Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Business

Thurston: Fired St. Petersburg worker target of J.C. Penney dispute

In the scheme of J.C. Penney's problems, Bob Blatchford might seem like a mismatched sock in a pile of laundry.

Yet the department store chain is waging war against the former St. Petersburg employee who went on national TV last summer to spout off about Penney's questionable sale pricing.

J.C. Penney says Blatchford has confidential customer information — home addresses, credit cards numbers, etc. — that he won't give up.

Blatchford, 54, denies having anything and suspects the real reason he's being targeted is because the company worries about what separate, alleged wrongdoings he might disclose about J.C. Penney.

Blatchford told the Today show in July the retailer was hiking prices on items right before putting them on sale, shedding light on an open retail secret. In some cases, he said, pricing teams would double the prices, then mark them down by 50 percent. In other cases, even after the discounts, shoppers would end up paying more than the original price.

Two days after appearing on TV, Blatchford was fired from his job as a custom decorating studio coordinator at the JCPenney store at Tyrone Square Mall. He has been out of work ever since.

The retailer contested his unemployment claim but he eventually prevailed and received benefits until they expired in late December. Then, in February, J.C. Penney filed an arbitration petition against Blatchford asking for all company documents and trade secrets in his possession as well as compensation for damages and attorney fees.

Blatchford hasn't responded. "I don't have the recipe for Coke.''

Blatchford says he only went on the Today show after the retailer ignored his internal complaints about alleged wrongdoing and later retaliated against him by cutting his hours twice, to 16 hours a week.

"They were trying to silence me and drive me out,'' he said in a recent interview with the Tampa Bay Times.

J.C. Penney didn't respond to an email inquiring about Blatchford's situation. His dispute comes amid tough times for the chain still struggling to regain customers lost when the company stopped its discount offers and coupons under since ousted CEO Ron Johnson.

But in the arbitration petition filed with the American Arbitration Association, J.C. Penney said the company investigated Blatchford's complaints and, when appropriate, took action, which wasn't always shared with Blatchford because of privacy issues. Releasing company information and talking to the media violated J.C. Penney's statement of business ethics, warranting his dismissal.

Blatchford doesn't regret taking his story public but fears that fighting a big corporation on his own will be difficult. He doesn't have a job or a nest egg to pluck. So far, he is representing himself under the guidance of an unpaid legal adviser.

"It's not ruining my life, but it's incredibly disheartening,'' he said. "I didn't make a lot of money, but I liked working there. I was good at my job.''

Blatchford won't elaborate on the retailer's alleged wrongdoing, except that it involves sales tax manipulation and pricing on national sales ads. J.C. Penney hasn't offered to settle, he said, but has threatened to seek an emergency court injunction, which would take the case public.

Blatchford believes the company is bluffing. Still, he finds the dispute upsetting, especially coming from a company he enjoyed working for and still shops at.

"They are kind of big and scary and they are coming after me,'' he said. "When I hear a door knock, my stomach drops.''

Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.

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Published: 01/16/18