The extremely popular Co-op Food Stores in Lebanon and Hanover, New Hampshire and White River Junction, Vermont are in a spot of bother over their employment practices, as exhibited in the recent firings of two longtime employees. Dan King and John Boutin, both with more than 10 years on the job, were fired without notice last month. The Valley News:
King, 56, said he was given a check for vacation pay, a check for the week he’d worked, and a severance package of one month’s pay. He also was told the company would continue his health insurance through July.
“They gave me a card of the HR person for if I had questions, and that was it. There was no handshake, no goodbye, no ‘thank you for your service,’ ” he said.
The Co-op was entirely within its rights. Labor law permits “at-will” firings unless terms of employment are otherwise specified, and the Co-op employee handbook makes it clear that employees serve on an “at-will” basis. (As the VNews article points out, most people don’t realize that the vast majority of non-union employees can be fired “at will.”)
Still, the firings seem a bit abrupt and contrary to the spirit of a cooperative. In this case, of course, the Co-op is an old-fashioned one — dating not from the Sixties or Seventies, but from the 1930s, and oriented entirely toward serving its members. Newer Co-ops, generally, aim to balance the interests of customers and workers.
Both King and Boutin had positive performance evaluations across the board. Both have had criticism for the Co-op’s policies and work environment, and both were involved in an effort to unionize Co-op workers. Co-op management has denied the firings have anything to do with unionization activity, but there’s been no alternative explanation; the Co-op cites labor law as requiring privacy in such matters. Which is true, but in this case it seems to serve the employer’s interest much more than the employee’s.
The Co-op Board will consider the “at-will” policy at a meeting on July 23. The meeting has been moved to the Hanover High School auditorium in the expectation of high turnout.
I’ve been a member of the Co-op for almost 15 years. (I’m also a member of the Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier.) I’ve never had any reason to complain, and I have no inherent reason to mistrust Co-op management. But in the absence of a better explanation, I have to conclude that, at the very least, something smells a little funny here.