Mainstream press coverage of mass layoffs like Sunday’s shutdown of almost 100 Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo fast food restaurants generally looks upon such tragic events through a glass, darkly. Because journalism in the service of the rich and powerful is a poor reflection of reality when it comes to all things labor. Which is why early reportage in major news media typically involves simple transcription of executives’ rationales for such precipitous decisions. Rather than immediate investigation of the massive damage done to the lives of, in this case, more than 1,100 area workers summarily terminated with no official warning of any kind, according to the Boston Globe.
True to form, PGHC Holdings Inc., the Dedham-based parent company of both brands, has excuses at the ready for credulous reporters. None of which explain why it’s acceptable to treat its workforce—the people that built the company and kept it running through good times and bad—like so much garbage. But that’s fine and dandy, yes? Given that few journalists ever seem particularly concerned about the human cost of mass layoffs. It’s just assumed (and sometimes stated) that “the market” will take care of everything. Such “disruption” is “good for the economy,” doncha know. And if some hapless working poor people lose their apartments, lose custody of their children, go hungry, and end up on the streets, then that’s their fault for not being “competitive” enough and getting more degrees. Or something. Not the fault of the company that put them there.
In any event, according to the Boston Business Journal, PGHC released a statement on Monday explaining “that it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. [The company] also announced that it had reached an agreement in principle to be sold to a portfolio company of Wynnchurch Capital, a private equity firm that has offices in Chicago, Los Angeles and Toronto.”
“Private equity firms,” according to a major 2014 investigation by the New York Times, “now manage $3.5 trillion in assets. The firms overseeing these funds borrow money or raise it from investors to buy troubled or inefficient companies. Then they try to turn the companies around and sell at a profit.” Ironically, some of the largest investors in such firms are public sector pension funds. Whose unionized members have no idea what their money is being used for—thanks to byzantine and opaque agreements between their pension funds and firms like Wynnchurch that aim to keep them and the public at large in the dark about buyouts like the tentative PGHC deal.
The details that are visible are disturbing enough. According to Boston Globe business columnist Jon Chesto, PGHC “[c]hief financial officer Corey Wendland pointed to one big reason for his company’s need for more dough: minimum-wage increases across many of its markets, combined with higher health insurance expenses.”
You read that right. One of the executives directly responsible for destroying the lives of hundreds of working-class families in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire is blaming legislation that’s gradually raising minimum wages in three of those states (minus, sadly, the Granite State) to levels that they should have been at over a decade back for his company’s crisis. Not corporate mismanagement or malfeasance.
It’s basically all the fault of those darned unions and other labor advocates for pushing higher wage floors that still don’t even allow many workers to make ends meet once enacted. Massachusetts, for example, will go from the abysmal $11 an hour rate mandated by 2017 to a somewhat less abysmal $15 an hour over five years starting in January. For readers who think that wage is too high, try living on $15 an hour most anywhere in southern New England right now—assuming you get 40 hours work a week, which many Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo workers didn’t—and see how you do.
Naturally, since laid-off PGHC workers weren’t unionized, they had nothing and no one to protect them when the corporate ax fell over the weekend. Even the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act that provides extended unemployment and retraining benefits to victims of a narrow range of mass layoffs may not apply here. Although, as with area NECCO workers who were also laid off en masse this year with no notice, it may be worth trying a class action lawsuit to demand WARN coverage anyway. But with most of the affected PGHC workers making minimum wage, they have next to nothing saved to see them through the difficult period they now face. While the unemployment they may not all qualify for will definitely not be enough to live on until they find new jobs, given their low pay rate. So, it will even harder for them to mount such a suit than it has been for the NECCO crew.
A D’Angelo manager who writes under the nom de plume C.D. Madeira took a job at another company about three months ago and agreed to provide an insider’s perspective on the layoff crisis to me in an interview. Unsurprisingly, Madeira says that PGHC was not a decent employer even before its recent action.
