Former Hostess workers scramble after job loss

St. Louis Post-DispatchJanuary 19, 2013 

Losing a job 10 days before Thanksgiving was a hard blow for Rick Marzuco and his family. But what’s been even more frustrating? The truck driver blames his former employer, Hostess Brands, for undermining his job search.

Before hiring a commercial truck driver like Marzuco, a company needs to obtain and review drug and alcohol test records from the former employer. That’s required under federal law.

Since he was laid off, Marzuco has applied for 10 jobs that require a commercial drivers license and landed three interviews. Marzuco, 54, has been told by prospective employers that Hostess, his employer for a dozen years, hasn’t promptly responded to requests for his records.

“I had a job offer seven days after Hostess closed, and they had to fill the position with someone else,” said Marzuco, who lives in Granite City, Ill. “I have a perfect driving record and never failed a drug screen, and I haven’t been able to get a job because they’re not returning background checks.”

Other laid-off Hostess drivers reported the same difficulty, although a Hostess spokesman says the company is complying with the law and that he knew of no such problems.

The weeks following the closure of Hostess’ plants and retail stores have been a struggle for the employees who worked at the maker of snack cakes and bread, often for decades.

Many have had trouble finding jobs, and the problems are compounded by Hostess’ own bankruptcy.

‘They refuse to pay us’

Jeff Merlenbach, 47, a former Hostess truck driver who lives in Red Bud, Ill., said he has called the company’s human resources phone number multiple times in recent weeks about $3,000 in vacation pay he says he is owed. But he doesn’t think he’ll ever see the money.

“They owed it to us and they refuse to pay us,” Merlenbach said.

The company has said it can’t pay workers for unused vacation time or severance because those funds weren’t approved by lenders as part of its wind-down plan.

Thousands of bakery workers, cashiers and truck drivers were suddenly out of work when Hostess announced in November that a weeklong strike by bakers had forced the maker of Twinkies and Wonder Bread to close all 36 of its plants and 570 bakery outlet stores across the country.

The closure affected more than 18,000 workers, including hundreds in North Carolina where Hostess had locations in 33 counties.

Hostess, which continues to staff its corporate headquarters in Irving, Texas, while the company winds down, disputes claims that there are processing delays for driver records.

“Since we began the wind-down, all drug and alcohol screening verifications have been responded to within the 30-day (Department of Transportation) requirement,” Hostess spokesman Erik Halvorson wrote in an email.

The company’s current turnaround time for processing verifications is one to two business days, he continued, adding that he wasn’t aware of any problems with delays.

Brands may live on

Hostess, which filed for bankruptcy a year ago, has been talking to former rivals and customers interested in buying its business.

Flowers Foods, the maker of breads and Tastykakes dessert cakes, has offered the bankrupt company $360 million for key bread assets and brands, including Wonder and Home Pride. It also offered $30 million for the Beefsteak brand.

Under the proposed sale of the bread business, Flowers would get 20 bakeries and 38 depots or stores. The Flowers deal, which needs the bankruptcy judge’s approval, is conditional on Hostess receiving no higher bid from another party by the end of February.

Hostess also is narrowing down possible bidders for its venerable dessert cake business, which includes Twinkies and Ding Dongs.

Hostess isn’t the only one trying to raise money. The job loss prompted Marzuco to sell one of the family’s two cars the week before Christmas. The $1,500 didn’t stretch far.

“My whole existence relies on my checks,” said Marzuco, who is his family’s sole source of income. His wife, Sheila, stays home to care for their two grandchildren, ages 6 and 7, who live with the couple.

Staff writer David Bracken contributed.

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