by Jordan Varney and Emily Dill
DAVIS — For 105 years, the Anderson family owned part or all of the Davis Ace Hardware. In April 2019, Jennifer Anderson sold the store to Crown Ace Hardware, a company based out of Huntington Beach, California that owns 16 Ace Hardwares.
As part of the Vanguard’s investigation into COVID-19 cases at the Davis Ace, the Vanguard talked to multiple current and former employees about the corporate owners of the store as well as the president of Crown Ace, Mark Schulein. Workers that the Vanguard talked to noted changes and frustrations in how the Davis Ace was run when Crown Ace took over.
Employees said that lunches were cut from an hour to half an hour. Sources noted that employees were stripped of certain permissions. One source said “most of us aren’t allowed on AceNet anymore [the site that they order products from]” while another said, “it used to be that everybody could do that” and that there were a lot of “little annoying inconveniences like that.”
One source took a stronger stance, saying that Crown Ace “slowly stripped away basic permissions from employees that allowed us to do our jobs efficiently.”
A source we talked to identified what they felt like was a “dramatic change in demographics” at the store that “gives insight into how Crown Ace operates.” They explained that before the Crown Ace takeover the Davis Ace workforce was composed of “ex-mechanics, handymen, garden experts, people that really knew what they were talking about.” But when Crown Ace took over, “they saw the fact that we’re a university town and decided to base the model off of high turnover. Basically going more for cheap labor rather than skilled labor and people that know what they were doing.” Consequently, “we have definitely lost a lot of the expertise that we had previously.”
There was disagreement among the sources about whether or not someone at Davis Ace could make more than $15 an hour, with one saying, “Crown just refuses to pay anyone a decent wage, we max out at $15…they’re prioritizing cheaper labor and cutting costs over being the expertise that Ace is kind of known for.”
In direct contradiction of that, another source said that they “personally make more than $15 an hour, and I’m just a regular associate.”
Multiple Glassdoor reviews of Crown Ace note low pay, with one saying that employees are “overworked and underpaid” and another saying they are “under compensated, under appreciated.”
A Glassdoor review of Davis Ace written in August 2020 stated to “watch out for a certain manager. He grooms his young female cashiers into sleeping with him…please look into the rampant sexual abuse in a certain department.”
When asked about this, none of our sources reported knowing about these allegations but did know of other possible instances of inappropriate jokes at Davis Ace more recently. One of them would not speak on the record about it and one of them told us that the person in question got transferred recently.
When Crown Ace took over, the local human resources (HR) representative was let go and the corporate HR worker stepped in. Most of the employees we talked to
had seen but never met any of the Crown Ace managers or HR workers.
“It’s a lot different from when Jennifer Anderson was there, because she was there almost every day,” one said, but now “they’re not really in touch with what’s going on.” Another source added, “I’ve only ever seen [a corporate employee] once, and they were talking to [the managers] and it seemed very important…so I walked the other way.”
The Crown Ace HR representative is in charge of contact tracing the positive COVID-19 cases of Davis Ace employees. One employee said when they informed HR of a possible exposure from a coworker, Crown Ace “waved it off until my coworker had a positive test and even then wanted me to get back to work, until I walked them through the incubation period.”
When asked if employees have been actively at work who have later tested positive, one source said they were exposed to multiple people at work who then tested positive for COVID-19.
In the earlier parts of the pandemic, because Crown Ace wanted “discretion” with positive COVID-19 cases at the store, they would “release it eventually, a few days after someone got the coronavirus.” More recently, however, “they tell us within 24 hours of finding out.” One worker said, “I don’t think there’s any type of maliciousness at all, they’re not trying to keep it from us.”
During the Crown Ace takeover, the responsibilities of Davis Ace employees who were let go were delegated to corporate employees and the manager of the Davis Ace. The sources we talked to had mixed reactions about the manager. One source said “he encourages us to go to him with any concerns that we have.” A worker said he was “friendly” but also “looks tired a lot.”
They further specified that because the HR representative is at Crown Ace headquarters which is “far away,” and that “a lot of HR stuff that can be only done in house was done by him [the manager].” One source said about the HR representative that she will come in “every now and then.”
