Less than a year after opening, furniture maker Harpers Inc. faces federal workplace safety violations and is under investigation for unfair labor practices.
Harpers - which became one of Kootenai County’s largest manufacturers when it opened last July - says the problems won’t stop its progress toward delivering on its promise: to provide 530 decent-paying jobs for Kootenai County.
Harpers General Manager Greg Davis said that the plant has faced some adversity since opening 11 months ago. However, the company continues to add workers and move toward full production, he said.
The company’s latest problems include:
Federal Occupation Safety and Health Administration officials in Boise on Friday said that Harpers will be cited late next week for workplace safety problems. The problems center around painting procedures and equipment used to treat solvents.
National Labor Relations Board officials in Seattle say they are investigating the May 1 firing of a Harpers employee linked to union organization efforts at the plant. The board will decide whether Harpers is guilty of unfair labor practices.
The Idaho Human Rights Commission is investigating a discrimination complaint against Harpers by a former employee.
Harpers employees complained to OSHA investigators in February about problems with painting equipment and solvents used to finish the steel office furniture.
OSHA started investigating Harpers on March 13, said Ryan Kuemichael, the regional director for OSHA in Boise. His office finished looking at the problems May 15. OSHA expects to cite Harpers for violations and impose fines, possibly as early as next week.
Kuemichael did not reveal the amount of the fines. However, he said the company can avoid the fines, by fixing the problems within time allowed by OSHA.
Davis said he worked closely with OSHA inspectors and with Post Falls Fire Department inspectors to fix the safety problems. Davis expects OSHA’s citations to focus on minor technical problems in two areas: catwalks positioned 12 feet above the plant floor, and the entryway to a machine that separates paint from other solvents.
“We’ve had really good meetings with OSHA,” he said. “They’re trying to make us better, and we’ve already taken care of the problems.”
Struggle over unions
Since early this year, some Harpers employees have tried to unionize the plant by joining Teamsters Local 582 of Spokane. Harpers’ former plant in Torrance, Calif., had a work force represented by the Teamsters. Union leaders in California speculated that the company’s move to Idaho was, in part, linked to a desire to jettison the union.
Since the move, Post Falls workers have complained of broken promises for benefits and pay. Harpers early this year changed from a pay rate that averaged $6.50 to $10.50 an hour to a lower base wage with additional wages based on productivity. The more furniture pieces workers finish, the more they’re paid.
Davis said Harpers’ workers are among the best paid manufacturing workers in the area.
“We’ve had a couple of equipment failures that occurred with us early on,” Davis said Friday. “But it takes a while to train your people to learn the level of quality of the product that we anticipate.”
Larry Kenck, a Teamsters representative from Local 582, said in a recent interview that the union drive was proceeding well.
Kenck did not know when the Teamsters would ask the NLRB to hold a ratification vote, which requires 30 percent of the work force to show interest in having the Teamsters bargain for them.
Davis has written memos to employees urging them not to sign union cards and calling the Teamsters “the most corrupt union in the country.”
Davis said a union could do nothing to help Harpers make and sell furniture. “That’s what we’re here to do, and they wouldn’t do anything to move us forward toward that goal.”
The Teamsters sent a complaint to the NLRB May 9, saying Harpers unlawfully fired Michael Lane on May 1 for allegedly telling a coworker to slow down production.
Harpers had been notified Dec. 14, 1994, that the Teamsters were trying to organize. The complaint said Lane’s firing happened “just days after Lane had been told by a supervisor that he could not organize workers because no union was coming in.”
Attempts to reach David Ballew, Lane’s lawyer in Seattle, were unsuccessful Friday.
Davis said he can’t comment on personnel matters, but said that his human resources staff and other workers involved with the case cooperated with the investigation. “Michael (Lane) was a nice guy.”
Human rights complaint
The complaint before the human rights commission involves the firing of Joseph Berge. Berge claims the company fired him because he became disabled in August 1994. He said he suffered a ruptured disc in his back while moving his family from Torrance to Post Falls.
He also suffers from cirrhosis of the liver, not a work-related condition.
Berge got a doctor’s note to return to work, said Larry Beck, Berge’s Hayden Lake attorney. But, according to the complaint, Berge supervisor said he could only return when he was completely healthy. Harpers fired Berge on Jan. 20.
Davis said he cannot discuss Berge’s firing because it is a personnel matter.
Despite recent problems, Davis points to the continuing improvements in Harpers productivity and new agreements to sell Harpers furniture locally. “We’ve had two very solid months here.”