Labor of Love: Pay, Benefits, and Safety in the Fast-Growing Brewing Industry

Feature by | Feb 2014 | Issue #85

Pyramid brewer and union shop steward Cat Wiest. | Photo by Christine Zona

Josh Gordon wanted in on the craft brewing upswell in Michigan. He wanted it so much, he says, that he “hounded” local companies, looking for work that lots of other beer enthusiasts were also seeking. Finally, he got a job at Odd Side Ales in Grand Haven, which brews between 50 and 150 barrels a week. Now, as the lead cellarman, he runs the bottling line, kegs beer, helps with brewing, and cleans and cleans and cleans.

“There’s just endless amounts of cleaning,” he says. “It doesn’t really matter what you’re doing. … Pretty much everything revolves around cleaning and maintaining a sanitary environment.”

It’s hard work, with no air conditioning. Bottling days can run from 6:30am to 8pm. The pay isn’t great, and Gordon had to supplement his then-part-time hours with a side job at Starbucks that provides health insurance, since it isn’t offered at Odd Side to full- or part-time employees. If it were any other job, Gordon says, there’s no way he’d put up with all of that. But when he talks about his work, it’s with palpable enthusiasm. “It’s the craft beer industry, and it’s what I want to be doing,” he says. “It’s all totally worth it.”

Stories like Gordon’s are pretty much the norm in the craft beer world. Enthusiastic homebrewers and beer connoisseurs trade pay, benefits and comfort on the job for the chance to work on something they love and the opportunity to jump onboard a fast-growing industry. And it is fast growing: Between 2003 and 2013, the number of workers in breweries with fewer than 500 employees jumped from under 8,000 to more than 17,000. At the same time, employment at the nation’s largest brewing operations fell significantly.

With the growth of craft brewing showing no sign of slowing down, the situation of its workers raises questions. At times, the line between sacrificing for the craft and being exploited by a profitable business can be a thin one.

Josh Gordon works on the bottling line at Odd Side Ales. | Photo by Bryan Esler

Josh Gordon works on the bottling line at Odd Side Ales. | Photo by Bryan Esler

Like Gordon, Karinne Thornblom, a worker at a California brewery, says she gets along well with her bosses, feels a strong sense of camaraderie with her coworkers and loves getting to be part of a creative enterprise. With a bit of an “OCD cleaning style,” she says she feels at home with the cleanup work a brewery demands. But she says the pay is a real issue, especially in an expensive urban area. “I do always encourage people who are passionate about wanting to get in the industry that that’s something you have to prepare yourself for,” she says. “I stay with it because I’m passionate about it.”

Thornblom says that when it comes to the beers they brew, there’s often a difference in vision between “downstairs” workers in the brewery and “upstairs” sales, marketing and administrative workers. She says that she knows investing in costly new equipment helps the brewery grow, but she suspects it’s also a reason that pay increases are kept at bay.

In an emailed response, a representative from the brewery says that fair compensation is a serious issue in craft beer, and they “have (just very recently) started paying dramatically more for good people in packaging and production,” although specifics were not divulged.

“I think there are so many people that do want to be involved in the craft beer scene and are willing to sacrifice pay to get their foot in the door,” Thornblom says.

Before moving to her current job, Thornblom helped start up Black Star Co-op Pub & Brewery, an Austin, Texas, brewpub in which workers are “member-owners,” working together in a non-hierarchical structure to manage the company. “In a way, we were all kind of the boss, and we all held each other accountable,” she says. “In Austin, I was very spoiled. Because of the co-op principle of being paid a fair living wage, I was able to earn much more relative to most in the similar brewing positions.”

As tiny microbreweries grow into substantial organizations, some change is inevitable. Management no longer works side by side with everyone else on the bottling line, and recipes are a matter of policy, not taste-tests involving the whole crew. Some breweries make a conscious decision to make up for those losses by improving life for their workers in other ways. “Company culture” is a phrase that comes up a lot.

One aspect of the incentives that many larger craft brewers offer is purely financial. According to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, breweries with five to nine workers paid an average of $506 a week in the first quarter of 2013. For those with 20 to 49 employees, the average was $644, and for breweries with 250 to 499 workers, it was $1,672.

