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This Family's Getting Out of Grocery Work

For Georgene Haubenreisser and her children, a secure future is no longer in the supermarket aisles.

March 02, 2004|Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, Georgene Haubenreisser saw how hard her mother worked as a cashier and deli clerk at a Giant grocery store.

She decided to try her hand at something different after high school and opened a three-chair beauty salon in Glendale. Within a few years, she had learned an important lesson in economics: When times are tough, people might scrimp on haircuts and perms, but they always will need milk and toothpaste.

So, when the oldest of her four daughters were babies, Haubenreisser traded her scissors for a Ralphs clerk's uniform, earning enough over 24 years to hold the deed to a three-bedroom house in Santa Clarita. And when her daughters turned 16, she sent them, one after another, to apply for jobs with Ralphs.

She wanted to make sure that Lora, Danelle, Diana and Wendy stayed out of gangs while learning the value of responsibility. Her choice was a measure of her belief in Ralphs as an employer with tickets to the middle class.

No longer. With the end of the strike and lockout that pitted Ralphs, Vons, Pavilions and Albertsons against the United Food and Commercial Workers for more than four months, the 57-year-old Haubenreisser is giving friends in the union the same advice she gave her daughters: "I think they should get out."

"There won't be a future for them here," she said, "not for people who want to live well and enjoy life. They won't be able to have a career in this kind of job anymore. That's what is sad."

Haubenreisser's bitter feelings are shared by many of her union colleagues. The supermarkets, they believe, have reneged on a generations-old compact in which the companies looked out for their employees -- even after they had retired -- in return for steadfast loyalty.

"They took care of their people," Haubenreisser said last week. "And you could have a good life with the income, the health benefits and the retirement."

In her case, it was family tradition: Her sister, Joan, is a clerk at a Ralphs in Orange County, and her brother-in-law, Charlie, was a Ralphs produce manager. Three of her daughters ended up marrying Ralphs employees, bringing to 11 the number of family members who had staked out careers in supermarket aisles.

On Saturday, Haubenreisser voted "no" on the labor contract that was overwhelmingly, though not necessarily enthusiastically, approved by UFCW members. She scanned the contract summary she picked up at Valley College in Van Nuys, Local 770's polling place, and didn't like what she read: She wouldn't get a raise, she might have to start paying for healthcare coverage in the third year, and she would accrue pension benefits at 65% of the rate in the last contract.

"I think it stinks," she said.

This week, Haubenreisser will return to work as a clerks' supervisor in Burbank, at $17.90 an hour. But her plan is to put in only four more years, so that she can retire with a monthly pension of about $1,450.

Her daughter Lora, 26 and a mother of two, quit months ago. A former bagger, she has a $14.40-an-hour job with a firm that customizes vehicles for disabled owners. The health benefits aren't as good as those she had at Ralphs -- under the last contract, they were fully company paid -- but the hourly wage is slightly higher.

"It's a more stable job," she said. "I'm not going back."

Danelle and her husband, Christian Hernandez, both 24, had aimed to become directors at stores in Glendale and La Canada Flintridge. They were making top scale of $17.90 an hour and together grossing more than $66,000 a year, a solid income for a young couple with a 3-year-old son.

They'll go back to work for Ralphs but won't risk staying; they recently completed courses in real estate and hope to get their licenses.

At Ralphs, "I wanted to get into management, have a salary and qualify for commissions and bonuses, but I can't take that chance now," Christian said. Added Danelle: "It's just not a stable job anymore."

Danelle's twin, Diana, and her husband, Renato Sanchez, 21, will return to Ralphs stores in Burbank and Sun Valley long enough to jump-start their savings account. Then Diana plans to try her hand at a nursing career and Renato hopes to train to become an auto mechanic.

Diana had made $17.90 an hour at Ralphs as a guest service representative and Renato $13 an hour as a meat wrapper. Now the parents of two small children want jobs with sure futures, they said, not worries about what the next three-year contract will bring and the prospect of shrinking benefits.

"I'm not going to go through this again," said Diana, who has been working nights at a video store, at $6.75 an hour, to supplement the strike pay she and Renato earned on picket-line duty.

The twins have put in eight of the 10 years they need to qualify for pensions. But they and their mother don't think even just 24 more months at Ralphs would be worth it. "This is what's heartbreaking about this," Georgene said.

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