Every hour she worked at the Buchi plant in Weaverville, the labels Kila Donovan pasted on the bottles of fermented tea drink touted the company's status as a certified living-wage employer.
“I just wanted to go to work, get my paycheck and avoid drama, but after I'd been working there for a couple of months, other employees wondered why we were getting paid less than the living-wage amount," she recalls.
According to the criteria of the Asheville-Buncombe Living Wage Campaign, a local company must pay $11.35 an hour without benefits or $9.85 with them to be certified as a living-wage employer.
But Donovan, who’d worked for Buchi since June, says she and the other workers earned $10 an hour plus two bottles of Buchi per shift. There were no other benefits, and the employees were treated as independent contractors.
Nonetheless, Donovan says she enjoyed her job and regarded the company's owners, Sarah Schomber and Jeannine Buscher, as friends. The decision to contact Just Economics, the nonprofit behind the living-wage initiative, was simply an attempt to clear up confusion, Donovan maintains.
“We weren't asking for more money. … We didn't think they could pay any more,” she recalls. “We weren't demanding anything; we just felt like what they were advertising was different than what was happening. It was an integrity issue: They were saying they were treating us a certain way, and that wasn't true.”
So on Nov. 2 Donovan, acting on behalf of herself and two other employees, asked Just Economics how Buchi had satisfied those requirements.
The living-wage formula allows in-kind payments to be counted along with money and other benefits. When Buchi was certified, the company claimed to pay its workers $10.50 an hour plus two bottles of Buchi per five-hour shift, reports Vicki Meath, executive director of Just Economics.
Donovan, however, notes that “Buchi is a luxury item: We were all surprised that it would be considered part of a living wage. You can't eat it; it's not health care or better pay.” She also says she specifically asked Meath not to take action against her employer and not to use her name.
“Employees shouldn't have to risk their jobs for the integrity of the campaign,” Donovan asserts. “I was concerned it was going to be hard to remain anonymous, as Buchi has a staff of six.”
Reassured by Meath's response and confident that a planned recertification of all the living-wage businesses beginning in January would address the issue, Donovan says she didn't feel a need for further action, even vetoing Meath’s suggestion that the nonprofit send the company a letter.
Nonetheless, Just Economics did contact Buchi, and after questioning all the employees, the owners fired Donovan on Nov. 17, citing “personality issues,” Donovan reports.
Contacted by Xpress, Schomber responded via e-mail: “We have a tight team and a happy, meaningful work environment. The accusation by a disgruntled former worker that Buchi received special treatment from Just Economics regarding the living-wage certification program is false. We volunteered to comply with certification criteria because of the values we both share. We support the idea that people should earn honest pay for honest work.”
Who can you trust?
“I don't know exactly what happened,” says Donovan, “but everyone at Buchi found out about [the inquiry], and it totally endangered my job and the jobs of the two other employees.” Over the next few days, she says, Schomber and Buscher questioned their workers individually about the situation.
“Somebody told them I was the one who made the call,” Donovan maintains. “On Nov. 8, they pulled me aside and said they would be restructuring the team, and they wanted people who were happy at Buchi. I said I was very happy. … They said they'd heard from several people that I was unhappy and kept pressing.”
Donovan says she explained the workers’ concerns, emphasizing that no damage had been done to the company.
“They actually apologized at first and said the situation would be resolved,” Donovan recalls. “But after that weekend, they had a different story: They said they were within the guidelines, and they didn't want people working with them [whom] they didn't trust. They made me promise that any labor matters in the future I would take to them. I shouldn't have to promise that, but I felt I had to, to save my job. There were never any other issues they mentioned: It was all about the living-wage campaign.”
Nine days later, however, Donovan was fired. “I was floored,” she reports. “I should be able to make an inquiry about the living wage without losing my job for it.”
In her e-mail to Xpress, Schomber stated: “The values of Buchi are based on cooperation, mutual aid, clear communication and personal integrity. As mothers (and now business owners), we believe in nurturing and supporting our community.”
