Company to give aid to workers

Random House offers voluntary retirement to 100 employees

Firm subject to state grant

Technological change forcing operational switch, employer says

March 07, 2000|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Random House Inc., Carroll County's largest private employer, will provide financial counseling today to more than 100 workers who are being offered voluntary early retirement because of advancements in technology.

"A combination of new technology and changes in the way our business processes operate -- changes that were prompted by the new systems we're using -- have required adjustments," said Jeffrey A. Sprinkle, who oversees distribution at the Westminster facility.

The company last week offered voluntary early retirement to employees who will be 55 or older by Dec. 31, and laid off "a handful" of information technology employees, Sprinkle said. There is no union at the company.

Random House forced out several employees in the information technology department last week, according to an employee who asked not to be identified. The information technology employees arrived at work last Tuesday to find employees of a private security company in their office. They were escorted to their desks to retrieve personal items and then told to leave, the employee said.

Sprinkle said yesterday he was not aware of the situation, but added it would not be unusual for a company to guard its computer equipment while employees cleaned out their desks, for fear a disgruntled worker could cause damage to the system.

The Westminster plant employed 1,191 people as of January, according to county records. As part of a state development grant, Random House must retain at least 900 permanent full-time employees at the facility.

Sprinkle said he did not know how many workers were eligible for the early retirement package but said the company would maintain a work force that is "well above" the state requirement.

Random House employees first learned of the company's voluntary early retirement program last week, Sprinkle said. The company is offering eligible employees job placement, counseling and financial advising services today at the Best Western in Westminster.

The early retirement program comes at a time when unemployment rates are at a record low, which could make it easier for workers to find other jobs.

"The job market is the strongest it's been since the Vietnam War. Companies are out there searching for people with the right kinds of skills to come into their organizations," said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a national outplacement firm based in Chicago. The company helps 3,500 people each year research employment opportunities, write resumes and prepare for job interviews.

"More and more companies are looking for people who are older, in part because the labor market is so tight," Challenger said. "But companies are also turning to people in their 50s and 60s because they tend to stay with companies longer than someone who is younger."

Job market praised

The unemployment rate for Maryland was 3.5 percent in January, the latest month for which figures are available. In Carroll, it was 2.9 percent; an unemployment rate as high as 4 percent is considered to be full employment.

"There are jobs available in every industry," said Marco Merrick, spokesman for the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. He noted the U.S. Census Bureau is seeking thousands of workers in the Baltimore-Washington area.

The early retirement packages were offered to employees in all departments at Random House, from distribution and information technology to customer service and financial operations, Sprinkle said. The plant attracts workers from Pennsylvania and the Baltimore metropolitan area.

Software sparks change

The packages include severance pay and benefits based on years with the company, Sprinkle said. Employees offered early retirement have 45 days to decide whether to accept the package.

The distribution center has installed a new German software system that integrates ordering, warehouse, marketing and editorial functions. The upgrade in software led the company to switch from a mainframe to a personal computer-based system. The technological upgrades prompted the company to cut its work force.

The early retirement offers come about nine months after state legislators awarded Bertelsmann AG, the parent of publishing giant Random House, a $2.5 million grant to help renovate and expand its Westminster distribution facility. The money came from the state's Sunny Day fund, which is used to attract and retain jobs in Maryland. Under terms of the grant, Bertelsmann agreed to keep 900 full-time, permanent employees through Dec. 31, 2003, and to spend at least $30 million on renovation and expansion in Westminster.

Random House completed the $30 million expansion of its sprawling warehouse complex this year. Nearly 70 percent of the 325,000-square-foot addition is being used for boxed storage, Sprinkle said. Once it is at full capacity, the company will be able to house 1.2 million titles.

Big plans for site

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