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Rakhra workers wait for paychecks

Posted: Tuesday, Nov 27th, 2012

Rakhra Mushroom Farm Controller Don Clair, left, and Director of Sales Jody Peterson respond to questions on Monday about the viability status of the farm. Photo by Nelda Curtiss

Courier editor

ALAMOSA — Awaiting back paychecks and bankruptcy court decisions, Rakhra Mushroom Farm employees are not enjoying happy holidays.

Employees anticipating a paycheck on Monday were disappointed and frustrated with the news they would have to return later, and hopefully there would be money then.

A less-than-bare-bones management staff, who are in the same boat with no paychecks coming in, encouraged workers to continue filling their shifts because with no product to sell, there would be no future paychecks. They said the farm was current on payroll earlier this fall but hit a revenue lull in the last couple of weeks.

Ironically, the top quality mushrooms grown at the farm northeast of Alamosa are currently in high demand as the farm enters its busiest season of the year.

“Last Wednesday we had one of the best weeks we had in nine months,” said Don Clair, controller who has been handling a variety of other duties since the management staff of what should be 12-15 people is down to four.

He said the crop in the system right now will be ready for Christmas, and it is looking good, but the profits from that crop will not be realized immediately.

“The next six months should be better, much better,” he said. “The holidays is typically the best of the year, our best season.”

“We had one of our biggest picking days today,” added Rick Wade, grower manager.

Director of Sales Jody Peterson said, “Customers love our mushrooms. We have a good product. We have had customers that have stuck with us and been good to us.”

Clair said he understood Rakhra’s case would be heard in court on Wednesday at which time the farm’s reorganizational plan may be approved.

“If the plan is approved, we have got the crop in the system, we have things in place where we can be successful.”

Rakhra Mushroom Farm Corporation filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the Bankruptcy Court in Denver on January 12 of this year, and then-General Manager Michael Smith said at the time the company was working aggressively on a restructuring plan to allow Rakhra to continue operating. In the meantime, he said, the farm would operate on a cash basis with vendors willing to work with Rakhra in order to generate enough revenue to pay back debt.

According to the information filed in the bankruptcy proceeding, Rakhra listed $7.8 million in assets and $8.2 million in liabilities, with Community Banks of Colorado listed as the largest creditor with a $4.6 million claim.

The total number of creditors listed was nearly 100 including local and out-of-town businesses, vendors and service providers ranging from utility companies to trucking firms in addition to the Alamosa County Treasurer, Colorado State Treasurer, Colorado Department Of Revenue and Internal Revenue Service.

Clair said local vendors have supported the farm during this difficult period, and loyal customers like King Soopers/City Market and Atencio’s Market have continued to buy Rakhra mushrooms and feature them in local stores. Local restaurants like Cavillos have also supported the farm by buying locally produced mushrooms.

King Soopers is Rakhra’s largest customer.

“They have stood with us,” Clair said.

The farm’s neighbors like Adrian Absmeier have lent a hand with assistance in repair work, trucking and a multitude of other tasks.

The employees have also stood by the farm this year, often working extra hours to make sure an order is filled.

“We have awesome employees here that go above and beyond,” said Peterson.

She said last week people worked until 2 a.m. to make sure the farm could fill an order on Thanksgiving. That included management staff like Peterson and Clair who altered their holiday plans to help out at the farm.

“It’s been a team effort trying to make this thing work,” Clair said.

At full capacity Rakhra employs 260-280 people, and when the company filed bankruptcy in January, the employee count was about 240. On Monday the work force was down to about 130.

“We are about one-third of our operation,” Clair said. “We used to do three crops a week, and now it’s one.”

The goal is to get back up to two-thirds, which would put the work force at over 200 people.

“We don’t know if we will ever get back to the 100 percent,” Clair said.

Wade said the next few days are critical in making or breaking the farm, so the farm needs employees to continue working to make sure the crop is successful and the farm itself is successful.

Peterson added, “If we stop picking, we can’t supply our customers. As of today, our trucks are going out and our orders are being filled.”

An employee spokesman who wished to remain anonymous said many employees who had not been paid were reluctant to continue working with no assurance they would be paid for those days either, but members of the management team convinced them to stay on.

“We have been staying late, worked on Thanksgiving, holidays,” the employee spokesman said. “They don’t have money for payroll but expect us to keep working … It’s really irritating … It’s really frustrating.”

He said the management team told a group of workers on Monday afternoon to come back at noon on Wednesday to find out if they would get their back pay.

“They told us they owed a creditor $200,000. They have to pay the creditor off first before they pay us.” He understood if the creditor was not paid, the electricity would be shut off.

He said the employees are facing the same problem in their homes.

“People are getting evicted out of their homes, going every day to the food bank. I couldn’t pay late fees and had to move out of my apartment.”

He said the employees want management “to be straight up with us.”

Members of the management team said they were waiting for answers, too.

“They are disappointed they haven’t received paychecks,” Clair said. “So are we. We are in the same boat.”

He said management gets paid last when there is money for payroll.

“I canceled a trip to my daughter’s in Denver because none of us have gas money,” Clair continued. “We are just living day to day.”

Wade said his Christmas wish would be to be able to travel home to his wife in Illinois, but he does not know at this point if he will be able to afford it.

Clair said this time of year is especially difficult for employees who are not getting paid on time because they want to give their families something special for Christmas.

“It’s hard when you promise your family you are going to bring home a paycheck,” Clair said.

“They are really tired of hearing ‘maybe,’ and we are really tired of telling them ‘maybe.’ We can’t promise. We don’t know.”

Wade added, “They can’t plan their lives. They are on hold,” and Peterson said, “all of us are.”

When asked how community members could help, the management team said grocery shoppers can ask their stores to buy Rakhra mushrooms, landlords can be patient with renters who are waiting for their Rakhra paychecks and creditors can waive late fees.

“Just be patient and work with us,” Clair said.

“We are hoping this is a bump in the road.”

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