Paul Tritto has worked at Stop & Shop for 18 years. On April 11, he walked off his job with more than 30,000 of his colleagues at more than 240 of the chain’s stores in New England.
Tritto told NBC News he didn’t walk off his job because he hates it or wanted a break from working. He joined the tens of thousands of strikers because under the new contract that Stop & Shop is proposing, he doesn't know how he can continue to make ends meet.
“I support a wife who is disabled, and I have a grandson living with me who is special needs,” Tritto explained. “I’m their sole support.”
Tritto, who works at the company’s store in Somerville, Massachusetts, said that under the proposed changes to his health care plan, his out-of-pocket maximums will go up, making the cost “astronomical.”
When a previous contract expired in February, workers from bakers and butchers to cashiers were dismayed by the company’s proposal.
Stop & Shop’s parent company, Ahold Delhaize, reported profits in the billions but is asking workers to pay more for their insurance and cutting their retirement benefits, according to Erikka Knuti, spokesperson for United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents the striking workers.
Knuti said 75 percent of workers at Stop & Shop are part time, working multiple jobs and barely “cobbling together” a living wage.
“The company is not taking care of their workers and valuing their work,” she said.
While Stop & Shop is proposing slight hourly wage increases (less than a dollar), changes to out-of-pocket maximums and increases in premiums make the raise negligible, workers say.
Stop & Shop maintains its goal is to “reach a fair new agreement and returning our focus to doing what we do best — taking care of our customers,” according to Jennifer Brogan, director of communications for the chain.
Brogan said changes to out-of-pocket maximums in Massachusetts and Rhode Island would match those already in place in Connecticut. She also said that workers would still be paying below the national average for their health care and that all workers will be seeing a raise.
But striking workers aren’t buying what the grocery chain is selling. In addition to changes to health care and retirement plans, they’re also concerned about pay for Sundays and holidays.
Current workers wouldn’t lose time and a half under the new contract, but new associates wouldn’t be guaranteed the pay. This worries store employees like Tritto, who thinks he would be taken off the shift and lose crucial extra income. “That was my part-time job,” he said of his Sunday work. “If I need to go out and find a part-time job elsewhere, that would take time away from my wife and grandson who need me there desperately.”
With the strike now on its ninth day, videos posted of New England stores show empty produce aisles, and dark and deserted stores.
The strike, with no clear end in sight, has garnered widespread support from Democratic presidential hopefuls to loyal shoppers of the brand.
On April 12, Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential contender Elizabeth Warren visited her striking constituents.
“Do not cross the picket line,” Warren said, addressing potential shoppers. “Understand people on the picket line are not just fighting for their families. They’re fighting for all our families. They’re fighting for basic fairness and equality in this country.”
Since Warren's remarks, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and former Vice President Joe Biden have also joined workers on the picket line.
"People are entitled to be treated with respect and decency and fairness," Biden said Thursday in Dorchester, Massachusetts. "We gotta stand together, and if we do we will take back this country, I mean it." Biden is expected to declare next week that he will run for president.
The “Support Stop & Shop Workers” Facebook page has grown to more than 30,000 followers in a week.
Regular customers are taping their grocery receipts from other stores on Stop & Shop’s window, and declaring they won’t cross the picket line to shop for their Easter and Passover meals.
Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen of Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel in New Haven, Connecticut, where workers are also striking, warned about the religious implications of buying food at Stop & Shop for Passover seders while the strike continues.
"Food procured by crossing a picket line is not kosher for Passover," Tilsen said via email, saying it violates Jewish law. “The dignity of human labor is at the core of the Passover story and the Torah laws that follow.”
Judi Geary, a front-end supervisor for Stop & Shop in Wallingford, Connecticut, said that she’ll keep striking until the workers get their demands met and that she knows "the company was not negotiating in good faith.”
Geary has worked at Stop & Shop on and off for 22 years. She’s worried about how the cuts will affect her ability to maintain her house and how new hires will be treated. “They aren’t taking care of future associates coming into the building,” she said.
"Customers do not go into that building because there's a fruit basket and it says 'Stop & Shop,'" Geary added. "They go into the building because of the people that serve them.”