The Boise Co-op board hired the grocery’s first CEO about six months ago, and the board got an earful this week from employees who say the member-owned business is headed in the wrong direction on wages, transparency, communication and culture.
A standing-room-only crowd of about 60 people jammed into the classroom of The Village at Meridian store on Monday night, spilling onto the patio. Employees, shoppers and supporters spoke to the nine-member elected board and the CEO, Michelle Andersen.
Andersen did not respond, but the board president, Shannon McGuire, praised her, saying Andersen had tackled problems that had festered for years and has been “amazing” to work with.
The meeting followed a letter from unidentified “concerned co-owners” of the Co-op that was posted on Reddit last Thursday. It said recent changes in personnel and policy have employees asking for “greater wage equality” and “transparency in hiring practices and managerial decision-making,” and it urged members to attend the meeting to find out more.
Among issues raised at the meeting were:
1. Pay. One employee told the board that wages aren’t keeping up with housing prices, and a newly instituted raise cap of 3 percent means that some workers are having to take second and third jobs to make ends meet. She said that while the health benefits are very good, some employees aren’t using them because they can’t afford the co-pays or prescriptions.
“Are you aware of the Co-op’s starting wages for associates?” she asked. One current and one former employee told the Idaho Statesman that associates typically start at about $10.75 an hour.
In a brief response Tuesday, Boise Co-op management said that there isn’t a hard cap on raises, but any pay hikes above 3 percent require documentation and approval.
2. Employee representation. Jeremiah “Jerry” Jarrett, who has worked at the Village location for two years, asked the board whether it had any plans to bring back one or more Employee Communications Handling Officer, or ECHO, positions. Those are employees elected to represent employee interests to management and the board.
“If not, what is your plan for fostering open communication within staff, management and the board of directors?” Jarrett asked.
He urged them to consider adopting the practice of the Skagit Valley Food Co-op in Mount Vernon, Washington, where two staff members sit on the board (one voting, one nonvoting).
“They act as a liaison, and there’s complete transparency as they sit in on the closed sessions as well as the open,” Jarrett said.
3. The firing of a veteran manager. Jarrett also read a letter from an employee who couldn’t attend the meeting: Samuel Paden, manager of the wine and beer department at the Village store. Paden wrote that the recent firing of Village deli manager Melissa Craft had sent “shock waves” and was “yet another instance of abuse of power.”
Paden said employees were told to take any concerns directly to Human Resources and the CEO, but “such actions are now being retroactively characterized as disciplinary conversations.”
“We are being told to embrace the the values of respectful honesty, collective harmony and positive spirit of action,” Paden wrote. “However, we are not allowed to be honest. There is no harmony. And the spirit of every action taken by leadership is negative.”
Craft worked at the co-op for four years. She oversaw a staff of about 40, she told the Statesman in a phone interview Monday.
“I had no verbal or written warnings,” she said. “HR retroactively established a pattern of insubordination. Voicing any opposition, they’re turning that into insubordination.”
There’s been other turmoil over firings since Andersen started in March. The manager of the North End store, Matt Fuxan, was ousted.
4. High-paying jobs not posted. Two new positions with salaries rumored to be in the six figures — executive chef and culinary director — were created and filled without job notices being posted.
“All of our jobs are always posted,” Jarrett said in an interview after the board meeting. “The fact that we weren’t even given a chance was upsetting.”
There’s no policy at the Co-op requiring that all jobs are posted, and it previously has looked outside for people with specific skills and talents, management said Tuesday.
5. Treatment of workers. One woman, who identified herself as a member since 2004, told the board that how a store treats its employees is a big factor in where she shops.
“I shop here a lot. I buy all organic food, so I buy most of my food here,” she said. “But Trader Joe’s is opening up right down the street (on Eagle Road), in October or November, around that time frame. So if I’m forced to, I will move my business. I’m probably not alone in that.”
Board pleased with CEO
McGuire, the board president, told the crowd that the Boise Co-op’s bylaws say it is a “consumer cooperative,” organized for the benefit of shoppers/members, not a “worker cooperative.”
She said the board sets the vision, direction and strategy for the Co-op, while the CEO handles daily operations. The board is not involved in the hiring or firing of anyone other than the CEO, she said.
McGuire said the board has been pleased with Andersen’s performance as CEO. Andersen previously worked for 20 years at Starbucks, her last role as Mountain West regional director. She leads a staff of about 230 employees.
“She has been frickin’ amazing to work with,” McGuire said. “Because in the tenure of the time that I’ve been on the board, it’s the first time that it feels like we’re all jelling. And to hear this? On our side of things, it’s been great, because we’re moving forward. We’re getting policies and procedures in place that we haven’t had. We are bringing up issues that employees have brought up even years ago.
“I don’t want to leave the impression that we’re like, ‘We don’t know what Michelle is doing?’ We know a good degree of what Michelle is doing, and we’re supportive.”
McGuire said Monday’s turnout was the highest since she has been president. The Boise Co-op has about 31,000 members, but few turn out for monthly board meetings.
McGuire told attendees that the board would issue a response to the concerns raised in 48 hours.
The Treasure Valley grocery scene has become very competitive, as local and national chains expand and go upscale. Whole Foods opened in Downtown Boise in 2012, and the Boise Co-op expanded to a second location at the Village in 2016.
In July last year, Albertsons opened a gigantic store on Broadway Avenue in Boise, and then topped that this year by opening an even larger and more lavish one on Fairview Avenue near The Village at Meridian. Trader Joe’s opened its first Idaho store in Boise in 2014 and is planning to open a store in Meridian soon.