Thursday, April 9, 2009

"I love my job."

I got another response from a person who says they work for the PLCB today (the first one is here). There was no subject line, and I'll keep the name under wraps (to the writer: if you don't mind, or would like your name used, I'd be happy to add it, just let me know); the only thing I will say about the identity of the person is that their e-mail address ("willfulmissconduct") makes what follows a little suspicious...but even PLCB clerks like to have some fun, I guess. Until I have a better reason to believe that the following is a put-up job, I'll take is as genuine.

Here's what she had to say, my response follows:

Paid more than other clerks? I don't know how many years these high paid clerks have been in the PLCB, but I make 10.58 an hour. I have been here almost two years. I cannot even afford to pay my rent and bills on that, when all my taxes are taken out. I stay, because I love my job, I love my customers and I have the benefit of very reasonable medical insurance rates. What will happen to me if privatization happens? Will I get medicaid and food stamps? Sure, I can get another job. will probably cost me 500 to 600 a month for medical. Total Wine? Yeah, right. My friend used to work for them, and they do not even offer medical plans. When they do, it is so unafordable it is not worth it. My friend took a hefty paycut, but is happier at the PLCB.

We do a good job. It's not a matter of training people to do their jobs. It's a matter of firing those that do not. I spend my free time reading wine books and attending classes. Many of my customers thank me and come back and ask for me by name. It is not unusual for me to give my attention to a customer (or set of customers in a group) for 15 to 30 minutes. I love my job. I love my boss, I love the people I work with. We are all just like everyone else, trying to earn a living and support our families. The PLCB is the best thing that ever happened to me. I am a college graduate as well, IQ of 145, and not stupid, as you would like to have folks believe. I went through a horrible divorce and my child and I were homeless at one point. No one helped us. The PLCB gave me hope for a future, supporting myself and taking care of my child, instead of ending up on welfare or in a shelter.

I turn away many people every day who are underage or have no valid ID. Try seeing the same at most beer distributors, when the owner is concerned his or her profits are down. Go ahead.... buy your wine from a grocery store, when all you have to tell you about the wine is the tag on the shelf, put out by the company making the wine. Sure thing they are going to tell you their wine is "good." As far as restaurant markups, complain to the restaurant. It is their decision if they want to buy a wine for 8 bucks and charge 25 for it.

I love my job. I cannot state that enough.

My response to her:

I feel you deserve a response. I have said on the blog, many times, that the situation and future of the PLCB employees is the thorniest part of privatization. It's one of only two issues that really concern me, the other being how to keep the new system fair, insofar as how new licenses are created, approved, issued, and transferred.

When you say "It's not a matter of training people to do their jobs. It's a matter of firing those that do not", I could not agree with you more. I hear from, and about, people like you, who are genuinely interested in their jobs and try to learn more about the products. I recently talked to a young man in a PLCB store in the Philly area who is very interested in single malt Scotch whisky, has developed a nice collection of it, who aspires to travel to Scotland to learn more. People like him, and you, should be rewarded. The type of clerks I unfortunately run into much more often, who either mumble "I don't know," or predictably, cynically, point to the most expensive wine in the section and say "This is good," when I ask for a recommendation -- both of which I've had happen multiple times in the State Stores -- should be getting training and being evaluated on it.

As far as the pay, that's a simple matter of numbers. There is a study out there on salaries of retail clerks nationwide, I've seen it, and PLCB clerks rank rather high on it. That may be more a reflection on how poorly-paid retail clerks are than on how well-paid PLCB clerks are, but the fact remains that PLCB clerks are paid more than most, and "CEO" Joe Conti did say in the PCN interview that experience is not a factor in hiring, and seemed to be concerned about that.

But I take issue with you saying that I think of, or portray, PLCB clerks as stupid. I will say that I have run into some that are ignorant of their own products, or of any products that might not be on the shelves; I'd have to lie to say that hadn't happened. But I don't think the clerks are stupid, and I am always polite and friendly to them, and hopeful of their knowledge. I do think PLCB clerks are handicapped by the system, by the policies of the agency.

I also disagree with you about carding at beer distributors. I've seen carding going on, and I've seen people turned away. I did it myself when I worked beer retail in PA back in the 1990s. The people at beer distributors are just as conscientious as PLCB employees, and by so callously saying it is not so, you do them -- and yourself -- a disservice. It's a simple fact: most underage drinkers don't buy with fake ID. They get booze from relatives or friends who buy it for them, something that happens at State Stores and beer distributors, and nothing clerks do can stop it.

As for grocery store wine sales and restaurant markups... If I just want a bottle with dinner, and I know what I want, what's wrong with buying at the grocery store? Nothing. If I want better wine than that? Well, if I lived in a non-control state, which I have in the past, I would go to a store that specialized in better wines and service, just like I go to my local cheesemonger when I want something other than block cheddar. Choice. It's what private stores are all about.

Restaurant mark-ups aren't really the issue in Pennsylvania, either. It's about the price the state charges to the restaurant, and the lack of service delivered to the restaurant, and the lack of options. Why do you think Philadelphia has many more BYOBs than other big cities in America? One reason: Pennsylvania's archaic, overbearing, monopolistic liquor code.

The main point of your e-mail, though, is about your job, and I don't blame you. I don't want you to be unemployed. You sound like just the kind of clerk I'd love to run into. But the PLCB is not a jobs program. The state should not be in the retail business, any kind of retail business. There is no good reason for the State Stores to exist.

I'd love to see you get a severance package of loans and discounts from the State that would allow you to open your own wine store, maybe in partnership with your current boss and fellow clerks, that would let you run with your love and serve the people who appreciated it. Believe me, there would be so many happy wine-lovers to support you, your store would be a runaway success. And you'd be making a lot more than $10.58 an hour.

