Local News

ConAgra announces layoffs in wake of explosion

Posted September 16, 2009 6:09 p.m. EDT
Updated September 18, 2009 6:44 p.m. EDT

— ConAgra Foods announced Wednesday evening that it will lay off about 300 employees as a result of a fatal explosion at its Garner plant.

The June 9 explosion at the facility caused part of the building's roof to collapse, killing three workers and sending dozens of others to the hospital. Investigators believe contractors installing a water heater vented natural gas inside the building, leading to the blast.

Production capabilities were reduced by about 50 percent as a result of the explosion, Dave Jackson with ConAgra said in a statement Wednesday.

The layoffs are scheduled for mid-November.

“It’s not something that we wanted to do and it's difficult but necessary to ensure the long-term health of this business and this plant here in Garner,” ConAgra spokeswoman Stephanie Childs said.

Childs also said that the plant will stop paying employees who are not working while recovering from blast injuries. However, those employees will be able to apply for workman's comp benefits.

Starting in two weeks, the company will also revert back to its regular payroll policy based on the number of hours worked. Since the explosion, the company had been providing full pay and benefits to all workers.

The decision regarding which employees will be laid off will be determined based on seniority and production needs as governed by the terms of ConAgra union contract, Jackson said.

“I’m looking at it thinking, yeah, I’m going to be one of those people (let go),” ConAgra employee John Henry said.

Henry, who works in the plant’s packing area, said he fears he will be among those laid off since he has been with the company less than two years.

“It’s nothing to worry about. It’s going to happen. Not much you can do about it. It’s a good thing they kind of gave us some notice,” Henry said.

About 300 employees were in the Jones Sausage Road plant at the time of the explosion, which blew out a wall and punched holes in the roof, sparked small fires and ruptured the plant's ammonia lines.

Dozens of workers and contractors were injured, and three workers – Barbara McLean Spears, 43, of Dunn; Rachel Mae Poston Pulley, 67, of Clayton; and Louis Junior Watson, 33, of Clayton, – were killed.

George Williams, a longtime employee of ConAgra, said the layoffs are another painful setback for employees who returned to work at the plant July 19.

"It’s a hurt, it's a loss,” Williams said. “By losing so many people, (those who) got hurt and stuff ... it’s a family. But it's a family that's been split.”

Mayor Ronnie Williams also expressed sadness over the layoffs.

”I’m disappointed and sad by the news. But there’s an upside here that the company is keeping about 400 jobs and interested in staying in Garner and rebuilding the plant and getting these folks back to work," Williams told WRAL News.

The plant currently employs approximately 750 employees in Garner.