Powell’s Books Is Rehiring, but Laid-Off Employees Will Have to Apply Afresh, to the Union’s Surprise

The union representing Powell’s employees says the company’s decision to go forward with hiring without reaching an agreement was unexpected.

Powell's Books announced Tuesday afternoon it is rehiring employees at all three of its retail locations, after laying off most of its staff last spring.

In an open letter released this afternoon by CEO Patrick Bassett, the company announced its failure to reach an agreement with the union that represents Powell's workers in how the company could bring back former employees to their previous positions.

That means employees who were laid off will have to reapply for their positions as new applicants, rather than simply step back into the positions they had before the layoffs.

Powell's said it had tried and failed to find a better solution.

"Powell's has reached out to the union on two occasions to find solutions that go above and beyond the labor contract, without success," wrote Bassett. "Our most recent proposal would have temporarily extended former employees' access to the recall process for a period of six months as well as reinstate their previous paid-time-off accrual rate, which would be significant to our longer-term former employees.

"Unfortunately, the union did not accept this offer.  This means the original contract language regarding loss of all seniority and employment rights applies, and we will begin to advertise job openings."

But the union, International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 5, tells a different story to WW.

Myka Dubay, representative for the union, says the news was a surprise.

Dubay says ILWU Local 5 had been in active negotiations with Powell's leadership and had last spoken with the company on March 31.

“We sent them a counterproposal to look at over the weekend, and they never replied to that,” Dubay tells WW. “We had been talking with the company to try and reach a decision after they pulled back on our agreement, and then this was their response, this open letter.”

The union released a statement regarding Powell's decision.

"We are appalled at Powell's decision to eliminate the recall list and force laid-off employees to apply for their former jobs. This action comes nearly a year after the union and company had reached mutual agreement, in writing, that the recall list would be maintained without timeline restrictions," the statement read. "The union is looking into every avenue to hold Powell's to their contractual obligations as well as the moral imperative to treat workers ethically and not use the pandemic as an opportunity to reduce wages and benefits for longtime employees."

Powell’s, in turn, disputes that characterization.
This is inaccurate,” a bookstore spokesperson said. “Powell’s position was well-understood because, among other things, Powell’s clearly communicated to the Union that our March 31, 2021 proposal was a “final offer,” and that we would be moving forward with posting openings if it was not accepted by the Union. We also responded to the Union separately on April 6 to let them know that we would be moving forward consistent with our previous communication since they hadn’t accepted our final offer.”
Powell’s says the discussion was informal, and happened more than a year ago, well before the company realized the full effects of the pandemic.

The beloved Portland bookstore closed last March due to COVID-19 and began to slowly reopen in the summertime, bringing back 170 of its 400 employees.

After last year's layoffs, a group of former Powell's employees penned a letter criticizing how Powell's leadership handled the layoffs.

Bassett made clear Powell's encourages its former employees to apply for open positions.

"I want to emphasize that any former Powell's employees whose seniority and employment were lost under the labor contract remain eligible to apply for new positions," Bassett wrote. "Our hope is that many will express interest in these opportunities and secure reemployment with the company."