Immigrants Cheer Law Protecting Grocery Workers

The new law will benefit more than 30,000 employees, most of them Latino. (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

The new law will benefit more than 30,000 employees, most of them Latino. (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

The closing of A&P supermarkets, which filed for bankruptcy last year and had 52 stores in the five boroughs, left thousands of workers jobless. However, a new law approved on Tuesday by the New York City Council will protect these and other employees from losing their income overnight.

The Grocery Worker Retention Act establishes a transition period of 90 days in the event of a change of administration. During that time, the company will not be allowed to lay off qualified employees.

“Today is a great day for thousands of hardworking men and women in our city’s grocery industry, as well as for the communities and families who rely on these workers for their nutritional needs,” said Council member I. Daneek Miller, chair of the Committee on Civil Service and Labor. “When we retain skilled workers to handle our groceries such as produce, poultry and meats, we help to ensure that proper food preparation ‒ along with health and sanitation procedures ‒ are observed.”

The law would apply at all grocery stores with at least 10,000 square feet of retail space, and will benefit more than 30,000 employees. It is estimated that two-thirds of these workers are immigrants, many of them Latinos. The protection only applies to people who have been working at least an average of eight hours per week and who have been in the company for at least six months.

A Mexican worker who chose not to be identified and who has worked in grocery stores for 10 years said that the pace of work is intense. “We work long hours every day at the supermarket. It becomes like our second home. When they change owners, we often end up in limbo, not knowing what to do and very anxious about our future as workers,” said the employee.

Support for employees

“This laying off of workers when supermarkets change hands has become a very common practice, and many of these employees have been there for years. The new owners bring people they trust and from their same country,” said Carlos Mauricio Jiménez, a member of Make the Road NY and of the Queens-based Workers in Action Committee. “Latinos suffer a lot because many of them have been in the country for years and have worked only in this industry.”

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), also applauded the legislation. “New owners can’t just discard workers, some of whom may have worked for years at the store, in an effort to lower wages. The bill also protects our communities by maintaining experienced staff that understand proper sanitation procedures and [who] can maintain health standards.”

The Council members said via press release that worker retention also helps customer satisfaction and, in the long term, lowers the company’s expenses. “These changes, whether because of new training or productivity losses, cost supermarkets nearly $5,000 a year.”

“Grocery store employees provide a valuable service to their communities and should have the opportunity to prove their worth before losing their jobs due to changes in ownership,” said City Council Speaker Municipal Melissa Mark-Viverito in the press release.

For its part, the grocery industry has decried the value of the legislation. “In my opinion, when employees are good, they have their job guaranteed,” said Jaime Luna, manager of a C-Town in Harlem. “Sometimes a manager or a secretary will change, but good employees are highly valued.”

The Food Industry Alliance, an association of supermarkets and other grocery-related businesses, also criticized the bill. (…)

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