Furniture group: 1,000 laid off in ’09

PONTOTOC – More than 1,000 furniture jobs have been shed since the start of the year, according to the Mississippi Furniture Association. The figure includes some 400 cut-and-sew jobs that industry officials had hoped could be spared with the help of an incentives bill that was vetoed in April.
“We’ve been trying to play nice, but that time is over,” said MFA President Ken Pruett, who said Gov. Haley Barbour has given the industry a cold shoulder since the veto.
Ken Pruett said Monday that furniture manufacturers and suppliers have been making layoffs in small amounts since the start of the year and that there was “a sense of desperation and disappointment” across the industry.
The unemployment rate in Northeast Mississippi has been hovering at 11 percent or more five months of this year. Many of those laid off are tied to manufacturing, and the MFA said furniture jobs make up a large chunk of that.
“Companies are cutting 20 to 30 here, 30 or 40 there, but it all adds up,” Pruett said.
The state Legislature unanimously passed a bill that would have provided tax credits to furniture companies that retained or brought back cut-and-sew jobs, positions Pruett said were the backbone of the industry.
But Barbour vetoed the bill, saying it would cost the state too much needed during an economic crunch, and that the bill had other flaws.
The Legislature did not attempt to override the veto.
Furniture industry officials said they were caught off guard by the veto, arguing that nobody from Barbour’s office ever expressed any reservation until the bill came across his desk.
The veto has only added to the misery and hard times the industry is facing in the midst of a deep economic recession, furniture leaders say.
“We worked on this for three years and then we got punched in the gut with the veto,” said Rusty Berryhill, vice president of Kevin Charles Furniture in New Albany. “All we’re asking is to meet with the governor to talk about this, but we’ve gotten absolutely nothing. It’s really frustrating.”

Waiting for an answer
“We have asked again and again to meet with the governor, but he hasn’t responded,” Pruett said. “If he doesn’t want to talk to me, that’s fine, but we have a lot of other furniture industry people who are willing to talk to him.”
Laura Hipp, Barbour’s deputy press secretary, said that the governor did speak to “several” furniture industry executives after his veto and that representatives from the Mississippi Development Authority came to Tupelo to talk about programs available to the industry.
But, she added, “there is no meeting scheduled at this time” between Barbour and the MFA.
Pruett also took a jab at Barbour’s campaign work on behalf of GOP candidates in other states.
“I’m glad he’s able to go across the country and help other officials get elected,” Pruett said, “but maybe he should take the time talk to some of the 50,000 Mississippi families who depend on the furniture industry to make a living and who are looking for answers from our governor.”
MFA officials say the cut-and-sew incentives would have not required any money up front; rather, only after the jobs were verified at the end of the year would the credits be applied.
Berryhill said the incentives alone would not save the industry; nor did he suggest that there would be any further job losses.
“But it would have been a great starting point, it would have been something we could have used to help level the playing field,” he said. “It’s ironic that I can import cut-and-sew kits from China less than I could pay for rolls of fabric that could be cut and sewn by American workers. That’s just a fact. We’re all talking about saving American jobs, but when are we going to so something about it?”
The MFA will continue to fight for the incentives, hoping to introduce another bill next year when the Legislature convenes.
“That’s why we want to meet with the governor, and whoever else has questions about what we’re trying to do, so we don’t run into this problem again,” Pruett said.
“All we’re asking is a chance to help the Mississippi furniture industry, because it’s hurting,” he said. “Toyota may be the future, but they haven’t hired anybody on the production line yet. Meanwhile, we’ve got furniture workers worried about their future.”

Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal