By Ilana Siyance
New York City supermarkets are among the few businesses that have seen an increase in demand during the pandemic. While most grocery stores are looking to hire additional workers, finding new staff seems to be more difficult than it should be. Moreover, while supermarkets are doing their best to retain workers, they are being inundated with unemployment claims.
As reported by the NY Post, Morton Williams Supermarkets, which has 16 stores in New York’s metro area, was slapped with 400 unemployment claims at the peak of the pandemic in March and April. That figure represents a tenfold jump over last year, co-owner Steven Sloan informed the Post. Claims have continued to climb, reaching about 600 through June — which he said represents half the workers they have on payroll.
Sloan noted that Morton Williams laid-off only three people during the time, as grocery demand rose exponentially. Shockingly however, by the end of May, over 160 ex-staffers were drawing weekly benefits that had been approved by the state, he said. Previously, the New York Department of Labor would only rarely pay a claim the supermarket disputed, and only with an explanation, Sloan said. Since the pandemic’s outbreak, however, things have changed.
“In three months I have not received a single explanation about why former employees are being paid when I have disputed their claims,” Sloan said. “So, I don’t know what their reasoning is. I can’t argue any of these cases if we don’t know what the rules are.”
The federal government’s CARES Act, established by congress in March, is paying out $600 a week in addition to state unemployment checks. This has made it more lucrative for grocery workers to be on unemployment than working at the store. This phenomenon has led to a flood of claim applications, and grocery stores are left in the dust.
Sal Bonavita, who owns two Key Food stores in the Bronx, described a similar experience. “We are seeing confusing claims from people who haven’t notified us that they are leaving,” he said. “We haven’t laid off anyone and yet we are seeing much higher volumes of unemployment claims.” He said the store is having a hard time finding staffers, with only eight employees working now as opposed to the usual 16. “The benefits are a key reason why people are not applying for jobs at our stores right now,” Bonavita added.
Sloan went on to say that two young store clerks recently filed for benefits but are still working for Morton Williams. When the store manager confronted them they “admitted they had filed for unemployment, explaining that they were told if you file you can get extra money,” Sloan said.
The Cares Act has introduced leniency to release benefits to workers who claim they are caring for a family member with COVID-19, and those who are the primary caregiver for a child. However, employees are not eligible for benefits if they are working, if they quit their jobs, or if they are fired, said Deanna Cohen, a spokesperson for the New York Department of Labor, adding that “if someone misrepresents their situation to get benefits they are committing fraud.”
“We have a rigorous application and screening process to weed out fraudulent claims and ensure only eligible New Yorkers receive benefits,” Cohen wrote in an email. “This system has not changed during this crisis.”
Labor lawyer Darren Oved of Oved & Oved LLP told the Post that although state governments have not mentioned the impact the alleged fraud will have on premiums, “Unemployment insurance rates will go up almost certainly.”