The story of Powell's layoffs, according to affected workers.

LABOR PAINS: Union rep Ryan Takas and ex-Powell's employees Megan Benton and Sheila Ashdown dispute the company's rationale for layoffs.

Powell's Books employee Sheila Ashdown said her heart started pounding when she got the email last week from her employer announcing plans to lay off 31 workers.

"People were depressed, teary-eyed, anxious, I think a little shocked," says Ashdown, who had worked at Powell's since September 2007. 

Though Ashdown was not axed in the initial sweep announced in the Feb. 8 email, she lost her job the next day through a bumping process that allows laid-off workers at the venerable bookseller to take the jobs from employees with less seniority.

This round of 31 layoffs—about 7 percent of the workforce—was the company's biggest since 1991. Management cited the swiftly changing industry, saying in its email to workers that new book sales were in steep decline, and that Powell's was "losing sales to electronic books and reading devices." The company also cited the economic downturn and rising healthcare costs. (Powell's president, Emily Powell, didn't return WW's messages seeking further comment.)

But in the shelves of the Gold Room at Powell's Burnside location, Brian Booty says he heard only occasional conversation among shoppers about e-readers. Booty was initially laid off from the science-fiction section but subsequently bumped to the customer-service desk at the Beaverton store.

"We didn't really see it in the trenches," says Booty, who has worked on and off at Powell's since 1997 and has held his most recent $11.37-an-hour post since July 2009. "I didn't think it was enough to warrant layoffs, but apparently it is."

Since December, Powell's has offered Google eBooks for sale on its website. But Ashdown, a $16.92-an-hour marketing coordinator at the Northwest Industrial warehouse, says the company cannot blame the layoffs simply on digitization of the book market. She says Powell's lags in technology, such as placing e-book barcodes on the shelves so customers can buy digital manuscripts on the spot.

“If they were that concerned about e-books, maybe they should have done something about it,” Ashdown says. 

Though the company's Feb. 8 email had said Powell's sales were down, marketing and programming projects seemed stable, says Megan Benton, who had been at Powell's since October 2006 and made $16.92 an hour in the programming department.

"We were constantly moving forward on projects, and we'd just launched Google eBooks, so sales on that were building," says Benton, who, like Ashdown, lost her job through the bumping process. "It didn't seem like we were doing that badly."

Ryan Takas, a union representative for International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 5, says these layoffs could have been averted, and he noted no managers were laid off. Last year at this time, the company and the union worked to avoid layoffs through schedule reductions, voluntary leaves of absence and the transferring of workers. Three weeks ago, the union proposed a vote on a wage freeze. Company management never responded, Takas says.

"I think it was infinitely avoidable," Takas says. "There were many alternatives that could have been exhausted before this outcome was ultimately decided.” 

Messages left for Emily Powell were not immediately returned.

FACT: The wage range for employees who lost their jobs at Powell's was $10.34 to $16.92 per hour.

WWeek 2015

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