The frozen vegetable processing company’s facility, which was run by Patterson Frozen Foods until 2007, had been continuously running for the past 66 years, leaving nearly 300 full-time employees without work.
“I’m sad. That’s my whole life in there,” said Carol Patterson-Utz, the most senior employee at the plant, having worked there for 46 years, including 11 as a supervisor.
“We’re like family,” she continued. “We help look out for each other. I was going to work another four or five years there if they stayed open.”
Patterson-Utz, who was known as “Tweety” in the plant because of the speed with which she moved and her relatively small size, began her career there right after she graduated from Patterson High School in 1966.
She said she was not ready to retire at age 64, so she is filing unemployment for the first time in her life.
“I can always get a part-time job,” she said. “I get hyper. I have to go, go, go. I feel sorry for the people in their 20s to their 50s who have kids and need to work.”
One employee, who would identify himself only as Carlos, said he was leaving with a union pension after 31 years, but little else.
“They didn’t give us nothing,” he said. “Some companies, when they close, they give something.”
Other employees who are eligible for retirement said they would simply retire rather than look for other work.
Jose Colunga of Modesto said that after 28 years at the plant, he was too old to look for a new job.
Carolina Lopez, who worked 12 years at the plant, said she started looking for a new job in late March when the situation began to look grim.
“I can’t believe this company is bankrupt,” she said.
Noelia Sandoval was uncertain about her future as she stood outside the plant at First Street and Las Palmas Avenue last week.
“There are only 30 people staying to close the plant down,” Sandoval said. “Now I don’t know if there’s employment for me out there.”
Patterson Vegetable CEO Eric Schwartz said only maintenance workers and the last of the shipping workers were working as the plant wound down operations. That amounted to a little more than 40 workers, he said.
“You should see ‘for sale’ signs in the next two weeks,” Schwartz said. “It will be a pretty quick rundown — probably four to eight weeks to wind everything down.”
Schwartz also quashed rumors that the plant would reopen in the fall.
“I wished that was true,” he said. “But we’re not reconsidering. It’s going up for sale.”
Schwartz said in late April that the company would end its operations June 24. The company issued letters April 24 giving employees 60 days’ notice as required by federal law before layoffs. The company previously sent 60-day layoff notices in December, announcing the plant could close.
Citing unsustainable health and retirement costs, the company repeatedly pleaded with employees to vote for concession packages that amounted to millions in wage and benefit cuts to keep its doors open.
The contract with Teamsters Local 948, the union that represents most Patterson Vegetable Co. workers, was set to expire Saturday, June 30. Schwartz said in April that closure was inevitable, as a bankruptcy restructure was too costly and unpredictable.
The company had about 290 full-time, year-round employees, and its staff swelled to nearly 600 during harvest season. As of last year, it was the second-largest employer in the Patterson area, according to figures released in a community profile produced by the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance.
The 5-year-old startup company, headed by Fresno-based Woolf Farming Co., bought Patterson Frozen Foods’ frozen vegetable processing plant in June 2007, hiring most of that company’s employees.
Patterson Frozen Foods was founded by brothers and frozen foods industry pioneers Mario and Alfonso Ielmini in 1946. It was the West Side’s largest employer at its peak, with more than 1,000 employees and about 250 million pounds of frozen food processed annually.
Many of the facilities at the 66-year-old plant were badly in need of upgrades in recent years, according to company officials. Schwartz said in December that the only way to pay for those upgrades was through employee concessions.
The company lost more than $10 million during the past three years, according to a worker there.
Teamsters’ officials could not be reached for comment regarding the closure.
• News Reporter Nick Rappley can be reached at 892-6187, ext. 31 or firstname.lastname@example.org.