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RHI Monofrax lays off 74 but says it does not plan to close Falconer plant

A Falconer manufacturing plant has laid off more than 70 workers, but the plant’s owner says it does not intend to close the facility.

RHI Monofrax, a maker of fusion cast refractories primarily used in the glass industry, says that despite the layoff of those hourly employees, 96 others remain on the job, according to Randolf Fochler, a spokesman for Austria-based RHI, which acquired the Chautauqua County operation in 2007.

“From today’s point of view, the management of RHI does not intend to close the plant,” Fochler said.

The plant temporarily shut down its furnaces, which added to concerns about the facility’s long-term prospects. Fochler said that the operation of the furnaces “depends on the intensity of the order situation” and that a number of the laid-off workers will be recalled next week “for normal production.”

RHI Monofrax’s business is slow and has been affected by foreign competition, said William J. Daly, administrative director and CEO of the Chautauqua County Industrial Development Agency. “The local management has been aggressive in trying to become more competitive and get their market share up,” Daly said, adding that the plant has more than 200 hourly and salaried employees.

In mid-February, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., urged the U.S. Department of Energy to speed up its purchase of materials that RHI Monofrax produces for the federal government to clean up nuclear waste, saying the company was under financial strain because of the government’s drawn-out buying schedule.

Schumer said RHI Monofrax is the “sole approved producer of these materials worldwide” and has a contract to provide the Energy Department with $75 million worth of this product. But Schumer’s office said RHI Monofrax has to devote 20 percent of its production resources exclusively to the project, “even though DOE only plans to order the product in small installments over the course of 25 years.”

That extended time frame and resource limitation has made RHI Monofrax “less profitable and, in turn, makes it more difficult to maintain employment,” Schumer said.

Daly said Schumer and U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, have been working on that issue with the Energy Department.

The president of the union local representing workers at the plant could not be reached to comment Tuesday.

Chautauqua County has faced tough manufacturing news in the last couple of months. ConAgra said that it will close two Carriage House plants by next February, eliminating 425 jobs. And Premier Lakewood gave notice that it would close its Lakewood facility in early May, affecting 75 jobs.