New sugar plant looking at Imperial workers

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 8, 2011



CONVENT — The St. James Parish Council on Wednesday heard from a representative with Louisiana Sugar Refining regarding the company’s hiring practices during its takeover of Imperial Sugar’s Gramercy refinery.

Plant manager Red Guerts spoke to the council in an effort to calm some fears about Imperial employees laid off during LSR’s takeover not getting consideration for rehire at the new facility. Imperial ceased its operations at the Gramercy refinery Dec. 31 and reduced its packaging operations there resulting in 170 of the plants 283 workers being laid off.

LSR, which is a partnership between Imperial, Cargill Inc. and Louisiana Sugar Growers and Refiners, is constructing a $190 million state-of-art refinery on the grounds of Imperial and some in the parish have been worried that long time workers at the plant would lose their positions to better-educated and trained workers from outside the parish.

In December, the Parish Council approved a resolution requesting LSR to retain Imperial Sugar workers and give first consideration for employment to workers who might lose their jobs after the Jan. 1 takeover.

Guerts said the company’s hiring objectives have been to hire the best available workforce in the area in order to make the plant operational by Jan. 1, when LSR assumed ownership. He said that workforce would include former Imperial workers.

He explained that all workers whose jobs were eliminated Dec. 31 will be able to apply for a job at LSR.

Guerts said LSR had partnered with the Louisiana Workforce Commission to ensure equal access to all available jobs. He said job positions and applications were posted on the Internet, and if applicants passed a preliminary assessment process, they would be granted an in-person interview.

“Few applicants were being turned down,” Guerts said. “We have made the process extraordinarily simple.”

Guerts said the application process includes an education requirement of GED or higher, but he said exceptions had been made depending on qualifications of the applicant. He said the process has encountered applicants with decades of experience in the refinery but with no GED.

“We still let them into the process because they knew the background information,” Guerts said. “Those applicants were being allowed to go through the assessment process for consideration.

Guerts added that LSR also seeks to ensure all employees are trained properly to work in an efficient, safe and technologically advanced workplace. He said the new refinery goes beyond the normal everyday refinery jobs.

“Employees need to be computer literate to work in the new facility,” Guerts said. “It is more than just knowing how to work a forklift. The jobs will require technical skills as well, but we are working with the workforce commission to develop training.”

As of Wednesday’s meeting, Guerts said LSR had hired 101 people, with plans to add an additional 12 or more by the end of next month.

He said 30 percent of the hires have come from St. James and another 60 percent from the River Parishes region. It is not known how many of those new hires were former Imperial employees that were laid off.

After the meeting, St. James Parish President Dale Hymel said he was “satisfied” with Guerts’ presentation, saying that it eased some of the concerns felt by him and other members of the council. He said that LSR appeared to be making an effort to re-hire residents from the parish. He also referenced the fact that the original plans for the new refinery called for the plant to be built in St. John the Baptist Parish.

“I think the community needs to understand that this new refinery would have been in direct competition with Imperial,” Hymel said. “Imperial would not have survived the competition, and we would have lost every job at the plant.”