Patterson frozen food plant to stay open ... for now

02/16/2012 1:37 PM

02/16/2012 6:14 PM

The city’s second-biggest employer apparently won’t shut down next week, despite a warning last month that it planned to do so.

Patterson Vegetable Company sent a letter to Stanislaus County officials in January, saying the plant would shut down Feb. 20. The closure would result in the loss of 489 jobs.

But Feb. 20 is Monday, and it appears Patterson Vegetable will continue operating.

“I do know they’re reporting to work on the 21st,” Stanislaus Economic Development & Workforce Alliance Chief Executive Officer Bill Bassitt said this week. The Alliance had sent a rapid response team to the plant to help employees find jobs elsewhere.

The son of one longtime employee said nobody has talked about the potential closure since officials issued the notice.

“The employees feel that the thing was like a bluff,” said the man, whose mother asked that his name and hers not be used, fearing reprisals from the company. He said his mom, a machine operator, took a $2-per-hour pay cut several years ago and now makes $13.25 after more than 20 years with the company.

Company officials sought a further pay cut from employees, saying they needed to cut expenses to secure loans to pay for necessary plant upgrades. Union members twice defeated the proposal when it came to a vote.

Chief Executive Officer Eric Schwartz did not return calls for comment, but earlier said the closure decision was in the hands of the company’s lenders.

Adam Ochoa, secretary-treasurer of the local Teamsters, which represents employees, said the union does not know what the future holds.

“We just told them to keep going to work as usual while we continue to try to come to a resolution,” Ochoa said. He said the company can close down anytime after Monday without any penalty, as long as 60 days have passed since the warning was issued.

Patterson Mayor Luis Molina said the apparent change in plans for the longtime employer is “good news for all involved.”

“I hope things can be worked out so it can be a long-term fix,” he said.

Brothers Alfonso and Mario Ielmini founded the company, previously known as Patterson Frozen Foods, in 1946. Their descendants sold it in 2007 to a group of executives within the operation.

The company processes a variety of vegetables, including spinach, zucchini, cauliflower, tomatoes, brussels sprouts, squash, bell peppers, collards, broccoli, lima beans and mustard greens.

Officials said they needed new machinery to keep the plant profitable.

Ochoa said he worked with representatives of Teamsters International to help Patterson Vegetable get the money officials said they needed.

“We have banks we’re affiliated with and we offered to work with them on some financing,” Ochoa said. “They said they weren’t interested.”

The longtime employee’s son said his mother fears for her coworkers after June 30, when the current contract expires, assuming the company stays open that long. Though she is of an age where she could retire, her younger friends aren’t so lucky, and they fear they won’t have any choices.

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