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Dec. 3, 2022

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Vancouver woman on the Toys R Us front lines

Michelle Perez helps bring attention to the plight of displaced retail workers

By , Columbian Business Editor
Published:
5 Photos
Michelle Perez, center front, and other former Toys R Us employees stand in front of the loading dock of their former Jantzen Beach store. Perez has become an activist on behalf of the 33,000 Toys R Us workers who were displaced after the owners of the longtime retail chain announced its closure this summer.
Michelle Perez, center front, and other former Toys R Us employees stand in front of the loading dock of their former Jantzen Beach store. Perez has become an activist on behalf of the 33,000 Toys R Us workers who were displaced after the owners of the longtime retail chain announced its closure this summer. Nathan Howard/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Michelle Perez of Vancouver worked four years in the Toys R Us at Jantzen Beach and she loved her job.

Perez worked most of the time in the baby registry, helping excited parents through one of the modern-day rituals of welcoming a newborn. Toys R Us had that kind of status. She was surrounded by neighbors — about three-quarters of the Jantzen Beach Toys R Us staff were Clark County residents, most of them from Vancouver.

Perez rose from part-time clerk to supervisor status, adding a new layer to her retail experience.

“I really enjoyed that, but it was also one of the most stressful jobs that I’ve had,” she said, noting that parenthood can bring out the worst as well as best in people.

“Definitely being put in the position of being yelled at and screamed at all the time,” she recalled in a recent interview.

But Toys R Us closed the last of its 800 U.S. stores in June after filing for bankruptcy protection last fall, putting Perez and 33,000 others out of work.

So perhaps the stress of the baby registry was good preparation for Perez when she stood June 21 in front of the Washington State Investment Board in Olympia. One of the companies that owns Toys R Us is also one of the many places where the state board has invested the $130 billion Washington pension.

Perez was part of a group of former Toys R Us employees and workers’ rights representatives who spoke to the board that day, expressing their dismay over the demise of Toys R Us as well as their bitterness over the handling of the retailers’ bankruptcy and decision to go out of business. They wanted the owners to be held responsible. The laid-off employees, many of whom had worked decades for Toys R Us, had not been paid severance.

In addition to that meeting, Perez spoke at other events to draw attention to displaced Toys R Us workers’ plight. The 28-year-old mother of two became a public face of laid-off workers at more than 300 U.S. stores of the beloved retailer. She appeared in a New York Times story about the strategy of workers’ right groups seeking redress through public pension boards — like the one in Washington state — against private equity firms. By Perez’s count, she also appeared on National Public Radio and in Bloomberg News and Huffington Post stories.

“It was exciting,” she said of seeing her name in The New York Times.

In fact, the whole experience of playing an advocacy role for retail employees like herself has been an enlightening experience, said Perez.

Before Toys R Us, she’d worked as an assistant in a tattoo shop and, before that, at WinCo Foods, both in Vancouver.

She linked with the workers’ rights group Rise Up Retail through a Facebook connection and soon found herself on the activism front lines. She’s attended protests aimed at former Toys R Us owners in New York City and San Francisco. She’s attended meetings of the public employees’ pension boards in Washington, Oregon and Minnesota. Perez and her allies have identified three main targets.

KKR & Co., Bain Capital and Vornado Realty Trust took over Toys R Us in a $7.5 billion leveraged buyout in 2005. The owners went through a collection of executives over the next 13 years who tried to stop the company’s steady slide. The toy retailer’s bankruptcy has been tied to the debt incurred in that deal, a recession and competition from Amazon.com and others.

In large part because of the ex-Toys R Us employees’ protest, the Washington State Investment Board spent more than an hour on June 21 discussing its KKR holdings and asking the private equity firm to account for its actions.

At one point in the meeting, Washington State Investment Board member Stephen Miller queried Nate Taylor, head of consumer retail for the Americas at KKR.

“Did anyone at KKR lose their job over the failure of Toys R Us?” Miller said, as quoted in Bloomberg News. “Did anyone have their bonuses cut, did anyone have their compensation cut significantly? Because that’s one of the consequences of free-market capitalism.”

Taylor told Miller that no one who led the deal was with KKR anymore.

“We’re here to be transparent, to acknowledge where we’ve made an investment mistake, and we certainly did at Toys, and be helpful in making sure that all of you understand what we’ve done and what the facts are around this situation,” he said, as quoted in Bloomberg.

The Washington protest followed another in front of the Minnesota State Board of Investment, whose members decided to temporarily halt future commitments to KKR as it reviews its investment.

In late September, The Wall Street Journal reported that KKR & Co. and Bain Capital were putting together a $20 million fund to make payments to former Toys R Us employees.

Perez commended the two investment companies for their action. However, she said activists believe $75 million is needed to cover pension obligations. She also noted that neither Vornado Realty Trust, nor the creditors for the three owners, have stepped forward as participants in the fund.

Perez is prepared to move on to life after Toys R Us.

“It is a good opportunity to go back to school,” she said. “I started working right when I was 18, so I never actually went to college … I know in high school the things I wanted to be were sign language interpreter or welding … they have both of those programs at Clark (College).”

Receiving a full or even partial severance would be welcome, she said. The previous terms, when the retailer was in business, was one week’s pay for the first year worked, then two weeks for each additional year.

But Perez said she was motivated more by long-time Toys R Us employees.

“A lot of the people that I worked with have been there for like 30-plus years,” she said. “And so that was my main motivation with all of these people who — we called them lifers — they have lost everything.”

Perez was referring specifically to 68-year-old Pamela Howington.

Howington started as seasonal help at the Jantzen Beach Toys R Us in late fall 1994, emerging from her previous role as a stay-at-home mom in Vancouver. She was kept on as a permanent part-time employee, eventually rising through the ranks to be a human relations supervisor. Her final hourly pay: $16.75. She cherished the job.

“It was fun, friendly,” she said. “I met my best friends there. You make those connections. You learn about your team members. I invested myself in my team. I was always there. They knew to come talk to me … that was my work family.”

She said she isn’t certain how much she’s owed in severance. Nearly three decades after starting at Toys R Us, Howington says she still wants to work. But she, and other Jantzen Beach Toys R Us workers interviewed for this story, say they feel further abused by the latest postmortem Toys R Us news: The creditors believed by some to have controlled the fate of the retailer now say the brand may be revived for new stores, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Howington said she can’t help but look back at how she was treated and says that it was the opposite to the way in which she treated her co-workers.

“When I made promises to my team members,” Howington said, “I did my best to take care of them. I expected that from everyone else as well.”

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Columbian Business Editor