from Council

Member Labor Program Update

As members of Council, we have been asked by both the membership and staff to bring back the beloved member-labor program. Members may recall that the program was initially suspended back in 2020 when the Coronavirus first began to take hold. In order to comply with rapidly changing state and federal regulation, Council undertook the radical step of granting the General Manager the authority to “make operational decisions which may conflict with GreenStar policy or Bylaws for the express purpose of conforming to local, state, and federal executive orders and laws”.[1] One of those decisions was to suspend the member-labor program.

Like many other decisions at that time, this was not done lightly. Our member-labor program has been an integral part of the GreenStar community for years. Member-labor is one of the key features that set co-ops apart from profit-driven natural foods retailers: co-ops are fundamentally community projects and so we rely on our community to complete our work. GreenStar is no exception to this.

As COVID guidelines have relaxed, many people have been asking about bringing back the member-labor program. Unfortunately, Council is not comfortable reinstating the member-labor program at this time. The reason for this is both complicated and incredibly frustrating: it appears to violate federal and state labor law.

The consequences of violating labor law are severe. Were GreenStar to be found guilty of violating labor laws, we could be subject to hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses. As fiduciaries of the Cooperative, this has placed Council in an extremely difficult position. As noted above, the member-labor program has been a part of GreenStar since its inception and played an integral part in our community building. Many employees and Board members had their first introduction to the store through the member-labor program and it is a core piece of the cooperative model. However, GreenStar’s Bylaws task Council with “protecting the legal and financial viability of the cooperative”, and the Department of Labor has argued that cooperatives who continue using member-labor programs are in violation of the Fair Labor and Standards Act, leaving GreenStar exposed to tremendous financial liability. [2]

We will be holding an in-person meeting to discuss this issue on Monday, Sept. 26th from 5:30 to 7:00 PM at the Borg Warner room in the Tompkins County Public Library. You can RSVP for this event on Eventbrite here.

Additionally, Members can send us feedback via the Council email at council@greenstar.coop

Council greatly appreciates your patience as we continue evaluating our options. Please see the additional Q&A for more details on the concerns.

The New Member-Labor Program

In March of this year, Council instructed the Interim General Manager to develop a member-labor program that complied with state and federal law. After exploring our community’s needs and researching what other cooperatives have done to address this same challenge, a Community-based Member Volunteer Program that supports Nonprofits in the Ithaca Area was proposed and is being developed. Council is deeply aware that this is not the same as our previous member-labor program, largely because the work will be done off site for a different organization. Still, Council is determined to see that the Community focus at the core of Cooperative identity is restored at GreenStar. We hope that the new program will blossom as a way for our members to serve the broader community while receiving the same in-store benefits as the prior member-labor program.

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[1] Delegation of Emergency Powers to the General Manager, 2020-21

[2] Opinion Letter Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 1997 WL 957908 (1997)

An earlier version of this message contained incorrect information regarding Honest Weight Food Cooperative. We have removed this language and apologize for any factual errors it may have contained.