Sears workers demand hardship fund as company teeters on edge of closing

As Sears Holdings Corp teeters on the brink of liquidation, its employees are pushing for a hardship fund they hope can replicate the success of bankrupt retailer Toys ‘R’ Us, whose workers collected $20 million in severance pay from its former owners.

Sears on Tuesday agreed to consider a revised takeover bid from Chairman Edward Lampert, temporarily staving off a liquidation that would have spelled the end of the company.

The latest attempt by Lampert follows a decade of revenue declines, hundreds of store closures, and years of deals in an attempt to turn around the company he put together in 2005 in an $11 billion deal.

Now, the retailer’s approximately 68,000 workers are pushing Lampert to set up a financial fund giving laid-off workers a week of pay for every year of service.

“If he (Eddie Lampert) can drum up the money for another takeover bid, he can find the resources to come up with a hardship fund,” said Onie Patrick, a laid-off Kmart employee who is part of the organizing effort.

The fight for a hardship fund has become the new normal in U.S. retail, signaling a growing push for severance pay and benefits in an industry that has witnessed a raft of store closures and bankruptcies.

Sears is among the dozens of retailers like Gymboree, Claire’s, Nine West, Payless Shoe Source and True that have filed for bankruptcy in the past two years. Others like Bon-Ton Department Stores and Toys ‘R’ Us have gone out of business.

In the case of Sears, if liquidation is announced, employees will have to file claims with the court for both lost wages and severance that was promised to them, said Jerry Glass, president of labor relations at consultancy F&H Solutions Group.

Sears employees will be competing for the limited funds available, with other creditors, investors, and management employees who will be retained to assist in the liquidation, he said.

Last year, private equity firms Bain Capital and KKR & Co Inc — which bought Toys ‘R’ Us in a 2005 leveraged buyout and loaded it with billions of dollars in debt before liquidating the chain in June 2018 — set aside $20 million for retail workers, who had demanded $75 million.

The fund was an unusual move for private-equity owners, who are not required under bankruptcy law to provide such assistance for ex-employees.

Rise Up Retail, a campaign from labor group Organization United for Respect which assisted Toys R Us employees, does not think that will be a barrier.

The group has sent a letter to Lampert and other creditors demanding financial assistance for workers. It is also pushing for state and federal legislation that would require bankrupt companies to make severance payments.

“Eddie Lampert has picked apart this company and this is about him taking financial responsibility for his actions and the impact that is going to have on thousands of families,” said Lily Wang, deputy director for Organization United for Respect’s Rise Up Retail campaign.

Turkey’s Erdogan criticizes John Bolton as rift between NATO allies deepens

ANKARA, Turkey — President Donald Trump’s plans for withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria were thrown into more uncertainty Tuesday as national security adviser John Bolton left the region after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to meet with him. Bolton’s mission to smooth a troop withdrawal with U.S. allies instead ended in only widening the rift with Turkey.

The path forward now appears more muddled than ever given Trump’s demand for assurances that Turkey protect Syrian Kurds after U.S. troops depart and Erdogan’s public snub of Bolton.

A senior administration official told NBC News that Trump thought he had gotten a commitment from Erdogan in a Dec. 23 phone call that Turkey would protect the Syrian Kurds, who have been a key U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State, after the American troops leave.

But a defiant Erdogan on Tuesday declined to meet with Bolton, who was in Turkey for talks about the withdrawal. In a speech to his political party, Erdogan said that Bolton had made a “serious mistake” in saying no U.S. troops would leave northeast Syria without such a commitment.

Erdogan said that Turkey would never compromise on the issue of the Syrian Kurds, or YPG Kurdish militia, which Turkey sees as a terrorist organization and part of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party.

Bolton met for more than two hours earlier in the day with his Turkish counterpart, Ibrahim Kalin, the senior administration official, who was at the meeting, said. During that meeting, Bolton presented Kalin with a list of five conditions the U.S. has for withdrawing troops from Syria — items agreed to by Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and James Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy for Syria and the fight against ISIS, according to the senior administration official.

The list includes “a negotiated solution to Turkish security concerns,” the official said, and stipulates: “We want the protection of all civilians, particularly local minority populations. We’ll cooperate with Turkey on de-conflicting the airspace over northeast Syria. The United States opposes any mistreatment of opposition forces who fought with us against ISIS.”

