My name is Julie Ford and I was employed at a regional furniture retail company called Art Van, headquartered in Warren, Michigan, for 28 years. My last position with the company was as an HR administrator.
On behalf of thousands of former Art Van employees across the United States, I welcome the opportunity to address members of the Hawaii Employees Retirement System (ERS) board of trustees.
Hawaii ERS has investments with Thomas H. Lee (“THL”), the private equity firm that acquired my beloved company, Art Van in 2017. As an investor in the company I would like to share my concerns with you regarding THL’s irresponsible stewardship of its former portfolio company including their unfulfilled commitments to establish a hardship fund for thousands of workers who lost their jobs and healthcare in the middle of a global pandemic and recession.
As you are probably aware, when THL acquired Art Van it was a successful, nearly 60 year old family-owned company yet THL managed to drive our profitable company into bankruptcy within three years. Eleven days after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Art Van abandoned its liquidation plans citing the impact of COVID-19 on its operations and abruptly closed stores. The company terminated 3,100 employees, many of whom had been with Art Van for decades, without providing us with any severance or extending our health coverage.
In April 2020, over 500 of my former Art Van coworkers asked THL to establish a fund to cover health care costs for us and our families for a minimum of three months while we looked for other jobs. In June, THL committed to establish a fund for former Art Van workers like myself. We have been waiting for details about the exact amount each of us will receive and how they plan to distribute the funds to us.
On Friday, THL informed us that they were going to launch a relief fund and all former full-time employees who were earning $99,000 per year or less and part-time employees that were eligible for healthcare benefits would be mailed a check for $400 after filling out a form online.
My coworkers and I are glad that THL has finally taken some responsibility for the impact their decisions have had on our lives but $400 does little to offset our health care costs and is well below the $1,500 Robert Levin, owner of Levin Furniture, a former competitor of Art Van until Art Van purchased his stores contributed to each of his former employees who were also among those who lost their jobs and health care when Art Van filed for bankruptcy.
The loss of our family health care coverage is particularly difficult during the pandemic and recession. We continue to seek a meaningful financial contribution from THL to ensure ourselves and our families have access to medical care. We can’t get our jobs back, but THL shouldn’t have left us with nothing.
Thank you for your time.