"Slow, very very slow" is how Micha Plummer described business these days at the Area Workshop. According to the annual audit for the handicapped employer for Barry and Lawrence counties, contracts for work have dropped 28 percent in the past year.
Plummer, who has been director at the Workshop for nine years, said she has gone to great lengths seeking work for the handicapped employees. Much of the Workshop's business has been and continues to come from Monett industries. As the economy has soured, orders have slowed significantly.
"There's nothing here we haven't tried," Plummer said. "There's no new business. Mom-and-pop business is not here anymore. Automation killed workshops 15 years ago."
Plummer continues to count on EFCO in particular for jobs that pay the bills. EFCO orders packaging for its products that Workshop employees create from corrugated cardboard. The mainstay these days are six different sizes of corner cups that wrap around products coming out of EFCO's Monett factories.
Workshop business is not confined to Monett. Employees make an unusual woven cardboard wrapping material for Thorco and employees also package six different kits of lures for Luck "E" Strike company, both Cassville companies.
In a number of cases, orders from industries that used to come in weekly now only arrive monthly. One major Monett industry hasn't placed an order in three months. Plummer said reductions in orders collectively add up.
One of the main activities keeping those at the Workshop busy is recycling. These days workers sit at tables tearing pages out of magazines and separating paper for recycling. Even books are torn apart.
Loose paper packed in bundles brings around $45 a ton. Bundles of white office paper bring a bit more, Plummer said.
The economic downturn negatively impacted the cardboard recycling business as well. This week a shipment to Joplin brought $85 per ton. The price is up from a $75 per ton rate last year but is down significantly from the $145 per ton paid in 2007.
"That's why we're having such a killer year. Everything went flat," Plummer said.
In addition the Workshop no longer has EFCO renting half of its building on Central Avenue. Space is available if anyone is interested, Plummer said.
The property the Workshop purchased and renovated in Exeter has been closed since August 2007. The Barry County Tax Board for the Developmentally Disabled paid for improvements that made the Exeter facility usable. Plummer doubts the Workshop can ever sell the Exeter building for the money put into it.
"We don't want money," Plummer said. "We just need work. We want to earn our own way. That's what we're about."
One opportunity that may develop for the Workshop is to open a used bookstore. The workshop has been receiving a lot of books to shred, including sets of recent textbooks from school districts. While the books could be shredded at $45 a ton, selling the books for even a few dollars could generate more income.
One of the Workshop's staff members has begun sorting the books into usable titles. Fiction is broken down by category. Some textbooks have been sold to home school families. An effort is being made to try selling books on eBay.
With space available in the factory building for storage, Plummer sees a good possibility of shelving books that may have resale value. Additional shelving and lighting will be needed. Plummer hoped that by next year the bookstore will be open.
The number of employees getting jobs through the Workshop has dropped in the past decade. When Plummer started, there were 87 workers, and now there are 50. A number of employees have been employed at the Workshop since it opened in 1968, presenting an aging population.
The state subsidy for sheltered workshops has been raised to $18 a day per employee. Plummer said the increased rate helps but the state ran out of money by the end of its fiscal year last year and may do so again. Local tax boards for the developmentally disabled made up the difference. Plummer would rather have a business plan effectively covering the shortfall instead.
"We've got 50 people ready to go, ready to work and make some money," Plummer said.
The public can support the effort by donating paper at the Workshop's recycling center at 13th and Broadway. Businesses that have jobs the Workshop could do are welcome to call Plummer at 235-3191.