Louisiana-based Blue Bell operations looking to avoid closures, big layoffs _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Shelves are empty last month where employees took all Blue Bell products off the shelves at Matherne's Supermarket. The Texas ice cream company issued a voluntary recall for all its products.

Blue Bell distribution centers in Louisiana appear to have survived closures that will result in a layoff of a third of the ice cream maker’s workers after listeria concerns halted its ice cream production.

The company also is imposing cost-cutting measures, including partial furloughs and salary reductions.

An online search for Blue Bell shows its has operations in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Slidell, Bossier City, Alexandria and Ruston.

About 1,400 employees elsewhere will be furloughed, the company said. The layoff includes about 750 full-time and 700 part-time employees — 37 percent of Blue Bell’s workforce of 3,900.

Blue Bell said it is suspending operations and laying off employees at distribution centers in Phoenix, two branches, and Tucson, Arizona; Denver; Indianapolis; Kansas City and Wichita, Kansas; Louisville, Kentucky; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Las Vegas; Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina; Columbia, South Carolina; and Richmond, Virginia.

Blue Bell said closures were determined based on its ability to service locations when it resumes operations with what is expected to be limited ice cream production capacity. Distribution centers typically service a 75-mile radius.

“The agonizing decision to lay off hundreds of our great workers and reduce hours and pay for others was the most difficult one I have had to make in my time as Blue Bell’s CEO and president,” said Paul Kruse.

The process of cleaning and improving Blue Bell’s four production plants is going to take longer than the company initially anticipated, he said, especially at the main plant in Brenham, Texas, where major repairs and equipment replacements are expected. There is no firm timeline for when Blue Bell will begin producing ice cream again. When production resumes, it will be limited and phased in over time.

All of the company’s plants have been shut down since Blue Bell issued a full recall in April after more of its products tested positive for listeria. The company’s ice cream has been linked to 10 listeria illnesses in four states, including three deaths in Kansas.

Kruse said the employee actions affect three groups:

  • Employees who are essential to ongoing operations and cleaning and repair efforts will continue to work but have their pay reduced.
  • A second group of employees will be placed on partially paid furlough. They will be paid a substantial portion of their current pay, with the expectation that they will return to work as production resumes.
  • Because there is not a clear timeline for when production will resume, and because supply and distribution will be limited when it does, a third group of employees will be laid off.

“At Blue Bell, our employees are part of our family, and we did everything we could to keep people on our payroll for as long as possible,” Kruse said. “At the same time, we have an obligation to do what is necessary to bring Blue Bell back and ensure its viability in the future. This is a sad day for all of us at Blue Bell, and for me personally.”

The layoffs come after the company signed agreements on Thursday with health officials in Texas and Oklahoma detailing steps the company will follow to resume production of ice cream products. No timeline has been set for when Blue Bell will resume production.