Dal-Tile closes

Kelsey Boudin/Olean Times Herald

Workers at Olean’s Dal-Tile plant offered a message to corporate on the last day of operations Wednesday morning.

OLEAN — Around 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, employees working the first shift at Dal-Tile began to file out of the plant on South Clark Street. The second shift of employees left the facility later that day.

Their departure, filled with tears and hugs, marked the final time that any employee would clock out at the end of a shift, as the plant ceased its tile-making operations permanently.

In early October, officials with Mohawk Industries, the parent company of Dal-Tile International Inc., decided to close the plant Dec. 12, ending a century of tile production in the city. Olean’s loss was a gain for a sister facility in Gettysburg, Pa., where local tile production will now be handled. The Gettysburg plant is now the only Dal-Tile facility in the U.S. producing mosaic tile.

For most of their last day at the facility, the employees enjoyed their final hours together at the plant where many have worked all their lives. Some walked through the giant factory one last time. Others gathered with their co-workers and reminisced about the years they spent working side-by-side.

Early Wednesday morning, employees hung a bedsheet banner along the side of the building with hundreds of signatures and messages of their colleagues written around the words “Our Personal Goodbye to Olean Tile.”

Beneath the banner on the sidewalk stood two wooden pallets where many employees set pairs of work shoes to send a message, employees explained, that the Gettysburg plant would never fill the shoes of those at the Olean factory.  

“They thought Gettysburg would do a better job than us,” said Kathy Goodell, who worked at the plant for 39 years. “I don’t think they can. We have so much more than they do.”

“We’re one big family here,” added Linda Love, a 38-year employee. “This place gave us so much. It helped us pay for houses, support our children and pay for college educations. We were all hoping it would give us our retirements, too.”

Kathy Wilcox, president of the United Steelworkers Olean Local 151 G, which represents the plant’s 174 employees, agreed. “This place really has given us a lot and it has meant a lot to us,” she said. “If any of us were in trouble, we’d all pitch in to help each other out.”

Judy Heitman, a second-generation Dal-Tile employee, worked at the mosaic tile factory for 46 years. She boasts the longest career of any employee at the plant.

“I’ve spent most of my life here. I’m on top of the list,” she said. “I’m sad and I feel bad for a lot of the people here. We are a family here.”

Twenty-seven-year employee Lynn Zalepa added, “We’re sad that this plant is leaving. A lot of us have more than 27 years at this plant. It’s just sad it would have to end this way.”

As the granddaughter of Gordon Phillips, one of the founders of the plant, Lynn Phillips has spent a lifetime at the tile plant.

“I grew up here ... This place is my life. I ate, breathed and lived this place. I can remember going with my grandfather here on weekends when he went to do rounds to check on the tile,” Ms. Phillips told the Times Herald. “I can remember that we’d always get to have a pop when we came here.”

At one time or another, each member of her family worked at the plant in different capacities. Ms. Phillips has worked at the facility for 29 years as a logistics planner for shipping orders.

As a token of what the tile plant her grandfather helped build has meant to employees of past and present, Ms. Phillips’ colleagues presented her Monday with the last sheet of mosaic tile produced at the facility. The 1-foot by 2-feet sheet of tile has Ms. Phillip’s initials written out in different colors of mosaic tile.

“It’s beautiful and one of the most thoughtful, meaningful gifts I’ve ever received,” Ms. Phillips said. “I’ve been humbled and honored to work here.”

THE DAL-TILE PLANT’S roots trace back to 1912 when Charles T. Fuller, a gas light manufacturer, partnered with O.W. Pierce, a metal craftsman, to begin making glazed clay products. Later that year, the pair hired Gordon Phillips, a student at Alfred University, to join their venture, forming Olean Tile Co.

In April 1914, Olean Tile began the actual formation of tile in a small shop located where Dal-Tile currently stands. Toward the end of 1915, the plant’s 11 workers produced its full kiln of properly fired tile.

Throughout the next century, Olean Tile experienced periods of growth, merged with other tile companies and changed names several times. At one time, the local plant employed as many as 400 workers.

Throughout the Olean area, tile produced at the plant can be found in many area buildings and facilities, including the city’s Municipal Building, St. Bonaventure University, East View Elementary School and Olean General Hospital. The facility’s tile also can be found in The White House, as it was used in 1951 during a renovation of the 24 bathrooms at the presidential residence.

In 1995, Olean Tile announced it would merge with Dal-Tile, owned by Georgia-based Mohawk Industries Inc., to form Dal-Tile International Inc. The deal was completed in 2002.

