Employee protest leads to staff firings
BY DOUGLAS PHINNEY
Community News Service
At least two workers have been fired from the Goodwill store in Williston following an employee walkout last month, and working conditions for remaining employees have not improved, according to interviews with three former and current employees.
Cristin Lemieux Pullis, a former Goodwill store manager who was fired after the walkout, said two issues led to the early May protest: supervisors not receiving the second part of a two-part raise they had been promised, and issues caused by the chronic understaffing of the store.
A second former employee, who asked to remain unnamed, said they were also terminated after the walkout.
Heather Steeves, the communications manager for Goodwill Northern New England, acknowledged staffing issues in an email.
“The pandemic further complicated a tight labor market,” she wrote. “Like many employers, Goodwill has faced staffing shortages. We have worked hard to fill those staffing shortages and will continue to do so in order to provide a safe and rewarding work experience for all of our teammates.”
Lemieux Pullis said understaffing was not being addressed efficiently. This caused some shift supervisors to routinely work 50 hours a week. Before the walkout, store staff reached out to Goodwill leadership asking to adjust the store hours to reduce the overwork that employees were experiencing, but that did not happen, Lemieux Pullis said.
“In fact, they extended hours in the store instead of reducing them,” she said. “That was a pretty clear message to us that they didn’t care.”
The Goodwill in Williston has since reduced store hours. But current and former employees both say this has not solved the understaffing that the store had been, and continues to be, experiencing.
All the current and former employees interviewed for this story said they worked at Goodwill throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. They said the pandemic brought a notable increase in donation volume and that sorting through donations involves dealing with dirty items — occasionally contaminated by pet, and even human, waste.
“In the seven months that I worked at the store, we were never fully staffed, and it just got worse,” said Lemieux Pullis.
A current Goodwill employee, who asked to remain unnamed, said understaffing continues to cause challenging working conditions and high employee turnover. They said they have had several different managers and co-workers who have lasted less than two weeks.
Steeves said the average employee at Goodwill’s Williston store has been with the company for two years, and that many Goodwill stores are facing similar issues.
According to Lemieux Pullis, Goodwill released a spreadsheet that illustrated the raises in employee hourly pay that would be occurring Jan. 1. This spreadsheet reflected the store supervisors receiving a one-time 79-cent raise, moving their pay from $12.53 per hour to $13.32 per hour, according to Lemieux Pullis.
After she had communicated this to Williston store staff, Lemieux Pullis said she was informed that the raise would come in two parts over the course of the year. Store staff was under the impression that the second part of the raise would come in April. They have yet to receive it, they say.
“It put a really bad taste in my mouth, and my supervisors’ mouths, and everybody else that knew about it,” says Lemieux Pullis. “The part that made it most difficult was that Goodwill employees across the organization are supposed to live by eight citizenship behaviors, and one of them is ‘Own it,’ meaning you own your mistakes. Well, (Goodwill) didn’t own it. (Goodwill) didn’t make it right.”
Goodwill, a non-profit, has a notable pay gap between retail employees and top executives.
According to the IRS form 990 filed by Goodwill Northern New England for the fiscal year between June 2019 and June 2020, Richard Cantz Jr, the CEO of Goodwill Northern New England, was paid an annual salary of $206,002, making him one of at least seven Goodwill Northern New England executives paid more than $100,000 for the year.
Staff say that Goodwill has since informed them that the second half of the raise is scheduled to take place in July. But workers do not have high hopes for this happening.
“Every employee is basically thinking that (the raise) will then keep being pushed to the next month, because no one is holding Goodwill responsible to hold their promises of paying us more,” the current employee said.
“We have initiated a multi-phase compensation plan that includes a study of employee wages generally, as well as pay equity issues,” Steeves, the communications manager for Goodwill Northern New England, wrote in an email. “The pandemic delayed part of this project, but we have now resumed work on it.”
Steeves said the company has worked with an outside consulting firm to ensure Goodwill employees receive competitive compensation, and that store management will be meeting with employees individually next month regarding their compensation.
Twelve staff members actively participated in the May walkout, and other employees said they supported it. Care was taken to ensure no one would be putting their job at risk. For example, the store remained fully operational throughout the protest.
“Goodwill is of course fully supportive of our non-supervisory employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act,” Steeves said. “We also look forward to continuing to work with all of our employees to address the challenges in this tight labor market.”
Lemieux Pullis says she was fired from the Williston Goodwill just about one week after the walkout, even though she had not personally participated. She said Goodwill management cited a lapse in her responsibility as a manager for not acting to stop the walkout.
Another employee was fired the same day.
Morale at the store has deteriorated since then, according to current staff.
“It has been the worst it has ever been,” one employee said. “We have corporate people who don’t (come in) because they could care less. They’re always on the schedule to close and open, but they rarely show up. So, it then lands on our Williston supervisor’s shoulders to open and close, sometimes six days in a row.”
Staff has been informed by Goodwill that the process of hiring a new store manager for Williston is underway.
The Community News Service is a partnership between the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program and Vermont community newspapers.