‘Economic headwinds’ blow jobs away


Company sends belated letter to employees; county eyes rebound

By Chris Berendt - [email protected]



The 230 full-time employees at the Sager Creek vegetable production plant on Turkey Highway were officially informed via letters mailed Wednesday that they were out of a job, along with 92 seasonal workers, as of two days prior.


Even with a number of industrial prospects bringing jobs in the near future, county officials noted the adverse impact to the 230 full-time employees who now find themselves out of work following the close of the Sager Creek plant.


As one of 230 full-time employees at the Sager Creek Foods vegetable production plant in Turkey, Robert found himself working one week and abruptly out of a job the next.

“That really hurts,” said Robert, who spoke to The Independent on condition his last name not be used even though he’s sure many probably know him. “There was no notice, no nothing. I had to call human resources (on Tuesday) to find out I didn’t have a job.”

Letters were delivered to employees via mail on Wednesday informing them of the closure of the plant two days prior. The letter, which had Sager Creek Foods Inc. and Del Monte Foods Inc. logos on the letterhead, was dated Monday, April 18, from David McLain, president of Sager Creek and senior vice president of operations for Del Monte.

“I regret to inform you that today Sager Creek Foods Inc. is announcing its plan to cease operations and permanently close its Turkey facility located at 5858 Turkey Highway, Turkey, … on or about Sept. 1, 2016,” the letter read. “As a result of this action, 230 full-time employees and 92 temporary positions (seasonal workers) will be eliminated.”

Robert’s wife was diagnosed with cancer in March. She will have to undergo surgery and Robert himself is dealing with a medical ailment. With his wife’s short-term disability not yet approved, Robert was the main source of income for his family the past several weeks. That is likely to be the case for the foreseeable future.

Like many employees, he was off work over the weekend and into Monday because warehouse workers were conducting inventory. On Monday, rumors began to swirl about the plant’s permanent closure. On Tuesday, when Robert was readying to go back to work, it was confirmed that the plant was indeed closed.

Not having an income only compounds a difficult personal situation.

“I don’t know what I am going to do,” he said.

Robert has worked at the plant since 2014, in a full-time capacity for the past year. He previously worked at the plant in 2007-08. Over the years, he has worked as a forklift driver, order selector and in maintenance.

“Me and a lot of other people are out of work that really needed to be there,” he said. “It’s going to be rough. It’s not just me. That’s 322 people out of a job.”

Robert had just recently trained a couple more employees who had only been working a couple weeks before they were out of a job too, he noted.

“It’s put everybody in a bind — a bind we can’t get out of,” he asserted.

In the correspondence, the company explains its plans to consolidate vegetable production at other facilities owned by the company and its parent, Del Monte Foods Inc. The consolidation, the letter explained, will allow for a more effective response to “recent economic headwinds” in order to process vegetables in a more cost-effective manner, better ensuring the long-term health of the overall business.

“As a result of the closure of the Turkey facility, your employment will be terminated on June 18, 2016 or on any date during the 14-day period thereafter,” the letter stated. “If circumstances should necessitate an earlier or later termination date outside of that window of time, you will be notified. At this time you have been placed on a paid leave until such time as your employment is terminated (though you may be recalled as necessary at any point up until the date your employment is terminated).”

Benefits are also assured to continue until the termination date, the company said.

Robert said he was grateful to be getting paid, but said he would rather be working his usual 60-70 hours, sometimes upward of 80, a week with overtime. The 40 hours a week he will get credit for pales in comparison to the average hourly number he amasses.

“They’re supposed to give us 60 days paid leave, but I don’t expect it to be that long if you want the truth,” he said.

The letter stated that the information contained is the “best” company officials had at the time. Employees are then given a phone number to an HR director with Del Monte for further inquiries.

“Thank you for your loyal and dedicated service over the years,” McLain stated in the letter. “I look forward to receiving your support and understanding during this difficult period for all Turkey employees.”

Business is business, said Robert, but this was handled the wrong way. After receiving his letter on Wednesday, he called some of his coworkers to make sure it wasn’t his mail that was slow. They similarly received Wednesday letters. He laughed at the thought he or anybody else would support a move that put so many people out of work without giving them any advance heads-up.

“They didn’t even think enough to call the employees to tell them they’ve been canned or laid off,” he continued. “Then they send us a letter to thank us for supporting them on this. I don’t support them on this. They put me and a lot of people out.”

Sager Creek Vegetable Company purchased longtime, family-owned Allens Inc. out of bankruptcy in 2014 for close to $125 million before selling to Del Monte Foods for $75 million last year.

