The management of Powell's Books in Portland, Ore., and the union representing bookstore workers are offering differing stories with regard to the status of rehires as the bookstore chain edges closer to normal operations.
To recap, on March 15 last year all five locations of Powell's Books closed as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold and the company laid off approximately 85% of the store's 400 employees, according to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Local 5, which has represented the employees since 1999. As the year progressed, the store hired back some staff to fulfill online orders. The chain remained largely closed to customers, but opened for limited hours starting in the summer. The chain's store at the Portland airport, as well as its Home and Garden store, were permanently shuttered.
Prompted by the one year anniversary of the closings, both Powell's management and its employee union have offered differing stories as to what has happened in the intervening period, particularly as it comes to rehiring laid off employees.
On Tuesday, Patrick Bassett, CEO of Powell's Books, published an open letter addressed to the Powell's community. In it he states, "Like many businesses, Powell’s has traveled an arduous path since the pandemic forced us to close our stores on March 15, 2020. Later that summer, as safety permitted, we were able to gradually reopen stores with limited hours. This allowed us to honor our labor contract and recall more than 170 employees who were previously laid off due to the economic impact of COVID-19."
The number of rehired employees is not in dispute by the union -- it says that approximately 135 unionized employees now work for Powell's. What is a matter of dispute is the period of time which the store was required to maintain a recall list of employees with regard to their seniority and accrued vacation time, as well as an implied promise that more employees would rehired
Bassett's letter states, "Still, in the spirit of transparency, I must acknowledge that the opportunity to bring back additional staff is not as straightforward as we’d hoped. Under the labor contract between Powell’s and ILWU Local 5 – the union that represents our employees – seniority and employment rights have expired for laid-off former employees, including any rights under the recall process."
In an email updating union members, shared with PW, the union said that they felt they had been assured otherwise. The email states, "There were several email correspondences and ultimately, based on what HR had put in writing, we were confident that there was a mutual understanding about how the recall process would occur. One specific item that was/is central to the entire situation was the question of when/if there was an end date on when the Company had to maintain the list for purposes of recall. The Local let HR know that we believed the list would be maintained until every worker had received a recall offer. HR responded to that assertion in the affirmative, that they were in agreement. It is with that mutual understanding that the Local, in good faith, has interacted with Powell’s throughout this last year, and has advised members about the choices that each of you have had to make along the way."
This is where the accounts vary further, with both store management and the union saying that they have both been operating in good faith and the other side has not responded to reasonable overtures.
Bassett claims that store management is merely complying with the legal terms of their contract with the union. "Powell’s has adhered to the labor contract at all times and fulfilled our commitments as described in the collective bargaining agreement, including maintaining employee benefits and wage increases during the pandemic without requesting mid-contract relief from the Union. We are proud of this work and our commitment to our employees," he said.
Bassett continued: "Any former Powell’s employees whose seniority and employment were lost under the labor contract remain eligible to apply for new positions. Our hope is that many will express interest in these opportunities and secure reemployment with the company. It is also our goal that when former employees are hired for the same or a similar position that they held before, we will return them at their previous wage."
The union says that this change was news to them: "We were notified by HR that the Company had 'revisited' Article 9 (regarding recall rights) and that they now believe they are allowed to purge anyone from the recall list who has not worked during the last 12 months. Needless to say, the Union is shocked at this radical abandonment of our previously mutually agreed upon recall process." The email then goes on to say that the union is looking at options for legal recourse, including a possible class action."
Powell's said it reached out twice to the union, and had planned to extend the length of the recall list by six months. "Powell’s has reached out to the Union on two occasions to find solutions that go above and beyond the labor contract, without success," Patrick Bassett wrote. "Our most recent proposal would have temporarily extended former employees’ access to the recall process for a period of six months as well as reinstate their previous paid time-off accrual rate, which would be significant to our longer-term former employees."
The union did not mention how many times they had been in communication with the bookstore prior to this week, but was continuing to keep up a dialog. "We expect Powell’s will most likely maintain its new interpretation and refuse to honor the recall list until all workers have been provided with a recall offer," said the union in its letter to members. "In hopes of trying to reach a settlement that preserves your right to recall, we will be meeting with the Company again next week to try and find common ground and amicable resolution with them. Based on what we have heard, it is unlikely they will accept seniority as part of that conversation but we remain open to these discussions as reducing further trauma to the membership (who has already suffered so much over the last year) is our number one priority."
The backlash from former employees been swift. One former employee who spoke on background said that many former employees feel betrayed by the company and have expressed themselves in a private Facebook group. "Considering the extraordinary circumstances of the past year, you would have thought management would have expressed some remorse." They noted that in their department which normally employed 50 people, just 10 to 15 have been recalled. The former employee added that booksellers in particular are aggrieved, as they feel they were the people most responsible for helping develop the store's reputation as a great place to shop.
"Instead of sending a message of reassurance and hope to a group of people who dedicated years of their lives -- some of them decades -- to making Powell's what it is, all they got in return was scorched earth. A lot of us have come to think that management saw the pandemic as an opportunity to clean house."