Not keeping union workers on staff might cost the new franchise owner of a Key Food supermarket in North Riverdale more than $200,000.
That's what the city's consumer and worker protection department is seeking from both the former and current owners of Key Food, located inside the Skyview Shopping Center just south of West 259th Street, for what they say was an illegal firing of essential grocery workers in the middle of a pandemic.
"Not only is it illegal to fire grocery workers when a store changes ownership, it's disgraceful to toss aside these essential workers who, for many months, braved the frontlines and served their communities as heroes," said Lorelei Salas, the city's consumer and worker protection commissioner, in a release.
"This law was created to protect grocery store workers from historically volatile employment, and that is more important than ever during these challenging economic times. These workers deserve better than abruptly being left unemployed in the middle of the pandemic, and we will fight for their rights."
The commission is charging the previous franchise owners, Riverdale Grocers LLC, with failure to post a written notice 15 days prior to an ownership change notifying employees about such a change, and their rights. The commission also is accusing the former owners of failing to provide the new owner — NR Shop LLC — with the list of eligible employees and their contact information., as well as failing to provide those workers' union with required notice about the sale of the franchise.
NR Shop is accused of failing to retain eligible employees — those who worked at least six months before the store was sold — for a 90-day transitional period that was supposed to last until Oct. 11.
"This is an unconscionable violation of workers' rights anytime, but especially cruel during a global pandemic," Councilman Andrew Cohen said, in a release. "These are essential workers who have served our community during a time of need — some of whom have worked at this Key Food location for over 20 years."
Members from Local 338 of the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union have picketed the location since the Key Food changed hands in July. Rumors of a sale had floated for more than two years as the previous franchise owners couldn't negotiate a new lease with the Skyview Shopping Center landlord.
Rumors really kicked into high gear in the middle of March — just as the coronavirus pandemic was taking hold — prompting an intervention from Cohen that ultimately delayed the sale. The limited liability corporation that became NR Shop was formed in February, according to state corporation records, which put it in line for a sale that could have closed in March.
Local 338 claimed that during the week-long shutdown of the store while ownership changed hands, new employees were brought in to replace the union workers. That meant the new Key Food was no longer a union shop.
And that's a problem, according to the consumer and worker protection department. Under the Grocery Worker Retention Act, a former owner of a grocery store must notify workers about a change in ownership and their employment rights 15 days prior to a sale, according to a release. Following the sale, the new owner is required to keep all of the existing staff employed at the store for at least 90 days after the date of sale.
After 90 days, the new owner can decide whether or not to keep any of the existing workers as employees.
"When we first began drafting the Grocery Worker Retention Act, unbeknownst to us, the store closures that would be seen over the coming years and now a global pandemic, we wrote this build understanding the value of labor, the health and safety of our communities, and their economic stability," said Brooklyn councilman Daneek Miller, chair of the civil service and labor committee, in a release.
"This law today is as relevant in 2020 as it was in 2016, and is a powerful reminder that New York City is a union city. All workers deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, especially the workers that showed up each day during a global pandemic to maintain our collective well being."
The city looks to recoup $198,240 in lost wages for the 21 workers who were fired — three times what they would have made if they had been retained — as well as $12,069 in lost benefits. That comes out to a little more than $10,000 per employee.
The city also wants to the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings to compel the former owner to pay $1,000 in fines, and the new owner $15,750 in fines.
In an emailed statement to The Riverdale Press, a spokesperson for the current franchise owners, NR Shop, said that "we've been attacked by local politicians and the media, trying to destroy a small, family-run business. Our focus is to build a better shopping experience for the Riverdale community, but it's been halted by the assault on our ability to conduct business."
The Luna family, the previous franchise owners, could not be reached for comment. Yet, the NR Shop spokesperson added that they had offered "all employees that were employed with the old store at the time of closing jobs at the same rate of pay."
"We hope his matter will be resolved shortly."
But the union representing some of these former Key Food workers disagrees, and believes those employees were put out on the street when any of them need these jobs the most.
"These Local 338 members put their lives on the line to ensure that their community had access to food and the critical supplies they needed during the peak months of the pandemic — only to be cruelly terminated in the midst of this crisis," according to Nikki Kateman, a Local 338 spokeswoman, in a release. "Local 338 is grateful to the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection for its vigilance in enforcing this important law, and supporting the workers at Key Food."