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Kohler cutting 450 jobs, on top of 300 temp positions

Kohler Co. said Wednesday it is cutting 450 permanent administrative and production jobs in its plumbing operations across the country, and additionally has trimmed 300 temporary positions.

Kohler Co. said Wednesday it is cutting 450 permanent administrative and production jobs in its plumbing operations across the country, and additionally has trimmed 300 temporary positions.

The reductions include 350 jobs in Kohler, the firm said, and come as the country's troubled housing market continues to struggle. Kohler products such as bathtubs, toilets and faucets are tied to new home construction and renovations.

"These are challenging times which require making difficult decisions, none more difficult than when they involve our associates," Jim Westdorp, president of Kohler's kitchen and bath group, said in a statement. "The housing market, which plummeted to an all-time low during the economic crisis some 18 months ago, has not rebounded as we had hoped. Housing remains battered with no signs of a U.S. recovery on the horizon."

The company said that despite historically low interest rates, builders are building only for people who have jobs and can meet tougher mortgage requirements. It also said consumers are hesitant to invest in remodeling for fear they will not recover costs through improved home value.

A company spokesman declined to comment further.

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Of the 350 jobs that have been or are being cut in Kohler, 183 -- slightly over half -- are production workers, said Stan Rauwerdink, an officer with United Auto Workers Local 833. The union represents about 2,000 of Kohler Co.'s 6,500 employees in Sheboygan County.

Layoffs of the union workers are to begin on Friday, Rauwerdink said. The 300 temporary positions -- some of them in Kohler -- have been cut over the last few months, a company spokesman said.

Kohler currently is negotiating with Local 833 on a new labor contract.

The firm has asked for a five-year pay freeze, a two-tier wage system that would give new hires 65% of what current employees make, and the right to extensively use temporary "flexible" workers who could be dismissed without cause and would receive reduced or no benefits.

Kohler has said that, under its current cost structure, its Sheboygan County manufacturing operations "are not sustainable long term."

Rauwerdink said the contract talks continue to make progress, though slowly. Economic issues, besides the company's proposal, haven't yet been discussed, he said.

In Madison, Governor-elect Scott Walker said at a news conference that he had left messages for Kohler officials seeking to learn whether the state could do anything to respond to the announced job losses. Walker said keeping jobs in Wisconsin is his top priority.

Jason Stein of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report from Madison.

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