The scene in Los Angeles as retail reopens.

When retail apparel stores temporarily closed their doors last March as COVID-19 restrictions went into place, it left salespeople, tailors, stock clerks, cashiers and other store employees with abrupt existential concerns.

Workers struggled to navigate unemployment as state systems were overwhelmed with applications, and flagged concerns about losing health care during an unfolding public health crisis. As stores closed, retail workers who were members of the New York-New Jersey Regional Joint Board, Workers United union began calling the union even as it closed its own Seventh Avenue office across from the Fashion Institute of Technology campus in Manhattan.

“We started getting phone calls from our members asking questions about what it means, and nobody really knew,” said Fred Kaplan, secretary treasurer of the NY-NJ Regional Joint Board for Workers United.

“Everybody was saying, ‘Oh, we’ll be closed for a month or two until this goes away,’ but people were concerned about their jobs, about unemployment, about health insurance,” he said. “Obviously, everybody cared about getting a paycheck, but they really cared about their health insurance.” 

But the Workers United union, which represents employees at apparel retailers including Brooks Brothers, Jos A. Bank, Rothmans, Paul Stuart and others, was prepared, Kaplan said. The union has its own health insurance fund, which most of the employers it works with participate in, allowing the union to use the fund to extend health insurance benefits for laid off workers. 

In some cases, the union leveraged long-term relationships with employers to share the responsibility. Rothmans, for instance, which last year furloughed roughly 20 employees including sales people and back office staff, worked closely with the Workers United union to cover health insurance for laid off workers, said Ken Giddon, who co-owns Rothmans with his brother Jim Giddon. 

The retailer covered health insurance for its teams for roughly four to five months, while the union picked up an additional few months of insurance coverage, Ken Giddon said. 

“We were in very difficult times, and the union was great about working together,” he said. 

“In theory, we’re on opposite sides, but in this case, we were all working together to do the best for our people,” he added. “It was an uplifting experience in a still very difficult time.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing public health and economic response hit the workforce particularly hard in the retail, service and hospitality industries. A recent report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in February alone, clothing and accessories stores lost 20,000 jobs.

The crisis has also been a test for the unions that represent retail employees, including the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, and the Workers United union that represents workers at apparel companies and at Duane Reade. During the pandemic, union officials have worked to advocate for better safety protections and health care for laid off staff, while collaborating with beleaguered retail employers to extend union contracts that were coming due, or generally play a consultative role to help management understand the collective interests of its workforce.

“Workers at our union stores have had a voice at the table when the pandemic shuttered their stores, and in safety discussions regarding reopening,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU, which represents roughly 100,000 food processing, shipping and fashion retail workers, including 6,300 employees at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, as well as at other retailers including Zara and H&M. The RWSDU is also representing Amazon workers at Bessemer, Ala., who voted last month on unionizing. The ballots are in the process of being counted. 

“The union fought for health care even when the stores were closed,” he said. “The union negotiated terms that required masks, proper PPE, temperature checks, rehiring based on need, and a protection of wages and benefits.”

With Macy’s, the RWDSU conducted its routine renegotiations last year as an existing contract ended, but also conducted reopening negotiations to ensure stronger safety protocols for workers. For instance, the union’s agreements provided that union members were not required to interact with unmasked customers, making it the employers’ responsibility to ensure that customers complied with requirements to wear masks inside stores, Appelbaum said.  

The issue of workplace safety has vexed retail employees, who have generally raised concerns about the lack of actual distancing at their stores and warehouse, despite official COVID-19 protocols and mask requirements for customers. Unions have had to step in where federal workplace safety oversight has been spotty. The Occupational Safety and Health Act, the federal labor law governing workplace safety, lacked standards specific to pandemics, let alone COVID-19, though employers do have some reporting and recording obligations in cases of work-related illness, and any resulting hospitalization or employee deaths. 

During the pandemic, state OSHA agencies have also set their own guidelines and fielded worker safety complaints. 

“Macy’s Inc.’s top priority continues to be the safety and security of all colleagues and customers,” a representative for the retailer said. “We follow the CDC recommended everyday preventative measures, as well as all local and state orders, and consistently communicate these guidelines and any ongoing updates with our teams.”

Another major dimension of the crisis has been the phenomenon of permanent job losses as retailers shrank their workforce in response to declining business, and closed stores during the course of bankruptcies. 

At Jos A. Bank, whose parent company Tailored Brands went through Chapter 11 last year, the Workers United union went from representing close to a 100 members in January 2020, to just 17 in January 2021. 

In July, Tailored Brands said the company’s “organizational changes” would cut a fifth of its corporate roles by its second quarter, and that it targeted up to 500 retail stores “for potential closure as well as associated opportunities to reduce and realign its store organization and supply chain infrastructure and organization to best serve its go-forward store footprint and e-commerce business.” 

At Brooks Brothers, which was bought out of bankruptcy by the Authentic Brands Group and Simon Property tie-up SPARC Group, Workers United represents workers at just four locations, down from around a dozen, Kaplan said.  

At the time of the company’s sale approval in August, the buyers had agreed to maintain at least 125 stores but took time to decide on stores to keep and which workers would be rehired at the new company. 

“I think in more normal circumstances, where a buyer was going to continue operations, some of these decisions would have been made much more quickly if not for the pandemic,” said Richard Seltzer of Cohen, Weiss and Simon LLP, who represented the Workers United union in the Brooks Brothers bankruptcy. 

One Brooks Brothers employee said the workers also looked to the Workers United union for detailed updates on their fates, as the union played a role on the creditors committee during the company’s bankruptcy. 

“It’s not about the winning, it’s about the work that’s involved,” said the longtime sales employee in the New York Area, who has worked at both the old Brooks Brothers and its current iteration. The worker declined to be identified in order to speak freely. 

“Unions are always fighting, and because they fight, and they’re representing their workers, over time, with public opinion and areas of political change, it makes a difference,” the employee said. 

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