Vlasic employees seek answers
Frustrations mount, questions build as attorney for fired workers says fraud allegations require proof
November 10, 2010IMLAY CITY — In early August, 37 employees at the Vlasic plant on Blacks Corners Road were terminated for allegedly committing unemployment insurance fraud.
Spokespersons from Pinnacle's corporate headquarters (The Blackstone Investment Group in New Jersey) initially reported they were cooperating with an investigation but offered no further details. Company officials said even less after 37 more employees were let go during a second round of firings a short time later.
Following the mass firings, some of those terminated questioned the company's motives, claiming that higher-paid full-time employees were being eliminated to make way for part-time employees who work for less money and reduced benefit packages. Many of them challenged the claim they had committed unemployment fraud.
When queried, the Michigan Attorney General's office and Michigan Unemployment Agency in Lansing would neither confirm nor deny an investigation was underway. Further details were not forthcoming.
Meanwhile, three months have elapsed and many of those terminated remain unemployed, some without any source of income. At the same time, the status of the investigation remains uncertain.
Helen Rosado, 52, a 28-year Vlasic employee and one of those fired, continues to deny any wrongdoing. She now fears that regardless of the results of the investigation, she will not be called back to her former job.
Rosado says that until very recently, she had gotten virtually no help or information from the employees' union, her attorney nor the Michigan Unemployment Agency.
"We're all in limbo," says Rosado, who was informed of her termination via a Fed-Ex delivered letter on August 21, after returning home from a long weekend with her husband.
"It's so frustrating," she says. "We don't know from one day to the next. My nerves are shot. There are days I can't eat or sleep. We put in a lot of years at Vlasic. It used to be a great place to work."
Rosado says she hasn't given up on the possibility of retaining her job, though she realizes the process will be long and convoluted.
|The Vlasic plant had been the workplace for dozens of employees terminated for alleged fraud. photo by Tom Wearing.|
"Some of us had gotten so frustrated that we decided to go directly to the unemployment office in Saginaw," says Rosado. "When we got there they said they didn't have any of our records."
Rosado says a visit to Pinnacle's RWDSU union office Saginaw helped force the issue.
"Our union representative (Richard Hauxwell) placed a call to the Unemployment Agency about my case," says Rosado. "A lady there said she couldn't find anything that I did wrong and that I should be able to collect unemployment benefits.
"She said I was one of the people she didn't feel had done anything wrong intentionally and that I could protest and get my unemployment, but she hung up when she found out we were on speaker phone."
Rosado says she faxed a "protest" letter to the Unemployment Agency the same day. However, on November 1, she received a letter of denial, stating that she would have to meet with an administrative mediator who would determine her eligibility for unemployment benefits.
"I know there are some employees who have made arrangements to pay back any questionable income and they are still working, yet we got fired," says Rosado. "In my heart I don't think it's going to be easy to get my job back. I think they're targeting the longer serving and higher paid employees."
Rosado claims that many Vlasic (Pinnacle) employees applied for unemployment benefits during the winter months when their hours were reduced.
"That was commonplace and it had been done for years," says Rosado. "We would open claims and make regular reports to 'Marvin,' reporting our reduced earnings and that we were available and willing to work. I think there must have been an oversight by the company."
What is particularly troubling and confusing to Rosado and other workers, she says, is that in the wake of the mass firings the plant's Human Resources director has also been terminated.
While frustrated by her own plight, Rosado considers her situation less severe than some fired workers and families, whose entire household income was generated through the Vlasic plant.
"I'm one of the lucky ones," she says. "It's very hard financially, but at least my husband has a decent job. There are others who are now desperate and without any source of income."
One of those is Mary Mills, 55, who was terminated on August 20, during the second round of firings.
"They took me down to the office and told me I was terminated for fraud," says Mills. "I think they just want to get rid of the regulars and make it a seasonal shop and pay employees less.
"They're not even telling us how much we owe," she says. "If we did something wrong unintentionally, they should let us work out a payment plan."
Mills began working at Vlasic 20 years ago as a seasonal employee. She went full-time in 1993 and had relied exclusively on her income from Vlasic to pay the bills.
Mills, who lives alone, says her daughter offers financial assistance when she can. She is also receiving food stamps.
Even with help, Mills describes her situation as tenuous and she fears the future could get worse.
"I'm sitting here with my rent unpaid and wondering what I can do," says Mills. "My daughter really can't afford to help me.
"I contacted the Dept. of Human Services and they said they would help me if I got an eviction notice.
"Now they say I can't get any money because I don't have a job," she says. "It's crazy. If I had a job I wouldn't need the money."
Mills says she desperately wants to work and has applied for positions at several locations, but so far to no avail. "I've not heard back from anyone," she says. "I don't know what to do."
Flint Attorney Dean T. Yeotis of Flint intends to provide hope and help for those terminated in the mass firings.
Yeotis believes Pinnacle has failed to make a case regarding its claims that so many of its employees had committed unemployment fraud. Last week, he filed separate claims on behalf of each of the 70-plus employees terminated by the company.
"Anytime you're talking fraud, you're talking intent and you're going to have to prove it," says Yeotis. "I don't think they've even conducted an investigation. If there have been problems, that's between MESC and the employees to work them out.
"There are a lot of reasons why these firings are unwarranted," Yeotis adds. "I think they're (Pinnacle) going to have some explaining to do."
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.