Antonio Espey landed the best-paying job he ever had last year when he was hired as an assembly worker at the Mueller Co. plant in Chattanooga.
But as business slowed for the water valve manufacturer this year, Espey was among about 90 workers furloughed. He is now among seven Black hourly workers at Mueller not called back to work last month due to what they called an improper change in the company's background checks for employment.
Espey said his 29-year-old criminal record was not a problem for Mueller when he was hired in the summer of 2022, but now it apparently is preventing him and some other workers with crimes in their past from going back to work.
"Their application says anything that is over seven years doesn't matter, so they are going outside of their own guidelines," Espey said at a news conference Tuesday outside of the Mueller plant in East Chattanooga. "I don't have to answer to a 29-year-old record."
The United Steelworkers Union Local 3115, which represents many of the hourly workers at the 58-year-old Mueller plant in Chattanooga, has filed a contract grievance against Mueller and questioned why those not being allowed to return to work are Black employees.
"I think what they are doing has some ethnic undertones to it since it really affects only a certain group of people," said Elvin Bacon, a vice president for the steelworkers union. "That's what we're out here fighting for, because if we allow this to happen, it could also hurt future workers trying to be employed here and it may affect some of the other guys still inside working,"
In a statement issued late Tuesday, Mueller said the company "prides itself on its safe working environment and cooperative relationship with employees" and said it has not changed its hiring procedures.
"Mueller is following the same rehire policies and procedures which apply to all employees who are absent for more than 30 days," Whit Kincaid, Mueller's vice president of corporate development and investor relations, said in an emailed statement. "Mueller has and will continue to work with the union representing these employees to ensure that a safe and secure workplace continues."
Kincaid said Mueller laid off "a small segment of its Chatanooga workforce due to lower demand" earlier this year and has begun recalling most of these laid-off workers this fall.
Union questions rehiring process at Chattanooga’s Mueller Co.
The Chattanooga Mueller plant, which was built in 1965, makes water valves and valve components. Mueller's water division also operates production plants in Cleveland and Kimball, Tennessee; Albertville, Alabama; Decatur, Illinois; Brownsville, Texas; and Ontario, Canada.
The United Steelworkers Local 3115 approved a new contract with Mueller last year but in January, members of International Association of Machinists Local 3115 voted to strike the Mueller plant in Chattanooga for the first time in 46 years. After a week-long walkout, the machinists voted in late January to ratify a new four-year contract with Mueller.
Bacon said background checks of employees were not even discussed during the contract talks, but he said the rules appear to have changed in a way that violates the terms of the contract. The union could legally challenge the change but only after it exhausts its grievance procedure.
Terence Dillard, who has worked at Mueller for more than two years, is another one of those who was recalled to work in mid-October but was denied his old job back during the background check.
"Nothing has changed for me, and they can't give me a solid reason why I can't go back to work," he said. "I still haven't received any information as to why I lost my job and why I am in the shape I'm in."
Dillard, who started work at Mueller making about $21 an hour, said he has struggled to make up for his lost income.
"It's going to be a rough Christmas," he said.
Marie Mott, a community activist, organized a news conference outside the plant Tuesday to try to rally public support for the displaced workers.
"The lives of many families are hanging in the balance because of what is happening here at Mueller," Mott told reporters Tuesday. "We want our local community to hold this corporation accountable for how it is treating its workers and ensuring that there are fair practices when it comes to collective bargaining agreements."