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Employees of Carriage House Cos. in Fredonia and Dunkirk have reached a severance agreement with the business’ parent company, ConAgra Foods, as ConAgra prepares to close the plants over the next few months.

“We got what we believe is a fair severance package, and they also are going to sell the facilities with no restrictions,” said Thomas Dickerson, president of SEIU Local 266, NCFO. “They said if a competitor wanted to buy the plant, they can have it.”

Dickerson called the agreement “greatly enhanced” from what the union feared ConAgra would try to push through.

“I’ve seen what they gave after other plant closings were announced, and this one is much, much better,” Dickerson said.

Dickerson would not release specifics of the deal until all members of the union are notified, but he did say that the severance amounts are based on years of service and rate of pay and that the package also includes a health insurance component. The average length of employment at the plants is 23 years, Dickerson said, with many workers logging more than 30 years. Pay varies by position, with an average hourly wage of about $14.

The company is a major employer and local institution in Fredonia, operating for decades as Red Wing Co. before being sold to Ralcorp in 2000. ConAgra gained ownership when it purchased Ralcorp for $5 billion in 2013. Shortly afterward, it closed Ralcorp’s Petrie Baking Co. in Silver Creek, and Carriage House workers feared that there was more to come.

There was. They were notified in March that ConAgra would pull out of all operations in Dunkirk and Fredonia by March 2015 and move operations to Kentucky. The Fredonia workers say they have been told they cannot relocate to the Kentucky plant. Instead, they are working overtime now to build up inventory to carry ConAgra through the transition.

Layoffs are expected to begin in earnest in October, when one facility closes, with more in December before the shutdown is complete.

Dickerson estimates that the combined job loss from Petrie and Carriage House, including non-union office workers, is more than 1,000, a significant hit for the rural communities. Fredonia and Dunkirk officials also have noted that the loss of tax revenue and utility support could have a significant negative affect on their operations. Fredonia could lose $2 million annually in water, sewer and tax payments. Small businesses also expect to suffer, with some saying they’ve already seen a drop in customers.

And the Food Bank of Western New York, which helps provide food for 3,700 families in Chautauqua County through its 47 member agencies there, could also take a significant hit.

Justin P. Guerin, operations director at the Food Bank, said that since ConAgra took over Carriage House, the Food Bank has received 1.8 million pounds of food from the plants, including peanut butter, jellies, salsa and condiments. ConAgra is a partner in the national organization Feeding America, but it will not be making future donations from local plants once Carriage House is closed.

Although workers will receive severance and be eligible for unemployment insurance, Food Bank President Marylou Borowiak said they are already coordinating with Chautauqua County agencies that expect an influx of families needing help.

ConAgra’s reversal on its earlier position that it would not sell to a competitor opens the door for new jobs in the old plants. Chautauqua County is marketing the properties, and New York State is funding a $50,000 feasibility study on the best use of the facilities.

Other officials also expressed support. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., issued a statement repeating his disappointment in ConAgra for closing the plants but said his office also is moving to bring a new company onboard. “Conversations have already begun,” he said, “and I will be working tirelessly with local leaders to have a new company operating and hiring workers in these facilities as soon as possible.”

Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, congratulated the union for the deal and said, “The work continues now to find a buyer and restore those jobs in the Chautauqua County community as soon as possible.”

Pat Krupa, a 35-year employee, is among those hoping another employer will take over soon. At a rally last week at Barker Commons in Fredonia, he said his options are limited.

“I’m too old to move. My family’s all here, and my daughter goes to college here,” Krupa said. “There’s a lot of us 50 and older – who else is going to hire us? You’re too young to retire, but it’s hard. Nobody wants to hire the old ones.”

email: mmiller@buffnews.com