MORGANTOWN — The announcement came a couple of weeks before Christmas: The Morgantown Mylan plant was closing and around 1,400 people would lose their jobs.
County officials were outraged. Workers said they were blindsided.
“I walked around in a daze,” one former employee previously told Mountain State Spotlight.
But there had been warning signs about the Mylan Morgantown plant’s ultimate fate for years, even before the speciality and generic drug manufacturer merged with Pfizer-owned Upjohn to create a new company called Viatris. That merger was finalized in November 2020.
Monongalia County Commissioner Tom Bloom says he’s been worried about the plant closing for the past decade.
“All the signs were there,” he said.
Tracey Williams, who was at Mylan for more than 20 years doing IT work, said her job was outsourced to India in 2015. Williams saw the writing on the wall then.
“That was just the start of the waterfall,” she said.
Army buddies and a roller skating rink
Milan “Mike” Puskar and Donald “Don” Panoz, two U.S. Army buddies, created Mylan in 1961 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, in a condemned roller skating rink.
Mylan began manufacturing over-the-counter drugs in Morgantown in 1965. The next year, it got approval from the Food and Drug Administration to manufacture its first medicine: Penicillin G. Mylan grew exponentially from there. In 2007, it became the third-largest generic drug company in the world after making moves overseas — it would later become the largest.
In 2007, it purchased Merck KGaA’s generics business, which had “low-cost manufacturing facilities in India and China and marketing capabilities in Western Europe and Africa,” according to a timeline on the company’s website, and acquired a 71.5% stake in Matrix Laboratories Ltd., based in India.
“Today’s announcement … marks the beginning of a new era at Mylan where our organization is continuing to expand beyond our well-established position as a leading domestic generic pharmaceutical company towards our objective of establishing Mylan as a world leader in generics and specialty pharmaceuticals,” said Robert J. Coury, Mylan’s then-CEO and vice chairman of the company’s board.
Tracey Williams said when the company made its play in the global market, some feared that jobs could eventually be outsourced. But, overall, Morgantown workers still felt valued, she said, and were excited for the growth.
Then, in 2009, Puskar stepped down as president and chairman.
“The leadership changed; the culture changed,” Williams said. “There was a whole cultural dynamic that went from our leadership being our biggest cheerleaders and advocates to just the opposite.”
Multiple former Mylan workers say that Puskar’s departure was the point where they stopped feeling like family and started feeling like numbers. Under him, they received Christmas bonuses and other perks, which were stripped by later leadership. It got even worse after Puskar’s death in 2011, Willams said.
By 2012, Coury was executive chairman of the board. Heather Bresch, who’s the daughter of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin and started at the company as a data entry clerk in 1992, became CEO. And Rajiv Malik, who was the CEO of Matrix before Mylan bought that company in 2007, became president.
Johanna Puskar, Mike Puskar’s daughter, had strong words for the trio.
“They just slowly milked [the company] over nine and a half years, so there’s nothing left,” she said.
Tracy Lemley resigned from Mylan in 2019 because of problems she said began when the company went global and worsened with the leaders that followed Puskar.
Lemley, who worked in quality assurance, said the company began putting people in department leadership positions who didn’t have sufficient experience and who didn’t listen to worker opinions. She felt Mylan’s priority shifted from quality to quantity, and it started treating workers like numbers.
Lemley and several other former Mylan employees cited the same example when referring to this alleged “number” treatment: when the company removed names from uniforms.
“I know that sounds very minor, not to have a name on a uniform.,” she said. “But when you work with 1,400 people, you know what I mean? It just became very impersonal.”
Morale decreased, Lemley said. And years passed — years that Mylan went on what pharmaceutical news source Fierce Pharma called an “acquisition binge,” shelling out billions to buy companies across the globe.
And, bulked by these, the company said at the end of 2016 it was ready to focus “on how to best optimize and maximize all of [its] assets,” according to MetroNews.
But that included reductions. In October 2016, Mylan shuttered the New Jersey headquarters of a company it bought months before, which led to 94 people losing their jobs. Then, later that year, the company announced it would cut 10% of its global workforce, including at the Morgantown plant.
