The Brattleboro Co-op. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer file photo)
The Brattleboro Co-op. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer file photo)
Thursday January 17, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Eleven employees of the Brattleboro Food Co-op were laid off this week but it has nothing to do with a recent successful union vote, said both the Co-op's general manager and a spokesman from UFCW Local 1459.

"I don't think there's any hidden agenda here," said Richard Brown, Local 1459's treasurer. "It was simply a business decision and it is very sad for the people laid off."

"It had nothing to do with the union vote," said Co-op General Manager Alex Gyori. "The people let go, half of them were not even eligible to vote. They were fairly new employees."

Gyori said the layoffs had more to do with delays in construction caused by the "shortpaying" committed by Baybutt Construction, the general contractor hired to build the new Co-op building, which had its grand opening on Nov. 8 and 9, 2012, seven months behind schedule.

The Co-op had increased staffing in advance of the grand opening and the holiday season.

When it came to his attention that the project was falling behind schedule, subcontractors were asked to send in extra people and work extra time to get it back on schedule, but they refused. It was then that the Co-op's board and management learned Baybutt Construction, of Keene, N.H., wasn't completely paying its subcontractors for work performed.

"We used a lot of good will and capital to keep the job moving forward," said Gyori. Fortunately, he said, the Co-op had reserve funds available to pay its clerk of the works and project manager for the seven extra months it took to get the job done. And then there were legal costs associated with Baybutt's actions, said Gyori.

The subcontractors are being paid by the bonding company that insured the project, he said.

"Because we were many months behind in the opening of the new store, the sales gross wasn't there when we needed it. The cash flow got really tight in December."

Co-op management had to make a tough decision on how best to balance costs with the store's revenue stream, and that resulted in layoffs, said Gyori.

"Hopefully, over time, we can bring some of them back."

Gyori said as part of the cost cutting, senior management took a 3 percent pay cut.

Despite the setbacks related to the delayed construction, he said, the Co-op is financially sound.

"The sales will get there eventually, but the biggest issue has to do with parking."

Many people avoided the Co-op during construction because the parking lot was a mess, he said.

"We have enough parking now," said Gyori.

The entire project, which included two floors of affordable housing, cost a little more than $13 million, of which $9 million was for the Co-op's two floors.

The UFCW's Brown said the Co-op is experiencing growing pains.

"The business is not what we would hope it would be at this point," he said. "When you open a new store and the holidays are over, it's not unusual for there to be a lull. Things will improve and my hope is people will be hired back."

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.