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Equipment maker layoff hits small town, region

Updated:

PERRY, Okla. (AP) _ After eight years on the job, Jim Carr didn't expect to be laid off from the maker of Ditch Witch construction equipment, the largest employer in this company town of 5,000.

The Charles Machine Works, simply called Ditch Witch by the locals, has pared a third of its work force since early May, equal to 10 percent of Perry's population.

It cut about 300 earlier followed by Carr and 249 others Oct. 4 because of the continued slowdown in the telecommunications industry, which uses the orange-colored equipment to dig trenches and burrow beneath streets for fiber optic cable.

Carr, 45, a tall, burly father of three whose wife still works at the plant, simmered in his living room Monday.

``I decided this was my last stop in life,'' he said. ``What am I going to do now?''

There are no jobs in Perry and few in the surrounding region that pay as much. The company also draws workers from Enid, Ponca City, Stillwater and smaller communities throughout northern Oklahoma.

Ditch Witch still employs 1,050 under 30 acres of roof on the west side of town, just off Interstate 35.

In the cafes and shops on a square lined with small-town red brick buildings, business owners and patrons were reluctant to discuss bad news about Perry's biggest employer. But the economic impact is already being felt.

Business has dropped off about 15 percent lately at the Kumback Cafe, which advertises daily specials on a movie marquee out front.

Owner Tony Macias said he also noticed an emotional affect on his customers.

``They look like they are going around a little slower than usual,'' he said, eating a piece of pie at a counter opposite a wall lined with memorabilia and photos. One fastened above a booth is of the local highway patrol trooper who arrested Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

Perry is rife with rumors of workers being cut for being less productive, for retribution or because they had been there longer and earned more money than those newly hired.

But David Woods, the company chief executive, said the layoffs were fair and equitable and necessary to ensure the company's future viability. There are no plans to close up or move, he said.

``This is a fairly traumatic process,'' Woods said. ``It's not one we want to get good at.''

Mike Price said business at his car dealership has slowed, but that started after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

``People are nervous, so I don't think people want to go out and spend money right now,'' said Amy Smith, manager of the local Radio Shack just off the square.

Despite telecommunication's travails, things will eventually pick up to the benefit of companies that cater to the industry, University of Oklahoma economist Robert Dauffenbach said Tuesday.

``But we've got a recession to get through first,'' he said.

Ditch Witch, its emblem a black witch on a broom over an orange quarter moon, has its roots in a local blacksmith shop founded 99 years ago. The privately held company burgeoned after Ed Malzahn, whose father co-founded the shop, invented a compact trenching machine in the 1940s.

Company officials declined to divulge sales figures or earnings or how much sales are off.

One laid off worker who didn't want his name used said he hoped he could be rehired.

``It just doesn't seem fair, but life isn't fair, I know that,'' he said.

Perry Mayor Leroy Rollings retired after 30 years at Ditch Witch and said the town will do well in the future if the company is strong.

Carr commuted from Ponca City for 3 1/2 years and decided to sell his home there and move to Perry when he became convinced he would retire at the plant.

He faces the prospect of unemployment pay of $291 a week compared to between $350 and $400 at Ditch Witch. He still has a mortgage and car payments.

``I guess people have this illusion that our lives just get put on hold,'' he said. ``It's just not that way.''

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