Nobody said that operating a c-store is easy, but knowing the ground rules helps.
By Fran Duskiewicz
If you sit around and chat with a group of convenience store executives, sooner or later, the discussion will turn to horror stories of dealing with local, state and federal inspectors and the inconsistent nature in which they enforce and apply penalties regarding their own regulations and laws.
No matter how good a job we do following the rules, regulations and laws, the feeling is that we will pay for something. ‘Justifying their existence’ is what we call it and it’s why companies have civil, environmental and labor attorneys on retainer. If the government shows up, you might as well start working on your plea deal, because you will pay.
Part of that cynicism springs from the very nature of our enterprise. We sell highly regulated items—fuel, alcohol, tobacco and foodservice. We deal with very sketchy laws concerning sales tax. And we are at the very epicenter of the minimum wage and exempt employee debates dividing conservatives and liberals. “Wage theft” is a popular term these days, bringing to mind company owners in handcuffs, doing perp-walks and being hauled off to jail.
It is all patently unfair.
OPEN TO INTERPRETATION
At Nice N Easy, all we ever wanted to do was follow the rules and do the right thing, but the right thing was often a moving target. For example, the company would institute a new foodservice program with consistent equipment, recipes and procedures across the entire chain, but two different Agricultural & Markets inspectors from two different zones might pass one store and fail another when they were essentially identical. How do you deal with that? If the rules are that vague and open to interpretation, how can an operator follow them with any certitude?
We underwent a federal Department of Labor audit a few years back and thought we had learned a few things that we wanted to share with a study group that Nice N Easy was part of. Many of the members had been audited, also, so we thought it would be very helpful to compare notes. We learned that some managers were salaried, while others who were doing essentially the same job in other companies were determined to be non-exempt.
The greatest discrepancy in exempt status was found in foodservice and appeared to be totally left open to the discretion of the investigator. Again, if the rules are so fuzzy that even labor investigators don’t agree, how can operators make sound judgements?
One of the smartest things we ever did at Nice N Easy was to turn the tables a bit on the powers that be. When several DEC (New York Department of Environmental Conservation) inspections left one of our executives scratching his head, he invited the head DEC inspector in our region to meet with our managers and staff so that we could all understand the regulations better and why they were important.
We developed a very good relationship with the inspector, who came to understand our frustration with enforcement inconsistencies and tried to improve that situation. Things did improve after that and the state appreciated our earnest efforts to do the right thing. I’m not sure that feeling existed until we reached out to them.
WORK TO IMPROVE
Today, a major topic is whether anyone in our industry should be salaried, that exempt status is just an excuse to work someone 70 hours a week and not pay them. Have some employers abused exempt status for managers, not caring what that title really means or how to create a proper exempt job description? I’m sure some have, just as some business owners don’t pay proper sales tax or follow the laws with age-restricted sales.
But, I believe the vast majority of our industry does it right and really wants to do it right in terms of following labor laws to the letter. But, does everyone, including government agents, truly understand those laws and their varying shades of gray? Do they argue among themselves?
Before this train gets much further down the track, the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), the National Advisory Group (NAG), trade journals and state organizations need to get state and federal representatives in front of industry executives to discuss these laws.
Better to do that in a friendly, open forum than later in a courtroom, in front of a judge.