Employees at the Kraft. Heinz plant in Ontario can stop by the union hall for more information about a proposed restructuring and upcoming informational sessions. (The Enterprise/Kristine de Leon)

ONTARIO – John Wharton began work at the Kraft Heinz frozen food plant in Ontario more than 11 years ago. 

In that time, he worked his way up from an entry-level job to a senior position as a cutter at the plant.

The Ontario resident, though, said he was shocked Monday when he learned that more than 100 jobs at the long-time local potato processing plant were to be “reclassified.”

“I feel that there’s going to be a lot of upset people,” said Wharrton. “The general attitude is going to be worse than before.”

The Kraft Heinz Co. unleashed uncertainty into the local labor market when local plant officials met with employees to announce a restructuring that could lead to some people losing their jobs.

The company said in a statement to the Malheur Enterprise Tuesday that 100 jobs would be reclassified. Officials of Teamsters Local No. 670, which represents many of the factory workers, said the number was closer to 130.

Several union members asserted the “reclassification” means layoffs but Kraft Heinz, one of Malheur County’s biggest employers, insisted Wednesday that no workers “are being laid off.”

The company said in its five-sentence statement, however, that there would be “voluntary” layoffs.

“As part of an ongoing review of our manufacturing capacity and efficiencies, we are eliminating 100 roles - not people,” said Michael Mullen, a Kraft Heinz spokesman in the company’s headquarters in Pittsburgh. “Remaining positions will be eliminated through voluntary severance and attrition.”

Mullen didn’t return telephone messages seeking additional comment and didn’t address written questions to clarify the company’s actions. He said in one email, though, that developments in Ontario were a “non-story.”

The union doesn’t agree.

“While there have been numerous reports as to the number of people affected, the truth is, none of us really know how big or small the impact will be until all the dust settles,” said Teamsters Business Agent Kevin Slagle in an emailed statement.

The union’s priority, he said, is to help members weather the coming adjustment, whatever that turns out to be.

“We want to provide as many resources as possible to help any affected individuals transition during this difficult time. Whether there are ten people directly impacted, or one hundred, the Union’s goal is to help each one of them,” he said. 

The union has partnered with WorkSource of Oregon to host workshops on unemployment insurance, the healthcare marketplace, and Worksource center programs. The workshops will be at the Union Hall at 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Thursday; Monday, 1 to 3 p.m.; and Tuesday, 8:30 to 11 a.m.

Wharton said the message seemed cleared at the company’s Monday meeting.

“We were all told on Monday that they were eliminating jobs,” said Wharton.

Wharton added that he wasn’t too surprised to hear the announcement during the Monday meeting.

“There were rumors about possible job cuts but no one could talk about it,” said Wharton. He said the company sent out notices to its 580 employees last Friday about a meeting on Monday, but it didn’t include details.

At that Monday meeting, the company officials announced that 100 job would be reclassified. That number includes vacant and filled positions.

Also, the company announced that 85 reclassified positions would be available for employees to seek.

Neither the company nor union said how many of the reclassified positions are currently filled by workers and if there are enough openings to guarantee everyone a new position.

“There will be numerous people who aren’t qualified for new positions, or who are unwilling to take a pay cut or a change in shift that doesn’t work for their family,” Slagle wrote.

Any job loss will make an impact on Ontario and the county, said John Breidenbach, Ontario Chamber of Commerce CEO.

“If it is a permanent thing that will be a major problem. That is not a good sign,” said Breidenbach. “One hundred jobs in Malheur County is equivalent to 500 jobs in Washington County. It is a major hit.”

Ontario Mayor Ron Verini said the news was a shock.

“I am absolutely shattered for our city. For all of the challenges our city has moving ourselves forward, this is another blow,” said Verini.

Greg Smith, county economic development director, said Wednesday he did not think the job situation at Kraft Heinz was permanent.

“We don’t want to lose the jobs even it is temporary positions,” said Smith.

Chris Rich, regional economist for the state Employment Department, said he heard the news about the Kraft Heinz situation Tuesday night. He said that he didn’t have any information about the reasons behind the move but added it probably would not have much of an impact on Malheur County’s unemployment rates. That’s because the latest unemployment rate in the county stood at 4 percent.

The total labor force for the county in June was 12,321. Of those workers, 1,160 of them were in manufacturing roles like those at the Kraft Heinz factory.

There haven’t been any large-scale layoffs in Malheur County since 1999, when the Northwest Agricultural Cooperative Association shut down, eliminating 50 jobs.

Rich said that over the last few months, Malheur County has “been having a lot of good stuff going for it” in terms of the economy. He also that he has heard from business owners in Malheur County that they are “struggling to find” people to for “difficult to fill” positions in Eastern Oregon.

The Malheur Enterprise will continue to share new information about the restructuring as it is available. If there is a new development that we should share, or you have a particular question you want us to ask, please call Pat at (541) 473-3377 or email him at [email protected]