NYC grocers struggle to hire while workers bank on unemployment claims

Morton Williams faced 400 unemployment claims at the height of the coronavirus in March and April

New York City supermarkets are getting inundated with unemployment claims — while most of them are looking to hire workers during the coronavirus lockdown, not fire them.

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Morton Williams, which operates 16 stores in the New York metro area, was slammed with 400 claims at the height of the pandemic in March and April — up tenfold from a year earlier, co-owner Steven Sloan told The Post. Through June, claims have risen to about 600 — or about half the workers on the payroll, he said.

A worker wears a face mask in a D'Agostino supermarket in Murray Hill as New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

What’s more, during that time Sloan said Morton Williams has laid off only three people as grocery demand went through the roof. Yet by the end of May, more than 160 ex-staffers were drawing weekly benefits OK’d by the state, he said.

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In the past, it was rare that the New York Department of Labor would pay a claim the supermarket disputed, and if they did, they would explain themselves, Sloan said.

That practice changed with the outbreak of the coronavirus, he said.

“In three months I have not received a single explanation about why former employees are being paid when I have disputed their claims,” Sloan told The Post. “So, I don’t know what their reasoning is. I can’t argue any of these cases if we don’t know what the rules are.”

With the federal government’s CARES Act paying out $600 a week on top of state unemployment checks, many grocery workers stand to make more on unemployment than they would working at the store. That has helped to spur a tidal wave of claim applications, and the city’s grocers — which have boasted steady business since mid-March — say they’re struggling to deal with the situation.

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“We are seeing confusing claims from people who haven’t notified us that they are leaving,” said Sal Bonavita, who owns two Key Food stores in the Bronx. “We haven’t laid off anyone and yet we are seeing much higher volumes of unemployment claims.”

“The benefits are a key reason why people are not applying for jobs at our stores right now,” he added. He usually has 16 employees but is currently short eight staffers.

The CARES Act, passed by Congress in March, also releases benefits to workers who claim they are caring for a family member with COVID-19, or to those who are the primary caregiver for a child.

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Those changes — combined with the federal stimulus checks for taxpayers — have spurred some workers to seize the advantage.

Sloan said two young store clerks recently filed for benefits even though they are still working for Morton Williams. When they were confronted by a manager they “admitted they had filed for unemployment, explaining that they were told if you file you can get extra money,” Sloan said.

Back in April, Sloan added, a cashier got fired for failing to charge a customer for $200 worth of groceries, and soon started receiving state checks for $284 per week, despite the chain disputing the claim.

An employee at a Midtown location quit his job in March after telling his boss he was worried about his own health safety, citing the pandemic. He started receiving weekly checks of $341 — despite the supermarket’s protestations, Sloan said.

Indeed, workers who quit their jobs or are fired from them shouldn’t qualify workers for benefits, said Deanna Cohen, a spokesperson for the New York Department of Labor, adding that “if someone misrepresents their situation to get benefits they are committing fraud.”

“We have a rigorous application and screening process to weed out fraudulent claims and ensure only eligible New Yorkers receive benefits,” Cohen said via email. “This system has not changed during this crisis.”

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Adding to the confusion, organized crime rings have been filing fraudulent claims on behalf of people who are currently working, according to reports. Sloan said he has encountered the problem in a handful of instances in which he has received claims for employees who never stopped working and told him that they did not file a claim.

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“There is no guidance from state governments on how premiums will be impacted,” labor lawyer Darren Oved of Oved & Oved LLP told The Post. “Unemployment insurance rates will go up almost certainly.”

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