© Herald photo by Matt Gardner
The building that formerly housed the local Sobeys grocery store stands empty following its closure last Wednesday, with the outline from the former sign still slightly visible.
Following the closure of the Sobeys grocery store in Prince Albert last week, store employees find themselves at a crossroads.
A staff barbecue last Wednesday -- organized to coincide with the final day of business -- proved a bittersweet occasion for many, according to the head of the union representing the grocery store workers.
“I don’t believe Sobeys was putting on anything, and (staff members) had asked if we could help organize something,” United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1400 president Norm Neault said.
“They did the bulk of it by themselves, they got the people rounded up and so we were able to put a barbecue on for them at the P.A. Union Centre. It could be the last time a lot of those people would see each other.”
As the employees face an uncertain future, Neault indicated that the barbecue helped provide a sense of closure for many.
“It was certainly a memorable and enjoyable evening,” he said. “In spite of what happened, people were having a good time and enjoying each other’s company … knowing that it was kind of the close of a chapter.”
He noted that there were “certainly a lot of tears” at the event from workers who had grown to know each other over the years.
Per their collective agreement, each employee now has six weeks of severance pay, during which many will be actively looking for new jobs.
With some employees having devoted years to their jobs at Sobeys, Neault noted that many have been considering different career choices altogether.
“A lot of them (are) still, I think, a little bewildered and wondering what they’re going to do,” he said. “Some of them have made plans and (are) moving on … Others are going to do some upgrading and others are going to, I guess, start looking for jobs now.”
Among specific examples, he pointed to one couple who had already arranged to move out of province.
Another worker received a call from a former employer who had found out she was available and offered her a seasonal position.
A lot of them (are) still, I think, a little bewildered and wondering what they’re going to do. Norm Neault
While employees received information about how to apply for Employment Insurance and Sobeys offered them assistance with job searching and resume-writing techniques, their transition has been eased through benefits of unionization such as the severance package.
“Certainly the six-week severance that they’re getting would be better than not getting anything or being on EI,” Neault said. “So hopefully that’s a benefit that they’ve realized.”
He added, “If they apply in other unionized employers, there are provisions that do apply for some type of credit for seniority in some of the stores … so that (if) they’ve got some experience in another unionized environment … they’ll honour some of that experience and they’ll put you up the wage scale.”
Should laid-off Sobeys employees exhaust their severance pay, EI may provide an alternative means of financial support for up to several months afterwards.
As the workers plan their next moves, Neault pledged that the union would offer its support in any way it could.
Striking an optimistic note, he added, “Any employer that was looking for a good group of workers, certainly they’ve got a good group to draw from from those employees that had worked at Sobeys all those years.”