HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) - Workers at LG Chem, a $300 million lithium-ion battery plant heavily funded by taxpayers, tell Target 8 that they have so little work to do that they spend hours playing cards and board games, reading magazines or watching movies.
They say it's been going on for months.
"There would be up to 40 of us that would just sit in there during the day," said former LG Chem employee Nicole Merryman, who said she quit in May.
"We were given assignments to go outside and clean; if we weren't cleaning outside, we were cleaning inside. If there was nothing for us to do, we would study in the cafeteria, or we would sit and play cards, sit and read magazines," said Merryman. "It's really sad that all these people are sitting there and doing nothing, and it's basically on taxpayer money."
Two current employees told Target 8 that the game-playing continues because, as much as they want to work, they still have nothing to do.
"There's a whole bunch of people, a whole bunch," filling their time with card games and board games," one of those current employees said.
That employee says some workers are doing odd jobs around the building, including cleaning and maintenance, while others hang out in the cafeteria playing video games, Texas hold-'em and Monopoly or doing Sudoku or crossword puzzles -- all on company time. The employee said some watch movies.
"There's no work, no work at all. Zero work," another current employee said. "It is what it is. What do you do when there's no work?"
They told Target 8 they didn't want to talk on camera or be identified because workers signed a confidentiality agreement.
Randy Boileau, a Holland-based public relations specialist who was spokesman for LG Chem , says he no longer represents the company.
Target 8 left a message at the plant's security station and left a message with the company's receptionist. The receptionist would not transfer the call to a company manager.
The Target 8 investigation has led the Washington, D.C.-based Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board -- an oversight agency for the federal stimulus program -- to take action.
"We are sending this to the Inspector General, Department of Energy, for his review," said Ed Pound, spokesman for the board. The Inspector General's Office would decide whether to open an investigation. Pound refused further comment.
Some workers at the Holland plant have quit or are looking for jobs. Others have started helping local non-profits on company time.
"I thought it might be a decent place to start a career, lots of places to move up," said one former employee, who left the job this summer.
"You can only do nothing for so long. There were days, sitting around all day doing nothing. ... I didn't play a whole lot of cards," said the worker, who added, "I bailed out of a sinking ship."
Those left behind are on furlough -- one week off without pay every four weeks.
The plant all started with such great hope, and a presidential groundbreaking in July 2010.
"This is a symbol of where Michigan is going, this is a symbol of where Holland is going, and this is a symbol of where America's going," President Barack Obama told a crowd at the groundbreaking.
Nicole Merryman was among the first in line for a job.
"It was something exciting, and I thought it would be better for the family, more overtime, more money," said Merryman, who said she worked on a line that folded the battery cells.
The company's goal: 300 employees pumping out 15 million battery cells a year. Its biggest customer: The Chevrolet Volt.
The U.S. Department of Energy provided a $151 million grant, part of Obama's Recovery Act.
The Korea-based company recently said it has 200 employees, and the company's most recent federal filing shows 100 of them are funded through the Recovery Act grant.
The company has spent $133 million so far, most for construction and equipment, records show. About 40% has gone to foreign companies -- mostly to Korea, a Target 8 analysis shows.
The company also spent more than $533,000 of that federal grant for the groundbreaking, records show.
A Target 8 analysis of federal records shows taxpayers spent $7 million to train workers and have paid more than $700,000 for workers' health and dental insurance.
There's millions of dollars more at stake for LG Chem if it doesn't keep hiring, or if its job numbers fall. The state approved a $25.2 million job-creation state tax credit over 15 years, and a battery cell state tax credit worth $100 million over 4 years. Both are tied to job creation.
LG Chem has yet to file claims for that money, state officials said.
The City of Holland created a Renewable Energy Renaissance Zone, allowing LG Chem to operate free of property taxes for 15 years -- if it reaches 300 employees within 5 years. That's another $48.5 million.
The city expected the plant's payroll to pump $270 million into the local economy over 15 years, and to create up to 1,500 spin-off jobs.
But sales of the Chevy Volt, while recently growing, aren't meeting
GM's expectations. In September, GM temporarily idled the Detroit-area plant that makes the Volt.
An LG Chem spokesman recently told reporters that workers at the Holland plant continue to train and prepare for battery production.
However, workers told Target 8 they haven't trained for months.
They say the last of the materials needed to make battery cells, including chemicals, was shipped back to Korea. It's not clear if that includes any of the $1.8 million in materials paid for with that federal Recovery Act money.
Workers say they made test battery cells, starting late last year, perhaps 100,000 or more, and that they did a good job. They say they produced perhaps 4,000 a week. But, they say, that worked ended for the most part last December.
"Never produced a battery for shipment; still to this day, they're not," Merryman, the former employee, said.
Workers say they shipped out those test batteries last spring, apparently for recycling.
"It seems like every time that we thought we were going to have a start of production date, something would happen, and it would get pushed back again," Merryman said.
Workers say the last target date was July 2, but that it was put off indefinitely.
Finally, workers told Target 8, they pushed LG Chem to let them do some good with their company time and have started helping out local non-profits.
They've helped rebuild a burned-out home for Habitat for Humanity in Holland.
"They've been helping out a lot here," said Rob DeHaan of Habitat for Humanity.
They work at Felt Mansion near Saugatuck, at the Critter Barn in Zeeland.
The Noah Project, a no-kill animal shelter in Muskegon, was facing a possible shutdown by the state, until three LG Chem workers started working there five days a week this summer. They fixed cages, painted walls and floors, have worked outside.
"The call came out of the blue; we were praying, and it happened," said Noah Project's Rose Casperson. "They're a godsend."
As many as 30 at a time have spent their work days at Holland's Outdoor Discovery, cutting down invasive trees, painting homes for birds of prey, building docks.
"It's a tremendous help," said Travis Williams, executive director of Outdoor Discovery Center in Holland. "We've had the work of two or three summers worth of activity that has been completed by this group in two months."
"It's unfortunate that those folks aren't able to work in the company where they were hired to work, but given the economy and given what's going on, we understand there are challenges that face all businesses these days," he added.
The passenger in a pickup truck that slid off U.S. 31 and rolled over told 24 Hour News 8 that watching the video of the crash is "heart-wrenching."
One person is dead after firefighters found the victim's body inside a condominium complex in Kalamazoo Township that was on fire Wednesday afternoon.
11 fire departments from several counties were called out to a fire at an adult entertainment club Wednesday afternoon.