Biddeford store tells 270 part-timers they’ve lost hours but not their jobs

The 270 part-time employees at Market Basket’s Biddeford store were told Thursday that their hours were being reduced or eliminated as a result of the ongoing dispute between the company’s owners.

For the past two weeks, hundreds of warehouse workers and drivers have refused to make deliveries to the family-owned chain’s stores in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, leaving the stores empty of perishable items and with virtually no customers.

The controversy has driven down sales, as well as staffing needs. While media reports have circulated that Market Basket may lay off 10,000 workers across the chain’s 71 stores, Micum McIntire, manager of the Biddeford store, said the part-time employees were not being formally laid off. The Biddeford store is the only Market Basket in Maine.

“Staffing shifts are based on the current customers. And the customers just stopped coming in,” said McIntire, a 35-year employee of Market Basket. “If there’s no one in the store, we’re not able to use part-timers.”

None of the store’s 56 full-time workers were affected, McIntire said. But part-time workers who came in to pick up their paychecks Thursday were told to see their department heads, who gave them the bad news.

McIntire held out hope that the dispute between former CEO Arthur T. Demoulas and the company’s board of directors would be resolved, and dismissed reports that another supermarket chain, possibly Hannaford, might buy the company.

“No one wants to buy a broken company,” said McIntire, whose four children all work for Market Basket. “But somebody needs to do something.”

Store management emphasized that the part-timers were not being laid off.

“We want everybody to know that these people are still Market Basket employees,” said assistant store director David Snook.

Company co-CEO Felicia Thornton also said in a written statement that store directors “are to let their associates know that they are not laid off.”

Part-timers whose hours were eliminated were being encouraged to contact the state Department of Labor in hopes that they would put pressure on the Market Basket chief executives, shareholders and board of directors “to get this company back up and functioning the way it should be,” Snook said. Attorneys general and other officials in Massachusetts and New Hampshire said they also were getting calls from Market Basket employees.

Snook said sales at the Biddeford store have plunged 90 percent since the dispute began. Last Friday, Thornton told store directors to adjust employee scheduling hours according to the number of customers they had so the stores could continue to meet their productivity goals, he said.

“Even if we eliminated our part-time workers, we still wouldn’t reach our goal,” Snook said. He said that in the past week, the Biddeford store had an average of 15 part-timers working at any given time, compared with more than 100 part-timers before the trouble began.

Snook said he does not anticipate that full-timers will be affected.

“We’ve had no indication that we’re going to have to reduce their hours,” he said. “But we’re watching closely.”

Doug Nelson worked as a part-time cook in the Market Basket kitchen in Biddeford for just three months. But already he felt fiercely loyal to Demoulas, who was ousted by the company’s board June 23.

Nelson drove 90 minutes to Tewksbury, Mass., on Tuesday to join an employee rally that called for Demoulas, who owns 49.5 percent of the company, to be reinstated as chief executive. Demoulas has made an offer to buy a controlling stake in the company.

The ouster of Demoulas also has led to delivery boycotts by some workers and calls for customers to shop elsewhere as a show of support for both Demoulas and the employees.

Nelson had been confident that his efforts would help get Demoulas reinstated, but was dumbstruck Thursday to learn there was no more work.

“It’s surreal,” said Nelson, 19, of Kennebunk. “I figured it would get worked out, and in a week or two we’d be fully functioning. But nothing materialized.”

His department head told him to keep calling back to ask about more hours, but Nelson said he would have to look for a new job elsewhere or face draining his savings.

“And that sucks because this was a great group of people and I really liked this job,” he said.

The Biddeford store is just 10 days shy of its one-year anniversary and many of its workers have been with the store since it opened.

“It’s really just so sad how fast everything happened,” said Emma Eccleston, 17, of Biddeford, a part-time clerk who picked up what could be her final paycheck Thursday.

Mel Kabitzke, 24, a part-time cake decorator from Saco, said she didn’t want to look for another job, but felt she didn’t have a choice.

“I just can’t wait to be called back,” said Kabitzke, who made a gingerbread house sitting in the store’s customer service window with the words “Artie T’s Market Basket Cake.” She planned to return to a flower nursery where she had worked previously.

Although full-time workers have not received any indication their own jobs are in jeopardy, many of them said they were worried.

“I’m keeping my fingers crossed, but I’m nervous that we’ll be next,” said Nicole Capriolli, 25. The single mother had been with the company for nine years before moving to Maine from New Hampshire with her 5-year-old daughter when the Biddeford store opened last year.

“This job got us out of the projects,” she said. “For the first time we’re in our own apartment and off of government benefits. It was always paycheck to paycheck. But the health benefits, profit-sharing and 401k made up for it. And I love my job.”

A handful of customers trickled into the store Thursday to buy packaged non-perishable foods, which were still fully stocked.

“I don’t understand how family fighting could get so out of control,” said Anthony Gray, a shipyard worker from Kennebunk who stopped in to buy paper plates. Since the boycott he has been purchasing his meat from a butcher and getting other groceries at Wal-Mart, but he was eager to start shopping regularly at Market Basket again.

“The prices are always reasonable and the store is always clean,” he said. “So this needs to get resolved soon.”

Nancy Wedge, 63, a part-time cashier from Lyman, worked her 6:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift Thursday and watched her fellow part-timers receive notice that they wouldn’t be scheduled for any more work. She had not yet been notified about her own job status, but worried she would hear bad news when she got her paycheck.

“I haven’t heard anything,” said Wedge. “So I’m just watching and waiting. Watching and waiting.”

Jennifer Van Allen can be contacted at 791-6313 or at:

[email protected]

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