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Laid-off Benny's employees frustrated about lack of severance pay

Retailer says ex-workers are being treated 'fairly' and 'in accordance with all laws'

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - The owners of soon-to-close retailer Benny's are defending their decision not to provide severance pay to their laid-off employees, as the iconic local company's last few stores prepare to shut their doors.

The nearly century-old Rhode Island retailer has been slowly laying off its 715 employees since its Sept. 8 closure announcement. Dozens of them have complained anonymously and on social media that they are not receiving any compensation once their stores close.

Most were unwilling to speak on the record, saying they feared it could jeopardize their future employment. But David Dickie, who said he worked at a Benny's store on Cape Cod for four years before it closed Nov. 17, argued that the company's public and private statements are "completely contradictory."

"My boss in Dennisport was working for the company for almost 40 years, and at 5 o'clock on Friday the 17th, he and I were exactly equal: no benefits, no severance pay, no job," Dickie told Eyewitness News. "It was just pitiful."

"And there are 700 more like me," he added. "Families out there, they're scrambling. I don't know what they're going to do."

Longtime Benny's spokesman Dante Bellini did not dispute the lack of severance pay, but insisted in a statement that the Bromberg family, which owns the retailer, has always "treated their employees fairly - and in this wind-down period, in accordance with all laws."

"We understand that there will always be a few disgruntled people and we are saddened by that," Bellini said. "But we also know that there are many employees who are grateful and have expressed beautiful, touching sentiments."

'Misunderstanding' about 'gentleman's agreement'

Two Benny's employees also told Eyewitness News they applied earlier this fall for jobs with Ocean State Job Lot, only to be told there was an understanding between the two retailers that Job Lot would not interview Benny's workers until their stores closed.

"I am aware that your location ... has closed but I'm not aware if you have been transferred to another location," a Job Lot recruiter wrote in a Nov. 1 email provided by one of the employees, a Benny's store manager. "Our owners have a gentleman's agreement with your company that we will start our interview process with candidates when released from Benny's."

David Sarlitto, executive director of Ocean State Job Lot, acknowledged there was an agreement that his retailer would not proactively "raid" Benny's while it was winding down operations, but said he was surprised to learn of the email.

"That's not the right phrasing, and in fact I'm scratching my head and saying, 'Who's responding in such a way?'" Sarlitto told Eyewitness News. He said multiple former Benny's employees are now working at Job Lot.

Bellini similarly chalked up the phrasing in the Job Lot recruiter's email to a "misunderstanding" about what the two retailers had decided. "Benny's certainly doesn't have the right to deny anyone looking for employment," he said.

Former stores to be redeveloped

The Bromberg family announced this week they have reached a deal to sell the 29 company-owned Benny's properties to the Carpionato Group, which says it plans to spend more than $100 million redeveloping them for new retail and restaurant tenants.

The two sides are not disclosing the purchase price, but the value of the real estate is likely to be substantial. The Benny's real estate on West Shore Road in Warwick is assessed at $3.7 million, while properties in Providence and Coventry are assessed at more than $1 million each, municipal records show.

Kelly Coates, a senior vice-president at Carpionato, said at a news conference Thursday that laid-off Benny's workers will get the first chance to apply for jobs at whatever establishments replace their old stores. He said the Brombergs "wanted their former employees to get preferential treatment in hiring."

Mike Healey, a spokesman for the R.I. Department of Labor and Training, said Benny's employees are eligible for up to 26 weeks of government unemployment benefits as long as they have been with the company long enough and earned enough pay to qualify.

Healey also said DLT held an in-house job fair Oct. 12 at the Benny's headquarters in Smithfield. "We recruited 21 other employers to attend the job fair and help Benny's corporate and warehouse people find their next jobs," he said. The agency also met with employees at six other stores, he said.

Company defends treatment of workers

Bellini noted that there were no immediate layoffs when Benny's announced plans to close in early September.

"Benny's ownership wanted to make sure that all employees, who were so inclined, had as much time as possible to find new jobs," he said, adding that "to the best of my knowledge, a good number of Benny's employees have either been hired or are in various stages of finding employment in the local/regional retail world."

He also said current and retired Benny's employees hired before 2007 are enrolled in the company's defined-benefit pension plan, while a 401(k) plan with a company match has been in place since 2008.

"I've seen and experienced a lot of clients. All sizes and shapes. But none that I have been prouder to represent," Bellini said.

But Dickie, the former Dennisport Benny's employee, argued the company should do more for the hundreds of workers losing their jobs so close to the holidays.

"I wish the Brombergs would see the ripple effects that this one decision is going to have on lives, and they've got to make it right," he said.

Kim Kalunian (kkalunian@wpri.com) is a reporter for Eyewitness News. Follow her on Twitter and FacebookTed Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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