On May 20, Steve Zetterberg leaned back in a chair and propped his boots on what used to be the receptionist's desk at Highway Technologies' Missoula branch office. Nearby, the office manager paced as he talked on a cellphone, while another group of employees stood idly together, speaking quietly. Most of them had found out over the weekend that this was their last day of work. All of them were blindsided by the news.
"There was no talk of this coming," says Zetterberg, who is a field supervisor with the company. "It's like getting kicked in the stomach."
Highway Technologies is a Houston-based subcontractor that provides traffic control, concrete work and guardrail installation for highway construction projects around the country. The company has 33 branch offices in 13 states and employs more than 1,500 people, including as many as 180 in Montana during the summer months. At around 9:30 p.m. on Friday, May 17, the Montana office's manager, Gary Pfister, received a call from a company executive informing him that all of the company's projects—including roughly 15 in Montana—would be terminated, left to be picked up by other subcontractors. According to Zetterberg, more than 80 Montanans would be losing their jobs immediately.
While he says he knew the company had been struggling nationally, Zetterberg believed the Montana office was profitable.
"We thought naïvely that we were in great shape because we were one of the few offices making money," he says. "But nationwide I guess they couldn't secure the financing to do the work."
As of May 21, Highway Technologies' corporate office had not returned phone calls requesting comment, and its website had been changed to a password-protected page. The only official statement came via the company's Twitter account on May 17: "We are sorry that as of this morning, Highway Technologies doors have been closed."
Though details are sparse as to what made the business so suddenly close shop, the subcontractor has for years been facing problems with safety violations. Since 2007, the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has inspected the company on 10 different occasions. In February, it was fined $480,000 and placed on OSHA's Severe Violator Enforcement Program following a 2012 incident where a Wisconsin construction worker was killed after coming into contact with power lines. According to a public affairs representative from OSHA, the company was in the process of contesting those penalties when it announced its closure.