What’s the value of a business’ name on your resume?
This is essentially the question at the core of controversy surrounding beloved hazy IPA-maker Trillium Brewing, which erupted this week. Started on a Beer Advocate message board and making its way to the Boston Globe, current and former employees shared complaints toward Trillium’s treatment of staff, most notably that workers were made to reapply for their jobs which also came with a pay reduction of more than a third. If rehired, tip-based staff would make $5 an hour instead of $8.
In Trillium’s home state of Massachusetts, the minimum wage is $11, but tipped employees, of which Trillium considers its staff, must only make a base pay of at least $3.75. However, according to state law, “the employee must receive at least the $11.00 minimum wage when actual tips and wages are combined” and if combined wages and tips to not at least equal the regular minimum wage, “the employer must pay the employee the difference.”
According to the Globe, the reason for changing the hourly rate was meant to be a course correction, of sorts. Co-founder JC Tetreault told the paper that the pay cuts only impacted "a handful of longtime retail employees" who had been hired at a previous standard rate of $8.
“The brewery dropped the rate of pay to $5 an hour for new tipped employees as their workforce increased in recent years to include a popular beer garden on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, a new restaurant and brewery in Fort Point, and plans for a farm brewery in Connecticut,” the Globe reported.
This was enough to fire up Beer Advocate user "abagofit," who claimed to be a former Trillium employee, sharing they were fired from their job in part because of social media activity. Their statements on the site ranged from the mentioning the paycut to accusations of selling tank dregs as frozen beer or in growlers, as well as pouring tequila into tanks to flavor a beer.
“[Founders JC and Esther Tetreault] are well aware of the fact that people want the ‘prestige’ of working for a top brewery and are willing to be underpaid to build the resume,” he wrote in one post. “You can probably count on one hand the number of people who have lasted more than 3 years.”
The poster later clarified his comments, writing that retail staff make “well over minimum wage regardless of whether the hourly is 8 or 5” and that “they might be the highest paid staff per hour (with tips) in the entire place.”
Regardless of what stands in the brewery’s HR manual, the optics of the situation quickly deteriorated online. In brief statements to the Globe, JC Tetreault wouldn't say if pay rates would be restored. In his own post on the Beer Advocate forum, JC explained that the original $8 per hour pay rate came without tips. When Trillium instituted a change two years ago to $5, it included tips factored in, a change staff has asked to remain, he wrote in his post.
“Every business has to choose the approach that feels best for them and their teams,” he wrote. “For us, this allows us to offer greater staffing levels to keep wait times to a minimum, balances the workload for our team, and gives customers the option to tip which is why we started in the first place.”
In addition to the explanation, he also shared a list of benefits for full-time employees, which include health and dental insurance, 401(k) with company match, an annual cash bonus, free beer, and matching for charitable donations.
As these back-and-forth public spats tend to do, there’s no winner in a series of “he said,” rebuttals. But the core of where this issue started—pay and treatment of employees—is bound to be an ongoing challenge not just for Trillium, but the thousands of small businesses that make up the vast majority of the U.S. beer industry.
In a four-part series this spring reporting on issues of pay and employment, one of the most telling stats came from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, showing that average weekly wages at production breweries, across all jobs, were on steady decline from 2006 to 2016 as the number of breweries rapidly increased.
Average weekly wages for all classified brewery workers came in just below $1,000, and for comparison, “Food Preparation and Serving Related Occupations,” carried an average weekly wage of $475.20 before tips, according to the BLS. In separate figures self-reported to the Brewers Association, member breweries shared that most taproom staff, regardless of brewery size, make about half (about $22,000) the average salary of an American worker (about $44,000) before tips.
A repeated credo for working in beer circles around the idea of doing what you love, not necessarily doing what you love for money. It’s a tough, time-consuming manufacturing and service industry job, and for many, passion is a driving professional factor, not finances. The act of brewing has always been an apprentice position, learning from others and working up the ladder. Service positions—such as the taproom staff at Trillium faced with pay cuts—are also faced with unique challenges due to the sheer volume of people who want to get into the industry. This could present a Catch-22 when it comes to what Trillium is offering.
For what may be a temporary stop and a line on a resume, is it more important to have money in the moment or a big name to help you down the line? Trillium’s prerogative to manage budget lines among all the reinvestment the company is doing for a new restaurant, farmhouse brewery, and more may be unethical toward employees, but it’s also not illegal, and as long as people are willing to work for the brewery and use that experience to further a career, a symbiotic relationship remains.
The same plays out in a small collection of reviews Trillium has received on Glassdoor, a site that hosts anonymous reviews of companies. Comments include harshly negative tones, such as the most recent review, written on Nov. 5, in which the poster says they worked at Trillium full time and can't think of a single "pro" about being employed there. The cons?
"Absolutely everything, but primarily the evil incarnate that is the ownership," they write. "They cut every corner in producing the beer and in compensation for their employees. Upon opening a new location staff had to interview to keep their jobs at half of their salary."
But on July 30, another person wrote that the brewery was a "great place to grow" and found positive experiences through professional development and being surrounded by people passionate for their work. Another, from March 24, mentioned a “great company culture.”
“Be part of the team and help drive performance and you will be satisfied with the company, yourself and your peers,” it read. “Owners have built this from the ground-up and are involved in the daily operations.”
Five reviews on the site show mixed results, but one in particular points at the broader issue at play. Its lone “pro” of working at Trillium, stacked against 10 “cons,” highlights why the brewery could be an important professional stepping stone: “Viewed as producing and industry leading product. Looks good on resume.”
It highlights a dual meaning of what “value” represents when it comes to this line of work: Is it about money? Or what is gained?