Centered on Values and Uplifting Workers: Wheatsville Food Co-op Supports Comprehensive Job Quality Policies

We recently talked with Dan Gillotte, the Chief Executive Grocer at the Wheatsville Food Cooperative in Austin, about why its important for business leaders to support progressive workplace public policies and why the co-op got involved in the fight for Paid Sick Days in Austin, Texas. Here’s a summary of our interview with Dan.

CLASP: Could you tell me about your role with the Wheatsville Co-op? 

Gillotte: As the Chief Executive Grocer, I am responsible for our two-store food cooperative here in Austin. I have been here since 1998. We have over 22,000-member owners of our co-op, all Austin/Central Texas community members. We are a $33 million business with 250 employees. When I started we were a $4 million-dollar co-op with 62 employees. 

CLASP: As a co-op what are some of your policies that are worker friendly? 

Gillotte: About two years ago, we implemented a livable wage and benefits program. We use a calculation that was developed with the national co-op grocers to devise a fair and reasonable approach to a livable wage. This calculation takes into consideration the cost of living in Austin, the amount that we pay for employee benefits (mostly health insurance), food costs, and savings. We implemented that two years ago and ended up raising our wages from about $10 an hour to $13.01, plus benefits. That generally allows for people to get an apartment in Austin and have food and transportation and the things they need to live. No one else is doing this in Austin—certainly not for frontline, entry-level staff. It has been a really positive thing that we are doing that really helps people out. For many years, we have offered paid time off that people can use for illness or vacation. We also have other small benefits like a bike-to-work benefit. 

CLASP: How did the co-op get involved with the Paid Sick Days ordinance with the Work Strong Austin Coalition?

Gillotte: The opportunity to be involved in this process was something that I wanted to do with the co-op. Because of our leadership in implementing a livable wage, we were asked to visit with Councilmember Casar’s office. They asked us to be a part of the paid sick days ordinance conversation along with the Workers Defense Project and the Work Strong Austin coalition.
Our business has offered Earned Sick Pay for a long time. We’ve been smaller, and we’ve been bigger, so we knew that it was doable for any business of any size to offer paid sick days. This is a public health issue. We want our staff to stay home and get healthy for their personal health, but also to not get our customers or their co-workers ill.  We advocate for people to stay home, and it’s easier for them to stay home when they know they’re not going to have their pay disappear. 
We help other businesses see that they can do it, and we also advocate to the city council that it is not very onerous policy. 

CLASP: On a public policy scale, why do you think it is important to have a law instead of leaving it up to an individual employer? 

Gillotte: When it’s a public health issue, you can’t count on business magnanimity to play out or depend on the benevolence of individual business owners You need to plant a flag and set a minimum. It is obvious that people don’t have sufficient sick pay in Austin. Simply counting on business owners to just do it, isn’t working for a large number of people. Many of us do and did. But, enough of us didn’t that it was not having a significant impact. By making it a public policy it really levels the playing field. That is something that I’ve tried to explain to businesses. Everyone has to do the same thing now. 

CLASP: What would you say to an employer who thinks a government mandate that sets a minimum labor standard is a bad action? 

Gillotte: I would step back and say that I understand why businesses don’t want more regulations. It’s hard to run our businesses in a city like Austin. It’s getting more expensive to operate, just like it is getting more expensive to live here. There are pressures in all sorts of ways that make it tough to run a business. I understand the knee-jerk reaction of “oh gosh, no more regulations” or anything that makes it more expensive or harder to do our work. One great thing that I specifically liked about the policy in Austin was that it is a minimum requirement that they are setting. They are not telling your business that you have to do this a certain way. It’s setting the least that you must do to comply, and, in our case, we have already exceeded that. And other businesses have, too. So, all you have to do is meet it. That flexibility gives businesses a lot of room in how they want to administer this. I hope that people can find the public health benefit of this kind of policy. When people are able to stay home, kids don’t have to go to school if they are sick and their parents can stay home with them.

CLASP: Since your endorsement of paid sick days, what sort of public reaction did your business receive? 

Gillotte: It has been overwhelmingly positive for us. You know, our member owners are into us for our values. Although we have 22,000 owners that don’t all agree on everything, they agree that they want us to pay fair wages, and they want us to take care of our employees. Part of the reason they love our store is because they love our employees. Standing up for this is a real clear embodiment of the values that we all have together. My staff was really proud that we were able to stand behind this. We are making sure that people who work in other retail jobs have the same or similar benefits as us, and I think our employees felt a lot of pride around that. I did too. 

CLASP: Is there a particular story that informed your view around having good worker-friendly policies as an employer?

Gillotte: I think we wanted to always try to be protective and have productive positive relations with our staff. There were times when we were less financially successful, and it was really hard to pay a livable wage, but we decided to hunker down and figure out how to do that. At that time, our employees were telling us that we couldn’t survive on what they were getting paid. Once it became really clear to us that it was not just that people wanted to get paid more, but that it was literally because they couldn’t afford to live here, we set about how to solve it. It was a group effort. And we are still working on how to make it work. We have to be a sustainable business to be here in the future. In general, we want to be as humane an employer as we can be. Just as we have humane treatment of the animals and products that we sell, we want humane treatment of the humans who work with us. We want to make sure that people are treated well. We are still a workplace and still have disagreements, but in general we are trying to have a humane workplace—and policies like sick pay are part of that. They are a value we want to have. Long-term it is helpful when everyone has to play by the same rules. People wanted the city council to do something about affordability, and I think that passing this ordinance was a piece of that. 

CLASP: What advice do you have for another business that is considering taking a stance on job quality public policy? 

Gillotte: The amount of positive reaction that you can get from your community and your workers is strong. People do respond and appreciate businesses that stand up for values. Our experience has been that more and more consumers want that, too. Even if you can’t do everything, you can do something to move in the direction of helping to make people’s live more affordable and help them have a better life. Everybody has to have a job. People deserve to have a job where they can pay their bills. I think if you ask your staff to help, they will. Most businesses will find that. If you can lean into your staff, they will lean into you and lean into your business and make it better. I think it is the right thing to do, and when we can do the right thing, that has positive business results. 

To learn more about the Wheatsville Food Cooperative click here