Another source said that the Davis Ace manager was “ok but pretty dismissive,” and that he “has a lot of workload on him after Crown took over and now he’s doing the work of like three people.” Another source took a stronger stance saying, “I think he could have done more to advocate for additional protections for workers but was and is unwilling to take our concerns into consideration. He’ll do what corporate tells him and isn’t really concerned with how it affects employees.”
The Vanguard reached out to Davis Ace management as well as Crown Ace, and heard back from the president of Crown Ace, Mark Schulein.
He first emphasized Crown Ace’s commitment to the city of Davis. “We employ many local people, pay local taxes and support the city,” he said. Later on he described his admiration for Davis: “Davis is an outstanding community and one that we are very proud to be a part of and we plan to be a core part of the community for a long time.” He wrapped up his thoughts with “it’s not “just a business” to us… it’s a family, a legacy, and a community that we’re proud to serve.”
He also noted that Davis Ace “raised over $14,000 in 2020 for UC Davis Children’s Hospital.”
Schulein provided some bullet point information about Davis Ace. He said there have been six total COVID-19 cases among employees; in 2020, $79,336 was paid in bonuses to non-management employees; and the average tenure of those working at Davis Ace is 3.6 years with “many over 5, 10 and 20 years.”
With regard to COVID-19 policy, he said that “we have worked incredibly hard to be a safe environment since day one of COVID. This is hard work; not just ensuring a safe place to work and shop but addressing the emotions and perspectives of the public and our staff. Retail workers including our team have been tasked with being the ‘mask police’ which puts our team in a very challenging position.”
When asked about wages being capped at $15/hour Schulein said, “The wage range of non-salaried team members is $14-$23 per hour…misconceptions around wages, I don’t believe there is one. We have a wage key that provides clarity to team members of their wage opportunity based on their role, skill and knowledge, we work to be transparent in our growth opportunities.”
In terms of addressing rats at the Davis Ace, he said, “The rat situation is and has been handled aggressively internally and by third party professionals.”
Regarding HR, Schulein stated, “We have a HR Manager on our Support Team that manages and oversees HR activities. So no, [the Davis Ace manager] is not the HR manager, and has a HR professional fully engaged with him and the store at all times. The HR manager interacts with store management as well as directly with team members constantly. It is an open door policy.”
Regarding the allegations of inappropriate conduct, Schulein said, “We have not been made aware of any such situation nor has such a complaint been made to Store Management or HR.” He further specified that “we have a clearly defined process to deal with any HR complaint or concerns. We will investigate and take appropriate action on all such reports. We have HR attorneys available to us in the case we need higher level support and we take all HR situations very seriously.”
A possible HR inquiry arose when the Vanguard originally published about the COVID-19 cases at Davis Ace. The undergraduate writer of the piece received a direct message on her personal Instagram account that said:
“Hi Emily great article on Davis Ace but you committed a rookie mistake in journalism by not getting Davis Ace side of the story … oops! Can you reach out to them I’m dying to hear what management has to say about these allegations- thanks!”
The Instagram account that contacted the Vanguard student writer did not have a name attached to it but had over 1,000 followers.
After some investigation, the anonymous Instagram account was found to have many mutual follows and followers with the official Crown Ace Instagram account, including one employee’s girlfriend, son, and father. The Instagram account that contacted the writer also follows former president Donald Trump and an account titled “Donald Trump Fans.” The Vanguard believes a Crown Ace employee runs the anonymous Instagram account that contacted the writer.
This Crown Ace employee has posted on his own, named Instagram account lamenting the closing of beaches in Orange County using the hashtags “LiberateOC” and “RemoveNewsom” and liking a comment saying there were “Satanic Cults running the Government.” The employee also agreed with someone who said his son in the Marines might need to “strap up and protect” at a George Floyd protest that happened in Huntington Beach.
When asked about this Instagram message and account, Schulein said, “This is new information to me and we are investigating.” The Instagram account has since been deleted.
This employee activity, including anonymously contacting a local writer, raises questions about the commitment of some parts of the corporation to adhere to COVID-19 regulations as well as their desire to influence local communication on the issue.
In regard to the first part of this article series and the information from sources the Vanguard received, the president of the company said that “some reports have been made to you that aren’t true representations of us.”
He went on to state that “we are passionate about providing a great and safe place to work and shop where we can truly make a difference in the lives of our team and our customers by being safe, effective, high integrity and doing good.”
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