Employees Describe Slipping Into Homelessness While Working at REI

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.

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant lays out how the public forum will unfold. Photo by Kelsey Hamlin

“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.

Members of UFCW 21 show up to support REI workers at a public forum held at Seattle City Council Chambers July 11. Photo: Kelsey Hamlin

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.”

Tia Kennedy speaks about becoming homeless, along with her infant child,  while working at REI. Photo: Kelsey Hamlin

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

58 thoughts on “Employees Describe Slipping Into Homelessness While Working at REI”

    1. Do you have actual data for your claim? Some sort of statistics or numbers based on unbiased study or just your opinion? If you are claiming this article is some sort of proof, with all due respect, you really don’t understand economics.

      1. i was an employee there about two months ago for over two years in denver and had to leave. (there were over 20 of us that left in the last month, its just been to tough) i loved the job. loved it. but one week i would go from 40 hour to 16 the following week and at 10.75 an hour i was sinking faster than i could swim. (the hour inconsistencies happened a lot, i promise)

    2. This was a problem long before the minimum wage increase and not remotely isolated to Seattle. My sister worked for REI for years in California, at more than one location, and she saw the same thing.

    3. uh, negative Ghost Rider

      These problems have existed since the days when I used to work for REI back in 2008. Once REI corporate embraced ‘lean staffing’, our hours were all over the place, we had weird 3 hour shifts, and no one got over 32 hours except management. Pay was crap then, it appears that its still crap today.

  1. Just a note: Whenever you see a company being run in what appears to be a parasitic manner, wherein the CEO makes an extremely disproportionate salary, and employees are barely surviving, and profits are prioritized over a humanitarian work environment, it is a very good chance that you have a sociopath calling the shots. Do a bit of research into sociopathic/psychopathic behaviors in business. This appears to be very much the case here. An otherwise great business model turned into a parasitic, self serving model.

      1. Then why would he run the company like one? This is pretty unconscionable. I’ve worked more than one job where the owner was the friendliest man you could meet, but then ran his company as to maximize his profits at the expense of all else, including the welfare of his employees. Sociopaths are great at play-acting.

      2. For a company that makes billions clearly cutting corners on wages and benefits etc. is a way for top brass to make more money shame on REI corporate for your kindness to humanity. Sleeping at night must be easy for people that are greedy.

      3. Well, then what the fuck is he doing to help the situation!? He’s rich, and doesn’t give a fuck, on the backs of his employees hard work. Give me a break.

      1. pity you didn’t actually check facts.

        KIRO TV, REI website, Seattle Times and Puget Sound Business Journal all make absolutely NO mention of an alleged cost.

        The light rail station theoretically would cost $3 billion to build though.

        Yeah, I get it. You’re slanted in your writing. TOO slanted

      2. Well, that sure is some shoddy, slanted, reactionary, inaccurate reporting. Have you ever considered that reporting the news just might not be the right career for you?
        Spring District, an area in Bellevue being developed by Wright Runstad is valued around 2.3B. REI’s planned portion of that development is about 1/5. Google is your friend.

      3. I get what you’re saying and that’s fine, but we did in fact check with the REI Communications and when we got a reply about the cost question, there wouldn’t give an exact number. Either way, I think the true importance of this story (and within the comments below from others) is employees’ first hand experiences that all run pretty similar. For the sake of not letting one number in an article be debated over or become a focus, we’re just going to remove it. Either way, REI didn’t give us direct answers when we asked about it. I’ve been reporting for a while and am pretty happy with my work and how I do it. I fact-check a lot. I go directly to the source and ask. Feel free to peruse my other work. Thank you for your concern.

      1. Well, that sure is some shoddy, slanted, reactionary, inaccurate reporting. Have you ever considered that reporting the news just might not be the right career for you?

  2. You missed the implication of REI stating applications are up. That was their way of saying they could replace disgruntled employees. A veiled threat perhaps? Keep tabs on the most vocal REI employees and their fate. No doubt they will have ‘moved on’ after ‘careful’ evaluation of their ‘performance’.

    1. As a former employee nothing in this story is a shock to me. I worked for REI for 8 years and I watched as experienced passionate workers were pushed out, hours got cut to slide under having to give out benefits. Being told to my face that there were no hours as they mass hired new people.
      It started back during the last recession, a memo came out that essentially said screw the employees save the co-op.

      1. Following up on Tom K. I actually also worked for these guys in Denver back in the early to mid eighties as a salesperson. They loved me, but kept me on shy of full-time with benefits. I tried over and over again to get the full-time job but was constantly aced out by younger folks either working on their business mgmt degrees or already having them. When one of their Seattle corporate hacks came in to give us a spiel several years ago about how grateful we should be to be able to be a perpetual part-timer for them I actually took off my employee award badge and tossed it at his feet, quitting on the spot.

    2. Greetings, here in WA, as a “no fault” termination State, it is common practice to reduce an employee hours to an unsustainable level to encourage them to quit. The Employer will never disclose a reason, as that will lead to litigation over whether or not it was justified. The expense of a lawsuit is the reason for shunning employee/ manager meetings.

  3. Saying that nothing came from the Reddit post is inaccurate. Jerry was a newish CEO at the time and may or may not have known the depth of the issues staff were having with membership sales. At the start of the new year he and the board removed individual goals and replaced them with team/store goals. The reason for goals at all is b/c REI does still run as a co-op and over $160million went back to members from those profits last year along with 8.5 million to outdoor recreation areas around the country. Without members, REI would not be able to give back in those ways. I’m sad that this story is written so one sided.

