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Toys R Us workers are training Sears workers to fight for severance

Onie Patrick, left, talks with Michelle Perez, second from right, and Gabe Maguire, right, about fighting for severance from Sears. Patrick was laid off from her job at Kmart last year. (Rachel Siegel)

NEW YORK — They came from across the country — California, Illinois, Louisiana. Some had five kids in tow; others FaceTimed their wives back home to share glimpses of New York.

Everyone started with an introduction.

“My name is Bruce. I was at Sears for 36 years.”

“My name is Wendy. I was with Kmart for nine years.”

“My name is Giovanna. I was with Toys R Us for 20 years.”

All told, the group of two dozen former retail workers had more in common than not. All of them had been laid off as their companies plunged into bankruptcy and began liquidating stores. They swapped stories of losing their jobs, then their medical insurance, then their homes. They nodded as mothers worried aloud about paying for a child’s medical care. They laughed as they talked about helping customers at Christmastime or dressing up with co-workers on Halloween.

Once competitors, they are now leaning on one another. Six months after filing for bankruptcy, Toys R Us announced in March that it would sell or close all 800 of its remaining U.S. stores, wiping out 33,000 jobs.

The fate of Sears could be sealed on Monday. A hearing in bankruptcy court could settle whether Eddie Lampert’s $5.2 billion pitch to save 425 stores — and 45,000 jobs — will prevail. Since the company filed for bankruptcy in October, it has shuttered dozens of Sears and Kmart stores. Many laid-off workers say they haven’t gotten answers on whether their pensions are safe, or whether they’ll receive any severance.

That frustration is, in part, what is spurring Sears and Kmart workers to action — and why they’re doing so alongside Toys R Us employees. In November, Toys R Us workers secured a $20 million fund from Bain Capital and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts — two of the firms that bought Toys R Us in a leveraged buyout more than a decade ago. One hundred percent of the fund is going directly to eligible employees.

That $20 million falls well short of the $75 million that advocates say former workers are owed. But the fund is still considered rare among private-equity-backed companies that file for bankruptcy. And it could set a precedent for companies like Sears.

Now, Sears and Kmart workers are hoping that by mobilizing in the same ways Toys R Us workers did in 2018, they’ll be heard, too.

Sears declined to comment for this article.

As part of Lampert’s proposal, his hedge fund, ESL Investments, agreed to pay $43 million in severance obligations. Recently, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which often steps in for underfunded pension plans when companies can’t pay, said it would take over some of Sears’s defined-benefit pension plans covering 90,000 people.

The workers joined forces in New York through Organization United for Respect, a workers rights group. For months, OUR’s “Rise Up Retail” campaign has connected former Toys R Us, Sears and Kmart employees over Facebook and social media. But this was the first time they could share memories and ask questions face to face. How much notice were you given before your store closed? How much longer do you have on unemployment? Were you nervous the first time you joined a rally?

“When I joined, I started hearing people saying the exact same thing we were,” said Onie Patrick, who was laid off from Kmart after nine years. “Macy’s, J.C. Penney, whatever stores are closing — they need to be spoken for, too.”

Michelle Perez, 28, signed an apartment lease right before her Toys R Us store closed. She’d joined Rise Up Retail protests before. To show newcomers what to expect, she stood in front of the group and chanted a call and response:

“I’m a single mother of two kids.”

“I don’t know what we’re going to do without health insurance.”

“It was a punch to the gut.”

“I’m scared I won’t be able to pay my rent.”

Perez sat next to Gabe Maguire, who worked at Kmart for seven years. Maguire said that figuring out what to do after losing a job often feels like “screaming into the void.” Now, they were in a narrow conference room with people who understood.

“It happened with Toys R Us — this is what happens when Wall Street interests get involved,” Maguire said.

The workers have helped spur political pressure on Wall Street firms to compensate laid-off employees. Before the $20 million fund for Toys R Us workers was announced, Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, as well as Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., all Democrats from New Jersey, wrote to the firms urging for assistance for laid-off workers. That month, the lawmakers stood with Toys R Us employees and advocates outside the New Jersey-based retailer.

And last week, the small army of retail workers gathered in New York walked to a Kmart near Penn Station, milling at first between aisles of leggings, purses and bathing suits. Then they came together at the front of the store. And again, they introduced themselves, hoping someone would hear.

“My name is Terry. I was with Sears for 17 years. It’s been devastating, having to explain to my grandkids that I didn’t have enough money for Christmas.”

“My name is Michelle. I worked at Kmart for two years. They only let me work 13 hours a week. How do I support my children on that?"

“My name is Jose. I worked for Sears Auto Center in California. I was there for 28 years. ... I was promised four weeks of severance, and I’m still waiting.”

After 30 minutes, as they marched out of the store, the workers blew kisses to the Kmart employees who still had their jobs. Jose Perez tugged at his sweatshirt, which wasn’t doing much to shield him from the 5-degree chill. But he was smiling. It was his first trip to New York, and he said he felt as if he’d made a difference.

The workers wouldn’t yet know whether their chants reached Eddie Lampert or how much longer Sears and Kmart would exist. Many of those weighty questions — when they’d find a new job, how they’d make rent — awaited answers back home.

But in that uncertainty, they were together.