Councilmember Kshama Sawant hosted a public forum on July 11 with the group REI Employees for Real Change, in the City Council Chambers. REI employees told stories of personal hardship and corporate mismanagement. We are transcribing and publishing some of their statements.
When you think of the REI coop, you think: “This is a place where the staff are taken care of, like at Costco.” You think: “I want to shop there, because a coop aligns with my values.”
I work in the offices at the Seattle REI store. I have worked at REI since November 2007. Last year, I received the respected staff-nominated Anderson award. I do not yet make $15 an hour, and before the Seattle minimum wage increase, I was making just over $13.
There are things that are choices in life, and I chose to work at a job that pays less for the value it added to my family life in other ways. I have been willing to adjust my lifestyle to take on this undue burden or lifestyle tax for working this job that pays so poorly in Seattle.
However, I do receive adequate full-time hours ranging from 30 to 40 hours a week. I do typically work a set, dependable schedule of 32 hours a week. I believe all employees should have the option to access a guaranteed, set, dependable schedule with adequate hours.
I had believed REI would do a slightly better job of internally addressing the issues us employees are facing while working our jobs at the coop. I was appalled to learn of hardship experienced by employees at stores nationwide. I was sad to learn that well-respected employees had sent letters of concern to the business leaders, without results.
We employees are not getting the message that we really do matter enough to make real changes before there’s hardship experienced – by some, for prolonged amounts of time.
At my store, we lost some expert staff because they were unable to wait any longer for REI to make the changes needed. Many more of our expert staff are now planning to leave REI due to the amount of time it is taking to address these issues.
Why has REI coop neglected its duty to take care of its work force?
Due to the local rents doubling in only five years time, I suffered extreme hardship while working my job at REI, and, in January my family was homeless, with a baby.
Being unexpectedly displaced has been extremely difficult for my family. We now live in a small basement space we are renting, that’s furnished, and the majority of our belongings are in storage. My family doesn’t qualify for public assistance to receive funds for food benefits. I was oftentimes going to bed hungry, and even though I was breast-feeding my baby, I was not able to feed myself well. Sometimes, a co-worker would buy me a pastry and this would be the only food I had all day.
In January, I cancelled my expensive health benefits through work because I could no longer afford the expense, when food and shelter were a bigger concern for my family at the moment. In the beginning of May, I began treatment for severe postpartum depression. I learned the blood test had shown I was anemic and malnourished. I don’t pay for Internet, and I don’t pay for a cell phone. These are expenses I cannot afford.
We have homeless and starving staff at the REI store in Seattle. I’ve witnessed staff eating expired foods. I’ve witnessed people distressed over their food situation, many using credit cards to buy food. It’s time to do the right thing by these dedicated employees. If it’s not you who’s personally experiencing a hardship, then you’re exposed to the hardship of others. For me, being exposed to the hardship of others has been heartbreaking and disturbing, because nobody should resist the urge to speak up when injustice is being ignored. [Applause.]
Honestly, this is a long time coming, with the employees taking a stand together. As a leader in business, our REI coop can and should do a better job of assuring the employees are able to have their basic needs met. It has taken an online petition to get a company response to an issue that plagued REI for a while. While I’m happy for any response, it shouldn’t have gotten so desperate.
Taking care of employees must become a bigger priority. The risk of damaging our brand name couldn’t be worth the money saved while slowly rolling out these proposed improvements.
We, as employees, need a voice. Many of us don’t know much about unions. I’m asking REI to ramp things up a bunch! And get us where would should be as a company. If us employees decide we want a union, I want REI to make it easy for us. If Costco, Madison Market Central Coop, and PCC Natural Foods Coop can do it, I believe REI can do it, too. [Applause.]
I don’t want to think “Walmart” when I think about our coop. I want true transparency where everyone is assured they will be taken care of while working their jobs at REI. Tell REI to take a lead like Costco did for its employees.
With the popularity of #OptOutside [a corporate decision to give workers the day off on “Black Friday”], it’s obvious our customers value us employees. REI can get us there, and I’m asking you for support to assure that they do. [Applause.]
> In this video, at time index 12:04.