Living Wage Unpacked

June 5, 2024
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By Jerelyn Wilson, President, BFC Board of Directors

On April 19 the Co-op posted a letter from me to all Shareholders (for whom we have emails). It was entitled: Empowering Shareholders: A Call to Action from the Board President. This letter was meant to inspire our Co-op owners to consider Board service. A dynamic, healthy, focused Board is essential for the thriving future of the Brattleboro Food Co-op. I was glad for a few positive responses and for a few responses that were critical of some of my statements. 

It’s not just that my mother worked for Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus for 18 years that I have come to appreciate PT Barnum. It’s also that he considered every response an affirmation that people were paying  attention, a not-to-miss opportunity to further a desired outcome. In simple words, even a negative response is to be appreciated!

I mentioned in my letter to BFC Shareholders a number of things that make me proud and motivated to be an active shareholder. 

  • Jobs that pay a living wage, offer good health care and opportunities for advancement and professional development. 
  • Meaningful collaboration with local farmers that supports our regional agricultural resilience.
  • Efforts to support a safer, just and inclusive supply chain in our dealings with distributors. 
  • And, despite the fact that it is easy to exceed your food budget, the Co-op carries a full spectrum of high quality, healthy food at reasonable prices. 

Each one of these items is an active priority for our Co-op; each one is aspirational; and each one has complexity behind it and necessitates context to fully understand.

After my letter came out, I got some pushback to that first bullet item above, about the Co-op’s efforts to pay a living wage, so I’d like to unpack that a little. 

Like many co-ops, the Brattleboro Food Co-op is deeply committed to paying employees enough that they can make ends meet. That’s the idea of a “living wage.” But as was pointed out by a couple letter writers, paying a living wage doesn’t ensure that those workers can really get by on those wages. The intent with Living Wage models is that they define a level of compensation that allows workers to fully pay for basic needs. But it’s not that easy; there are a lot of circumstances for individuals that result in a “living wage” not really being a living wage. 

With some help from our General Manager, Anthony Santorelli, I’d like to share with you the following information. Our starting wages are $2.33 above the VT minimum wage rate and after 90 days of employment that differential becomes $2.58/hr. To further exemplify our commitment to our employees, in 2022 the Coop provided an 8% wage increase to better align with the economic conditions of the time. Our newly negotiated Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the Union, signed in July 2023 and in effect until July 2026, calls for all bargaining unit members to receive an annual increase equal to the five year Consumer Price Index (CPI) rolling average increase. The CPI is the US government’s metric used to measure the weighted average price of goods and services purchased by consumers. During this same contract negotiating period, we reviewed every position and adjusted base pay rates to reflect at least the median standard rate as published for that job description in our area. Additionally, we increased the employee discount from 12% to 20%.

Livable wage models are based on averages, but the reality is that many of us don’t reflect that average. A living wage for a single mother of two will be different from the living wage for a couple who both work with no children. Housing costs vary greatly, some of us have college debt, and so forth….

The National Co-op Grocer’s (NCG) Livable Wage and Benefits Model helps all co-ops, including the Brattleboro Food Co-op, to calculate the livable wage in their area by identifying the local cost of nine key components of basic living expenses and then deducting components included in the co-op’s compensation (e.g., benefits). Unlike other models, the NCG model includes a complete list of living expenses and contributions to a savings plan. 

In closing, perhaps it would have been better for me to say “jobs that pay a competitive wage, offer good health care and opportunities for advancement and professional development.” Again, the Co-op, including the Board of Directors, appreciates your feedback, both affirmative as well as constructive criticism. We invite dialogue, a significant component of a thriving cooperative enterprise; a dynamic enterprise that benefits all of us as well as our whole region. Onward! And, please, consider Board service. If not you, then who might you encourage? Contact us at