Furloughed employees laid off at newly 'lean' Annie Selke Cos.

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NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the name of a business, Fresh American LLC.

PITTSFIELD — The first signal sent to employees of the Annie Selke Cos. didn't look at all like bad news: unexplained direct deposits in their bank accounts.

But then the letters came.

"As you know these are very uncertain times," read an April 29 letter to a worker from Lori J. Flynn, a newly hired vice president of human resources. "We regret to inform you that you will not be returning to your position."

The deposits, Flynn's letter explained, covered "paid time off" money due to workers.

With dozens of employees on furlough since March due to pandemic restrictions on nonessential businesses, Fresh American LLC moved swiftly to revamp operations at its 125 Pecks Road headquarters in Pittsfield, according to Flynn.

That address is the home of nationally known home decor brands Pine Cone Hill, Dash & Albert, Fresh American and an outlet store.

Rather than call everyone back to work, Flynn said the company decided to build elements of its workforce anew, adjusting to what she called changed business needs. She said the shifts took into consideration employee performance, attendance and attitude.

"Skill sets were looked at. Behavior was looked at," she said. "Who do we want back and how many do we need back? We need someone who has a good team spirit and can motivate others."

Three employees interviewed by The Eagle take issue with that explanation. They say that until new executives arrived in the past year, the companies had been run in a compassionate manner that included collegial Friday cookouts.

"It used to be a much happier place to work," said Nancy Converse, one of those who received a termination letter. "They let go a lot of honest, hard-working people who were never a discipline problem," she said. "A lot of people who didn't deserve to lose their jobs did, for no reason at all."

Converse said she was hurt to get a "form letter" in the mail. "They needed to do better by us and treat us like people. It was very cloak and dagger. It was never like that before. It's a whole new ballgame."

Flynn's letter to workers, a copy of which was obtained by The Eagle, offers an apology for not providing word of the terminations in person, citing restrictions related to the coronavirus. "We would have liked to meet with you in person," she wrote.

In the weeks after getting the notices, employees began to see job recruitment notices for the company. That puzzled workers, they said in interviews, given the company's statement that it had been "forced to assess our staffing needs" due to a new business environment.

Workers say that online orders for products coming through the Pittsfield business appeared to remain strong through the early weeks of the pandemic. Managers took to filling orders themselves, workers said.

Questions about whether the company was properly observing Gov. Charlie Baker's restrictions on nonessential work led the city of Pittsfield to issue a closure order April 8.

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Converse said she was not offered a chance to make any changes in how she went about her job as a quality control inspector with Pine Cone Hill, one of the Selkie companies.

"Everyone who stood up to the bosses was furloughed," said one worker who lost her job. She asked not to be identified because she is looking for a new job. "They took the perfect opportunity in a pandemic. I loved this company. I really did."

PLAN IN PLACE

When asked about the timing of the layoffs, Flynn, the vice president of human resources, said the decision to reshape the workforce came before the virus hit.

Since January, Fresh American has been led by Lori King, its chief executive officer. For 22 years, King served as president of Stonewall Kitchen, which makes specialty foods.

Another new executive, Chief Financial Officer Kimberly Parks, arrived last year as part of a move to expand leadership beyond founder Annie Selke. Selke now holds the title of chief vision officer and is chair of the board.

Flynn said the new leaders saw a need for change.

"All the right processes were not necessarily in place," she said. "It's new leaders with new ideas. Some tend to be better."

"We have a new set of eyes," Flynn added. "We're going to be lean."

David Flynn, of Great Barrington, was one of the employees who saw a big deposit into his account — and then received a letter.

When told the company had used attendance records as a factor in the layoffs, Flynn, 72, expressed surprise. He worked for the company for 12 years, after being laid off, at age 59, from the Rising Paper Co. mill in Housatonic — which had been his work home for 36 years.

"I was always at work on time every day," Flynn said of his position with Fresh American. He said he planned to retire at the end of this year, but wanted his departure to be on his terms.

"It was a nice place to work, make no mistake," he said. "In the last year or so you could see changes coming. You could see that there was a new game plan going on. It was a change from a more family-run business to being more corporate."

He added, "Once this coronavirus hit, it gave them a chance to make their moves much quicker."

Like Converse, Flynn said business appeared to be good. He estimated that in his dozen years with the company, the workforce grew from 75 or so to over 140. Flynn said he was told that the recent layoffs affected 28 people.

Lori Flynn, the human resources official, said the company expects to fill about half of the positions opened by the terminations. She conceded that David Flynn, to whom she is not related, had a solid attendance record.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.


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