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A Willing Worker Can't Afford a Job She Loves

Former grocery clerk says two-tier pay scale and part-time hours frustrate employees.

September 04, 2006|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

Shortly before her 17th birthday, Clariece Unnerstall dropped out of high school and took a full-time job at the Albertsons in her hometown of Lancaster.

To her surprise, the gregarious teenager found she loved the pace and mix of grocery store work. She had full health benefits and made enough to help her younger sister buy clothes and her mother and stepfather buy groceries.

The next year, in the early fall of 2003 -- anticipating the strike and lockout at Southern California grocery stores that ultimately lasted more than four months -- she quit to find other work.

When she decided to go back into the grocery business last year, she took a job at Vons and held the same job title, joined the same union and still enjoyed the work. But everything else was different.

She found she would have to wait 18 months for health benefits. She and most of her fellow workers were part-timers who struggled to get more than 16 hours each week. She worked two other jobs but found that instead of helping her family, her family had to help her. By this summer, she faced the choice of whether she could afford to keep working at the supermarket.

Unnerstall's situation offers a Labor Day glimpse into the lives of the young workers at the heart of Southern California's service economy. For such workers, a career is often a series of part-time jobs, and the only constant is instability.

Her experience also sheds light on how the grocery business -- which employs tens of thousands of workers in Southern California -- has changed since the strike and helps explain why supermarket workers are already preparing for a possible walkout when their contract expires in March.

"I like to work, and I've always loved working in a grocery store. It's exhilarating," Unnerstall said. "I could see myself having a career there, but it's hard to do that."

During the strike and lockout that began in October 2003, the supermarkets demanded that the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents grocery store workers, agree to concessions because competition from other nonunion competitors, particularly Wal-Mart, makes it difficult to maintain wages of up to $17.90 per hour and health benefits that were among the most generous in any retail industry.

After four months, the union and markets agreed on a contract that established a two-tier system for grocery workers. Veteran employees were permitted to hold onto the wages and most of their health benefits. But newly hired employees would join a second tier of workers who typically make little more than minimum wage and must wait as long as 18 months to qualify for health benefits.

Both union and industry officials say the two-tier system has changed grocery store work, once dominated by full-time employees who stayed with their companies for decades. Since the strike, Southern California supermarket chains rely more heavily on part-time workers. The union says turnover has increased.

"I think this is the result of the competitive pressure from the companies like Wal-Mart and Target," said Bill Dombrowski, president of the California Retailers Assn. "The unionized grocery stores have to respond to competition by juggling their labor costs the best they can."

Rick Icaza, president of UFCW Local 770, said ending the two-tier system will be the union's top priority in negotiating a new contract. Icaza is instructing members to prepare for another walkout in the event that the supermarkets do not bend.

Sandra Calderon, director of public affairs for Vons, a division of Safeway Inc., said the nature of jobs has changed to adapt to shopping patterns. "As shoppers' needs have changed, it's created more of a mix of full-time and part-time jobs," she said, adding that the union's talk of a possible strike next year is "surprising and irresponsible."

Store and company officials declined to address many specifics, saying to do so would disclose proprietary business information.

Unnerstall started as an Albertsons "courtesy clerk" in 2002, answering customers' questions, bagging groceries and cleaning the store. She made only $7.20 per hour but worked 40 hours a week and found it easy to get extra shifts. She volunteered so often to clean the store that her mother asked why she wouldn't clean at home.

"Every time I needed something to eat, every time I wanted clothes, she was always right there," said Unnerstall's sister, Emily, now 19.

Unnerstall and her co-workers were a close-knit bunch who would meet at her home to play board games in the evening. When the strike came, she knew she could not cross a picket line of her friends, but she still needed to work. So she took a job as a live-in nanny for the triplets of an Albertsons manager.

For much of 2004, she bounced around between minimum-wage jobs, mostly at a mall in Palmdale. In early 2005, she decided to return to grocery store work and was hired at the Vons in Lancaster.

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