Over the past few years, Seward Co-op has seen unprecedented failures. Board Packets obtained by Workday Minnesota from former board members reveal some of the disregard that management has towards the experience of workers amid increasingly troubling financial signs.

The board packets are a compilation of reports that are given to board members in order to vote on the agenda items during the board meeting. The board packets are largely, if not totally, written by the General Manager Sean Doyle.

The co-op runs using Policy Governance. Under Policy Governance, the general manager is only required to report to the board. For Seward, this reporting comes in the form of the board packets. The board helps to create goals for the co-op and the general manager dictates how to achieve these goals. More information is available via the Seward website.

In practice, board members get a board packet once a month before the board meeting. Directors are expected to review the contents and email questions ahead of time so that discussion will be kept to a minimum during meetings. Workers and community members have expressed frustration over this practice. Owners present at board meetings, who don’t have access to the packets, were unclear about what was being decided by their elected representatives. The packets even have their own separate minutes referred to as, “supplemental minutes” that are more comprehensive and illustrative then the publicly available minutes.

In order to understand how these policies and decisions impact the daily experiences of workers, this multi-part series will draw from over a dozen current and former employees. Almost all spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.  

Board packets reveal that the Seward Community Co-op has been facing unprecedented financial challenges. Over the past few years, Seward has been struggling to reach budgeted sales goals and management is predicting a reduction in sales and sales growth through the fiscal year of 2020, according to the board packets.

“After nearly 25 years of solid growth, our co-op faces the possibility in the coming year of not only zero sales growth, but also a reduction in sales,” wrote Doyle in the June 2017 board packet, predicting the fiscal year 2018 sales. He continued on, “Because of this possibility, we will set our highest overarching priority to be a focus on how to generate sales growth.”

As predicted, fiscal year 2018, which ended in June, did result in a “negative sales growth for the first time in 20 or more years,” although 2017 sales came in under budget. The packets reveal an expectation that fiscal year 2019 will represent Seward Co-op’s “second consecutive year of sales decline.”

The prioritization of sales growth has caused the needs of workers to fall by the wayside. Labor spending in the past few years, especially at the Franklin location, has frequently come under the budgeted percent of sales. The result is that Seward is chronically understaffed. There have been thousands of dollars in savings to the co-op while workplace conditions erode.

We reached out for a comment on the chronic understaffing and we’re told that staffing levels are determined by sales, but little extrapolation or context.

In the board packets and during Board of Director meetings, Doyle repeatedly references a high industry-wide job turnover and competitive job market as the reason behind the structural understaffing. However, according to current and former workers, the high turnover is a result of a work environment marred with favoritism, punitive practices and a stress-filled work environment. Seward’s environment and testimonials from its employees will be expanded upon in subsequent articles.   

Note: Workday Minnesota Editor Filiberto Nolasco Gomez was voted off the board in August. 

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