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Greenbrier Resort to Lay off 650 Employees;
Cites a Sharper Seasonal Decline in Business

By Christian M. Giggenbach, The Register-Herald, Beckley, W.Va.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jan. 10--WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS -- Citing a "sharper than normal seasonal decline in business," The Greenbrier announced Friday that 650 hourly and salaried employees would be "furloughed" in the next two weeks.

"In spite of the excellent service we continue to provide our guests, occupancy levels at The Greenbrier do not support the staffing we have today," Michael Gordon, president and managing director of the famed hotel, said Friday.

The hotel described the current luxury resort market as "a harsh environment," and industry experts have predicted hotels comparable to The Greenbrier may see a 10 to 20 percent decline in guests due to the country's current economic problems.

Contributing further to the loss of bed nights, the four-star resort has yet to resolve a year-long collective bargaining issue involving nine labor contracts and one master agreement. On Jan. 2, the resort's parent company, Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX, said last year's losses amounted to about $35 million. Several big-name clients canceled annual conference meetings in 2008 because of the protracted labor dispute.

Union officials say they were caught off guard by the layoffs and were investigating the consequences of such a massive layoff without proper notice. In November, union officials and the resort agreed to extend a "no strike, no lockout agreement" through January 2010.

"I am saddened to see more people getting their furlough notices in the middle of this economic crisis," Harold Bock, union spokesman for more than 1,100 resort employees, said. "And I didn't receive this notice until late on Friday evening and it's been sent to our general counsel for review concerning whether or not the workers have received proper notice about the layoffs."

Resort public relations director Lynn Swann was unable to give a breakdown of which employees and managers would be affected by the layoffs. She was also unsure if any of the resort's executive team was part of the furlough.

During normal years, the hotel places hundreds of employees on "low earnings," allowing them to receive a check from the state comparable to unemployment earnings. However, that will not be happening this time, Swann said.

"This is a layoff and not low earnings," she said.

Resort officials gave some hope that employees could be called back should the economic climate change for the better.

"The number of furloughs announced today is significantly more than has been necessary in prior seasonal declines," a hotel statement said. "Historically, business conditions improve in the late spring and summer months, and The Greenbrier anticipates that some furloughed employees could return during such time."

Resort officials said at any given time normal employment levels "have been approximately 1,350." Swann said the resort has contacted WorkForce West Virginia to assist those who will be laid off. The layoffs are affecting employees in every sector of the resort, she added.

A strategic review of the resort being conducted by Goldman Sachs will continue as planned, officials said.

"This is a very difficult decision at a very difficult time," Gordon said. "We will be conducting meetings with the affected employees to help them access the services they need."

-- E-mail: cgiggenbach@register-herald.com

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Copyright (c) 2009, The Register-Herald, Beckley, W.Va.

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