Waldbaum’s Reduces Work Force

To save on health costs, employees are put on part-time hours
Employees at Waldbaum’s have had their hours cut back severely as part of the company’s efforts to reduce healthcare costs. Morgan McGivern

    Part-time is the new normal for most of the 100 or so employees at the Waldbaum’s supermarket on Newtown Lane in East Hampton.

    Back in April, after rumors had been swirling for weeks, workers went to pick up their schedules only to discover that their hours had been cut, with most of the full-time workers suddenly seeing reductions of 20 hours a week or more. Management apparently made the change without any formal announcement.

    In the months since, many workers have been scrambling to find second and third jobs in order to make ends meet.

    “It really hurts. You do the best job that you can and it’s not appreciated,” said a woman who has worked in the store’s bakery, where she decorates cakes, for the past seven years. She declined the use of her name for fear of losing her job. “They’re making the big bucks on the top, with million-dollar bonuses, and you’re just a number,” she said.

    The phenomenon is hardly unique to Waldbaum’s. All around the country, an increasing number of businesses are relying on part-time workers in place of full-timers, some taking advantage of the high unemployment rate, with workers willing to take any job they can get, and others citing the Affordable Care Act, the comprehensive health reform that President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010.    

    Come January, businesses with 50 or more employees working more than 30 hours a week will be required to provide affordable health insurance or face steep fines. Before the law takes effect, many businesses that rely on low-wage workers are reported to be switching to a part-time workforce as a means of cutting costs.

    Though a one-year reprieve has been announced whereby employers will not face penalties until 2015, the Obama administration said earlier this month that it hoped businesses would begin complying in January. But the cuts appear to be continuing, leaving vulnerable workers in their wake.

    “It’s happening everywhere,” said Richard Abondolo, president of Local 342, a Mineola-based union that represents nearly 10,000 workers, including employees of Waldbaum’s East Hampton. “Anyone with more than 50 employees has made cuts to part-time. We’re trying to push them in the other direction.”

    Mr. Abondolo said the union recently filed a group grievance against the Newtown Lane supermarket, and is proceeding with arbitration, with hearings scheduled for August and September.

    “The employer is afraid they are going to have to pay more than what they’re currently paying,” he said. “They’re getting viciously creative and leaving these people with nothing.”

    Waldbaum’s is owned by the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., the A&P. Shariff Duncan of A&P’s media relations office declined multiple requests for an interview.

    “Unfortunately, in light of our current company restructuring and focus on the business, we are unable to accommodate your request at this time,” wrote Mr. Duncan in an e-mail.

    John Quackenbush, Waldbaum’s district manager, also refused to comment.

    In years past, full-time Waldbaum’s workers have received full health-care coverage, while part-time workers are only covered for dental, optical, and prescription drugs.

    The Waldbaum’s bakery worker has not been to see a doctor since she lost her coverage, she said. A co-worker, who similarly declined to give her name for fear of being fired, has worked at the supermarket for 27 years, she said. While she had been working up to 48 hours a week, she is now down to less than 30, a difference in pay of about $1,000 a month. She feels indebted to the company, which, she said, allowed her the security to take a 15-year mortgage on a house in Springs, a mortgage that she is only two years away from paying off in full. But with the sudden reduction in pay, her monthly expenses are increasingly burdensome. She has visited four other local grocery stores to see about a second job, she said, but has found nothing as yet.

     “I was so happy and thought I was set until I retire, and I was making ends meet and I felt secure,” said her co-worker one recent evening. She now works more than 70 hours a week since taking a second job as a groundskeeper at Montauk Downs State Park. At 57, working six days a week — often from 5 a.m. to nearly 9 p.m. — she fears her days are numbered.

    Living with her husband in an apartment in Springs, she is trying to save as much as possible for what she fears will be a woefully uncertain future. “It’s not so much to make ends meet as to have a little reserve for what might be coming,” she said. “They keep changing their minds.”

    The loss of health insurance is her greatest worry. “Working so hard, without insurance, I’m worried that I’ll get sick,” she said. “If you’re getting reduced hours, how are you supposed to afford insurance? One emergency room visit, $10,000, will wipe you out in a minute. It’s a very uncertain and scary time.”