How can we, as the complicated group of individuals who make up the Olympia Food Co-op, contribute to healing, and what does that mean? Why do we have a sense that we all need a new beginning? Healing our planet, our neighbors, our community, our relationships, our grief: these are thoughts shared by many at this time.
Spring brings to mind for me a few more specific must-do items related to healing- the need to heal our planet as well as the need to change our national labor practices, including raising the minimum wage. Raising wages in this country would benefit all workers, but especially communities with higher numbers of People Of Color, who also have a disproportionate number of workers trying to survive on wages that simply don’t cover living expenses.
As someone who has worked with our annual budgeting for the Co-op for many years, I can tell you that workers’ wages are also very tied to medical expenses for employers and employees. These expenses have been rising for years and while the Co-op has tried very hard to not pass the rising cost on to employees, in the end the need to create a balanced budget, in which expenses don’t outweigh revenue, has often led to minimal increases in wages. The need for a national health care plan that will assist both individuals and families, but also small employers like the Co-op, is something I see as absolutely required to heal our country’s inequities in income, access, and care.
The ‘Fight for $15’ began many years ago for labor organizers, so long that many now believe expenses have already outpaced that figure, at least in some parts of the country. The Co-op Staff started discussions about our hourly wages and especially the starting wage in 2015, when the starting wage was $12.86/hour but made several large increases at the 6-month and 12-month marks of employment. We have had, for most of our history, a seniority-based pay scale with an annual increase of 25 cents/hour for each employee on their “anniversary” as well as annual decisions about other wage adjustments, usually meant to address cost of living increases. Starting in 2016, we were able to make a plan to increase the first years of the wage scale and by 2019, the starting wage had also gone up beyond $15/hour. For 2021, our starting wage is $15.42 and our average wage is $18.62/hour. We estimate that the average cost to the Co-op for each paid labor hour is about $32.02, including wages, payroll taxes, medical benefits and retirement funding. As you can see, medical expenses make a big difference—what changes could we make if more dollars per hour could be funneled into other parts of our budget?
The Staff collective decided to start closing our stores each year on May 1, International Workers Day, partly in hopes of raising awareness of the many struggles facing workers, issues that often seem hidden from consumers as we go through our busy lives, accepting the services of many for work that is often hard, dangerous, underpaid, and even discriminatory. Our workplace is one that is empowered to have difficult conversations about pay and equity and safe work conditions but may millions of workers are not so lucky. At a time when large retailers are making more than ever before for their stockholders, we hope that 2021 can be a time of new beginnings for more workers, with fair pay and access to benefits and safe conditions that should be a human right.
Finding solutions to our need for affordable and non-polluting energy sources would also greatly benefit our most at-risk communities: it has been proven over and over again that race and income correlate with exposure to environmental toxins and reduced life expectancy. We know that the Co-op can be part of the solution to some of these problems, and hope that one new beginning for us all can be finding ways to heal our planet. We look forward to a spring and summer full of biking, composting and gardening, living our best lives outdoors and embracing it. We’ll find our way forward, cooperatively and together, beginning now.