Rebuilt Mass. mill unable to hire back all its workers Despite owner's efforts, 300 are still unemployed

December 13, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

METHUEN, Mass. -- A year after a devastating fire consumed their jobs, they are the best cared-for jobless workers in America.

But still, they are jobless.

One year ago this week, Malden Mills in Methuen went up in flames, taking with it the jobs of 2,400 people, many of them immigrants.

Instead of pocketing the insurance money and heading to sunnier climes, owner Aaron Feuerstein stood before his workers and promised to bring them back.

Even more than that, he promised to pay them for the next few months even though they were idle. He pledged to extend their medical benefits.

And he said he would rebuild. That, he said, was the way to run a business. But despite his best efforts, there hasn't been a happy ending for everybody.

A year later, about 300 members of his work force are still unemployed, and they are losing hope that they will ever regain the jobs that, with overtime, once paid them as much as $1,000 a week.

Today, while 2,000 of their former colleagues are back working for the company, some of the still unemployed are training for jobs in other fields. Others get by on unemployment checks of less than $300 a week.

Wednesday, many of them came back to the plant for a few hours, invited there for a winter jacket giveaway sponsored by the mill, whose synthetic fleece fabric called Polartec is a mainstay of outdoor clothing lines.

Dressed in work pants, sweat shirts and scuffed boots, they rubbed sleepy eyes and spoke of part-time jobs loading trucks at overnight-delivery depots. And of the probe into the cause of the fire, which has yet to be determined. They had praise for Feuerstein, whose generosity became a shining example of corporate responsibility. They were anything but bitter.

"Running a business is a big headache," observed Emilio Fernandez, 52, a Cuban-born screen printer. "He could have said, 'Forget it. It's over. I'm going to Florida.' But he didn't."

Even as the smoke rose from the ashes, Feuerstein pledged to rebuild the 28-acre plant founded by his grandfather in 1906. But achieving his business goal of bringing his whole work force back has proved tremendously difficult.

New buildings and machinery have cost tens of millions. Maintaining production has been expensive because of the costs of subcontracting work that used to be performed at the plant. And there was a $15 million tab for paying idled workers through March.

Although the mill was insured for $302 million, the underwriters have been paying off at the rate of $10 million to $20 million a month while the fire investigation proceeds.

Despite all that, Feuerstein borrowed $100 million from banks RTC and ordered his managers to steam full-speed ahead. Even as he received invitations to the White House, he privately wondered if he could make good on his promise to have everyone back within the year.

The summer brought a warning from the company's chief financial officer that the rate of rebuilding was too ambitious. By September, Feuerstein knew he would have to scale back the pace, so he gathered his troops once more.

In a warehouse building, he met with the employees of one division of the company to deliver the bad news. They would not be getting their jobs back.

Pub Date: 12/13/96

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