Last week a group calling itself the Wheatsville Staff Solidarity Collective published an open letter detailing a host of complaints about working conditions at Wheatsville Co-op, as well as a call for the grocery to raise its starting wage from $9.50 to $11.38 per hour, that being the city of Austin's current living wage standard.
Wheatsville is no stranger to campaigns for higher standards. The co-op took part in the United Farm Workers grape boycott in the Seventies, and just recently its members passed a ban on the sale of Eden organic products, after that company announced it would no longer provide insurance coverage for employee birth control (see "Wheatsville Drops Eden Foods," Nov. 14). But the focus on labor standards for Wheatsville employees themselves is new, and has revealed a surprising amount of discord within the store's ranks.
On one side is the collective – which has insisted on anonymity – and its supporters. Employees – five current and three former – who agreed to speak with the Chronicle argue that a higher starting wage is feasible; they believe top management is overpaid at their expense. They claim that, in addition to not paying all its employees a living wage, Wheatsville consistently short-staffs its stores, leading to overwork and high turnover. They allege not only that their complaints have been dismissed as "being negative," but that employees who speak out are punished. They say Wheatsville management spends more time exhorting its employees to maintain a positive attitude than it does making sure they're adequately trained, or that conflicts are satisfactorily resolved. As one former employee put it, "The training is pretty marginal. They spend a lot of time telling you to smile and be happy, but not enough time teaching you how to do your job."
Because manager salaries are confidential, it's impossible to verify exactly how much General Manager Dan Gillotte and other top staff are actually paid. The collective claims that he makes between $150,000 and $200,000 per year, including bonuses. Gillotte told the Chronicle that his salary is in fact "substantially less than what's been bandied about," but declined to provide a number. He said that Wheatsville follows the recommendations of the National Co-op Grocers when it comes to wage transparency. He also emphasized that the co-op provides health benefits to its full-time employees that exceed what's required by the Affordable Care Act. He argued that implementing a $11.38 minimum wage would be a "big jump," and that the store's profit margins are already very slim. He also said Wheatsville has a grievance process that prohibits retaliation, and that Wheatsville takes complaints very seriously. A regularly scheduled staff survey conducted earlier this year, which Gillotte says had 100% participation, had alerted Wheatsville management to the widespread dissatisfaction with pay. An increase in starting pay from $9 to $9.50 per hour has been implemented, and every employee that makes it past an initial three-month trial period will be paid no less than $10 per hour. Gillotte plans to host an informational meeting this Thursday, May 28, to outline what Wheatsville is doing in response to the survey and why.
Part of the employees' unhappiness appears to stem from their expectation that working at a co-op should be different, and more equitable, than working for a corporation. However, the Wheatsville of 2015 is a far cry from the Wheatsville of the Seventies, when members were required to volunteer their time in order to shop at the store. Wheatsville went from being on the verge of bankruptcy in the Nineties to joining the National Co-op Grocers, renovating and expanding its original Guadalupe Street location in 2008-09, and opening a second location in 2013. The co-op has also had a hand in the creation of other local co-ops, such Black Star Co-op, in which Wheatsville invested $50,000 when it was getting started. As Wheatsville has expanded, it has undoubtedly shed some of its idiosyncrasies and become more focused on growing its customer base. Last year, the store unveiled Co-op Basics, a selection of lower-cost staples, in response to customer complaints about pricing.
The push for greater efficiency – eliminating and consolidating positions, cutting people from shifts on slow business days – is part of that focus on growth. Such tactics aren't uncommon for the retail industry; the question is whether it makes sense for a co-op to follow such practices so closely. Beth Beutel, a Wheatsville employee who has been with the store for seven years, said she "reject[s] the idea of a dichotomy" between co-op principles and concern about profitability. Although she's had complaints from time to time, she said that they were ultimately addressed, and that her experience has been a positive one. According to Beutel, she's "really excited to see how our leaders are going to handle" the collective's campaign.
However, one aspect of the employees' unhappiness feels personal. Other than Beutel, every current and former employee who reached out to the Chronicle said they felt Wheatsville was poorly managed, and that there was an adversarial attitude between management and the other staff. They said that they had tried to resolve their complaints internally, and had published the open letter after exhausting other options. It's impossible to tell just how widespread employee dissatisfaction with management is, but it's clear that many support the idea of a living wage at Wheatsville. A Change.org petition posted by the collective last week titled "Pay Wheatsville Staff a Living Wage" had more than 800 signatures at press time. Whether that call will result in a further wage hike, or any other changes, is yet to be seen.
The Wheatsville board of directors will meet at 6pm, Tues., May 26. For more information see www.wheatsville.coop.
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