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Grousing Over Groceries

Boise Co-op employees worry about new leadership and policies
Credit: Harrison Berry, Boise Weekly
Photo of the main entrance of the Boise Co-op.

BOISE, Idaho —  A deli associate at the Co-op, Forrest Martsch had only worked at the grocery store for approximately 6 months, but had already formed a strong bond with Deli Manager Melissa Craft, whom she said at one point offered to take care of her young son during one of Martsch's shifts to help lighten the load. 

"Melissa was just one of the best bosses I've ever had the experience of working with," she said. 

When the Co-op fired Craft on Aug. 30, Martsch quit on the spot, as did another of Craft's subordinates, Molly Malone. According to emails obtained by Boise Weekly between Craft and Co-op Director of Human Resources Emilie Schossow, tensions rose between Craft and her employer because of "failure to work respectfully" with the new Culinary Director Jin Yang, and "demonstrated insubordination." Craft, however, said her firing had more to do with disagreements over policy under the Co-op's new leadership—policies she said depart from what Co-op employees and customers have come to expect. 

"It seems like there isn't accountability anymore," she said. "I'd hate to see [the Co-op] go in a direction without people being aware."

 As a direct result of Craft's ouster, two employees have quit, but the trajectory of the grocer under its first CEO, Michelle Andersen, has resulted in the elimination of two other positions: those of the Employee Communications Handling Officer (ECHO), an employee-management liaison job held by Jerry Jarrett, and the relatively new position of training coordinator held by Tracy Labraaten. Jarrett still works for the Co-op, having been rehoused across two departments. Labraaten said her job was meant to standardize and improve skill sets among employees at both Co-op locations, but added she got little administrative support under Andersen. Eventually, she was fired.

 "I was told it didn't have anything to do with me, but she had decided to restructure the organization and they no longer needed me," she said. "I was in love with what the Co-op stood for, and I never imagined this would happen here."

MORE Boise Co-op news: Boise Co-op unveils new zero-emission coffee roaster

For Jarrett, the elimination of the ECHO position was a blow to transparency. In an email, he wrote that the position provided an important link between Co-op leaders and workers, and he willingly left that role rather than risk being fired for openly voicing the concerns of employees. Soon afterward, the position was eliminated entirely.

"[Management] wanted someone more to give the idea that the employees have a voice rather than actually giving a voice that matters, and they knew that in the climate they created they would not find someone who would be that for them," he wrote.

Craft's own departure from the Co-op, she said, came after she criticized a number of changes in the deli coming from Yang, including hiring new employees at a higher hourly rate than existing staff and capping the maximum raise for individual employees. In the past, she said, she had discretion to give employees raises at any rate she wanted, as long as the total in raises fit under a certain percentage of her department budget. The change, she said, punished her employees to bump paychecks and create new high-paying positions at the top of the organizational chart, including Yang's.

"I think that was insulting, and not how the Co-op has historically treated its employees," she said. "To have them tell me that the employees are going to take a hit while they're creating new positions at the top—that's what's going on."

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The Co-op has pushed back against the allegations and touted advances made by the company under its new leadership. It has increased the number of paid holidays for employees from two to seven, drafted a "social purpose statement" and created a "Go Forward" business plan, the first such plan in the company's history.

Bringing on a CEO is perhaps the most significant shift for the Co-op. A longtime hand at Starbucks, Andersen brought to the helm decades of corporate business experience, as well as Yang, with whom she'd worked before. Together they've charted a new course for the company with the backing of Board of Directors President Shannon McGuire.

"When the Board of Directors hired Michelle Andersen, we did so because of her incredible track record of leadership, ability to build positive and engaged cultures, strong business acumen, and her longstanding love for our Co-op," she wrote in a statement. "Both the Board and Michelle knew that the task before us would be challenging. The legacy of the Boise Co-op is deeply rooted—built upon relationships and love for our community."

Yang's new post has also been brought up as a turning point for the Co-op, embodying many of the values the Co-op has come to represent. In an interview earlier this year with BW, Yang pointed to issues like environmentalism and social responsibility as driving forces behind the continued and future success of the grocer: "Everyone has a soulful reason why they shop at places now," Yang said. "Not just because it's cheapest. ... I think our generation and the future generations coming up, we have a deeper care in how our money affects [things]. That dollar is kind of a vote in what the future holds."

Like others in the new upper echelons of the Co-op, he has been as much a source of change for the organization as continuity, with McGuire describing him as an "intentional investment in transformation of our deli." More changes are coming, but some current and former employees have said they'd rather walk the plank than stay aboard.

"There's a culture of fear there," Craft said. 

More from our partner Boise Weekly:

Profile on new Culinary Director Jin Yang

Q&A with CEO Michelle Andersen