By Anne Burkhardt
At Interfaith Worker Justice we’ve been searching for ethical employers to profile on an upcoming television show. It amazes me how difficult it’s been to find employers in low-wage sectors that treat their workers well. In many of these industries, wage theft is the norm. It is far more common to find restaurants and construction companies and other companies in low-wage sectors that do steal from their workers than those that do not.
So when we do find these employers, it’s so encouraging to talk them. These folks genuinely care about their employees and genuinely want them to have better lives through their work!
Kim and I met with two really marvelous employers in Chicago area. Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique owner, Teresa, left a career in finance to attend Le Cordon Bleu and then started a catering business, which turned into a storefront in downtown Chicago.
Part of the way that Teresa developed her business model was based on her experiences as an employee in finance. She said she was barely aware of the common treatment in the food service industry, like the $2 tipped wage. All of her employees started in 2009 at the minimum wage, but as the business grew, Teresa paid her employees more. Now, all of them make far above the minimum wage. Most employees have access to benefits, too, including health insurance, dental, vision, paid sick days, paid maternity leave.
And more than that: she treats her employees like family, making sure that there’s flexible scheduling, semiannual reviews with raises, and staff outings for paintballing, kayaking and friendship. It’s truly incredible when you realize how different Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique’s workplace standards are from the rest of the industry.
Like Teresa, Pete of I Have A Bean coffee company left a career in another field – Pete left the tech industry. After a mission trip to South America and a newly developed love for coffee—followed by his brother-in-law’s arrest (and subsequent difficulty in finding or keeping a job)—Pete was inspired to start his own coffee company. I Have a Bean exclusively hires post-prison people. Pete has some inspiring stories about successes: stories of people who were hired at Second Chance Coffee (as it’s also known) and went on to become leaders of nonprofit prison missionary organizations, or find other types of work suited to their skills.
Both Pete and Teresa started their own businesses, which is no small feat. And when the time came to choose how to treat their people, they looked at the bottom line and chose respect and justice, not wage theft and dehumanization. This is a business model that works, and works well!
Anne's reflection is part of our summer series of reflections from IWJ Interns. Anne is interning with Interfaith Worker Justice this summer working to get to know Ethical Employers like Theresa and Pete.