In more recent decades, the local plant experienced periods of decline as the domestic tile industry competed with a lower demand for tile products and foreign tile companies began to dominate the market.

In 2005, Dal-Tile officials considered closing one of the company’s three mosaic tile plants in the U.S. after its expansion of a mosaic tile manufacturing operation in Mexico. In December 2006, Dal-Tile officials opted to close the company’s mosaic tile plant in Jackson, Tenn.

DAL-TILE CORPORATE officials announced the Olean plant’s shutdown Oct. 4. The decision came after corporate officials conducted a study of the economic viability of both the Olean and Gettysburg facilities this summer.

During the study, area politicians and officials, including state Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, state Assemblyman Joe Giglio, R-Gowanda, and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, among others, worked with the Empire State Development Corp. to craft an incentive package that would keep the Olean plant open. Though terms of the package were never released, Empire State Development offered tax breaks and access to low-cost power.

That package, however, was not enough to sway Dal-Tile corporate officials to keep the Olean facility — which was in its 98th year of tile production — open.

The move to Gettysburg is expected to create more than 60 jobs at that plant, which Olean employees are allowed to apply for. Should the company decide within the next five years to reopen the Olean facility, current employees do have recall rights.

“We respect and value the contributions by our employees at the Olean facility and the dedication they have demonstrated throughout the plant’s history,” said Jarrett Steele, a Dal-Tile corporate spokesperson. “Closing the facility was a difficult but necessary business decision that was precipitated by a shift in consumer preference from unglazed mosaic tile to other tile formats.”

Mr. Steele said only two Olean employees have applied for and accepted jobs at the Gettysburg plant.

In the immediate weeks following the plant’s announced closing, officials with the plant’s union, which represents the 174 employees, entered into negotiations with the corporation for a severance package.

In a 105-22 vote Oct. 23, the union accepted a package which provided them with two weeks of pay, limited health care coverage into early next year and vacation time buyout.

Many of the Dal-Tile union members, however, were dissatisfied with the severance package.

“The whole town of Olean thinks we got a wonderful severance package,” said employee Laura Burt. “We got nothing. I’ve been here 40 years. It’s just not enough.”

Mrs. Zalepa echoed her disdain.

“The severance package sucked. It was a very bad severance package,” Mrs. Zalepa said. “We gave them a lot of hard work for a very small deal.”

For the next month, crews will continue to mothball the plant, removing the remainder of its heavy equipment, kilns and other materials. That work, which began early last week, is anticipated to conclude by mid-January.

In the meantime, Dal-Tile corporate officials said they are unsure of exactly what the future holds for the building.

“We are still in the process of determining how we will proceed with the real estate and equipment on-site,” Mr. Steele said. “We will continue to responsibly manage the facility while we work through its transition.”

For many employees, their futures are about as certain as that of the plant.

The average employee age at the plant was 55. For those individuals now scouring the job market, younger and cheaper labor threatens their ability to find employment.

“There are at least 120 of us that are 55 or older,” Ms. Wilcox noted.

Mrs. Zalepa said the unemployment office came to Dal-Tile for an hour-and-a-half session.

Ms. Burt added that she’s been told going back to school might offer more opportunities.

“They say, ‘Go back to school’ and ‘What did you take in school?’ Ms. Burt said. “Well, I took business, but when I was in high school we were just starting to use electric typewriters.

“To tell you the truth, I’m scared to death. I’m not old enough for Social Security, but if I show up (for a new job) they’re going to say, ‘Go home, grandma.’ If I have a girl going after the same job I’m going after, and she’s 35 or 40, they’re going to take her before they take me.”

Another employee added that government is the source of the problems for local businesses either shutting their doors, downsizing or looking elsewhere to set up shop.

“I’m very disappointed in our government for not helping us — very disappointed,” said employee Debbie Burgess. “I had talked to Sen. Cathy Young or tried to, to pick some of us up, to give us jobs, and they never got back to us.”

Mrs. Zalepa said she and her colleagues have encountered a less-than-optimal employment situation reflected throughout the area.

“This area is just in bad shape,” she said. “I’d say probably one third of us have (heard back from the unemployment office). The rest of us have not gotten a thing, not a thing.”

But as the 174 Dal-Tile employees move forward into the next stage of their lives and careers, Ms. Wilcox said she and her colleagues will always fondly remember their time producing tile.

“We’ll always keep in touch,” Ms. Wilcox said. “We’re all just family.”

(Contact reporter Chris Michel at cmichel@oleantimesherald.com. Follow him on Twitter, OTHChris. Reporter Kelsey Boudin contributed to this report. Follow him on Twitter, KelseyMBoudin.)

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