BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. — Twenty-five years later, Bellows Falls resident Paul Reis says he still wants closure with the Ben & Jerry’s company over alleged incidents that occurred when Reis worked as an employee in Ben & Jerry’s North Springfield factory.
Reis, 55, said that in 1994, while working as a seasonal employee in the former Ben & Jerry’s factory, in Springfield, Vermont, Reis said he was lifted in the air by a member of the maintenance staff, then another member of maintenance hit him in the back with a board. He described it as a “practical joke” on the part of the other employees.
Springfield resident James Smolnik, who worked with Reis at the factory in 1993, alleged that he too received a paddling.
“I was told that they do it to the new employees,” Smolnik said, adding that everyone on the factory floor knew about the paddling.
The paddling activity, referred to by employees as “Guess Your Weight,” was like a prank to induct new employees, Smolnik said.
According to Smolnik’s recollection — which closely resembled Reis’ account — the employee was allegedly told to report to maintenance. Once in the office, two maintenance staff members said that they wanted to “guess his weight.” One person allegedly had the employee bend over and hooked the employee’s arms behind his shoulders as if intending to lift him, while the other person allegedly whacked the employee hard in the backside with a wooden paddle (Reis described the instrument as a board).
A traumatic experience
While Smolnik said that he had not thought much about his incident until more recently, Reis said he has been unable to let it go.
Reis, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder several years ago, learned through counseling that the alleged paddling appeared to trigger childhood memories of physical and emotional abuse. With the aid of his sister Terry Kennedy Miller, who is representing Reis as his advocate, Reis is filing a civil suit against Ben & Jerry’s, which he said will hopefully help him find closure.
“This company advertises themselves as being about peace and love,” Reis said. “Yet they ignored what was going on in their own factory.”
Reis said that he first attempted to resolve his grievance with the company in 1997, when he took the company to small claims court over a pay and benefits disagreement. The court’s ruling on Jan. 27, 1997 indicated that in a session on Jan. 7 Reis had shared his accusations, and that the company’s Human Resources Manager Carol Hickman said that she never heard these or similar allegations.
According to Reis, the company said they would schedule a meeting to sit down with him and discuss his grievances about the abuse, but he never heard from them.
“[Reis] was told that he would be having his complaints evaluated by a woman at the Springfield [factory], who said she had never been informed of [Reis’s] complaints,” wrote Miller to a Ben & Jerry’s representative. “The judge noted that a decision would be made after Paul met with the woman and she reported her findings to the court. This never happened.”
The date of the Miller letter is unknown, but appears to be written sometime around or after 2014.
While records do not clearly show what promises were made to Reis, therapists treating Reis wrote that they believe that the alleged paddling, along with incidents of verbal abuse from factory colleagues, continues to impact his mental and emotional well-being.
Additionally, Reis’ therapists say they believe that allowing Reis to meet with someone from the company to express his mistreatment would be therapeutically beneficial.
“I believe it would help Paul heal from a very disturbing incident that no one should have been subjected to at work,” wrote Maggie Comparetta, a therapist with Bellows Falls Counseling in 2015.
“Paul would clearly benefit from some form of validation that he suffered abuse while employed at Ben & Jerry’s to help with his healing process.”
It is currently unclear whether Vermont statute will allow Reis to pursue legal action against the company because the statute of limitations expired in 1998.
Though current Vermont law allows an exemption for “unusual circumstances,” Vermont Assistant Attorney General Julio Thompson told Reis in a 2018 letter that the provision would not apply to Reis.
According to Thompson, the “unusual circumstances” provision in 1995 applied to a person who was “a minor, insane or imprisoned.” In 2013 the state replaced the word “insane” with “lack[ing] capacity to protect his or her interests due to a mental condition or psychiatric disorder.”
Despite Reis’ learning and mental health diagnoses, the 2013 change in statute does not apply retroactively, Thompson said.
However, Reis said that he believes he has a better chance to argue for an exception in a civil suit. Reis says he has a learning disability, which appeared to factor into mistakes he made when trying to take legal action in 1997, representing himself in court.
Smolnik said on Monday that he decided to go on record after Reis reached out to him last year, to ask if Smolnik had experienced the Guess your Weight prank.
Shortly after Smolnik’s alleged paddling, Smolnik said he began to have back issues, which eventually resulted in back surgery. Smolnik said he doesn’t know whether or not the paddling was a cause, but he began to think about its possible contribution after talking to Reis.
A spokesperson from Ben & Jerry’s said on Tuesday that he would be able to provide a company statement shortly. No statement had been made as of press time Friday.
Ben & Jerry’s closed the North Springfield plant in 2002 in order to expand its present plant in St. Albans. Roughly 90 employees worked at the Springfield factory.