Marian Meszaros said that she cannot forget what happened five years ago inside the Franklin Square Best Market grocery store on Dogwood Avenue. Meszaros, an employee in the meat department, remembered feeling unwell as employees approached their manager about a sudden illness afflicting them on the morning of May 30, 2013.
“Anyone who was in the store that morning started feeling nauseous and dizzy,” Meszaros recalled.
Meszaros was soon evacuated from the building by the Fire Department and taken to a hospital, where she and five other employees received treatment in a bariatric oxygen chamber to help treat carbon monoxide poisoning and troubled breathing. Meszaros described it as one of the worst days she had while working at Best Market, and it was the lack of a reaction from her employers that spurred Meszaros to start advocating for her and her coworkers’ safety.
Now, after five years of feeling ignored, Meszaros and deli department worker Angel Padro, 27, filed a formal Notice of Alleged Safety or Health Hazards complaint against Best Market to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Oct. 17.
Sub-hed: Years of alleged neglect
In the complaint, Padro listed several concerns in the deli department, one of which involves the slicer that employees use. Padro said that employees have no safety gloves available, so they have to clean the slicer’s blades barehanded, leaving them at risk of injuries. A 2016 OSHA report, which lists work-related injuries and illnesses, described how an employee suffered cuts and lacerations on his index finger from the deli slicer. Padro explained that this happens because the slicer is mounted on a wobbly table.
“We put sticker stacks or anything we can find underneath the table to keep them from shaking when we cut,” he said.
Fellow deli worker Max Reynolds, 58, added that employees were not properly trained to clean the slicers, and so they do not unplug the machine when sanitizing it, a practice that he and older staff workers know from experience and have to warn younger employees about.
When workers are hurt, Padro said, they would normally use band-aids from their own stock rather than from their first-aid kits, as the kits lie nearly empty most of the time. The complaint also notes that the employee eye wash station has not been refilled and is no longer functional, forcing one employee at one time “to clean his eye in a mop sink.”
Or Raitses, vice president and general counsel for Best Yet Market Inc., said his office had not been made aware about any of these issues in the past, despite the Franklin Square branch employees’ insistence that they have reached out to corporate headquarters for years now. Raitses added that employees could make their concerns known through anonymous tip lines and town hall-like meetings, and that he had not heard of any complaints through these channels.
But what concerns Padro and his coworkers the most, as he states in his OSHA complaint, is the lack of fire safety that they say they have witnessed inside their Best Market, which can be summarized in one corner of the deli department. There lies an old chicken oven, which employees said has caught on fire four times in the past two years.
“You can tell it’s been on fire a whole bunch of times because of all the scorch marks left behind on the walls next to it,” Padro said.
Whenever it does catch on fire, Padro said, employees are told to turn the oven off, but the switch is located too close to where the flames would be to reach. They are also told to use the fire extinguisher, which employees said they had not been formally trained to use. Padro added that the fire extinguisher is a water type and not the usual foam or powder type. The Fire Equipment Manufacturers’ Association states that water extinguishers should not be used on electrical or gas equipment because it “could create a shock hazard.”
Deli worker Alexis Ares, 24, said that there was not much that he and his coworkers could do with the oven because since the instructions are in a foreign language, and she has tried to find an English version of the manual online on her phone, to no avail. She and Padro are also worried about the years of grease buildup in the oven’s ventilation system, which they said they believe could start a fire. They said that no one is ever called in to clean it, so they have to do it themselves with heated chemicals and gloves that do not fit. Both Ares and Padro have burn marks on their hands and arms from this.
Ares said one of the exits at the back of the deli is covered and taped closed, limiting employees’ exits in case of a large fire, an issue also highlighted in the OSHA complaint.
Or insisted that the Best Markets across Long Island receive thorough inspection from the fire marshals once a year and are even subject to surprise inspections.
“We take safety very seriously,” Or said.
sub head: ‘Do Better Best Market’
The employees at the Franklin Square Best Market are not alone in voicing their frustration. They are part of a larger group of employees united under a Facebook group called “Do Better Best Market.” They held a large rally on Oct. 9 to deliver a petition signed by more than 800 people to demand better pay and working conditions for Best Market employees.
The group has received support from local elected officials like State Sen. John Brooks, Nassau County Commissioner of Labor John Skinner Jr., and both Nassau and Suffolk County Executives Laura Curran and Steve Bellone. In a July 20 letter addressed to Rebecca Philbert, President of Best Yet Market Inc., Curran and Skinner urged Best Market to listen to the company’s nearly 800 employees in Nassau and help grant them better wages, working conditions and benefits.
“Supermarket jobs in Nassau are historically steady lifelong careers with benefits for our residents,” Curran wrote. “It’s time for Best Market to align yourself with the majority of our businesses, supermarkets in particular, in Nassau that provide safe working conditions.”
Although Best Market employees are nonunion, they are receiving advice and support from local members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Marian Meszaros said she believed that the reason she and her coworkers experience poor working conditions is because they were nonunion. She and Angel Padro added that they been talking with the Nassau Fire Marshal's office and plan to invite inspectors out to review their Best Market. Padro said that he would do anything in order to avoid a worst-case scenario in which the grocery store might catch on fire.
“When I started speaking out, I used to be afraid of losing my job, but now I just want to protect all the workers,” Padro said.