by Kelsey Hamlin
(Updated 7/16/16 3:59pm)
REI is known as a place of good-heartedness and quality, so it might come as a shock to hear that many of its employees are either on food stamps, working multiple jobs, or both.
When it comes down to it, REI may have bucked their principles as a co-op for a large corporate trend: Expansion at the expense of its workers. This came to light at a public forum for REI workplace rights yesterday evening, hosted by Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant.
“I like what REI could be, would be, if the reality matched the rhetoric,” said employee Ingrid Johnson. Instead, she said, the culture at the company’s headquarters is elitist and takes the form of an oligarchy.
Many at the forum raised issues of inconsistent working schedules, and the inability to reach enough working hours to sustain themselves, let alone on an insufficient hourly wage.
Tia Kennedy’s story indeed exemplified what travesties can befall an individual and their family when the job you love fails to provide adequate compensation.
“In January, my family was homeless with a baby,” Kennedy said. “I was oftentimes going to bed hungry and even though I was breastfeeding my baby, I wasn’t able to feed myself well. Sometimes a coworker would buy me a pastry, but that was all I would eat all day.”
Kennedy said she and her family were unexpectedly displaced, and they currently cannot afford cell phones or an internet connection.
Several REI workers at yesterday’s forum spoke of qualifying for and being on food stamps. However, for some, meeting the qualifications for food stamps is difficult even if they’re homeless.
Ash Crew has worked at Seattle’s REI since 2012. She said students are required to work 20 hours a week in order to receive food stamps in Seattle. But it’s impossible for her to work that many hours at REI no matter how hard she tries.
Crew also said she’s been chronically homeless, living in her car for over a year while attending school and working a second job. She was forced to cash out her vacation time at REI in order to survive.
“What REI does is keep many of their students teetering on poverty,” she said.
Crew’s hours were inexplicably cut, like so many others’, and she was explicitly told it wasn’t due to her job performance. She also said she rarely saw her manager, and even though she kept reaching out, the manager made no efforts to see her. At one point, Crew even tracked down her manager to ask to speak with the person before the end of the work day. This did little, however, as Crew’s manager left without talking to her.
“They avoided contact with me,” Crew said. “If I ever wanted to make a liveable wage, I would need to become a manager or leave REI.”
The group passed around a petition that demanded REI agree to allow their current workers access to full-time hours before any new part-time workers are hired; to allow the right for workers to unionize if enough of them sign union cards; to give all workers cost-of-living wages while also adhering to Seattle’s mandated minimum wage increases.
One REI worker in Seattle discussed how, due to the Seattle pay increase, REI told him they wouldn’t be giving him the already-agreed-upon company wage increase for next year. Shocking to hear from a co-op hailed as a Pacific Northwest icon. The company was founded in Seattle in 1938.
“I have no doubt in my mind that we should be standing with them,” Sawant said. Also present in support at the forum were Socialist Alternative, UFCW 21, and others.
Just last year, REI posted record revenue of $2.4 billion, with co-op membership expanding by at least one million. REI CEO and President, Jerry Stritzke, earns over $3.5 million a year.
“It’s REI’s leadership and corporate practices that I find abominable,” said ‘Alpine’ Anderson, a woman who is spearheading the movement and said she faced some pretty extreme REI practices in Portland, OR that would be considered illegal in the city of Seattle. “Sorry, Jerry, but that’s the truth.”
Another speaker, Daniel Robinson, discussed how his hours were slashed from 40 hours a week to 24 hours without explanation.
“This public forum is not the first REI has heard of our concerns,” Robinson said. “I have been met with responses of complete ignorance of what it truly means to live on $20k per year salary with a wildly fluctuating schedule.”
He urged customers and members of REI to write to the board of directors if they’re appalled by what’s happening. There is also an online petition.
Speakers also discussed chronic understaffing, product shortfalls, and inaccurate product descriptions. Letters of concern have reportedly been sent to the bigwigs of REI but with zero results.
After reaching out to the co-op for comment on the issues raised at the forum an email came back from Mike Ferris of REI Communications and Public Affairs. It began by saying “We are aware of the conversation that Councilmember Sawant is attempting to create.” It also laid claim to welcoming open, constructive dialogue with employees — but, as far as that goes, the dialogue appears pretty one-way.
“[T]he full picture is not being properly represented,” read Ferris’ email. It goes on to explain that it offers both part-time and full-time jobs with “one of the best combinations of pay and benefits in the industry.” Debatable.
That being said, there is apparently some action afoot, according to his email: “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. He also shared that we are working to advance our scheduling practices to allow for increased predictability and maintain the flexibility our employees value. We hosted a dialogue with our team in Seattle recently on the topic to gather their input. We believe that it’s best to focus on successfully rolling out this work.”
An increase in applicants was also mentioned in the email, although that seems utterly irrelevant. Just because applications are up doesn’t mean retention is, the quality of a job is disconnected from the amount of applications it receives, especially in current times that see a large portion of the American working class struggling to survive, living paycheck-by-paycheck.
Ferris also mentioned being on the Fortune Magazine’s 100 list — oh, so that definitely deserves a pat on the back. REI was even featured as one of the top 100 Best Workplaces for Millennials! As a millennial, I can personally tell you how completely and utterly unimportant that is.
Despite such deflective responses, the complaints raised by those at the forum were not just limited to Seattle. One speaker, Edward Peters, came all the way from North Carolina.
“These are co-op wide issues, they are not isolated to any particular store,” Peters said. “A single employee is earning millions of dollars; meanwhile my coworkers are going homeless. We must continue to organize in the face of retaliation.”
It was argued broadly that the mobilization of REI’s workforce is a fight that reverberates with workers everywhere. Fighting the good fight is for every other worker out there, workers before the fight, and workers after.
“Most of my coworkers and I pride ourselves in having a certain toughness,” another speaker, William Bass said. “We don’t need much to live on, we really don’t. But yet, at the same time, we need enough to live in 21st century America.”
Back in November, CEO Stritzke willingly answered an ‘Ask Me Anything’ discussion on reddit where a user named “annonemp” commented, “I had my hours cut from 30 hours a week to less than 10 because I did not sell enough memberships.”
Stritzke replied the next day with the following: “The truth is that we should have been doing a better job sharing what makes the co-op special. We should have a “pull” model [people want to join because they believe in our mission and they love the experience], not a “push” model when it comes to the co-op…I feel like your story represents a measure of individual performance taken to an extreme…”
But to what extent will REI’s Stritzke be seeking to stop incidences like this from happening? So far, it appears those incidences haven’t stopped since that nine-month-old conversation.
“Leaders, we deliver day in and day out,” said Robinson at the public forum. “It’s your turn.”
Note: This article has been updated to remove a reference to a $2.3billion complex REI plans to move into.
Kelsey Hamlin is an intern with South Seattle Emerald this summer, and has worked with various Seattle publications. Currently, Hamlin is the President of the UW Chapter’s Society of Professional Journalists, and will be starting an internship with KCTS 9 in July. She finished an internship with The Seattle Times in March as an Olympia legislative reporter, and is a journalism major at the University of Washington, planning to double-major in Law, Societies & Justice (currently her minor). See her other work here, or find her on twitter @ItsKelseyHamlin.
Featured image is a creative commons licensed photo courtesy of Steve Cry/Flickr