Nearly 400 workers at the Brooks Brothers factory in Haverhill will not receive severance pay when the facility closes next month, their union said, including employees who agreed to work during the coronavirus pandemic to manufacture masks for front-line workers.
The maker of suits and preppy clothing — the oldest continuously operating apparel brand in in the country — has been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis, as formal celebrations were canceled and professionals abandoned suits and ties when they started working from home. Brooks Brothers, founded in 1818, filed for bankruptcy Wednesday and announced it would close 51 of its roughly 250 stores in North America — including six in the Boston area, according to its website — though it did not reveal which ones. In May, the company announced it would close its three US factories.
Workers at facilities in New York and Garland, N.C., will receive the severance designated in their union contracts, according to the New England Joint Board of Unite Here, which represents employees in Haverhill. But the Haverhill workers did not have separation pay in their agreement, and the company refused to negotiate the issue when the closures were announced. The union called it a “slap in the face” for employees, many of whom live in the Merrimack Valley communities of Haverhill, Lowell, and Lawrence, which have relatively high rates of residents infected with the virus.
Diane Robinson, a Lawrence resident and 36-year employee at the factory, which has been owned by Brooks Brothers since 2007, doesn’t know what she’s going to do for work now. She has a bad back and severe carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands, underwent surgery on one elbow, and had cortisone shots in the other — common impairments in the sewing industry, she said. In her most recent job, stitching buttons on 600 pairs of pants a day, her base pay was $15.66 an hour.
“This is going to prevent me from getting other jobs,” she said. “With no severance, I’m left with nothing.”
The New York-based company, owned by Italian industrialist Claudio del Vecchio since 2001, said that the bankruptcy filing would allow it to obtain financing as it moves toward a sale.
Brooks Brothers is the latest high-profile retailer to falter during the pandemic, which has caused widespread store closures and sales declines. Since May, Neiman Marcus, J. Crew, and J.C. Penney have all filed for bankruptcy. Like Brooks Brothers, the companies plan to keep operating, but the businesses will probably be scaled back.
Less than 7 percent of Brooks Brothers’ finished goods, including suits, ties, and some shirts, come from its three US factories, which are set to halt production by Aug. 15, the company said. The apparel maker noted in an e-mail to the Globe that the factories are a meaningful part of the company’s heritage and it has “enormous respect for the craftspeople who work in them.”
“It is well-known that domestic manufacturing is costly and that these factories have rarely been profit centers,” the company said. “We have been proud to make the investment, but unfortunately the company had to focus on maintaining a sustainable, long-term business that the majority of employees can come back to, post-pandemic.”
When Brooks Brothers started manufacturing masks at its US factories in late March, shortly after sending workers home, about 40 employees returned to sew masks for government officials, hospital workers, and the US Navy, among others.
Robinson, 58, did not join the mask-making efforts because of her asthma, she said, but she went back to work full-time on June 1 to help complete unfinished orders. Despite temperature checks, health screenings, and mask-wearing requirements, she was nervous, especially since there are no windows to let in fresh air.
She knew the factory was set to close, but she’s incensed that the owner isn’t taking care of his employees.
“The guy’s a billionaire,” she said. “There’s nothing he can do for his people?”
Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.
Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.