JoAnn Harris has a crown of gray hair and the sturdy legs of a woman who has trekked across tough terrain. She's a skilled equestrian, who loves to fish on her days off. Soon, JoAnn, 64, is going to have more leisure days.

JoAnn is retiring, but it's not because she wants to. She is one of the 500 workers who will be displaced by the closing of Hermiston's J.R. Simplot Company.

JoAnn is reluctant to speak ill of the company where she's worked for the past 10 years.

"Simplot has been really, really good to me," she said.

That said, she's frustrated at the decision made by Simplot's owners.

"I'm not mad, but I'm hurt and upset," she said.

JoAnn hadn't planned on retiring for a couple more years. But like all the other Simplot workers, she was summoned to what she refers to as a "disaster meeting" in early March. A deafening silence settled over the crowd of laborers as management announced that after decades of doing business from Hermiston, the plant will shut its doors forever.

JoAnn said the work force was shocked at the news.

"Some had just bought homes. Some had just bought cars. Some have worked at Simplot since they got out of high school. Women were crying. Even some of the men were fighting back tears. Several made the sign of the cross. You could see people's worlds were crumbling. My world was shook."

JoAnn's retirement benefits pay her $21 per month for every year she's worked at Simplot. She's been there 10 years, so she'll get $210 a month. That, combined with a Social Security check of $477, will be her monthly income. Her rent is more than half that.

Additionally, she'll lose her health benefits. A big worry for JoAnn, who is still trying to catch up on bills after a work-related injury and subsequent operation, put her out of commission part of last year.

She'll stay until the last box of potatoes rolls out the door. Then, she'll look for another job.

"I have to find another job. Surely, somebody out there will take this old woman," she said.

Tough birds like JoAnn make good workers, and there was a time when the nation's marketplace and its owners valued dedicated laborers like JoAnn.

"I think Mr. J.R. Simplot is in tears over this. When he was running it, he cared about his workers. But he's out of it now. His kids have taken over. I bet you anything he knows what's going on and is beside himself for these workers," JoAnn said.

She has her own theories about why Simplot decided to build a new state-of-the-art plant in Canada while shutting the doors on the Hermiston facility.

"If you don't stop to take care of your feet, after awhile you won't be walking any more. I think that's what happened here," she said.

In other words, management took on numerous overseas orders that created an increase in demand. That meant the plant wasn't closed for repairs and upgrades as often as it should've been. Workers were told they had to be more productive, even while using equipment that wasn't up to snuff. It was management's poor decision-making that caused the failure of the plant.

"They told us it was their fault because they couldn't say no to new orders," JoAnn said. "We were all doing the best we could do. Sometimes it just wasn't good enough."

Simplot employees have long held to a "Don't talk, Don't tell" policy when it came to business practices.

"People are afraid," JoAnn said. "It's one the first things you're taught when you go to work for them: 'If you talk, you're out the door.'"

Now that all the employees have been given a pink slip, JoAnn has a few words she'd like to say to Simplot's managers.

"I'd like to tell them they didn't look very deep into the community and the disaster they have caused. Hermiston will have 500 people out there looking for jobs. It's devastating."

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Karen Spears Zacharias is a freelance writer who lives in Hermiston. She can be reached at 379-8572 or by e-mail at www.heromama.org.

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