Honest Weight Food Co-op considers dropping member workers in store
Honest Weight board considers end to discounts for working in store
By Tim O’Brien Hearst-owned Times Union
Published 10:54 pm, Friday, October 16, 2015
The Honest Weight Food Co-op is looking to end its program of allowing members to get grocery discounts for working in the store.
Long a co-op tradition, the board is worried that the program could make the supermarket vulnerable to accusations of minimum-wage violations. The co-op opened a new, larger new store at 100 Watervliet Ave. in 2013, but the resulting increase in membership means there are more people who want to work than hours available.
And since members work as little as four hours a month, President Bill Frye said, they also are less efficient than employees.
"We would like to get the member workers off the floor of the store. It's very expensive," he said. "They are really not as a effective and efficient. They almost have to be retrained every time they come into the store. They also like to chat."
Members who work four hours a week get a 24 percent discount on groceries they buy there. Those who work four hours a month get an 8 percent break.
There are not enough positions in the store for all 1,200 member workers. "There are only so many working members we can accommodate," said Lily Bartels, communications leader for the co-op.
Most worrisome is the possibility of a claim that the co-op is violating minimum wage laws, Frye said.
"The Fair Labor Standards Act requires minimum wage," he said. The savings to a member-worker, he said, might be equivalent to minimum wage, however that is not guaranteed.
The co-op has 12,000 paying members — most of whom receive a 2 percent discount from purchases for their shareholder fee — but only those who work volunteer hours can vote. The board also is looking to change that process to allow all its members to have a say in decision-making.
The co-op is holding meetings this week to discuss the proposed changes. On Saturday a session from 9 a.m. to noon will explore the member labor program. An afternoon session from 2-5 p.m. will focus on shareholder voting rights, decision authority and changes to the bylaws.
On Sunday, a session on the member labor program will run from noon to 3 p.m., while a discussion on the other issues will be held from 6-8 p.m.
The Albany organization would be following the lead of similar stores across the country including in Burlington, Vt., Frye said.
Members would still be able to work, Frye said. Instead of doing so in the store, he said, volunteers would spend those hours on community outreach.
The proposed changes are the result of an effort by a 27-member task force to take a look at the co-op's future. They worked with Thane Joel, a co-op specialist from Syracuse.
As part of the proposed bylaw changes, the number of participants present to form a quorum for co-op meetings would be dropped from 10 percent of member workers to 5 percent of shareholders. That would make 600 people a quorum.
For voting purposes, Frye said, the co-op would call meetings to present propositions to shareholders. The meeting would be left open for two weeks for ballots on issues to be cast before the results are tallied and the decision finalized. The co-op would use a paid service to receive and tally the ballots.
Current voting members would have to approve any of the proposed changes.
Bartels said this weekend's discussions are the beginning of a series of information sessions.
"Probably these decisions will be coming down the pipe in the new year," she said.
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