Just four months ago, Hechinger Co. promised severance packages and vacation pay to thousands of employees at 34 stores the chain was closing. In return, workers would not leave for other jobs, instead agreeing to work through the liquidation sales.
But Hechinger won't be paying up any time soon.
The home-improvement chain, based in Largo, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this month and explained that it is now "legally prohibited from making the severance and . . . vacation payments." Those employees, the company said in a statement , will have to line up behind creditors including toolmaker Black & Decker Corp. and General Electric Co.
Hechinger's decision affects between 2,000 and 3,000 employees, mainly at the retailer's Builders Square outlets in the Midwest. The closing list, which was announced in February, also includes a Hechinger in Glen Burnie.
Because Hechinger officials wanted employees to stick around to help close the stores, they offered incentives and promised to make good on vacation pay.
Employees would receive a week's salary for every year of service up to 13 years. All vacation time owed would be cashed out, a relief to many longtime employees who put off their vacations during Builders Square's and Hechinger's troubles.
Several workers say Hechinger officials never told them they had changed their minds. Instead, the news, in the form of rumors, traveled from Hechinger's headquarters in Largo to store managers and then to rank-and-file cashiers and stockers.
Builders Square and Hechinger employees say they are infuriated, adding that corporate officials took advantage of them. Workers in Ohio, where nine stores recently closed, have hired two law firms who are trying to gather more employees' names and are considering a class-action lawsuit, among other unspecified options. In Illinois, where 16 stores were shut down, state regulators have intervened.
In anger, employees have fired off letters to newspapers and radio stations. They reportedly have walked out of stores. Others have simply wept.
At the Builders Square store in Rocky River, Ohio, a longtime employee began to cry on the sales floor after hearing that the rumors that had swept through the stores were true.
"She was crying and shaking," said Tom Kilroy, an assistant manager at the Ohio store, which is now being liquidated. "I didn't know what to say. It was like I couldn't handle it."
Kilroy estimates he lost $18,000 in severance and vacation pay. He would have lost more money, he said, if he had booked his dream vacation to Ireland. Like other employees, he also will lose his health insurance coverage sooner than expected.
In response to worker complaints, the Illinois Department of Labor has begun to look into Hechinger's actions and is now collecting workers' wage claim forms. Earlier this month, Hechinger bounced checks to employees, but the retailer quickly solved the problem, said Suzanne Davis, a division manager for the state agency.
Many employees missed chances for new jobs in order to receive the Hechinger incentives, said Bob Gary, an Ohio attorney representing Hechinger employees.
"We are optimistic in holding them to their agreements," Gary said.
Hechinger did not make the same promises to workers when it announced plans to close 89 more stores, including the Hechinger in Temple Hills and Gaithersburg. It's unclear if workers will receive all vacation pay due them.
At the Hechinger store in Gaithersburg, an employee who asked not to be named said he was told that he'll receive half of his vacation pay if he stays until August, when the store closes. But that, he said, doesn't bother him.
"I'm just going to look for a new job," he said wearily.