Schomber also wrote: “Just Economics contacted us to investigate a call they received questioning whether Buchi was meeting the living-wage criteria. They did not tell us who called. If Just Economics decides to modify their qualification policy to the point Buchi no longer qualifies, we will not have any problem with that decision at all. We'll either adjust our pay rate or drop the certification.”
Schomber said Donovan's firing was completely unrelated to her inquiry with Just Economics.
Meanwhile, another Buchi employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed numerous key details of Donovan's story, including the pay rate, the fact that several workers were concerned about the apparent living-wage contradiction, and that Buchi's owners had questioned the employees individually.
Copies of paychecks provided by Donovan show that she was paid $170 on Oct. 22 and $140 on Nov. 5 (for 17 and 14 hours of work, respectively, she says). But the checks came with no pay stub, and no deductions were withheld.
Workers doing factory-style labor that’s integral to a business’s operations are typically considered employees, and the employer must withhold taxes and Social Security contributions, among other requirements. Independent contractors must file their own quarterly taxes and benefit contributions.
“A contractor is [someone] like a painter — a job where there's an element of independent judgment," Neal O'Briant of the N.C. Department of Labor explains. Asked if there are circumstances under which the type of work being done at Buchi could qualify as contract labor, O'Briant said, "No, not really."
For her part, Donovan says she grasped the full impact of her "independent contractor" status when she filed for unemployment benefits and found she wasn’t eligible. She says she’s asked the Employment Security Commission to look into whether Buchi can legally treat its workers as contractors.
In a subsequent e-mail to Xpress, Schomber explained that Buchi's workers were originally considered independent contractors because, in the beginning, it was a small-scale operation with unpredictable hours (depending on when a batch of kombucha finished fermenting) and a varying crew of workers.
"But as we are finally growing into more regular work, a more detailed understanding of the kombucha brewing process and, consequently, a more regular schedule, we have now been advised that it is time to transition to having employees," Schomber wrote.
Xpress had asked Just Economics for copies of Buchi's original living-wage certification, but Meath expressed concerns about “propietary information” the documents might reveal, saying she would take the matter to the nonprofit’s board. At press time, the documents weren’t available.
Shortly after Donovan’s firing, Meath left her an apologetic telephone message, saying, “I'm sorry about what happened to you. I wanted to reiterate that I didn't use your name in anything, but I realize Buchi is a small company. I dealt with the situation as best I knew how, but apologize for anything on my part that might not have been perfect. I want to reiterate that, as an organization, Just Economics is taking a lot of what you said in consideration. I wanted to apologize in any way, shape or form for any negative consequences.”
A “gray area”
“It is unfortunate that Just Economics has been targeted in a dispute that's between an employer and employee,” says Meath. “We're open to hearing constructive criticism, but we're really proud of the work we've done. We've certified 200 businesses that are willing to pay a living wage even in the middle of an economic downturn. That's an important achievement.”
She acknowledges, however, that there’s a “gray area” in the current policy, especially with regard to the in-kind remuneration that Buchi claimed. Meath says she's working with The Mediation Center to set up a three-way meeting with Donovan and the Buchi owners.
“We're trying to take from this [situation] things that will improve our programs,” she notes. “We do allow for other items to supplement the wage, but this is an aspect of our program we're reconsidering.”
As for Donovan, Meath says, “I never used her name with anyone. Our plan was to investigate whether Buchi was still meeting criteria and to talk to them about future changes in our certification process. However, there's no way to investigate Buchi without talking to Buchi.”
The campaign is working on setting up a tip line on its website where employees could make anonymous inquiries.
Beginning next year, adds Meath, Just Economics will reconsider its criteria (including the degree to which it allows supplementary items to count toward a living wage) and its policy on monitoring businesses already certified.
Still, she feels her group has been unjustly blamed in the wake of Donovan's firing, noting that protesters showed up at a Dec. 6 Just Economics event.
“I feel like we're being harassed, that we're being targeted with misdirected anger,” Meath maintains. “I'm really proud to work for an organization that's striving for economic justice. I'm not sure why there's a continued campaign to harass our organization.”
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at email@example.com.