Stop & Shop workers approach a week on strike

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Standing outside the Pawcatuck Stop & Shop on Wednesday morning, Barbara Cowan grew emotional talking about the impact of the strike on her family.

Between anti-rejection medication for the kidney she gave him in 2015 and insulin for diabetes, her husband is reliant on medicine that isn't cheap, and coupled with other disabilities, he can't work.

"My husband's health is in jeopardy here, and they don't understand that," she said of Stop & Shop, adding that store employees and their family members are sick but "they want to take spouses off insurance."

The proposal from Stop & Shop would allow health care coverage only for spouses who don't have coverage available through their own employers, which union leadership said Tuesday would remove 1,000 spouses currently covered. Stop & Shop originally proposed having eligible spouses pay an additional $250 per month, but spokesperson Jennifer Brogan said that is no longer part of the proposal.

That is one of many issues the five United Food & Commercial Workers locals in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have about the company's contract offer. UFCW also objects to other proposals concerning pension benefits and premium pay on Sundays. Employees stress that they only want to keep the benefits they currently have.

At 249 stores, more than 31,000 workers have been on strike since 1 p.m. April 11. Their three-year contract expired Feb. 23.

Some discrepancies between company statements and union statements come down to whether they're talking about full-time or part-time employees, current employees or future hires, or one local versus another. UFCW Local 919 covers most of the stores in southeastern Connecticut.

Brogan said of the workers in Connecticut, 2,900 are full-time and 8,600 are part-time.

The fired-up Local 919 President Mark Espinosa said in a video Tuesday that Stop & Shop is "planting a flag for the future, changing benefits and standards to erode the conditions that these union contracts have created over the years for so many people."

According to Stop & Shop, Local 919 employees now pay 7.3 percent of the cost of individual coverage and 5 percent for family coverage, while the new proposal would increase the respective rates to 9 to 11 percent and 6 to 8 percent. The company pointed out this is still well below national averages.

The proposal would remove the out-of-network, out-of-pocket maximum.

Stop & Shop has stressed there will be no changes to Sunday time-and-a-half premiums for full-time associates. For new part-time associates, the company is proposing a Sunday premium of $1 per hour for the first year and $2 per hour for each year after — or, if it's greater in a given state, the minimum required by law.

Employees in Pawcatuck, Montville voice frustrations and resolve

Cowan and strike captain Kristin Carter agreed that the one good thing to come out of the strike is that it has brought employees closer together, and as such, their morale hasn't fallen. Carter said employees are coming on their days off to sit on the picket line.

Local communities have shown an outpouring of support for workers, bringing coffee and doughnuts and pizza. A Pawcatuck employee said the adjacent Regal Cinemas brought over popcorn, while in Montville, members of the Republican Town Committee brought a grill to cook some burgers.

At both stores, employees had kind words for their in-store managers, who still are working.

Brogan said the company has deployed corporate personnel and temporary replacement workers, some recruited and hired by Stop & Shop and others found through staffing agencies. She declined to share the specific number of temporary replacement workers.

Asked about Espinosa's estimation the company has been losing $20 million per day during the strike, Brogan said she couldn't comment on financials because that is reported by Stop & Shop's parent company, Ahold-Delhaize.

Employee Katherine Rice estimated only seven to 10 people per day were crossing the picket line and leaving with groceries, and most were leaving with only one item. Stores are now open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

In Pawcatuck and Montville, shelves and cases were empty of salad greens, ground beef, seafood, bakery items and more.

Employees were paid this week for their work last week; Montville bakery clerk Janet Wilcox noted it was about half what she usually gets, as it was short the two and a half days during the pay period she was on strike. The same goes for her husband, Fred, whom she met at Stop & Shop and who works as the dairy manager.

Janet and Fred have respectively been at the company 25 and 31 years. While their family is now without any income, they acknowledge they're fortunate to each be making more than $20 an hour, a result of both being full-time and longtime employees with the company.

But Janet feels for others, like a part-time produce clerk who has been with the company for 12 years but is making $12.60 an hour and the newer full-time employees she says are making $13 or $14 an hour. Similarly, Carter said the Pawcatuck store has full-timers who have been there five years and make $13 an hour.

For Local 919, which represents most of the stores in southeastern Connecticut, Stop & Shop proposes that employees promoted from part-time to full-time receive an increase of $2 per hour.

e.moser@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version reflects a change to Stop & Shop's proposal around health care coverage for spouses.

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