PHOENIX -- United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 99R here said last week it is financing a series of television ads around the country urging current and former Albertson's employees who believe they qualify for back pay for off-the-clock work to file their claims promptly.
Those claims stem from a class-action lawsuit that Albertson's settled out-of-court a year ago -- a suit that involved all store-level personnel but ultimately excluded front-end employees as part of the chain's settlement agreement.
The ads are also serving another purpose -- informing Albertson's front-end personnel that they may be eligible to add their names to a new lawsuit, Jim McLaughlin, organizing coordinator for Local 99R, told SN.
That suit was filed last November in U.S. District Court in Boise, Idaho, Albertson's home base.
McLaughlin said the local wasn't aware of the new lawsuit when it began running the ads here late last year. However, while some Albertson's employees responding to the ad may not be eligible under the original lawsuit, they do qualify under the current one, he noted, and those people are being referred to the Seattle law firm handling the current action.
A spokesman for the UFCW International told SN the union is helping line up plaintiffs for the current suit, as it did in the earlier action.
Albertson's officials could not be reached for comment last week.
The TV ads began appearing in Los Angeles in late May and were expanded last week to 10 additional cities, McLaughlin said: Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Miami, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington. Outside of Los Angeles, the ads are running exclusively on CNN and CNBC, McLaughlin noted.
Although they were scheduled to run for only one week, McLaughlin said Local 99R anticipates buying ads later this month to run an additional 10 weeks in most of those cities.
McLaughlin said the UFCW got about 400 responses late last year to the original ad here, while the ad in Los Angeles, which has been running during daytime hours as well as during L.A. Laker playoff broadcasts, has garnered close to 1,000 responses.
Asked why the local decided to finance the ads, McLaughlin replied, "That was just our decision. We wanted to run the ads originally, and we didn't ask for the assistance of any other locals."
The ads were designed as a follow-up to a series of lawsuits filed during 1996 and 1997 on behalf of Albertson's employees, which were ultimately combined by Webster Mrak & Blumberg, a Seattle-based law firm, into a single class-action suit that said the chain had condoned off-the-clock work without compensation between 1993 and 1998. In reaching the settlement last June, Albertson's agreed to allow approximately 100,000 current and former store employees to file claims for back pay.
According to Rick Blumberg, a partner in the law firm, Albertson's agreed to "toll" the three-year statute of limitations for excluded employees to file suit -- "essentially putting the years after the lawsuit was filed in suspended animation and agreeing that those years would not count against filing claims under the statute," Blumberg explained.
He said the current lawsuit charges that Albertson's violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by permitting employees to work off-the-clock without compensation. However, unlike the earlier suit, the current suit is not a class action but was filed on behalf of specific individuals who notified the law firm that they want to be included, Blumberg said.
He said approximately 90 people have asked to be included so far, "and if the trend continues, we think we will end up with between 100 and 200 people over the next few weeks," he told SN.
The court set a trial date of Sept. 30, 2002, for plaintiffs signed up at the end of May, Blumberg said, "and we will seek to file an amended complaint to include additional people."
In the UFCW ads, a voice-over announcer says, "Do you know what working off-the-clock means? You would if you worked for the Albertson's grocery stores.
"Off-the-clock means working but not getting paid. Albertson's employees charged that they were told to work off-the-clock, and then they were threatened for talking about the practice. But with the help of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Albertson's has agreed to pay current and former employees millions of dollars in back pay."
The commercial asks viewers who believe they are eligible for claims to visit www.albsuit.com or call (866) 222-5729 -- (866) BACKPAY.
While the announcer talks, various words and phrases appear on the screen, including "Intimidation," "Threats," "UFCW fights back" and "Return your claim form now."