Community Engagement Through Member Work

By Pat Burns, General Manager

You may remember past articles where we discussed changes to the Co-op’s Member Worker program. If you’re not familiar with Member Work at the Co-op, here’s a quick primer. Our Members, after attending an orientation, can volunteer at the Co-op and in our community and receive Co-op discounts in the process. Members who volunteer at least 2 hours in one month, will receive a 7% discount the following month. Members who volunteer at least 4 hours in one month, will receive a 12% discount the following month. Co-ops have a rich history of using Member Work to effectively run their businesses, especially when they’re first starting out and may not be able to afford paid staff. Member Work is also a really effective way to mix and mingle with other Members, feel connected to your Co-op as an owner, and learn more about how the Co-op works, among other things.

During our planning for fiscal year 2011, we had some discussions with other Co-op professionals about the intersection of Co-ops, the Department of Labor (DOL) and Member Work. The DOL had been starting to take more of an interest in Co-ops that have Member Worker programs, to ensure they complied with existing federal regulations like the Fair Labor Standards Act. Member Work could conceivably be a risk for many Co-ops if the discount they offered to Member Workers did not meet federal minimum wage guidelines for the hours they volunteered. Some Co-ops have decided that this is not a significant enough risk to warrant any changes to their Member Worker programs. City Market has always been clear that we’re planning to manage this risk by sunsetting our in-store Member Worker program, where it duplicates the work of paid staff, and continue to grow the Member Worker opportunities we already offer out in the community with our Outreach Partners.

We’ve also had some very recent conversations with Vermont farmers about how these types of audits from the federal DOL have been affecting them this growing season. It sounds as if several farms, including cooperative farms, have been told that volunteer work on farms that may duplicate the work of paid staff (or replace the work of paid staff), in any way, is not allowed. Vermont farms, like food cooperatives, have a rich history with community engagement and inviting the community to meet farmers, get to know the farming practices and potentially help with projects. These practices, in part, serve to strengthen our local food system and serve as a foundation for Vermont’s agritourism work. We will continue to work with these farms and discuss the issues to be in a position to support one another.

At this point we’ve completed the first month of business in our fiscal year ending June 30, 2015 and we’re working within the Co-op and out in the community to finalize plans for the last steps of this transition to take place in the next 11 months. Over the next several months, Member Workers who normally work in the Co-op, will notice that the available shifts will start to decrease. You’ll be encouraged to learn more about the opportunities with our Community Outreach Partners and will be hearing more about our expansion of this program.

Some departments may be adding additional paid positions where needed over the next 11 months; the plans call for about five full-time, benefitted positions. This allows for the growth of great jobs in our community, as well as growth in opportunities for Member Work, just outside of the store. We’ll be talking to a variety of organizations for potential participation on our Community Outreach Partners program – with a focus on local, non-profit organizations that are working to strengthen the local food system or address food insecurity. This will give our Members an opportunity, with incentives (like the Member Worker discount), to make an even bigger impact in our community and share information about the Co-op and about our local non-profits.

As of June 30 of this year, Member Worker hours through our Community Outreach Partners represented 67% of the total hours attributed to our Member Worker program. With 11 months left in our current fiscal year, we have additional work to do, but feel sure we will be able to meet our goal. If you'd like to learn more about any of the updates that we’re making to this program, or if you’d like to learn more about being a Member Worker, please feel free to check in with Liz Dykes in our Member Services Department (861-9707 or

As always, thank you for your patronage,