Allens Inc. was founded in 1926 and owned and operated by multiple generations of the Allen family. The facility in Turkey had been producing sweet potatoes, greens, dry beans, spinach, white potatoes, squash, refried beans and green beans for Allens/Sager Creek for more than a quarter century, since 1991.

“Basically it was a sinking company the whole time and they knew it, and all of a sudden they want to up and close it,” Robert surmised. “I’m upset and I’m hurt that my financial situation has gone downhill, but there’s nothing I can do but man up, take care of my wife and find a job while I have 60 days paid leave.”

More jobs on horizon

County officials know a lot of people have had their lives turned upside down. There is also plenty of ground to be made up in the eventual lost tax base.

The 2015 tax assessment for Del Monte/Sager Creek was nearly $10.4 million, with the company paying $86,100 in county taxes, according to Sampson tax administrator Jim Johnson.

“While every dollar of our tax base is crucial, the impact of this closure is not as much about the potential loss of the approximately $86,000 in tax revenues; these dollars are not immediately lost when the building becomes unoccupied,” assistant Sampson County manager Susan Holder stated on behalf of the county. “The greater impact is to the 230 employees who have lost a job, and the buying power they represent in our communities. Rural areas are particularly hard hit by business closures such as this. There are typically not as many re-employment opportunities.”

The good news, she said, is that recent economic development efforts are expected to garner more than 450 new jobs in the Clinton and Sampson County community in the next few years.

“Hopefully this will offset some of the anticipated losses,” Holder stated.

At Wednesday night’s Clinton 100 Committee meeting, John Swope, executive director of the Sampson County Economic Development Commission, discussed several of those projects in development and pending development.

New projects by NOVI Energy, Rheinfelden Americas and Enviva Pellets Sampson, along with existing industry expansion by Prestage Farms and Brooks Brothers will mean jobs, as will pending projects by Kansas City Sausage and Chemtex (Carolina Cellulosic Biofuels).

In all, there are 463 new jobs, with an average wage of $36,971, set to come into Sampson.

Along with the 400-plus jobs, those current and pending projects would bring close to $420 million in investment — a 10 percent overall increase in the county tax base. Tax revenues after grant-back incentives would tally $14.7 million, according to commitments made in agreements with the county.

Even with the positive outlook, Swope also mentioned the closing of the Turkey canning facility and its loss of 230 permanent jobs.

“That’s a hit,” Swope attested. “If it was one job that would be a hit. If you ever lost your job or have been unemployed or laid off, your world just fell out from underneath you. Imagine, we have 200-plus people in Sampson County and the surrounding counties that are going through that struggle now. They’re fretting tonight and they’re not happy families.”

While plant production ceased immediately on Turkey Highway at the beginning of the week, warehouse activities were still ongoing to prepare the facility for closure. Plenty of vehicles were in the parking lot on Thursday and a number of people could be seen walking around as if it was business as usual.

Once those warehouse activities are complete, however, the facility will close. Company officials said earlier this week they are working with employees and local officials concerning future employment. They can apply for positions in other Del Monte locations and will be considered along with other candidates, company officials said.

On Friday, Robert will be on his way to Chapel Hill so his wife can have surgery. With his job status uncertain beyond the paid leave, he wants to utilize the health benefits he can while he still has them.

“A lot of other people probably have similar circumstances. Whether their circumstances are as bad as mine or not, like a lot of other people I live paycheck to paycheck,” said Robert. “Right now, it’s me and a lot of other people whose only source of income was that plant. We just lost our livelihood.”

Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.

Company sends belated letter to employees; county eyes rebound

By Chris Berendt

[email protected]

The 230 full-time employees at the Sager Creek vegetable production plant on Turkey Highway were officially informed via letters mailed Wednesday that they were out of a job, along with 92 seasonal workers, as of two days prior.
http://clintonnc.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/web1_plant1.jpgThe 230 full-time employees at the Sager Creek vegetable production plant on Turkey Highway were officially informed via letters mailed Wednesday that they were out of a job, along with 92 seasonal workers, as of two days prior.

Even with a number of industrial prospects bringing jobs in the near future, county officials noted the adverse impact to the 230 full-time employees who now find themselves out of work following the close of the Sager Creek plant.
http://clintonnc.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/web1_plant2.jpgEven with a number of industrial prospects bringing jobs in the near future, county officials noted the adverse impact to the 230 full-time employees who now find themselves out of work following the close of the Sager Creek plant.

Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.

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