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CALIFORNIA | HEARD ON THE BEAT / LABOR

Lawsuits Unsettle Albertson's

March 21, 1997|STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Albertson's Inc. supermarket chain is one of the most profitable in the nation, a crisply efficient operation consisting of 829 stores in California and 19 other states.

But the company's main union claims in a batch of lawsuits that there's an ugly story behind how Albertson's holds its costs down and keeps its profits up: Many of its managers allegedly pressure employees to work "off the clock," putting in extra hours without pay.

That accusation is at the heart of an intensifying battle largely focused in California between the union, the United Food & Commercial Workers, and Albertson's. The outcome could shake up employment practices of the nation's fourth-biggest supermarket chain and affect thousands of employees.

The Boise, Ida.-based company dismisses the union's claims of widespread wage abuses. It says that the supermarket chain, at worst, has some isolated cases of unpaid hours and promises to fully compensate any employees found to have been shortchanged.

In the union, however, Albertson's faces a formidable adversary. By funneling employee complaints to government agencies and private lawyers in the past, it has helped extract millions of dollars from companies accused of workplace abuses.

Just this January, a UFCW-backed sexual discrimination case brought against Publix Super Markets yielded an $81.5-million settlement for current and former employees.

At Albertson's, the union maintains that the company's unpaid wage liability totals more than $200 million. That includes a supposed liability of $150 million in California, where the company employs nearly 14,500 of its 88,000 U.S. workers.

To back its contentions, the union points to the nearly $2.2 million Albertson's paid in 1994 to 778 pharmacists to settle overtime pay violations cited by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Union officials acknowledge that they want to unionize more stores in the fast-growing Albertson's chain, many of which have opened in nonunionized areas.

But they say their lawsuits--filed in state and federal courts in California, Washington and Florida--are more than an organizing tactic.

"We've investigated lots of companies and we never found such widespread unlawful employment practices, both in union and nonunion stores," said Joe Peterson, a union official overseeing the battle with Albertson's.

Peterson said 3,700 Albertson's workers have signed sworn statements claiming workplace abuses. Most of the allegations involve full-time workers claiming they worked unpaid overtime or part-timers asserting that they went without pay for hours they stayed on the job after their regular shifts. In addition, the union claims that workers hurt on the job were discouraged from filing workers' compensation claims, supposedly to hold down the company's workers' compensation expenses.

The company's main technique for extracting extra hours without pay, Peterson said, is to throw more work at them than they can finish within their scheduled shifts. Then, he said, if the workers claim overtime hours or refuse to do the extra work, they face losing their jobs, having their scheduled hours reduced or being denied promotions.

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Still, even though Albertson's stock in recent months has been flat on Wall Street, investment analysts attribute it to the cost of the company's current expansion and discount the financial impact of the labor dispute.

Gary Giblen, an analyst with Smith Barney Inc., called it ironic that Albertson's is being accused of workplace abuses. "If you had to name one thing that distinguishes Albertson's, it's customer service and employee morale," Giblen said.

Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein can be reached by phone at (213) 237-7887 or by e-mail at stuart.silverstein@latimes.com

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