(Bloomberg) -- Senator Elizabeth Warren is urging more firms to contribute to a newly formed hardship fund for former Toys "R" Us workers. In response, some are saying they’re sympathetic -- but not responsible.
“It is still inexcusable that many of Toys ‘R’ Us’s investors have been unable or unwilling to help the more than 30,000 American workers who lost their jobs after investors reportedly pushed to liquidate the company,” Warren said in a statement Tuesday. She said Solus Alternative Asset Management, Highland Capital, Franklin Mutual Advisers, Angelo, Gordon & Co., Oaktree Capital, and Vornado Realty Trust should augment the $20 million fund created by KKR & Co. and Bain Capital.
The toyseller’s former private-equity owners said they were forming the fund on Tuesday after months of pressure from former employees and their representatives, along with some public pension funds and lawmakers including Warren, a former Harvard Law School bankruptcy expert who is considering a run for president in 2020. The groups, linked to the Center for Popular Democracy, estimate that workers are owed $75 million in severance pay, and they’ve also pressed Toys “R” Us creditors including Solus to pitch in.
KKR and Bain said in a statement they created the fund “in response to an extraordinary set of circumstances for both of our firms. The confluence of the disruption in retail, the push by the company’s secured creditors to liquidate the company’s U.S. operations, and the fact that we have never experienced something like this in the history of either firm, led us to try and find a way to provide some financial relief for former employees.”
Solus, for its part, said the responsibility for the toyseller’s shutdown lay with its private-equity sponsors who saddled the company “with crushing debt.”
Lenders “neither desired nor had any ability to ‘push’ the liquidation,” Solus said in a statement provided to Bloomberg. Lenders “have made substantial contributions to employees, including $35 million to compensate affected workers and another $180 million to pay administrative claims, including severance.”
Solus and Angelo Gordon now own the Toys “R” Us brand and are weighing a revival of the chain, Bloomberg previously reported. Solus said in its statement that the lenders are looking to use the brand in a way that would create jobs, “as well as exploring additional opportunities to support former employees.”
Representatives from Highland and Angelo Gordon declined to comment while those at Vornado and Franklin Mutual didn’t respond to messages.
The workers’ efforts to get severance pay are just one part of the decline and fall of Toys “R” Us, and there’s been plenty of finger-pointing. The company took on $5 billion of debt in the 2005 buyout, a burden that left it ill-equipped to handle competition from Walmart Inc. and Amazon.com Inc.
While the original intent was to reemerge after filing for bankruptcy last year, disappointing holiday sales and a complex capital structure ultimately led lenders to conclude that reorganizing was futile. That prompted fury from workers who said the company could have been saved.
Another of the lenders, Oaktree, said it didn’t have a role or influence in that decision because unlike the others in the critical group of lenders, it didn’t provide bankruptcy financing and thus wasn’t involved in key discussions about the toyseller’s survival.
“While we very much sympathize with the employees who lost their jobs as a result of the Toys “R” Us liquidation, it wouldn’t be appropriate for our funds, which are owned by our public and private pension, union and other clients, to compensate for losses that our funds and our clients had nothing to do with creating.”
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