At Oregon-based Deschutes Brewery, one of the largest craft breweries in the country with about 420 workers altogether and 115 in production, human resources director Pat Gerhart says that large companies are generally able to pay better than small ones. But she says that craft brewers in general want to provide living-wage jobs. “I think in the craft beer industry that we have a real good kind of family sense to our work environment, and we tend to be companies that pay more attention to our employees,” she says.

Gerhart says that Deschutes’ production workers start at between $11.50 and $15, and can make up to an average of $16 to $17 an hour, depending on experience and education. The benefits are where the company really stands out, she says, with a 401(k) retirement plan, employee stock ownership, paid vacations and sick leave, and family medical and dental insurance plans with 95 percent of the premiums paid by the company. “It’s very important to us to be able to do that,” she says. “The retention is wonderful—that you’re not constantly hiring, constantly training. So it’s definitely a win-win situation.”

Another major craft brewer, New Belgium Brewing in Colorado, became entirely employee-owned at the end of last year. Management shares the company’s financial information with workers each month, and employees from all parts of the organization are encouraged to be part of a philanthropy committee that decides what contributions to make, spokesman Bryan Simpson says. Along with basic benefits that include 100-percent employer-paid health care premiums, workers get a cruiser bike after one year with the company and a trip to Belgium at five years.

“Certainly there’s a cost to it, but the benefit is terrific,” Simpson says, adding that the company has a 93-percent retention rate. Employees also end up helping with world-of-mouth marketing in their travels, and they come back having learned about things like traditional Belgian brewing techniques. “A great deal of the branding is about the storytelling,” Simpson says.

While Deschutes and New Belgium are examples of breweries that kept the focus on their employees’ quality of life as they grew, Elana Guiney, spokeswoman for the Oregon AFL-CIO, an umbrella group for unions in the craft beer-heavy state, says it’s not uncommon for craft breweries to be inattentive to employees’ needs. “Working conditions vary a lot brewery by brewery,” she says.

Guiney says that the smallest breweries do tend to have startup-style cultures, with everyone pulling together to create an excellent product and grow the company. As companies expand, though, she says some workers feel their working conditions, wages and benefits don’t improve as they should. While wages at larger breweries aren’t necessarily higher, workers at large operations are more likely than craft employees to be part of a union, with wages, seniority policies and other matters subject to formal negotiations; and wages are generally higher in large union breweries, according to Guiney.

In 2011, 29 employees at Oregon’s Rogue Ales tried to organize a union with Teamsters Local 324, according to the union’s secretary-treasurer, Chris Muhs. He says workers complained they were barely making minimum wage and had to pay big out-of-pocket costs for health insurance.

Muhs says the organizing campaign fizzled after the company fought back. “It’s immensely hard to organize because of the way the law’s set up,” Muhs says. “Once there is an organizing campaign in place and the company finds out about it, they have a lot more protection federally than the union does.”

Rogue’s president, Brett Joyce, says the effort to organize failed quickly. “A large majority of our employees, at their own initiative, circulated and signed a petition informing the involved union that they would not support the union’s efforts,” he says. Joyce says that Rogue provides fair wages, as well as a range of benefits including health insurance, 401(k) contributions, legal aid, paid vacations and an employee stock program. (Even more? Pet insurance, bonuses, gym subsidies, paid entrance into any athletic activity, and a scholarship for employees that have left Rogue to pursue a degree.)

Muhs acknowledges that competitive wages can render unionization unnecessary, but points out that “union representation goes far further than just wages and benefits. Most labor agreements have provisions for seniority protection, bidding procedures, grievance procedures and arbitration, to name a few.”

This year, another brewery, the Berkeley, Calif., Pyramid Brewing location did successfully organize a union with another Teamsters local. Brewer and union shop steward Cat Wiest says that issues with the brewery actually went back to 2010, when Independent Brewers United, which owned Pyramid, Magic Hat Brewing and MacTarnahan’s (now known as Portland Brewing Company), was bought by North American Breweries. Although she wasn’t with the company back then, she says her co-workers say they were “a lot happier” before the buyout. In recent years, Wiest says, workers had noticed big discrepancies in pay, with a lack of reward for longtime employees, as well as other problems on the job.

“We very, very rarely got breaks,” she says. “Some people went years without pay raises.”

