Easley plan owes pay, workers say

November 30, 2000

Saco Lowell laid employees off, faces liens, suits

By Ralph Bell and Erikah Haavie
Staff Writers

The entrance at the 150-employee Easley textile machinery plant Saco Lowell Inc. was locked Wednesday and the parking lot had only 12 cars as employees complain to state officials that they haven't received their paychecks for two or three paydays this month.

Documents obtained by The Greenville News paint a bleak picture for the company, including liens against its property and accounts, allegations it hasn't paid health benefit claims and lawsuits over unpaid debts.

But a state official whose office has been processing workers' unemployment benefit claims said Wednesday he has been told by the company that employees will be recalled to work this week or next.

The whole picture is hard to bring into focus since company officials have refused to answer questions about the situation.

The Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation began an investigation last week after getting complaints from employees that they hadn't been paid, said Jim Knight, agency spokesman.

Knight said workers said they hadn't been paid for two or three paydays.

State law requires companies to pay their workers by scheduled paydays.

An investigator with LLR's Office of Wages and Child Labor will meet with Saco Lowell officials next week and ask to see the company's payroll records, Knight said.

Saco Lowell executives - including Clifford R. Theisen, chairman and chief executive officer, and Thomas P. Pomian, president and chief operating officer - refused to comment.

Meanwhile, Greenville Attorney Rob Hoskins said a group of employees has hired him to represent them in possible legal action against the company. He said the group included 50 to 60 employees and "grows every 10 minutes".

"We're going to pursue whoever we can pursue as aggressively as we can," Hoskins said.

Tom Powell, area director for the South Carolina Employment Security Commission in Liberty, said "somewhere between 50 and 100" company employees have filed unemployment insurance claims in his office since Nov. 20.

Powell said he had no warning of the layoffs and called the plan last week trying to find out what had happened.

Powell said that on Monday he reached Brent O'Shields, human resources manager at the plan, who told him Saco Lowell plans to recall the workers this week or next.

"That was the word he had gotten from the owner," Powell said.

Knight said state labor officials don't have the authority to order payment of back wages but can fine employers guilty of missed or late payment to employees.

The fine can go up to $100 per missed payday for the first offense, and up to $100 per employee per missed payday for a third offense. Saco Lowell has not been charged with missed or late payment to employees to date, Knight said.

Burris Nelson, economic development director for Pickens County, said he had tried without success to contact executives about the layoffs.

Nelson said CT Enterprises, owned by Theisen, bought Saco Lowell a year and a half ago from Greenville textile industrialist John D. Hollingsworth. Hollingsworth sold the textile machinery business but not the plan property, Nelson said.

Documents obtained by The Greenville News show the following developments:

Saco Lowell's parent company, CT Enterprises, Inc., has not been paying Saco Lowell employees' health insurance claims, according to Kanawha HealthCare Solutions, Inc., the company hired to administer the plan.

Kanawha has "repeatedly" asked CT Enterprises to pay for claims made under the self-funded plan, but the requests have "gone unanswered", according to a Nov. 7 letter from Russell J. Piepenbring, Kanawha's vice president of operations.

Contacted Wednesday, Piepenbring confirmed his letter to CT Enterprises but declined further comment.

Two weeks after Piepenbring sent the letter, Saco Lowell told its employees their health benefits would end as of Nov. 28, according to a company memorandum.

A Georgia company, Southern Mechantronics, has sued Saco Lowell and CT Enterprises over its sale of a line of machinery to CT Enterprises two years ago.

Mechatronics claims in the lawsuit it's owed more than $350,000.

Circuit Judge John Kittredge has ordered Saco Lowell not to remove machinery, equipment or inventory associated with the sale from its plant at 183 Rolling Hills Circle in Easley.

BB&T Bank of South Carolina has filed a lien against all inventory, equipment and accounts owned by Saco Lowell, according to a document on file with the secretary of state's office in Columbia.

A BB&T spokeswoman at the bank's headquarters in Winston-Salem, N.C., said Wednesday she couldn't immediately provide more information about the bank's dealings with Saco Lowell.

Saco Lowell's attorney, Kymric Mahnke of Greenville, refused to comment.