Bookstore Workers Air Complaints Over New Barnes & Noble Management

Since UC Irvine outsourced ownership of The Hill to Barnes & Noble last summer, several longtime student employees at the campus bookstore have complained of negative changes in the workplace, ranging from management’s cutting of hours and reorganization of positions to disorganization of the store and increased merchandise prices.

One student worker, a fourth-year earth systems science major who declined to be named for fear of losing her job, has been working at The Hill since 2014. According to her, following the outsourcing, the store management hierarchy was overhauled as Barnes & Noble managers were flown in from out-of-state and replaced longtime store managers and shift leads.

“After Barnes & Noble brought their own managers in, [employees and former managers] would constantly receive emails about new rules and policies, from restricting conversations with other employees, to stricter dress codes, to the fact that management was eliminating whole departments, like security,” she said. “The emails became increasingly condescending and highly sugar-coated.”

One of her co-workers, a fourth-year economics major who also declined to be named, has worked at The Hill since her freshman year at UCI. She said that the initial condescension from Barnes & Noble management turned into a lack of trust and respect toward longtime employees.

“They began assigning us menial tasks — for example, a manager will tell you to spend two hours setting up a small display,” she said. “When it’s finished, they’ll basically pat you on the head and tell you, ‘Great job!’ and then go get another employee to spend two hours taking the display down. It’s mostly busy work, because they don’t trust us to do anything of substance anymore.”

Another longtime employee, a third-year economics major, said that employees must take whatever tasks they are given or risk being fired.

“If you are not constantly working on a project, then that is taken into consideration as an employee,” he said. “We are not considered equals to Barnes & Noble managers as we were before the transition. Ideas were once bounced off workers and store managers, and now [workers] are kept in the shadows, as managers analyze our efficiency behind closed doors. This is not a metaphor; many workers have witnessed and overheard managers grade work performance of several workers in the back offices of the store.”

The fourth-year economics major employee also noted that the shift scheduling process has changed, making it difficult for student employees to work around their class schedules.

“We used to be able to work around our classes — we could work a short shift, then go to class for a couple of hours, then come back to The Hill and work for a couple more hours,” she said. “Now, everything is scheduled in four or eight hour blocks, with no split shifts. Most students don’t have such huge chunks in their day available to work, so student hours have been cut drastically.”

To compensate, The Hill recently hired about 90 new seasonal employees, many of whom are not UCI students. Several current employees have noticed high employee turnover rates since the outsourcing, as many outside community members are being hired to replace longtime student workers, more than half of whom have already resigned.

The Hill’s previous head manager quit within two weeks of the outsourcing, and according to current employees, many co-workers resigned within one month of the transition. Several others are actively looking for new jobs, as Barnes & Noble management is allegedly in the process of laying off about 50 permanent employees.

“The atmosphere just isn’t the same,” said the fourth-year economics major. “The Hill used to be a community, with a lot of mutual respect. Now it feels almost demeaning. Our managers don’t trust us to do the jobs we’ve been doing for years. They condescend to us, and all we do is petty tasks. We bring them our suggestions and input for how to make the store better for UCI students, but they don’t listen.”

Several employees expressed concern with the new layout of the store, which one called “confusing and inaccessible for students.” She noted that scantrons and blue books used to be located behind checkout counters, where students could quickly purchase them before class. Now, they are located in the middle of the store, forcing students to navigate the store and walk past other merchandise. One employee brought her concern to her managers, but was told that the layout is an “intentional decision” on the part of management to drive sales.

Student workers also reported increased prices of merchandise, from scantrons to clothing to textbooks, which UCI’s Vice Chancellor Thomas Parham attributes to “fluctuating prices on the end of the publisher and manufacturers, not the bookstore itself.”

Vice Chancellor Parham was initially against the outsourcing of The Hill when it was announced in winter quarter 2016, but said that he has since come to support the decision. The outsourcing was inevitable, he said, as UCI had already spent the past five years attempting to boost The Hill’s revenue to no avail. The bookstore would have started draining the university’s budget if it was not outsourced earlier this year.

Parham acknowledged that Barnes & Noble has not yet embraced all of The Hill’s previous UCI traditions, such as Halloween and winter-themed sales and the provision of complementary T-shirts for student events. During this year’s Welcome Week, for instance, ASUCI spent approximately $13,000 more than expected to provide T-shirts for UCI’s world record attempt and other events, since Barnes & Noble did not agree to continue The Hill’s tradition of providing the shirts.

However, according to Parham, UCI administration is now “very” involved with Barnes & Noble’s management of The Hill, from “encouraging more future investment in student events and culture” to “operationalizing the contract to dealing with personnel issues.” He encouraged student employees to report their concerns about The Hill’s new management to UCI’s Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and Auxiliary Services, Dan Dooros.

“If students have concerns, we want them to share them with us — not just to Barnes & Noble staff, but to [Dooros] and other UCI administrators,” said Parham. “[Dooros] can work on behalf of student interests. I can’t guarantee that everything at The Hill will be business as usual, but I can guarantee that we are receptive to student concerns.”

Most employees said that they simply wanted the same levels of trust and respect from managers that they were given before the transition.

“[New management must] lessen the strictness of their policies,” said the third-year economics major. “[They should] provide more trust in their employees in ways that keep the store secure but without insulting workers. Essentially, they need to see us as equals.”