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Some Market Basket workers told to report to work or be fired

With hundreds of part-time Market Basket employees applying for unemployment benefits after being left without work, the company told about 200 employees they will be fired unless they report to work by Friday.

The employees, who walked off their jobs in July at Market Basket’s warehouses and its headquarters in Tewksbury to protest the firing of former company president Arthur T. Demoulas, received letters Tuesday signed by Felicia Thornton and Jim Gooch, the company’s cochief executives. The letters instructed those workers to report to work by Aug. 15.

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“Should you choose to ignore either of these directives, the company will consider you to have abandoned your job, thereby ending your employment with the company,” the letter said.

Some Market Basket employees contacted by the Globe seemed unswayed by the letter. Anne Browne, 23, said that neither she nor any of her protesting co-workers in the company’s IT department would return to their posts until Arthur T. Demoulas regained control of the company.

“If anything, it strengthens our resolve to bring Artie back,” said Browne.

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Others expressed anxiety. Chris Elkins, 55, who supervises the courtesy booths at the company’s 71 stores, said she didn’t think management would actually fire anyone. But if she was fired, she said, she would have to apply for unemployment benefits and continue living off her savings.

“I’m a widow. I have one income, and I haven’t gotten paid in four weeks,” she said. “I’m very nervous about it.”

A spokesman for Market Basket’s leadership said that not all protesting employees had received letters. Protest leaders say about 700 employees have walked off the job. The spokesman said that those who had been approved to use their vacation time had not been sent a letter.

Ron Seeber, a professor of labor relations at Cornell University, said he was surprised the company’s leadership had not delivered such an explicit ultimatum sooner. The letter to employees was “an ominous development,” he said, but probably an ineffective one.

Two attorneys said the firing of nonmanagerial employees could be illegal. Ellen Messing, a labor and employment attorney who represents workers, said that even nonunionized employees have a right under the National Labor Relations Act to take collective action to support “their terms and conditions of employment.”

Jerome Weinstein, a partner at Hirsch Roberts Weinstein who represents management in labor and employment cases, also said Market Basket seemed to be risking legal action. Weinstein said he felt the letter’s allegation that protesting employees had effectively abandoned their jobs was “a stretch under the law.” However, he added that the leadership of Arthur T. Demoulas may not be considered a “condition of employment” that employees could legally protest.

“There may be an issue of whether they’re really withholding services in a way that’s recognized under the law,” Weinstein said.

A spokesperson for the National Labor Relations Board said the board had not received any complaints from Market Basket employees or managers and was not investigating.

A spokesperson for Market Basket’s management declined to comment on the legality of the firing.

Meanwhile, a few of the thousands of part-time employees who had their hours cut this week applied for unemployment benefits, according to officials in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

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