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Best Market employees hope Lidl puts equality first

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Outside Best Market in East Meadow on July 30 was Francisca Montana, of the New York State Attorney General’s office, local and state elected officials and 150 women from the United Association for Labor Education’s Northeast Summer School for Working Women rallying alongside Best Market and Lidl workers to address alleged gender inequalities and fight for Lidl to meet Long Island job standards.

In January, Lidl U.S., the American company of German-based grocer Lidl, bought 27 stores in New Jersey and New York, which is now owned by the Best Market in Bethpage. This marked the grocery store’s first purchase on Long Island and all businesses will be converting into Lidl grocery stores by the year of 2020.

Participants rallied for the new company to address inequality issues, such as the fact that 26 out of the 27 Best Market store managers are men. Two and a half years ago, some Best Market workers started advocating for change when they formed a Facebook group called “Do Better Best Market,” asking for better working conditions.

Employees at the Franklin Square Best Market also submitted a formal Notice of Alleged Safety or Health Hazards Compliant to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration last year, citing years of neglect.

In the complaint, Angel Padro wrote that his fellow employees did not have safety gloves available, and had to clean the meat slicer’s blades barehanded, leaving one employee with lacerations on his index finger. The complaint also said that the employee eyewash station was not working, forcing one employee to once clean his eye out in a mop sink.

Finally, it said, an old chicken oven has caught on fire four times over the past three years, and the employees cannot turn it off when it does because the switch is too close to the flames. Making matters worse, they were never taught how to use the supermarket’s fire extinguisher, which is a water type that the Fire Equipment Manufacturers’ Association says should not be used on electrical or gas equipment because it “could create a shock hazard.”

At the protest, the Best Market employees also tried to elevate the voices and give female employees the support they needed to “never let a sister stand-alone” with the help of female leaders from the UALE Northeast Summer School for Women in Unions and Worker Organizations, a five-day residential program at Hofstra University,

A full-time worker at the Best Market in Selden intended on being at the rally until she was told she had to work a ten-hour shift. Protestors read from a speech she wrote to share her experience with Best Market.

The employee, a mother of four, wrote that she struggles each day with her current wage and cannot afford to house her family under the same roof. “As a result, it feels like we can’t be a family,” she added.

“We aren’t asking for the world, only for an equal opportunity to advance our careers and improve our lives,” she wrote. “That’s what we deserve and that is what Long Island deserves too.”

Workers also said that they are upset their hours are being cut and new employees are making more money than longtime employees, said Jill Cooley, a three-year full-time assistant bakery member at the Best Market in Queens.

Before Best Market, she worked at Pathmark for 26 years, where employees are unionized, unlike Best Market. “I know both sides of the story and it is terrible not having a union now,” she said. “The wages we make [are] way under the scale.”

Cooley’s co-workers who have been working for Best Market for more than 10 years were just bumped up to $15 an hour. However, she said, “Best Market only bumped my co-workers income up because the city finally told them to give us minimum wage.”

Best Market and Lidl employees also wrote a letter to Lidl in which they asked the company to immediately increase opportunities for women to advance and provide workers with stable schedules and living wages.

Supporting the protesters was State Senator John Brooks, a Democrat from Seaford, who said, “Companies need to make sure that their workers can afford to live in the same neighborhood that they work in.”

Best Market currently employs about 2,500 people, and Lidl plans to offer employment with equal or better pay and benefits for all the workers who were employed at the time of the purchase in January, said Lidl spokesman William Harwood.

“About half of the store managers at Lidl’s 67 U.S. stores, excluding Best Market, are women,” he added. Noting that minimum wage on Long Island is $12, Harwood said Lidl U.S. employees would earn at least $14 an hour.

Ronny Reyes contributed to this story.