The historic drought drying up vast parts of the nation has forced Briggs & Stratton Corp. to temporarily shut down a McDonough factory, making the plant’s 540 workers perhaps metro Atlanta’s first corporate casualties of this year’s devastating dry conditions.
The Milwaukee-based company is the world’s largest manufacturer of gas engines for outdoor power equipment. Its decision this week to shutter a factory that makes pressure washers means that 340 hourly employees and another 200 part-time staffers will be out of a job from late October to late November.
“It’s in part due to the sluggish demand in the U.S. and Europe, and obviously there’s been a significant drought in the U.S. this year,” company spokeswoman Laura Timm said Tuesday. “We have to manage our inventory levels, so we’ve made the decision to shut the plant down for four weeks.”
The drought has spread across the nation like a menacing inkblot from the Midwest, and now much of the country is mired in some sort of unusually dry conditions. Georgia is no exception: More than half of the state is locked in a drought, and one-fifth of Georgia is stuck in “exceptional” conditions, the worst of the government’s four categories.
This isn’t the first time Georgia workers have suffered because of drought. Pike Nursery Holding, the metro Atlanta gardening supplier, filed for bankruptcy in November 2007 because of the stubborn conditions covering much of the Southeast. It was sold at auction a few months later for $5.2 million to California-based Armstrong Garden Centers.
And tight restrictions enacted during the 2007 drought that severely limited outdoor watering across the northern half of the state also led landscapers, nurseries and other industries to lay off thousands of workers. The dry conditions did, however, provide an unexpected windfall for well drillers and wastewater recyclers.
This time around, Georgia is far from the epicenter of the drought. And state officials have resisted calling for tighter watering restrictions, citing increased conservation measures and improved access to Lake Lanier’s vast supply thanks to a recent court ruling.
Still, that doesn’t mean Georgia residents are immune to other impacts of the dry conditions.
For one, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that the drought’s toll on crops could lead the prices of poultry, beef and eggs to swell next year. That could cost a family of four an extra $615 in grocery bills in 2013, according to government estimates.
The rising price of corn, which is used to make ethanol, also could result in higher fuel prices across the country, said Abdur Chowdhury, an economics professor at Marquette University.
“You can expect to feel it in the wallet for food and gas prices,” he said. “Even if you live far from the worst of it, you’ll still feel it.”
Briggs & Stratton, meanwhile, has given its employees instructions on how to apply for unemployment benefits during the furlough. The company acquired the McDonough plant in 2004, which each fall and winter produces pressure washers — a tough sell during a drought. (The plant makes snow blowers during warmer weather.)
The company, which didn’t shutter the plant during the 2007 drought, wouldn’t say how much business it has lost due to the dry conditions. But it did say the closure shouldn’t significantly impact its previous forecast for the next fiscal year, when it expects a net income of $60 million to $75 million.
And Timm, the company’s spokeswoman, said at this point, the firm plans to welcome all the workers back on Nov. 26.
“We don’t have a crystal ball, and we don’t know what the future holds,” Timm said, “but we do believe in a future in McDonough.”