‘I Don’t Want to Run a Grocery Store’

This article is the first of a two-part piece. Part two published Thursday.

According to six former employees of Harvest Moon Food Co-op in Long Lake, the co-op is saddled with debt and morale is low. Wage theft is rampant and conditions within the store have deteriorated. By the end of August, the board had begun firing managers and took the unprecedented step of taking over the day to day operations of the store.  

Of the employees that came forward, five of the six are former managers, giving them a unique insight into the general operations and conditions of the store and the activities of the board. They had all quit or been fired in the last several months.

All sources that spoke to Workday did so on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation since they intend to continue working in the grocery industry. These sources also provided emails and a host of other internal documents that corroborate their assertions and allegations.

It took some time for sources to come forward after initially speaking with Workday several months ago. It was only after Harvest Moon starting firing managers in late 2019 did they feel it necessary to speak on the record. 

Workday sources indicate that Board Chair Gregory Reynolds has taken over unilateral control of day-to-day decisions at the co-op. However, before being fired, one manager had an email dispute with Reynolds wherein Reynolds wrote that he was not looking to take over the store, stating, “I don’t want to run a grocery store.”

Reynolds is also a Harvest Moon vendor with a past due account. Because of this, there are overall concerns about Reynolds conflict of interest.

In response to a question about whether the Co-op will explain their challenges to the public, Board Chair Gregory Reynolds replied over email,

“Harvest Moon is a privately held company. We explain our situation to our members/owners. At the same time, the public is being well served by a locally owned grocery store in their community. Other companies facing challenges do not buy air time to discuss internal issues with the general public. Why would we do that ?”

In a reply to emailed questions about the firing of managers, Reynolds replied that, 

“What I think that I can share with you, clearly out of context, are snippets of incident reports from Harvest Moon employees that illustrate some of the issues in question. There were multiple instances witnessed by several of their co-workers.”

Reynolds offered the following examples of complaints levied against managers from their staff:

  • “became openly hostile and verbally abusive.
  • was horrible and scary.
  • nothing would calm … down
  • body language was rigid and jerky
  • fingers were stiff and was jabbing the air
  • eyes were wild and I honestly felt scared.
  • I was afraid to be alone … appeared to be so out of control.”

Reynolds continued, 

“Unfortunately I too have been on the receiving end of that kind of treatment so the accounts are very credible to me. That kind of conduct is completely unacceptable in the workplace. I think that we are on the same page when it comes to protecting people from abusive behavior. The fired managers’ decisions and actions adversely affected the viability of the store. We are currently correcting the decisions that led to lost sales, overbuying, and a product mix that did not serve our community’s needs.”

All sources that Workday spoke have doubts about the general direction and long term viability of the co-op.

In response to questions about the viability of the co-op and whether it might close in 3 or 6 months, Reynolds stated,

“Anything could happen, but no. Our financial and labor situations are improving so it is unlikely.” 

According to publicly posted financial documents, “through June 2019, the store has $339,000 past due member loans.” This is on top of an operating loss of $54,614 for the fiscal year 2018-19.

What has not been made public before is that according to the former employee we spoke with, past-due invoices to vendors are numerous.

According to an accounts payable report obtained by Workday, at the end of July Harvest owed vendors more than $300,000, and almost half, is past-due.

According to the report, $80,375.06 was owed to vendors and is over 90 days late. The largest past-due amounts are $14,509.96 to Larry Schulz organic farms and $15,632 to Boar’s Head Meats.

In response to the figures obtained by Workday, Reynolds responded saying, 

“Harvest Moon is a privately held company and detailed financial information is only the business of vendors and owners/members. 

Overbuying runs up the Accounts Payable. Poor product mix and loss of sales makes it hard to pay the vendors. 

We plan to pay all our vendors and member loans. In addition, we have been making good progress in the past months on reducing our Accounts Payable balances. Member loans are subordinate to commercial loans, per the original loan agreements, and cannot be paid until the commercial loans are repaid. We have paid off one commercial loan this fall.”

