(re: “Union workers want jobs back at Key Food,” July 30)
Francisco Montes went to work every day when most of us in New York City stayed safely at home in an effort to flatten the COVID-19 curve.
Francisco was one of hundreds of essential workers who continued to toil for long hours during the worst of the pandemic. They risked their health and that of their families, serving community members as they stockpiled toilet paper and basic food staples to hunker down.
Francisco was employed at a Key Food supermarket in North Riverdale for 28 years, until it was sold in July, and the owner fired 21 dedicated workers.
Since 2016, the city’s Grocery Worker Retention Act has made it illegal to fire grocery store workers for 90 days after a change in ownership. The law is meant to attenuate the volatility that retail workers experience by creating a reasonable transition period during which the new employer can evaluate its business needs, and employees can search for other employment, if needed.
While this law was in place pre-pandemic, it serves the same goals as many current and state legislative proposals. Just cause, whistleblower protections and hazard pay, for instance, are being considered by local and state legislative bodies, and can go a long way in restoring respect and dignity for workers — especially those who are essential every day, and especially during the COVID-19 crisis.
Francisco’s employers are not representative of so many New York City businesses that have dutifully complied with state health guidelines, paid sick leave laws, and other important worker protection laws that have long been in place. But the heartless dismissal of these Key Food workers needs to be called out as unacceptable, and as an embarrassment to our city.
Law or not, New York City businesses are better than this.
During the height of the pandemic, we cheered our city’s essential workers on a daily basis. During Labor Day weekend, we recognized how far the labor movement has come. But we must continue to honor and highlight the contributions and sacrifices workers are making day after day to help our economy restart and recover.
Now, more than ever, we need to invest in strong worker protections and responsive enforcement.
While we wait for the federal government to make the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines mandatory — or to begin enforcing the new federal paid sick leave law — New York City can continue to lead by centering workers’ lives in our recovery plans.
We must especially remember the immigrant workers who are overrepresented as essential workers in our grocery stores and restaurants, and who have been left out of the traditional safety nets because of their immigration status. As they return to work, these workers might endure non-compliant workplaces because their rent is due, they need to feed their families — and they have no savings to rely on.
My office, the city’s consumer and worker protection department, operates a hotline for workers with questions about the city’s reopening and, after receiving more than 5,000 calls, we continue to hear that workers are reluctant to report violations because they cannot afford to lose their jobs again.
After getting illegally fired, Francisco and his co-workers — represented by the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union, Local 338 — bravely filed complaints with our office. But many other workers might not even realize they are covered by the law, or may be afraid to come forward.
The Grocery Worker Retention Act gives some stability to workers by giving them notice that their employer is about to change, and a chance to show their skills for the jobs they already do. This benefits employers who inherit a trained work force, and it is also good public policy that leads to lower unemployment numbers, and less financial hardship for those who can least weather it.
Francisco’s new employer should rehire all 21 workers immediately, and not because they face litigation by my office, but because it is the decent way to treat our New York City heroes.
And as we rebuild, worker protections like this need to be part of our foundation so all of our communities — the heart of our city — can prosper.
The author is the commissioner of the city’s consumer and worker protection department, which houses the city’s labor policy and standards office.