As a store-closing sale winds into the final weeks at 49 Albertsons supermarkets in Florida, an unsettling wave of uncertainty has swept over 5,000 workers trying to map their job future.
"I'm completely in the dark," said Larry Houff, a 10-year veteran stocker at a Largo store.
"Everything's still up in the air," said Maria Zazveta, who hopes to transfer to one of three bay area Albertsons not closing or get a job at Publix Super Markets Inc. without missing a mortgage payment.
Some Albertsons employees have been cherry-picked by rival Sweetbay Supermarket and market newcomer Aldi. Virtually all employees have been interviewed by Publix, which is acquiring the 49 stores.
But Publix has yet to get back to most Albertsons workers with job news. And Albertsons' unusual severance package has thrown a curveball into many workers' plans.
Albertsons requires employees to interview with Publix if they hope to get a severance check. If they get a job there, they get no severance. If they turn down a Publix job within 50 miles that pays at least 80 percent of what Albertsons had been paying them, they get no severance either.
Publix agreed to tell Albertsons who takes jobs and who doesn't.
The severance is worth up to 12 weeks' pay for longtime workers. So the Catch-22 added insult to injury among Albertsons veterans already faced with losing benefits like three-week vacations, since Publix will regard them as new hires.
"Basically I'd be starting over," said a meat cutter with 20 years at a St. Petersburg Albertsons. "Then they take severance away if I go with Publix. What's it going to cost if I'm forced to drive 50 miles to work?"
Withholding benefit payoffs until the bitter end is common among retailers who want to keep their stores fully staffed up to the very last day. But Albertsons LLC added a severance twist that limits worker options and cuts expenses.
"We regard severance as bridging the gap between employment," said Shane McEntarffer, an Albertsons spokesman.
It's a policy that been used elsewhere by Albertsons LLC as its owners at Cerberus Capital Management closed or sold chunks of the 655-store chain they've whittled to about 275 stores since buying them for $1.1-billion in 2006.
A dozen workers interviewed at six Pinellas County Albertsons complained about the severance policy. But they asked not to be identified because managers threatened to withhold severance to anyone who grouses publicly. An Albertsons spokesman assured the Times there would be no retribution.
But many workers said the severance issue is one reason only a fraction of the 120 to 150 workers at each store accepted jobs with Publix so far.
There is a much bigger reason than severance: Publix has yet to respond to most Albertsons employees with either a job offer or rejection.
Employee-owned Publix, which pays better than Albertsons and for years has been top-rated nationally in customer service by Consumer Reports, is picky about hiring. It terms the severance policy "totally Albertsons' doing."
But Publix, which announced the acquisition on June 9, is under other pressures because all 49 stores will be closed once the deal is completed between Sept. 9 and 20. Each store will reopen after a remodeling. But that will take one to 18 months, depending on the extent of the work. So Publix faces a lot of juggling to integrate so many Albertsons hires into its payroll.
"We have been very impressed with the passion to serve exhibited by many Albertsons employees, and we are committed to relay all job decisions by the first week of September," said Maria Brous, a spokeswoman for the Lakeland chain. "Our goal from the start is to absorb as much of the payroll as we can and deploy Albertsons people to other locations during the interim. We'll need talent on board to staff all 49 stores."
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or 727-893-8252.