That's the way wine retail is in New Jersey, in Delaware, in Maryland. That's the way it could be, should be, in Pennsylvania.

Lew Bryson

The PLCB is not a jobs program. The Turnpike Commission, maybe, but the PLCB is not. I have said from the beginning that the plight of the employees is the toughest part; here's what I said in a comment on my very first post on the blog, the day after I started: "The hardest part about writing this, getting people to see the problems with the PLCB, is thinking about the effect it could have on people's livelihoods if I were somehow successful." Since then I believe we've come up with some workable ideas on how to ease that transition, and I hope that some legislators take a look at them.

But...the PLCB is not a jobs program. Shouldn't be, can't be. It's bad enough that it's got the State in retail.


sam k said...

Nice discourse from both parties. There SHOULD be more State Store employees like her. If there were, our little "jobs program" would be a better purveyor of wine and spirits.

Though not any more necessary, mind you.

Harry Spade said...

If she lives near the border, someone running a wine store across the line should hire her immediately.

Lew Bryson said...

Bingo, Harry. I think so, too. Because it's a cinch she's wasting her time getting smart for the PLCB, no matter what "CEO" Conti says.

BrainLint said...

Coming from a restaurant owner, I've never had a problem with any of the clerks at my home Wine & Spirits. They are friendly and helpful. And I think you hit the nail on the head, stating that their position on the pay scale isn't really because the PLCB's that other retail stores under-pay.

We've tried to expand our wine selection. The process of ordering, and the quantity that needs to be ordered is a pain. Our house wine, normally 8 bucks a bottle is available in Florida for 4 bucks a bottle.

I agree with everything you said in your post!

1winedude said...

I would say that getting pissed at a PLCB clerk is sort of like getting pissed at a soldier because you oppose the war in Iraq. It's useless, because they're not to blame.

Lew Bryson said...

Not quite, 1wine. I've had PLCB clerks be really rude; not often, but it's happened. I feel perfectly justified in taking THAT personally!

But yeah, in most cases? Not their fault. It's a job. If I needed one, I'd take it.

kuwaiting for godot said...

I am a PLCB low-level employee, and I have to say it's very hard to participate in this conversation without coming from the angle of wanting to keep my job. There are a few things that can be argued. Privatization doesn't necessarily lead to a better deal for customers. In Washington State, it resulted in higher prices. See:
The statewide infrastructure of the PLCB provides a selection and availability to smaller communities that would never be available if those communities were just going to be served by privately owned stores which by necessity could only exist where population and demand merited it, and then they would not stock the variety of products that the state stores offer. The idea that retail should never be government-run is debatable. Arguments could be made on the other side of the fence. Consider urban "food deserts" where grocery chains don't choose to locate. Could government-subsidized grocery stores impact the health and living conditions of poor urban populations? Probably. I'm just saying -- it can be argued either way. The idea that government has no business in markets is a conservative notion, but not an inarguable one.

Lew Bryson said...

No one can fault you for wanting to keep your job...except to point out that there are MORE jobs in a post-PLCB liquor/wine economy. But let's take apart your "few things that can be argued," and yeah, take them apart, because they don't stand up to the facts at all.

Prices in Washington State are higher after privatization for one big reason: higher taxes. The article you link to even says so: "The higher prices come from taxes levied through the 2012 ballot initiative itself, including a 10 percent license fee paid by distributors and a 17 percent license fee paid by retailers." Washington's booze taxes are now BY FAR the highest in the country, and what's the result? Higher prices, and accelerated border bleed. Seems like there's a simple lesson to be learned: if you privatize, don't raise the taxes!

I'm sure your union bosses will respond to that with "But how will you make up the lost revenue?!" Thing is, there isn't that much revenue that isn't taxes. The 'profit' of the State Stores is 25% or less of the total state revenue from the sale and taxation of wine and spirits, mainly because of the ballooning operating costs of the State Stores. Somehow they're costing more to run, even though there are about 140 LESS of them than 20 years ago. Profits will continue to shrink -- no, wait! They're already gone, now that the state's new audit rules have forced the PLCB to include pension costs in the equation. So there is no lost revenue to make up! In fact, if we lowered the taxes and privatized, we'd probably gain back the millions of dollars in border bleed we're losing now because of the higher prices and -- sorry, but it's true -- sub-par service in PA State Stores.

The rural service argument? Really? Look, my in-laws live in a rural county in New York, similar in population to Indiana or Northumberland Counties in PA, each of which has FOUR State Stores for the whole county. In their ONE small town of about 9,000 people, there are FIVE liquor stores (plus the big beer selection at the Wegmans, which doesn't have to have a dopey "cafe" to sell it, either), and it's not the largest town, or even the county seat.

Do these stores have the selection of the State Stores? One of them actually does compare well to a State Store, but the whole question is ridiculous. If there's only ONE store in a county (as there are in ten counties in PA), I'm certain the residents would rather have easier access to a smaller selection at a larger number of stores, especially when they know they could easily ask a store to order something for them. I don't see why it's in the state's interests (or the rural counties) to run those rural stores at a loss (and most of them do) so that people in Clinton County can have a slightly better wine selection.

Your grocery store/food desert arguments don't hold water either. All of those counties with one or two State Stores have at least that many beer distributors. It's not that there aren't private enterprises willing to sell wine and spirits in those areas; it's that they're NOT ALLOWED TO. By law. Because of this ridiculous police-enforced monopoly.

Your arguments are invalid. You should be backing privatization and looking to get a better job in a private store; better yet, take your experience and OPEN one.