Solyndra Collapse Foreseen by Some Workers, a ‘Shock’ to Others
Alex Brudny, a mechanical engineer at Solyndra LLC until two weeks ago, says he wondered why the Obama administration gave the California company $535 million in loan guarantees.
“To a majority of us, it looked like a political stunt,” Brudny, 59, said in a telephone interview. “The product was not as good as we counted on, and things were not really going well, and it was just a matter of time to me.”
The collapse of Solyndra, a solar-power manufacturer, has prompted inquiries by Congress, the FBI and watchdogs at the Energy and Treasury departments. For 1,100 workers such as Brudny, it also has meant the loss of a job when the company shut down on Aug. 31.
Brudny was among employees who arrived at the Fremont, California, company to hear the news that day, then stuck around for an address by Solyndra Chief Executive Officer Brian Harrison, who told them new financing hadn’t come through. The Energy Department had rejected Solyndra’s request for a restructuring of its U.S. loan deal a day earlier, according to a memo released Sept. 12 by Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“There was no notice,” said Brudny, who is looking for a new job. “The environment was full-blast, working as hard as we could all the way until the last minute.”
The Obama administration has said investments such as its bet on Solyndra are necessary to compete with the aid China is pouring into development of renewable-energy sources.
“The question is whether we are willing to take on this challenge, or whether we will simply cede leadership in clean energy to other nations and watch as tens of thousands of jobs are created overseas,” Jonathan Silver, executive director of the Energy Department’s loan office, told the House panel on Sept. 14.
Sangita Patel arrived for work at Solyndra the day it announced it would file for bankruptcy protection to find reporters camped out on the front lawn. She didn’t share Brudny’s sense of foreboding.
“Total shock,” the manufacturing engineer said of her reaction when a colleague in the parking lot told her their employer had announced it was shutting down.
“The day before was a perfectly normal day,” Patel, who declined to give her age, said yesterday as she emerged from a workshop at a job fair in Union City, about 12 miles (19 kilometers) from Solyndra’s headquarters. “No sign or no rumors about anything.”
Boyd Charette, a 51-year-old San Francisco resident, fell between Brudny and Patel in his assessment of Solyndra, which he joined in 2008 and left in April.
“Solyndra was one of the most delightful companies I’ve ever worked for,” Charette said in a telephone interview, citing the enthusiasm and intelligence of co-workers and his conviction at the time that the company would succeed. “It was one of the highlights of my life professionally.”
Charette said he quit after hearing colleagues predict Solyndra wasn’t going to make it.
“They were telling me that the cost of the product was higher than what they would be able to sell it for, and they didn’t feel that would change anytime soon,” said Charette, who now works as a software engineer for Milpitas, California-based Soladigm Inc., a startup backed by General Electric Co. that makes glass that switches from clear to tinted on demand.
“Dozens of employees left in the first three months of 2011 because they were worried that the company’s business plan was not viable,” Charette said.
Peter Kohlstadt, a former Solyndra research and development engineer, has filed a lawsuit against the company alleging it violated a federal law requiring employers to give 60 days’ notice of a mass dismissal or factory closing.
Kohlstadt, who is seeking class-action status for his complaint, said he’s out more than $10,000 in accumulated vacation pay.
“They didn’t have enough money to pay us,” Kohlstadt said in a telephone interview. “It was like a slap in the face.”
Solyndra didn’t give out severance packages and reimbursed employees only for vacation time accrued in the final 90 days, former employees said.
‘Boom, You’re Gone’
“It was like, boom, you’re gone, you are out of there,” said Kohlstadt, a 49-year-old father of two. “Now, I am sitting here without a job, without health insurance and my wife is not working.”
David Miller, a Solyndra spokesman, said he couldn’t comment on pending litigation.
“We did set up two social networks and have been actively working with companies from all over the country to try to place our very talented workforce,” Miller said yesterday in an e- mail. “Solyndra has a reputation for great people, and I think that shows in the number of inquiries we have received.”
About 170 fired Solyndra workers participated in a Sept. 9 career-counseling meeting organized by the U.S. Department of Labor and local agencies, according to Patti Castro, interim director of the Alameda County Workforce Investment Board, a Hayward, California-based job training agency.
Attendees ranged from skilled engineers confident that they would find another Silicon Valley job to assembly-line workers worried about their prospects, Castro said in an interview.
“It is terrible what happened, and the employees deserved to be notified at minimum at least two weeks before,” Alameda County Supervisor Nadia Lockyer said in an interview yesterday after addressing jobseekers at the Union City job fair. “It’s very telling to how tough these times are that it was done in that manner.”
Greg Sandusky, 50, a maintenance technician at Solyndra, said he came to yesterday’s job fair for some feedback on his resume. Sandusky is among about 100 employees still on the company payroll until next month as it winds down.
Sandusky said the company has set up Solyndra alumni groups on the professional networking site run by LinkedIn Corp. and on Google Inc.’s website.
California’s jobless rate climbed to 12 percent in July, second only to Nevada’s, while the national rate that month was 9.1 percent, according to Labor Department data.
“It’s still a very tough job market,” Jeff Ruster, executive director of Work2Future, an economic-development agency in Santa Clara County that is helping organize job events for former Solyndra workers, said in a telephone interview. “We are trying to help connect people as quickly as we can.”