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In Ware, Everyone's Still Holding On 06:34
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When we met Mike McCarthy nine months ago, he had been out of work for over a year. Today, he's back at work at American Disposables, one of the few remaining factories in Ware. (Lisa Tobin/WBUR)
When we met Mike McCarthy nine months ago, he had been out of work for over a year. Today, he's back at work at American Disposables, one of the few remaining factories in Ware. (Lisa Tobin/WBUR)

Nine months ago, Louie Despres feared his business was on the brink of going under.

As the president of American Disposables, one of the few remaining factories in this once-thriving mill town, Despres had cut his workforce from 42 to eight over the past couple years.

"I tell you it was tough," he said. "It was really, really tough. We’re a small company. The people who work for you are part of your family in a way."

One of the people Despres had to let go along the way was Mike McCarthy. Nine months ago, McCarthy had been out of work for over a year and was days from losing his unemployment.

"They say things are getting better," McCarthy said, sitting at the kitchen table of the apartment he shared with his fiancee in West Warren, about a five minute drive from Ware. "I'm just thinking, getting better where? Because it's not happening here."

McCarthy was bringing in just $180 a month in unemployment. There was nothing extravagant in his life, except for one purchase he'd felt he had to make.

"My engagement ring for my girl. I bought it last Christmas," he said. "We didn’t really need it, but I needed it. I needed it to give to her to show her how much I cared for her because, you know, that’s all you have is each other."

Last September, Louie Despres had laid off 34 of his 42 employees. Now, he's just hired a dozen of them back. (Lisa Tobin/WBUR)
Last September, Louie Despres had laid off 34 of his 42 employees. Now, he's just hired a dozen of them back. (Lisa Tobin/WBUR)

So that was the situation in Ware last September. The unemployment rate was at 9.3 percent, a percent above the state average, and the downtown was lined with empty storefronts.

Today, along Main Street, things are looking a little better. A new restaurant is opening this week and a tattoo parlor and a couple other new businesses have also popped up in recent months.

Up the road, back at American Disposables, the machines are on and Louis Despres is in better spirits. "I think right now, I think we've got 19 people here now," he said.

Despres' main product is puppy training pads and he recently landed a big new order that allowed him to hire back about a dozen workers. But he says it got worse before it got better. At a certain point, he had to throw his own money in to just to the keep the business running.

And he has no idea how long this latest run of orders will last.

"I don't have a clue," he said. "That's what I'm trying to find out, if it's going to be something that will be even on a semi-repetitive basis that would really, really help us out, but I really don't know."

Despres is trying to get in touch with his biggest customer, who just returned from a three-week trip to China. Despres is anxious to talk to him, because when he almost had to close down last year, it was because he lost a big chunk of business to China.

But Despres is hopeful this time around because his supplier is asking him to put his product in bags stamped "Made in the USA." So he prays that's part of a new demand for American-made products.

Mike McCarthy is hoping the same thing, because he is one of the dozen employees Despres has hired back. The call from American Disposables came about a month ago, as his unemployment dried up.

“They’re hoping not to lay me off, they’re hoping it’s going to be a permanent thing ... that’s what I’m hoping for."

Mike McCarthy

"The week that these guys called me back is the week that it actually ended permanently," he said, standing in the parking lot outside the factory after his shift. "So I was really pleased to come back."

McCarthy said he doesn't think getting his job back is a real sign of Ware's economy picking up.

"I don't think there are a lot of jobs opening up in this area, at least not manufacturing jobs," he said. "I do see more of them online, basically they're out toward the city way — Westfield, Springfield — but it's very, very slow."

The unemployment rate in Ware is still at 9.3 percent, the same as last September. The difference is, in that same period, the state unemployment rate has fallen to 7.4 percent.

So McCarthy feels lucky to be working eight-hour shifts, five days a week, and he's even gotten some Saturday overtime. "They're guaranteeing me at least three-and-a-half months," he said. "They're hoping not to lay me off, they're hoping it's going to be a permanent thing, they really don't want to lay me off is what they're telling me, and that's what I'm hoping for."

The news has not been as good in McCarthy's personal life. Last fall, he had been living in West Warren at the apartment of his fiancee, the one he splurged on to buy the engagement ring.

"Things were going good, but then we started to panic because the money was drying up," McCarthy said. "I don't know, I guess somewhere along the line she decided that she would be better off because she does have an income, she was collecting SSI, and we decided to part ways."

McCarthy's mother is terminally ill and he decided to move back home to be with her.

As for the ring — "I hawked it," McCarthy laughed. "I only got like 60 bucks for it and I paid like $400 for that ring. Went out and got drunk. But that's what I needed to do. It was a bad memory for me."

McCarthy is taking classes online, working toward an associates degree through the University of Phoenix. He said some day he would like to start his own business.

But for now, he is just hoping to hold on to his job at American Disposables. And Louis Despres, at American Disposables, is just hoping to hold on to his order to Walmart.

This program aired on June 13, 2011.

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