Market Basket crisis hits disabled workers hard
The numbers do not look good for Paul Byron.
Fifteen years ago, Byron started working at Market Basket. He puts in 89 hours a month at the deli counter in the Epping, N.H., store, earning $12 an hour. For 10 years, Byron has suffered from two disabilities: mixed connective tissue disease, in which his immune system attacks his body, and pulmonary fibrosis, which makes breathing hard.
Two weeks ago, his hours were cut to zero. Byron had two sources of income, his job and federal disability payments. Now, he has one.
Byron must work 1,000 hours this year to be eligible for Market Basket’s profit-sharing program, which puts $2,700 into an account Byron plans to leave to his wife when he dies. But if he makes more than $1,070 a month, he loses his disability payment. Every month brings a balancing act: working his way toward the 1,000 hours without earning so much that he loses a month’s worth of disability payments, which exceed his salary.
“On a good month, where I feel like I can do the extra [hours], I can’t,” he said. “Each week that goes by, that’s working against me.”
Byron isn’t alone.
When thousands of part-time Market Basket employees had their hours eliminated two weeks ago, many despaired. Some of them were their household’s only earner. Some had worked those jobs for years. But for Market Basket’s disabled employees, the cuts were especially harsh.
Although Market Basket could not say how many disabled workers it employed, 7.8 percent of supermarket workers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire have some disability, ranging from back injuries to debilitating mental illness, said Andrew Houtenville, research director at the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability. For Market Basket, that would mean more than 1,000 disabled workers have lost their hours.
In the working population at large, 4.6 percent of workers are disabled.
“The loss of Market Basket is a big loss,” said Jeff Gentry, director of youth services at Triangle, a Malden-based nonprofit that helps disabled people. He has found jobs for four disabled high school students at Market Basket stores north of Boston, and at least three of them lost their hours. Some had worked there for years.
“They’re an ideal employer of a young person with disabilities,” he said. “They’re very clear about their expectations, and their managers are just fantastic supporters of their workers.”
Gentry has recently helped a disabled employee apply for other jobs after losing his hours at Market Basket.
Vicente, an employee with an intellectual disability who was coached on his job by Gentry, has worked at the Chelsea Market Basket for five years. (Gentry, who told Vicente’s story with his permission, did not want his last name used for fear of being fired.) He spends three days a week pushing carts and bagging groceries and uses the income to augment his disability payments. Like many of the grocery chain’s other employees, Vicente loves his job. The pay is good, and he has family members who work there as well, Gentry said.
Now, Gentry said, he’s considering helping Vicente and a few other disabled Market Basket workers file for unemployment benefits.
Victoria Crisp, administrator of special education for Chelsea’s public schools, said she noticed Market Basket’s practice of hiring disabled employees in several stores. The store has been a longtime employer of disabled high school students in Chelsea and other places she’s lived, Crisp said, where students who might have learned in different classrooms worked side by side, pushing carts and bagging groceries.
But Crisp added that disabled students and recent graduates are losing more than income when they aren’t getting hours at Market Basket.
“They’re not gaining any skills if they’re not working,” she said. “Working is an important part of life, to give you purpose as an adult.”
The federal government has provided tax credits to companies that hire disabled people, said David Hagner, a research professor at the University of New Hampshire who has spent 25 years researching disability in the workplace. But those credits — worth $2,400, and only applicable for one year — haven’t been extended by Congress for 2014. Rather than tax credits, Hagner credits Market Basket’s community spirit for the long tenures of many of its disabled workers.
“There’s a definite different feeling at Market Basket,” said Hagner, who is boycotting the stores. “It’s hard to put your finger on, but a more humanistic kind of feeling.”