Stop & Shop employees return to work after 11-day strike

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As she frosted a cake at the Montville Stop & Shop early Monday afternoon, cake decorator Cindy Barrett said she was "elated" the strike had ended and she was back to work — especially considering her husband is also a Stop & Shop employee, as the grocery manager in Waterford.

"We came in and we just cleaned, cleaned, cleaned," she said about Monday morning.

With items such as baked goods, greens, grab-and-go items, fish and ground beef still out of stock, it will be a work in progress for this and other Stop & Shop locations to return to normal. And employees are anxious to hear from their union, United Food & Commercial Workers, about what, exactly, is in their tentative new contract.

But Barrett said she trusts Local 919 President Mark Espinosa, because he "seems to have our best interests."

On Sunday, the 11th day of the strike, Stop & Shop and UFCW announced that they had reached a tentative agreement, which employees must approve at a ratification meeting. Jason Frechette, business representative for Local 919, told The Day on Monday that he believes the meeting will be on Thursday evening in New Haven.

Frechette also said the strike benefit each employee gets from the union is $100 per week.

For now, it remains unclear exactly what is in the tentative agreement, and what concessions were made over the weekend.

Stop & Shop spokeswoman Jennifer Brogan indicated last week that compared to the original proposal, the company was no longer asking for spouses to pay an additional $250 monthly for health insurance coverage and that it lowered the share employees would pay for their coverage.

Concern over health care coverage was one of the factors leading the 31,000 workers in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island to strike on April 11, along with objections to the company's proposals on wages, pensions, and Sunday premium pay.

Independent retail expert Burt Flickinger of Strategic Resource Group estimates that when weighing operating and inventory losses with not paying employees during their time on strike, the net loss of the strike to the company was $25 million to $30 million.

He expects the company will spend an additional unplanned $30 million to $50 million in marketing — such as  inserts, digital advertising and broadcast advertising — to lure customers back to the store.

"We're hoping that they'll get about 95 percent back by Memorial Day and 97 percent back by Labor Day," Flickinger said. Local social media Monday was a mix of people saying they're excited to return to Stop & Shop and people saying they won't go back.

Flickinger estimates stores lost 70-80 percent of customers during the strike, with some stores up to 90 percent. This meant that inventory losses came from foods that had already been purchased but didn't sell, such as meat, seafood, prepared food and produce, he said.

Brogan, the Stop & Shop spokeswoman, said the grocer donated "food and general merchandise" to at least 16 organizations in Connecticut alone, such as Shoreline Soup Kitchen, Ronald McDonald House and Connecticut Food Bank.

Katie Baldwin, supervisor of regulated facilities and housing for Ledge Light Health District, said Ledge Light did not receive any complaints about Stop & Shop. She said Monday morning that staff would head out during the day to visit the stores in East Lyme, Groton, Pawcatuck and Waterford.

The visits would be to make sure food is at the appropriate temperatures and the food on the shelves is not expired, she said.

As in the Montville Stop & Shop, the Norwich store was out of lettuce, meat, baked goods and other perishable items. Workers cleaned refrigerated bins and the underlying cooling units. Easter candy, flowers and gifts were not yet marked down in price.

Workers conversed freely with customers and one another about the strike and what they knew of the proposed agreement, with workers thanking customers for their support and for bringing food to them on the picket lines.

"We are proud of the women and men of the United Food and Commercial Workers who fought for what they deserve," Gov. Ned Lamont and Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz said in a joint statement Monday. "These are good jobs that provide fair wages, good benefits, and a secure retirement that are critical to the success of Connecticut's families."

e.moser@theday.com

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