Getting the Ax

Longtime Tucson Target employees say they were forced out because of their higher salaries

Manny Lovio's little stack of papers may be the only proof he has that at one time, his career at Target meant something.

Some of the letters are from the principal and a teacher at Richardson Elementary School, thanking him for contributions he made in 2005 for several school events. Another letter is from a local Marine Corps rep thanking him for toy donations.

If you've been inside any Target store, thank-you letters from schools and community organizations are a normal sight, usually displayed in a glass case near the restrooms or customer service. As an executive team member, Lovio says, he chose what donation requests to approve or reject.

On Nov. 12, 2005, he was unexpectedly called into the store manager's office.

According to Lovio, after 26 years with Target—without any discipline problems, until the very end—he was asked to quit. When he refused, he was fired. He was escorted to his desk to clean out his belongings and then guided out of the store in front of co-workers and customers.

Lovio says that he was in a state of shock. He'd lost his career, which started in 1983 when Target first came to town and he got a part-time summer job there.

"It was humiliating," says Lovio.

He took the job right after he'd graduated from San Manuel High School, when he moved to Tucson to go to Pima Community College. Slowly, he moved up at work, starting as a minimum-wage employee and eventually becoming a salaried store executive, sometimes working 60-to-80-hour weeks.

"At one time, I was the only executive who got graded for doing an almost perfect job," he says.

He helped open the Target at El Con Mall and was sent to other stores to help when certain departments weren't performing correctly. His reviews all along were either excellent or outstanding, he says.

A year after being fired, he filed a discrimination complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the Arizona Attorney General's Office, noting that he was replaced by a younger employee who was white. Lovio is Mexican-American.

The AG's office responded that a review determined there wouldn't be an investigation into the firing, although the letter stated that he had the right to sue. Lovio says he went to see a lawyer, but realized he could not afford legal action.

But shortly after his dismissal, his best friend at the company, Lavonne Beckford, was also fired. And over the last five years, other longtime employees he knew from his early days at Target were also forced to quit or were fired. The former co-workers started meeting with each other and sharing their stories.

They say they began to notice a pattern. Their group, mostly hired in the '80s, had each been with the retail company for 20 years or more. Most of them were salaried executives, making more than $50,000 a year, sometimes even more. Besides the wages, the employees had full benefits, and most were eligible for up to five weeks of vacation.

"They could hire two or three people at the price they were paying us," Lovio says.

At the Kirk-Bear Canyon Branch Library off Tanque Verde Road, Lovio's former co-workers sit around a table in a community meeting room and share stories about how they were fired.

While several firings took place almost five years ago, others occurred just last year. Most have difficulty speaking about what happened. It didn't take long for some to cry, while others raised their voices as they wondered why this happened to them.

Everyone in the room worked at Target for at least 20 years, and most of them had flawless employment records until about a year before they were fired.

"It was as if they were building a case against us," Lovio says.

In the room, almost all of the ex-Target employees are African American or Mexican American. However, Lovio says he fervently believes that they were fired not because of race, but because of age and money.

"I had been there almost 26 years. I figured they were just blowing hot air. They even questioned the donations I made. I asked them to call the principal, but they didn't," Lovio says. "The store manager asked that I terminate myself. I'm sitting here thinking that all along in my life, I've been an example to my kids, trying to do the right thing. They accused me of stealing a $25 gift card. Why would I do that?"

As Lovio talks about the day he was fired, his voice tightens, as if he's holding in his emotions, especially when he talks about his wife and kids. The experience changed his life, he says. He went from making $52,000 a year to $30,000. He and his family didn't live a lavish life or live in a fancy neighborhood, he says, but the change in income created a huge financial stress.

All of the employees here worked with Lavonne Beckford, a former Target employee who filed a discrimination lawsuit against the retail company in 2008.

Beckford told the Tucson Weekly that her attorney instructed her not to comment regarding her case. The lawsuit continues to make its way through the U.S. District Court in Arizona, giving Beckford's former co-workers hope for a little recourse—even if it's just for Beckford.

Beckford's lawsuit states that she started with the company in 1983 as a jewelry-department supervisor and was consistently promoted until she became a store executive. According to the lawsuit, she received excellent and outstanding review scores in her evaluations.

In 2006, a new manager started at the store where she worked. Beckford—who is African American—alleges that the new manager "discriminated against employees based on race and/or national origin"; she says she reported this to the company.

Afterward, the store manager allegedly began treating Beckford differently—following her around the store, questioning her about where she went to lunch, telephoning her during breaks to find out where she was, and telling her that she couldn't eat lunch in her office or at the Target snack bar. Beckford was also allegedly told she could only enter and exit the store through the front doors.

