Slim Jim plant to cut 300

ConAgra cites June explosion

Staff WritersSeptember 17, 2009 

— ConAgra Foods will lay off about 300 of its 750 employees at its Slim Jim plant in Garner as a result of the June explosion that killed three workers and severely damaged the building.

The company shared the news with employees Wednesday evening as the workday ended. The layoffs will begin in mid-November.

ConAgra had been widely praised for its generosity in the face of disaster, but company officials announced a need to emphasize the business's long-term health.

"This has been a difficult but necessary decision to ensure the long-term health of our Slim Jim business," company spokesman Dave Jackson said in a statement. "However, we hope that by giving two months' notice, we will help ease the transition for those employees who will be affected."

Employees got a letter last week inviting them to a meeting to discuss the status of the company. They were met with news of massive layoffs and significantly reduced paychecks. Over the coming weeks, managers will alert employees privately that they are to be cut loose.

In addition, the company announced that it will no longer pay employees who are not working at the plant. Since the explosion, the company has been paying its Garner employees, including those dozens who are still recovering from their injuries, for 40 hours of work a week.

"It's like a slap in the face," said Calvin Sanders, who has worked at ConAgra for 15 years mixing meat. "We've all been working so hard to get our stock back up. I know it's business, but it feels so unfair."

Johnetta Reddick still wears a neck brace from the blast that broke her neck in three places, punctured a lung and broke three ribs. "I am truly in prayer for the families that lost their jobs," she said, not certain of her own status at ConAgra.

Jackson said the Slim Jim plant is still operating at about 50 percent of its previous production capacity as a result of the explosion June 9.

The blast knocked down walls, caused parts of the roof to collapse and injured dozens of employees.

Federal investigators concluded that workers venting a natural gas line into an interior pump room released vapors that led to the explosion.

Other plants, some owned by ConAgra and others not associated with the company, have been helping manufacture Slim Jims for months. Now that the Garner plant will be in competition, Sanders said, it will be scrutinized for its efficiency.

"We're gonna be under the microscope," Sanders said. "We're gonna have to compete with our co-packers."

Worried workers

Last month, ConAgra hosted a picnic in Garner for workers on all shifts, passing out free barbecue and cheeseburgers. At that picnic, officials said about 70 were still too hurt to work.

Sanders has been there for 15 years and thinks he'll escape the layoff. Layoffs will target those with the least seniority.

Still, he's looking for other work. "I don't want to leave my fate up to ConAgra. I need to take it into my hands," he said.

Tameka Green, who has worked at ConAgra for four years, suspects her job is in jeopardy. On Wednesday, she fought back feelings of anger and anxiety. Ever since the explosion, Green said, many employees doubted they would be back in full operation.

"People feel like they already knew there would be layoffs, but it feels like they waited all this time to spring it on us," Green said. "Just when we had hope things were going to be OK."

The meat snacks plant off Interstate 40 has its roots in the Jesse Jones Sausage Co., which built a factory in what was then a rural part of Wake County shortly after World War II.

General Mills bought the factory in 1968 and soon began producing Slim Jim products there. GoodMark Foods later bought Slim Jim. The company merged with Con Agra in 1998.

Before the accident, the Garner plant was the only one in the world that made Slim Jim snacks.

ConAgra's stock price has climbed 35 percent this year amid investor optimism that falling energy and food costs will help boost profit. The stock closed Wednesday at $22.21, down 11 cents.

ConAgra Foods gave its CEO, Gary M. Rodkin, a compensation package worth about $8.8 million for 2009, the company reported in a recent regulatory filing. That was down from a pay package worth about $12.6million last year.

Staff writers Alan Wolf and Richard Stradling contributed to this report.

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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