BISHOPVILLE - The parking lot at the former Lee County-owned speculative building in the Interstate 20 Industrial Park is close to full for the first time ever, and many area residents are thankful this Thanksgiving holiday weekend for new jobs with a new major employer.
Crown Health Care Laundry Services opened its fifth U.S. laundry processing facility in Bishopville on Nov. 5. With the new plant/warehouse operation comes 153 jobs within three years for the small rural community.
According to company officials, Crown is the leader in the Southeast in the growing health care linen services sector.
Hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities have been moving toward outsourcing their linen supply and management services during the last decade because of costs and increasingly stringent regulations to maintain hygiene, according to industry officials.
As a high-volume linen service provider, Crown owns the linens - to include bed sheets, pillowcases, blankets, scrubs, gowns, washcloths and other items - and rents them to a health care facility and subsequently cleans and processes them multiple times per week for that facility.
Given their linen volume, hospitals are Crown's largest customers. With the opening of the new state-of-the-art laundry processing facility, Crown has rerouted some work from its four other Southeast facilities to the Bishopville location, according to new warehouse General Manager John Chrobak.
Five existing large hospital clients along the state's coastal counties and Augusta, Georgia, are now being serviced six days per week from the new plant in the industrial park, which is at Exit 116 off I-20.
With a plant in southern Georgia and previously a depot off Interstate 95 in Walterboro, Crown already had a good presence in South Carolina, Chrobak said.
In order to grow more business in the Palmetto State, the laundry processor needed a facility in the state, Chrobak said, due to federal Department of Transportation delivery regulations.
Those laws limit commercial truck drivers to 11 hours of drive time per day. That works well for deliveries within a 250-mile radius of a Crown processing facility, according to Chrobak.
"But, when you start hitting that 250-mile mark or greater, you're unable to get out and back in time to meet DOT regulations," Chrobak said.
With the five hospital clients already running from the new plant in its initial weeks, Crown ramped up hiring quickly. It's already at 75 employees, including about 55 mainline - or front-line - workers, according to Chrobak and Human Resources/Office Manager Tamiko Singleton.
Being a new industry in an area without an existing employer with a similar operation, the opening few weeks at the facility have mainly involved training for the new employees, Singleton said. At some times, management is moving and adjusting workers to processing machines that are best suited for them.
Most of the front-line workers are considered in the general production category and are currently in a customary 90-day probationary period, according to Singleton.
Wages there start at $8.50 an hour, but hourly pay can increase after the probationary period, and a health care benefits package is also offered after 90 days.
Singleton said most front-line workers to date are from Lee and Sumter counties.
Dechelle Montgomery from Sumter was unemployed for two months before landing the job at the beginning of this month with Crown. She said she's excited with the opportunity.
"I like that it's a new company, and it's growing," Montgomery said. "I look forward to advancing and growing here, and I'm just thankful for the opportunity to be working and not unemployed."
Cody Seymour, who lives in Bishopville, previously worked in factory jobs in Ohio for about nine years before moving to Lee County three years ago. Ever since, he said, he's been trying to get into a plant job - with no success. Seymour said he had another job locally, but Crown represented a move-up opportunity for him.
"It's good work, and they're keeping us busy," Seymour said. "It's a great job. It's slow rolling right now, but they're getting everything in place with all the machines and the work. I'll work my way from the bottom up, if I need to."
Singleton said Crown is not accepting general production worker applications at this time because it already has a large pool of applications employers are working through from previous job fairs. However, people can apply after Jan. 1 directly through their local SC Works employment centers in surrounding counties.
Crown is always looking for Class A CDL drivers to apply, according to Singleton. That starting pay range is $17 to $19 per hour, based on experience.
Chrobak, the general manager, said the facility could reach 125 employees within four months.