Laid-off Sears workers press billionaire investor for severance

By Kate Gibson

/ MoneyWatch

Former exec: Sears has been on "death spiral"

When Lakisha Williams learned in October that the Kmart where she'd worked for four years in Oxon Hill, Maryland, would close early in the new year, she immediately started stocking up on prescription drugs needed by her autistic son. "One of the unfortunate things about losing my job is providing for his needs," said Williams, whose son requires multiple visits to the doctor each year and whose drug costs aren't covered by Medicaid.

"Everything he needs I got in advance," she said of her efforts to ensure his supply of medications, which now involves pinching pennies and looking for new employment.

Bonuses for execs

After Williams and her roughly 100 coworkers learned of their pending layoffs, she also went from working her usual 15-to-30 hours a week to as many as 50 hours, glad for the chance to earn more to prepare for what she's hoping will be a short period without a paycheck.

Her store's liquidation sales presented "a good opportunity to set some money aside," said Williams, who worked her final shift on Sunday. "Right now I'm searching for work, and praying I get something in the next few weeks," added Williams, a mother of three.

As a part-time worker at Kmart, Williams didn't expect to get any severance. But she decided to speak out after a bankruptcy court in December allowed Sears to dole out $25 million in bonuses to top executives to ensure they'd stick around as the company decided how to proceed.

"They don't give severance pay to people who dedicated their lives to this company," Williams said. "That's unfair."

"America is hard"

Similar sentiments were voiced by Onie Patrick, a mother of five children ranging in age from one to 11, who met her fiancée during her nine years of working at a Kmart in Rockford, Illinois.

"We planned on getting married, but money-wise haven't been able to afford it," said Patrick, whose store closed in September.

"America is hard right now. We need to change the future for retail," added Patrick. She urged Sears Chairman Eddie Lampert — a billionaire hedge fund investor who as the company's biggest shareholder led the company for more than a decade — to address workers directly. "I want to know what his thoughts are. Is he struggling on a food-stamp card too?"

The fall of Sears

As Sears and Kmart were merging in 2004, Lampert touted the deal by saying it would help revive the struggling retailer. At the time, Sears, an iconic department store chain launched in the late 19th century, employed more than 200,000 workers, operated almost 900 stores and generated annual revenue of $31 billion. It now has some 500 stores and less than half as many workers.

Williams and Patrick are part of a campaign by labor advocates aimed at shaming Lampert into providing financial assistance to Sears and Kmart workers laid off without severance. In a similar effort, United for Respect's Rise Up Retail recently helped win some financial assistance for tens of thousands of Toys R Us workers after a months-long effort.

A spokesperson for Sears declined comment, while Lampert's hedge fund, ESL Investments, did not return requests for comment.

Lampert and ESL faced a Wednesday deadline to submit a revised offer to a bankruptcy court in order to compete with other buyers who want to liquidate the retailer's remaining stores and assets.

First published on January 9, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

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