On February 3, 2016

Local groceries struggle to get by, minimum wage increase adds to burden

By Christopher Biddle

SHREWSBURY – With long hours of operation, a weather- and tourist-driven economy, and a small pool of viable workers, small local grocery stores are struggle to remain viable.

Sally Deinzer, manager of the Shrewsbury Coop at Pierce’s Store, said they need to increase revenues by 10 percent. Kevin Neubert, owner of the Belmont General Store since 2010, says that at this point, he feels as though he keeps the store open as a service to his community.

Vermont’s minimum wage increase, instituted on Jan. 1, made that struggle a bit harder. The increase this year raised the minimum from $9.15 per hour to $9.60, or from $19,032 for a full time worker to $19,968 — $936 more annually per full time employee.

State legislators voted in 2014 to approve an increase in the minimum wage to $10.50 per hour by the year 2019, with partial increases happening on the first of every year until then. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.

“We are the only small grocery store that carries a broad range of products in the community,” said Deinzer, who helped to reopen a store in the Northam location in 2009. Pierce’s Store closed its doors to the community in 1993, having been owned and operated by the same family since 1918. When Marjorie Pierce, the last living member of the family, passed away in 2001, she donated the property to Vermont Land Trust under the condition that it would one day re-open its doors as a working business and community hub. Today, Pierce’s Store operates more than 80 hours a week as a coop, with Deinzer as the only full-time employee. They also have four part-time employees, including a chef, and a fluid roster of about 12 volunteers.

“It’s not that I disagree with the minimum wage increase, but it’s making things harder for us,” said Kristy Bragg, board president of the Shrewsbury Co-op. “We’d like to pay our employees more but right now we can’t.”

Neubert shares that sentiment, pointing out the lack of a large pool of possible employees. He says that in a town of about a thousand homes, 60 percent of those are part-time residents. Neubert says that he pays his employees slightly more than the current minimum wage.

“I felt that it was good to do that because I’ve got good people working here, and I’d like to hang on to them. My biggest thing is that when the minimum wage goes up, I’ve got to be a little above that in order to keep the good ones,” said Neubert. “This year will probably be ok, but the next year and the next year…that’s where I’m going to have to make sure I have the income to cover that additional cost, and I’m just going to raise the prices, because what else is there?”

State Representative and Mount Holly resident Dennis Devereux says that the state hoped to lessen the impact by spreading the increase out over four years. He also said that he doesn’t support the paid sick leave bill being discussed in the Senate right now.

Neubert commented that he sees his economy as having “A lot of flats and a few bumps here and there,” citing the lack of snow and lack of snowmobilers that usually make up a large portion of his business.

Marji Graf, CEO of the Okemo Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce, stressed the importance of these small stores to the tourist economy and Vermont’s image.

“Our tourists come here for a breath of fresh air. We don’t have box-stores, we have these mom-and-pop stores, family run businesses passed down from generation to generation, and there’s a story in that…It’s a part of history.”

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