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Upland's rehiring process angers employees, but president says it's misunderstood



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Someone holds a cup of beer during "Granfalloon: Outdoor Music Fest" on May 11 at Upland Brewing Co. The brewing company recently laid off 87% of its employees after Gov. Eric Holcomb announced a ban on dining in at restaurants and bars due to the coronavirus pandemic. Annie Aguiar

Upland Brewing Company was in the Facebook spotlight after a letter to laid-off employees outlining the re-hiring process was posted and sparked anger among community members and past employees.

Upland switched to carry-out and delivery only on March 16 after Gov. Eric Holcomb announced a ban on dining in at restaurants and bars due to the coronavirus pandemic. The company laid off 87% of its employees, which Upland president David Bower described in an interview as traumatic.

In mid-April, the company wrote to its laid-off employees, informing them of the gradual recovery and rehiring process planned for when each of their seven locations begin to reopen. Laid-off employees also continued to receive a portion of the pooled tips the company received from pick-up and delivery.

Part of the second letter about rehiring that was sent to employees last week was shared with the public on Facebook on April 26. 

Because there will be fewer jobs available than before Upland closed, the company had to create a fair way to rehire employees, the letter explained. The letter stated that anyone who wants to be considered for rehire will have to reapply and go through an interview process with an objective interviewer. The individual’s former supervisor will be consulted and the decision will be made based on the combination of feedback they receive.

“Due to economic factors beyond our control, the rebuild process will be gradual,” the letter reads. “We are preparing for a reality in which the demand for jobs exceeds the supply.”

Paris Toler, a former employee at the Columbus Pump House, one of Upland’s locations in Columbus, Indiana, interpreted the rehiring process detailed in the letter as a way that Upland is going to get rid of employees they don’t like and not give credit to the time they’ve worked there.

She said her interpretation matched the culture of the workplace at the Pump House she left about a year after she started in 2016. Toler said when she was first hired she was told that the company was “for their people” and that they would treat employees well, but for her and other employees who did not want their names included, the statement didn’t hold up.

“If you weren’t in with the managers, chummy, doing drugs with them or hanging out, you basically didn’t matter, no matter how hard you worked,” Toler said.

According to Toler, workers who weren’t close friends with the managers didn’t get good shifts or as many hours which would drive people to quit. She said she felt a similar, entitled culture among managers at the Bloomington location where she was trained.

“It was almost like ‘Mean Girls’,” Toler said. “Which is a very childish way to run a restaurant.”

But Bower said the letter was not completely understood by those who saw it on Facebook and refuted the interpretations of Toler and others.

“I think unfortunately, taken out of sequence, that letter was misinterpreted,” Bower said. “It was misrepresented to suggest that we don’t want certain people back or we’re creating a process that makes it more difficult than it has to be. That’s not our intention at all.”

While they expect much of their laid-off staff to reapply, they think some staff will choose to pursue other opportunities or remain receiving unemployment payments. Bower said this creates another possible situation in which there are not enough recently laid-off employees to fill positions. He said this is yet to be seen, but if it does happen, they will consider external applicants. So far, they have only considered internal applicants.

“Our desire is to bring everyone back, but it is possible that not everyone wants to come back, that they have other opportunities they want to pursue,” Bower said. “It’s not our place to advise them but just let them know what our process looks like.”

Restaurants will be allowed to open at 50% capacity on May 15 in Monroe County according to the county’s independent decision to extend the stay-at-home order and Gov. Eric Holcomb’s five-step plan to re-open the state. Bars will be able to open at 50% capacity on June 14.  According to Bower, less staff will be needed to operate Upland’s retail locations because capacity will be limited.

Bower said he also expects fewer customers when they reopen due to the recent surge in unemployment and the fact that some customers will continue to be cautious about eating out.

“We’re dealing with some uncertain circumstances,” Bower said. “There’s a lot about the future that we can’t predict but we do know the future is going to be different than the past.”

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