‘Shuttle time’ spotlights wage issues at River Valley Co-op

  • Mark Heitman drives the shuttle that ferries River Valley Co-op workers between the Northampton store and the employee parking lot in Hatfield. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Nick Salvatore, who works in the prepared food department of the River Valley Co-op, waits for the shuttle that ferries workers between the Northampton store and the employee parking lot in Hatfield. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Mark Heitman drives the shuttle that ferries River Valley Co-op workers between the Northampton store and the employee parking lot in Hatfield. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Joshua Colbert, 24, who works in the prepared food department of the River Valley Co-Op, waits for the shuttle that ferries workers between the Northampton store and the employee parking lot in Hatfield. “That adds up over time,” he said of the 15 minutes or so employees can spend on the shuttle per day. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 5/23/2017 8:00:52 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Nick Salvatore rolled up to the parking lot at 1:51 p.m. Monday — a minute late for the shuttle.

So the 26-year-old supervisor at the River Valley Co-op sat in his Ford hatchback, puffing his vape pen and waiting for the 2:20 shuttle to scoop him up and take him to work.

Every day, employees drive past the co-op and up Route 5 and 10 to leave their cars in a parking lot in Hatfield. There is no room for their cars in the store lot. A shuttle swings by to ferry them to work, 1.5 miles down the road and 10 minutes away, give or take.

“We don’t get paid for any of this time,” Salvatore said.

Shuttle time can cost employees more than $1,000 per year in lost wages, union representatives say. Some workers interviewed also take issue with wage schedules that mean someone could work at the co-op for three years before making close to a “living wage” of $13.36 an hour.

Workers say they generally feel unheard at the market that brands itself a sustainable, democratic bastion among a sea of cookie-cutter grocery stores.

Four labor complaints filed in the last year with the National Labor Relations Board, and several internal grievances filed through the union-management grievance process, are illustrative of an unsatisfied workforce sparring with a management that capitalizes on a worker-friendly brand, employees say.

“To know that the management is very specifically profiting off that value system, then not upholding them, is like, really offensive, and it pisses people off,” said Kelsi Sleet, 26, who is a union steward and works as a wine and cheese team member.

The co-op is turning a profit, according to its latest available financial reports. For fiscal 2016, the co-op reported a profit of 2.58 percent (under a peer benchmark of 3 percent for extra large co-ops, they said). The co-op also reported more than $25 million in sales last fiscal year, a $2.3 million increase over the year prior.

Membership increased 95 percent in seven years, totaling 8,464 last year.

“They are profiting based on the image that they are treating workers better than they in fact are,” said Justin Wentworth, 37, who works on the night crew and is a union steward.

Rochelle Prunty, the store’s general manager, declined or did not respond to three interview requests for this article. In an email Monday, she said the store adheres to a collective bargaining agreement ratified in 2015, which outlines competitive pay and benefits.

“All of us at River Valley Co-op work hard to meet our obligations to the people we serve,” she wrote. “We do this in a very competitive market, against non-union competition and large corporate organizations.”

The shuttle

The Friday before Labor Day last year, Prunty summoned Mark Heitman to the customer service counter.

Heitman, 61, is one of the shuttle drivers. He glides into the Hatfield parking lot every 30 minutes driving a white van and wearing a black apron and a button that says: “The Shuttle is Real.”

Before Prunty called Heitman to the counter last September, those interviewed said, management tried to stop staff from wearing those same buttons after customers started asking questions.

But that Friday, Prunty pulled Heitman aside to talk about another issue. Employees were handing out leaflets.

The fliers cited state regulations stating that if an employee reports to one location, and then is transported to another, the employee should be compensated for that time.

Then the flier tells the workers how much in wages they lose. (Heitman said he wasn’t handing out leaflets.)

At $12 an hour, 20 minutes of shuttle time five days per week adds up to $1,036 in lost wages a year.

“Think the shuttle is no big deal?” the flier asks.

Prunty, Heitman said, handed him her cellphone and said, “Read this.”

Heitman said the phone showed a text message exchange between Prunty and Jeff Jones, the union representative for United Food and Commercial Workers local 1459.

“It’s from Jeff,” Heitman recalled Prunty saying. “You can’t leaflet.”