Eventually, Beckford was fired on Jan. 2, 2007, for allowing a cashier to use her authorization number to void her own purchase. She claims she was actually fired because she complained about the store manager and discrimination.

According to a former Target manager, who asked that his name not be used because he now works as a store manager for a different big-box retailer in Tucson, Lovio and his former co-workers are right. Target is all about image, so getting rid of older employees is a good way to make room for younger executives. They look better, and the moves save money, he says.

The manager worked for the company for 21 years with Beckford and Lovio.

"Mostly, I saw that if you didn't do or say things a certain way, as you got older and your pay increased, the feeling was that you were a problem," he says.

During management meetings, the long-time employees identified as problems were called "blockers," he says.

"It was understood that I could hire someone 10 years younger than these people, at half the pay, and they had college degrees. I'd sit during the management meetings, and we'd identify who is a 'blocker'—which meant they needed to leave the company," he says.

The former manager says layoffs or buyouts of long-time employees would have cost the company money, so instead, the corporation put pressure on the store managers.

"We were told to figure out how to get rid of these blockers that cost too much money," he said.

José Garcia figures he was probably considered a blocker when he was fired from Target on Dec. 14, 2008, after working for the company for 21 years. He had just returned to work after taking a week off following his mother's death.

"They got me at a time when I was at my lowest, after coming back from my mother's funeral. I was depressed, sad, and I didn't have any fight left in me," Garcia says.

Before he was fired, his managers were putting pressure on Garcia to fire several subordinates, he says, but he refused and told them he preferred to do more coaching. When he got back to work after the week off, they told him he was being fired for having people work off the clock after 11 p.m., when employees leave the building and lock the doors for the night.

"'We know you made somebody go and get some carts at 11 p.m.,' they told me. I asked how they could prove that. I wanted to talk to the employee who reported it, but they wouldn't let me, and they told me they had it on videotape, but they wouldn't let me see it," Garcia says.

However, it isn't unusual at some stores for employees to get carts after 11 p.m., he says, because as workers and supervisors are leaving, they usually find several carts in the parking lot that other employees forgot to bring in.

"Nobody has ever told me, 'You can't do that,' but they'll find any little thing. ... When they want you out, they'll get you out," he says.

When Target spokesperson Sarah Soriano was first contacted, she denied that Target was being sued for discrimination in Tucson, and said the company hadn't been served. However, Soriano called back later and said she misspoke, confirming Target is in the midst of a lawsuit filed by Beckford.

"Unfortunately, I can't comment on any litigation or any of these specific allegations," Soriano says.

When asked if "blocker" is a word used by Target management to describe executive team leaders who've been identified as being with the company for too long, Soriano says it isn't a term used in Target corporate culture.

"We take pride in our workforce and strictly forbid discrimination of any kind," she says.

Soriano says the company has an open-door policy that encourages employees to talk to human resources staff members or even call the company's hotline to make work complaints.

"We're proud of our open-door policy," Soriano says.

But according to other former Target employees, there is a common belief that calls to the hotline can lead to retaliation from store managers. Mary Mann says she considered calling the hotline after a supervisor, in front of co-workers, mentioned that Mann made $20 per hour and had five weeks of vacation.

"I firmly believe the hotline actually works, but only if you have a lot of employees calling about the same problem. If you have one person calling, a store manager is going to know," Mann says.

Rather than get fired, Mann says she quit, just shy of her 21st anniversary with Target, after numerous write-ups. She was told she had left a back door unlocked when she ended her shift.

"I just quit. I knew what would happen next," Mann says.

A few months later, Mann eventually found a job at Walmart, a retail giant better known for foreign-made bargains than taking care of its employees.

Mann says she's aware of the reputation, but that working at Walmart has an upside. There are programs to help employees who may be having problems paying an electric bill, she says, and adds that there is company-wide recycling for everything, while at Target, there was only recycling for cardboard. She also thinks there's a better system in place for employees to get promoted.

Still, Mann says, it's like she's starting all over again.

"We busted our asses to get to that $20 an hour. Nobody made it easy for me," Mann says. "Now I'm making half the money, and with the economy, it's very, very hard. I am almost 50 years old. I was making good money, and I always thought I'd retire working at Target. Now I have all this retail experience. People are afraid to hire you, afraid to have you start from the bottom, because they know you made more money before."

Like Mann, Jeff Stehle was an hourly employee at Target making close to $20 an hour; he was close to his 20th anniversary with the company when he was fired. He had years of positive reviews, but during his last year, he began working for a new executive team leader who didn't seem to like him much. Stehle is deaf, and he wonders if that was why the new team leader didn't care for him, he says.

In December 2009, he was fired for unsatisfactory work performance based on previous write-ups. He says he never received such write-ups when he was supervised by Garcia and Lovio.

