Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Albertsons’

Workers Battle With Grocery Chains Over Obamacare Implementation

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

Bruce VailUnions representing about 30,000 grocery workers in the Puget Sound region claimed a victory last week in a labor contract fight that centered on the implementation of Obamacare in the area’s biggest supermarket chains.

Western Washington state locals of the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) and theTeamsters have been bargaining for months with representatives from Kroger, Safeway and Albertsons, all among the largest supermarket chains in the country. In addition to the elimination of health insurance coverage for 8,000 part-time workers, the initial demands from the grocery retailers included extended wage freezes and selective elimination of overtime pay, according to Seattle-based UFCW Local 21. The workers were within hours of beginning a strike before a last-minute deal was reached on October 21.

“I started working in the grocery business over 40 years ago. The proposals we saw this time from employers were some of the worst I’ve ever seen. They tried to turn us into Wal-Mart. They did not succeed,” commented Local 21 President Dave Schmitz in a formal statement  issued at the end of the ratification vote October 25.

Though union representatives like Schmitz are declaring the deal a victory, in reality, the ratification is only a partial success for workers. In Seattle, part-timers were not cut from insurance eligibility, as Kroger and the other chains had demanded, and no new healthcare costs were imposed, says spokesman Tom Geiger. But contract gains on wages were “modest,” Local 21 says, and other negotiating achievements were limited to beating back demands for sweeping concessions. For their part, the grocers maintained that the deal preserved “good wages, secure pensions and access to quality, affordable healthcare for [their] employees.”

Beginning Jan. 1, 2014, Puget Sound grocery workers will earn wages ranging from $9.42 an hour for newly hired checkout clerks to $19.50 for the highest-paid meat-cutters and other experienced food specialists, Geiger says. In keeping with a historical pattern in the area, this hourly rate for lowest-paid workers is 10 cents more than the state’s minimum wage (Washington currently has the highest minimum wage in the country at $9.19 and hour with a scheduled rise to $9.32 at the beginning of 2014). Rather than a general wage increase in the contract’s first year, each union member will receive a bonus payment based on the number of hours they worked over the last year. In the second and third years of the three-year contract, most union members will get a straight wage increase of 25 cents an hour each year.

But other potential improvements in wages or other benefits are being sacrificed, at least in part, in exchange for companies footing the rising bill of the existing health plan, the union reports. The grocery chains currently pay $4.38 for each hour worked by a union member into the health fund, with that figure rising to $4.86 over the life of the contract. That increase is expected to pay the costs of maintaining the health insurance plan at its current level of benefits for the next three years. Local 21 and UFCW declined to comment further on contract specifics, though Schmitz’s statement acknowledged that the unions “did not get everything they wanted.”

Because the Affordable Care Act requires many companies to pay more for employees’ healthcare, grocery worker unions across the country are facing stiff concessionary demands as their employers make the transition. Early this year, New England UFCW locals reached an uncomfortable compromise with the large Stop & Shop grocery chain that was similar in some ways to the Seattle agreement. In that case, UFCW agreed to eliminate healthcare eligibility for some part-timers, but only on the condition that the supermarket company provide financial and legal assistance in obtaining similar healthcare coverage from other sources for the dislocated workers. And similar contract struggles still under way in New YorkCincinnati, Baltimore, andWashington, D.C. show that union leaders nationwide are facing unusually heavy pressure as grocery chain corporations frequently try to cut their own costs at the expense of healthcare for employees.

In an October 28 message, Tony Speelman, lead negotiator for New York’s UFCW Local 1500, acknowledged that Obamacare “has presented unprecedented challenges” to workers and corporations alike. However, he said, Local 1500, which is now in negotiation for a new contract with Stop & Shop, “came to the bargaining table in good faith understanding that we would have to make changes to our health fund to be compliant under the legal requirements of [the Affordable Care Act].”

And, as he points out, there’s no reason for companies to take the law’s passage as an opportunity to cut workers’ benefits. “Stop & Shop seems to think [Obamacare] is an opportunity to achieve three goals: increase their profits, pick their employees’ pockets and undermine the union contract. That type of irresponsible bargaining will only lead to three conclusions: a work stoppage, unnecessary inconvenience for their customers and devastating economic damage to hundreds of New York communities.” In general, he continued, Obamacare “was not passed with the intent of eliminating an employer’s responsibility to provide affordable and comprehensive healthcare to its employees.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on November 6, 2o13.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

One Shocking Incident Of Disability Discrimination Supports Verdict For Employee

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

Judgment For Employee Due To Employer’s Failure To Accommodate

I don’t remember ever reading a case quite like this one. The facts are quite graphic so be prepared. The story revolves around an incident of a store’s failure to accommodate a disability which led to a tragic result.

What Happened In The Case

A woman identified only as A.M. came to America in 1981 from El Salvidor after civil war broke out. She started working at Albertsons in 1987. She worked in various jobs, but at the time of the incident giving rise to the case, she was working as a checker. 

