A Northwest grocery store chain that has expanded to the Central Coast has angered many in the local community after news surfaced that the company laid off more than a dozen developmentally disabled people working as courtesy clerks at Santa Barbara County stores.
Earlier this year, the Bellingham, Wash.-based chain Haggen completed transitioning all its Central Coast Haggen stores from former Albertsons or Vons locations that were bought by the company.
Layoffs after the transition included 14 people who were placed by local nonprofit PathPoint, which helped place those people with employment in the original grocery stores.
Fourteen PathPoint clients were laid off in Santa Barbara County, three in San Luis Obispo and two in Ventura, confirmed Stephanie Boumediene, vice president of development.
“Some of these people had 15 and 18 years on the job,” she said, adding that the loss of job is a blow to anyone, “but for a disabled person it’s traumatic.”
The community outpouring in support of the organization and those who were laid off has been huge, and “we’re so appreciative,” she said.
The organization was “working diligently” to try to connect those people with new work, and PathPoint had even been contacted by Vons, Albertsons and Ralphs, all asking what they could do to help, Boumediene said.
Haggen laid off the courtesy clerks with developmental disabilities that the organization had worked to place with the original corporations that owned the stores.
The news comes just weeks after Noozhawk reported that employees of some of the six new stores in Santa Barbara County would see their hours cut as the brand tried to find its footing locally.
Bill Shaner, CEO of Haggen, Pacific Southwest, said in a statement Thursday that growing the Haggen brand in new markets “has been challenging.”
As a result, the company had to resort to layoffs, he said, adding that employees were laid off based on job classification and seniority, in compliance with collective-bargaining agreements.
“As part of the reduction, we eliminated the clerks helper job classification in our stores, which unfortunately included some associates with developmental disabilities,” Shaner said, adding that those layoffs had left him “especially disheartened.”
Contrary to prior reports about employees not being able to seek employment at other grocery stores, “laid off associates can seek employment anywhere they choose,” he said.
“We are working tirelessly to strengthen our business. Our goal is that these cuts are temporary and that we will be in a position to re-hire all our associates over time.”
Earlier this week, PathPoint CEO Cindy Burton expressed her disappointment with the news of layoffs.
“I understand that businesses make decisions based on profitability goals, but the impact of a layoff on the people we support is so much broader than Haggen has considered,” she said.
“I applaud Vons and Albertsons for their long history of providing employment and promotional opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities.”
On Thursday, Burton posted a statement on PathPoint’s website that said she was confident any employer would welcome the dedication and longevity that the courtesy clerks had demonstrated.
“This is a timely opportunity for local businesses to explore the benefits of working with PathPoint to offer new opportunities for this workforce,” she said.
Local shoppers have organized a boycott of Haggen stores on social media and started a Change.org petition to rehire the 14 developmentally disabled employees or offer generous severance packages.
As of Thursday night, the petition had more than 1,700 supporters.
— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.