By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal
ECRU – Her hands nimbly stitching the cover for a chair, Willie Mae Stovall finishes the piece and quickly moves on to the next.
Like other sewing machine operators in countless other furniture plants across Northeast Mississippi, she moves as fast as she can because she’s working on a quota – the more they produce, the more they get paid.
But for Stovall and her fellow sewers at American Furniture Manufacturing, as well as their contemporaries at other companies, the future is anything but clear.
Their numbers have dwindled as imported cut-and-sew kits have have eliminated much of the need for their services.
But cut-and-sew employees are hanging on, determined to show their value.
“We’re here to make a living,” she said. “And we want to do our best to help our company. Without us, they can’t make furniture.”
Indeed, the cut-and-sew employees at most plants are the first step in getting a piece of furniture made.
“They’re the heart and soul of the industry,” said Ken Pruett, president of the Mississippi Furniture Association.
How it works
For every piece of upholstered furniture is a pattern cut from material – leather, micro-denier suede, for example – that covers the arms, seat, back, sides and bottom.
Rolls of material are laid out on tables, where employees – the cutters – follow a specific pattern for a specific piece of furniture. The furniture comes in varying shapes, sizes and designs and requires different amounts of material.
After the material has been cut, it goes to the sewing machine operators, who will stitch the materials together that will eventually be used in sofas, loveseats, sectionals, chairs, recliners and ottomans.
“It’s like connecting the dots and then putting everything together,” said Gene York, American’s recliner and motion plant manager.
The sewn-together materials get sent to other stations within the factory. The seat covers, for example, go to the filling area where other employees stuff them with foam.
Then somewhere down the line, all the different parts come together to become the final product – somebody’s piece of furniture.
The cut-and-sew employees are vital parts of the manufacturing process at American and other furniture plants, although their numbers are shrinking.
“For us, they’re very important and very valuable,” said Rachel Bagwell, the sewing supervisor at American. “Some of them have been doing this for 15 or 20 years and it’s all they know.”
Sewers crank out more than 200 pieces a day, and it’s Bagwell who helps keep them on a tight schedule.
Bagwell, who’s sewn for more than 30 years, said outside observers shouldn’t be alarmed that the sewers move so quickly.
“It’s quality and quantity,” she said. “Quality is first though. Without that, there is no quantity. They know what they’re doing.”
In his plant, York has had as many as 85 sewers, but he now has fewer than 40.
The reason American and other companies have fewer employees cutting and sewing is the advent of the cut-and-sew kit.
The kits, which are produced primarily in China, are exactly that – a box containing a number of parts to be assembled. In this case, the kits are pre-cut pieces of material to make furniture.
The reason for using them is obvious – it’s cheaper. Foreign labor rates are nowhere near U.S. wages, and even with fuel and other transportation costs factored in, furniture companies can save enough money to justify the use of cut-and-sew kits.
But using the kits also reduces the need for cutting and sewing jobs.
At American, the use of the kits has grown from about 20 percent to about 60 percent of production, said Ken Ranager, the company’s vice president of operations.
“We’d like to keep it in that 60-65 percent range, and we think we can do that,” he said.
The percentage of kits used varies at other factories. Some use more, some use less. Some companies use kits exclusively and have no cut-and-sew workers.
Thus, the increase in kits usage has meant the layoffs of hundreds of cut-and-sew jobs in the industry.
At American, for example, the company has 115 cut-and-sew workers – down from 250 less than a year ago.
And the slashing began in June.
That’s when a bill passed by the Mississippi Legislature providing tax credits to the industry was vetoed by Gov. Haley Barbour.
Companies would have received credit for both new and current cut-and-sew workers.
Barbour and opponents said the bill unfairly targeted the credits for the furniture industry alone, while other ailing industries were left out. The state’s budget shortfalls also raised concerns about the use of credits.
This year, the bill has been tweaked, with the tax credits applying only to companies hiring new cut-and-sew workers. Like last year, the bill sailed through both chambers of the Legislature and now awaits Barbour’s signature. Or another veto.
Recently, Barbour said the bill was “better” and that he would review it carefully when it hit his desk.
“We think this new bill has answered some of the reservations people had with the previous bill, and we feel pretty good about it,” Pruett said.
But the state’s budget is even worse shape than last year and Barbour also has hinted that other industries would like similar help.
Ranager hopes the bill will pass nevertheless.
“Would it have helped if we had the bill last year?” he said. “I can’t say in the long term that it would have saved all those jobs. But had it been signed, it would have given us more time to see where we stood. As it was, we had to move quickly.”
Furniture production is based on orders and lead times. Knowing what raw materials they need and the people they need to assemble is a delicate balancing act for manufacturers. With thinning margins, companies have to monitor costs carefully.
The veto put American and other companies with cut-and-sew workers in a difficult position. What was the most efficient way to fill those orders? Using more cut-and-sew kits reduced costs significantly – but it also meant laying off workers.
And American wasn’t alone. According to Pruett, the furniture industry in Mississippi shed about 1,000 jobs last year, with cut-and-sew workers a large percentage of them.
“We’re not saying that all those jobs could have or would have been saved,” Pruett said, “but we think the incentives would have helped stop the bleeding and given companies more time to see what might be happening and they could get their plans together. And we still think that’s the case.”
Keeping them around
But why keep cut-and-sew workers if the imported kits save companies money?
“Sometimes, you have to make repairs to the kits,” York said. “You have to have somebody to take it apart and sew it back like it’s supposed to be.”
Those occasions are rare, but they do happen.
And sometimes, entire kits may have to be trashed all together because repairs aren’t possible.
That’s when it’s good to have fabric inventory and a crew of cut and sewers.
“If we have a problem, we can get it fixed right away on the spot – we don’t have to wait for weeks,” York said. “You can’t afford to do that.”
Ranager said American wants to keep a cut-and-sew contingent at the company, saying the use of cut-and-sew kits should be no more than that 60 percent to 65 percent threshold.
“We always want to keep some here, not only because they’re good employees, but because we also want to do as much as we can in-house,” he said.
For Stovall, who has been sewing for 23 years, those are words of encouragement. As a single parent, Stovall has only her income to depend on to pay bills. Most importantly the job helps her son.
“I got my job to help him,” she said. “He’s a sophomore at Ole Miss and this job has helped put him through college. So yes, this job is very important.”
Said Pruett, “Many cut-and-sew people are women, and often they’re the sole or primary income earner in the family. So yes, their jobs are very important, not just for the furniture industry, but for their families. We’re a $5 billion industry employing tens of thousands of Mississippians.
“These are good-paying jobs. If we can keep them, then the state benefits by their income taxes, property taxes and sales taxes they pay. If we lose them, that puts us in a bigger hole.
“I know there are a lot of difficult decisions that have to be made and this bill is one of them. All we’re asking for is a little bit of help.”