"I'm almost 40 years old, and I had been there a long time. I thought about using the hotline, but I was worried about being retaliated against. I didn't want to be labeled a complainer," Stehle says.

"Right now, the biggest pain is that I don't make nearly as much money—a third less than what I (made at) Target. I had just bought a house a year and a half ago, and now I have no medical insurance, and I can't afford to pay for it for my family. It is really painful."

Sandy Klinetobe was fired in April 2009, and she's still looking for a job. Klinetobe says other retail companies tell her she's overqualified after working at Target for 23 years.

At 41, like Mann and Stehle, Klinetobe is starting all over again.

"I even called on old friends, but the thing was, three or four years ago, I could have called any of them and gotten a new job. Now they tell me, 'I wish I could get you on, but we are not hiring. We're trying to cut back,'" Klinetobe says.

There's a little hope, however, with some new retail stores opening in Tucson. Klinetobe says she's hoping to land at the new Burlington Coat Factory at El Con Mall. If that doesn't happen, she's thinking about going back to school—something she could have done right out of high school had she not chosen to work for Target, she says.

"I've been thinking of going to nursing school. I just don't know how that will work for me financially. I went to Pima College at the time, but the wage increases, the good reviews and the compliments made me stay and work three times as hard," Klinetobe says.

The year before she was fired, the company agreed to let her take time off when her back went out. The agreement was based on the federal Family and Medical Leave Act; she checked in with a corporate office to file required paperwork and make sure she could continue taking the leave when her back again locked up.

"Even though it was approved by corporate, I started getting called into the store manager's office and asked about the leave and was told it was causing a strain on my co-workers. I thought to myself, 'I shouldn't be getting pulled into the office, especially if it was approved by Target. Why was I given such a hard time?'" Klinetobe asks.

Klinetobe says she was eventually fired for not locking the store door one night.

"I know I locked that door. I know everyone makes mistakes, because everyone is human, but when you specifically remember the couple that walked out in front of you, and you said good night, and you locked the door right behind them, you're pretty sure you locked the door. If I could remember a detail like that, I just don't believe I left the door unlocked," Klinetobe says.

"I believe it was the medical-leave situation and that I stood up for myself."

While his brother, Manny, was fired from Target, Robert Lovio continues to work there. Another brother and a sister also used to work for Target, but now work elsewhere.

"I stayed because I like it. It's a good company. I got my degree in business law and criminal justice, and got a job at the courthouse in Florence for $12 an hour. I left Target, but I missed it, and after two weeks, I went back to making minimum wage. I was just really happy there," Robert Lovio says.

Currently, he works at the Target at Irvington Road and Interstate 19, and he recognizes that talking to the press could lead to problems, especially since he's had a few experiences within the last year that make him think he may eventually suffer the same fate as his brother.

He says he signed an agreement with his employer that says he can't reveal financial information, so he can't divulge his salary after working for the company for 26 years.

"I go to work and give 150 percent. I still love my job. I'm just not so sure if what is going on with people I've worked with for years is right. It doesn't seem like it," he says.

"Twenty-three of my 26 years were in logistics, and I opened up a lot of stores in Tucson. ... And in the '90s, I was the fixer: They'd send me in to fix processes that were broken or put the store on the right path. The company also sent me to Florida, Georgia, Texas and New Mexico to open stores and train people."

He and his brother were even sent to corporate headquarters in Minneapolis to work on Spanish-language training materials to be used by Target all over the country. Those days of travel, however, began to wear him down, and he asked to stay put in Tucson.

After his dad passed away, he took three months off to help his mother adjust. He asked if he could go back to working the floor, which he was begrudgingly allowed to do. During that time, he says that one store executive told him that the district manager said, "Wow, Robert sure makes a lot of money. I could get two people for what he makes."

Robert says he complained, and from there, things got weird. His first review after going back to the floor was an 80—not bad, he says. Then the next year it was a 78, and then last year, he got a 67.

"OK, I've never gotten written up. My review comes up, and I get 67. Really?" he asks, adding that overall, his team and the store received high marks.

Just in case, he says he's documenting like mad and is being extremely careful, knowing that it doesn't take much to get shown the door.

"I'm walking a fine line here, but I feel that while my salary may seem high, I've earned every last penny of that. I never had any bad reviews, never, and then they give me this review this last year. And I just didn't think it was right. When I started talking to Lavonne (and) José, and I started looking at the number of people in the room, I said to myself, 'Hell, no, we should talk to someone,'" he says.

"To me, it's just an awful way to treat people who have given a lot to the company. It's just wrong, the way they have treated them. I've been trying to be positive and come in and do 150 percent. But I've seen how this affects people."

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