On Feb. 24, the City’s soon-to-be-launched Rapid Re-Employment Initiative was just a framework idea on paper, but one day later it was a plan that had to be put in action fast as City officials got the unexpected news that Signature Breads on Admiral’s Hill was closing and laying off 194 workers by April 30.
It was a ‘stop in the tracks moment’ for those in the Planning Department and for City Manager Tom Ambrosino as so many workers in good paying, service-oriented jobs were going to be without any means.
“On Feb. 25, Signature Breads notified us, regional and state officials that they were closing down operations, laying off 194 staff members and selling the property,” said Alex Train, director of Housing and Community Development. “The closing date was April 30, but they retained a skeleton crew to clean the site, dismantle the equipment and sell it before the new owner took possession. This was the largest closing of a business and permanent lay-off of employees during the pandemic that we’d seen. They had a furlough there in the early days of the pandemic at Signature, but this was the largest closure.”
Signature Breads had been on Justin Drive since the early 2000s, and before that, it had been Pillsbury. So, the facility had run three shifts with many workers and management at the facility for some time. Signature had a long history of being in business before moving to Chelsea, so the closure was even more unexpected.
What Train said was very “disconcerting” is the company at its closure only awarded severance packages by seniority. Some 50 or 60 management and salary workers received packages, and another 100 workers too. Some, however, were just without a job.
“What was disconcerting a bit was it ended up being that about 140 or 150 got severance packages, but 40 or 50 were not,” he said. “We were particularly sensitive to those employees when we were putting our plans together because they had no safety net.”
The property at 100 Justin Drive sold for $53 million to Westbrook Partners, a company that is looking at various uses right now for the property – which they will combine with the top floor of a property they own already at 10 Justin Drive. The principals of that company have not returned repeated inquiries about the property by the Record since January.
Train and Planner Karl Allen quickly reached out to their partners that were part of the planning efforts for the program, including TND Connect, MassHire, La Colaborativa, and Metro North.
“We had begun planning a rapid re-employment program,” Train said. “We had the framework of the program set up.”
The City and its partners were able to get into Signature with their teams before it closed to help them upgrade resumes, guide workers to other job opportunities, help them find training programs, and offer services like rental assistance, health insurance and other services.
“Together with our partners we were able to interact directly with employees at the business before it closed,” he said. “We interfaced with 40 or 50 employees on site and had job fairs for them…We were able to connect with fair number of employees to meet their needs.”
Allen said the effort ended up just being an unplanned pilot program for what will officially launch citywide in September. He said they have signed a contract with TND Connect to run the program.
“This effort really laid the foundation for the Rapid Re-Employment Initiative that will fully launch in September,” he said.
In that program, they plan to hire a Job Navigator to help with case management for employees that have been laid off or lost their jobs. Allen said they found out it was important to have someone to guide those looking for jobs and opportunities because most of the systems set up by the state were online and self-guided. That could have been a problem for some, as the system wasn’t easy to figure out.
“Through that process, and the upcoming program launch, we have found out what the need is out there and look for ways to make it better,” he said. “We did already discover through the pandemic that the approach Workforce Development used is mostly online and do-it-yourself, and that doesn’t work for a lot of our residents.”
Train said it was a terrible situation, but they were encouraged to find they could step in and help, but he noted such job opportunities like Signature are going away.
“It’s a terrible, terrible occurrence,” he said. “Like many produce distribution companies and manufacturing companies on Beacham Street, it was a very steady and well-paid employer without a lot of barriers to opportunity. These kinds of opportunities are shrinking in the Boston area because of housing development and other developments.”
Westbrook Partners has told the City they might be interested in life sciences, a hot commodity now in real estate, or food services from the area. They are doing site upgrades at the moment, and have promised to have a Preliminary Plan and Marketing Plan to submit by September.
Train said if it is life sciences, the City will be advocating for some type of industry that would not set up barriers for Chelsea residents.
“The Kendall Square life sciences type of use means there would be advanced degrees required and that’s not going to really fit in well with our economic development plans in Chelsea,” said Train.