Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
A glove manufacturer is undertaking a massive expansion of its factory on the Navajo Nation near Gallup, a move company leaders hope will spur job development in the region.
The Rhino Health Inc. nitrile glove factory in Church Rock will benefit from a 100,000-square-foot expansion project slated to start this spring, bringing a possible 300 jobs to the area, according to CEO Mark Lee.
The facility expansion comes as other large employers on the Navajo Nation are shuttering. Lee, who lives in Gallup, said he hopes his business will encourage more commercial activity in the area, which has high rates of unemployment.
“It has not been one of the most desirable, attractive areas in this part of New Mexico,” he said. “Hopefully the pioneers, like me and a few others, will come out.”
The existing Rhino Health Inc. facility opened in Church Rock in 2019 and currently employs 53 people. The existing and planned buildings are property of the Navajo Nation, and rented to Rhino Health Inc, according to Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.
The upcoming expansion is designed by Indigenous Design Studio + Architecture, a Native-owned firm in Albuquerque. It will be built by the Navajo Engineering & Construction Authority, according to Theodore Edaakie, the IDS+A project manager assigned to the expansion.
The project, which was announced in early October, has run into some logistical difficulties. The buildout of the facility was originally budgeted at $19 million, but inflation and material shortages mean the project is likely to exceed that, according to Nez.
“We’re looking at reevaluating the breakdown of the costs for the facility and so we may need to supplement additional dollars to keep it the same size,” Nez told the Journal. “Or we may have to shrink the building with the money that we have available for the facility. We’re trying our very best not to shrink the facility.”
The construction timeline of the project is also uncertain, according to Edaakie.
“That, we’re still trying to work through because of the material shortages right now,” he said.
Nez said the Navajo Nation needs new revenue in light of the recent and coming closures of several coal-fired power plants on and near its territory, including Public Service Company of New Mexico’s San Juan Generating Station near Farmington, about two hours north of Church Rock.
“This is one of those new revenue generating (projects) that we’re pursuing with the Rhino Health partnership,” Nez said.
The San Juan Generating Station, which currently employs 160 people, is expected to shut down June 30, 2022, according to Thomas Fallgren, PNM’s vice president of generation. The Westmoreland coal mine that serves the plant will most likely begin a decadelong closure process, ending work for most of its nearly 300 employees, according to Fallgren.
Both facilities have offered high-paying salaries for the region, including for many Navajo Nation members – higher than manufacturing jobs are likely to offer, Fallgren said.
The jobs at the power plant had an average salary of $80,000, with the mine jobs paying “a little less than that, but in that same general vicinity,” Fallgren said. “They’re fairly high-paying jobs, which is the difficulty if you’re going back to a strict manufacturing job, but again, you know it’s good to have an opportunity regardless.”
Most of the workers at the power plant and mine are not prepared to retire, Fallgren said. Meanwhile, the starting pay of Rhino Health’s employees is currently the state’s minimum wage of $10.50, according to the company’s HR manager. Lee says the expansion is too far off to be sure of future compensation.
“God knows where the pay schedule is at that point,” he said.
Still, Lee said he is looking at the plant closure as a source for new workers.
“I’d like to hire much mid managers there who have experience running their factories and the plant, so there could be some potential hiring opportunities for these out-of-a-job people,” he said.
The 2019 New Mexico Energy Transition Act provides funding for skills training for fossil fuel industry workers looking to transition into a new field. It was supported by the Navajo Nation administration partly in hopes it would diversify their economy in the transition away from fossil fuels, Nez said.
“The transition from coal-fired power plants, the jobs that were there, absolutely can be brought to Rhino Health, including the coal mines,” he said.