What Workers are Experiencing in Burlington’s Service Sector — And How They’re Changing It

In a small city like Burlington, Vermont, whose effervescent urbanity attracts both tourists and those inhabiting its rural outskirts, the 400 or so small businesses that comprise the local economy play a crucial role in the community’s character.

With Burlington being such a small metropolis, a higher emphasis is placed on community driven by the work environments that carry the city’s success on their backs. Increasingly, the often-difficult conditions of such work have been publicly acknowledged as in urgent need of reform. An investigation into the reality of the life of a typical Burlington employee of such establishments reveals that inappropriate management and a focus on profit over all other considerations, in combination with poor pay and a disregard for the rights of employees, are to blame.

Last summer, Burlington-founded cider bar Citizen Cider faced massive controversy surrounding the launch of their line of light beer, “Hey Bub,” and the way it impacted their staff. With sexist slogans such as “Get Plowed,” “Keep It Trimmed,” and “Approved for Hooking Up,” the new product made the majority of Citizen Cider’s employees, young college-aged women and queer individuals, significantly uncomfortable, and helped expose longer-standing, systemic issues in the workplace.

Erin Steincke, a student at the University of Vermont, was hired at Citizen Cider and entered the workplace at the height of the controversy. “I walked in and all these people who had been there for so long before Hey Bub was launched were just disappointed,” said Steincke, who later left the company in a mass exodus of staff just a few months after the offensive branding was introduced. 

“I think the main issue that I had and that everybody had was that [the owners] came into it thinking that they knew better than the people who had been working there for so long,” Steincke said, explaining that both floor managers, one of whom had been on staff for nine years and the other for three, had fostered a close-knit and positive working environment throughout their tenure. “And so when the owners were just coming in being like, ‘you’re gonna have to change this, you’re gonna have to do this’, they just didn’t understand that that’s not really how it worked,” Steincke said.

She also emphasized the importance of communication within the workplace, and how a lack of it took a toll on Citizen Cider’s workers. “After [the controversy began], [an anonymous higher-up] installed cameras in the pub with voice and audio on them. So everybody was kind of walking around on eggshells. Like you didn’t know which co-workers were okay with what was happening or which coworkers went against it. And, you could be at risk of getting fired if you were talking bad about the company in the pub. So a lot of these conversations happened in private, like in the walk-in freezer, and that’s kind of when it really became unhealthy, there were a lot of unresolved issues that everybody wanted to talk about, but couldn’t.”

A lack of empathy from upper management combined with a disregard for the comfort and safety of employees made the perfect recipe for a toxic work environment. Citizen Cider has since hired a third-party organization to evaluate their personnel and company policies and is refusing to respond to requests for further comment at this time.

Nick Knudsen, a northwestern Vermont local and current Head Bar Manager at Pizzeria Vérita, is a seasoned veteran of the Burlington service industry. He spoke of his past employer, Church Street Tavern, located in the hub of Burlington’s shopping district and which closed its doors this past December. He was a server and bartender there from late 2016 through 2021. 

When asked about his perception of the power imbalance that managers of restaurants tend to perpetuate, he reflected on how “in a non-tip-pooled restaurant, your wage is basically $3 an hour and it’s like you owe [the manager] nothing, but the power dynamic is still there. But [they’re] not really even paying you to do anything. And then they are like, ‘Oh, it’s slow, clean something.’ And you’re not making any money and you just have to be subservient to them because they are providing you with a place to work. It’s just gross.”

The State Department of Labor states that the current minimum wage for tipped employees is $6.84 per hour, a base pay half that of the statewide minimum wage. According to the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition, to afford a modest apartment in Burlington, renters need to earn $23.40 per hour, yet the average hourly pay for a typical service industry employee is recorded as $19.78 as of January 2024.

When the inherently hierarchical dynamic between management and waitstaff of a small service business becomes fraught with financial pressures, an already existent power imbalance often gets worse. Employees are discouraged from offering complaints or criticisms, as their work environments may appear equitable to outside observers while becoming increasingly toxic for those within. 

