Not all Market Basket workers are fiercely loyal to Arthur T. Demoulas.
The management team of the much-loved supermarket president, whose recent firing has inspired a massive uprising of employees demanding his return, violated the law by locking in workers overnight and requiring them to take unpaid breaks, according to two former employees who are suing the company.
Forcing employees who cleaned and stocked shelves while stores were closed to stay on the premises during mandatory, unpaid lunch hours is against Massachusetts wage law, according to the class-action suit, filed Thursday in Worcester County Superior Court. Meal breaks must be compensated if an employee is required to stay on-site, according to guidelines issued by state Attorney General Martha Coakley.
"If you don't let someone leave the premises, then the time really isn't their time, and therefore you have to pay them for it," said Harold Lichten, the attorney representing the workers.
A spokesperson for the parent company, Demoulas Super Markets Inc., declined to comment on the lawsuit.
At least 150 to 200 workers clean and stock shelves every night at the approximately 50 Massachusetts stores, the suit states. Market Basket has 71 stores in Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire. Maine and New Hampshire don't have explicit regulations about meal breaks, Lichten said.
He declined to comment on the timing of the lawsuit, filed in the midst of a high-profile labor dispute that has brought national attention to the company, other than to stress that the workers came to him before the brouhaha began and that the issues are unrelated.
The suit presents a starkly different picture of a benevolent Market Basket culture — with profit sharing, regular bonuses, and dedicated employees — that has been put forward in recent days.
"Yeah, they are good to their employees, but they're stealing from their employees," said plaintiff Daniel Sheridan, who worked overnight shifts for the company on and off since 1995, mainly at the Leominster store. "Nobody knows what happens behind closed doors."
Sheridan, who said he was fired a month and a half ago over a miscommunication unrelated to the case, resented that he and his coworkers were forbidden to leave the building to get a hamburger, or to check on their children, during the hour they weren't paid.
Store doors are locked every night about 9 or 10 p.m., after the closing manager leaves, and unlocked again when the shift is over about 7 a.m., the suit states. Lichten speculated that the lock-in policy was to keep employees from stealing food from stores and prevent thieves from breaking in.
Employees could push some of the doors open, but that would trigger alarms and summon the police, Sheridan said. None of the overnight staff on site had a key or a code to shut off the alarm.
"We're not authorized to [open the door] unless it's a legit emergency," Sheridan said.
Sheridan questioned the need to lock the doors as a way to prevent employee theft since the store has high-quality security cameras that "can zoom in and read the date on a penny."
Workers at Walmart and Target have complained of being locked in overnight in the past, but as long as doors are unlocked from the inside and employees are able to exit, the practice does not violate federal workplace safety standards. What is against the law, the Market Basket suit contends, is forcing workers to stay at the store during unpaid breaks.