JACKSON — Mary Lou Herbert worked for 30 years at J.R. Simplot Co.’s plant in Heyburn and took its closure as an opportunity to further her education in wastewater treatment.
Herbert performed many jobs during those years in packaging, processing, on the cutter deck and in outside sanitation before she was transferred to the plant’s wastewater-treatment facility across the Snake River from the potato plant.
“I was very interested in the environmental impact end of it,” Herbert said.
When the plant closed she took the time she spent unemployed to earn the remaining credits she needed for her associate degree in water resource management.
“I was too far into it to ever change careers,” she said. “And I didn’t want to change.”
In her mid-50s when the plant shut down, she was concerned her age might be a factor in finding employment, but that proved unfounded.
“I think I knew the plant closing was coming before it happened,” she said, adding that Simplot let several hundred workers go in the years prior to the closure announcement. “I really got into a savings mode and saved all the money I could.”
As a wastewater operator she was one of the last employees to leave. And within a few months of living on unemployment checks and her savings, she went to work at Burley’s wastewater treatment facility.
After that, she worked at McCain Foods and then again for the city of Burley where she spent another four years before retiring in 2013.
“I didn’t hear too much in the way of nightmare stories from people I had worked with,” she said. “For most of them, they found work if they wanted it.”
Many former Simplot co-workers, she said, took the opportunity to go to college. Many others, like Herbert, have since retired.
“A lot of us were just kids when we went to work for them,” she said.
The Simplot jobs paid well, with benefits that provided for growing families. “That was one thing that kept people there.”
It rocked people to the core when the plant closed, she said. “You think you’re stable and have a job for life and then it’s gone.”
A lot of good things have happened in the community since the closure, Herbert said, “but you don’t come back from those types of shutdowns immediately.”