Also that year, scandal shook the company. For years, Mylan had been increasing the cost of the EpiPen, a lifesaving device for those experiencing allergic reactions. Mylan had a virtual monopoly on the device, and by August 2016, the cost had increased 500% from 2007 levels. Public outrage and lawsuits followed.
“Greed is a terrible word, but I feel it’s warranted in this case,” Williams said. “The scandal was just another one of those things that really shed Mylan in not the light we were meant to be shed.”
Even though the EpiPen devices weren’t made in Morgantown, this incident further sunk the morale of workers, Lemley said.
In 2017, Mylan slashed another 200 to 300 jobs from Morgantown, mostly in departments like human resources, customer relations and customer complaints. And then six months later the company laid off 15% of the Morgantown workforce: more than 400 employees.
A whistleblower took concerns about the plant to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2018. The FDA went on to allege that the plant violated multiple regulations: that it did not properly sanitize equipment, did not investigate discrepancies and failed to follow standards to ensure that drugs had the correct quality.
Lemley said after the first round of layoffs, she saw the writing on the wall about the plant’s fate. Williams said she predicted the plant might have a decade left after her job was outsourced.
It only took half of that time. Mylan union workers received up to 52 weeks of severance pay — two weeks of pay for every year worked, though there’s a minimum of 12 weeks of severance — plus free health care to cover the allotted weeks, said Joseph Gouzd, the now-former president of United Steelworkers Local 8-957, which represented more than 850 plant employees.
Meanwhile, Bresch received $30 million as a “golden parachute” for her departure from the company following the merger, according to Pittsburgh Business Times. Malik — who is the president of the new company, Viatris — got nearly $21 million. Coury — now Viatris’ executive chairman — received $10 million. Coury had already received a $97 million exit package when, in 2017, he went from Mylan’s executive chairman to non-executive chairman.
Bloom, the county commissioner, said his first worries about a closure began when Puskar passed away, especially with the change in leadership that followed. That, mixed with globalization, FDA issues, the EpiPen scandal and the merger, made him expect that the Morgantown plant would close.
While he said he and other local government officials have made efforts to help the area through the layoff, Viatris has been holding the cards, making it hard for the community to get the winning hand.
“I’m a small county commissioner, in a small city, in a small state, dealing with a global, international company,” Bloom said. “We are not a priority to them.”
In an emailed statement, Viatris said the Morgantown plant’s operation was no longer viable for the company.
“The decision to cease operations at Chestnut Ridge was one we did not take lightly and in no way reflects upon the company’s appreciation for the commitment, work ethic and valuable contributions of our employees,” the statement said.
Losing ‘the golden ticket’
Though Williams and Lemley haven’t worked for Mylan for several years, they were among the dozens who gathered at a bar on the eve of the plant’s closing.
They were there, they said, to show their support and give advice to those about to lose their jobs.
“It hurt my heart when I had to start over,” Williams said. “I’m here for them.”
Lemley said she wanted to share that there’s life after Mylan.
“Honestly to just show them how much happier I am now that I’m out of there,” said Lemley, who now works as a dog walker and at a local golf resort.
But the Mylan jobs, many of which paid well and didn’t require a college degree, will be hard to replace.
At Kegler’s Sports Bar, a man sat at a bar with his friends. While his official last day of work at the plant wasn’t until July 31, he — like many others — had been asked not to return earlier in the week. Only a fraction of the workforce will remain to decommission the plant.
“It’s … heartbreaking,” he said.
The man — who asked to be kept anonymous, citing a clause in his severance agreement restricting him from talking to the press — has to say goodbye to not only his friends, but also his daughters. He would soon be leaving West Virginia for a pharmaceutical job that doesn’t pay as well as the one he had in Morgantown.
From a while, at least, he’s hanging on to his house, in case he’ll be able to return to West Virginia. But, overall, his future is uncertain.
“You got on [at] Mylan, you thought you had the golden ticket,” he said. “You thought you [were] going to be there forever.”
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