After filing for bankruptcy protection in an Ontario court last month, Sears Canada said Friday that it plans to dole out big bonuses to senior management while the retailer trudges through a painful restructuring, even as thousands of laid-off workers aren't being paid promised severance.
According to court documents, Sears - which promised to close 59 stores and eliminate 2,900 jobs across the country as part of a court-supervised restructuring process - will pay up to $7.6 million in retention bonuses to 43 executives and senior managers at the company's head office in Toronto – the same management team that lead the company as sales plummeted and it spiraled into insolvency. As CBC News reports, that works out to an average of $176,744 per employee, although it's unlikely the money will be divided up so evenly.
Meanwhile, the company said it won't be paying lower-level employees a severance, which could equate to a loss of tens of thousands of dollars per person. Predictably, the news isn't going over well with the company's laid-off workers.
"Why aren't they able to pay us out the severance if they have this [bonus] money?" says Zobeida Maharaj, a laid-off senior operations manager who spent 28 years working for Sears in the Toronto area.
"They have no moral values, no compassion, nothing in their hearts."
Sears argues that the hefty paydays are necessary to keep the management team from jumping ship as the company restructures.
Sears Canada points out that the bonus payments — known as the Key Employee Retention Program (KERP) — have been approved by the Ontario Superior Court. Offering cash incentives during restructuring is common and often necessary to retain key employees, the company said.
"A lack of a KERP in this scenario would potentially result in a worse outcome and negatively impact a variety of stakeholders," spokesperson Joel Shaffer told CBC News.
In a revelatory twist, the managers who guided the company into bankruptcy stand to profit handsomely by doing so; many could reap enormous bonus payments beyond those mentioned above, including incentive-based payoffs, if they can bring the company through bankruptcy intact.
“The executives and senior managers tasked with guiding Sears through the restructuring will earn up to an additional 25 per cent to 100 per cent, on top of their base salary.
Most will get their bonuses in quarterly installments, receiving 75 per cent of their payments within six months. The final 25 per cent won't be paid out until a successful restructuring is complete.
Sears also plans to pay retention bonuses of up to $1.6 million to 116 senior store employees who will oversee liquidation sales at locations that are closing. That amount works out to an average of $13,793 each and will be contingent on certain sales targets.”
But try explaining to recently unemployed Sears workers why the compay should be allowed to pay out these bonuses before the severence payments promised to them and thousands of their peers.
[Zobeida ] Maharaj says she can understand paying retention bonuses to store employees working on the front lines. But she argues the big payouts to higher-ups at head office are unfair when ex-workers like her have lost their severance.
"I'm shocked as to how they got this grant permitted to have these people — these headquarters [big-wigs] — fill their pockets even more on the suffering of Sears employees," says Maharaj. "We're just the little ants at the bottom."
Rosa Dalessandro also wonders why there's money to pay Sears executives when she's losing severance that amounts to about a year's salary.
"It's very upsetting," says the former Toronto-based sales manager, who worked for the company for 20 years.
Dalessandro was laid off in March and Sears cut off her severance payments last month. This week, the retailer also cut her benefits and she got hit with an unexpected $400 dental bill.
"I'm opening all the bills right now and I'm like, 'Wow, wow, wow,' because you don't have money coming in. It's really affected me and my family," says Dalessandro.
"It's almost like what they took from us, they're giving to the executives downtown."
Sears management argues that the bonuses are necessary to ensure that important employees stick around to help rebuild the company as it struggles through bankruptcy.
While it may sound "cold and heartless" to some workers, putting money aside to keep key employees is considered a prudent move, says employment lawyer Adrian Ishak. "These KERPS are a necessary evil."
When a company is insolvent, Ishak explains, creditors line up to try to recoup their losses. While laid-off employees are considered low priority, retention bonuses for key staff — if approved by the court — often get top priority because those employees are needed to help restructure the company.
"Where you really need to incentivize are people at the top levels, those who are going to be responsible for elaborating the plan, as well as implementing it," says Ishak, a partner with Rubin Thomlinson LLP in Toronto.
If key staff manage to successfully restructure Sears, he adds, it will be the best-case scenario for the company's creditors. "If it's a continuing enterprise, there will be far fewer losers," he says.
But perhaps the most outrageous injustices can be found at the highest level of Sears senior management, where CEO Eddie Lambert has spent years laying claim to the company’s assets.
As we’ve reported, previously if Sears Canada were to go bankrupt, Lambert - also the company's largest shareholder - loses his equity stake, but he remains the company’s principal creditor. Already, Lampert has effectively laid claim to enormous amounts of the company’s assets through loans he’s made. His hedge fund, ESL Investments, also owns large stakes in Lands’ End and a Real Estate Investment Trust that gained control of some of Sears’ best properties in a $2.8 billion deal back in 2015, then leased them back to the company.
As is the case in many bankruptcy filings, the owners and managers of the company protected themselves while the company floundered. Now, Sears employees will need to make do without thousands of dollars in wages they had been anticipating.