Booted Workers Seek $180G In Unpaid Benefits

by Melissa Bailey | January 7, 2009 2:41 PM | | Comments (6)

IMG_1053.JPGBB and the engraving gang joshed with each other for decades on the shop floor. Now they’ve regrouped in a more sober quest — getting back unpaid wages from their suddenly shuttered employer, Lehman Brothers.

The high-end commercial printing press on East Rock’s Foster Street collapsed in bankruptcy on Dec. 9 after a century of business. (Click here for a previous story.)

At the plant, a small crew of veteran workers became a family over the past 30 and 40 years. They showed their love in little ways, like slipping coins into each other’s engraving machines.

Now they been reconvening, over coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts shop in East Haven, to help each other navigate through bankruptcy proceedings and unemployment forms.

Together, the plant’s 17 non-managerial workers have filed claims in New Haven’s federal bankruptcy court seeking $180,000 in unpaid benefits. The figure includes vacation pay, 10 weeks’ severance pay as well as their final paycheck.

Around tables at the Dunkin’ Donuts Tuesday, six former engravers resumed their habit of daily ribbing, and delved into more serious grievances about the company’s demise.

IMG_1051.JPGLuis Bonilla (at left in photo with Sam Cordero), who worked at the plant for 43 years, said he found out about his layoff shortly after emerging from heart surgery.

“He almost had another heart attack,” said coworker Brenda “BB” Taylor, her voice ringing out above the clatter of coffee machines. BB is one of 13 unionized workers belonging to Amalgamated Lithographers Of America GCC/IBT Local 1-L. Another four non-union employees worked in the office.

Employees in both camps express dismay over the way the company ended. Workers told how after decades of busting their chops at the helm of an engraving machine, they watched the owners drop a veteran workforce and continue business in West Haven.

IMG_0927.JPGLehman Brothers (no relation to the investment bank) has been struggling since it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2004. For four more years, the company kept on printing high-end stationary, like this invite with gold-leafed dragonflies. Then creditors forced the company into Chapter 7, from which there is no return. On Dec. 9 a bankruptcy attorney shut down the plant.

For veteran workers like Jan Barber, the swift conclusion to 30 years of labor hit hard.

“It was like slamming into a wall,” said the worker, who’s 58 years old.

None of the plant’s 20 employees were paid for the last 56 hours they worked, confirmed plant owner David Perkins.

Even before workers got booted, their health care coverage abruptly stopped.

Taylor, who worked at the plant for 30 years, was out on sick leave in early December, before the plant closed. When she called an eye doctor to make an appointment, she found out she didn’t have insurance anymore: Employees’ plans had been terminated as of Nov. 30.

Perkins, who ran Lehman Brothers for its final 20 years, confirmed that the company stopped providing health coverage without notice to employees who were still working there. He said the stoppage came as a surprise to him, too.

“None of us were aware of it,” Perkins said. He said he had tried to keep paying workers their benefits until the end.

“The check was in the mail” for the health plan, but the checking account had been frozen by the bankruptcy court, he contended. The stoppage in benefits affected all 20 employees, he said, including himself.

With the company’s assets frozen, and creditors lining up to be paid, workers are waiting nervously, wondering when their money will come through.

After his heart surgery, Bonilla is staring at a $3,000 medical bill. He’s praying he won’t have pay it himself.

Workers have also been waiting over a year for the company to pay into their pension funds as required by contract: Lehman Brothers stopped paying into the union pension fund in October 2007.

In a phone conversation, Perkins tried to assuage workers’ fears.

“The workers are protected,” he said, adding that the union pension fund has a lien on the building. “The workers will get what they need to get.”

The bankruptcy trustee assigned to this case, attorney Michael Daly of Farmington, said the court would give “some priority” to employees for wages and benefits. He said he isn’t sure how soon they’d see the money.

Daly said he’s been more focused on liquidating the company’s assets. He has filed a motion to sell many of the company’s assets to a West Haven printing business called GHP, where Lehman Brothers’ three owners have all found jobs.

“What Else Do I Know?”

Meanwhile, the workers find themselves at home, idle for the first time in decades.

IMG_1048.JPG“I’m 60 years old. Where am I going to get a job?” asked Mike Mattei (at right in photo). Mattei started working at the plant 43 years ago, when he was only 17. In the early days, the factory bustled with 150 workers and plenty of overtime.

After putting in a lifetime of labor, Mattei finally bought his own home in Hamden. Now he’s slipping behind on mortgage payments. He’s at a loss for what to do.

“What else do I know?” he asked. “I still wake up and want to put my shoes on and go to work.”

Taylor has spent her time signing up for food stamps and unemployment so she can try to put more food in the fridge for the three children she supports. Now she’s finding herself at home, waiting to hear back from jobs at Yale and Sikorsky.

“I didn’t know there was so many judge shows on TV,” she cracked.

“I’m going crazy,” chimed in Keith Kiley, the union’s chapel chairman. “My fingers are getting tired from the remote.”

With only a few shops in the country doing high-end engraving work, finding a new job in the same line of work — or one in the same pay range of $20 per hour — is nearly impossible, workers said.

All agreed it was no surprise that Lehman Brothers went under, but “it was the way they did it” that hurt.

“We all knew that business was not good,” said Pat Reynolds, the company bookkeeper of 25 years. “They should have just dealt with it.” She said the company should have paid workers their wages and let them sign up for COBRA health coverage before it was too late.

