Some Co-op workers still seeking jobs

By Christina Schwartz

Facing uncertain job prospects and mounting bills after the January closure of the Hyde Park Co-op Market, a group of former employees of the defunct grocer met Friday night at the inaugural meeting of Get It Together, an organization aimed at locating support services and community members willing to help the recently unemployed.

“I just got an idea that there was a need to find out how the workers’ struggle was proceeding,” said Jay Mulberry of the Hyde Park Cooperative Society, one of the group’s co-founders. “We are not experts at employment, but our concept is by working with individuals to set up a system to get employees what they need.”

Despite an advertising campaign limited to a website posting and a few phone calls, the meeting was well attended. Former employees seeking to voice their discontent met a chorus of concern from Co-op members hoping to aid the workers’ search.

Amelia Tucker, union representative for former Co-op employees, took to the microphone stressing the importance of quickly developing a support structure. According to Tucker, few employees received sizable severance packages.

She said that part-time workers and those who had worked there for less than a year were let go with nothing, and workers who had been employed between one and five years received one week of severance. Those with employment histories between five and 10 years received two weeks’ pay, and even those with more than 35 years landed a maximum of five weeks’ wages. Tucker said that these statistics put exceptional pressure on the timeline for action.

Tucker also expressed concern that Treasure Island, slated to replace the Co-op at the end of February, is not a union store. She proposed plans to work with the community to unionize the chain’s forthcoming branch in Hyde Park.

“We are drafting a letter to Treasure Island to recognize the union. This is where the community can really play an important role if they say they won’t shop in a non-union store,” Tucker said.

While a few former employees have found work at other local stores, a survey of the employees present at the meeting dispelled the rumor that the majority of former employees have already found jobs.

Marcella Rankins, an employee of 28 years at the Co-op, was among the fortunate. She was hired temporarily by the AFL-CIO as a peer counselor responsible for calling unemployed individuals and reminding them to meet with a career counselor to match them with employment.

“When they offered me the job, I took it. I couldn’t imagine not working,” Rankins said. “It was like being knocked off my feet. Just two months before, I had taken out a $6,000 loan to fix my roof, and I needed to keep working so I could continue to pay off the loan.”

Amid discussion of the harsh realities of unemployment, community members and employees alike took time to express nostalgia for the Co-op as a welcoming community centerpiece.

“Anytime you work with someone for 10 to 15 years, you become like a family,” Rankins said. “You see them every day, sometimes even more than you see your actual family. The last day we were all hugging, not sure of when we were going to see each other again. I went to the Co-op today and I felt a sense of dread. But there is life after the Co-op,” she added.

Ron Harris, a 45-year veteran employee of the Co-op, said he is yet to be hired but finds comfort in the community.

“I just walk through Hyde Park Produce and it is like an echo chamber of support,” he said.

Despite vocal support from the Hyde Park community, an overriding theme of the evening was frustration.

“You go through all the applications processes and you are still waiting,” said Stephanie Norris, a former part-time employee of the grocer.

For many of the Co-op’s former workers, discussion with Treasure Island has been a source of disappointment. Several prospective workers at Treasure Island said that the many interviews with the new grocer have yielded few results. Although a few individuals were hired by Treasure Island, the vast majority have yet to be contacted.

“I was led to believe that there was going to be a second interview, but I have yet to hear back from them,” said Thomas Alexander, who worked at the Co-op for 22 years.

In It Together’s next steps will involve developing a comprehensive list of Co-op employees in order to get a sharper picture of the situation, Mulberry said. The group has launched a blog where employees can share advice on where to find jobs and introduce people to the Craigslist forum and other job sources. The group is planning to meet with the area aldermen to find out what social services are available through their offices.

The University student organization SOUL (Student’s Organizing United with Labor) is also working to expedite In It Together’s efforts.

SOUL asked attendees at the meeting to sign a letter against the University’s selection of Treasure Island based on its non-union status.