Sony Corp. yesterday informed the 560 employees at its Westmoreland County television plant -- the Japanese company's last remaining television plant in the United States -- that their jobs would be phased out over the next 16 months.
The cuts come as part of a global reduction of the company's massive work force that will ultimately slash 8,000 full-time jobs and 8,000 temporary jobs as Sony works to save $1.1 billion by 2010.
"The current economic climate was a key factor that led us to make the strategic business decision to streamline our manufacturing operations not only in the U.S. but worldwide," said Stan Glasgow, president and chief operating officer of Sony Electronics, in a news release.
Sony's local spokesman, Michael Koff, said production at the East Huntingdon site would be reduced in phases. Television assembly will stop by February, with a service and repair portion to close in the fall. Finally, a logistics and distribution operation will shut down by March 31, 2010.
"It was surprising. We really didn't expect it," said Kim Crowl, 49, of Greensburg, who has worked in Sony's service section for 15 years. "We'll work as long as we can, then take it one day at a time. It's the economy; we'll just have to deal with it."
Gov. Ed Rendell said the state was prepared to help employees with retraining programs and additional education even as he noted that the cuts gave the community some time to cope.
"It's not going to close immediately, No. 1," he said. "And No. 2, [the closing] flies in the face of the good news we have had in southwest Pennsylvania, the Westinghouse expansion and the U.S. Steel investment in Clairton."
Sony's lease with the Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority expires in 2010 and the company has told the state it would fulfill its lease.
Mr. Rendell said the decision to phase out the plant was tied to the worldwide recession and the fact that TVs were being made in different ways than they used to be. "They're being made lighter these days, infinitely lighter. The shipping advantages that we used to have, making those televisions in the Midwest of America, have dissipated because the TVs are lighter and easier to ship."
Officials are already looking to the future. "It's a big hit for our area," said Sen.-elect Kim Ward, a Westmoreland County commissioner whose resignation takes effect tomorrow.
She said the closing would hurt employees as well as businesses that supply Sony.
Mr. Rendell hopes "a renewable energy company" might take up some of the space. He was referring to Commonwealth Renewable Energy, which has plans to locate an ethanol plant in Hempfield.
The governor said it's possible a second firm might also move into the building, but wouldn't give any more details.
The location is an attractive site because of the infrastructure improvements to the area and the rail yard right behind the plant, said Allen Kukovich, the governor's director for Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Mr. Rendell, who met with Sony executives yesterday, said the state would have tried to avert the move if possible. "We probed deeply what the reasons were, to see if there was anything we could do," he said, but it didn't seem there was.
The East Huntingdon television plant was once one of the major employers in Westmoreland County.
Sony took over the plant in 1990 after it was vacated by Volkswagen, which shuttered operations there in 1988. The car company had built its Rabbit model there for 10 years. The initial development of the site was started by Chrysler in the 1960s, although that company never made a car there.
Mr. Kukovich, the former state senator for the district that includes the Sony plant, said the company was a good corporate neighbor. "At its height, Sony probably had 80 contracts with other companies in our region," he said.
At one point, Sony also operated a state-of-the-art glass plant there, he said.
The company employed more than 3,000 at the manufacturing facility in the late 1990s but that number was already down to 1,500 in March 2007 when Sony announced 900 more jobs would be cut as a result of moving production to Baja, Mexico.
The Sony plant now assembles 46- and 52-inch Bravia LCD high-definition televisions, in addition to handling television and Blu-ray Disc player repair operations. The site also is the company's East Coast distribution center for consumer TVs.
In addition to the Westmoreland plant closing, Sony plans to close a site in France and another four of its 50-plus plants by March 2010.
Tom Barnes and Sadie Gurman contributed to this report. Ann Belser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1699. First Published December 10, 2008 5:00 AM