What stings the most, many workers said, is that they feel they’re suffering the consequences of the company’s failure, while the owners have stayed employed by taking the company’s business to GHP.

“As the bookkeeper, I can’t imagine how they ever thought they were going to get out of the debt that they were in,” Reynolds said. “They seem to have already had a plan to go to GHP, whereas everyone else was left out in the cold.”

Hearing these comments like these, Perkins launched into an emotional defense of his leadership.

“I’m not an ogre,” he said. “I did everything I could to keep that business going as long as I could. I put my heart and soul into it.”

IMG_0894.JPGPerkins (pictured) said he was holding out for hope that he could sell the building, downsize, and climb out of Chapter 11. “We were struggling and struggling. Getting oil to heat the building was just hard.”

“I find it hard to say that I did a lousy thing by keeping employees employed as long as I did,” he added. He said tried to keep everyone in a job as long as possible, even if that meant denying benefits he agreed to provide in the union contract.

“People think they have a right to a job forever,” he said, “but unfortunately in this world it doesn’t work that way.”

As for his move to GHP, he said “I’m doing what I have to do for my family at this point.”

“I did the best I could,” said Perkins. “At the end, I got the phone call that the time was up, and the time was up.”

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Posted by: elmcityguy | January 7, 2009 3:26 PM

So he broke the contract, stole their money, didn't pay them and seems to want sympathy for being seen as an ogre? Poor guy.

Posted by: yeah.right | January 7, 2009 7:37 PM

Put aside the possibility that the healthcare check was NOT mailed for December. Put aside the fact that the management pension had not been funded for over 5 years. Put aside the fact that everyone, with downsizing and hopes to keep their jobs, took on more work for no more pay. That would be enough for resentment on the part of employees. And let's of course not count the bank fees for paychecks that bounced!
The courts, according to the documents, filed the chapter 7 on December 5. We continued working until the doors were closed on December 9.
What kind of bankruptcy lawyers did Mr. Perkins have that would take four full days to call to advise him that the business was going to be padlocked?
You are right, Mr. Perkins, people don't have the right to a job forever..."the world doesn't work that way". If you approach the job you and your family have now the way you did the one you left,
it won't be long before the world won't be working that way for you either.
Sleep well!!!

Posted by: feeling betrayed [TypeKey Profile Page] | January 7, 2009 10:49 PM

No medical coverage a surprise to him?? He knew November's premium wasn't mailed till Dec 8th. Then didn't even have the decency to approach the individuals questioning if they had coverage!
Checking account frozen?? Before he/they could take funds out by ATM?
Trustee's statement of "some priority" to employees wages etc. Yeah right, like the 10% given to creditors during the chapter 11 process?? The trustee himself doesn't even have the decency to return calls, emails from ALL of us after stating "feel free to contact me" with any questions.
Liquidating assets?? By allowing owners access to the building through their daughter's apartment?? Yes he was told but obviously chose not to listen!!

Yes pay our wages and allow us that option of COBRA because (quote from CEO Mr. Robinson of GHP) Perkins and family were already secured a position at GHP 8 months prior to this Chap 7 event.

No Perkins might not be an ogre but he is very devious!


Posted by: sjbj | January 8, 2009 10:54 AM

Cheating, stealing, lying, evading, and covering your own butt, while leaving employees, many of whom gave decades of their lives to the business. HMMMM--to this total outsider, that would qualify as orge to me--no, actually he's right--MUCH worse than an orge. Outrageous!

Posted by: Alphonse Credenza | January 8, 2009 12:26 PM

A lot questions, reading this.

If the workers saw all the signs of failure long ago, why did they stay?

Did workers take action to cut costs, improve efficiency, etc., or was it "go the status quo?"

Were workers and/or management willing to cut salaries and benefits temporarily so the company might ride it out?

What did the union do to help/hurry the company's failure?

Did anyone in management try to move it into different lines?

Posted by: yeah.right | January 8, 2009 4:27 PM

Alphonse...although most of us knew at some point the business would no longer be viable, it is difficult to explain the feeling of "family" that we had as most of us worked together for over 20 years. Not only among the workers, but among the customers also, most of whom were long-standing ones. There was the desire to make it work, even though it was a losing battle.
We cut everywhere we could. Raises for management were few and far between, increases for union members were minimal and many other contractual benefits were promised but not given, and the workers looked the other way because there was no money to pay for them.
The employee base was cut so much that the one area that could possibly have made a difference, a bonafide sales force, was eliminated in a cost cutting effort. Add to that a persistent strain between family members and how things should be run and you had a recipe for disaster.
Please understand, there was no lack of work. Although the engraving business might be an extravagance to some, there is definitely a call for it for high-end clients, which we had.
When the doors were shut, we had a lot of work in-house and coming in.
Most of the people who worked at this company have worked here most of their lives, and most are over fifty. These are CRAFTSMEN who have a skill that there is practically no more market for, so it wouldn't have been easy for them to just move on to something else.
It is a sad time for all of us. We have been working in an antiquated industry in a company who spent little or no money updating technology and many of us are ill prepared to enter the current work force, let alone be able to find jobs in this market.
Say a prayer for us all. The only thing that we did wrong was to believe it when we were told that things were going to get better.

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