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A proudly American shoe company ships jobs to China

Chaco Sandals in Paonia, Colo., succumbs to global market forces and lays off 45 full-time workers, silencing a manufacturing plant – and a town.

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Paigen, and employees throughout the company, are also aware of the decision’s disadvantages – not only the immediate loss of local jobs, but also the environmental costs of overseas shipping and the inevitable difficulties of distance. Company headquarters and manufacturing, once separated by two flights of stairs, will sit on opposite sides of an ocean; quality control will be tougher in the short term, and special orders will take longer to fill.

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In this small town, where the 45 people who lost full-time work aren’t anonymous laborers but friends and neighbors, the cost is emotional, too. While nearly all the employees upstairs – those in product development, customer services, human resources, and the like – will keep their jobs, some tear up when discussing the move. “I understand the economics – I’ve spent my whole career in numbers,” says David Shishim, manager of customer services and sustainability. “But there’s still an inescapable sense of betrayal.”

Some employees, upstairs and downstairs, wonder if added efficiencies could have extended the life of the US factory floor. But most acknowledge that at some point, manufacturing had to move or die.

“It’s not anybody’s fault, it’s what has to be done for business,” says departing employee Jerry Price. “None of us like it, especially us older ones who have been here for a while. We really appreciate the company, and know what it’s been doing for us and the valley. Now it’s going away, because somebody clear around the world can do it cheaper.”

Many longtime customers, local and otherwise, are also disappointed by the decision, and the customer services department has handled more than 100 critical e-mails. “People say, ‘You were the last ones doing it right, and now you’ve sold out,’ ” says Paigen. “If I can sit down and talk with somebody, they’ll usually understand that our choices are limited. But it often takes a long conversation.”

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On closing day at the factory, the production teams cheer their way through their last sandals, and the entire company assembles to watch the final pairs come off the line. When they’re finished and packaged, the workers sign the box with farewells, leaving it on Paigen’s desk – part tribute, part reminder.

By the next morning, the factory floor is eerily empty, with only a skeleton crew of workers left to muscle apart the remaining equipment. Some of the machinery already bears red “sold” tags; the company hopes to rent the cavernous space to another business.

Ten factory employees will stay on for the long term, to repair sandals or fill custom orders. Several departing workers will participate in the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which funds education and retraining for those who have lost their jobs to foreign commerce. Others may take often better-paying but more dangerous posts in the nearby natural-gas fields or coal mines. Still others may move elsewhere.

Outside, in the high desert sunshine, departing and remaining employees gather for a lunchtime barbecue. Chaco, which announced the factory closure last fall, has extended a wide array of small-town courtesies – and practical assistance – to its soon-to-be-former employees.

But today, there’s no avoiding the firings. Beneath the speeches, thanks, and tears runs a trickle of bitterness. “All I got to say is, when China is down, look for us,” Debbie Mitchell, a member of the factory’s glue team, says to the crowd in parting. “We’re still here. We want our jobs.”

While the mourning won’t last forever, that doesn’t make today – or tomorrow – any easier. “When one door closes, another one opens,” says human-resources manager Mary Treder. The tough part, she acknowledges, is the hallway.

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