Former NUMMI Workers Sue Toyota, Factory

MENLO PARK, Calif. (AP) -- Former employees of a shuttered California auto plant sued the factory and Toyota Motor Corp. on Wednesday, claiming they were denied fair severance packages because injuries kept them off the job in the months leading to the facility's closure.

The suit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Oakland, seeks a revised severance agreement, restitution, lost compensation, other employee benefits and monetary damages.

The lawsuit also seeks class-action status. Lawyers claim that about 300 of the 4,700 employees who lost their jobs when the Fremont-based New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., or Nummi, closed April 1 may be affected.

Many of the laid-off employees, who assembled Toyota cars and trucks, received a minimum union-negotiated payout of $21,175 each. Employees who worked continuously in the six months before the plant's closure also received enhancements based on years of service and other factors.

Tony Lawson, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the enhancements added an average of $32,000 to an employee's severance agreement, so denying those who were on disability leave during that six-month period translated to a huge loss for the worker.

"Some of these people had worked there 25 years and were injured in the last six months," Lawson said. "We allege they're being discriminated against with respect to their severance because of their disability."

The lawsuit also claims that disabled workers were not allowed to take advantage of some employment services such as career and skills assessments, and they were refused employment when they attempted to go back to work after a doctor said it was OK.

Nummi spokesman Lance Tomasu said the company doesn't typically comment on pending litigation, however, the factory "has always prided itself on treating its team members with respect and fairness and we believe we've done so in this situation."

Toyota spokesman Rick Hesterberg did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

The Nummi plant was established in 1984 as a joint venture between General Motors Co. and Toyota. GM made the Pontiac Vibe there but withdrew from the alliance last year after filing for bankruptcy protection.

Toyota made the Corolla sedan and Tacoma pickup at the plant but said it could not sustain the factory without GM and warned Nummi it would shutter operations.

Besides the jobs lost at the factory, the closure devastated thousands of others whose businesses were made servicing and supplying the plant and its workers. Nearly 8 million vehicles were built at the sprawling facility at the southern edge of San Francisco Bay before it closed.

New hope has been injected in the area with two recent announcements, however.

Tesla Motors Inc. said it was purchasing the plant to build its Model S electric sedan and collaborate with Toyota on an electric vehicle that will combine a high-volume Toyota vehicle with a Tesla electric powertrain.

The federal government also said it would provide $19 million in emergency grants to help workers who lost their jobs when Nummi closed.