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Burlington Manufacturers Benefit from Employee-Exchange Program

Local Matters


Published May 6, 2009 at 7:37 a.m.

J.R. Adams spends most of the day in the freezer working for Rhino Foods, a Burlington-based maker of specialty ice-cream products. But last fall he found himself in another, slower-moving production line: His company “loaned” him to Autumn Harp.

Staying warm was a big advantage of the temporary transfer to the Essex-based cosmetics company, Adams says. Better yet? It was an opportunity to keep his job instead of being laid off. “I’d do it again,” says Adams, who plans to get married and buy a house this summer. “It’s a lot better than not working at all.”

Adams is among the participants in an employee-lending program Rhino devised as an innovative alternative to layoffs. The initiative, hatched in 1993 by a task force made up of Rhino workers, has proven so successful that the company now wants to expand it to include white-collar employees, says Rhino human resources manager Justin Worthley. Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility awarded Rhino owner and president Ted Castle its highest honor earlier this week.

In the past eight years, about 40 Rhino production and shipping workers have been shifted during the company’s slow season to other Burlington-area manufacturers in temporary need of added help. The transfers to Autumn Harp as well as to Gardener’s Supply, Resolution and Lake Champlain Chocolates have been for as little as one week and as long as four months.

The program’s mechanics are simple. A company bringing in borrowed workers reimburses Rhino for the amount of their regular wages. If the company pays more than Rhino does, that extra money goes into the worker’s pocket. Rhino meanwhile continues to cover the costs of health insurance, worker compensation and unemployment insurance for those assigned to other companies.

“The big benefit for us is that we get to maintain our skilled workforce,” Worthley explains. “The big plus for a company getting our workers is that they don’t have the expense of recruiting and training new people.” The receiving business can be assured that workers on loan from Rhino will be dependable and productive, Worthley adds.

Fran Tobin, Worthley’s counterpart at Lake Champlain Chocolates, confirms that there were no significant problems with any of the half-dozen Rhino employees who worked there last year. It’s preferable to get workers on loan from Rhino than to hire from a temp agency, Tobin adds. The two firms, situated a mile apart in Burlington’s South End, know and trust one another, she notes. “With a temp agency, it’s more of an unknown,” Tobin says. “You don’t have much sense of someone’s work history. With Rhino, all that is known.”

Seasonal fluctuations in the companies’ production cycles are also complementary. Lake Champlain’s busiest time runs from July to February as it churns out chocolates for Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter, Tobin notes. Demand for the ice-cream products that Rhino makes for companies such as Ben & Jerry’s, Hood and Nestle starts to slacken in late summer.

It’s rising right now. Last Saturday, squadrons of Rhino workers wearing hair nets and white jump- suits were preparing and packaging 65,000 ice cream sandwiches for Hood. Capacity can reach 128,000 “Hoodwiches” during a 24-hour period, says production team leader Muaz Omanovic.

The pioneering employee- exchange program has yet to function as fully intended. It’s so far been entirely one-sided, in that Rhino has yet to receive workers from other companies.

Lake Champlain, for example, says it wants to provide workers for Rhino during the ice cream maker’s peak production period. But the chocolate company needs to keep its core group of 30 manufacturing and shipping personnel on the job year-round, Tobin notes. It hires as many as 40 additional workers for those positions on a seasonal basis, she says.

Carl Johnson is another of the Rhino employees who went to work at Autumn Harp last December during the Essex company’s pre-holiday rush. “It was hard to get used to all the standing,” Johnson says, noting that Autumn Harp runs 12-hour shifts, as compared to the eight hours a day he works at Rhino. “I was fine to be there, though,” he adds. “They treated us like family. I’d be happy to go back, especially because it would mean keeping my job.”