By Amye Anderson
UCBJ Managing Editor
UPPER CUMBERLAND – The recent failure of a proposed repeal of an EPA-issued rule has forced Fitzgerald Glider Kits to slash its production by 90-percent by the end of the year. In response, the company has begun reducing its workforce by the dozens.
Earlier this week, reports surfaced that the company’s Jamestown plant – which is estimated to employ 25 people – had closed. That news falls on the heels of reported layoffs at other Fitzgerald plants in the region.
While Jon Toomey, the company’s director of government affairs, declined to give details on the number of individuals impacted thus far, sources have estimated at least 70 have already been let go. The company has reportedly employed as many as 700 people prior to recent events.
READ MORE: Fitzgerald awaits EPA repeal decision
“We are on our third round of layoffs and have unfortunately let go a number of employees and expect additional layoffs before this rule is finalized,” Toomey told the UCBJ. “We’d rather not put a number on it yet since we have not yet made all decisions on additional layoffs. The most difficult part is having to lay off employees who mean so much to this company. We are fighting every day to resolve this regulatory mess.”
Toomey said the initial phase of the Obama-era EPA rule has limited Fitzgerald’s production to 300 trucks for this year – a significant decrease from the 3,000 or so units the company has reportedly produced in previous years.
“The Fitzgerald’s have made it their mission to provide for this region and other parts of the country,” Toomey said. “This is a prime example of how government regulations can severely impact communities. We are hopeful, however, in President (Donald) Trump’s agenda and his promise to save American jobs. (EPA) Administrator (Scott) Pruitt has done a great job in recognizing agency overreach and the cleanup at EPA has not been easy.
“I think you’re seeing how difficult it is to rollback job killing regulations, even with an administration whose main goal is to deregulate,” Toomey continued. “We will continue to work with the government in achieving a positive outcome and are hopeful of a resolution in the near future. The negative press has been driven by those who have an agenda and want to ignore the up-cycling done by the company. Those detractors include foreign companies trying to pad their bottom line.”
Toomey told the UCBJ that these recent rounds of layoffs is a direct result of the delay in repealing the EPA Phase II ruling. The ruling isn’t the only recent issue affecting the local trucking giant.
In September 2017, Fitzgerald’s namesake and founder, Tommy Fitzgerald, voiced his opposition and dissatisfaction with the IRS’ tax dispute resolution process and excise tax before the House Committee on Ways and Means.
“Fitzgerald has been the subject of six IRS examinations over the last two decades,” a copy of his statement to representatives reads.
Of those examinations, the company was reportedly successful in appealing the IRS’ decision in five of the cases. However, the sixth and final one reportedly resulted in roughly $70 million of tax, penalties, and interest against the company.
“Fitzgerald now faces grave uncertainty,” Tommy’s September memo stated. “Exam’s objection imperils 400 direct assembly jobs and thousands of indirect jobs.”
Meanwhile the internal inquiry conducted by Tennessee Tech University into allegations of research misconduct related to a study on glider kits is still ongoing, though an update may be available at the next Board of Trustees meeting on June 26.
“The study by TTU demonstrates the exact opposite that gliders are ‘super polluting’ and the criticism of the study is unfounded,” Toomey said. “Unfortunately, the TTU study has become exemplified because there was a compliant filed by a faculty member, Dr. (Benjamin) Mohr at TTU. It appears he was upset not at the actual test results, but rather with the presentation and that he was replaced by Mr. (Tom) Brewer. Secondly, the report was not and has not been ‘disavowed’ by TTU. This is again misinformation that is meant to put a spin on the investigation that was launched or encouraged by the certain professors with an axe to grind with the administration at the University.”
The UCBJ inquired about the potential impact the company’s layoffs may have on the Fitzgerald family’s other business ventures, such as their Country Farm and Home Centers. One is already established in Byrdstown and another, currently under construction along Highway 111, would serve the Rickman area.
“We are not going to provide specific details at the moment,” Toomey replied.
While there are many uncertainties in the days, weeks and months to come, we asked how recent events may have affected the Fitzgerald brand.
“The Fitzgerald brand is known to be a supporter of rural America, a caring environment for its employees, and a reputable brand that is loved by its customers,” Toomey replied. “There are a number of ill informed people or people who have intentionally attempted to damage the company’s business and brand. That is unfortunate and will eventually be dealt with.”