The Madison Oscar Mayer plant closure will leave about 1,000 Wisconsinites unemployed by early 2017.
Debbie, an employee at the Oscar Mayer plant for 29 years, said while many employees thought the plant might shut down, especially after the Kraft and Heinz merger, it still came as a surprise to her. Debbie asked to be identified only by her first name since Oscar Mayer and Wisconsin officials are still developing plans for those who will lose their jobs.
Doug Leikness, president of United Food & Commercial Workers, the union representing many Oscar Mayer workers, said Heinz cut a lot of costs and jobs after the merger, which seemed to foreshadow Oscar Mayer’s shutdown as well. He said the plant was demonstrating strong production runs and doing well when its closure was unexpectedly announced.
Debbie said Kraft Heinz hasn’t made much effort to help employees.
“I’m a pretty optimistic person and I like to feel like there are good people out there and I guess I’m really sad because they’re not bridging us or taking care of us,” she said.
Many employees who have worked in the plant for several years still do not have medical benefits and there is little hope they will receive them now that the plant is closing, Debbie said. But she said Kraft Heinz has helped some corporate employees find other jobs and given them benefits.
According to a statement from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, the plant’s shutdown is part of a “company-wide consolidation.”
Following the loss of about 1,000 jobs, Leikness said it might be difficult for many workers to find another job in the same field with benefits similar to those Oscar Mayer provided. Workers were able to support their families with the income and had negotiable vacations included as part of their benefits.
“They [workers] are not going to be having much luck getting something as good as [they were] at Oscar Mayer,” Leikness said.
Debbie said finding another job might not even be possible for an employee of her age. There have been rumors about employees being sent to another plant, but Debbie said it would be counterproductive to displace another plant’s employees to make room for Oscar Mayer’s.
The loss of this job has put Debbie in a position of uncertainty and could make her postpone retirement because she may not receive a pension. She said she wanted to join United Way of Dane County and help people once she retired, which she can no longer do.
“Once you’re locked in, it’s so hard to believe that they can take that away from you,” Debbie said.
United Food & Commercial Workers is developing a plan related to workforce development for the plant’s workers, Leikness said. It is collaborating with United Way of Dane County and local labor leaders to create strategies that will help workers with job searching, job training and emotional and financial counseling.
WEDC is also partnering with local organizations, such as Workforce Development Board of South Central Wisconsin, Madison Gas and Electric and The Department of Workforce Development to develop a plan that will lessen the blow on the plant’s workers.
“Our first priority is the workers and their families and to make sure that those affected by the closure are able to find employment,” WEDC said in the statement.
Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, said in a statement she was concerned for the workers’ financial security and opportunities to progress and move on. She said it is important as a community to support the workers while they searched for future opportunities.
Unite Food & Commercial Workers also met Kraft Heinz for talks regarding the first wave of layoffs, which are expected to begin next July, to determine when to put this plan in action. Leikness said he was hopeful about receiving the company’s cooperation. Debbie said it might help postpone the plant’s closure which would allow her to turn 50 by the time it does close and receive a pension.
“I don’t want a million dollars,” Debbie said. “I just want what I deserve.”