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Target Canada workers feel left in the dark as stores close

Employees stock shelves at the new Target store on the eve of the store's opening in Guelph, Ontario in this March 4, 2013 file photo. Only a year ago in 2013, Target was touting its first store openings in Canada. Then Chief Executive Gregg Steinhafel told investors he was pleased with how his workers and systems were handling the launch. But things were already going awry, said the sources, who worked at two of Target's three distribution hubs and spoke on condition of anonymity. Target, which is due to report its quarterly financial results on May 21, 2014 has said little about what went wrong with its Canadian supply chain. To match Exclusive TARGET-CANADA/ REUTERS/Geoff Robins/Files (CANADA - Tags: BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT) (REUTERS)

When Target invaded Canada and started hiring thousands of new staff, workers flocked to the beloved American retail giant. They were eager to be part of something fresh. But some believe their journey is now closing on a very sour note, saying Target has missed the mark on employee compensation and communication.

When Sarah first started working at an Ontario Target store almost two years ago, she was brimming with excitement. "We thought, this is it, we’re the bee's knees, we’re setting up a store that’s going to take over."

Sarah is not her real name. She wants that withheld, she says, because "we’ve been told as a team that we’re not to speak to the press or we could be terminated early." Target spokesman Eric Hausman said in an emailed statement that it’s standard practice that media only deal with the company’s public relations department.

Breaking news: you’re out of work

Sarah believes her bright beginning at Target has deteriorated into the darkest of endings. The team floor member first learned Target Canada was doomed, not from her employer, but from the television news in the staff lunch room.

"Within half an hour of it being on the news, we had [customers] coming in going, 'When’s it all going liquidation, when’s the sales start?’ Like, whoa, we just found out half an hour ago we’re losing our jobs. Let us wrap our head around that."

Sarah says it wasn’t until at least an hour after learning the news that management started informing employees that Target was closing its 133 Canadian stores and letting go its approximately 17,600 workers.

Target’s Hausman told CBC News that it broke the news to workers at about the same time it released details to the media.

Uncertain future

"That day was probably a day I’ll never forget," says Sarah. "You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing a team member absolutely in tears or in shambles, [saying] what am I going to do now?"

"We live in a city where unemployment is skyrocketing. There’s no jobs here. So everybody is panicking," adds the single mother.

Sarah’s colleague, Rachel -- again not her real name -- is also the sole breadwinner in her family. When she started working at Target almost two years ago, she was close to declaring bankruptcy.

"What's going to happen?" she asks. "Am I going to end up not being able to pay my rent and not being being able to feed my kid?"

It’s not severance

Target is providing all eligible team members at least 16 weeks of pay starting on January 25th. But both Rachel and Sarah feel the deal is unfair. That’s because some workers may have to work the entire time to get that money and others won’t while the stores wind down operations.

The law firm, Koskie Minsky LLP, is representing Target employees in the insolvency. In a webinar (online seminar), it informs workers, "You will likely be required to report to work for a number of weeks (and in some cases all) of your notice period." But it also notes that eligible employees who work fewer than their normal hours during the final weeks will still get paid.

"That’s the sad part, we’re begging to be laid off first," says Sarah. "If we work the full 16 weeks, it’s 'Thank you very much for your hard work, goodbye.’ We get nothing. So it’s not severance I’m getting. It’s a paycheque."

Target's Hausman told CBC News that there is no severance because Target Canada is insolvent. The company has applied for creditor protection and created an employee trust, providing workers with a guaranteed minimum 16 weeks pay.

Hausman said it’s a good deal, stating: "I’d encourage you to look at how others are talking about this Trust. I have seen others quoted [in the media] as calling this set-up unprecedented for a [Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act] proceeding." He gave no details why it should be considered "unprecedented."

Labour expert Maurice Mazerolle believes the trust deal is "as good as it gets" for Target workers given the complex situation. But he says he understands why it would breed employee resentment because some will have to work until the bitter end and others won’t. "Do you really want to create this, kind of indirectly, two-tiered system?" he asks.

The Ryerson University professor suggests Target should consider extra compensation for those who remain on the job: "Give them a bonus or something at the end of this in order to thank them for soldiering on when others weren’t."

No clear message

Both Sarah and Rachel also complain that since the bad news broke on Jan. 15, Target hasn’t been upfront about what its ill-fated employees can expect during the final weeks on the job.

"We’re all just so scared," says Rachel. "We need to know what is happening, when are the liquidators coming, what is going to be the process with that, are we losing half the staff? And if so, is it going to be by volunteer? Is it random picking?"

"It’s very tight-lipped," adds Sarah. "I don’t feel they’re providing me with information. If anything, It’s kind of like team members have to eavesdrop on the management’s conversations."

In response, Target’s Hausman said, "In terms of communications, leaders have messages for their teams and all team members have opportunities to ask any questions they may have during this difficult period."

Life after Target?

Both Sarah and Rachel must now figure out their futures. Rachel wants out of the retail business. Sarah says she and many of her colleagues can’t see past their present troubles. She says they want details about what their job will entail in the next 16 weeks and if they’ll even be working.

"We want answers before we can even comprehend what we can do in the future," she says.

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