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Inside Story – Jewel

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This is not a front-page story. Really, it’s more like a morality play than a news article. The curtain goes up in March. The scene is the Jewel-Osco store on the corner of Humboldt and North — the same store that caused such controversy when it was first proposed back in 1997. Local residents crowded into meetings of the City Zoning Committee and the Common Council to express their opposition to the development, but all to no avail. Jewel-Osco came into Riverwest with promises of providing a quality supermarket that would be an asset to the neighborhood and providing jobs to local residents. Now it is 6 years later. People at Jewel-Osco’s corporate offices in Melrose Park near Chicago see the store at Humboldt and North as “very successful.” Spokeswoman Juanita Kocanda said the company was pleased with the “great clientele at that location” and was proud of the way they had been able to enhance the neighborhood. Talk to Jane Hoffman and you will hear how Jewel has made good on its promises. Jane lives five blocks away from the store. When she hired on in 1999, she was looking for part-time work. After 30 years at Briggs and Stratton, she was ready to retire from her full-time factory job and was pleased when Jewel offered her a position. She had no experience working in retail food sales, but the company trained her for a slot in the deli department and she’s been there ever since. She enjoys dealing with customers as well as her flexible hours and benefits. As long as she works 16 hours per week, she qualifies for health insurance. Over the past six years, she’s been given raises. Her current hourly wage of $9.50 is a welcome supplement to her pension from Briggs. “Over-all, I can’t complain about anything,” Jane says. “I really enjoy my job at Jewel!” Talk to Vicki Porter about her job at Jewel and a different story emerges. Like Hoffman, Porter lived within a few blocks of the store when she was hired in 1999. Unlike Hoffman, Porter applied for full-time work because she had two small children to support. Also, she came with experience. Because she had worked as a manager at McDonald’s, she was slotted to work in customer service and offered a starting salary of more than $8 per hour. Over the years, she worked in the floral department and at the checkout counters, but mostly she coordinated the customer service desk. Like Jane Hoffman, she enjoyed her benefits. Her health insurance covered maternity leave when her sons Isaiah and James were born, and she earned raises along the way. Whenever her supervisors evaluated her work, she got ratings of ME (meets expectations) or AE (above expectations). In March of 2005, Vicki Porter was earning $10.55 per hour. To the best of her knowledge, that was more than any other non-managerial person in the store. On the day our drama begins, Porter punched in at 10 am. Instead of a lunch break, her schedule allowed her two 15-minute breaks in the course of her eight-hour shift. She had taken her first break in the morning, but because she was busy she didn’t get the chance to take her second break until the end of the day. She decided to use her free 15 minutes at the end of her shift to pick up a few groceries before heading home. As our curtain goes up, it is almost 6 pm and Porter is standing in line with a cart of groceries. She is on her break and has not yet clocked out. She holds in her hand the wrapper from the doughnut she ate while she was doing her shopping. The Assistant Grocery Manager enters the scene. “Did you pay for that doughnut?” he asks. “Not yet,” Porter answers. “I’m just going to get checked out now.” “Do you have a receipt?” “No. I haven’t paid for anything yet. That’s why I’m standing in line, waiting for my turn to pay.” “But don’t you know that eating on duty is against company policy? What were you thinking?” “I guess I was thinking I was hungry.” Porter doesn’t like the way the Assistant Manager has just spoken to her and she comments to the cashier at the checkout counter that she wants to write a letter objecting to his accusatory tone. But before Porter takes any such action, she is told when she reports for work the next morning that she is suspended. The next scene takes place a week later. Porter has not worked since her suspension but she goes into the store to shop and to pick up her paycheck. She hears from General Manager Mike Barczak that she is no longer suspended. She has been fired. “I thought he was joking,” she recalls. “I mean, I just couldn’t believe what he said. How could they fire me because of eating a 33-cent doughnut? If I stole it, it would be different, but that was not ever my intention. Mike explained that he had not initiated the firing. It had come down from Jewel’s corporate offices near Chicago. Like I say, at first I thought he must be kidding. But he wasn’t. He was serious.” Porter turned to her union for help, but the representative of Local #1444 of the United Food and Commercial Workers was unsuccessful in appealing her case. That was because technically she had not yet clocked out at the time she ate the doughnut, so she was officially on company time. Jewel-Osco representatives even argued that she was ineligible for unemployment because of the nature of her offense. She had to go before a judge to fight for her unemployment benefits. So now we move forward to the present. Porter is in the process of starting her own business and is not bitter about her experience at Jewel. In fact, she has really good memories of the five and a half years that she gave to the store. She loves the people she used to work with and she still shops there regularly. “I have no beef with my store,” she says, “but I miss it. It was like a second home to me. Even now, I go in and customers see me and ask where the ketchup is.” True, she felt hurt by the way she was treated, but she is philosophical about her experience: “That must have been what was supposed to happen…. I still don’t understand why. But now I must see what waits for me…. It must be something good.” She is moving ahead in her life with faith, not anger. So what is the moral of this local drama? Beware of when and where you eat a doughnut. That’s one lesson to draw. Another possible lesson is that Jewel-Osco runs a very tight ship with zero tolerance for staff eating on the job. A different interpretation is that in firing a loyal employee for eating one doughnut, Jewel-Osco plays very hardball in its personnel policies. What Vicki Porter learned was this: “When you work with people who know you, it’s one thing. But when your job is decided by people in corporate offices way far away, they tend to care more about their policies than about their people.”
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