Opinion: Lost in the Supermarket

Posted September 30, 2015 by The Argonaut in Columns

Haggen bankruptcy sends local grocery workers to the unemployment line just in time for the holidays

By Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Even before the Haggen bankruptcy, workers at the ill-fated chain’s Santa Monica store saw poorly stocked grocery shelves as a bad omen Photo by Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Even before the Haggen bankruptcy, workers at the ill-fated chain’s Santa Monica store saw poorly stocked grocery shelves as a bad omen
Photo by Kelly Hayes-Raitt

I chuckled when I saw the bright orange “DO NOT SELL” grocery stickers pasted over the Haggen logo on grocery store workers’ uniforms in Santa Monica last Friday — the day after Haggen announced it was declaring bankruptcy and shutting roughly 100 newly acquired stores in California, Nevada and Arizona.

Some 6,000 workers across the state — including those at this former Albertsons store on Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica — will soon lose their jobs.

Sure, I chuckled at the stickers, but then I marveled at the grocery workers’ resilience. It wasn’t that long ago that I was honking my support as I drove past their picket lines when Albertsons, their former employer, locked them out of work. Curious about these people I interacted with regularly, I brought them sandwiches and lingered to chat with a few workers. I remember one man whose wife worked at Safeway, a rival chain whose workers were striking. Neither of them was receiving a paycheck during this work stoppage. He didn’t know how he’d feed his kids the following week.

That’s when I befriended Charles. Although we’ve struck up a friendship over the years through exchanging stories about our lives and families amid discussions of the evils of plastic bags, he asked that I not use his real full name for this column. Like the other workers I interviewed, he’s concerned about backlash. After all, the day I interviewed him and his co-workers, there was an “LP guy” (loss prevention) wandering the store to make sure employees didn’t pilfer from the remaining groceries.

“It’s like losing your family,” Charles said. “We probably won’t see you guys again. It’s a sad day.…”

Last year the Bellingham, Wash.-based Haggen regional grocery chain announced its purchase of 146 Albertsons and Vons stores in the southwest. Many of the Albertsons workers had already weathered a corporate change. They’d worked for Luckys until 1998 when Albertsons bought the chain, making itself the nation’s second-largest grocery retailer. Secure in the knowledge that their Santa Monica location proved lucrative to both Luckys and Albertsons, they had few qualms about shifting to the Haggen uniform.

Then things seemed to get a bit “weird,” says one worker. “There was no grand opening, no TV commercials. … Deliveries weren’t happening.  We ran out of toilet paper, paper towels, then bread, milk. I kept telling people, ‘The delivery didn’t come.’ You don’t want to worry your customers!”

When the bankruptcy news came, customers were worried — about the futures of the grocery workers.

“I’m sorry for you guys. We’ll miss you so much,” a male customer says to the woman scanning his groceries.

Her eyes well with tears. I hand her a Kleenex.

“It’s just when they’re really sweet, it makes me cry,” she says.

“I’m trying to hold it together,” says the worker bagging groceries as she tears up, too. “They’re saying we can get jobs at Albertsons and Vons. But then we learned that Albertsons and Vons had a job fair last month [and supposedly filled all their positions].”

These workers need to secure another union job if they are to maintain their pensions at full value.

“We don’t want all that time we put in to go for nothing,” says the cashier, who’s worked for this store for 26 years — first for Luckys, then Albertsons. “Our medical is up if we don’t find another union job.”

She’s a single mother of a 16-year-old Venice High School sophomore who has epilepsy.

“I was here during the lockout. We had to get out a loan and everything. That was hard,” she says while counting out a customer’s change. “My daughter’s started to stress. She’s like, ‘Do you want me to get a job?”

A customer asks how long the store will remain open.

“Our last day is the day before Thanksgiving,” she says, “but I’m not sure if we’ll last that long.”

“Right before Thanksgiving?” the customer responds, incredulously.

While scanning the next person’s potato chips, the cashier tells me “I’m just really upset we’re not getting our vacation pay or anniversary checks. [Haggen] wrote into their bankruptcy that they won’t pay us our sick pay or our vacation pay.”

I ask her how much money that means for her and her daughter.

“I’ve been trying not to calculate it!” she says gamely. “It’s about five weeks. It’s $450 a week times five, plus sick pay. A couple thousand, I guess.”

“When they first did orientation,” the bagger interrupts, “they told us we’d be here three years. ‘If it doesn’t work, we’ll be gone. All the jobs are safe,’ they said. It’s been 150 days and we’re gone.”

“Are they going to relocate you guys?” a customer asks.

“To the unemployment line,” the bagger says, rolling her eyes.

“The union?” the cashier responds to a question. “I’ve been paying [their] salaries for 26 years and [they’re] not helping us now. This is 8,000 families affected!

Later, handing a homeless man his change from a small purchase, the cashier tells him to keep visiting before the impending closure.

“He is so sweet,” she turns to me and says. “I bring him a turkey dinner every year. I tell my daughter, we have to make something for Mr. White.”

“I’m gonna retire,” says my friend Charles. “I don’t have much choice. We’ve been through turnovers, we’ve been taken over, the lock-out. This was the last straw. I worked all my adult life doing this, and this is my end result. I don’t even get to go out with a bang. I go out with a push of the broom: This is your last check and bye-bye.”

Kelly Hayes-Raitt, a Santa Monica resident, blogs at LivingLargeInLimbo.com.  She can be reached at KellyArgonautColumn@aol.com.

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