ATC Panel workers continue fighting for severances

Published 11:08 am Tuesday, January 4, 2011

FRANKLIN—The way Walter Hunt sees it, ATC Panels in Franklin — his employer for 35 years — owes him a $28,000 severance package.

A representative for the union that Hunt belongs to says ATC disagrees.

“The employees feel they are entitled to severance pay,” said Sam Penn, international staff representative with the United Steelworkers of America in Hampton. “The plant has to close, and the company contends it’s not closed.”

The union, however, continues to fight for severances for former employees of ATC, which reportedly has one employee remaining on the job. No one from the company returned a call from The Tidewater News.

The plant in southern Isle of Wight County produced particleboard used for making furniture, cabinets and the like. At its height, ATC employed more than 130 people, but workforce cuts began several years ago.

The plant, which used to be owned by Union Camp Corp., changed hands several times after International Paper bought all of Union Camp’s assets. The particleboard plant was sold to Aconcagua Holdings BVI, a company formed in May 2004 by Chilean investors.

The union, through arbitration, would like to force the plant to close in hopes of former workers receiving their severances, Penn said.

“ATC has not issued a WARN notice, (which is required by federal law 60 days before a company closes),” he said. “They (former ACT employees) try to compare this to the (International) Paper mill’s closing. They (IP) issued WARN notices, (employees) got severance pay. ATC has not announced they are closing.”

In hopes of forcing the company to close, the union requested a federal arbitration hearing. Each side chose a panel of arbitrators. Before the holidays, the company exercised its one-time right to reject the first panel, Penn said.

“We’re waiting on another panel,” he said.

Penn has no idea how long that could take and said there is no set time limit.

The news is not encouraging for Hunt, who has lost his home of 15 years since being laid off from ATC Panels on March 13, 2009. He works part-time for Southampton County Public Works, where Hunt earns $7,000 annually — far less than the $31,000 to $32,000 he made a year as a sander operator at ATC Panels.

The 62-year-old also applied for Social Security benefits earlier than he planned and is thankful for his wife’s full-time job at Walmart and its medical benefits.

“It’s right tough,” Hunt said. “I feel it’s a waiting game.”

ATC may not have officially closed, but Hunt sees it differently.

“They haven’t shipped a thing in two years,” he said. “They’re closed.”