A group calling itself REI Employees for Real Change has organized a forum with Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and several union representatives to air their complaints about insufficient work hours, unpredictable schedules, and inadequate wage increases.
REI enjoys a solid reputation as a huge consumer-owned co-op that cares about its customers, community and the outdoors. And its business acumen resulted in record sales and a record amount given back to its members last year.
But some REI employees say such care and good fortune have not extended to them. They complain of insufficient work hours, unpredictable schedules, and wages that haven’t gone up commensurate with their tenure at the company. There’s even some talk of unionizing.
A group of those workers, calling themselves REI Employees for Real Change, along with Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, have organized a forum at City Hall Monday at which several REI workers are expected to speak.
Also there will be representatives from the King County Labor Council and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) 21, the state’s largest private-sector union with more than 46,000 members.
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Joe Earleywine, organizing director for UFCW 21, said REI workers “reached out to us with concerns about wages and hours and working conditions. We’re going to do whatever we can to support them in making changes and making sure they have a voice in decisions that affect them at work.”
Whether the employees will push to unionize “will be up to the workers to decide,” he said. “We have to figure out the next steps together.”
The Seattle City Council is working on a so-called “secure scheduling” law that could address issues such as unpredictable schedules and lack of work hours.
Collin Pointon, a sales clerk at REI’s Seattle flagship store, says he hopes REI can institute more consistent schedules for employees, with more hours for those who want them.
Pointon, who’s worked for REI a little over two years, said that for many months, he didn’t have trouble getting the number of hours he wanted: roughly 24 a week. (A minimum of 20 hours a week qualifies REI workers for benefits.)
But since about January, he’s been assigned an average of about 15 hours a week, Pointon said.
He’s been finding an extra five hours a week from other employees who work multiple jobs and are willing to give up some hours to help a co-worker keep above the minimum threshold needed for benefits.
“It makes things really difficult, even in terms of budgeting,” he said. “Can I make rent this month? I don’t know. Because I could be scheduled for a dozen hours.”
He says he was given raises each year, and then a jump again in January this year when Seattle’ minimum wage law mandated that he be paid at least $13 an hour. His wage jumped from $11.43 to $13.20.
But he says that means he’s being paid only 20 cents more an hour than a new hire.
Pointon also wonders if the number of hours he was allotted went down as the minimum wage went up.
REI denies that, saying: “We did not adjust hours because of the change in minimum wage.”
The co-op, in response to questions about the upcoming forum, said it recently discussed these issues with its Seattle employees.
“We are aware of the conversation that Councilmember Sawant is attempting to create,” it said in a statement. “As a co-op, we welcome open, constructive dialogue with our employees. In this instance, however, the full picture is not being properly represented.
“Today REI offers both part-time and full-time retail staff one of the best combinations of pay and benefits in the industry,” the statement continues. “We look hard at what we can do within our financial realities of retail business. We give back 72 percent of our profits to our employees, members and nonprofits. Last year, we gave $70 million to employees in retirement and incentive pay.
“Last month, our CEO shared with employees that we plan to make select, targeted investments in pay this year and our employees will learn more this summer,” the statement also says. “He also shared that we are working to advance our scheduling practices to allow for increased predictability and maintain the flexibility our employees value.”
REI has more than 12,000 employees nationwide.
Some petition signers told similar tales of lack of enough hours or pay, though it’s impossible to verify if they work at REI since signers don’t give their full names.
“After nearly 7 years with the company and currently full 7-day availability most weeks I am only getting hours in the 20’s,” one signer wrote. “I’m living in a friend’s garage for the summer because I can’t afford Seattle rent.”
Another wrote: “I worked at REI for 2 years. It was the best job I’ve ever had, but I can’t afford to work there anymore.”
In May, a longtime worker spoke up during the co-op’s annual members’ meeting, saying he and some other co-workers didn’t get a pay raise in the last year, despite REI’s record year, and that his retirement had not been fully funded for the last few years.
“Can we get the signal that we matter too?” he asked CEO Jerry Stritzke.
The co-op reported sales last year of $2.4 billion, up 9 percent from $2.2. billion in 2014. Net income, though, was down 20 percent from the year before, at $35.4 million.
Strizke replied to the employee that he cared deeply about sales associates, calling them “our most important asset.”
He said the co-op had determined that raising the average salary of employees to $15 an hour would cost the co-op $30 million — about what it made in profit last year.
“We can’t operate in the red,” he said. “We can’t put the viability of this 77-year-old co-op at risk.”
But, Stritzke added: “This is something we’re working on. I do want to get there. … It requires we become better operators than we are today.”