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  • Courtesy of DevoidSauce
  • Employees at the store posted this sign—now taken down—in the window. Now it's all over the internet.

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A spontaneous protest by three workers at the Northgate Mall branch of teen clothing retailer Wet Seal has gone viral. Their handwritten poster rose to the top of Reddit.com earlier today, getting seen by millions of people worldwide. "I love the Internet," reads the comment with the most upvotes, "because 20 years ago companies could do shit like this without any consequences."

What, exactly, is going on?

Wet Seal's corporate office has not responded to a request for comment, but I was able to reach Andrea Friesner, a store manager at the Northgate Wet Seal who's been with the company for eight years, by phone. She said the protest is related to a recent decision to lay off a number of her store's employees, and she sounded overwhelmed by the response on social media (and nervous about the future). She said she handwrote the poster in collaboration with two other employees.

"I was told this morning by my boss that my sign was inappropriate and unprofessional," she told me. "But I feel like what my corporate office was doing was inappropriate and unprofessional."

Friesner continued: "We have been lied to." Rumors about a Wet Seal bankruptcy and store closings have been flying, and the troubled company's stock price has been in free fall over the past year, according to a recent report by Buzzfeed. (Though that didn't stop a former CEO from receiving an $800,000 severance payout when he stepped down last year.)

But by December 26, Friesner said, the corporate office was still leading them to believe that steep discounts on store products were merely part of a "rebranding" effort.

It was only on Friday morning, Friesner said, that they were informed the store would be closing and the three people who wrote the sign would be losing their jobs. The workers put the sign up yesterday—decrying the loss of 19 weeks worth of vacation and sick days, no transfers to still-open stores, and exorbitant executive pay—but it was taken down this morning at the request of mall management, she said.

Most of Wet Seal's customers and passersby have been supportive, Friesner told me.

"I'm very in the dark right now," she said, her voice cracking with emotion. "I feel like I'm this mouthpiece for a company that's being cowardly." Friesner said her boss—the district manager—was sitting outside the store talking with someone on the phone. "It's a terrifying situation," she said. "I'm afraid of her right now."

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She also wanted people to know that employees at a Wet Seal in Ohio started all this, by posting their own sign in their closing store's window. "We lie to our employees to hide the fact that yes we're closing," the poster reads, with a sarcastic sign off, "Thanks, Wet Seal xoxo."

"I just wanted to..." Friesner told me over the phone, trailing off. Then she picked back up, referencing the uncertainty around the future of the company and its workers: "...support these thousands of people that are in the same boat as me and let them know they're not alone."

The man who took the photo is Reddit user DevoidSauce, who posted it to the Seattle subreddit yesterday. "Wet Seal has behaved abominably and I immediately sympathized with the workers," she said in a Reddit message. "If I didn't post the picture, someone would have. The way that the internet and media has reacted to the little photo I took on my phone has left me speechless and maybe even a little hopeful."

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