“It really comes down to the management almost exclusively,” says Knudsen. “I think it’s all about how open management is to taking feedback from the servers and all the employees, because I’ve worked in places where there’s no room for that at all. And it’s not enjoyable for anyone.”

Mia Seele, a 21-year-old employee of several Burlington businesses over the past three years, has a similar insight in recounting her experience working for and dealing with management. Burlington Bagel Bakery, a popular breakfast spot on Church Street, hired Seele in the Fall of 2021. “It was very fast-paced and they expected you to know all the bagels,” she recalls. “I remember quizzing myself before the shift of all the bagels and I still [struggled to remember them]. So I got fired. I was kind of upset about that one. But it also didn’t seem like my type of place to work.” 

Despite her experience in the industry and willingness to work, she said the bakery’s management had no patience for her newness. “They actually called me at 10pm and I worked at seven the next morning. So I just went to work at seven and they said, ‘Oh, you actually were fired last night, so you should go home.’ They had left me a message but I didn’t see it in my voicemail. I think they thought I was just stupid.”

A lack of sufficient correspondence and ethical consideration for employees makes for a difficult work environment. The refusal of these small businesses to treat their employees as human beings normalizes these exploitative attitudes across industry. 

Seele is currently employed at Muddy Waters, a kitschy coffee house downtown that has been in successful business for over 30 years, which she raved about. 

“My boss cares very much about all the employees and is just very present, she understands what’s going on,” says Seele. “She checks in on me about things outside of work, asking me how my exams are, how my sister is, things like that. So I just feel cared for in my job. She makes sure that the employees are happy because if they are, then they will want to make the company money.”

Tierney Munger took ownership of Muddy Waters from longtime owner Mark Mackillop after working there as a front-of-house employee for ten years.

“I think the biggest difference is the way she views business. Most businesses just look at the customers and see them as a way to make money, forgetting that the employees are the ones doing the selling,” says Seele. “So if your employees are happy, then you’re gonna have an easier time making money. Taking care of your employees is honestly number one.”

Companies that ignore or are hostile toward their workers run the risk of trading an exercise of power for the financial stability of the entire operation. In a small city like Burlington, one does not want to meet the same fate as Citizen Cider, whose product has been boycotted by more than 180 Vermont retailers over the past several months.

There is hope for a more healthy future in service industry workplaces, however. Organizations like Workers United and AFL-CIO provide resources for employees suffering from toxic work environments who are seeking to have their voices heard and their needs more properly met. Servers at Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop on Church Street, for instance, recently celebrated their first union contract with the company, which resulted in significant increases in pay, benefits, and working conditions.

So what might unionizing look like? Rebeka Mendelsohn, a Vermont organizer with the Rochester Regional Joint Board of Workers United, explains that it’s not so difficult of a process, regardless of the intimidating misconceptions many may have of a worker’s union. 

“It usually looks like either meeting with your coworkers or meeting with [representatives like] me. And just talking about what your workplace is like, what problems do you guys collectively have? And who would be people who are interested in getting involved in fixing them?” said Mendelsohn. 

Such a casual first step toward an open dialogue surrounding the issue could be the key to a happier and healthier workplace; all it takes is that first push of courage from workers to speak up about the injustices they are experiencing. 

“A union makes sure that if you have an issue, if you want to see something changed, not only does it have to be heard by your management, it often has to be upheld,” Mendelsohn said. “And then now you also have the legal recourse of a contract that basically states that, if someone were to violate this on either end, we have a real way of looking into that.”

Although one root of the issue certainly lies in the way management disregards the rights of their employees, Mendelsohn said that “at a certain point, your managers can’t see [the effects of their mistreatment]. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re a horrible person. But in getting working wages and better working conditions, sometimes management can’t help us anymore, you know, and it’s been that way for a while.”

“It just has to be on the workers now to advocate for ourselves.”

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