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Union calls Powell’s Books announcement of staff rehires ‘misleading’

Powell’s Books
A customer browses at Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., before it went to online-only orders.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

A labor union is accusing Powell’s Books of misleading the public with a staffing update regarding the recent layoff and rehiring of some of its employees.

After revealing two weeks ago that the beloved Portland, Ore., bookstore would lay off most of its staff amid the coronavirus crisis, CEO Emily Powell announced on Sunday that “we have over 100 folks working at Powell again — all full-time with benefits,” thanks to a surge in online orders.

The wording of the statement was ambiguous, but it was interpreted by the press to mean that 100 laid-off employees have been rehired.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Local 5, says only 49 of those 100-plus staffers were laid off in the first place. The others “are management staff, doing frontline bookseller, shelver and shipping work, instead of the union workers who were trained to do this work and did that work every day,” according to a union statement obtained by Publishers Weekly.

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Powell’s Books has not responded to The Times’ requests for comment.

The statement from ILWU Local 5 union representative Myka Dubay went on to denounce the company for celebrating under allegedly false pretenses.

Days after temporarily closing due to the coronavirus, Powell’s Books in Portland will lay off most of its employees, the store’s owner and CEO wrote in a letter.

“While frontline booksellers, shelvers and shippers remain on layoff status, Powell’s has trumpeted the fact that ‘over 100 workers’ have been brought back to work,” the message read. “While we understand the difficult nature of the situation COVID-19 has created in our society, we remain incredibly disappointed in how Powell’s has dealt with this situation and treated workers.”

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Powell’s Books is one of several indie bookstores across the nation that have been forced to let go of employees during the public health emergency, galvanizing some — including author James Patterson — to make personal donations in an effort to save the industry.

Author James Patterson is donating $500,000 to help indie bookstores across the country. For many L.A. booksellers, that could be a life saver.

“Your kind words, messages of encouragement, ideas for perseverance and orders for books have taken our breath away,” Powell said in Sunday’s Facebook post. “We’ve made an internal commitment to only pay for expenses that keep folks employed, and the lights on, for the time being. ... Our focus is on keeping Powell’s moving, keeping our community healthy, taking care of our wonderful customers and having as many folks working with health insurance as our sales can support.”


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