413 workers jobless as Southwick files for bankruptcy

MARY SCHWALM/Staff file photoA union representing workers at the Southwick factory in Haverhill, shown here making clothing when the company was operating, said the employees are being denied severance pay.

The Brooks Brothers clothing company is declaring bankruptcy, leaving more than 400 workers at its Haverhill factory jobless.

To make matters worse, the workers are without any severance packages, according to their union.

Brooks Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last week. A union representing 413 workers at the company's Southwick factory in Haverhill said the employees were told not to expect severance.

The Haverhill employees found out on Tuesday of last week that they would not be offered severance packages, according to Ethan Snow, a spokesman for the New England Joint Board union. The union represents 10,000 textile workers across New England, including those at Southwick.

In a prepared statement, the union said company officials "flatly rejected" proposals for severance benefits.

“We’re furious that the company would disrespect its own workers like this, in the midst of a global pandemic,” said Warren Pepicelli, manager of the New England Joint Board group. “This is a slap in the face to workers who sacrificed to build the company’s reputation. CEO Claudio Del Vecchio should be ashamed for how he is treating his employees.”

Mayor James Fiorentini said workers are also being denied health care benefits. He called the situation "a terrible thing."

The company's bankruptcy also leaves a vacant building in the city's Broadway Business Park, where Southwick manufactured high-end Brooks Brothers suits. Company officials have said the coronavirus crisis caused severe financial problems for Brooks Brothers.

Fiorentini said William Pillsbury, economic development director for the city, has been in conversations with two companies that are interested in bidding on Brooks Brothers in bankruptcy. One of the companies makes suits, Fiorentini said.

"I'm not giving up," the mayor said. "Bill (Pillsbury) has been reaching out to them, telling them what we have to offer and telling them what Haverhill's about. Something will happen with that building. I'm not worried about that building. It's the jobs I'm worried about. It's a tragedy." 

In May, Brooks Brothers submitted Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act layoff notices to the MassHire Department of Career Services. Those layoff notices for company workers had an effective date of July 20.

According to a company spokesperson, Brooks Brothers expects to halt projection in all of its factories by Aug.15.

In March, Southwick employees out of work due to the pandemic were called back to the Haverhill factory to make fabric masks to aid in the coronavirus fight. At the direction of company CEO Del Vecchio, those workers joined employees at Brooks Brothers locations in New York and North Carolina to transition from making high-end apparel to producing masks for nursing homes and local health care facilities.

Fiorentini estimated that 30% of Southwick employees live in Haverhill, while the rest commute from Lawrence and other neighboring communities.

One of those workers is sewing machine operator Shirley Calvin, who has worked for Brooks Brothers for 10 years.

“What Brooks Brothers is doing is not just wrong, it’s ridiculous," Calvin said through her union representative. "Everything was fine when we were making masks and Brooks Brothers was getting positive headlines. We did everything they asked us to do, but now suddenly they don’t need us anymore and they use the pandemic as an excuse? As a union member and a resident of Haverhill, we worked hard to keep Brooks Brothers here, and this is how they repay us for that hard work?”



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