Nebraska Meatpacker Sued Over Handling of Layoffs

November 16, 2009

Three women who once worked at a Nebraska meatpacking company have sued their former employer, saying it violated a federal law aimed at protecting workers during mass layoffs or plant closings.

Premium Protein Products is accused of violating the federal Worker Adjustment Retraining and Notification Act, better known as the W.A.R.N. Act, in a class-action lawsuit filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court on Nov. 12.

The law requires companies in certain instances to give workers 60 days notice of a closing or mass layoff. Its protections can be triggered in several ways, including when more than 50 employees are cut and they make up at least 33 percent of the employer’s active work force.

An estimated 400 Premium Protein Products workers have been off the job since June, including Erin McDermott, Sara Villanueva and Linda Jarvis – the three plaintiffs named in the lawsuit. Premium Protein has its headquarters and a processing plant in Lincoln; its slaughterhouse is in Hastings. Those plants remain closed.

The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this past week.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys couldn’t be reached for comment Saturday. Charles Ercole, a Philadelphia attorney who is heading up the case, told the Lincoln Journal Star that the lawsuit was filed in bankruptcy court to essentially get in line and see what assets the company has to pay claims.

The bankruptcy document, which wasn’t accompanied with an estimate of assets and liabilities, said the company has nearly 1,000 secured, priority and unsecured creditors.

A first meeting of creditors is scheduled for Dec. 11 in Lincoln.

The former employees say they are seeking all compensation – including wages, bonuses, accrued holiday and vacation pay and contributions to 401(k) plans – they believe are owed to them from the 60-day violation period.

Premium Protein officials couldn’t be reached Saturday. Majority owner and private equity partner Matlin Patterson in New York did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment.

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