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Another employee’s butchered benefits

Tony Mays, who cuts meat at the Vons in Echo Park, lets me into his apartment. When I don’t see the son he told me about on the phone, I figure he must be in the bedroom. But then I realize there is no bedroom.

It’s a studio apartment, says Mays, 31. His son, 3-year-old Tony Jr., is behind me, nodded out on a bed in a little cubbyhole. The room, in a former hotel near Washington and Main near downtown Los Angeles, is stuffy, and the small fan isn’t doing the child much good on a warm evening.

Mays, a single parent, pays $775 a month for this place. It’s definitely an improvement over the Long Beach shelter he and his son lived in until he got the job with Vons nearly two years ago, but it’s not where he expected to be after moving up the ladder in the supermarket company.

He went from $7.55 an hour to $11 as an apprentice, and then $17.38 earlier this year when he began running a meat department. But as Mays puts it, he’s a “second-tier” employee, meaning that his pay and benefits are not as good as employees who started before the 141-day strike and lockout 3 1/2 years ago.

Today, with the possibility of another strike looming, negotiations on a new contract are expected to resume, with 65,000 Southern California employees of Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons hoping for a better deal.

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“I thought $17.38 was pretty decent, and I could get into at least a one-bedroom apartment so my baby could have a room,” says Mays, whose son stays with a baby-sitter or at preschool while Mays is at work. “But it turns out I can’t afford a one-bedroom.”

The cheapest, halfway decent place he could find was $1,100 a month, but the landlord told him he had to clear three times that amount after taxes in order to qualify.

What really bothers Mays, though, about the current contract is that he didn’t even qualify for partial healthcare benefits until 18 months after he was hired. Even now that he would qualify to purchase company insurance, he can’t afford his share of the cost. Tony Jr. won’t be eligible until his dad has been on the job 30 months.

Right now both are on Medi-Cal, which means that despite healthy profits at Vons and the other supermarket chains, taxpayers are picking up the tab for employee healthcare. It’s similar to the Wal-Mart story, in which low prices and huge profits are made possible in part by low pay and lousy healthcare benefits for employees, many of whom end up on the health insurance dole.

Ken Jacobs, of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, says that since the new grocery contract went into effect, 20,000 fewer children of employees are covered by store-sponsored healthcare plans.

“What’s the role of government in taking this on, setting some standards and being bold?” asked Madeline Janis of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. The group has teamed with local clergy to lobby for political pressure on the chains to improve pay and benefits.

“This is the fastest-growing industry and the undergirding of the whole new economy,” Janis said. “If we don’t get this right, whatever middle class we have is going to be gone.... I think it’s a fight for the soul of our city.”

During the last contract talks, the chains argued that they were facing a huge threat from Wal-Mart and other superstores. And they say they’re still in a hyper-competitive market and don’t have much wiggle-room.

The Rev. Anna Olson of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice isn’t buying it. It would be a different story, she said, if the supermarkets were struggling or if the spread of superstores had materialized and whittled away at profits. “But the reason for making the cuts” in benefits has not come to pass, Olson argued, and now nearly half the 65,000 employees are in the second tier, along with Tony Mays.

While visiting with Mays, who is African American, I asked about the mother of his son and whether she could help with the finances. They split long ago, he said, and she has virtually no role in their son’s life. Mays worked in construction in San Diego before moving north to get a fresh start for himself and his son.

“He wasn’t a mistake,” Mays said as his son slept nearby. “We were in love, and we had talked about having a baby. I love him dearly.”

On Sunday, Mays cast a vote supporting a strike if no agreement is reached. If he’s barely getting by now, I asked, what will he do if they walk?

“I can’t handle a strike, but what can I do?” he said.

Maybe work for a different store that’s under a different contract, he said. Or maybe work for a restaurant.

“I learned a trade so I could take it with me wherever I have to go. My cuts are real clean. I do a nice job cutting the meat and laying it out so it eats good.”

He likes his job and the people he works with, Mays said, but it rankles to know his corporate bosses are out to “maximize profits” on the backs of employees.

Last year, Mays said, top sirloin was $2.67 on sale and now it’s $2.97. And he used to have more help in the meat department than he does now. So if the company gets more for his cuts, and he’s expected to do more work with less help, why can’t he at least get health insurance for Tony Jr.?

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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