Longtime Farm Fresh, Toys R Us Workers “Still In Shock” As They Look For New Jobs

Ten years. Thirty years. Thirty-seven years.

Many longtime Farm Fresh workers – and at least one Toys R Us employee – had never been to a job fair before, let alone expected to be at one at their age: 55-plus. After all, retirement was just a few years away.

But there they were, wearing their store nametags at the Virginia Beach Convention Center on Wednesday, going from table to table looking for their next step after Farm Fresh’s parent company, Supervalu, decided to sell off its stores, affecting more than 3,000 employees. The news came at the same time Toys R Us announced it would liquidate several hundred stores nationwide, leaving about 300 Hampton Roads workers without jobs.

“This is one of those things where we had to come together pretty quickly,” said Shawn Avery, president and CEO of Opportunity Inc., which worked with the Virginia Employment Commission and Farm Fresh store manager Andy Adams to organize Wednesday’s job fair. It featured more than 100 employers and was attended by about 800 job-seekers.

Lorrie Bartholf, who worked for Toys R Us off and on for 30 years, said that at 59, she wasn’t old enough to retire, even if she wanted to (which she doesn’t). On Wednesday, she was looking for a retail job where she might be an assistant manager at a smaller store.

“I’m still in shock,” she said. “I feel sorry for the kids that are coming up.”

Ty Ryan, 61, of Norfolk said he has five more years to go before retirement.

“That was my plan,” he said. A produce manager for Farm Fresh for 30 years, he said he’s in a more comfortable position than most and hopes to take the summer off and relax before finding another job.

Paula Wisotzkey had been at Farm Fresh for 10 years, most recently the deli manager on Laskin Road. She thought she might retire in eight years.

“I’m 55 years old and a lot of them, they want us to start at the bottom of the payscale,” she said of employers she had spoken to. “We have the skills, we just need the openings.”

As much as their ages may have given them pause while they walked around the fair, at least one employer said their lengthy record of experience with the same company, a sign of loyalty, was an advantage.

“They were doing something right for all those years,” said Angel Freeman, director of human resources for Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, which had a three-page list of seasonal positions it needed to fill. “Their resume is going to go to the front of the line.”

The lengthy experience of the Farm Fresh job seekers was apparent to other employers, too.

“There wasn’t one person we talked to who had worked there for a year or six months,” said Rob Reper, chief operating officer of Taste, another longtime Hampton Roads business. “They built their life around Farm Fresh.”

The specialty restaurant and gourmet market already hired some of the grocer’s employees in the past month and sees the skills that can translate to their sandwich-making and merchandising.

“We jumped the minute we saw the article,” he said of attending the job fair. “We’ve got homes for many people.”

The company is in the middle of its summer hiring ramp-up and it is growing, with a new location opening in Richmond soon.

“There’s something that we’re always doing and that’s hiring,” Reper said.

The mix of employers wasn’t limited to retail. Officer Patricia Cox with internal affairs for the Hampton Roads Regional Jail said they’re looking for three qualifications for their jail officers: someone who is a people person, professional and has common sense. She said the job seekers who approached her table Wednesday were “humbled, they want a new start, they want stability.”

True North Salmon Co. in Suffolk, a seafood wholesaler which sells to mail-order meal service Blue Apron, met experienced Farm Fresh seafood managers. JoAnn Vanzandt, from the company’s accounts receivable department, said the company’s recent acquisition of a Houston-based company would mean more jobs, about 40, in the next few months as it expands.

Micky Nye – Farm Fresh’s president before Supervalu made her regional vice president of operations, overseeing three of its brands last year – came to the event to “support my team.”

“I want them all to have something where they’re comfortable and happy,” she said. “They’re great people. I’d hire every single one of them if I could.”

Avery encouraged Farm Fresh and Toys R Us workers to reach out to his group after the job fair.

“This isn’t it. The help doesn’t stop now,” he said.

The full article can be found online and in print at The Virginia Pilot