After years of alleged neglect by their employers, Franklin Square Best Market/Lidl US employees said some of their safety concerns were finally validated when the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently fined Best Market more than $17,000 for violations at the grocery store.
OSHA’s notification of penalty, which was presented to Best Market in February, found three major safety concerns that employees Angelo Padro and Marian Meszaros, who had filed a complaint with OSHA in October, had asked management to correct for more than five years.
“We felt relieved,” Padro said. “If it was just me writing an email to management, they would have never fixed this, but with the support of everyone, they’re going to keep things fixed.”
The heaviest fine against the Franklin Square Best Market — more than $9,000 — was for a potential fire hazard caused by boxes and carts that blocked exits at the supermarket’s deli department, where Padro, 27, works. As previously reported by the Herald, Padro and his fellow deli employees were concerned about the old chicken oven catching fire, which they said it regularly did, and being trapped because one of their emergency exits was blocked.
Obstructions were recently removed, and signs now warn to keep the path clear. The same was done with the employee eyewash station, which after breaking down, was also blocked by boxes and supplies, Angel said, at one point forcing an employee to “clean his eye in a mop sink.”
When the Herald first interviewed deli employ Max Reynolds last fall, he said the store did not have proper safety guidelines in place for workers. Reynolds, 58, said it had been up to the older employees to teach new hires how to stay safe. That assertion aligned with the findings of OSHA, which fined Best Market nearly $8,000 for the lack of information available to employees about safety records and emergencies.
Best Market officials did not reply to the Herald’s request comment about the fines. Or Raitses, vice president of Best Yet Market Inc., previously said headquarters had not been apprised of issues at the Franklin Square location, and insisted that Best Markets across Long Island were up to proper fire safety standards.
With Long Island’s Best Market stores now under Lidl US, a Virginia-based grocery chain with more than 50 stores on the East Coast, Lidl US spokesman William Harwood said the company looked forward to making positive changes to stores.
“We quickly resolved the items OSHA identified, and we are now making investments to improve our facilities across Long Island to make sure they meet our high standards,” Harwood said in a statement.
Padro said the change in ownership and the victory in Franklin Square have helped galvanize Best Market employees who faced similar alleged workplace dangers to speak out and seek reforms at their stores. Padro was recently in contact with deli employees in the West Islip store. He said they alleged they were constantly being injured by a dangerous trip hazard.
Employees have since filed a letter with Lidl US about the problem and asked for it to be resolved after an employee fell and injured her leg badly enough that she needed crutches to walk.
Employees had often shared these stories through the Do Better Best Market (Lidl) Facebook group, which now is a rallying point for employees across the Island. “It created a ripple effect, not just in Franklin Square, but in all our other stores as well,” Padro said. “We have to let our voices be heard.”
Padro added that the latest issue is the fight for premium pay, which is additional pay for employees who work certain hours, most often on Sundays. While Lidl US officials have not said whether they would provide premium pay to employees, long-time Best Market employee Marian Meszaros said she was skeptical that any major changes would happen soon.
Meszaros, who worked with Padro to reform the Franklin Square store, said she had spent years calling for changes after she suffered carbon monoxide poisoning at the store in 2013. She felt frustrated that it took Best Market so long to put “common-sense” safety regulations in place, and doubted that Lidl US would provide premium pay, as more major retailers have moved away from the practice since 2016, including Stop & Shop in late February.
“You’re killing Long Island’s middle class,” Meszaros said. “If I could retire, I would, but who could afford it here? I don’t even feel like part of the middle class.”