Jones said management told him the fliers were being handed to customers — something workers deny, and something that could potentially violate the union-management collective bargaining agreement.

To pass out fliers among staff is protected “concerted activity” under the National Labor Reform Act of 1935.

“They misled the union over what was actually going on on the day in question,” Jones said. “We were basically accused of being one step away from a wildcat strike.”

As the Gazette reported in January, Jones eventually filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board saying management reneged on an agreement after the incident that management and workers would release a statement voicing support for concerted activity rights. The NLRB has since dismissed the complaint, saying an agreement was never finalized.

Prunty denied then ever stopping anyone from leafleting.

Back at the counter, cashier Evan Delano, 25, was counting his drawer and heard whispers between the two.

“Rochelle sort of insisted repeatedly that not paying employees for shuttle time was legal,” Delano recalled. “Mark sort of insisted it was more of a moral issue than a legal issue.”

It appears the law is on Prunty’s side. According to an email Jones forwarded to the Gazette from the state attorney general’s office, Heather Rowe, chief of investigations for the department’s Fair Labor Division, said: “As employees are not required to drive to work and park in the lot, time spent on the shuttle does not constitute compensable time.”

Still, workers who use the lot in Hatfield say the alternatives are unworkable. No sidewalk leads directly to the co-op from a nearby Wal-Mart lot, which would still eat up time. Theoretically workers could bike, ride the bus, or get dropped off, but that would likely be more of an inconvenience than taking the shuttle, they say.

Delano leaves his home in Amherst earlier than he would if he could park in the store’s lot.

“I’m, like, anxious and paranoid about missing the shuttle,” he said.

“We don’t get paid for that half-hour that we miss if we miss the shuttle,” he added. “If I’m one minute late for the shuttle, I’m half an hour late for work.”

The union and management are set to meet with federal mediators June 26 and 27 to discuss the leafleting incident and the shuttle in general.

In a statement published Feb. 5, co-op management defended the shuttling practice, saying during 2015 contract negotiations, the union and management agreed on higher wages for all in exchange for no compensation for the shuttle.

Living wage

In April, Sleet went on a WHMP podcast to talk about the co-op.

“I make $12.25 an hour,” Sleet said to interviewer Stephanie Slysz. “I’ve worked there a year and a half. It’s not a living wage.”

The collective bargaining agreement, which expires in October 2018, lays out a staggered pay scale based on one’s position and time employed. A living wage in Northampton is considered $13.36 per hour for a single person with no children.

According to a wage scale, for some positions — including produce, front end, dishwashers, kitchen porters, and wine and cheese servers — it takes three years to be bumped up to $13.25.

The wage scale is set to change in October, but even then it would take new employees at the bottom of the wage scale two years to make $13.25 an hour.

Still, Living Wage Western Mass, the organization that certifies employers who pay a living wage, said the co-op has been “aspiring” to pay a living wage to all employees since 2011.

“River Valley has been demonstrating progress toward paying a living wage,” said Kitty Callaghan, who sits on the Living Wage Western Mass steering committee.

In annual reports, the co-op says that, in addition to base pay, employees receive more compensation through gains-sharing and that compensation is above the state median.

Still, Wentworth says management shows an unwillingness to budge when it comes to the contract.

“They use the line ‘what’s in the contract is the contract,’” he said.

But Sleet, Wentworth and Jones said the store could revisit an issue if both labor and management agreed.

“They wouldn’t see a fight from us for a wage increase,” Wentworth said.

Cashier Connor Grogan, a former steward, said member-owners are complimentary of the store, until staff start talking.

“People just get so livid,” Grogan said. “They’re like, ‘How can I change this?’”

Laura MacKay said she has been a member-owner since the early days of the co-op, before there was the brick-and-mortar location on North King Street.

“I know that management has accused employees of trying to damage the co-op’s reputation,” MacKay said. “You know, look in the mirror. If you’re worried about your reputation, do the right thing. Pay for shuttle time, which is work time by any definition, in my opinion. Pay a living wage. Don’t just ‘aspire’ to it. Do it.”

Jack Suntrup can be reached at jsuntrup@gazettenet.com.

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