Livingston braces for fallout from idled Foster Farms workers

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 10, 2014 

For the second day in a row, thousands of Foster Farms employees who work at the Livingston plant were sitting at home without a paycheck.

Federal inspectors shut down processing at the chicken plant Thursday because of a cockroach infestation that raised concerns about human health. Inspectors said cockroaches were found on five occasions from Sept. 14 through Wednesday at various locations in the Livingston plant.

One of the Foster Farms employees affected by the closure was Vincent Reynoso. The 22-year-old woke up early on a cold Thursday morning to ride his bike to work. When he got there, he was told to go home because “there is no work today.”

Reynoso, whose job consists of moving boxes onto a conveyer belt, said he never received a phone call notifying him not to come to work Thursday. He poured his frustration into a letter urging Foster Farms employees to take action by calling CEO Ron Foster about the situation.

“I believe that we (Foster Farms employees) are NOT being treated fairly and are in fact being taken advantage of,” Reynoso wrote in the letter, which he distributed to area businesses. “Maybe one of us accidentally brought in a roach … maybe a supervisor or a ‘boss’ brought one in! The fact is that one got in and now EVERY employee has to pay for it out of our own pockets.”

In an interview with the Merced Sun-Star, Reynoso said he was offered four hours of pay Thursday, but he has a young daughter to support. “I just feel like they’re stealing the employees’ money,” he said.

As employees take a hit to their paychecks, area businesses brace themselves for the trickle-down effect of one of the region’s largest employers temporarily closing its doors.

Jaspal Sahota, owner of Great America Gas and Food in Livingston, said he gets business from about 150 Foster Farms employees each day, making up more than half of his customers. That number dwindled to less than 20 customers by Thursday afternoon.

“Today it’s been quiet,” the 46-year-old said. “At lunchtime, they’d come over here and get food or gas. Now they’re sitting home. If this goes on, my business is in jeopardy, too.”

Sahota said he sees the effect of the closure firsthand because seven members of his family work at the large Foster Farms plant. “They’re not getting paid, and they’re really sad and frustrated,” he said.

Leovardo Alejo, whose family owns Beverly’s Gift Shop in Livingston, said the closure is another blow to his business, especially in light of Merced County’s struggling economy.

“We are barely making it right now,” Alejo said through a translator. “We’re not in a really good situation right now, but if they closed it, it would be worse and probably we’d have to close, too.”

Foster Farms is the largest private employer in the county, with about 3,500 people. County officials have said in the past a potential closure could have a devastating effect on the county’s economy.

“It would certainly impact the lives of each of their employees who are residents of Merced County and spend their resources in our community,” Mark Hendrickson, Merced County director of community and economic development, told the Sun-Star in October after a salmonella outbreak was traced back to the plant. “It could have ancillary impacts to vendors, contractors and other businesses throughout the county as a result.”

Livingston city leaders watched the situation unfold Thursday and were cautiously optimistic about the plant reopening in the next day or two.

“I know that they’ve had a couple issues, but they are very smart people over there,” said Mayor Pro Tem Gurpal Samra, adding that he still purchases chicken from the company. “And it may take a little bit of time, but I’m sure they’ll recover fully.”

Councilman Jim Soria said the city is keeping an eye on the issue, acknowledging the huge impact Foster Farms has on Livingston and the entire county.

“If it closed, it would be a big blow to the city of Livingston and also surrounding areas,” Soria said. “Their employees purchase gas and eat at local restaurants, so that’s another impact. It’s almost like if Disneyland closed in Anaheim – the impact it would have economically.”

Soria said he believes Foster Farms will overcome what appears to be another hurdle for the company.

“It may take some time to build up the public’s trust,” he said, “but I think they’ll probably work feverishly to get things back on track.”

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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