Turkey rejected the proposal.

“I think it’s fair to say that the United States stuck by the president’s request as reflected in these points that the Kurds, that the opposition forces that fought with us, not be mistreated,” the U.S. official said. “And the Turks stuck by their position that the PYD and the YPG are terrorist groups and they’re free to go after them.” (The PYD, or Democratic Union Party, is the political wing of the YPG.)

Kalin told Bolton that Erdogan had committed Turkey to not taking offensive action in Syria while U.S. forces were there, the official said.

The official said Erdogan’s speech on Tuesday was not at odds with the commitment Trump thought he had gotten from Erdogan during their Dec. 23 phone call.

National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said Erdogan called Kalin during their meeting and told him to send his regards to Bolton. However, Erdogan said he wouldn’t be able to spend any time with Bolton because he was headed to Parliament to deliver a speech.

A meeting between Bolton and Erdogan was never confirmed, a U.S. official said, but administration officials had said one was expected.

Jobs report is good news, but American workers still need skills training

With more and more Americans entering a booming labor market and unemployment hovering at 50-year lows, 2019 would seem to be the year of the worker. Wage growth has started to improve, hitting 3.2 percent over the past year, and government data shows there are more job openings than people looking for work.

Ironically, those conditions might mean a better year for those who already have jobs and might be considering a change. Those who have been without jobs, however, face the dual problems of missing skills and disadvantageous location. In addition, the lack of available workers could put the brakes on economic growth.

There’s been an employment boom, with January likely to be the hundredth consecutive month of job growth, according to Becky Frankiewicz, president of North America for ManpowerGroup. “We’re seeing growth across all sectors” and types of work, she told NBC News. In a recent survey, the company found that among the top positions needed were skilled building trades, drivers, and sales representatives. “These aren’t your future AI jobs.”

However, technology has again changed the nature of work. Increasingly, workers need specialized technical knowledge. “We don’t have enough labor and we don’t have enough with skilled capabilities,” Frankiewicz said.

The shortage is hitting many industries hard. The National Kitchen & Bath Association, an industry group for remodelers, surveyed its members and found that 74 percent had difficulty in recruiting labor. “Nearly 50 percent of our members say they’re having trouble even finding professionals” like architects, said CEO Bill Darcy. The organization’s members say the lack of available help causes delays on 30 percent of their jobs.

“We can’t remember a busier period,” said Joanie Courtney, a vice president of industrial staffing firm EmployBridge. “We have about 90,000 temporary employees working every single week,” including drivers, warehouses, and call centers.

Companies find they can’t necessarily do as they once did, which is look for people whose experience and knowledge are exact matches for corporate needs. Fewer high schools have classes that address many types of work that are in critical shortage. For example, Darcy says that only one person enters the building trades for each five that leave.

People who might go into high-tech manufacturing may not have a clear course of training to gain the necessary skills. And in some areas like food service and hospitality, automation increasingly replaces people at tasks. But the economy has been doing well under many measures and so education and training haven’t been a first priority for governments.

“This is when policymakers should think of broad retraining programs,” said Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM US.

Until then, private industry will have to pick up the slack. “Three years ago, 12 percent of employers in the U.S. were providing more training and development,” Frankiewicz said. “Today, half are investing in learning platforms to build their talent pipeline.”

Corporations will have to look more at the changing nature of jobs and, rather than laying off people whose job has been outsourced or automated, prepare them for something else.

Furthermore, a focus on average numbers, like unemployment figures, can miss the variations that leave many without ready access to jobs. Across metropolitan areas, the percentage of jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree that are good or promising ranges from 35 percent in Spokane, Washington, to 9 percent in Washington, D.C., according to a recent Brookings Institution study.

Similarly, unemployment rates vary substantially by region. “While it’s great to see the official unemployment rate at 3.9 percent, this figure doesn’t tell the full story,” said Marie Trzupek Lynch, chief executive officer at Skills for Chicagoland’s Future, a public-private partnership that tries to place unemployed and underemployed people in jobs. The organization works in Chicago neighborhoods with unemployment as high as 16.4 percent.

Cities and states should focus on broader types of employment to extend economic improvement to every part of society, instead of trying to attract the big names such as Amazon.