The unionization campaign began after North American was acquired by Cerveceria Costa Rica in 2012 and made more changes. Wiest says the workers were moved from a popular schedule of four 10-hour days each week to five eight-hour days. Then their hours were cut back. The workers voted to join the Teamsters local 896 in August, Wiest says. Then, in September, the brewery stopped making Hefeweizen. “That’s our bread and butter,” Wiest says. “It was really suspicious.”

The brewery eventually shut down entirely due to lactobacillus contamination. Wiest says the company told employees it would take four to nine months to reopen. In October, the brewery shut down indefinitely, and all the workers were laid off. “They did threaten us with shutting down during our organizing effort, but it’s not legal, so we really didn’t think they would actually do it,” Wiest says, adding that she hasn’t signed the release of liability in order to qualify for the severance package the company is “pushing,” so she’s still able to speak to the press.

North American declined to comment on the conflict, saying that the two parties have agreed to work on their issues in private, but a spokeswoman suggested contacting Amanda Zameska, the lead quality assurance analyst at Portland Brewing Company, to get another perspective.

Zameska says she and her coworkers were happy when the company’s ownership changed in 2010 because many part-time employees were given full-time hours. She says the Portland employees also received a cost-of-living adjustment to their wages a couple of years ago.“I know everyone’s been pretty satisfied after that in our location,” she says.

More troubling in some ways than the sometimes-low pay at breweries is safety problems. A Reuters investigation in July found that at least four people died at craft breweries between 2009 and 2012, compared with two deaths at large breweries; another person was killed on the job in 2013, at Stone Brewing. There were also almost four times as many safety violations at craft breweries as at large brewers.

Long Trail's safety manager Matt Calcagni and director of operations Matt Quinlan.

Long Trail’s safety manager Matt Calcagni and director of operations Matt Quinlan.

Matt Quinlan, director of operations at Long Trail Brewing Company in Vermont, says he understands why craft breweries can be dangerous places. When the company started out in 1989 with four employees, he says, the working conditions were “pretty typical for a small craft brewing organization.”

“Of course people don’t want to get hurt, but there are no sort of formal programs,” he says. “A lot of people who get into brewing don’t have industrial backgrounds and don’t really understand the risks around it.”

Over the years, Long Trail grew from a startup to a significant industrial operation, but Quinlan says the mentality around safety issues stayed the same. Then, five or six years ago, staff from Vermont’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration showed up at the brewery to do an inspection. “They found a number of violations,” Quinlan says. “To somebody who was an outsider, probably an alarming number of violations. We were pretty alarmed, too.”

There were problems with safety guards around equipment, blocked entrances and a simple lack of formal protocols. Things, Quinlan says, you’d find at almost any small brewery.

But with its size continuing to grow, Long Trail realized it had to change. It fixed the violations and signed up for a voluntary OSHA program designed to help plants go beyond the regulations in creating a safe corporate culture. In 2010, Long Trail became one of three breweries in the US certified under OSHA’s elite SHARP safety designation. The company also hired a full-time safety manager who could stand outside other managers’ focus on production and quality, with the power to shut things down if he spotted any problems. But as Dave Hartman, brewmaster at Long Trail, points out, “We have a safety manager to coordinate the ongoing improvements, but over the past four years, Long Trail associates have embraced a safety culture.”

To some in the industry, though, the key to safety doesn’t lie in more formal policies. Jeremy Hunt has worked at breweries including Redhook in New Hampshire and Dogfish Head, and he says he knew the man who died in the keg-explosion accident at Redhook in 2012. In general, though, he says workplace injuries at craft breweries tend to be “very, very minimal.”

“I’ve had an opportunity to learn from other people’s mistakes so that in the work environment, I’m already paying attention to possible hazards,” he says.

After his time with large craft brewers, Hunt is now the head brewer at a much smaller operation, Deep Ellum Brewing Company in Dallas. He’s in the industry for the long haul, he says, despite having a clear view of the dangers and discomforts involved. “I honestly could make a lot more money doing something else,” he says. Hunt supports his wife and four children on his salary at the brewery, he says, but only because they make do without television and drive an old Ford station wagon.

“We live a little bit differently, but that’s a choice on my and my wife’s part,” he says. “What I do have is satisfaction at my work, and I think that’s worth something as well.”