July 30. 2014 5:16PM

Market Basket orders employees to return to work

New Hampshire Union Leader

Tom Couture, a Market Basket employee for 29 years, stands at the empty deli counter in the Manchester store on Wednesday morning. (Bruce Preston/Union Leader)

Market Basket's co-CEOs said employees who are skipping work shifts can return to their jobs "without fear of penalty" — provided they return on Monday — and that the company also will begin advertising to hire replacement workers as needed, according to a statement released Wednesday by CEOs Felicia Thornton and James Gooch.

A family feud among Market Basket shareholders has led to customer boycotts, picketing workers and limited food deliveries to stores, causing many shoppers to deviate from their normal weekly routines. Some workers haven't returned to their jobs while others have joined picket lines outside stores during their off-hours.

A top organizer of the worker movement said the CEOs have tried unsuccessfully several times to convince workers to return to work.

"It's just a threat and that's all it is," said Steve Paulenka, a Londonderry resident recently terminated by Market Basket. "They have no clue on who they're dealing with."

The full statement from the CEOs reads:

"We want Market Basket associates back to work and reiterate that they can return without fear of penalty. We again acknowledge and understand how difficult this situation has been for associates. However, we also need to have associates working to support stores, customers and vendors.

"We need associates to return to work on Monday, August 4th. We understand that some associates may choose not to return, consequently we will begin advertising for employment opportunities. Our hope and strong preference is to have Market Basket's incredible associates return to work. Again, any associate that wants to return will be welcomed and not penalized."

A blog post on the wearemarketbasket.com web site, which has served as a voice for the employees during the dispute, said the job fair is an effort "to replace, not only the people at the warehouse, drivers and office personnel but also Store Directors and Asst Managers.

"This latest group is an interesting turn since zero Store Directors or Asst Managers have walked off the job," the post continued. "The fact that their stores are empty of products is not their fault they haven't been getting deliveries.

"When the warehouse associates and drivers walked out almost two weeks ago F&G (Thornton and Gooch) immediately replaced the drivers with temp drivers and temp selectors in the warehouse. So why haven't the loads been getting to the stores? Because these temporary drivers and selectors can't hold a candle to our drivers and selectors. Our grocery warehouse alone pumps out a million cases of product a week and yet these temps can barely manage 15 deliveries a day compared to the 120 deliveries a day that is average for our dedicated workers," the post read.

The company will hold job fairs next week at its IT computer center in Andover, Mass.

On Monday and Tuesday, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., existing employees can seek to change positions and first preference will be given to them. On Wednesday, non-employees can inquire about openings from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The supermarket chain employs about 25,000 workers and operates 71 stores in New England, including about 30 in New Hampshire.

Employees are demanding the return of ousted CEO Arthur T. Demoulas.

The company's board said it is mulling multiple offers to sell a controlling interest in the supermarket chain, including a bid by Arthur T. Demoulas.

Paulenka said some employees are working their normal hours while others are staying off the job.

"Everybody got paid last Thursday and I expect everybody's going to be paid this Thursday, except for office people," he said.