Employees vent frustration over DuPont cutback strategy

By Lynn R. Parks.

Ralph Melson is angry. And he is spelling his anger out for everyone to see.
"DuPont betrays its workers," reads one sign, black letters on white cardboard, that he created. "DuPont betrays the state of Delaware," reads another.
"DuPont resorts to greed."
"DuPont lies to the public."
"DuPont layoff unfair."
It is that, the most recent layoff planned by the DuPont Company, which has infuriated Melson, 50, Greenwood. While the electrician at the Seaford nylon plant does not expect to lose his job - with 33 years with the company, he has the seniority required to avoid being laid off - he worries about how his job description will change. And he wonders why the company isn't offering incentives so that people like him can retire and leave the jobs for the younger workers. "They offered incentives in 1985 [during a layoff] and again in 1992," he said. "Now we are in the same situation and there are no incentives." "DuPont wants more money in its pockets," said Preston Hope, 47, Seaford, who has 25 years with DuPont. "That's the American way: Get rid of people so that the company has more money in its pocket." Nearly 1,200 people work at the Seaford DuPont nylon plant, which celebrated its 60th year in 1999. According to a company-wide layoff plan announced six weeks ago, 540 of those have to go, 510 hourly workers and 30 salaried workers. The layoffs are expected to begin at the end of June and be nearly complete by the end of this year. According to Gary Knight, human resources manager and site engineering manager at the Seaford plant, the textile apparel area in the plant will be completely shut down. Its production will be taken over by DuPont plants in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Monterey, Mexico, in accordance with a plan announced in 1996. Half of the flooring, or BCF, component of the factory will be eliminated; its production will be assumed by plants in Waynesboro, Va., Camden, S.C., and Kingston, Ontario. The Seaford plant will still make staple fiber and about half the carpeting it makes now. It will also continue to produce nylon flake, some of which it will use to make the fiber and carpet and the rest of which it will ship to other plants. "This is not the beginning of the end" of the plant, Knight said. "This is the right level of staffing, right where we think we need to be. This is still a very vibrant, important part of the nylon supply chain and will continue to run as long as we are competitive."

Debate over severance plan
DuPont offers full retirement to employees who are 58 years old and who have at least 35 years of service. A decrease in either number results in a decrease in the pension. According to Melson, as of January 537 workers at the Seaford plant will have been there 27 years or longer; 412 of those will have 30 years or more. But most will be too young for full retirement benefits. "I think they should offer retirement incentives to get those people to retire," said Irvin Webb, 37, Milford. With 18 years of service, he is slated to be laid off. "If more people retired, a lot of people my age and younger could stay."

Melson said that in 1985, during the first of three planned lay-offs at the plant, DuPont offered to tack five years onto time of service and five years onto workers' ages, so that more of them could retire with full benefits. Before the second layoff in 1992, "at age 45 with 25 years of service, you could get full retirement," he said. "It is human nature to want more than you are getting," Knight said. He said that the severance plan being offered is "pretty generous." As of Tuesday, 157 employees had signed up for severance; Knight said managers at the plant hope that more than 200 will agree to be laid off. Employees who are laid off will receive two weeks of pay for every year of service; regardless of service, no one will get less than two months' pay or more than one year's pay. Employees can receive the severance in monthly payments or can roll the lump sum over into a retirement account. The company will also pay for medical and dental benefits for a year after the lay-off and will pay up to $5,000 in tuition reimbursement. "We will be offering no incentives beyond that," Knight said. "This really is exceptional. We looked into what most companies do and this exceeds in about every case the standard." But it doesn't satisfy Webb. "I just want to stay," he said.

Early retirement not for all
Janice Hughes, 53, Delmar, Md., has been employed at the nylon plant for 35 years. The textile inspector will be eligible for full retirement in five years, at age 58. Without incentives, she is not happy about the idea of retirement. "I want my last five years," she said. Hughes said that DuPont is not giving its employees the information they need to decide about early retirement. Deadline for signing up for early retirement is May 17. "I have been doing day work for 20 years," she said. "I don't want to go back to shift work. They tell me that my job is definitely going. If I stay, what will I be doing?" Like Hughes, Hope has enough years that he will probably not be among those who are laid off. But the textile worker, who makes $17 an hour now, is worried that he will end up with a job that is more physically demanding and that pays less than he makes now. "They know what jobs are going to be there, and I need to know these things before I decide to sign up for early leave," he said. "I don't know what my pay scale will be, or if I will be doing shift work. If my pay is going to go down too much, I will just get another job. Why work at $10 an hour for shift work? They need to let us know what's going on before it's too late." "People like to have certainty," Knight said. "But because of the nature of the lay-off, it is impossible to predict who will get what jobs." Knight said that, except for in the textile areas that will be eliminated, most jobs will remain as they are. "For most jobs, the salaries won't change at all," he said. Some jobs that are now being done by outside contractors will be filled by DuPont employees. Contracted workers are typically paid less than regular employees and the company is currently bargaining with the employees' union concerning those salaries.

Employees want state to help
Webb feels that the state should pressure DuPont to provide incentives for retirement. "If GM was in trouble, Gov. Minner would be doing something about it," he said. Greg Patterson, spokesman for the governor, said that Minner has been in "regular contact" with DuPont management. "We have offered the same type of assistance that we would offer any business," he said. "We are committed to helping the employees." That assistance translates into training programs for workers who lose their jobs, not into the pressure that Webb wants. Decisions about retirement incentives "are up to DuPont," Patterson said. "Sometimes global economic realities create trends that you just can't fight," he added.

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