A surge in online sales at Powell's Books, which comprises five bookstores in Portland, Ore., has allowed the bookseller to rehire some of the more than 340 staff it had laid off earlier this month. (Those layoffs represented 85% of the company's staff, according to International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Local 5, which has represented the store's employees since 1999.) In a letter from CEO Emily Powell posted to the bookstore website and social media last Friday, Powell's said that more than 100 people are now working at the company; of these, 49 are union employees that were rehired, ILWU confirmed, with the remaining staff representing management.
"Your kind words, messages of encouragement, ideas for perseverance and orders for books have taken our breath away," Powell wrote. "We now have more than 100 folks working at Powell's again—all full time with benefits. Most importantly, we're working hard to keep everyone safe and healthy."
Powell added that the store has "made an internal commitment to only pay for expenses that keep folks employed, and the lights on, for the time being," but noted: "we can't do that forever—we love our vendors and business partners, and want to support them as well. Right now, however, our focus is on keeping Powell’s moving, keeping our community healthy, taking care of our wonderful customers and having as many folks working with health insurance as our sales can support."
The letter continued: "We don’t know what the future holds—none of us does. We’re going to keep the doors to Powells.com open as long as we can, and we will open the doors to all of our stores as soon as it is safe to do so. In the meantime, we are eternally grateful for your support. We love nothing more than connecting readers and writers, and sending books out the door to their new homes. Your orders allow us to keep working and keep our team of incredible booksellers employed."
Powell added that, should customers wish to offer additional support, they can donate to to the Oregon Community Foundation COVID-19 Fund, to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, or to the ILWU Local 5, which established a worker relief fund when the layoffs were first announced.
On Sunday, Myka Dubay, ILWU Local 5 union representative, issued a press release that accused Powell of misleading the public. "While frontline booksellers, shelvers, and shippers remain on layoff status, Powell’s has trumpeted the fact that 'over 100 workers' have been brought back to work," the union said in the release. "In fact, to date, only 49 frontline bookstore workers have been recalled to their former positions. The other 51+ are management staff, doing frontline bookseller, shelver, and shipping work, instead of the union workers who were trained to do this work and did that work everyday."
The union went on to express dismay at how the situation has been handled. "While we understand the difficult nature of the situation COVID-19 has created in our society, we remain incredibly disappointed in how Powell’s has dealt with this situation and treated workers," the statement read. "Local 5 explicitly denounces the misleading statements made by Emily Powell with regards to her statement on 03/27/2020 of bringing back 'over 100 workers.' These distinctions are important. We cannot stand by while Powell’s misleads the public and so issue the above public statement to correct the record."
Dubay told PW that the union has raised over $20,000, and that it has an internal application process to assist workers who apply for funds. That process is run by ILWU Local 5 trustees, who oversee all financial operations of the Local. Dubay added: "We have been blown away and are exceedingly grateful for the support and solidarity the community has shown the workers of Local 5 who were laid off and found themselves facing financial crisis."
PW reached Emily Powell late on Sunday, but she was unable to comment at the time.