The Suits

A wrongful-termination suit at Sears: Blame the Internet--or homophobia?

There's an episode from the most recent season of The Office in which the now-corporate-drone Ryan comes to Scranton to bring Dunder Mifflin into the digital age as clients leave in droves for bigger stores with better Web sites. The former intern sits across from manager Michael Scott and tells him, "This company is getting younger, faster, and more efficient. You need to prepare yourself."Scott, convinced this Internet thing can't beat the personal touch he brings, responds by delivering enormous cellophane-wrapped gift baskets filled with peanut brittle and macadamia nuts to corporate customers who recently jumped ship. "Now they're telling me that I can't win back clients using old-fashioned business methods," a peeved Scott confesses to the camera. "I would like to see a Web site deliver baskets of food to people."It turns out nonfictional commissioned salespeople are suffering the same problems as the hapless associates of Dunder Mifflin. Michael Jestrab of Bellevue was fired after putting in six years as a commissioned sales associate at Sears' Redmond store. While things started out well, he says, the company started looking for ways to draw more Internet traffic. Web-only deals popped up, and suddenly there was no incentive to buy in-store, he says.Adding insult to injury, Jestrab wasn't just losing commissions to the Web; people were coming in, using the sales staff for advice and problem-shooting, then leaving the store and ordering online. "I ended up doing a lot of extra free labor for them because I'd have to handle their problem calls," he says. "I felt like I was being used by the company."So in June 2007, Jestrab organized the other sales staff to send a letter to Sears' corporate offices in Illinois, explaining how the online deals were killing their commissions and asking that they be repealed. They never heard back, but by the end of the year Jestrab got the boot. On May 9, Jestrab filed suit for discrimination and wrongful termination. "When folks get together to try to better their working conditions, it's illegal for management to retaliate," says his attorney, Gregory Worden.Jestrab's claim primarily surrounds the letter, but he notes that when he added his male partner to his health insurance, his treatment got worse—so a violation of sexual orientation protections is also being claimed, as is age discrimination. As in The Office, Sears is trying to make the sales staff much younger, says Jestrab, 49. "I was replaced by a...straight white male [who is] 22, 23 years old."Attorneys for Sears did not respond to requests for comment.

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