An insurance notice to a former employee obtained by Workday indicates that Harvest Moon was “delinquent with their insurance premium payment” as recently as late November. If the premiums aren’t paid, former employees would be responsible for costs accrued while using the plan. For one former employee we spoke with, it would leave them with about $1,200 in medical expenses. Other employees got similar notices and were told that the reason for the delay is that, “the auto-pay didn’t work.”

In response to delinquent insurance premiums, Reynolds stated, 

“Harvest Moon has direct withdrawal for health insurance payments. In one case the insurance company failed to make the withdrawal and a manual payment was made. In another, the insurance company tried to make a withdrawal when the bank was closed. In both cases, the insurance company immediately sent out a late notice.  

No one was without health insurance coverage at any time nor had any unexpected out of pocket expenses related to their insurance coverage. This is an important issue that gets resolved within hours of hearing about it.”

Wage Theft

The most striking grievance among the six sources is a common problem among co-ops that Workday has reported on; taking advantage of employees, community members and vendors that are committed to the co-op’s mission of providing accessible organic foods. Workers often make sacrifices in pay and personal comfort while tolerating abusive workplaces under the premise that they will support a struggling co-op. Harvest Moon has taken this common abuse steps further.  

The former employees we spoke with outline structural and persistent wage theft as they are routinely asked to volunteer their time. For example, after an eight hour shift one cashier was asked to clean the bathroom and stock items before they went home. They were explicitly told not to clock back in. Another employee was told that work from home was considered volunteer work, so when they worked from home while sick in an attempt to avoid passing along their contagion, they were expected to use vacation time.

In Minnesota, wage theft is now a felony. 

In response to questions about mandated volunteering Reynolds stated, 

“I cannot speak to the management practices of the former General Manager. I would need specific dates and events to have any chance to comment on these allegations. 

It is Harvest Moon’s policy to pay hourly employees for all work related activities. A salaried employee like the GM is expected to do what is necessary to make the store successful.”

In a rather curious example of the co-op’s use of volunteer workers, it was common knowledge that Point of Sale and Accounts Payable Manager Katie Born’s preteen daughter often handled merchandise and stacked shelves along with other assignments. When this practice was questioned the response was, “She’s just helping out. We are a small town it’s normal here.”

In response to concerns that Born’s preteen daughter was performing employee duties Reynolds stated, 

“Katy is a single mom with primary child care responsibility. When child care arrangements become unreliable parents have to deal with the situation immediately. Harvest Moon is flexible and makes reasonable accommodations when difficult situations arise for all parents and their children. Does anyone really believe that we have a policy to use 10 year old kids as part of our labor force?” 

Board members are also filling in gaps in the store and can be seen cashiering etc. According to the by-laws board members are not employees so it is assumed they are volunteering. 

Reynolds responded to questions of board members performing employee duties by stating, 

“As you know, the labor market is tight. As Owners, Board Members help out to reduce the burden on an already overstretched workforce. The Board is making a serious effort to ensure that store staff are able to manage and balance their work and home life. 

In the past few months, the mood, culture, and overall feeling of the store has changed and we are starting to attract qualified applicants for many of our open positions. The owners have already been able to step back a little as we hire employees to meet the labor needs of the store.”

The managers we spoke with also indicated that the co-op intentionally recruits high school age workers who can be more susceptible to requests to volunteer in the interest of preserving Harvest Moon. As one of Workday’s sources observes, since high schoolers don’t have much job experience, it causes them “to have a warped sense of the workplace and healthy boundaries.”

In the experience of those that spoke with Workday, advocates of volunteer work defend the practice by suggesting that it is necessary to keep the co-op thriving during times of financial hardship.

Part two will explore the ‘temporary buying pause’ instituted by the co-op board in November and deteriorating store conditions. We also sat with the former managers to understand what their vision for a co-op would be.

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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