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Part-time Market Basket workers have hours cut

There has been a sharp drop off in business at Market Basket stores.

Josh Reynolds for the Globe/File

There has been a sharp drop off in business at Market Basket stores.

Thousands of part-time workers at Market Basket stores have had their hours cut by half or more this week, as the cost of the unusual protest movement hits home for the employees seeking the reinstatement of ousted boss Arthur T. Demoulas.

The reduced hours reflect the sharp drop-off in business at Market Basket in the three weeks since the uprising cut off shipments of fresh food and customers began patronizing other chains, either out of sympathy for the protesting workers or because there is so little to left to buy in the stores.

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The cutbacks so far appear to affect mostly part-time employees, but they typically make up the vast majority of workers at the chain’s 71 stores. Managers at six Market Basket supermarkets in Massachusetts and New Hampshire said they cut employee hours after receiving a directive from co-chief executive Felicia Thornton to adjust work schedules to reflect the lower volume of sales.

“You need to schedule staff levels necessary to serve your current customer base and maintain store conditions,” said the memo from Thornton, dated Aug. 1. The memo was provided to the Globe by a Market Basket manager.

“I’ve probably cut our hours in half, and I probably can’t go any lower than that,” said Mark Gouthier, manager of the Market Basket in Burlington. He said 553 of the roughly 700 workers at his store are part time, and that some employees who worked up to 30 hours per week last week are being scheduled for just eight hours this week.

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Chris Cook, 23, a part-time employee at the Market Basket store in Westford and a student at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said he typically worked about 32 hours a week during the summer.

This week, however, he only got 25 hours, and that’s after picking up additional hours working a friend’s shift.

Next week could mean even less work.

“I need to pay for my cellphone, my gas, my car insurance, food,” Cook said. “Working part time, it’s hard to get the money for all of that. I essentially need every paycheck.”

Several full-time employees told the Globe they also are working fewer hours.

In many cases, though, managers said their priority is to give full-time employees and lower-level managers enough hours to continue receiving benefits; as a result, the brunt of the cutbacks has fallen on part-time employees.

“If they work 30 hours, [they] go down to 10 or 12,” said Bob Cahee, the store manager at the Woburn Market Basket. “It’s the fairest way to do it.”

A spokesman for Thornton said scheduling employees is the responsibility of store managers.

Katherine Klein, a professor of management at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, said both the company and its employees are suffering from the stand-off.

“There could be no real winners here,” Klein said. “One could play chicken and continue to play chicken and everyone could suffer.”

On Wednesday, Governor Deval Patrick made his first detailed comments about the unfolding spectacle, articulating why he has declined to become involved in the fight over Market Basket while expressing sympathy for the workers.

Asked about potential layoffs and job cuts at Market Basket, Patrick said: “I certainly don’t want to see that happen. I can’t imagine any citizen wants to see that happen or any of the workers impacted want to see that happen.”

But Patrick also reiterated his view that governors should not interfere with ownership or leadership issues within a private company.

“The central issue is, the employees want a different boss than they have. I get that. And they’ve taken extraordinary actions around that,” Patrick told reporters. “But I don’t think — with due respect to how serious that is — that you want governors making decisions for private companies.”

The employee protests was prompted by the firing of their boss, Arthur T. Demoulas, as company president after his cousin and rival, Arthur S. Demoulas, gained a majority control of the ownership.

The battle between family factions goes back decades, including an epic court case in the 1990s, when a judge ruled that Arthur T. Demoulas’s father, Telemachus, defrauded Arthur S. and other relatives out of their shares in the company. A judge also found that Arthur T.’s side of the family improperly transferred assets into entities they controlled.

In recent years, Arthur S. has continued to accuse Arthur T. of engaging in real estate transactions that benefited his side of the family at the expense of other shareholders, ignoring the company’s board, and spending money recklessly. Most of the accusations around the real estate deals were found to be meritless by a retired judge hired to review them in 2012.

Arthur T. has argued that Arthur S. has repeatedly trumped up allegations to take control of the company to increase distributions to himself and other family shareholders at the expense of employees and customers.

In the past week Arthur T. has been negotiating to buy out his relatives, but the company has said it is also entertaining offers from outside parties.

The Globe has also reported that a rival supermarket chain has emerged as a serious bidder for all or part of the company. However, the rival bidder would only be able to buy part of the grocery chain, as Arthur T.’s side of the family has not offered to sell its 49.5 percent ownership position. That means an outside buyer would have to deal with Demoulas and the thousands of employees who have rallied on his behalf in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, the company held its third day of a job fair to hire replacement workers for employees who have refused to come to work during the protest.

The hiring event Wednesday was the first that was open to the general public, after two days were reserved for existing Market Basket employees interested in promotions. The fair, held at company offices in Andover, drew hundreds of protesters.

Also Wednesday, store managers said they were instructed to halt new orders for food deliveries from company warehouses.

Managers said Thornton told them the company had problems processing an “overwhelming volume” of orders sent over the weekend, and that a skeleton crew at the company’s offices were “working diligently to correct the situation and prevent future issues.”

Jack Newsham can be reached at jack.newsham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheNewsHam. Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.
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