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Doyle: Shopping Local

Recently, employees of a large internet retailer specializing in books filed a class action lawsuit against the company for unfair compensation practices. The company, in an attempt to prevent employee theft at their “fulfillment centers” requires that workers undergo anti-theft screening procedures before taking a lunch break or leaving for the day. The employees are not compensated for this time (which they say can average anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes twice a day) so they sued for unpayed wages. Last week, the Supreme Court found in favor of the retailer 9-0, stating that the workers are not entitled to back wages because the anti-theft searches are not an essential or productive part of the work they were hired to perform.

Setting aside the question of how fair it is to subject employees to an obligatory, unpaid, work-related procedure, I have to say that if a company has to line-up its employees at the end of every shift and search them to see if they are stealing, that company has larger problems than the loss of property – specifically, a lack of respect from, or connection to, its community.

I find it ironic that this very quality contributes to the success of many large online retailers. A company that runs its warehouses in Nevada like a giant ant farm and doesn’t pay sales tax in Vermont can indeed deliver a cheap book to your house in 24 hours. But you can’t ask it to support the local basketball team.

My family ran a bookstore in Lyndonville for 30 years and I’m sure some people did steal books from the store. It happens. It’s human nature. But the people that worked at the store (Lynn, Laurel, Stanley, Leslie, and Kim), they didn’t. And certainly no one ever thought about searching them as they walked out the door. That’s because the bottom-line at the bookstore wasn’t, and still isn’t, just measured in dollars and cents.

Years ago, I remember hearing a story about the owner of the local supermarket down the street from the bookstore. He saw an old man stuffing a package of chicken under his shirt in a clumsy attempt at theft. The owner went to the front of the store, got a paper bag, filled it with food, and gave it to the man. I doubt Fred made a regular habit of this - he might have gone out of business if he had. But that example crystallizes for me what I love about our communities - and why I’ll be shopping locally this holiday season.

Ben Doyle is a Community and Economic Development Specialist for USDA Rural Development. A former English teacher and arts administrator, Ben lives in Montpelier with his wife, Angela, and two children, Salvador and Rosemary.
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