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David Trone, a Democratic member of Congress from Maryland, has positioned himself as a protector of frontline workers during the coronavirus pandemic. In recent days, he has tweeted about “connecting with labor leaders” to help “provide support for the labor community” and posted a masked selfie of himself waiting in his car to vote to help “workers impacted by this crisis.” In mid-March, the company he cofounded and owns announced an important benefit for its own essential employees: a $2-an-hour pay raise.
But a few weeks later, Trone’s multibillion-dollar company, Total Wine & More — the country’s largest privately owned wine, beer, and liquor retailer, with 206 stores in 24 states — reversed course.
In a confidential memo obtained by BuzzFeed News, Total Wine’s chief stores officer informed its managers — but not its rank-and-file employees — that the company was “not continuing” the coronavirus raises for hourly workers due in part because of “trends in the business and external environment.”
“We are unable to predict the long-term impact COVID-19 will have on our business and the economy,” the memo read. “We are doing all we can to ensure that we stay open and continue to be a growing business.”
BuzzFeed News spoke with nine Total Wine employees across the country, who said they were infuriated with the decision. Those who asked managers for more information got little in the way of answers. “There was no justification for taking it away,” said Antonio Arguinzoni, who works at a Total Wine store in Sacramento. “They just said it was stopping and everyone was going back to minimum or hourly wage.” That week, Total Wine employees who met certain conditions did get a $25 wine voucher, an offering some viewed as an insulting consolation prize.
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Total Wine workers told BuzzFeed News that despite the memo’s reference to economic uncertainty, sales at their stores are at unprecedented highs for this time of year — thanks to employees’ work safely navigating in-store purchases, quickly launching a new curbside pickup service while being barred from collecting tips, and keeping track of so many delivery orders that they can barely keep shelves stocked. Many employees pointed out that new safety precautions were implemented the same week their raise was withdrawn.
“As a manager, I try not to be negative, but it’s hard to be positive right now,” one California employee said. “Why did you guys take away the hazard pay, but yet you’re saying now it’s mandatory that we wear gloves and masks?”
At many of the country’s major grocers and retailers — including Costco, Walmart, Kroger, CVS, Target, Whole Foods, Safeway, Albertsons, and Amazon — hazard pay has become a common way to reward essential workers for the extra public health risks they face while much of the rest of the country stays at home.
But exactly how long these measures will stay in place is an open question. Some companies, such as Kroger and Target, have said they will give workers hazard pay until the end of May, but others haven’t been as clear.
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The Total Wine memo said the company set its pay raise to last 28 days. A Total Wine spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the extra $2 an hour was “always temporary” and “not intended to be hazard pay” but meant to help employees “during a surge in business.”
“It was a recognition of the hard work that our team members were doing," he said. “It wasn’t hazard pay, it was just recognition that things had gotten busier.”
While some Total Wine stores might still be experiencing record sales, that’s not true across the country, he said, although he declined to provide financial figures. “Business is returning back to normal,” he said. “This was a surge, and the surge subsided.”
In a statement, the spokesperson added that the company moved quickly to keep workers safe during the pandemic, “in many instances well before others did so,” and has made “substantial investments in additional hiring and employee benefits.” Total Wine has hired 1,400 new workers since mid-February, he said.
A spokesperson for Rep. Trone declined to comment, referring all questions to Total Wine. Rep. Trone co-owns the company with his brother.
Earlier this month, Total Wine announced a “Thank You” week to celebrate its hardworking employees. Major winemakers and celebrities like George Strait, the country music star who has his own tequila line, recorded messages of gratitude for employees in a gesture that felt insincere to some.
“Instead of an extra $2 an hour, we get a handful of minutelong messages of thanks piped into our headsets every day,” one employee said. “I wonder why they felt the need to start this program a week after hazard pay stopped? To me, it felt like a ‘let them eat cake’ moment.”
Unlike competitors such as BevMo, Total Wine is still open for in-store browsing in states where that’s allowed. One Arizona employee said popular annual promotions that require physical in-store coupons were still happening despite the pandemic. “We have cashiers breaking down and crying in the bathroom because they cannot take almost every customer getting within 6 feet to complete their transaction,” he said.
To keep up with increased demand, some workers have taken on new duties; one employee told BuzzFeed News that he typically offers wine tastings but is now restocking warehouses in the middle of the night. Others said they have had to scramble to get permission to buy crucial items, such as cleaning materials, because they cost more than normal budgets allow.
Some customers have offered staffers generous tips — as much as $50 for staying open. But under company policy, accepting tips is a fireable offense, even during the pandemic. One customer was so persistent, an employee said, that he accepted the tip but gave it to his manager. He was too afraid to risk his job.
All the while, they’re reading astounding daily sales reports, employees from Missouri to Wisconsin said. Two employees provided documents showing that as of late April sales remained higher than usual for this time of year. “We are 100%–150% over projecting every day, and we’re all overworked and being asked to do more than normal,” a third employee said. Total Wine's annual revenue is reportedly more than $3 billion. Trone spent millions of his own money to run for Congress in 2018.
“Two dollars an employee is not going to hurt this company when they are profiting,” said one Missouri employee. The extra money, paired with overtime hours, was really helping him get by, he said.
Total Wine has “worked hard to ensure we are viewed as an essential business,” the confidential memo said.
Indeed, employees in four states said their stores had frantically stocked up on towering stacks of water bottles, which they don’t typically offer in bulk but are more obviously essential than alcohol. One store in Nevada was selling 28-packs, available online for around $5, for $21. Some employees said their stores purchased food items like tuna and tomato sauce, even though before the pandemic they only sold cocktail-friendly snacks, such as crackers, chips, and mini salamis.
Nine stores were ultimately shut down by local regulators, the memo said. One Nevada store refused to close and the police had to temporarily suspend its business license. An employee in Nevada said her store lied to customers by claiming it had a grocery store license. “We all felt very uncomfortable about it,” she said.
Total Wine did not comment on these allegations.
The April 14 memo from Chief Stores Officer Troy Rice, addressed from Bethesda headquarters and marked “Private and Confidential,” said the company deployed the temporary raise to ensure “we recognized our teams for the significant surge in traffic” that the pandemic triggered, “and to recognize our team members who were on the front lines.” Since then, the memo said, Total Wine had made stores safer by implementing new safety and cleaning procedures, including a daily captainship for health and safety monitoring “called the COVID Captain.” The company also enhanced its paid sick leave policy.
The memo also noted that “business trends have shifted significantly over the past 30 days,” adding that customers were shifting to online purchasing. That wouldn’t stop Total Wine from continuing to open new stores, Rice wrote. But “the increase in digital business is driving a decline” in in-store “point of sale” transactions, he said, reducing “the customers flowing through our stores by a significant amount.”
Given the uncertain future, the company must do all it can “to ensure that we stay open and continue to be a growing business.” That meant in part that the raises had to go.
The Arizona employee said he didn’t buy this explanation. “Whose future isn’t uncertain?” he said. “My future is uncertain every time I come to work.”
Trone, who was elected to Congress in 2018, is still listed as an owner on the company’s website.
He recently announced a “Candid COVID Conversations series,” a series of weekly discussions covering “pressing issues.”
Some Total Wine employees find his public statements frustrating, given what’s happening at the company.
“It’s easy for him to say what he’s saying sitting behind a desk in a comfy office," Antonio Arguinzoni said, "when he’s not on the front lines and his regular employees are running his company for him."