PORTLAND – Powell’s Books says it plans to add more employees as it prepares for business to pick up again as the pandemic recedes. But laid-off workers will have to reapply for their old jobs after the bookstore and its union failed to strike a deal over terms for rehiring them.
Before the pandemic, Powell’s had 400 union workers across the business. About 85% of them lost their jobs in March 2020 as the bookstore shuttered all its locations in the early days of the pandemic.
Those stores are open again, except for the Powell’s location at Portland International Airport, which closed permanently. But Powell’s currently employs just around 170 laid-off workers, about 135 of them in union jobs.
Powell’s says laid-off workers’ right to be their old jobs had expired under terms of its contract with ILWU Local 5, the union representing its workers. The bookstore’s new CEO, Patrick Bassett, said in an “open letter” Tuesday that the company had talked with the union about extending those recall rights for another six months.
Having failed to reach agreement, though, Bassett wrote that the recall rights have lapsed and Powell’s will post its openings publicly.
“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. If former employees do apply, and are rehired, he said the company’s goal is to return them to their prior position at their previous wage.
The union claims that it had a written deal with Powell’s to maintain a recall list indefinitely.
“We are appalled at Powell’s decision to eliminate the recall list and force laid off employees to apply for their former jobs,” union representative Myka Dubay wrote in a statement Tuesday night. Dubay said the union and bookstore had been in talks for two weeks and didn’t know about the open letter before Powell’s released it publicly.
“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,” Dubay wrote in Tuesday’s statement.