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No sign Unilever has begun plant-closure layoffs

November 03, 2011|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com
  • The Unilever ice-cream plant on Frederick Street in Hagerstown is pictured in this 2008 file photo. Layoffs at the Unilever ice-cream plant in Hagerstown were scheduled to have started this week, as the plant prepares to close in August 2013, eliminating more than 400 jobs, according to a company letter distributed in September.
Herald-Mail file photo

Layoffs at the Unilever ice-cream plant in Hagerstown were scheduled to have started this week, as the plant prepares to close in August 2013, eliminating more than 400 jobs, according to a company letter distributed in September.

However, even though the effective date for the start of the layoffs was Tuesday, there's no indication any have occurred yet.

Larry Lorshbaugh, the president of United Steelworkers Local 9386, which represents workers at the plant, said Wednesday the latest word from the company is that 41 full-time employees will be laid off Monday.

But most of those employees are expected to be called back to work in January or February, according to Lorshbaugh.

Still, employees are expecting that the plant will close in 2013, as Unilever shifts work to its Covington, Tenn., plant, he said.

Corporate and local Unilever officials did not return several phone messages seeking comment in the last few weeks.

The only company comment came Thursday in an email from Dean Mastrojohn, Unilever's corporate media relations manager for North America, who wrote: "I can confirm that our decision to reduce employee headcount at our Hagerstown manufacturing facility is due to the seasonality of the ice cream business, specifically, a seasonal drop in demand due to the end of the summer season. The decision in no way reflects the dedication or performance of our Hagerstown employees.

"We won't be commenting further. Thanks again for reaching out."

Mastrojohn didn't respond to a follow-up email asking about the Nov. 1 layoff target or the projected August 2013 plant closure.

The plant is on Frederick Street in Hagerstown. For many years, it was known as Good Humor-Breyers, for the ice-cream brands it produced, which are part of Unilever.

In a Sept. 2 letter to the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, Unilever's human resources business partner in Hagerstown, Timothy Manvilla, wrote that the plant "will be permanently closing on or about August 4, 2013."

"The Company will be permanently terminating all of its employees starting November 1, 2011 through the closure," Manvilla's letter said.

The letter said 437 employees will be affected, including 404 union employees and 33 management and support staff.

Notice challenged

Businesses of at least 100 employees that close plants or lay off 50 or more employees must, under federal law, file a Work Adjustment and Retraining Notification, or WARN, notice at least 60 days in advance.

Lorshbaugh said Unilever's WARN notice didn't meet federal requirements and is invalid.

He said the notice is supposed to apply to employees who have worked at least six months consecutively in the previous year, disqualifying workers who were hired this past summer.

The company also failed to let Lorshbaugh inform union employees of the news, instead calling an employee meeting, he said.

Lorshbaugh said he filed a grievance over the WARN notice, but the company disagreed with him.

Employees and unions can challenge a WARN notice in a federal lawsuit, said Ceola Coles, a WARN policy adviser within the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of National Response.

Without talking specifically about Unilever, Coles said a union representative, if there is one, must be told about a WARN notice in time to let employees know at least 60 days in advance.

The chief elected official of the local government, such as a mayor, also must be told, she said.

WARN notices must have specific timelines. If the company delays its action by 60 days or more, it must file a new notice, Coles said.

In 2009, Unilever said it planned to close the local plant at the end of 2011.

Timothy R. Troxell, executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission, who often is informed about  local job hirings and layoffs, said last week and again on Wednesday that he hasn't heard any recent updates on the plant.

Peter Thomas, the executive director of the Western Maryland Consortium, a workforce development agency, said Monday that he also hasn't heard anything about the plant in at least a few weeks.

Companies that close plants or have mass layoffs sometimes call the consortium to assist affected employees before the cuts take effect.

He said he thinks Unilever plans to have the consortium work with employees who will lose their jobs.

The state has committed extra money for job training or other services, if needed, for Unilever employees whose jobs are eliminated, Thomas said.

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