The Oregonian
April 22, 1997

By Mark Warbis - The Associated Press

A union action contends that the grocery chain illegally coerces its employees to work off the clock and not to file claims

Albertson's Inc. has been targeted by another class-action lawsuit alleging the supermarket chain illegally profits by coercing its employees to work off the clock without pay.

But Michael Read, an Albertson's spokesman, said the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Boise on behalf of union and nonunion employees in 17 states was the latest in a series of allegations the union has yet to back up with specific evidence.

"This is a nicely orchestrated campaign of lawsuits, but we have not been able to look at any of the underlying claims," Read said Monday.

Boise-based Albertson's, which has more than 800 stores and 85,000 employees in 20 states, also faces related class-action lawsuits backed by the union in Washington, California and Florida. A fourth suit in New Mexico was brought on behalf of an individual plaintiff, the union said.

The complaints allege that Albertson's, the nation's fourth-largest supermarket chain, threatens to discipline employees who claim unpaid wages for off-the-clock work.

The latest suit, filed last week, cited the case of former Albertson's employee Lori M. Barton of Mountain Home, Idaho, who worked as a manager and clerk in 1988-90 and 1992-97. It alleges that Albertson's retaliated against her through work assignments and subjected her to coercive interrogation by store security personnel after she filed a claim for payment of off-the-clock work late last year.

According to the complaint, Barton was given assignments she could not complete within her scheduled hours and was threatened with reduced and changed hours, demotion and firing if she failed to complete the work during her shift.

"As a result, she worked off the clock in order not to suffer the threatened adverse treatment, and she also witnessed other employees working off the clock," the lawsuit says.

In addition, it contends that when Barton injured her shoulder at work, her store director told her not to file a worker's compensation claim. "She was told that her worker's compensation claim would come off of the store bonuses and cost $5,000," the complaint alleges.

Attorney cites fear

Joe Peterson, a Seattle attorney hired by the union to handle the case, said the Albertson's policy of docking managers' bonuses when employees of their stores file worker's compensation claims creates an environment in which workers fear retaliation.

The union contends that Barton's case is typical of Albertson's practices. It says that the plaintiffs' attorneys have more than 4,000 statements from current and former employees "attesting to the pressures created by the bonus system to work off the clock and not to pursue worker's compensation claims."

However, Read said the United Food & Commercial Workers has not provided Albertson's with copies of the statements and has pressured local union officials not to cooperate with the company's attempts to resolve complaints.

Albertson's sued the union last September to block such lawsuits until the grievance and arbitration procedure in the union's contract has been exhausted.

Union responds

The union, which represents about 40 percent of Albertson's retail employees, countered by filing an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill in Boise ruled last month that employees need not seek arbitration before a suit is filed. But he also said Albertson's could proceed with its breach-of-contract and contract interference complaints against the union.

"We'd like to resolve these things to the extent there's any merit to them," Read said. "That's why we wanted to go to arbitration, because it's a much quicker and more efficient forum for these kinds of complaints."

If anyone is working off the clock, Albertson's wants to "ensure all employees are fully and fairly compensated," he said. "That's our policy; that's the way we treat our people."

Read called the union's allegations "wildly exaggerated."