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While Sears executives get $25 million in bonuses, laid-off workers struggle during Christmastime

On Friday, a U.S. bankruptcy court judge allowed Sears Holdings to hand out the bonuses after the company successfully argued that it would lose its top people.

While the executives who presided over the bankruptcy of Sears and Kmart will ring out 2018 with news of $25.3 million in bonuses, laid-off worker Ondrea Patrick will be using her unemployment check to pay for new brakes on her 2000 Dodge Durango.

Patrick, who lost her job when the Kmart she worked at in Rockford, Illinois, closed in October, had been hoping to use the money to buy her kids — ages 1, 2, 3, 7 and 11 — something new for Christmas.

Ondrea Patrick
Ondrea Patrick, who worked part-time for Kmart for nine years, poses with her family in 2017.Catalyst Design and Photography

And it infuriates her that they’ll be getting hand-me-downs and relying on charity this Christmas while the people in charge are handsomely rewarded.

“Those top people and (Sears CEO Eddie) Lampert are having a wonderful Christmas,” Patrick, 36, told NBC News. “They got $25 million in bonuses. Me? I’m late on my bills. The electric company is threatening to shut me off. And I don’t have anything left to spend on the kids this Christmas.”

Patrick, who worked part-time for Kmart for nine years, is one of the thousands of workers whose lives were upended in October when Sears Holdings, more than $5 billion in debt and unable to compete with Walmart and Amazon, declared bankruptcy.

“I was making $10.50 an hour when they closed my store,” Patrick said. “I got my pharm tech license and was working at the service desk. All my life we struggled and I finally felt like I was making it.”

On Friday, a U.S. bankruptcy court judge allowed Sears Holdings to hand out the bonuses after the company successfully argued that it would lose its top people if there’s nothing in their stockings this Christmas.

“Under these circumstances, it would be understandable if many key employees are asking themselves whether they should be seeking other opportunities,” Sears said in a court filing last month.

Sears Holdings “cannot afford this uncertainty,” it said.

But the decision was blasted by critics like Carrie Gleason, policy director for Organization United for Respect (OUR) and the Rise Up Retail campaign that is helping the laid-off workers. She said they’re getting Scrooged by Sears Holdings.

“It’s outrageous that the bankruptcy court approved bonuses for Sears’ high paid executives while laid-off employees get their severance pay cut,” said Gleason.

Sears workers like David Braswell who still have jobs say they are revolted that the bosses are getting big bonuses while they are left with uncertainty.

"I have no idea what it means for my future," said Braswell, a 14-year employee of a store in Midway, Tennessee, and a Rise Up Retail leader. "My coworkers and I have dedicated so much to this company, our customers trust us, and yet we don’t know if we’ll still have a job next week. It’s the holidays and I’m not sure if I can afford my kid’s gifts this year, while executives are getting $25 million in bonuses? That’s not right.”

When NBC News reached out to Sears Holdings to see if the company might reconsider the bonuses in light of the criticism and the fact that so many former workers are struggling, a spokesman responded with a terse note: "We'll decline comment."

In a court filing obtained by the Chicago Tribune, Sears Holdings proposed offering a total of $8.4 million in bonuses to 19 executives if the company meets its financial targets in the next six months.

Sears Holdings also got the okay to set aside up to $16.9 million in retention bonuses for 315 senior employees, the paper reported. Each would get a cash award worth 30 to 40 percent of their salary, split into quarterly payments over the next year.

Ron Olbrysh of the National Association of Retired Sears Employees, which represents about 60,000 people, said he understands why Sears Holdings is giving out bonuses while it’s losing money.

“It’s what a lot of bankrupt companies do,” he said. “They want to prevent their key employees from jumping ship.”

Still, Olbrysh said, “this came as a shock to us retirees.”

“What everybody is wondering is how much of that money Lampert is getting,” he said.

Many NARSE members are also worried about how this will affect their life insurance policies, Olbrysh added.

“Our pensions are secured,” he said. “What concerns most of our retirees is if Sears goes into liquidation after the holidays would they lose their life insurance. It’s not a lot, maybe the average is $8,000 to $10,000. But it’s something and that could be lost.”

Image: Patrick family
Patrick family Christmas picture, December 2018: Cullen 2, Emma 1, Lilly 3, Hunter 11, Ayden 7.Nygren-Kearns Photography

Meanwhile, Patrick’s former co-worker Sheila Brewer, 47, has cancelled Christmas for herself and her husband. She found a job recently at CVS but the first paycheck isn’t coming until after New Year’s and the eight weeks of severance she was supposed to get ended after four weeks when the bankruptcy court stopped the rest of the payments to laid-off Sears Holdings workers.

“I got sick to my stomach when I heard about the bonuses,” Brewer told NBC News. “It was a like slap in the face hearing that these people would get all that money while I can’t even get my severance.”

Brewer, who worked full-time at the Rockford store for 17 years, said she’s just glad her kids are grown “so they wouldn’t be disappointed that there is nothing under the tree.”

“I have been playing catchup financially ever since they laid me off,” she said. “I haven’t even gotten my first paycheck yet.”

Patrick said she and her fiancée Chris will “hopefully” take the kids to her grandfather’s for Christmas.

“They have presents for the kids,” she said.

Patrick said the will dress her brood in donated clothes “that will seem new to them.”

“They don’t care,” she said. “Give them a box of pencils and they would be happy just to have something to unwrap.”