The Daily Journal provides updates throughout the day on this developing story.
Former employee: ‘I thought it was a hack’ (Updated 1:36pm)
Denise Alomari worked for six years at the United Furniture office in Verona at customer service. She felt it was insensitive and impersonal for the company to fire people over text in the middle of the night. She received hers at 10:56pm on Monday but didn’t notice until Tuesday morning. Besides, she didn’t believe it was real.
“I thought it was a trick, but then people started calling and I realized it was real. My heart just dropped,” Alomari said. “I went to work (Monday) and everything was normal. Nobody said a word. There was no clue as to what was going to happen.”
Now he has a desk full of personal items that he can’t retrieve because the doors are locked.
Looking back in hindsight, he said there were some rumors that the company was in financial trouble. During the October transfer market in High Point, North Carolina, several people asked United CEO Mike Watson about the bankruptcy rumors. He just wiped out the rumors.
“We heard the bills weren’t being paid, but we just thought it was the economy and things were going to get better,” Alomari said.
While most United employees had no idea that their entire workforce would lose their jobs days before Thanksgiving, some top company executives saw the writing on the wall and got out while they could.
“Several people at the vice president level have left the company in recent months,” Alomari said.
Ashley Furniture Hosts Job Fair (Update 1:22pm)
Ashley Furniture took advantage of the sudden surge in job seekers and set up a recruiting tent in Crosstown on Tuesday.
“We’ve been doing these pop-ups for a couple of years,” said Diana Ortiz, Ashley’s field recruiting supervisor. “We’ve had a lot of United employees stop by and fill out applications.”
They were looking for employees in all aspects of the company, from the production line to the administrative offices. For some new candidates, Ashley was scheduling interviews on Tuesday afternoon.
“We’ll be back here (Wednesday),” Ortiz said. “Those who come today are actively trying to solve a problem and are eager to work. They will be good employees. Those who wait until after the holidays don’t have the same motivation.”
Local officials planning job fair for Tuesday (11:23am update)
Hours after news broke that all United Furniture employees were laid off overnight, city, county and local economic officials rushed to help where they could.
Community Development Foundation CEO David Rumbarger said that since the organization heard about the mass layoffs, it has been working “feverishly” to assist the approximately 1,000 affected Lee County residents.
“The timing of this is tremendously unfortunate,” he said. “We will do everything we can to get these people back to work.”
To that end, CDF Existing Business Development Director Maury Giachelli said the organization will work with the Three Rivers Planning and Development District and Itawamba Community College to provide a job fair Tuesday from 8 a.m. at 5:00 pm at the ICC’s Belden campus.
As of Tuesday morning, 12 companies have agreed to participate in the show, including Ashley Furniture and Toyota Mississippi. He said he hopes to have 20 employers at the fair.
“We’ve experienced shutdowns like this in the past and come out stronger,” he said.
Gaichelli noted that he believed the county had a “great diversity” of furniture and other employers who should be able to pick up furloughed workers. It’s that diversity, he said, that gives him hope for the people.
Meanwhile, County Administrator Bill Benson called the mass layoffs a “terrible” situation, noting that the Lee County Board of Supervisors would help if they could.
“I know the board is willing to do everything possible to assist in the efforts to place these people,” Benson said, adding that he wasn’t sure if there were any specific actions the board could take.
Former United employee speaks out (Update 11:12)
Jeff Jones, a line supplier to United Furniture for more than 30 years, learned this morning of the overnight email informing him that he had lost his job, along with thousands of other employees.
“I was fast asleep (when this happened) and was checking my email early in the morning from a colleague. His message was pretty simple. The first was that we are out of work. I discovered the email and read it. We’re all just devastated. We didn’t see it coming,” Jones said.
Jones said the company recently reduced hours, but that this was unexpected.
“I’ve been with the company through different owners and names. We’ve always bounced back. They made it perfectly clear in the email that there’s no way to bounce back from this,” he said.
Jones said he had worked there so long that “there were colleagues who worked there every day who weren’t even there when I started. There were people there who were more like family than colleagues.”
Despite the bad news, Jones maintains a positive attitude.
“I told my co-worker who informed me right before we left for the Thanksgiving holiday. Everyone got their Thanksgiving turkeys. I guess that turkey was our severance package,” she said.
Jones said he and other colleagues have received a lot of well wishes and support, including people who have offered job opportunities to consider. Right now, he was sad because he was calm.
“I think it’s the calm before the storm. It feels surreal right now. We’re about to pick ourselves up and hit the ground running,” he said.
Monroe County Authorities Swipe to Help Affected Workers (10:09am Update)
UFI was Monroe County’s largest employer, and according to the latest jobs issue, approximately 2,000 employees were from the county. The firm had locations in Amory, Nettleton and Wren.
“We are heartbroken and pray for all those affected. We are working and collaborating with our economic development friends at CDF, Three Rivers, the WIN Job Center and Accelerate MS to help deploy as many resources and information as available on jobs and rapid response,” said Chelsea, executive director of the Monroe Baulch County Chamber of Commerce.
About 2,700 United Furniture Industries employees are now unemployed.
According to a statement from United’s board sent out at 12.42 on Tuesday, employees were not required to report for work today and the move is likely permanent.
“Due to unforeseen business circumstances, the company has been forced to make the difficult decision to terminate the employment of all of its employees effective immediately on November 21, 2022, with the exception of off-road drivers who are on delivery. The your termination from the company should be permanent and all benefits will cease immediately without the provision of COBRA.”
The drivers were asked to immediately return equipment, inventory and delivery documents for deliveries that had been completed at the company’s Winston-Salem, Verona or Victorville, California, headquarters.
It’s a stunning fall for a company that had grown into one of the largest furniture companies in the country.
United’s roots were planted in 1983 in North Mississippi with the opening of Comfort Furniture. In 2000, United Furniture was created with the merger of Comfort Furniture, Parkhill Furniture and United Chair. By December 2008, United Furniture received the exclusive licensing agreement as the US manufacturer of Simmons Upholstery. In August 2015, Simmons Case Goods was added to the United Furniture product lines. This allowed United to include matching upholstery and suitcases under the Simmons brand.
United purchased the Lane brand in 2017 from Heritage Home Group LLC for an undisclosed sum. Lane, founded in 1912 in Virginia and merged with Tupelo-based Action Industries in 1972, was once one of the largest employers in northeast Mississippi. Lane was part of Furniture Brand International, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2013. Most of the Furniture Brands business was purchased by KPS Capital Partners for $280 million and, later, was formed Heritage Home Group.