years, nearly all of the time the 48-year-old manufacturing technician had lived and worked in Massachusetts.

When the Grove Street plant closed last month after more than 60 years, Constanza was staring down a double barrel of difficulties.

Not only was the state unemployment rate surpassing 8 percent, Constanza's daughter is in the middle of earning her nursing degree at Salem State College, and his son is in his last semester at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

So when Standard-Thomson's parent company, Stant Corp., offered the plant's 220 workers new jobs, but only if they agreed to move to factories in Indiana, Arkansas, or Mexico, Constanza knew what he had to do.

"My decision was that I have two kids in college," Constanza said. "I made the decision to move with the company. That's why I'm in Arkansas right now."

Constanza signed a three-year contract with Stant to work in the company's plant in Pine Bluff, Ark. He's one of eight local workers who agreed to relocate, with five going to Pine Bluff and the other three going to Connersville, Ind.

Constanza moved by himself to Arkansas, leaving his wife behind in Everett while their daughter completes her final 18 months in college. The plan is that she'll join him after that.

The move came with no raise, no promotion, but a chance to keep working, to keep supporting his family.

If it hadn't been for last year's economic collapse, and his belief that finding a new job would take more time than he could afford, Constanza said, he never would have agreed to relocate.

"I wouldn't have moved," he said. "Really, I wouldn't have moved. I would have stayed in Massachusetts."

On the plus side, rent is cheap in Pine Bluff. Constanza's two-bedroom apartment costs $600 a month, half what he would expect for a similar place in Massachusetts, he said. His restaurant bills are smaller, too.

The challenge is loneliness.

"It's a 180-degree change," he said. "It's totally different. It's like living in the middle of nowhere."

Since the Waltham plant's closing, its former manager, Brian Porcello, commutes every week between his home in Shrewsbury and Pine Bluff, assisting with the transition of 90 percent of Standard-Thomson's product line to the new location. The Waltham plant primarily produced thermometers for automobile engines and aircraft.

The shutdown was a corporate decision set in motion before the current recession, part of a cost-saving strategy. Everything from labor to the price of electricity is cheaper in Pine Bluff, Porcello said.

But for Porcello, the closing proved grueling.

"It was quite a roller coaster," Porcello said. "I had to keep the emotions in check and keep the plant in check - keep our people focused on going forward. At end of the day all of them were losing their jobs."

Of the workers who did not relocate, Porcello said, "The disruption to their lives was too much to bear. . . . I strongly feel the pull to New England was too great."

H. Michael Boyd, a professor of management at Bentley University in Waltham, said worker relocations are now the exception, not the rule.

"Not many people are willing to give up ties now, because they don't have to," said Boyd. "Almost no companies are willing to incur the cost of moving employees to anywhere.

"And the support infrastructure is more robust than it used to be," he said, citing the longer period that laid-off workers can collect jobless benefits. "Unemployment used to be 26 weeks and then you were out there, but now they've got a lot longer time."

For manufacturing engineer Steve Deveney, who worked at the Waltham plant for 15 years, news of the closing came on a Wednesday, and his wife was laid off as a schoolteacher in Lynn the following Friday.

Deveney decided a sure thing with Stant in Arkansas was a better deal than a dicey job search. College is swiftly approaching for Deveney's 16-year-old daughter. And his son, 14, is not far behind.

Still, the choice to move south last month with his wife and his high-school-age children came at a cost.

"I have my whole family in Massachusetts," Deveney said, pointing to his two older children, in their 20s and living on their own, as well as other relatives. "I had to take my kids away from their friends. You know, my daughter has her junior prom on the 29th of April. She's flying back."

One development easing the transition, Deveney said, is that his wife landed a job with Delta Airlines, which should help with the cost of traveling to visit home. And with lower housing costs, Deveney said, the slight salary bump that accompanied his relocation could mean more savings toward those college expenses.

Then there is Teo Grujoski, who also took Stant's offer for a transfer. He moved with his expectant wife and 1-year-old son from Watertown to Connersville, Ind. The change came with a promotion to aircraft division manager.

Like his colleagues in Arkansas, Grujoski finds the lower cost of living in Indiana appealing.

"We just looked at a 1,680-square-foot house on 14 wooded acres that was listed for just $159,000," he said.

A world traveler and a veteran of two wars in his native Croatia, Grujoski said that uprooting after nearly 10 years in Massachusetts was one of life's lesser challenges.

Memories of his former colleagues, however, prove a heavier load.

"I worked with people at the Waltham facility who worked there for 30 to 40 years," Grujoski said. "I mean, they don't know what is outside that factory. It was hard. It can be really, extremely hard."

Their personal cost-benefit analysis

Steve Deveney, 47, Pine Bluff, Ark.
'I have my whole family in Massachusetts. I had to take my kids away from their friends.'

Teo Grujoski, 39, Connersville, Ind.
'I worked with people at the Waltham facility who worked there for 30 to 40 years. It was hard.'

Jorge Constanza, 48, Pine Bluff, Ark.
'I have two kids in college. . . . That's why I'm in Arkansas right now.'

Brian Porcello, 48, Commutes between Shrewsbury and Pine Bluff, Ark.
'I had to keep the emotions in check and keep the plant in check - keep our people focused on going forward. At the end of the day all of them were losing their jobs.'