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Annmarie Reinhart Smith, Who Battled for Retail Workers, Dies at 61

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This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Annmarie Reinhart Smith had worked for Toys “R” Us for nearly three decades when the company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2017, leading to store closings and the layoffs of 33,000 workers, including her. Left without severance pay, she vented her frustration on a Facebook page called the Dead Giraffe Society, named after the store’s mascot, Geoffrey the Giraffe.

A labor advocacy group that was helping Toys “R” Us workers mobilize to demand compensation, like severance and back pay, took notice and recruited her.

Mrs. Reinhart Smith was soon on Capitol Hill, chasing down legislators and meeting with Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Cory Booker, among others, to ask for their support. She joined with other former employees to march in protest through Manhattan, shouldering a mock coffin for Geoffrey.

“It was the start of something that we didn’t think would ever amount to anything,” said Maryjane M. Williams, a friend and 20-year employee of Toys “R” Us who joined the protests. “She was like, ‘What have we got to lose? Let’s go.’”

After a monthslong public pressure campaign against the private equity owners of Toys “R” Us, a $20 million hardship fund was set up for the laid-off workers. Mrs. Reinhart Smith also became the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit in bankruptcy court seeking fair compensation, which won another $2 million for former employees.

“She was our voice,” said Alison M. Paolillo, who worked alongside Mrs. Reinhart Smith for a decade. “She fought for us.”

Mrs. Reinhart Smith died on Feb. 17 at a hospital in Durham, N.C. She was 61. The cause was Covid-19, her family said.

Annmarie Reinhart was born in Levittown, N.Y., on Long Island, on June 11, 1959. Her mother, Diane Patricia (Switzer) Reinhart, was a homemaker who later worked in factory administration. Her father, William Louis Reinhart III, owned a flooring business. She was the oldest of their three children.

She attended Huntington High School and later the Agricultural and Technical College at Farmingdale, today Farmingdale State College. With her longtime partner, Aaron J. Smith, whom she married in 2011, she had two sons, Brandon P. Smith and Jordan J. Smith.

Her husband and sons survive her, along with a sister, Carleen P. Reinhart; a brother, William C. Reinhart IV; a half brother, Kenny Johnson; two stepbrothers, Dean Malazzo and Paul Malazzo; and two grandsons.

Mrs. Reinhart Smith joined Toys “R” Us in 1988 as a cashier in Huntington. Over the next 29 years, she worked her way up to various managerial positions with the chain both on Long Island and in Durham, N.C., where she and her husband moved in 2016.

A warm woman proud of her Irish heritage (she had several green shamrocks tattooed on her right ankle), Mrs. Reinhart Smith watched children grow up as they came to her stores year after year. She also dealt with ornery customers, as she told The Progressive magazine for a recent profile, like one who threw a Power Ranger figurine at her, leaving a scar on her forehead.

In 2005, the private equity firms Bain Capital and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and the real estate firm Vornado Realty Trust took control of the company with a leveraged buyout that left it burdened with $5 billion in debt.

Terrysa Guerra, the political director of United For Respect, the group that recruited Mrs. Reinhart Smith, credited her with helping push Bain and K.K.R. to create the hardship fund. “People saw her as a leader and a trusted voice,” Ms. Guerra said.

On the Dead Giraffe Society’s Facebook page, people who once mocked Mrs. Reinhart Smith’s seemingly futile battle thanked her and the other labor leaders for winning the payouts, even if it was only enough to buy a week of groceries or pay a month’s rent.

While Mrs. Reinhart Smith called the subsequent $2 million bankruptcy settlement “a slap in the face,” the case was considered precedent-setting. Former employees at Shopko and Art Van Furniture, which both also recently filed for bankruptcy protection and closed, have since followed a similar playbook in fighting for hardship funds and severance, Ms. Guerra said.

Mrs. Reinhart Smith remained involved in labor advocacy — helping workers from other retailers organize, pushing for Congress to pass a bill called the Stop Wall Street Looting Act aimed at private equity, and campaigning for a $15 minimum wage.

“If she thought people were being stepped on, she would just step up and be the spokesman, whether that person wanted it or not,” Mr. Smith, her husband, said. “She was just that type of person.”

She continued to work in retail, most recently at a Belk department store in Durham. Belk, also heavily burdened with debt after a leveraged buyout, filed for bankruptcy protection in February but quickly emerged after a reorganization of its finances.


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