Why do Hechinger employees stay?

They keep to their cash registers even when Home Depot, offering better salaries and job security, tries to recruit them.

They stay on even as customers, frustrated at the lack of merchandise, yell at them on the sales floor.

Now, Hechinger Co. of Largo is in bankruptcy court and closing another round of stores across the nation, including outlets in Temple Hills and Gaithersburg. If workers stay until the stores are closed by this fall, Hechinger has promised, they'll get half of the vacation pay due to them. If employees quit now, Hechinger will pay off none of that vacation time.

On a recent evening, Chris Blount and seven other workers from the soon-to-be-shuttered store in Temple Hills gathered at the nearby Hot Shoppes. Sipping sodas, they tried to explain their feelings about the once-thriving retailer.

"Me personally, I was dedicated," said Blount, a Hechinger supervisor who lives in District Heights. "This store is the only place I felt at home. I love the people here."

Blount hasn't changed his mind about the store -- just the company's management. A week ago, he was among a small group of employees from the Temple Hills store who met with a lawyer in Calverton. They asked attorney Robert Troll whether they were being treated fairly. They wanted to know whether they could be fully reimbursed for their vacation pay, though Hechinger plans to pay them only half that amount.

"I think they actually exhibited some loyalty to the company," said Troll, who met the workers on a consulting basis. "But they want to make sure they get everything they're entitled to, which I think every employee wants."

Employees at the Temple Hills store started to question Hechinger's intentions after learning about the treatment of their colleagues in the Midwest. In an earlier round of store closings, the retailer promised severance packages and full vacation pay to thousands of workers at 34 stores, mainly its Builders Square outlets. In return, the employees agreed to work through the liquidation sales.

After its bankruptcy filing last month, Hechinger said a bankruptcy judge would not allow full payments. Workers in Ohio have hired two law firms. In Illinois, state officials have intervened.

Locally, the Hechinger store in Gaithersburg is scheduled to be closed by this fall, but there have been few public complaints from its employees.

Blount speculated that the Montgomery County store employs more high-school and college kids who don't count on those jobs to make ends meet. Many of the employees at the Temple Hills, on the other hand, store work full time and support their own families.

In the '80s, Hechinger was a much more paternalistic company. Like Giant Food Inc., Hechinger commanded respect but also treated its employees with compassion, employees said.

Hechinger stores, which faced little competition at the time, were well stocked with ladders, drills and wood. The Hechinger family was intensely involved in the stores' operations.

"They used to send flowers if a family member died," recalled Arcine Poole, a 10-year Hechinger employee.

In many cases, the cashiers, supervisors and store managers became friends. So even when the giants of the home improvement industry -- Home Depot and Lowe's -- came calling with job offers, employees said they turned them down.

"The extra money didn't matter," said a longtime employee who asked not to be identified.

What Hechinger employees feel isn't unique. Their reluctance to leave may be in part due to the trauma of looking for a new job, said David R. Kuney, a local bankruptcy lawyer. And despite all the attention on job-jumping these days, particularly in the high-tech and retail sectors, many people simply are attached to their companies, he said.

"I do think people develop institutional loyalty," Kuney said.

But Hechinger gradually became a less satisfying place to work for many employees. By 1990, the funeral flowers were taken away, Poole said. When Home Depot and Lowe's moved into Hechinger's markets, the crowds of shoppers thinned and Hechinger's sales dropped. Then came the inventory problems. No matter what consumers looked for at Hechinger, it seemed to be out of stock: the lawn mower part, the elbow joint for a sink pipe, the window shutters in the needed size.

In their frustration, customers snapped at workers. Even loyal customers and home-improvement contractors said they would have to shop at Home Depot or Lowe's.

According to employees, Mike Weaver, the manager of the Temple Hills store, held a storewide meeting last month. He told them the store would be closed but asked them to stay through the liquidation sales.

Weaver promised that the company would help workers find jobs at other Hechinger stores or with other companies. Then, said Blount, the manager and several other high-ranking employees at the store left for Hechinger's Reston store.

"He said that he did not want us to leave him. He was almost in tears," Blount said. "And he left. He was the reason we stayed to help. He promised to help us find jobs."

Reached at the Reston store last week, Weaver said the store closing and its effect on the employees have been hard to watch. "You hate for anyone to be out of a job," he said.

As for the promises, he said, they came from Hechinger -- not him. Like his employees, he wasn't guaranteed a job. He said he was only a manager-in-training at the Reston store.

On Friday, he left the company.

CAPTION: As money woes have mounted at Hechinger, the company has closed dozens of stores nationwide -- including this one in Marlow Heights, shown last October.