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Small Businesses Seek Options for Fair Pay for Employees in 2019

Jul 16, 2019 07:58PM ● By Gabrielle Varela

The Upper Valley has an innate interest in local businesses as well as the people who come here to visit. However, as rents climb and larger corporate chains move into the area, how can small businesses hold up to their competition?

Like all states, Vermont faces many challenges — high taxes, cumbersome permitting requirements for development, and an overall high cost of doing business like being too small to afford benefit packages. Organizations like The Vermont Futures Project and Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility have focus specifically on supporting small businesses’ sustainability and growth.

The Vermont Futures Project, despite the current political climate, identified their goal for 2019 to increase the workforce by 10,000 workers annually, and the Legislature showed its commitment to mitigating this supply gap by supporting policies that better attract and retain a highly trained workforce. But is that enough to set small businesses up for success and staying power?

We asked local chef and owner Justin Barrett, of Piecemeal Pies in White River Junction, his take; “It’s really hard to compete financially with big chains. We are a small restaurant in a small state. But we have this unique opportunity in Vermont to have a voice.”

In 2017 local Tunbridge girl turned international mixologist Ivy Mix spoke at the Paris P(our) Symposium on how the bar industry needed to make room for growth in order to be considered a viable career. Chef and Owner Justin Barrett took this same idea to the Main Street Alliance panel in 2018, where ten small business owners went to the Montpelier office asking for more support from Vermont Legislature to afford to take care of their staff.

Justin’s restaurant is the Vermont dream: small with a staff of about seven people and extremely farm to table. Too small to be required to offer health insurance to their staff but it doesn’t leave them wanting to. With one cook with a newborn at home and another dealing with some family issues that took her off the schedule suddenly and sporadically, Piecemeal offered an advance on their next paycheck to support their employees’ family but wasn’t able to do it again the next month.

“I’m trying to be a good employer but it’s hard because our margins are so slim. That’s what it really comes down to. I mean, I’m exempt from being obligated to provide benefits because we are a staff of under fifty people but why would anyone want to work for us? So what we get are people that hop around, are young without a lot of family obligations,  or we’re considered a temporary job before their ‘real job’. There are plenty of ways that we create a rewarding work environment, but that doesn’t always pay the bills. It’s not taken seriously because there aren’t the same career benefits as in other industries. It’s just a lot of really hard work for not a lot of pay.”

According to Barrett one major player in the issue for restaurants is tipping laws. “Everyone should be able to pay their rent regardless of busy season or slow season or good customers or customers who are kind of jerks. There are so many factors that can affect your livelihood. If payroll is above 30% which it often is, that’s tipped minimum wage which can legally be 50% of the standard minimum wage. It works if you’re relying on customers to pay your staff, it doesn’t if you actually want to pay them fairly.”

An architecture grad, Justin explains he designed his space so there is no separation between the kitchen and front of house, everyone “carries their weight” so the tips are distributed evenly among the entire staff with the goal of paying people what Barrett considers to be more fair of they’re worth .

“Once you start to grow up you have to be able to pay your bills and take time off, so how do we get there? People read about the food industry and it’s almost like anti-owner, it’s always a manager or owners fault, but we just don’t have enough money to provide benefits or paid time off. If we can make an industry that is actually nurturing and where people feel respected, then we can hire professional people,” says Barrett.

Tax incentives, grants, Barrett is a big fan of getting creative in order to support his staff outside of sacrificing payroll. He is currently exploring spaces to open another restaurant to create more volume and more revenue to take care of the people he has without outgrowing himself. He as well as many restaurant owners often look for ways to bring awareness to the industry so that patrons aren’t penalized either for restaurant workers fair pay with jacked up food prices.

“It comes to policy, if you’re small enough then you’re not being held accountable for your staff. Which is necessary, because we couldn’t financially bear that burden on a $12 check average. There should be some sort of assistance to help small food businesses take care of their employees, because your employees are still people, and it should be a positive to work for a small business.” says Barrett.

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