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Hansen: Haggen workers lost amid uncertainty

If a coffeehouse closes, you just walk across the street to another one.

If a big-box retailer closes, it might be an inconvenience but you find alternatives.

If your local grocery store closes, however, it’s like a death in the family.

The checkers, baggers, deli clerks and meat, produce and bakery workers are always more than random employees. You usually know their names, whether they have kids and what they plan to do for vacation.

Even when they’re busy, they give customers a friendly nod and an authentic, lingering smile.

But over the last several weeks at some neighborhood Haggen stores, there have been very few smiles. Employees are often grim-faced and withdrawn. You can feel the tension.

The final straw was the Sept. 8 Chapter 11 bankruptcy announcement, which followed months of lackluster sales, pending store closures and legal maneuvering with Albertsons.

Haggen paid more than $1.4 billion for 146 Albertsons, Vons, Pavilions and Safeway grocery stores in December, but the deal has been hamstrung by various problems.

“After careful consideration of all alternatives, the company concluded that a reorganization through the Chapter 11 process is the best way for Haggen to preserve value for all stakeholders,” said John Clougher, CEO of Haggen, in a news release. “The action we are taking today will allow us to continue to serve our customers and communities while providing Haggen with a process to re-align our operations to be positioned for the future.”

Haggen officials said Wednesday that they understand the legal turmoil has put a strain on employees, who have been left largely in the dark.

“Haggen understands the traumatic impact the store closures and Chapter 11 filing have had on our employees,” the company said in a prepared statement. “As we continue with this process, we are exploring ways to assist them including actively encouraging Albertsons to hire former Haggen employees with the FTC’s approval.”

According to the Rick Icaza, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 in Los Angeles, Haggen could be doing much better.

“It’s really ridiculous,” Icaza said. “I’ve been getting calls from members with a lot of years of service. People with 25 years of experience finding themselves with layoff notices. It’s just been so traumatic.”

Icaza said the union has been trying to place workers at other stores, plus preserve seniority and other benefits.

“Albertsons is stepping up to the plate and will give priority to these people in hiring for any jobs that are open,” Icaza said. “They will be the first ones to be called.”

The uncertainty is taking a toll on employee morale.

“The members are really hurting,” Icaza said. “They’re very upset. We’re trying everything we can.”

Haggen is closing 16 stores in California, including four in L.A., four in Orange County and several in San Diego. A full list of closures is available on the Haggen website, www.haggen.com.

Understandably, current employees do not want to talk publicly about the ongoing issues for fear of losing their jobs.

The UFCW’s field director, Paul Edwards, who is in constant contact with more than 25 representatives in five counties, said the conditions at the stores on a personal level are untenable.

“It’s really unfortunate,” Edwards said. “Members are very scared; they’re very depressed. They’re just nervous as hell. They feel like they were duped. The union feels like we were sold a bag of goods by Haggen coming in here. And I think the FTC feels the same way. They have a lot on the line because they were the ones who approved this deal. Now they are looking back at it saying what do we do?”

The union’s president, Icaza, said he’d like to see the Federal Trade Commission rescind some of the previous orders, but he also feels Haggen made some grave, unfortunate mistakes.

“Haggen came out and urged everyone to join with them and gave them the impression that they were going to be a good employer,” he said. “It just all went to naught.”

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.


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