United Solar Ovonic auction canceled; Greenville operation is finished

By Elisabeth Waldon • Last Updated 7:24 am on Tuesday, May 08, 2012

According to Plant Manager Tim Kelley, about 215 United Solar employees from the Greenville facility will lose their jobs. — File photo

GREENVILLE — Tricia Richards didn’t fall to pieces when she learned she was losing her job Monday.

The former Electrolux employee and current United Solar Ovonic employee has been through this before.

United Solar Ovonic and its parent company, Energy Conversion Devices, both filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Feb. 14. United Solar’s plant in Greenville was set to be auctioned off to the highest bidder today.

However, Energy Conversion Devices in Auburn Hills canceled the auction Monday due to the failure of receiving an acceptable bid. Approximately 300 people will lose their jobs — about 215 of them at the Greenville facility, according to Plant Manager Tim Kelley. The company’s assets will be sold.

Plans were announced in March 2006 to construct six solar panel manufacturing facilities in Greenville for a total of 1,200 new jobs. In reality, four plants were created in two buildings and a total of 474 people were employed at the peak of operation. United Solar Ovonic has not had productive operations since Nov. 6, 2011.

Energy Conversion Devices and United Solar Ovonic have incurred $263.2 million in debt due in 2013, in addition to significant legacy costs incurred over the past 50 years.

Richards, a production technician who lives in Six Lakes, was hired at United Solar Ovonic on Dec. 1, 2008. She previously did repair work at Electrolux, working until the company’s last day — in March 2006. Richards has been laid off from United Solar Ovonic since last September. When employees were asked to volunteer to take an extra 10 weeks of layoff time, Richards volunteered to help take care of her brother, who had a stroke.

Some United Solar Ovonic employees found out the bad news at a “town hall meeting” Monday morning.

“Today’s announcement is one that everyone here at ECD and Uni-Solar worked extremely hard to avoid,” said Julian Hawkins, president and CEO of Energy Conversion Devices. “Each one of you has played an integral role in forever changing the world of clean energy.”

Richards learned the news from The Daily News Facebook page Monday afternoon.

“I was holding out for the best, but I was prepared for the worst,” she said.

Richards was hit hard when Electrolux closed, losing everything, including her home. This time around, she was more prepared, her children grown. She is only responsible for herself now.

“Fortunately, I had already lost everything from the first round, so I didn’t really have much to lose this time,” she said with a wry chuckle.

Kelley said Monday morning’s announcement hit employees hard.

“The folks who were working were somewhat stunned and surprised,” Kelley said. “The men and women who have been on furlough, they were not surprised by the announcement. They’d been preparing for it for quite some time.”

And Kelley’s reaction?

“I’m just incredibly saddened and disappointed by the news,” he said. “Such wonderful people and wonderful buildings and equipment …”

Kelley will be part of a team that will remain on site for a few months to wind down operations. He said the team will be reduced by mid-July and everything should be completed by Sept. 1.

“There is no company after this,” he summarized.

United Solar Ovonic employees will either receive a severance package from Energy Conversion Devices, or will be partially protected by the Worker Adjustment & Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, whichever offers more.

As for Richards, she had been hoping to return to work at United Solar Ovonic, at least until she finished her continuing education. She is studying family life education and would like to become a victims advocate.

“It was a really great place to work,” she said of the Greenville plant. “They were an exceptional group of people to work with. I wish all my fellow co-workers the best. They’ve all seemed to have gone their separate, different ways.”

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