Michelle Buchanan is a freelance writer based in Victoria.
My mother shares a cozy miner’s cottage with her common-law partner of 13 years. They put a new roof on it when they moved in three years ago, painted it in airy tones and now carefully tend every square corner of the small garden and deck decorated with the obligatory flower planters and garden fairies. It is supposed to be the place they will enjoy retirement, and the rest of their lives. But in addition to her mortgage, she has rising credit card debt, nothing left in savings, little medical coverage, and CPP and OAP payments that amount to much less than minimum wage. This is the financial picture she looks at every day, a year after being laid off from Sears.
She first retired in 2007, not long after recovering from breast cancer. She took a buyout from the pension she had paid into for years through her job at Sears. She was, rightfully, concerned about the company’s future and understood that there was no legal guarantee to her receiving her pension if the company collapsed, a reality many of her former co-workers now face. Setting about to invest the money from the buyout made her nervous, as she had never made an investment before. She had never had the resources to do so. She’d just begun to enjoy her retirement when markets crashed, and she lost most of her money.
Her retirement plans thwarted, my mother and her partner gave up their dreams of becoming snowbirds, sold the used RV they’d been living and travelling in, and put what they had left in a ground-floor condo in Nanaimo, B.C. My mother went back to working at Sears a year and a half after she’d left.
Being re-hired, and over 60, meant she was not able to contribute to the pension plan, nor did she receive any benefits. She worked for another nine years before she was laid off without severance pay when the company’s doors were shut for good in Canada in January, 2018.
My mother is 72. She began working at Sears when she was 25. She was a single mother. She started off in wigs but soon moved on to cosmetics, her black and white portrait appearing in the local newspaper to announce her as the L’Oréal consultant. Over the years, she held a variety of positions in different departments; sometimes she worked part-time, sometimes full-time, often evenings and weekends. As a child, I remember visiting her in the fabric department, and running my fingers along the bolts of satins and wool to feel the different textures. I liked watching her answer the phone and help customers in her short skirt and the high suede boots she was so proud of, her hair piled in big loopy curls. She worked long hours through the Christmas season. It wasn’t uncommon for her schedule to be kept just below full-time. My mother suspected it was so that the company could avoid giving her the few benefits afforded full-time employees.
When she was pregnant with my sister in 1980, she quit her job at Sears to be a stay-at-home mom (there was no maternity leave yet). But her second husband was a carpenter, and construction took a hit in the recession of the early eighties, so she returned to work. She got a job at Canadian Tire. It was closer to home, so she could nurse on her lunch break. She took business and computer courses, dreaming of getting out of retail, but returned to Sears and the community she had there in 1982, staying on even after after the classes were completed. By this time, I, too, had a job working evenings and weekends at Orange Julius. I paid for my own my own dance lessons, and some of my own clothes.
Years later, my mom would take time off, without pay from her employer, when a family crisis arose, then when her second husband was dying of throat cancer and finally when she was being treated for breast cancer herself. And yet she always returned to Sears.
My mother helped build company culture. She loves to organize picnics and parties, so she was happy to do this for the staff social club. She found reward in participating in company fundraisers. She recalls one, where staff spent evenings together making and gathering items for the local women’s transition house. They ended up with two truckloads of handmade toys, stuffed Christmas stockings, turkeys and more – more than the shelter could handle, in fact.
Eventually, she broke through the ranks during her career at the department store, moving out of retail sales. She managed a 300-seat Sears restaurant for five years. It made her feel good to provide an inexpensive dinner out for the old timers while also drawing in customers to the store. She was proud that the restaurant turned a profit when other Sears restaurants didn’t. She worked to renovate the store when the restaurant closed and later became manager of hardware, housewares and bedding. Before she got cancer, she was business development lead for appliances and furniture.
She often speaks of the friends she made at Sears over the years. Many were customers. Neighbours, her friends, my old childhood friends and her husband’s extended family of new immigrants, and their friends, would all stop in to visit her at work. They would also shop, often asking her advice on their major purchases. It was the commitment of staff such as her that created a trusted brand.
Ever the trooper, my mother considers herself lucky to have that miner’s cottage, where she and her partner moved because it’s even more frugal than the Nanaimo condo, and food on the table. She spends her days visiting friends and family, sorting photos and scrolling Facebook on an older iPad that was passed on to her partner – that is, when she’s not calculating ways to cut corners. She uses their one pay-as-you-go phone (no landline), shops at Costco, restricts trips in her older model vehicle to save gas and keeps the heat below room temperature. She does some crafting but finds that supplies tax the budget. While she’d like to volunteer, she’s become increasingly convinced that she needs to look for paid work. It is a daunting task at her age after being employed in the same place for most of her adult life. She has never written a résumé. Although she could operate the various software used by Sears, she is having to learn anew the required technologies to produce one. As always, she’s pushing through. She’s made an appointment with an employment counsellor and has submitted her first application. She is grateful also that she is in decent health and has someone to share her days with. Should her partner, 10 years her elder, pass on before she does, however, my mother may have to look at subsidized housing. Government or community programs will have to fill in for the pension the corporation did not protect.
According to the representative counsel representing former Sears Canada employees, my mother can apply to the new Wage Earners Protection Program (WEPP) for compensation for her lost severance pay. WEPP is a government program. Canadians are paying for the severance to employees that Sears did not pay even though hundreds of millions in dividend payments were made to shareholders in the years leading up to the company’s demise. My mother has been told she’s eligible for about half the maximum allowable amount, which is only a portion of what she was promised by her former employer. A year after a lifetime of working at Sears, my mother is only a small government pension away from being as financially insecure as the day she began working at the company, 47 years ago.
I appreciate what having a job at Sears meant to my mother, and to our family, and respect her tenacity and drive to carry on despite the difficulties she faced. I sometimes wonder, however, what our lives might have been like if my mother had been treated fairly as an employee right from the early days when she worked unpredictable hours for low pay without benefits. As a family, we faced several hardships throughout the years. If her corporate employer hadn’t taken advantage of her formidable need as a young, single mother with little education, what would our lives have been like? What if instead she had been protected with a fair wage, benefits and a guaranteed pension, where she wasn’t penalized for working part-time or for taking time to heal or to care for others? What if such provisions had extended right through her long career, right from her time in wigs through the nine years after she was hired back at 62, and to the present? How might her life and the lives of thousands of employees like her, all with different stories, to be sure, but mostly women, have been made better, had they been less influenced by financial insecurity?
The federal government has just proposed changes to the labour code that attempt to alleviate some of these injustices in the workplace, but such efforts still fall short. What Sears executives and shareholders have done to their employees is outright exploitation. They denied workers what they were promised in the way of severance and gave themselves huge payouts while failing to protect the pensions that the workers themselves had invested in. Benefits, extended medical, dental and life insurance, all of which employees had paid into for years, were also lost. More measures need to be put in place to protect such workers from other corporations that would do the same. Unfortunately for my mom, and the thousands of other Sears employees such as her, they’ll have to settle for less, as they always have.