In 2003, A.M. underwent chemotherapy and radiation for cancer of the tonsils and larynx. The treatment affected her salivary glands which caused her to drink large volumes of water and urinate repeatedly.

While at work, A.M. was required to have water with her at all times and needed to go to the bathroom frequently — sometimes as often as every 45 minutes.

Most managers accommodated her but on the evening of February 11, 2005, A.M. encountered a horrific problem.

She worked a shift that day which began at 1:00 p.m. and was scheduled to end at 10:00 p.m.

By 7:00 p.m. there were only three employees in the store – A.M. who was working as checker, another woman who acted as courtesy clerk (and was not allowed to relieve a checker), and Kellie Sampson – the person in charge.

At 8:00 that evening, A.M. told Sampson that she needed take a break. Sampson asked A.M. to wait because a delivery truck was coming

Some time later, A.M., who had a line of customers waiting to check out, called  Sampson and told her again that she needed to go to the bathroom. Sampson told her that she was unloading the merchandise and that she had to wait.

About 10 minutes later, A.M. still had customers in the line. She called Sampson once more and told her that she really had to go. Sampson said that she was busy and unable to come to the front of the store.

Unable to control herself, A.M. urinated while standing at the checkout stand. She was having her menstrual cycle, and so she was drenched with both urine and blood.

Understandably, A.M. was shaky and humiliated though she did not think the customers saw what happened. When Sampson finally got to the front of the store, A.M. went into the bathroom to clean herself.

Sobbing, she called her husband to tell him what happened. A customer observed her crying, asked what was wrong, and A.M. explained that she had wet herself because no one let her go to the bathroom.

The customer helped her to her car. She had a horrible drive home and thought about killing herself.

When she got home, still nervous and crying, she took a long shower and tried to scrub the smell off her. She wouldn’t get out of the shower and her husband had to remove her.

After that, she was unable to return to work and began to deteriorate psychologically. She became listless and withdrawn. She refused to see family and friends. She feared that people would be able to smell the bad odor she sensed about herself.

She had crazy dreams and couldn’t sleep. Each day, she took multiple showers to try and remove bad smells from her body. She shaved off all of her body hair, hoping that the bad smell would go away.

Eventually A.M. told a doctor that had thoughts about killing herself. She was committed to a psychiatric hospital for several days.

She began receiving individual and group therapy and eventually improved. She took fewer showers and began to be less concerned about her smell. She still was withdrawn but eventually was able to go back to work.

The Lawsuit

A.M. filed for damages claiming that Albertsons failed to provide her with a reasonable accommodation for her disability in violation of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”).

As generally happens where damages for emotional distress are being considered, there was conflicting testimony was presented from from the psychologists and psychiatrists.

For the plaintiff, an expert in psychological treatment and injury testified about A.M.’s post traumatic stress disorder . The expert’s opinion was that A.M.’s emotional distress occurred as a direct result of the February 2005 incident and that she would likely suffer some effect of this disorder for many years.

Two psychiatrists testified on behalf of the defense. Their opinion was that her depression was a result of events that predated the February incident and that  A.M. had been depressed and anxious for most of her life.

The jury returned a verdict in A.M’s favor and awarded damages in the amount of $200,000:

  • $12,000 for past lost wage
  • $40,000 for future medical expenses
  • $148,000 for past emotional distress

The Appeal

Albertsons made several arguments on appeal.

Under the FEHA (like the Americans With Disabilities Act) an employer that fails to make a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s known physical disability engages in an unlawful employment practice.

Albertsons main contention was that its failure to accommodate was trivial, because it constituted a single incident in the context of a much longer period of successful accommodation (which began in 2004 when A.M. came back to work after her cancer treatment).

In other words, the defense argued that one incident of a failure to accommodate is not enough to violate the law.

The Court of Appeals strongly disagreed and had this to say in its opinion:

The employer’s interpretation would be inconsistent with the statutory purpose to require employers to make reasonable accommodation for their employees’ physical disabilities …

As is demonstrated by A.M.’s case, a single failure to make reasonable accommodation can have tragic consequences for an employee who is not accommodated.

When construing a statute, we seek to interpret it in a manner that promotes wise policy, not absurdity. ….

The judgment is affirmed.

Lessons To Be Learned

I don’t remember ever reading a case that turned on the question of whether a single incident of accommodation could support a disability claim and verdict —  so for that reason, the case is both interesting and important.

The case is also a sad and disturbing illustration of what can happen when managers at all levels are uninformed about the consequences of a failure to accommodate the disabled.

image: www.tempe.gov

www.carlsonzone.com

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the first and foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. With more than $50* million in verdicts and settlements and over 30 years of experience, Ellen has been listed in Best Lawyers in America and in the National Law Journal as one of the nation’s leading litigators. She has been lauded for her work on landmark cases that established employment law in both state and federal court. Ellen also possesses a wealth of knowledge as a legal analyst discussing high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and women’s issues. Ms. Simon has been quoted often in local and national news media and is a regular guest on television and radio, including appearances on Court TV. She is the author of the Employee Rights Post, a legal blog devoted to employee and civil rights.

*prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome

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