June 16 • 01:56 AM

Pinnacle says 'no comment' to firings

Union president states more than 70 workers have filed grievances

The Vlasic pickle plant is one of the area’s largest employers. However, a cloak of mystery appears to surround the recent firings of at least 70 workers.

September 01, 2010
IMLAY CITY — Rumors continue to circulate about an alleged mass firing of employees at the Vlasic (Pinnacle Foods) pickle plant on Blacks Corners Rd.

Three weeks ago, a spokesperson at Pinnacle's corporate headquarters (The Blackstone Investment Group) in New Jersey confirmed that as many as 37 employees had been dismissed over allegations they committed unemployment insurance fraud.

On Aug. 30, an e-mail from Pinnacle spokesperson Elizabeth Rowland stated the company was cooperating with the appropriate authorities in the matter but couldn't divulge any specific information.

"Because this is an ongoing investigation," said Rowland, "we are unable to comment at this time."

Since our initial story on August 4, the Tri-City Times has received a flurry of e-mails, anonymous letters and telephone calls criticizing the firings and questioning the company's motives.

One female caller blamed the firings on a corporate plan to eliminate higher-paid full-time employees in favor of part-time employees who work for less and receive little or no benefits. She also alleged that the number of firings is much higher than reported, possibly in the hundreds.

"I know some people who have been employed (at Vlasic) for 20-30 years," she said. "It looks like they're getting rid of the higher paid employees. These firings cannot all be about unemployment fraud."

Another woman, who preferred to remain anonymous, received news of her firing via Federal Express while on vacation. She claimed the termination letter came as a complete surprise.

The letter, dated August 20, stated that her employment at the Imlay City plant had been terminated effective immediately. She was further advised in the letter that COBRA insurance information would be forthcoming. A 1-800 telephone number was provided as a source to information pertaining to her 401k options. Richard Hauxwell, president of the plant's Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said he had never before witnessed such a sudden influx of firings and complaints at his Saginaw office.

Overwhelmed with a list that includes the names of more than 70 suddenly unemployed people, Hauxwell said he can only speculate on the company's actions and the ramifications for all involved.

It also remains to be seen if a new contract inked between the union and Pinnacle Foods in March has been breached by the firings.

"We're still trying to sort all of this out," said Hauxell on Monday. "We're also in the middle of our own investigation.

"Right now there is so much speculation and rumors, we don't know the full scope or extent of all of this," said Hauxwell. "We are very busy trying to compile information. We're hitting some stone walls."

The union is not alone in its inability to access information about the mass dismissals. Repeated requests from the Tri-City Times to Pinnacle's corporate headquarters have been met with "no comment." The most recent inquiries on August 26 and August 30 were not acknowledged with a response.

Calls to the Michigan Attorney General's office and Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency in Lansing have reaped similar results.

"We cannot confirm nor deny that an investigation is underway," said Joy Yearout, spokeswoman for the Attorney General's office.

The lack of information, Yearout says, allows the AG's office to "maintain the integrity of the investigatory process if such issues are ongoing."

Inquiries to the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency were met with similar responses. Spokesman Norm Isotalo says state law prohibits sharing any information.

"It's built into the Employment Security Act that anything regarding an unemployment claim is confidential," he says. "It is a confidential matter and we cannot acknowledge whether an individual or an employer lodged any sort of complaint against anybody."

Isotalo says public disclosure is allowed only if the matter goes before an administrative law judge and becomes part of the public record.

"Of course if one of the parties wishes to make a comment, they're certainly free to do so," he says.

State Rep. Kevin Daley, who recently toured the Vlasic facility with a Michigan House Ag task force, said he was surprised to hear of the mass firings.

"We've really had no calls in our office about this," said Daley, who offered to make his own investigation into the matter.

As of Tuesday, an aide at Daley's office said no new information could be provided.

In light of the absence of information, Hauxwell fears the actions taken by Pinnacle could be indicative of a national trend among corporate entities.

"This is not unique," said Hauxwell. "It appears to be happening elsewhere. Until we compile all the information regarding this situation, we won't know."

Michigan is defined as an "at-will" state, which means employers can fire their employees at will. Employees are, however, protected by certain state and federal rights pursuant to age, gender and color discrimination.

Hauxwell doesn't know if those protections will apply to any Pinnacle employees who were fired and have filed grievances with the union. He is wary of making assumptions that those recently terminated are guilty o f unemployment insurance fraud.

"Most of these people claim they have done nothing wrong," said Hauxwell. "If there are cases where it did happen, it may have been a matter of being confused, receiving wrong information or making a simple mistake.

"Everything is in the grey area," he continued. "The only thing we know for sure is that 70 people are now without jobs."

Catherine Minolli contributed to this report.

Tom Wearing started at the Tri-City Times in 1989, covering the Village of Capac as a beat reporter. He later served stints as assistant editor and editor. Today, he covers Imlay City and Almont as a staff writer. He enjoys music and plays drums and sings with various musical groups in the Detroit Metropolitan area.
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