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Union accuses Hickey Freeman of ‘stealing worker wages,’ company denies allegation

By: Kevin Oklobzija//January 27, 2023

Union accuses Hickey Freeman of ‘stealing worker wages,’ company denies allegation

By: Kevin Oklobzija//January 27, 2023//

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Back in 2019, an $8.2 million recapitalization of Hickey Freeman was trumpeted as a means to create a new product line and add 80 jobs to the Rochester workforce. (File photo by Kevin Oklobzija)

The union representing workers at Hickey Freeman is accusing the iconic Rochester-based men’s clothier of stealing workers’ wages and shirking benefit obligations.

The Rochester Regional Joint Board (RRJB) of Workers United filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Tuesday against Hickey Freeman Tailored Clothing (HFTC) over the alleged diversion of funds.

The union says 170 workers will lose health insurance benefits on Tuesday because Hickey Freeman Tailored Clothing owes $3 million in employee and employer premium payments.

“We have represented workers at Hickey Freeman for nearly 100 years and have historically had a great relationship with the company,” Gary Bonadonna Jr., manager of the RRJB, said in a news release. “The fact that the current owners are now stealing workers wages, which should be going towards their healthcare, and contractual benefits, is disgusting.

“We’re pursuing every remedy at our disposal and won’t rest until the workers receive justice.”

The company said no money was stolen and that tardy insurance payments are a continuing result of the COVID-19 pandemic, when sales plummeted.

“HFTC (Hickey Freeman Tailored Clothing) has been proud owners of the Hickey Freeman factory for almost 10 years,” a spokesperson said in an email. “Over that time, we have invested significantly in the business. We have never stolen worker wages and the very notion that we would is defamatory.

“It is true we have arrears to our health benefits provider incurred primarily during the pandemic when most of our sales were wiped out; we are working tirelessly to make sure coverage does not lapse.”

Founded in Rochester in 1899, Hickey Freeman was purchased in 2013 by Samuelsohn, a subsidiary of Canada-based Grano Retail Investments. Stephen Granovsky is the CEO.

The union says that as part of the collective bargaining agreement, HFTC deducts union dues and health and other benefit contributions from paychecks, as well as making 401k contributions.

But those funds have not been directed to the appropriate accounts, per legal obligations, the union said.

The delinquency in payments to the Amalgamated National Health Fund prompted the insurer to notify the union that health insurance will be terminated on Jan. 31.

Hickey Freeman has operated at its current location, at 1155 N. Clinton Ave. in Rochester, since 1912 but the facility is undergoing a transformation.

The four-story, 225,000-square-foot building was sold in 2022 as part of Home Leasing’s $70 million development plan to create 134 units of affordable housing.

The property sale and leaseback allowed Hickey Freeman to shed about 130,000 square feet of unused space, becoming a more efficient manufacturing operation.

That property sale has workers questioning company motives.

“How long has this company been taking money for health insurance out of our weekly paychecks but not paying? Where has this money been going?,” Leinla Nguyen, a Hickey Freeman employee, said in the union news release. “This building was just sold, so why can’t they pay? Where is that money?”

An HFTC spokesperson said efforts continue to remedy issues.

“We have had a very good relationship with the union for almost 10 years and we are shocked at their behavior now. But we are working closely with them to address the situation.”

Hickey Freeman also has received significant funding from New York State, including a $4 million loan-to-grant for renovation, as well as pandemic relief and other tax breaks, the union said.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has for years trumpeted the virtues of Hickey Freeman. He helped ensure passage last spring of the Cotton and Wool Apparel Program (CAWA), which was designed to compensate American manufacturers, along with cotton and wool spinners, for the competitive disadvantage caused by what  Schumer called “tariff inversion.”

The duty on an imported finished product is lower than the duty on the inputs used to make the product in the U.S.

The union said Granovsky has “unlawfully” withheld wages for several years and that it has “exhausted every possible bargaining opportunity to get the company to honor its legal obligations to workers.”

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