HERMISTON - The city has been put on notice that the J. R. Simplot Company will be laying off it's entire Hermiston workforce starting Nov. 19.

Since the country's largest producer of frozen french fries and hash browns announced it will close its Butter Creek Highway plant last March due to collapsing foreign markets, 135 employees have left the company, said Dan Akey, unit director of the plant.

He expects most of Simplot's remaining 535 hourly and salaried workers will be let go on Nov. 19 and 20.

Akey's job, and the rest of the management staff, is up in the air as well.

"Nobody in the salaried group has been assigned a new job," he said.

The company has been working with the city to find a new occupant for the facility, and Akey said a couple interested parties have taken notice. He called them "tire kickers," noting that no offers have been made.

"There have been inquires, but nothing too serious at this point," he said.

Finding a new occupant for the premises that could employ similar numbers of workers is of dire importance to the city, said Ray Jones, assistant city manager for Hermiston.

"Our concern is that there are 500 to 600 employees out there that have been a very strong, stable workforce for years and a good number of them live in Hermiston," Jones said. "We want to find employment for those people as quickly as possible."

Akey said the reason the company announced its intentions to leave town nine months before moving day was to prepare the community and its workers for the effect the departure of a major employer would have on the local economy.

One way the company is trying to soften the blow is by encouraging its workers to attend a job fair Sept. 30 and a financial counseling day on Oct. 27.

Rod Davis, executive director for the Greater Hermiston Chamber of Commerce, said the job fair is unusual for two reasons. The first is that it will only be open to Simplot employees. The second is that companies who wish to meet and interview potential new employees have to wait until the plant is officially shuttered before a new job can be offered.

"Simplot is on a balancing beam," Davis said. "They want to keep the plant open until they want to close it."

The financial counseling day, called Project Simplot Transition by Davis, will provide workers with access to real estate agents, credit counselors, bankers, educators, insurance agents and social service representatives.

"Anything anybody might need in terms of not having a job in three weeks," Davis said, adding, "I really think (Simplot) is doing everything they can."

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