Legal concerns end East End Food Co-op volunteer system

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When attorneys advised the East End Food Co-op against continuing to use volunteer “workers,” the managers were in the process of ramping up chances for members to volunteer outside the North Point Breeze store.

The long-term practice of letting members pitch in on tasks such as stocking shelves came with 10 percent store discounts, and because the store needed a limited number of volunteers, general manager Justin Pizzella said the board wanted to give more of its members a chance to earn discounts.

“We were looking at ways to identify community partners throughout the city,” such as food banks and humane societies, he said. “We had an initial group of partners identified and started looking into a mechanism for how volunteer hours could be reported back, then we talked to our lawyers.“

The co-op, which has 11,000 members, is incorporated as a cooperative not for profit. The legal difference between that and a nonprofit has to do with governance structure and how membership is viewed as a share in the business, Mr. Pizzella said.

Volunteers at nonprofits do not benefit from income derived, but volunteers who are members of not-for-profits do enjoy benefits, such as discounts. The distinction further raises the question of whether discounts meet wage minimums and whether volunteers should be considered employees under fair labor standards. Then there are the scenarios of liability and workers’ compensation.

“They have had volunteers for 35 years,” Mr. Pizzella said. “I’m relatively new to the co-op and wasn’t aware the situation was a problem until we tried to expand the program.”

In-store volunteering ends at the co-op on Sept. 14.

Lorrie Zanetti of Swisshelm Park has been volunteering in the store’s administrative office since she retired in 2011 and said all the volunteers “are regretful” about the end of the program. She said the benefits they have derived are much greater than the discount they get — she works for two hours one day each week.

“The greater reason for volunteering is being part of the organization and giving back to it,” she said. “We volunteered because we wanted to contribute, and I hope we can find other ways to do that.”

The East End Food Co-op, at 7516 Meade St., was founded in 1980, when “natural organic was a crazy little thing a few people were doing,” Mr. Pizzella said. “Now it’s [nationally] a $90 billion industry.”

The co-op is one of 190 stores in the country whose purchasing power is negotiated by the National Cooperative Grocers Association.

“In the last three years membership has jumped 15 percent and sales have grown from $7.5 million to $10.5 million,” Mr. Pizzella said. “Staff has grown from 55 to over 90. The business was never structured to depend on volunteers.”

Still, the culture of cooperatives has taken a hit without them.

The cooperative grocery movement began in the 1970s as a pre-foodie subset of health-conscious shoppers. Memberships and volunteers went hand in hand. Everyone gave hours to make it work.

The East End Food Co-op is open to the public, as is the Whole Foods Cooperative in Erie, but both remain membership communities as they continue to grow. Erie’s cooperative, established in 1978, two years before the national Whole Foods Market chain, hasn’t had volunteers since 2009.

“It was a long-standing program, and like so many other things, when you get a little larger you pay more attention to the details,” said Bob Sonnenberg, education and outreach coordinator at the Erie co-op. “It hasn’t hurt our business” to lose volunteers. “Our sales have never been better.

“But I started as a volunteer, and a good percentage of us who have been here a long time started as volunteers. A lot of them are second- and third-generation, so it’s kind of like a culture being yanked out of our hands.”

Considering the appeal of that culture, Mr. Pizzella said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few co-ops that are willing to take the risk.”

Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626.

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