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Like the dismantling of a former Piggly Wiggly supermarket store in West Ashley earlier this year, the company's fortunes crumbled earlier this decade, leaving former employees to sue to try get some of their retirement benefits. Those payouts, expected in the fall, won't be made now until after the new year. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

For thousands of former Piggly Wiggly Carolina workers anticipating a portion of the $8.7 million payout settlement from a lawsuit, the checks are not in the mail and they won't be by Christmas.

After a hearing in August when the judge signed off on the deal, an attorney for the plaintiffs said he expected up to 6,600 former employees to begin receiving checks by mid-fall.

That didn't happen.

"The logistics of making the distributions take time, and we are dutifully working with the plan administrator on that process," said attorney Tally Parham Casey with Wyche Law Firm in Columbia, which handled the case for the former employees. "It is taking longer than we initially expected at the hearing in August. We anticipate distributions occurring in the first quarter of 2019.

A judge's ruling in August, which he called "an imperfect remedy" but ruled it "fair and adequate and reasonable," ended a bitter two-year legal battle over lost retirement benefits for thousands of former workers of the collapsed Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co.

Only the payouts remained.

The disbursements will be based on each employee's losses. About one-third of the settlement will pay for the plaintiffs’ legal fees, leaving the average payout per employee at less than $1,000.

For former employees such as Lewis Hargrove, not only is the expected payout a disappointment, but not getting it before Christmas is not good news either.

"I don't think that's right, but what can I do," said the retired stocker, who worked at Piggly Wiggly on Otranto Road in North Charleston for nearly 20 years and lost about $11,000 or so in retirement benefits.

Hargrove wasn't expecting a windfall, but said every little bit helps.

"I'm disappointed," the 66-year-old said. "I thought it would have been before Christmas. I have bills to pay, too."

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Founded in 1947 by Joseph T. Newton Jr., Piggly Wiggly Carolina became the largest franchiser of Piggly Wiggly stores in the nation, with more than 100 spread across the Carolinas and Georgia.

Over time, the Newton family sold ownership shares to an employee-stock ownership plan, or ESOP, gaining millions in the process. For their part, employees accumulated money that they could cash out when they retired. Over and over, the company officials urged employees to work harder because they now “owned a share.”

But Piggly Wiggly’s fortunes unraveled in the mid-2000s as the company’s second-generation managers turned over the reins to the third. Employees watched their stock-ownership accounts, similar to pensions, dry up as the chain shuttered one store after another or sold them off.

Company leaders blamed competition from Walmart, Target and other chains. But the lawsuit painted a portrait of greed and betrayal — of company executives who took hefty bonuses as the company wound down and siphoned money in other ways.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 843-937-5524. Follow him on Twitter @warrenlancewise.