Company also will have its chance to explain ‘unforeseen circumstances’ leading to its unfortunate and sudden demise
TUPELO, Miss. — On paper there are at least two instances where United Furniture Industries made it appear that it provided the required WARN Act notices to employees who were terminated on Nov. 21.
The first, dated Nov. 21, told employees of the Verona, Mississippi, operation that they were being let go immediately and that the company was not able to give advance notice — which is typically 60 days under the law — due to unforeseen circumstances.
Legal sources tell Home News Now that the letter was postmarked two days later and that most employees didn’t get it in the mail until the following week. Of course most already knew their fate by that point because the company did alert them of their immediate termination Nov. 21 via a late-night text and email.
The Nov. 21 WARN Act notice also told them that their benefits were being canceled immediately and that they would not be eligible for extended COBRA health care benefits typically due employees separated from a company. “Therefore, you should make immediate arrangements to procure benefits coverage, for example, at Healthcare.gov,” it said, in a reference to the plans available under the Affordable Care Act.
Translation? Obamacare to the rescue, an anomaly given how often some elected officials have tried to dismantle the law.
The notice goes on to say that they should contact their local unemployment office for information regarding the availability of unemployment insurance benefits. Yet another government program decried by many to the rescue.
The second notice? That one went to the Employment Development Department of the state of California regarding the closure of United’s Victorville, California, plant, a move that impacted 261 workers or just under 10% of its estimated 2,700 member workforce.
The notice and effective date were Nov. 21, but the EDD didn’t receive the notice until Dec. 14, nearly a month later. Further details about the notice were not available, but it’s likely it also cited unforeseen circumstances that would make it exempt from providing workers advanced warning of the shutdown.
The irony is that the company obviously knows about the provisions of the WARN Act as it provided the 60-day notice this past summer with the consolidation of facilities in North Carolina and Mississippi, a move that affected nearly 500 workers. Those workers were fortunate in that they at least had 60 days’ warning before their termination.
Not so with the latest mass layoff, which impacted more than five times the number of workers.
As we’ve reported, several of these employees have filed class action lawsuits over the lack of notice within days of their termination. Starting this week, the matter will continue to be played out in the court as the 21 days United and its attorneys have had to respond is finally here. Indeed, motions from United’s legal counsel have finally started to appear.
This ongoing communication in the court system, lawyers have told us, will likely unveil what these unforeseen circumstances were and why the company couldn’t abide by the WARN Act. But as this matter is settled, it could be a tough argument to make why the workers were left out in the cold right before the holiday season.
Another thing not working in United’s favor? The company’s complete lack of transparency and total disregard for its responsibility to communicate to the public what led to this unfortunate situation. That falls directly on owner David Belford, who disappeared from view for almost a month following the closing and has not responded to multiple requests from Home News Now and others to tell his side of the story.
How all this plays out to the workers’ benefit remains to be seen. We can all only hope that they get whatever compensation they deserve.
After all, this type of thing could happen to any one of us.