Lydia Flores, a 37-year-old cashier at El Super market in Arleta, says she is in a constant struggle to pay her bills.
“I pay the mortgage and my car and my utilities and the rest of the bills have to wait,” said the single mother of three, who lives in Lancaster.
The problem, she says, is partly due to her low wages — $12.88 per hour after 11 years working at the supermarket, and the fact that she doesn’t work 40 hours per week.
“Sometimes I work 32, 36 hours, the 40 hours are not guaranteed,” she said.
Apart from that, she notes hostility and retaliation from management for speaking out or complaining.
Those are some of the grievances employees at the supermarket chain El Super have been alleging for the past year as labor negotiators between the seven unionized stores and the company try to reach a contract to renew the one that expired in September 2013.
“We want more respect and enough hours to support our families,” Flores said.
“If we had a contract, they would respect the 4O hours," she added.
According to Rigo Valdez of the United Food and Commercial Workers, the labor negotiations stalled last year and the company refuses to return to the bargaining table. Calls and emails sent to El Super representatives by the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol were unanswered.
Bodega Latina Corp., which does business as El Super, was founded in 1997 and opened its first location in South Gate. The chain has stores in California, Arizona and Nevada. It is owned by Grupo Chedraui, a publicly traded company based in Mexico City.
In 2008, El Super bought seven stores owned by the Grupo Gigante. Those are the El Super stores currently with union members.
In December after an impasse, UFCW — the union representing El Super employees — called on customers to boycott all 49 El Super stores in Southern California. They’ve also alleged that the supermarket chain puts customers’ health in danger due to several health violations found by the county health inspectors at the stores.
County health inspectors documented more than 300 violations since last year, including live flies in the meat department, expired for-sale food and non-sanitized food contact surfaces, according to the UFCW.
The union further alleges that El Super offers less paid-sick days than mandated by California law, and pays below-market wages to many of its employees.
It’s uncertain what impact, if any, the boycott is having on the company. Union representatives sometimes stand on front of stores distributing leaflets and trying to ask customers not to shop there by explaining the situation. But it's not a daily, all-day operation.
Union representatives were passing out flyers in front of El Super store in Arleta on Wednesday, March 25.
In the first month of the boycott, nearly 30,000 potential El Super customers were turned away at informational pickets outside of stores, UFCW officials claim.There are no numbers provided by the company.
“What we’re trying to do with the boycott is trying to get something better for us,” Flores said.
When asked if she thought the boycott could harm employees by reducing their hours even further, she said that they are simply “trying to negotiate something,” and that “if we’re standing together” the company might listen
“We just want the company to hear us, we want them to come and negotiate and get something better,” she said. “We're asking for better wages, hours and respect, that's what we want.”
Dozens of organizations, Los Angeles City Council members and community groups have joined in the boycott.
One of those groups is the Pacoima Neighborhood Council, which recently passed a resolution urging shoppers to avoid the Paramount-based supermarket in response to poor working conditions, unfair labor practices and health code violations.
“What these workers want is the basics — the ability to stay home when they’re sick, regular schedules that they can plan their lives around and fair compensation,” said Michael Gonzales, Council president. “The council supports these workers and their families, and is calling on El Super to be a responsible, respectful member of our community.”
“El Super isn’t just mistreating their employees but their customers as well, many of whom reside in low-income immigrant communities and have few grocery alternatives,” said Ruben Rodriguez, executive director of Pueblo y Salud.
The company has disputed the allegations, noting health inspectors from Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties have given the chain A ratings in all but three of more than 150 inspections since January 2012.
Company representatives also described the allegations as a union tactic to unionize all of the El Super stores, not just the seven stores with union employees.