More layoffs possible at Bell, other defense contractors

A. Lee Graham

More downsizing is possible as Bell Helicopter Inc.’s recent layoffs spur speculation about the longtime Fort Worth employer. “It is a possibility,” said Bill Schroeder, spokesman for the Fort Worth-based company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Textron Inc. Federal sequestration, not to mention defense budget uncertainty, has Bell unsure about further downsizing after its recent announcement that it plans to lay off 290 workers from its Fort Worth workforce. The layoffs, announced Sept. 23, already have been implemented. Hourly, salaried and management employees were cut, as were about 85 Bell contractors.

In prior downsizing Bell has reduced its workforce through voluntary retirement and other methods, but the latest move was the company’s first actual layoff in recent memory. “We’ve had voluntary separation bonuses that we offered to more senior employees for early retirement,” Schroeder said. “But that’s not a layoff.”

District 6 City Councilman Jungus Jordan expressed faith in Bell, along with Lockheed Martin Corp., whose aeronautics division is based in Fort Worth, despite turbulent times for the defense industry. “I’m a big supporter of Bell and Lockheed and our military presence in Tarrant County,” said Jordan, an Air Force veteran. “I’m not discouraged whatsoever. I have huge confidence in the company. Bell Helicopter is a great partner for Fort Worth,” Jordan said. U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Fort Worth) criticized the sequestration in a statement issued by his office. “I am disappointed to learn of the layoffs of 290 workers at Bell Helicopter this week and my thoughts go out to all of the employees and their families who are affected by this decision,” said Veasey. He called the move “the latest example of why sequestration was such a bad idea when it was passed two years ago by Congress and why Congress should replace it immediately.” Bell employs about 7,000 workers in Tarrant County.

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It builds the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, which takes off like a helicopter and flies like an airplane. Production is expected to drop as military spending faces future uncertainties, according to Bell president and CEO John Garrison, who has acknowledged the challenges facing his and other companies with military contracts. “Sequestration is having an adverse impact on our industry, making the future for defense spending more uncertain than ever,” Garrison said in a statement. The company faces internal challenges, as well, with United Auto Workers Local 218 and Bell officials in the midst of contract negotiations. Both sides were set to resume negotiations on Oct. 3 after production workers staged a one-day walkout in early September. At issue are overtime, pension costs and health care.