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nual:sales grew by an average of 25 percent during the 1980s to total $5.6′ billion last year, and the number of stores soared from 141 to 821 spread across 11 states. But the experiences of former and ‘current employees suggest that the Lion may be feeding on the misery of its workers. According to a lawSuit filed by former employees supported by the United Food and firing or pressuring workers to quit to prevent them from collecting profit-sharing benefits. The profit-sharing plan serves as a sort of pension program. Employees earn a share of company profits each year; but they must stay with Food Lion for at least five years to collect the money. Wilma Berry was 18 months short of qualifying for $5,000 in profit sharing when she was fired. Instead, Berry “forfeited” her earnings, and the money went back into a profit-sharing pool worth $317 million. The trouble is, few employees ever get to share that wealth. In 1988, company records filed with the Internal Revenue Service showed that only 110 employees most of them senior executives were entitled to full benefits under the plan. Since then, changes in federal law have forced the company to extend the plan to 4,283 employees fewer than one in 10 Food Lion workers. What’s more, many of the forfeited profits wind up in the pockets of top Food Lion executives. According to the latest proxy statement filed by the company, Food Lion co-founder and chairman emeritus Ralph Kettner received $1,896,251.71 in profit sharing when he re, tired April 1. Because they share in forfeited benefits, many managers also make a direct profit every time an employee leaves the company before putting in five years. Betty Deck said Food Lion hounded her into quitting seven months before she would have qualified for $35,000 in profit sharing. “The joke my supervisor always told was, ‘Every one of you that gets run off or quits, that’s more money we have to split among us,'” said Deck, who managed a Food Lion store in Gastonia, North Carolina. Other ex-employees tell similar stories. “When you got close to collecting your profit sharing, they was looking for something to get you,” said Rusty Hornaday, an assistant manager in Asheville, North Carolina who lost $59,000 in profit sharing when he was fired just 10 months short of being fully vested. “That’s a big chunk of change that went into someone else’s pocket.” Neel Lattimore, a spokesperson for the UFCW, said the profitsharing plan will be a tempting lure for new hires in Texas. “When Food Lion is recruiting people to work for them, they’re going to dangle this golden carrot in front of you,” he said. “These things look great to a young person or to someone working at another store, but very few people ever get to that point. Less than one in 10 makes it to the five-year mark.” “If Tom Smith were a bag boy today,” Lattimore added, “I doubt he’d last five years.” Grapes of Wrath Although Food Lion workers are not represented by any union, the company responds to the profit-sharing accusations by blaming the UFCW for stirring up trouble. “You have to consider the sources of your information,” said company spokesperson Mike Mozingo. “It’s all part of a plan by the UFCW to discredit Food Lion. They are trying to paint a picture of a handful of cigar-smoking fat cats getting rich off people leaving the company. That’s totally false. There is no such scheme.” But the profit-sharing lawsuit is not the first time Food Lion has found itself in court over unfair labor practices. This year, former employees Wayne Tew and Belinda Faye Lyle of Fayetteville, North Carolina sued the company for forcing them to work overtime on a regular basis without pay. Food Lion denied the charge, but on February 7 a federal judge ruled in favor of the workers and awarded them $53,352 in damages and back pay. “This case hinges on a credibility determination,” the judge wrote in his decision. “The court believes the plaintiffs and not the store managers. . . . The court did not find the testimony of the store managers to be credible.” Food Lion also wound up in court last year after a company security guard stopped 61-year-old customer Charles Carrick at a store in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and accused him of eating three grapes. Carrick sued, saying the guard grabbed him, called him a thief, took him into a back room, and refused to release him for 45 minutes until he paid nine cents for the grapes. A jury awarded Carrick $31,500 in damages for false imprisonment and slander plus the nine cents he paid for the grapes. Robert Willett paid a somewhat higher price when he was accused of nibbling grapes at Food Lion. An assistant store manager in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Willett recalled working 14-hour shifts six days a week. “I can’t remember how many times I fell asleep at the wheel of the car driving home at 1:30 in the morning,” he said. Willett said he was good at his job, but he wasn’t so good at managing his money. He remembers bouncing at least three personal checks at the store mistakes he said he promptly made good. “It was a little bit my fault,” he admitted. “I should have been more careful.” The third time Willett bounced a check, a loss prevention agent showed up at the store. “I ain’t never been drilled like that in my life,” Willett recalled. “The man said, ‘Have you ever eaten a grape on the job? Had a banana at work? Gotten a coffee from the deli and never paid for it? I said everybody at the store has nibbled something at one time or another. He said, ‘A banana here, a grape there maybe over a period of three years you’ve forgotten to pay for $1,000worth of stuff.'” Willett said he refused to pay for food he never took. After four hours of questioning, he said, the agent told him he would also be charged $320 for the interrogation. A week later, Willett was fired for “gross misconduct.” He lost $18,000 in profitsharing benefits, and had to move . his wife and four children into a smaller house. “The loss prevention guys are really good,” he said. “They know exactly how to bully and intimidate you. They won’t ever let you see your accusers. Sure, I done that with the checks, and it was wrong. But it wasn’t about the checks. I honestly believe it was about the profit sharing.” “The Perfect Crime” A year after. Willett lost his job, William Abrecht had a similar confrontation at a Food Lion warehouse in Elloree, South Carolina. One day last June, a loss prevention agent showed up and accused Abrecht of punching the time clock for his supervisor.”They told me that if I wrote a statement saying that I knew what I did was wrong, I wouldn’t lose my job,” Abrecht said. “As soon as I wrote the statement, they fired me.” After four years on the job, Abrecht lost $20,000 in his profit-sharing account. “The way loss prevention works is the perfect crime,” said Abrecht. “They say you won’t get fired if you put it down in writing, and then when you put it down in writing you can’t even collect unemployment because the company said you confessed.” Mike Mozingo, the company spokesperson, discounts such charges, insisting that many employees fired by Food Lion committed offenses that were more serious than they claim. For example, he said, the cookies Wilma Berry took from the Knoxville store weren’t four days old they were gourmet cookies worth $5 a pound. “That was not the only reason she was fired,” Mozingo adds. Asked to provide examples, he said: “There are other incidents with her that for her own privacy we’re not allowed to discuss.” Still, Food Lion is firing workers without giving them a chance to 8 OCTOBER 18, 1991