Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Medical glove maker plans major expansion near Gallup

Copyright © 2021

A glove maker is massively expanding its factory in Navajo Nation near Gallup, a move company leaders hope will boost employment in the area.

Rhino Health Inc.’s nitrile glove factory in Church Rock will benefit from a 100,000 square foot expansion project due to begin this spring that will create 300 jobs in the area, according to CEO Mark Lee.

The plant expands while other major employers in the Navajo Nation close their doors. Lee, who lives in Gallup, hopes his business will encourage more commercial activity in the high unemployment area.

“It wasn’t one of the most desirable or attractive areas in this part of New Mexico,” he said. “Hopefully the pioneers, like me and a few others, will come out.”

A representation of Rhino Health Inc.’s planned expanded nitrile glove factory in Church Rock, near Gallup. Construction of the 100,000 square meter extension is scheduled to begin this spring. (Courtesy Indigenous Design Studio Architecture)

Rhino Health Inc.’s existing facility opened in Church Rock in 2019 and currently employs 53 people. The existing and proposed buildings are owned by the Navajo Nation and leased to Rhino Health Inc., according to Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.

The upcoming expansion is being designed by Indigenous Design Studio + Architecture, an Albuquerque-owned company. It is being built by the Navajo Engineering & Construction Authority, according to Theodore Edaakie, the IDS + A project manager in charge of the expansion.

The project announced at the beginning of October encountered some logistical difficulties. The facility was originally estimated to expand at $ 19 million, but inflation and material shortages mean the project is likely to go beyond that, according to Nez.

“We are re-examining the breakdown of the cost of setup and so may need to add additional dollars to keep the size,” Nez told the Journal. “Or we have to downsize the building with the money we have available for the facility. We try our best not to downsize the facility. “

The construction schedule of the project is also uncertain, according to Edaakie.

“We are trying to work through that at the moment due to the shortage of materials,” he said.

Nez said the Navajo Nation needed, given the recent and upcoming closings of several coal-fired power plants on and near its territory, including the Public Service Company of the San Juan Generating Station in New Mexico near Farmington, about two hours north of Church Rock, new revenue.

“This is one of those new revenue generating projects (projects) that we are pursuing with the Rhino Health partnership,” said Nez.

The San Juan Generating Station, which currently employs 160 people, is expected to close on June 30, 2022, according to Thomas Fallgren, vice president for Generation of PNM. According to Fallgren, the Westmoreland coal mine that powers the plant will most likely begin a decade-long shutdown process, ending the work for most of its nearly 300 employees.

Both facilities have offered high-paying salaries to the region, including for many members of the Navajo nation – higher than manufacturing jobs likely would provide, Fallgren said.

The jobs at the power plant averaged $ 80,000, with the mining jobs “paying a little less but in the same setting,” Fallgren said. “They’re pretty well paid jobs, which is the difficulty when you return to a rigorous production job, but you know it’s good to have a chance anyway.”

Most of the workers at the power plant and mine are not ready to retire, Fallgren said. Meanwhile, the starting salary for Rhino Health employees is currently the state minimum wage of $ 10.50, according to the company’s HR director. Lee says the expansion is too far off to be sure of future compensation.

“God knows where the pay schedule is at this point,” he said.

However, Lee said he sees the plant closure as a source of new workers.

“I would like to hire a lot of middle managers who are experienced in running their factories and plant so that there are some potential recruitment opportunities for these unemployed people,” he said.

The New Mexico Energy Transition Act of 2019 provides funding to educate workers in the fossil fuel industry who are transitioning into a new field. It was backed in part by the Navajo Nation government in hopes it would diversify its economy as it transitioned from fossil fuels, Nez said.

“The transition from coal-fired power plants, the jobs that have existed, can absolutely be brought to Rhino Health, including coal mines,” he said.

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