AMORY – Joanna Chambers has spent four years working in the retail sector and through that time, she dealt with issues like workplace harassment and unpredictable scheduling. A tipping point leading her to stick up for retail employees’ rights for the past two and a half years was when she was denied a promotion after being given what she said was a bogus reason. She said she was told policy wouldn’t allow for a promotion since she had a family member working at the same store but also said two other associates in the same positions had family members working there.
Chambers is now part of the Rise Up Retail movement, which recently fought for Toys ‘R’ Us and Babies ‘R’ Us employees denied their severance packages. The movement is comprised of retail workers putting up the fight for better hour, fair hours, paid family leave and respect. Several subgroups are part of the movement.
“Joining [workplace-based] Organized United for Respect gave me knowledge of workers’ rights when it comes to low pay, low hours, unpredictable scheduling and various forms of harassment,” Chambers said. “The real eye-opener was it wasn’t just happening at my store but stores across the nation.”
Chambers never worked at a Toys ‘R’ Us or Babies ‘R’ Us but felt sympathetic of the more than 33,000 employees who never received severance pay once promised and lost their jobs when the franchises folded last month.
As part of a recent 10-day trip, she traveled to Bentonville, Arkansas for a separate protest on behalf of Walmart associates’ wishes of how to be treated and then onto New Jersey and New York on behalf of Toys ‘R’ Us and Babies ‘R’ Us employees.
The event included 75 Toys ‘R’ Us associates from across the nation, who told personal stories through a bullhorn outside of the former company chief executive officer’s Manhattan penthouse, and participated in a march down Wall Street to the offices of investment firms that helped buy out Toys ‘R’ Us when it went into bankruptcy – Bain Capital, KKR and Vornado Realty Trust. The group also did a flash mob inside of a Toys ‘R’ Us in Union, New Jersey.
“We had a great response from associates and customers. They were all saying, ‘I guess we have to grow up. We’re no longer Toys ‘R’ Us kids,’” Chambers said.
As part of the trip, Chambers and the rest of the group met with U.S. representatives and senators, who were agreeable with the protesters’ mission. Chambers said members of Congress sent a letter to the investment groups asking for a response about leveraging the buyout. The New York Post reported last week KKR responded by saying it has been in touch with representatives of the franchise’s employees and expressed its desire to help them.
Several states have invested through KKR for pension plans.
“The state of Minnesota has put a stop to investments to KKR because of what happened with Toys ‘R’ Us, so the protests have been successful,” she said. “A class action lawsuit is pending for the associates who didn’t get severance and benefits like vacation pay.”
According to a press release through Rise Up Retail, KKR, Bain and Vornado bought Toys ‘R’ Us in 2005 through a $6.6 billion leveraged buyout and saddled the retailer with a reported $5 billion in debt. Despite bringing in $11 billion in annual revenue, Toys ‘R’ Us struggled to pay the $400 million required every year to service its debt. On March 15, Toys ‘R’ Us announced it was entering liquidation. KKR, Bain and Vornado absorbed $470 million in fees and interest payments and drove the company into bankruptcy, according to the press release.
“A lot of people assume Amazon, Walmart or eCommerce is why companies shut down, but that’s not the case,” Chambers said. “Stores were making a profit, but upper-level management shifting money caused it to close. People with the company for 20, 30 years, they have to find a new job. When a store shuts down, it’s not just people losing their jobs; it’s like losing a multitude of family members through their co-workers.”
Chambers once worked at a store that shut down locally and can relate to the same feeling.
“I know what it’s like to turn the key that one last time and to check out that one last customer,” she said.
From working in retail and being an advocate for retail workers, Chambers realizes the employment sector’s importance.
“Retail workers work for little pay and often have multiple jobs just to make a livable income. They spend time away from families during holidays working just to help provide services and goods for other families out there. Retail workers are often under appreciated and taken for granted. Without cashiers, customer service, stockers and unloaders, the items you use, eat or need everyday wouldn't be as easily available,” she said. “Every job in retail is equally important. It's also important that each role from top to bottom works together to make sure associates are successful. The happier the associates, the better the customer service and in return, the more successful the business will be.”