Ben’s Deli: A Case Of Unjustified Condemnation

Headlines blared in the days following the February 16 “Day Without Immigrants” protest. News reports condemned companies that fired their workers because they had joined the national protest, which was designed to convey the importance of immigrants in American life.

Dozens fired after ‘A Day Without Immigrants’ protest,” UPI reported the next day, levying charges against employers who, in the aftermath of the strike, had fired over 100 people across the United States. They included Bradley Coatings Inc. in Tennessee, a South Carolina boat manufacturing company, a Florida day care facility, an Oklahoma restaurant (the perhaps aptly-named ‘I Don’t Care Bar and Grill’), JVS Masonry of Denver, and Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen Restaurant & Caterers in Long Island.

“25 employees were fired on Friday when they returned to work,” UPI reported. “Many of the employees were undocumented immigrants who worked there for years. Police escorted the former employees out of the facility.”

The story originally ran in Telemundo 47 and was subsequently picked up by other outlets. Posts, shares, and retweets began.

The trouble is, it wasn’t true.

Ronnie Dragoon, the CEO and Founder of Ben’s Restaurant Group, Inc., quickly responded to the media allegations with a statement of clarification posted to its website.

“In anticipation of ‘A Day Without Immigrants,’ Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen Restaurant & Caterers posted a formal statement to its Greenvale employees on Wed., Feb. 15, expressing support for their human rights and requesting that they fill their shift as scheduled on Thursday, February 16,” it read.

“While some employees opted to participate in the walkout, several others chose to work and, as a result, the leaders of the protest put pressure on the others to walk out, [one] even threatening physical harm to colleagues choosing to work their shifts.”

The statement concluded: “As it is Ben’s mission to provide a safe and welcoming work environment for all employees, company owner Ronnie Dragoon found this to be a cause for immediate dismissal of the employees who made the threats.”

As of the release, of the 21 employees who participated in the “Day Without Immigrants,” eight employees had returned to work. More have since returned. All sing Dragoon’s praises.

NBC, CNN and major outlets including the Forwardhave since examined what went wrong. “Statements and reports that Ben’s fired up to 25 employees are false,” proclaimed Long Island Business News on Feb. 20.

It is easy to empathize with Dragoon. In a personalized response to me, Dragoon emphasized that he had terminated only three workers who threatened other workers with bodily harm. “And those who chose to work also exercised their right to work,” said Dragoon.

“I am a progressive Jew, and I have supported all causes that help and address the needs of those who are the weakest among us,” he continued. “To find me guilty without at least asking the other side of the story is not due diligence.”

“I just left the Board of Directors of the Interfaith Nutrition Network (and a stint as Secretary),” Dragoon continued, “which provides to 18 soup kitchens on Long Island, and has emergency housing [as well]. “There isn’t a charity on Long Island…[to which] I refuse help.”

Dragoon explained that once workers realized that they hadn’t been fired, they returned, and that he hoped all the others would.

Dragoon said just one of his seven locations was affected. He supplied names of several Hispanic workers and the Greenvale store’s phone number, stating that the Assistant General Manager would put them on the phone and then leave the room, to ensure their privacy.

One server, whose name remains anonymous for his protection, said that he had decided not to participate, although he supported those who did. “I’ve worked for Ronnie for 17 years,” he said, explaining that not only was he loyal to his employer, but that he had a family. “My children were born here,” he explained. “They don’t know another country.” He does fear for his family’s future, should there be deportations in the current climate. “They don’t want to do immigration reform,” he said. “We do nothing wrong; we just work.”

Another server did strike, and returned. “I’ve worked here for 12 years,” he said. “Ronnie is a nice person,” he added. Asked if he feels any solidarity with Jews due to the shared history of immigration and persecution, he agreed. “I have read about the history of the Jews,” he said. “And I know he’s on our side. He is a Democrat, which I appreciate.” He also corroborated that a striker had told a coworker that he would be in trouble if he didn’t strike.

“Two of the three workers who were terminated were temps who were going back to landscaping in a few weeks, and I thought it foolish to have them work for two weeks and leave,” explained Dragoon. “The other is the one who threatened bodily harm to two workers who chose to come to work.” A letter was included in all of the striking workers’ pay checks stating that their jobs were open until March 1, asking them to make their decision by then so the restaurant could move on with building a crew. “A ninth worker has since decided to return,” Dragoon said, noting that Telemundo erroneously stated that he had quit in support of the others.

Dragoon enclosed an interchange with a New York based attorney, a Mr. Prince. “As an American, a New Yorker, and a Jew, I find it horrific that you fired workers who chose a single day to speak up in defense of themselves. KEEP THE BOOT ON THE THROAT…JUST LIKE THE NAZIS,” the attorney wrote.

“I must say that as a lawyer and a Jew, I would think you would listen to the other side before making pronouncements and judging one guilty,” Dragoon responded. “Even totalitarian regimes, as noxious as they might be, allow the other side to be heard.”

Dragoon said the original Telemundo report was incorrect. “There were not 25 workers involved, as reported. Maybe there were about 18 workers involved (two were off that day), and only three were terminated. Two of the workers were temporary workers who were going back to landscaping in about two weeks, and one worker I terminated, as he had threatened bodily harm (broken legs) to two workers who chose to come to work, and made a death threat to the General Manager, Luis Flores.”

In fact, Dragoon explained, five workers who already were working for four hours walked off the job. “I implored them to stay and continue working, but they chose to quit.”

Dragoon said that one worker in the Telemundo report, who was fired, told the reporter that they were all fired, which was untrue, and another worker, in the next sentence, was erroneously quoted as saying he had quit in support of the protest.

But in fact, in their last paychecks, all workers, except the three in question, were invited back to work if they would let them know by March 1.

“Regardless of your politics, counselor,” Dragoon responded, “I am a life-long progressive, and in my 68 years on this earth, I bleed progressivism.”

Dragoon said he offers a very robust and progressive benefits package to his workers that includes eight holidays, up to 6 sick days, a 50% 401K match, a company paid life insurance policy, a medical contribution of 30-35% (for the last twenty years, he added, long before the Affordable Care Act), as well as bereavement pay, jury duty pay, and two to four weeks’ vacation, depending on length of service.

“This is not a policy that looks to hurt workers, Mr. Prince. You might want to direct some of your anger towards another fellow New Yorker, Donald Trump, who has fomented much of the anger and anxiety amongst the immigrant population and others,” Dragoon wrote, as he thanked Prince for expressing his opinion. “It’s called engagement, and it is a positive,” he said.

Prince must feel as sheepish as many others for the hasty condemnation of Dragoon, and Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen Restaurant Group.

The question then remains about potential abuse of power on the internet, which can spread both calls for worthy action but also, in cases such as this, misinformation that can unjustifiably harm well-meaning recipients of hasty condemnation. Not to sound like a Kellyanne Conway here, but maybe it’s time for a hot knish and a handshake at Greenvale, or another of Ben’s locations.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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Ben’s Deli: A Case Of Unjustified Condemnation

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