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News / Business

Seattle-area Macy’s workers strike for better protection from crime

By Paul Roberts, The Seattle Times
Published: November 24, 2023, 5:09pm

It is a sign of retail’s unsettled state that the chief demand from striking Seattle-area Macy’s workers isn’t for more money but for less shoplifting.

While the dozens of Macy’s workers who began picketing early Black Friday at Westfield Southcenter in Tukwila and Alderwood mall in Lynnwood definitely want better wages in a new contract, their big ask is that Macy’s do more about the thieves who brazenly pilfer the stores and sometimes assault staff.

“It’s getting worse,” says Yasmina Grainat, 55, who was picketing at Alderwood with other members of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 3000, which represents around 400 workers at the state’s three unionized Macy’s stores: Alderwood, Southcenter and in Bellis Fair mall in Bellingham.

Grainat and others say Macy’s management does too little to deter the thieves or protect staff. Employees say they’re not allowed to interfere with thieves, or aid colleagues, but are told to report incidents to store security. But, “When I call security, no one picks up the phone,” says Grainat, who adds that the stress is too much at a job that pays a 23-year veteran just $20.73 an hour.

Employees’ frustration over shoplifting came to a head in May, when Macy’s purportedly suspended Alderwood employee Liisa Luick for three weeks without pay for calling the police over a suspected shoplifter in the parking lot, Luick and union officials say.

Luick, 56, says she called police only after store managers told her to contact mall security, who instructed her to call the police.

Macy’s declined to comment on Luick’s claims, its shoplifting policy, the strike or other labor issues. In a statement, a spokesperson said, “Macy’s seeks to reach a deal that is mutually beneficial to the colleague, company and union.”

The strike is expected to last at least through Sunday evening.

Union members say Macy’s passive shoplifting policy reflects a bottom-line mentality. They say the New York-based retailer refuses to invest in adequate store security but also doesn’t want armed police handcuffing suspects in front of shoppers.

“Some accountant in New York has figured out that it costs them less to just let people steal product than it does for them to have a perception of there being safety issues in their stores,” says Joe Mizrahi, UFCW 3000 secretary-treasurer. Macy’s has “financial incentive to pretend like there’s not a problem.”

Union members say negotiations over a new three-year contract with Macy’s stalled recently in part over shoplifting issues. They hope to change the retailer’s position by striking on one of the busiest shopping days of the year and the start of the crucial holiday season. The day’s activities, which began hours before sunrise, include picket lines and a mock Macy’s “parade” at Southcenter.

But the Macy’s strikes also tap into a broader debate over retail theft, which has become a difficult reality for retailers and a thorny political issue for local policymakers and voters.

This week, Forbes magazine ranked Washington as the worst state in the nation for retail theft, with a per capita average of $347 in stolen goods and more than 2,300 incidents per 100,000 residents in 2021. In 2022, Washington retailers lost around $3 billion to theft, according to the Washington Retailers Association.

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In Seattle, several high-profile retail exits have been blamed at least partly on theft — among them, a downtown Bartell Drugs in 2019 and the nearby Kress IGA in 2020. Through October, reports of shoplifting in Seattle were down 21 percent compared to the same period in 2022, according to police data, but some retailers, such as Macy’s, may not be reporting all thefts.

Earlier this year, Macy’s cited “shrink,” or inventory losses from shoplifting, employee theft, supplier fraud and damage, for roughly an eighth of an expected decline in annual earnings in 2023, according to a CNBC analysis of Macy’s financial statements.

Law enforcement officials and retailers such as Macy’s attribute much of the current theft problem to organized criminal groups who often recruit others to do the stealing and sell the loot on the street and online.

Last week, a Bremerton man was charged with first-degree organized retail theft through a new effort by the state Attorney General’s Office to go after organized retail crime.

But retail theft has also become an intensely political issue.

Some retail groups, business advocates and conservative commentators blame local policies that they contend have weakened enforcement of laws against shoplifting, often in response to pandemic hardships.

Others say businesses leaders exaggerated theft to excuse poor financial performance or to justify closing stores that were underperforming for other reasons.

After Target cited theft in its decision to close stores in Ballard and in the U-District in October, critics noted that shoplifting incidents were higher around other, still-open Target locations.

Still, if shoplifting has become a “political football,” it’s also now a genuine workplace safety issue — and one of many social crises that retail staff often end up dealing with, says Mizrahi, the UFCW official. “Our members are just stuck on the front lines … just asking for basic safety standards.”

Change has been slow to come. UFCW 3000 has had little success in getting retailers to beef up store security, and has focused instead on making theft and workplace safety part of regular labor-management meetings that are included in labor contracts.

But while some retailers, such as Albertsons, which owns Safeway, and Kroger, which owns QFC and Fred Meyer, have agreed to safety discussions and such measures as active-shooter training, Macy’s is balking, Mizrahi says.

Whether the strike helps change that won’t be clear until Macy’s and the union return to the bargaining table.

Although new talks have been scheduled, union officials say, they think Macy’s is already feeling the pressure. The retailer opened the striking Seattle-area stores at 11 a.m. Friday, which is five hours later than last year. Union officials say that delay is because most store employees are picketing.

Other area Macy’s opened early for Black Friday, with Bellevue’s doors opening at 6 a.m. All stores, including the striking locations, are scheduled to open at their usual times this weekend.

Among pickets themselves, expectations were mixed. While no one said they thought Macy’s could stop shoplifting on its own, they hoped management could at least be more supportive when employees are confronted by thieves and other problematic individuals.

“We need them to respect us,” says Grainat.