By Clarissa Hawes of FreightWaves
A former United Furniture Industries employee claims the furniture manufacturer, headquartered in Tupelo, Mississippi, violated federal law by failing to give 60 days’ notice of its abrupt shutdown to nearly 2,700 employees and truck drivers, who found themselves without jobs two days before Thanksgiving.
Former UFI employees, operating under the Lane Furniture brand name, were blindsided early Tuesday morning after receiving either an email or text message instructing them not to report to work that day because their jobs were being immediately terminated “due to unforeseen business circumstances.”
As of publication Wednesday, Todd Evans, CEO of UFI, failed to respond to FreightWaves’ requests seeking comment about what precipitated the mass firing.
Toria Neal, a resident of Lee County, Mississippi, who worked for UFI for more than eight years, alleges in her proposed class-action complaint that the company violated the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act and did not provide at least 60 days’ written notice of a pending closure.
In the suit filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, Neal claims she and potentially thousands of other United employees received an email and/or text message “that it was terminating all of its employees effective immediately” just minutes before midnight on Monday.
The message from UFI stated that the “terminations were expected to be permanent and that all benefits would be terminated without provision of COBRA.”
Langston & Lott, based in Booneville, Mississippi, filed the first class action against United Furniture Industries, Inc., alleging it violated the WARN Act when terminating all 2,700 of its employees.
“Under the WARN Act, the employees of United Furniture were entitled to either a 60-day notice or 60 days of severance pay — neither of those were provided,” Jack Simpson, attorney for Langston & Lott, told FreightWaves. “If appointed class counsel, we look forward to vigorously investigating the actions of United Furniture and seeking as much compensation the terminated employees are legally entitled to.”
Thousands fired by email, text
“At the instruction of the board of directors of United Furniture Industries Inc. and all subsidiaries, we regret to inform you that due to unforeseen business circumstances, the company has been forced to make the difficult decision to terminate the employment of all its employees, effective immediately, on Nov. 21, 2022,” according to the statement to employees obtained by FreightWaves.
One former employee said generations of her family had worked for Lane Furniture before United Furniture Industries bought the furniture manufacturer from Heritage Home Group in 2017.
She said nothing prepared her and other family members who worked for the company that they would be fired via email or would no longer have health insurance.
“We would go over to our friends’ houses and say, ‘Hey, that chair or that piece of furniture was made at our plant,’” the former employee, who didn’t want to be named for fear of retaliation, told FreightWaves. “We really took pride in our work — and this is how we are treated.”
Some employees questioned the timing of UFI’s mass firing just before Thanksgiving.
However, over-the-road truck drivers for furniture delivery division UFI Transportation who are currently making deliveries “will be paid for the balance of the week,” the company stated in the letter to workers.
According to the UFI statement, it directs truckers with loads to “immediately return equipment, inventory and delivery documents for those deliveries that have been completed to one of the following locations: Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Verona, Mississippi; or Victorville, California.”
According to the Federal Motor Safety Administration’s SAFER website, UFI has 40 power units and 42 drivers.
In July, Pitchbook listed that the company had nearly 3,000 employees working in its 18 plants and distribution centers in North Carolina, Mississippi and California, as well as in Vietnam.
Another former employee said she was aware the company was experiencing some difficulties but had no clue UFI would fire its entire workforce.
In late July, the furniture manufacturer closed its plants in Winston-Salem and High Point, North Carolina, resulting in more than 270 workers losing their jobs, according to WARN Act notices filed at the time with the North Carolina Department of Commerce.
Another 220 jobs were eliminated in late July at the company’s plant in Amory, Mississippi. “The new leadership had been working extremely hard to put new processes in place,” the former employee told FreightWaves. “There was too much effort being put in for anyone to really know they would close overnight.”
While there was no communication from UFI executives as to what led to its abrupt closure, former employees did receive an update message late Tuesday about retrieving their belongings.
“As soon as the property manager can provide a safe and orderly process for former employees to come and gather their belongings, they will do so,” UFI/Lane Corporate Communications said in an email, which was obtained by FreightWaves. “We are not certain of the timeframe for this but will communicate proactively.”
Retrieving their belongings is the last thing on former workers’ minds, one former employee said.
“It is not fair to the laborers who seriously worked so hard to be blindsided like this,” the employee told FreightWaves. “It is not fair to the mom who just had a baby to wonder if she even has health insurance to cover it. It is not fair to the cancer patient in the midst of chemo about how to pay for her treatments.”
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