Employees at two Oregon New Seasons Markets — on opposite sides of Portland — are in the process of unionizing in unrelated efforts. They filed on the same day last month.
A key factor in starting both efforts were new policies that workers felt served the company but punished the employees. New Seasons workers voiced particular concern over a recent change in attendance policy, which they argue severely limits the ability of even longstanding workers to take days off without fear of losing their jobs.
New Seasons Market — Orenco Station
For 14 years, Shelby Miller has worked at the New Seasons Market at Hillsboro’s Orenco Station.
“They always wanted to be a small, friendly-family company and they were for a long time when I started,” Miller said.
In 2019, New Season Market was sold to Good Food Holdings company — which is owned by South Korea’s Emart as part of that global retailer’s expansion into the western U.S. Miller said that a notable change occurred: Employees started to take a backseat.
“Now they’re just so big that they can’t be concerned about all our concerns,” Miller said. “Profits definitely come before us.”
In a statement sent to OPB after this story was originally published, a New Seasons Market spokesperson wrote, “It’s important to share that New Seasons’ ownership structure has not taken strategic decision making out of the hands of local leaders. We continue to operate independently, under our own leadership team that sets the direction for the company and makes day-to-day operational decisions, including those related to pay, benefits, and other staff policies.”
A few months ago, employees were presented with a new attendance policy which Miller said greatly limited their ability to take time off, even for illness or taking care of family.
OPB obtained a copy of New Seasons’ attendance policy. It was not received from anyone who was interviewed for this article.
Employees accrue paid Personal Time Off at different rates, depending on how long they’ve worked for the company. New employees start with no PTO but can accrue up to two weeks depending on how many hours per week they work. Employees who have worked more than a year have the opportunity to accrue more. As part of recent policy changes, PTO is used not only for approved vacations at New Seasons, but also as sick time.
And while unpaid vacation days are an option, the new policy puts tight limits on unpaid time off. When an employee requests time off, it can be denied unless it’s a legally protected reason for absence.
Shelby Miller said she has only five days of PTO left, raising concerns about what she could face under the new attendance policy.
”That personally would not work for me because my husband and my daughter both have health problems and sometimes I have to take extra time off to take them to doctor’s appointments,” Miller said. “I don’t always have PTO to cover it.”
Additionally, within a 30-day period, there is a five-strike policy. If an employee has five strikes, they can be fired, and under the PTO policy, a worker can receive a strike each time they take an unapproved unpaid day off. The strikes also apply to days when an employee is more than six minutes late.
Say an employee has no PTO, but they need to take a week off to take care of an ill child. After a warning, if they go five days without working, that employee can be fired.
Miller says this policy puts employees in a difficult position.
“You have to decide whether you’re going to take a vacation or save that time in case your child is sick or your husband is sick,” Miller said.
There are options to take a leave of absence that can be filed through the state or federal government for specific situations. And legally, some absences have to be excused, such as jury duty or bereavement.
Miller called the policy changes a last straw.
“It pushed quite a few people to decide to start a committee and reach out to the union,” she said, referring to the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 555.
“Since the store has been sold to a conglomerate overseas they’ve seen some culture changes within the store that, you know, are just not what they want to see,” UFCW communications director Miles Eshaia said.
On May 27, the UFCW filed for a union election for the Hillsboro New Seasons with the National Labor Relations Board. Now, according to Eshaia, it’s a waiting game. The board could take weeks or even months to make a decision. But he says the likelihood they will approve the union vote is high. Once a vote is approved, employees can use the contract bargaining process to address their concerns, such as the attendance policy.
“The main takeaway is that it’s negotiated,” Eshaia said. “This is not something that management just gets to set and decide, and that’s the end of it. It’s an agreement that employees come to with management.”
Miller said employees have wanted a discussion like that for a long time.
“We want to be able to say something when new policies are trying to be enacted,” Miller said. “The main goal is to have a voice at the table in this business.”
New Seasons Market didn’t respond to a request for comment, but in a statement posted to the company website wrote, ”New Seasons staff are the heart of our business, and we’re proud of our legacy as a progressive and community-focused employer. We are aware of interest from some staff in certain stores in forming a union, and we respect their right to consider representation via the steps set forth by the National Labor Relations Board. The decision to join a union is one for staff to make, just as it’s always been and always will be. New Seasons respects this decision and will respect the process.”
New Seasons Market — Seven Corners
Across the Willamette, workers at another New Seasons location petitioned to unionize on the same day as their Hillsboro counterparts. But the Seven Corners store in Southeast Portland is doing it on their own, through the formation of the New Seasons Labor Union.
Nicky Warne is one of a number of employees involved in the union effort. He has worked with New Seasons for three years and says a huge issue at the location was how the company that bought New Seasons considered worker health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There was a lot of frustration from workers as far as how New Seasons handled the pandemic, with regards specifically to hazard pay and how uncomfortable a lot of us felt with rolling back protections,” Warne said.
Warne said everything came to a head in the last few months. He said a string of policy changes, including the attendance rules, helped spark union activity in Hillsboro.
“All these sort of anti-staff policies on top of two years of a pandemic that really hit grocery workers hard,” he said.
April St. John, another employee heading the union effort in Southeast Portland, has worked for New Seasons for 17 years.
She said employees started discussing a union effort in early April, around the same time the new attendance policy rolled out.
“We’re still having multiple COVID cases a week in our stores, and to roll out a more punitive attendance policy on the heels of this pandemic, it just felt very disingenuous and did not make us feel appreciated for all the work that we’ve done,” she said. “It also really encourages workers to come to work sick.”
By May 27, workers at New Seasons Market Seven Corners had petitioned for the New Seasons Labor Union to represent them at the bargaining table.
“We want better wages, we want better benefits and we need a seat at the table so that we have a voice in the decisions that are being made by upper management that affect us,” St. John said.
The workers at Seven Corners say they’re unionizing independently after a previous effort to work with the UFCW didn’t go as smoothly or quickly as hoped.
“We wish [the New Seasons in Hillsboro] the best of luck with their current election, it just wasn’t the right fit for us, and so we decided to try going independent this time,” St. John said.
Already St. John said the process has moved along quickly, calling the first steps of unionization fairly simple.
“We have made it further as an independent union in a few months than we ever made it with 555,” she said.
Both St. John and Warne said that there was a drive to start an independent union where workers have total control. Warne said that independent unions can be more progressive than long-standing institutionalized unions.
“A lot of younger workers are really inspired and excited, not just at our store but other stores as well, to re-create what unions can be,” Warne said.
Workers in Southeast Portland are at the same stage as the Hillsboro employees in their effort with the UCFW. They’re waiting to hear whether a union vote will be approved by the National Labor Relations Board. St. John said after that is when the hard work will start.
“As we move forward and win our election, we will need to create structures and infrastructure to move forward and make decisions in a more democratic way,” she said.
Both New Seasons union efforts came the same year that multiple Starbucks stores in Oregon unionized.
“That was part of the reason why we decided now is the time because it seems like there’s a positive attitude towards unionizing right now,” Miller said of the effort in Hillsboro.
It’s a similar feeling at the Seven Corners shop.
“There’s just a lot of collective energy and excitement around union efforts across the country, and certainly as well specifically in Oregon,” Warne said.
Editor’s notes: This story has been updated to add a statement New Seasons sent after the story was published as well as additional information regarding the company’s paid time off system. New Seasons Market is among OPB’s financial supporters.