When I think of Loehmann’s, the famed department store, I think of my older female relatives, who have used it as a hunting ground for thousands of years, like a low-impact Jewish safari. But after 92 years in business, the chain has recently been beset with issues; they’ve filed for bankruptcy twice, in 1999 and 2010, and closed some 20 stores. After they emerged from Chapter 11 for the second time, they found a new CEO, Steven Newman, who’s doing his best to make the store attractive to a younger audience with trendy young designers and “fashionable apparel like patterned shorts,” per a recent Crain’s article about Loehmann’s attempted resurrection.
And according to a just-filed lawsuit by three former employees at its Upper West Side location, the company is completing its turnaround by firing older staff members. Bernice Lowe, 57, Angela Fletcher, 54, and Rosemary Mangum, 76, filed suit on November 13 in Manhattan Supreme Court, alleging they were unjustly fired by the Loehmann’s last year. Although all of them were given other reasons for their terminations, they suspect the real issue was that they no longer fit into the store’s “new, youthful corporate image.”
In their lawsuit, the three plaintiffs point out that besides bringing on Newman, Loehmann’s also hired Carly Zell as a personal shopper at the Chelsea store; Zell, 24 when she got the job, was lauded by the New York Times’ style section as the store’s “powerful secret weapon” in luring The Young People.
Around the same time, they say, their work environments changed for the worse. Lowe, a sales associate since 2007, says her position as floor manager was revoked and that she was told by the store’s general manager, Tricia Trainor, that she’d be disciplined if she worked overtime hours, “even though younger employees worked overtime without discipline.” She was also written up for entering something called the “damaged goods closet,” although she’d been sent in there to do inventory. Lowe was also offended by Trainor saying to a 23-year-old sales clerk, in her presence, that the general manager needed “a youth’s opinion” about an item of clothing.
Lowe says she complained about the “youth opinion” comment, asking to meet with the district manager, Jay Erlichman. Nothing came of that meeting. But two months later, Lowe says, she and a co-worker got into an argument. Lowe says she suggested they take their dispute to the office; the co-worker responded by accusing Lowe of threatening to hit her. The store’s head of Human Resources, Courtney Abrams, told Lowe that “at her age” she should know better and fired her on the spot.
Angela Fletcher says she, too, was forbidden to work overtime, although the younger employees could, and that her request to transfer to a different store was denied. She was put on a 90-day probation period and told by Erlichman she’d be fired at the end of it “no matter what.” And 76-year-old Rosemary Mangum, who’d been at the store since 1993, says she got in hot water for distributing “too many unauthorized discounts,” though she was authorized to do so.
“During her termination meeting,” the suit says, Mangum “was instructed to write a document confessing to the allegations and was dictated the precise language to use in drafting her confession.”
If there’s anything more depressing than a nearly 80-year-old woman being forced to write a “confession” in the back room of an aging department store after she handed out too many discounts, it doesn’t come to mind. Loehmann’s hasn’t yet responded to the suit; the plaintiffs also filed a copy with the city’s Commission on Human Rights.
The full complaint is on the following page.
Send your story tips to the author, Anna Merlan.