Del. Dereck Davis: Workers, Communities Deserve a Voice in Fate of Shoppers Stores

A Shoppers Food Warehouse in Maryland Thursday night. Photo by Josh Kurtz

A textbook example of how distant economic decisions can have seismic impacts on local communities can be found in what is happening right now to the Shoppers Food & Pharmacy supermarket chain.

For more than 40 years, Shoppers has been providing affordable, quality groceries in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, making two major contributions to the region’s economy and quality of life:  It provides good union jobs with fair wages and health and retirement benefits, and it provides fresh, healthy food in many lower-income communities that would otherwise be food deserts.

Unfortunately, these benefits may be ripped away and our community will be left poorer, literally and figuratively, unless we act now.

A company based in Providence, R.I., United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI) purchased Supervalu, the previous owner of Shoppers, last October and immediately announced it had no intention of being in the retail grocery business. It is now trying to sell all Shoppers stores and has made no commitment to ensuring that the new owners continue to provide sustainable, union jobs or fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Recent reports indicate that the company may close some, if not all, of the locations or sell them to non-grocery retail operations.

This is the latest and potentially final blow to a company launched by a local family that eventually became a Wall Street pinball. While the ownership changed, in each case, the corporate owners failed to adequately invest in the company.  Despite difficult circumstances,  Shoppers store associates — members of United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400 — were there day in and day out, working hard to serve their community and keep the company successful.

House Economic Matters Chair Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s). Photo by Bruce DePuyt

While I do not work on Wall Street, UNFI’s decision to sell Shoppers makes no economic or common sense. Given UNFI’s determination to unload these assets regardless of their profitability, it should at least commit to selling these stores to another grocery chain, one accustomed to working with a unionized workforce and maintaining a presence in underserved communities. While UNFI has given lip service to this idea, its actions paint a different, dismal picture.

The stores are being sold off piecemeal. The pharmacies were sold to CVS and Walgreens, making it harder to sell the stores to another full-service grocer. While UNFI denies it has “immediate” plans to close Shoppers stores, if buyers can’t be found, this remains a distinct possibility. The company has already closed two stores this year, one in Hyattsville and another in Falls Church, Va.

Giant has purchased some stores, but others may wind up in the hands of low-wage, non-union operations that would drive down living standards or put in place non-grocery retail operations in underserved neighborhoods. The workers’ union contract with Shoppers requires the buyer of any store to recognize and uphold the collective bargaining agreement but some companies rumored to be in the market for Shoppers stores may try to evade their legal obligations and leave workers and their communities without good jobs.

It’s especially important to note that 11 of the remaining 43 stores are in Prince George’s County. Nine are inside the Beltway, where five Safeway stores have closed since 2010, making them all the more important. Two stores are in Forestville and one in Oxon Hill. Both of these areas are considered by county officials to be food deserts, according to The Washington Post. Other stores are in Bladensburg, Bowie, Clinton, College Park, Coral Hills, Landover and New Carrollton — all communities with residents who periodically struggle to find and afford healthy meals for their families and need access to affordable, healthy food.

UNFI has stated that the company “plans to thoughtfully and economically divest its retail operations.” While the company did not elaborate on the details, the State of Maryland provides clear guidance for employers. Under the Economic Stabilization Notification Act, employers who are covered by the law are encouraged to provide at least 90 days’ notice to employees prior to layoffs.

Additionally, covered employers are asked to consider providing a range of benefits, including continuing health care coverage for six months or until the employees secure other employment; providing job search assistance as well as an employee retraining allowance of between $1,000 to $1,800 to be utilized during retraining; and arranging for severance pay.

While these are not requirements under state law, the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Act imposes some similar requirements on certain larger employers, such as advanced notice of at least 60 days when a layoff will affect 50 or more employees at a single worksite during any 30–day period. Read together, these laws provide clear guidance to UNFI on how to responsibly exit our community. If that is what they insist on doing.

As an elected representative of these workers and the customers they serve, I call on UNFI to ensure that all remaining stores in Maryland are sold to companies that will  commit to serving neighborhoods where access to affordable, healthy food is critical to fighting hunger, obesity and other chronic health related issues.

— DERECK E. DAVIS

The writer, a Democrat, represents Prince George’s County in the House of Delegates, where he is chairman of the Economic Matters Committee.

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