    1. i was an employee there about two months ago for over two years in denver and had to leave. (there were over 20 of us that left in the last month, its just been to tough) i loved the job. loved it. but one week i would go from 40 hour to 16 the following week and at 10.75 an hour i was sinking faster than i could swim. (the hour inconsistencies happened a lot, i promise)

    2. I saw the stats on the return of money going back to members, but as I understood it, the money was returned from profits reaped, not specifically from or solely from membership dues. I didn’t say nothing came from the Reddit post, but rather speculated that these complaints are still going on and was curious to see if anything changes in the future. I report on what I cover, and those stories are pretty undeniable, tangible truths. I reached out to REI for comment, and the responses are included in here. I appreciate your read and commentary, though, and do take it into consideration.

    3. This is a fact. They are also allowing employees to approve their time everyday and double check it at the end of every pay period to ensure accurate and fair pay. Fair as in time spent for the wage they earn, not talking about livable wage although this is currently being looked at as a whole as well. Garage sales is an example of something we are trying to make more profitable to be able to help out livable wages across the country.

  4. WOW! Your coverage of REI’s employee-powered public forum on Monday was spot on. Please know that hundreds of REI employees are cheering you from the PCT to the AT >> more than you can possibly imagine. Thank you for your impeccably written and accurate account!

  5. Reblogged this on CutThePlastic and commented:
    Is this the response to $15.00 an hour minimum wage and mandatory medical benefits for employees? Maybe one sign of a coming trend. Unfortunately, this comes from a company I love the most, for what I believed to be supportive of values I hold near and dear.

  6. My understanding of the REI business model in the early 80’s as I experienced it as an employee (getting passed over in hiring by business mgmt degreed or seeking students) then was, we (REI) only want to hire store manager-caliber people that we can transfer into smaller mall-size stores to manage as they moved away from their earlier superstore models to smaller mall-size stores like EMS and North Face and Eddie Bauer. So, if they couldn’t see you as someone that could be an overall store manager rather than just as a dedicated full-timer, you were put on the back burner as a perpetual part-timer without any hope of a full-time position. I suspect that they still hold to this after reading this article.

  7. There’s a lot of holes in this article. REI’s participation in a larger campus is mentioned, and its revenue figure; neither have anything to do with cash flow or profit. “You sold $2.4B at break-even!” would hardly be an argument for increasing worker pay.

    Similarly, if wages are going up for the Seattle minimum wage requirement, why cry about a missing COLA? It’s going up substantially anyway. Unless the company is flush in profits (which would have been mentioned in this article, presumably, if it were).

    I don’t understand the paragraph about students and food-stamps. We’re talking about employees, right, not university subsidies…

    Yes, it’s a sad situation. But REI employees are far from the only people at working class wages, or suffering from having to work non-traditionally…

  8. This is easily some of the shoddiest, most-slanted, sensational/reactionary, poorly-fact checked reporting I have ever read. Ms. Hamlin, you must consider that news journalism just might not be the right career for you. Full of holes, clearly biased and rejoined by more than a few, “oops, no, sorry, wait, I meant, whoops” corrections?
    Stop what you are doing.

  9. Does REI come into people’s houses, kidnap them and make them work there like slaves. Just curious. If they’re such a bastard company to work for then find a better place to work. Cmon people !!

  10. Curious why there’s a lack of mention that this woman and her husband are both part time workers with 5 children. I would think some lifestyle choices may have led to her (their) predicament. Did REI compound her living costs? Are they responsible to cover all the decisions she makes in her personal life? If what we had here was a single woman with no children I may consider this a reasonable model for wage issues, but this situation is far from that.

  11. First off, working at REI is great. If you arent getting what you need, find a manager. If you can’t get that manager find a different one. I’m tired of people not taking a little ownership here, use those communications skills or don’t expect things to just magically be good enough.

    Secondly, this is what retail is. Hours fluctuate with sales. When the store does well, pay roll reflects that. When we’re in a slow spot, same thing. As much as REI prides itself on being an awesome place to work (and tries to pretend it isn’t retail), it still is RETAIL. If it’s not for you, keep moving until you get where you want to go.

    These problems are not with REI. They’re with our economy and our society in general. Hard work and communication gets rewarded. Things don’t just happen when you sign up for a job.

    Also, RWald has it right.

  12. I’ve been an REI member so long that my membership number is under 80,000, but I won’t be ordering a damn thing from them any more. Nope. It all went downhill when they stopped allowing members to actually nominate other members in board elections. These days, the board nominates a slate and expects members to approve them, which is total bullshit. Not a real co-op any more, just a co-opted.

  13. Three things:
    A. REI sales clerk not a skilled labour job. The position is easy to train and replace, thus low wage.
    B. REI has become the Walmart of outdoor gear. Corporate chain, imported goods, and high executive wages.
    …. annnnnnnddddd thi one is a big stinger….
    C. Companies do not OWE you anything, wages are an agreed upon settlement. If you want to see real change don’t give them your time (work for them) or money (buy from them), then see how company responds to its economic downturn…..

  14. Of all the places I thought would do employees right. I’d feel bad, but haven’t been able to find anything to buy locally in about ten years.

    In the Depp South they only sale clothes and gear for sale for short and super skinny people. Showed up with $500 bucks, and ended up with a Marine Surplus pack cause 6 foot 2inches tall is well beyond REI’s gear range.

    Shame on REI though. Shame! /Sigh Eagle Scout, and now a adult that tries to camp most of the year except June to end of August down here.