“I worked for D’Angelo for two and a half years as a manager. They treated us like trash, the minimum wage employees worse. Management was paid as little as possible while required to work 50 hours a week and often much much more. More often than not they required us to work that extra off the clock so as not to skew their labor information. They refused to repair restaurants even when it was a danger to employees and customers.
“Basically, I’m glad I don’t work there anymore and that I got out before this happened, but I know many people who are now out of a job.
“They closed nearly 100 locations, between the Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo brands, leaving over 1,000 people without jobs and without notice. No severance pay. No PTO [paid time off] payout. Nothing. People went to work assuming they would have a job and they were turned away. Those who had jobs were given calls throughout the day to tell them to close up shop permanently. They were told they could apply at other corporate locations for consideration for rehire.”
Not that laid-off PGHC workers are exactly taking the situation lying down. Many have plastered the Papa Gino’s Facebook page with angry messages. Leading the parent company to respond on the page with another statement, “While we regret the rather abrupt closures, we are currently undergoing major updates to better serve our guests and ask for your patience as we make these changes. As New England’s local pizzeria since 1961, we are still standing strong and will be relaunching our restaurants, introducing improvements for the benefit of all of our guests.”
Madeira doesn’t buy it: “I saw the breakdown of the conference call they had with the general managers who remain. Basically they’re painting this as, ‘Well, now that we have all these underperforming restaurants out of the way, we can totally renovate the remaining locations!’ Many stores they closed were not underperforming. Also they’ve known about this sale for months. They were talking about putting the brand up for sale a couple of months before I left. So this has been in the works for well long enough to have warned people.
“They’ve always been shady. Papa Gino’s originally bought the D’Angelo brand to try and save itself but instead ended up dragging it down completely from what I heard from old-time employees.”
This is the testimony that the public has not yet heard in the local press. And it’s infuriating, if not much of a shock to anyone who has worked in low-wage sectors like fast food before.
The question now is: What can laid-off Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo workers do to get some simple justice? PGHC executives responsible for major social dislocation across our region thanks to the layoffs will be fine. They’ve got golden parachutes. PGHC shareholders will make some money in the sale to buyout firm Wynnchurch Capital. Wynnchurch will make plenty of money by reviving the Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo brands and selling them to the highest bidder, and/or by dumping the buyout debt on the company and making millions in “consulting” fees whether the company succeeds or tanks, and/or by gutting company assets for cash.
But what about the workers?
All I can say is what I say in pretty much every article I write about labor issues: Workers need to stand and fight. Wherever we are. Whatever our situation.
So, for the remaining Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo workers, you all need to unionize. To make sure you have at least the protection of a union contract in the likely event of more layoffs. And better wages, benefits, and working conditions while you all are still employed there. It won’t be easy. But you can be sure that at least two or three major unions—I’m guessing UNITEHERE, SEIU, and possibly UAW—are eager to get in touch with you. I recommend you work with the union that will give you the best service (in the form of staff dedicated to your group) and the most autonomy.
And for the laid-off Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo workers? You, too, need to organize. Get together. Talk things over. Get advice from some experienced union leaders and pro bono representation from some labor lawyers. Maybe find a way to sue your former bosses or the new owners for redress under the WARN Act or some other applicable law. Build community support the way Market Basket workers did a few years ago. Explain why it’s not acceptable for large companies to treat people the way PGHC treated you—and even less acceptable for government at all levels to let them get away with it. Raise money and awareness. Formulate demands. For severance pay. For extended unemployment benefits. For retraining. For damages. For whatever you all need to be made whole. Stay in close touch with your former colleagues as they try to strengthen their position.
Then figure out how to win some justice… together.
Fortunately, a Facebook page has been started to do just that. Called, fittingly, Papa Gino’s Workers’ Reparations. Here’s a short link for PGHC workers reading in print: tiny.cc/papajustice/. Check it out. And best of luck to all of you.
Executive editor and associate publisher, DigBoston. Executive director of Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Former founder and editor/publisher of Open Media Boston. 2018 & 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Award Winner.