Hearings Begin in Philip Morris Hardship Withdrawal Firings

November 1, 2006 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - A North Carolina arbitrator has started hearings into whether about 70 Philip Morris USA workers fired for lying on hardship withdrawal documents from the firm's profit-sharing plan should be rehired.

The nation’s largest cigarette maker fired the workers from its Concord, North Carolina facility after accusing them of falsifying documents to wrongfully qualify for the hardship withdrawals, according to an Associated Press news report (See Philip Morris Sacks Workers over Plan Withdrawals ).

Some of the fired workers used the money for homes that were not listed on the initial application or for reasons other than those stated on their paperwork, according to news reports. Under the rules, employees are allowed to carry out a hardship withdrawal so they can buy a primary residence, to prevent eviction or foreclosure, or for certain medical and educational purposes.

According to the AP news report, Philip Morris spokesman Bill Phelps has been previously quoted as saying that the company considers that any falsification, misstatement or omission of information related to plan transactions may be cause for firing. About 2,500 workers are employed at the Concord plant.

Workers said similar firings have taken place at Philip Morris’ plant in Richmond, Virginia, where the corporate headquarters, a manufacturing plant and other divisions employ 6,400 people.

Former workers also say that representatives of Fidelity Investments gave assurances that they would not lose their jobs for using the money in a different way from what they had stated on their applications.

Workers from the Virginia plant have offered to testify on behalf of North Carolina workers, according to workers interviewed by and documents obtained by The Charlotte Observer.Workers plan to argue that supervisors regularly asked them to falsify other documents, which caused them to believe it was accepted company practice, according to the news report.