Pratt Replacing Discarded Flags, Workers Still Mystified By Incident

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A week after Pratt & Whitney management cleared flags and other personal items from a repair and overhaul facility in East Hartford, the company pledged to replace the flags, though many union workers still want answers.

The incident, which the company described as “cleaning and maintenance,” occurred late last week, when the union employees in the facility were out on a company-mandated weeklong vacation, a shutdown related to business conditions, the company said.

Employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said that no warnings or notices preceded the event, which they say shop managers ordered, resulting in dozens of smaller U.S. flags, at least one POW-MIA flag and one U.S. Marine Corps flag ending up in a dumpster. The workers also lost a number of fans, which were replaced by company equipment, as well as personal appliances like small refrigerators and toaster ovens.

Late Thursday, Pratt spokesman Ray Hernandez said the company would replace all the flags that were employees’ property, though it was unclear whether employees on the shop floor would be able to display them as before.

On Monday, when union workers returned and found personal items missing, they confronted management. They said managers did not explain why they took the flags from work spaces at one of the country’s major defense contractors.

Employees said they also still did not know why some personal items were taken while others — a Beanie Baby, photographs, a desk clock, a small toy — were not, or what the incident says about how managers can handle employees’ personal property in the shop.

“If you were doing a cleanup, why would you do that?” asked one Pratt employee who works in the facility, known as Building M.

Initially, the company said it inadvertently discarded the POW and U.S. Marine Corp flags, while smaller U.S. flags were purposely thrown away after consultation with numerous military experts. It did not specify why managers removed the U.S. flags.

Asked why the company would discard employee property, a Pratt spokesman said in a written statement that the company does not have a policy on personal items in the shop, though employees are responsible for a “clean, efficient and safe work area.” They also need to be sure that “foreign object debris” doesn’t interfere with engine parts, to make sure, for example, that something like a set of keys doesn’t get accidentally dropped into a complex part, the company said.

Juan Gelabert, president of Machinists union Local 1746, which represents workers in the repair and overhaul building, said in an email Friday afternoon that the union raised the issue with the company’s management committee Thursday.

“We try to get answers,” he said, but the company is “defensive, uncooperative” and presumes to be under a “gag order” about the incident. Gelabert said he has directed union representatives to file employee grievances “for restitution of all lost items, lack of respect to our veterans and to our flag.”

The company, a division of Hartford-based United Technologies Corp., said it knows of numerous employee complaints about the sweep and would not comment on personnel matters, such as whether the manager who directed removal of the flags and other personal items would be disciplined.

In a statement, Hernandez, the Pratt spokesman, called the incident “regrettable,” said the company was “working to ensure this does not happen again,” and pointed out that management apologized to employees for throwing away their belongings.

Text By Brian Dowling, Hartford Courant; Video By Fox CT

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