At Seward Community Co-op, Workers get Squeezed as Financial Problems Mount

In the first article of this series on the Seward Community Co-op, the board packets reveal increasing losses and “negative sales growth for the first time in 20 or more years.” Interviews with over a dozen current and former workers who chose to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation assert that the mismanagement that has led to financial losses are disproportionately affecting workers on the floor. All employees spoken to by Workday Minnesota reporters categorically describe the Seward Co-op as a difficult place to work for.

We also spoke with a wide variety of longtime members/owners. For owners, the financial struggles of the co-op, while surprising, were understandable. Members who would in the past often see the same employees began to see more and more new faces on the floor.

One owner who prefers to be anonymous echoed similar observations from others, mentioning that “Over the last couple of years, I have noticed the turnover.” He stated that, “When everyone you used to interact with is gone over the course of the year … it feels less personally connected.” He further explained that this personal touch and familiarity is what distinguishes Seward from conventional grocery stores.

Owners collectively noted how strained workers appeared, observing an increased use of wrist braces for injuries by cashiers. Workers attribute these and other maladies to increasingly injury-provoking working conditions caused by chronic understaffing.

In the board packets labor costs are expressed as a percentage of sales, described as a “labor percentage.” The supplement notes in the July 2018 board packet gives further detail about understaffing, “Labor percentage  is lower than budgeted in both stores; we have been profoundly short staffed.” Further clarifying, “The challenge is staff need to take on additional work when their departments are extremely short staffed.”

According to workers, when the Franklin store is short on cashiers, lines stretch into the wellness and deli areas. This dynamics puts stress on the front end staff, who have to deal with angry customers and, “the never-ending pace of long lines and not enough people to handle them.” It becomes harder for workers to take breaks, which takes a toll on the cashiers’ bodies, resulting in repetitive stress injuries.

For employees in the produce section, the situation is physically demanding. Understaffing for these workers means that there are now two workers when normally they staff five to six. As a result, produce workers strain their backs and wrists picking up objects to try and quickly do their jobs.

Chronic understaffing is compounded by the daily anxiety that workers face confronting a management culture of favoritism and “inconsistent and selective enforcement.” Workers note that these and other policies are “vague, allowing for arbitrary use.” Management has a habit of doing “what they want to do and point to something that justifies it.”

Workers allege that selective enforcement of rules and policies is most egregious in relation to sexual harassment. Workers report that while the store has a zero tolerance policy on harassment, those who are closest to management or have familial ties to managers simply get moved to another store when allegations emerge.

The culture of favoritism extends to board members; Board President and current board candidate Mary Alice Smalls has been seen in stores during the board election tabling. Workers and candidates were surprised to see her presence, in particular following the removal of Workday Minnesota editor Filiberto Nolasco Gomez from the board on the grounds of alleged conflicts of interest. In response to concerns around the presence of Smalls, a Seward representative explained to an owner that, “Current directors on the board who are also candidates in the current election may participate in ‘Get Out The Vote’ efforts the board undertakes.”

The daily effects of a lack of consistent enforcement of rules intended to protect primarily women. One former worker, who will be referred to as Stacy mentioned that, “When you are being harassed and discriminated against, you are not going to be able to function. If you are in a hostile work environment, it’s hard to do well.”

Stacy reflected on why she finally quit, “It was hard to do my job in a way that felt good to me.”

Reporting on the Seward board packets and the perspective of workers will continue next week.

Filiberto Nolasco Gomez is a former union organizer and former editor of Minneapolis based Workday Minnesota, the first online labor news publication in the state. Filiberto focused on longform and investigative journalism. He has covered topics including prison labor, labor trafficking, and union fights in the Twin Cities.

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