She was looking forward to a big family reunion when Toria Neal received life-changing news: the mother-of-four lost her job, along with everyone else at her company.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Neal, 36, told the Post. “The text said we would all be terminated and all of our benefits, including our health insurance, would be terminated effective immediately. I had a really bad breakdown right there. I thought what should I do?”
Neal and other workers at United Furniture Industries were shocked this week when the company canned all 2,700 of them at once, sharing the news in a text message just after midnight on Tuesday.
Neal has four children under the age of 21 and “a lot of bills to pay,” she said.
“I couldn’t sleep after I got the text,” she said, breaking down in tears on the phone. “It tore me up. It felt like such a betrayal. Not just me, but all of us. I worry about the older workers there who take medication every day and who, as of today, can no longer afford it without health insurance.”
Neal worked as a traffic coordinator at United Furniture’s Mississippi office. Some workers slept and didn’t see it until the next morning. Some reportedly started driving to work before reading the message.
“I thought it was a joke,” said Javier Monroy, 58, who worked as a purchasing manager at the company’s California plant, of receiving the termination text. “Some of us drove to the factory on Tuesday to get our stuff and we realized it wasn’t a joke.”
Monroy was still placing orders and preparing trucks for their deliveries just hours before he and the other employees were fired.
“At least I’m married and have a wife whose health insurance I can buy,” Monroy said. “I’m worried about my friends at work. One of them is a single mother and the other started chemotherapy for cancer last week. They won’t be able to afford a second one when our health insurance ends.”
The company violated federal law by failing to give 60 days notice before closing operations, Neal and Monroy filed suit.
It’s been a tough Thanksgiving, said Neal, who has been with United Furniture since 2015.
“It was so hard and so emotional,” she said of the vacation. “I also have family members who work there. I still have a hard time talking about it without breaking down.”
“We all left on Monday and said see you tomorrow, not knowing that some people we might never see again,” Neal said. “We still have personal belongings in it, but everything is locked away at the moment. We also had no idea that something like this would happen.”
Monroy said United Furniture owed a lot of money to outside vendors.
“They owe millions everywhere,” said Monroy, whose job brought with it an awareness of the company’s finances.
He is also concerned about safety at the California plant. Monroy said he still has keys to the entire facility, where everything from forklifts to staple guns has been left within reach — and so have other employees.
“I told one of the managers here, who are just muppets to the Mississippi bosses, and he didn’t seem that concerned about who had the keys,” Monroy said. “But I heard that employees here are going to storm the building on Monday. I’m worried about that. People can go crazy in such situations. Someone has to take more responsibility here.”
Some workers showed up at the factory there last week after being laid off, WTVA in Mississippi reported.
“We’re all pissed off,” United Furniture employee Isaac Darkwah told the broadcaster. “We worked hard for them and then they treat us like this?”
Frelinda Isbell, who works with Darkwah, also spoke out about the mass layoffs on twitter.
“If I start another job, I have to wait 90 days to get insurance. They texted me in the middle of the night. I lost all my benefits and am a good employee. All my benefits are gone and I can’t go to the doctor. I don’t think that’s right. It’s very wrong. It’s in the middle of vacation. I have light bills, water bills and kids.”
Neal’s attorney Casey Lott of Booneville, Mississippi, said the mass layoffs linked to the abrupt termination of welfare payments were not only shocking — they were illegal. Lott became the first attorney to file a class action lawsuit against the company last week. Since then, several more have been submitted.
The lawsuits are based on the federal Workers’ Adjustment and Retraining Act (WARN), which requires companies with more than 100 employees to provide 60 days’ written notice of layoffs or closures.
The mass firing was so poorly handled, Lott claims, that one of his customers in California was still buying inventory on behalf of the company Monday, and the trucks were finishing same-day deliveries.
“It doesn’t make much sense,” Lott told the Post.
“Upon direction of the Board of Directors… we regret to report that 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,” the company said in messages to employees.
“Except for road drivers who are out on delivery. It is expected that your dismissal from the Company will be permanent and all benefits will cease immediately without provision of COBRA.”
No one has yet explained why the 20-year-old company, based in Okolona, Mississippi, so suddenly wound up its operations, but fired its chief executive, chief financial officer and executive vice president of sales over the summer, according to FurnitureToday.com . A few weeks later, about 500 employees lost their jobs at multiple facilities in Winston-Salem, NC, and Verona, Mississippi. and Victorville, California.