NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Some essential workers who kept a Bronx grocery store running during the height of the coronavirus pandemic say they were fired out of the blue.

Now, the community is rallying to boycott the business, CBS2’s Lisa Rozner reported Monday.

The establishment was where Riverdale residents knew they could count on Francisco Montez the last 25-plus years. He managed the produce section of the Key Food on Riverdale Avenue.

During the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, he personally set aside items for pickup.

“Just call me and I have your order right here,” Montez said. “I like to help people.”

CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC

His wife asked him to stay home for the safety of their two young children, but he wanted to be there for the community.

That dedication, however, apparently wasn’t enough for the new owners of the store to keep him and 20 other union employees on payroll.

He said he was given two days of work during the last week of June. Then the store abruptly closed.

“It was surprise and shocking to me,” Montez said. “I feel very lost because I’ve been working my entire life, since 17, 18 years old.”

Two weeks later, the store reopened under new ownership. Non union staff stayed and some new employees were hired.

So Rozner demanded answers from the new management.

“Why people that were working here for many years, worked here through the pandemic, were recently laid off without any notice?” Rozner asked co-owner Rafael Hernandez.

“I don’t know,” Hernandez responded.

CORONAVIRUS: NY Health Dept. | NY Call 1-(888)-364-3065 | NYC Health Dept. | NYC Call 311, Text COVID to 692692 | NJ COVID-19 Info Hub | NJ Call 1-(800)-222-1222 or 211, Text NJCOVID to 898211 | CT Health Dept. | CT Call 211 | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The man who told CBS2 he’s one of four in a family of owners said he doesn’t handle employment issues. He claims the new owners are not obligated to keep anyone, and it was a business decision so they could renovate the store. Previous owner Kevin Luna alleges he told the employees the closing was coming.

“The rent went up a lot. Besides that, supermarket owners have lots of expenses,” Luna said.

Now Local 338, which represents the workers, Councilman Andy Cohen and Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz are encouraging community members to boycott the store.

“They’re supposed to keep those workers for at least 90 days,” union rep Raymond Forbs said.

“You can’t come into a community, try to make money off the community, and then do wrong by them,” Assemblyman Dinowitz added. “It’s disgusting.”

Local residents are not happy about it, either.

“That is wrong. That is wrong,” one man said.

“My kids grew up knowing them,” Riverdale resident Christine Burke added. “I don’t know the people there now. They don’t know me. There’s no history and I miss that. That’s what Riverdale was always about.”

“I would do anything to get my job back,” Montez said.

The new owners claim it’s possible after renovations finish, but the union has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board and the agency is investigating.

Department of Consumer and Worker Protection Commissioner Lorelei Salas issued the following statement:

“It is disturbing to see essential workers who we’ve depended on during this public health emergency report workplace violations. After risking their lives for months, frontline workers deserve to be treated better and not to have their livelihood taken during a pandemic. We take all complaints very seriously and will take actions if necessary. We urge workers to file complaints at nyc.gov/workers or call 311,” Salas said.

The Department of Consumer Affairs legislative team said it received a complaint from the workers and was looking into the matter. It hopes to have more details on any actions it can take by the end of the week.

“It is clear that the new leadership at the North Riverdale Key Food used the recent change in ownership to fire union workers and replace them with workers who do not have these critical protections. This is an unconscionable violation of workers’ rights anytime but especially cruel during a global pandemic. These are essential workers who have served our community during a time of need, some of whom have worked at this Key Food location for over 20 years. We have a responsibility to stand with them and all workers in demanding their jobs back,” Cohen said.

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