About a half dozen REI workers told their stories of low wages and erratic hours working for the locally based outdoor-gear co-op at the Monday forum.
At a forum at Seattle City Hall Monday organized by Councilmember Kshama Sawant and a group of REI employees, about a half dozen REI workers told their stories of low wages and erratic hours working for the locally based outdoor-gear co-op.
Dozens of supporters attended and representatives from the M.L. King County Labor Council and unit 21 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW21) also gave statements of support.
In a letter to REI management, distributed for signatures at the forum, the employees and their supporters said they are seeking cost-of-living wage increases in addition to the increases specified by Seattle’s minimum wage law; access to full-time hours for part-time workers before new workers are hired; and, if a majority of workers sign union cards, REI’s agreement to recognize that union.
Some of the workers talked about being homeless while working at REI.
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Tia Kennedy, who said she works in the office of the Seattle flagship store, said she was making about $13 an hour until recently.
She has a dependable schedule of 30 to 40 hours a week, but when her rent doubled in January, her family became homeless, she said.
Though she was breast-feeding a baby, she sometimes could not afford to feed herself well, Kennedy said. And she said she canceled the health care she gets through work because “food and shelter are more important for my family.” Her family now lives in a small basement space that they’re renting.
“We have homeless and starving staff working at the REI store in Seattle,” she said.
According to REI Employees for Real Change, the group that organized the forum, the Seattle store posted a memo to employees outlining the potential consequences of signing union cards.
“REI management is not anti-union,” the memo says. “We just don’t need one at REI.”
A spokesperson confirmed the memo came from the co-op.
The memo also says REI plans to make “significant investments in base pay” with the first wave, in August, targeting stores in cities where the cost of living has been going up the fastest.
In October, the co-op will announce changes to its scheduling practices, with the goal of improving the consistency and predictability of hours for workers.
By the end of the year, the memo says, management will share its plans about pay to the rest of the hourly employees.
In a blog post attached to the memo, CEO Jerry Stritzke said REI would comply with laws in cities that require a $15 minimum wage but that the co-op as a whole, nationwide, would not be moving to $15.
Stritzke had said at the company’s annual members meeting in May 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.
REI has more than 12,000 employees nationwide.
“Continuing to invest in our amazing inspired guides is right up there on the list of things we aspire to do, but to ensure the long-term viability of the co-op, we have to manage our finances without putting our business into debt,” he wrote in his blog post.
REI provides health care, retirement and paid time off benefits to employees who work an average of 20 hours a week, Stritzke said in his blog post. On average, across the co-op as a whole nationwide, part-time employees earn $11.50 an hour and full-time workers earn $14.50.
“I believe, after years in this industry, that it would be very hard to find another retail employer in our sector with our values that offers this combination,” he wrote.
He also said in his blog post that management recognizes “the reality that you can’t live comfortably on a part-time hourly retail wage alone. We want to do more for our people where we can.”