Updated: Friday, 05 Dec 2008, 6:38 PM EST
Published : Friday, 05 Dec 2008, 9:44 AM EST
ZEELAND, Mich. (WOOD) - For the first time in company history, Gentex Corporation is involuntarily laying off workers.
Between 350 and 400 salaried and hourly employees have been laid off effective immediately, the maker of automotive rear-view mirrors announced Friday. The permanent layoffs represent about 15 percent of the 2,600 employed prior to the layoffs at the firm's Zeeland headquarters. Gentex is the largest single employer in the city.
For Lavonne Vermurlen, the layoffs ended her 20 years of service at Gentex.
"Just devastation. I didn't know what to do," Vermurlen recalled in an interview with 24 Hour News 8. "My boss said, 'Just come with me,' and they told me it was a permanent layoff."
In a statement, Gentex attributed the cuts to the staggering decline in vehicle sales around the world.
"We are saddened that we've had to resort to layoffs, but the three major automotive markets in the world are all now in a recession," Senior Vice President Enoch Jen said in the statement.
Citing research from CSM Worldwide, the statement noted that vehicle production in North America, Japan and South Korea had declined two percent more than the most recent projections. In Europe, production declined by another 13 percent.
Gentex will put in place "extended shutdowns to match the company's customers' planned shutdowns over the Christmas and New Year holidays" as well, according to the statement.
Roughly 10 laid-off Gentex employees walked into the Michigan Works office in Holland Friday, including Vermurlen.
"I'm coming here just to see what my options are. Just to start out. I don't even know where to begin," she said.
Vermurlen, a lab technician, thought her job was safe. She worked in a specialized field for an automotive firm that had bested competitors by diversifying. Gentex gets most of its work from companies headquartered overseas.
"I'm proud to say it, but it sounds funny. We didn't even have a layoff policy until two months ago," said Bruce Los, the firm's vice president for human resources.
Friday's announcement is evidence of not only how interconnected the auto industry still is but also the worldwide nature of the auto industry's woes.
"Not that we didn't know this, but obviously, it means that the city of Zeeland is not immune to what's going on in the auto industry," City Manager Tim Klunder told 24 Hour News 8.
He said the firm kept city leaders in the loop about issues in the industry.
"The announcement didn't catch us completely by surprise," Klunder said, but noted that the firm had not shared the number of potential layoffs prior to Friday's announcement.
A company spokeswoman acknowledged the failure of one of the Big Three automakers could have a domino effect. The failure of one of the domestic firms could topple a supplier. And since suppliers for General Motors, Ford and Chrysler also supply for foreign-based firms, companies like Toyota, Honda and Nissan could suffer as well.
Still, the spokeswoman said she believed Gentex could sustain itself through the crisis and that further cuts should not be required to do so.
Reductions in the salaried workforce are expected to save Gentex $6 million. Prior to Friday's move, the firm cut 100 contract workers and eliminated its third shift.
Jen said the firm does have enough cash to sustain itself through the economic downturn, adding that Gentex has no debt. The vast majority of the company's workforce is employed at the Zeeland headquarters. Roughly 100 people are employed at facilities overseas, a company spokeswoman told 24 Hour News 8.