Market Basket executives ratcheted up the pressure on the company’s protesting workforce Friday by withholding the paychecks of a group of middle managers in hopes of forcing them to report to work on Monday, the deadline the company has set for employees to return to their jobs.
Several managers said they received a letter by certified mail Friday from chief executives James Gooch and Felicia Thornton notifying them they are not being paid because of their “ongoing failure to report to work,” but would receive their checks if they report to work Monday.
A Market Basket spokesman said more than 50 employees had received the letters, which went out to those senior employees who have not been reporting to work. Several employees said the group included district supervisors, buyers, and other managers who work at the chain’s headquarters or warehouses.
The letters were sent as the fate of the multibillion-dollar grocery empire hung on negotiations between the two warring cousins who have been fighting for control of Market Basket for decades. Arthur T. Demoulas has made a bid to buy out the half of the company owned by his rival, Arthur S. Demoulas, who gained control of its board of directors last year and then fired his cousin in June.
The company’s directors have acknowledged that Arthur S. is considering selling his ownership stake to Arthur T., but it is unclear how close the two sides are to a deal. Supermarket industry specialists have estimated the grocery chain to be worth $3 billion to $3.5 billion.
The new chief executives, Gooch and Thornton, have moved in recent days to quell an insurrection among employees loyal to Arthur T. They have repeatedly asked protesters to resume working and return stores to normal operations. On Wednesday, management issued an ultimatum of sorts, saying any employee who is not back on the job by Monday risks being replaced.
Market Basket is also holding a job fair next week, advertising for store directors and assistant store directors, buyers, and office personnel.
Then on Friday morning, buyers and other districtwide managers reported receiving the certified letters about their withheld paychecks. One is Bob Medeiros, a district supervisor who oversees produce at 22 stores, and who provided a copy of his letter to the Globe.
“Please note that you will not be receiving your August salary payment at this time due to your ongoing failure to report to work and unwillingness to perform any services for the Company,” the letter to Medeiros began.
Medeiros said he has tried to do his job, given the circumstances: The stores he supervises are largely devoid of produce, as few deliveries are getting through from the company’s warehouses since the protest began two weeks ago. Medeiros said he has visited the 22 stores he supervises to keep morale up and make sure produce workers were keeping busy.
“They’re telling me that I haven’t been working, but I’ve been going to stores for the past few weeks,” Medeiros said.
Mike Meuse, a safety manager who works out of Market Basket headquarters in Tewksbury, said he also received a letter and had his pay withheld despite being cleared to go on vacation before the work stoppage began. He said the message struck him as out of step with the company’s welcoming culture.
“I do have obligations to my family,” said Meuse, who had originally planned to return to work on Monday, after his vacation ended. But, he said, “having received this letter, I’m not so sure what I’m going to do.”
The letters prompted a second warning from Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley for Market Basket executives to abide by labor laws in the handling of its protesting employees.
“We are closely monitoring this situation and expect Market Basket to fulfill its legal obligation to pay workers what they are owed under state law, within the required time,” said Emalie Gainey, a spokeswoman for Coakley.
Coakley, who is running for governor, joined with New Hampshire Attorney General Joseph Foster in sending a letter to Market Basket on Thursday notifying the company of its legal responsibilities and urging management to respect the rights of demonstrating workers.
Also on Friday, eight top-level supervisors who were fired by Market Basket in July for participating in the protests notified the company they intend to sue for wrongful dismissal. An attorney for the eight former executives, Douglas Louison, sent the company a letter alleging they were “wrongfully terminated” and their firing violated the law “and their individual rights.” Louison said the company also failed to pay them wages and benefits they had earned.
“These guys were terminated at the beginning of the month,” Louison said in an interview. “There are wages owed to them. There are also accrued vacation benefits and other benefits that they’re entitled to.” Louison said he planned to file complaints in Massachusetts Superior Court and with the National Labor Relations Board.
The eight senior employees — Tom Trainor, James Lacourse, Steve Paulenka, Joe Garon, Dean Joyce, Michael Kettenbach Jr., Joe Schmidt, and Tom Gordon — were fired for “significant actions that harmed the company,” the chief executives said in a statement July 22. The eight had been among the leaders of the employee protest movement.
Louison said he sent three letters to Market Basket executives before and after the employees were fired, seeking information on the company’s profit-sharing plan and wages and benefits owed to his clients. He said he did not receive a reply to any of those requests.
An attorney for Market Basket, Mark Pomfret, said it was the company’s policy not to comment on personnel matters. However, he said Market Basket was “unaware of any facts that support the claims made in the demand letter.”
Protesting workers are planning another large-scale rally at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Stadium plaza in Tewksbury. The rally had been planned for Monday but was pushed back because of permitting from the town and city, protest organizers said on their website.
Paulenka, one of the fired supervisors, said some of the protesters are planning to also demonstrate outside the company’s job fair Monday. The job fair is scheduled from 4 to 8 p.m. at a Market Basket computer facility in Andover.