REI workers are organizing online to call for more hours and more predictable schedules.
REI workers are organizing online to call for more hours and more predictable schedules. REI Employees for Real Change Facebook

Last year, REI won widespread online praise for its decision to "opt out" of Black Friday. The company gave workers the traditionally busy day off and paid them to "#OptOutside" instead. It was a readymade feel-good story of a profitable company doing right by its employees. But workers at the Seattle-based outdoor retailer say the hashtag didn't represent reality.

"Retail employees are demanding that REI authentically value us and treat us like the myth #OptOutside created," reads an online petition from REI workers.

Low-level REI employees, including some in Seattle, say they struggle with too few hours and too much scheduling unpredictability, making it hard to live off their jobs at the company. Tonight at 5 p.m. at City Hall, they'll speak at a forum hosted by Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant's office. Workers say they want pay raises and more consistent scheduling and are considering unionizing. Representatives from the King County Labor Council and UFCW Local 21 are expected at tonight's event.

REI representatives say that in coming months the company will raise wages in expensive cities and deal with scheduling issues. They have not yet announced specifics.

A memo to employees posted Friday at the Seattle store referenced the Sawant-sponsored event and warned workers about the "potential consequences of signing a union card" including possible strikes and "giving up your right to speak for yourself" in bargaining over pay.

The memo promised that the "first wave" of pay increases "targeting stores where the cost of living has been increasing the fastest" will begin in August and the company will announce changes to scheduling practices in October.

"REI management is not anti-union," the memo said. "We just don't need one at REI... We sincerely urge you not to sign a union authorization card." (The company confirmed the memo came from Kara Stone, general manager of the Seattle store.)

The push from REI worker echoes claims from Starbucks baristas who say they're suffering from too few hours and two little advance notice of their schedule. That company today said it will raise workers' pay.

Meanwhile, the labor-backed advocacy group Working Washington has led a push for a Seattle law requiring large employers to give workers at least two weeks advance notice of their schedules. To try to deal with concerns about too few hours, the group also wants businesses to be required to offer workers more hours before hiring new employees.

REI workers I spoke with and some who've signed onto the effort online said fluctuations in schedule makes it hard for them to budget or find a second job. Some complained that even after several years at the company, they still make only about 20 cents more than the Seattle the minimum wage. (Large companies in the city currently pay $12.50-$13 an hour and will all pay $15 by 2018.) Some employees said the company should tie wages to a "living wage" standard instead of paying the minimum wage. In Seattle, a living wage is $12.19 an hour, according to a calculator developed by an MIT professor, but a recent study on housing affordability found that it actually costs nearly double that.

"There's a massive disconnect between how REI is portrayed... as such great company to work for [and workers' experiences]," said Collin Pointon, who works in sales at the Seattle store. "If you ask employees, 'How is your life? Is REI providing everything you need? Would you work here five years from now?' the resounding response would be, 'It's not as good as it used to be. I can't survive if I work only for REI.'"

Ash Crew, a 27-year-old who has worked at the Seattle store since 2012, said she became homeless while working at REI. After rent increases, she said she began sleeping in her car and living largely off a credit card last year, eventually taking a second job and quitting college to save money. She applied for a management job two higher paying sales and merchandising jobs at the store, but didn't get either. Today, her mom is helping her pay her rent.

"I'm not proud to say that," Crew said, "but it's the position REI has put me in." Crew said that she is now getting about 20 hours a week and working toward finishing her degree at Seattle Central College.

Like other companies facing similar complaints, REI has emphasized that some workers like the flexibility of a job that is only part-time. In a statement, REI said, "We are aware of the conversation that Council Member Sawant is attempting to create. As a co-op, we welcome open, constructive dialogue with our employees. In this instance, however, the full picture is not being properly represented."

The company also said that "on average" both part- and full-time workers across the company make more that their local minimum wage, with part-time workers earning $11.50 on average and full-time workers earning $14.50.

During a Q&A session at an annual members meeting earlier this year, the company's CEO Jerry Stritzke said it would cost $30 million to raise all REI workers to "something close to" $15 an hour. "We made $30 million last year," he said. "We can't operate in the red." (Employees point out that Stritzke made $3.5 million in base pay, incentives, and benefits last year.)

William Bass, an employee at the Seattle store who says his hours have ranged from one or two shifts one week to five the next, said he has had trouble finding a second job.

"I'm 58. I've gone out there and tried to look for other jobs," he says. "I have an MFA in creative writing. I don't have coding skills. A large number of my coworkers are middle aged like me and can't find work [in addition to REI]."

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Bass says he wants to see the company hold off on building new stores (and its new corporate headquarters), until workers earn a "living wage" and have more scheduling stability.

"All that money [REI makes] starts with us on the floor and those who support us in stock rooms and distribution centers and low-wage workers at corporate doing the grunt work," Bass says. "We generate massive amounts of income but are paid the least."

This story has been updated to correct the types of jobs Crew applied for at REI.