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Displaced employees at Brandon Walmart want answers

BRANDON — A group of Walmart employees displaced by the sudden closure of the company's superstore on State Road 60 says it will fight for greater employment stability while waiting for the store to reopen in October.

Teaming with the Organization United for Respect, or OUR, the employees are circulating a petition with three requests for the retail giant.

"The first is to transfer all of the associates, not just some of them; and the second one is, when they transfer them, they should make sure they aren't losing any hours or pay or benefits," OUR activist Eric Schlein said.

"The third is, Walmart is going to take six months to reopen this store, and when they reopen the store they've made no promises to workers that they're going to be able to return the positions to the workers. So we want them to reinstate the workers' positions."

The employees staged a protest April 29 in front of the retail outlet on State Road 60, chanting "Walmart, Walmart you're no good, treat your workers like you should."

Honks of support from passersby showed a community of support for the protesters and employees who lost their jobs when Walmart closed the Brandon location, citing plumbing issues, and four others across the nation.

Schlein said some workers were transferred to other stores, but many were not.

Michael Garafano was transferred to the neighborhood market location on Lithia-Pinecrest, but lost his benefits along with his full-time status.

Garafano is miffed about the sudden closure and is dubious of the reasons given by the company.

"We really didn't get any notice at all, and as far as why they closed we're not really believing it too much," said Garafano, a father of three. "I was in maintenance for 6 1/2 months and I spoke with many plumbers who worked at the store and they didn't give me any indication that there was anything serious going on."

Walmart officials said the five closed stores across the country had between 100 and 140 service calls regarding plumbing, but Garafano and other protesters think they would have received more warning of the closure for such an issue.

"I believe that Walmart is not telling the truth," said 68-year-old Nancy Reynolds, who has worked at the Merritt Island location for seven years. "I'm here in solidarity, supporting the Brandon workers, because it makes all of us worry. Our jobs could be next."

Garafano thinks the recently announced minimum wage increase to $9 may be a key issue, calling the closure an easy way to reclaim that money.

Prior to the protests, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union announced plans to seek an injunction from the National Labor Relations Board, requesting the retail giant reinstate the 2,200 jobs that were lost in the five closed stores across the country.

Walmart issued a statement saying it is still in the process of reviewing and addressing any plumbing issues at the store and working to assist employees in their relocation.

"We are continuing a comprehensive review of work that needs to be done in the building to address plumbing and other issues, and to make other needed improvements to the facility," the statement said. "Once this is complete we will request the necessary permits.

"In the meantime, we will continue to focus on our associates as we identify transfer opportunities at local area stores and provide severance pay and benefits for those that qualify."

Walmart previously stated that those not able to transfer will receive regular pay for 60 days in accordance with the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act.

Employees who do not find an eligible position in 60 days may receive severance benefits equivalent to one week of pay for each full year of service.

Walmart also will hold an internal job fair to assist with transfers and help with resume writing.

Still, the activists said they plan to continue their crusade until all workers regain employment with the same amount of time and benefits that were previously held.

"Our members have not decided completely what they want to do next, but we are circulating the petition and thinking about larger actions," Schlein said.

Contact Kelsey Sunderland at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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