Food plant, Patterson's second-largest employer, calling it quits

01/09/2012 12:44 PM

01/09/2012 11:21 PM

Patterson Vegetable Co. plans to close its 66-year-old plant, putting 489 employees out of work, a letter from the company says.

The company, formerly known as Patterson Frozen Foods, is set to close Feb. 20, according to the letter, which was sent to the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors.

The Patterson Irrigator reported that members of Teamsters Local 948 voted overwhelmingly against proposed pay cuts that management said were needed to pay for plant upgrades. Union leaders could not be reached for comment Monday.

Chief Executive Officer Eric Schwartz said the closure decision is not final, but the company's future now lies in the hands of its lenders.

"They have requested some face-to-face meetings with us in the next couple of days," he said.

Employees contacted outside the plant did not know what their future holds.

Herlinda Carranza, who works in packing, said she's been told she could be out of work in a week or two. The 64-year-old from Turlock has worked at the site for 35 years. She said she doesn't know what she will do if the plant closes. "I'll have no money," she said.

Patterson Vegetable, the second-largest employer in the city of Patterson, freezes a variety of vegetables grown in the San Joaquin Valley. The work force fluctuates with the seasons.

"It's been a mainstay in the community for a long time," said Bill Bassitt, CEO at the Stanislaus Economic Development & Workforce Alliance. He said he holds out hope that the closure might be averted. "It would be a shame to see that happen."

Patterson Mayor Luis Molina agreed.

"It's an institution," he said. "They have hired a lot of people in our community."

Friday's vote marked the second time employees turned down pay cuts. The letter to the county board, dated Dec. 16, was required by the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, which governs large-scale layoffs.

"We did send the WARN notices," Schwartz said. After Friday's vote, "We're still headed down that path."

The company was founded in 1946 by brothers Alfonso and Mario Ielmini, who immigrated separately from Italy to Patterson in about 1920. Their descendants sold it in 2007 to a group of executives within the operation.

The company was among the pioneers in the frozen food industry. Today, it touts the products as "fresher than fresh" because of the short hauling distance from farms and the quick processing.

The vegetables, sold under various labels, include spinach, zucchini, cauliflower, tomatoes, brussels sprouts, squash, bell peppers, collards, broccoli, lima beans and mustard greens.

City Manager Rod Butler said officials had been working with Patterson Vegetable on the proposed upgrade and expansion.

"We expressed to the management that we definitely would like to see them stay," he said.

To that end, the city pledged to help expedite planning and permit requirements. Outside of that, there isn't much city officials can do but hope for some kind of compromise.

"In this economy, with the high unemployment rate, it's going to be a challenge," Molina said. "It'll be a sad day if it closes."

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at pguerra@modbee.com or (209) 578-2343. Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.

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