On the day before Thanksgiving, a post on the Beer Advocate forum from an apparent ex-Trillium employee landed the beloved brewery — and its owners JC and Esther Tetreault — in some hot water. The post, which racked up hundreds of replies from local beer drinkers, listed a number of grievances, including unfair labor practices: Trillium allegedly paid retail associates as tipped employees (in Massachusetts, there’s a special lower minimum wage for tipped employees) — which surprised many frequent customers — and cut certain employees’ pay from $8 an hour to $5 an hour for the same job when they moved from the original Fort Point location to the new facility nearby.
Unrelated to wages, the post also alleged that Trillium was secretly dumping tequila into its Mexican Sunrise beer while it fermented, later telling customers it was aged in tequila barrels.
Trillium has denied the tequila charge, with the Tetreaults telling Eater via email that they “do not add spirits to [their] beer and [they] do not market beers as barrel-aged if they do not spend time in barrels.” The Tetreaults did not deny, though, that they cut certain employees’ hourly wages from $8 an hour to $5 an hour — which caused a public outcry—though they did say in a statement that they’re rectifying the situation.
“We are raising the hourly rate our retail employees are paid to between $15 and $18 an hour, based on tenure and knowledge of our craft,” reads the statement, which is posted to the Trillium website. “Those who currently work for us will move to a minimum of between $16.00 and $17.50 per hour, based on tenure. Our employees already felt well compensated under our tip-based model. By increasing their hourly wages we provide them with a more predictable paycheck. Our customers still have the option to add a tip to recognize exceptional service.”
Asked why they paid their retail employees as tipped workers to begin with, the Tetreaults told Eater the confusion was born out of terminology, not legal work status.
“I think the title ‘retail associate’ has caused some confusion for people, and that was made more apparent when we opened the restaurant in Fort Point where there was a clearer delineation between bar service and to-go service,” the Tetreaults told Eater via email. “We don’t think of our retail position as the same as a cashier in another store setting.”
The Tetreaults went on to say that because their retail workers educate their customers about beer and help carry cases out to cars, they thought of them as “customer-facing service employees” like bartenders or servers. The Tetreaults also told Eater that they’ve “always taken a subtle approach to gratuity in house, which was intended to be considerate rather than evasive.”
“Our policy has always been, ‘tips are not necessary, but much appreciated,’” the Tetreaults continued. “Our point of sale screens show a tip option when the customer is checking out, so there’s an option to add a tip or hit ‘no tip.’ Most retail customers don’t tip, actually, but our team was well compensated in our previous tip-based model.”
The Tetreaults were paying tipped employees at least $1.25 an hour more than the state minimum wage for tipped workers, which is $3.75 an hour. But without advertising to customers that their retail workers were in effect the same as their bartenders, it’s difficult to see how retail workers were meant to make a livable wage as most people would not think to tip the person selling them a four-pack of beer.
Trillium’s reaction to the crisis has been swift; upping the pay of all of its retail employees to at least $15 an hour is more than the lip service companies generally pay after a labor crisis. It’s likely enough to restore goodwill with its workforce; now Trillium has to hope the same is true with the beer-drinking public.