BELFAST — As businesses offer hiring incentives and increased wages in an effort to attract workers to offset a statewide labor shortage, the Belfast Co-op increased its base wage to $15 per hour as of Oct. 1. General Manager Doug Johnson said the move will bring its employees up to a more livable wage, which was the reason for the action.

In 2015 he started working for the Co-op and began using the MIT livable wage scale and another calculator created by National Co-op Grocers to help develop employee wage scales and determine what is livable, he said.

The NCG has more specific outputs for a more precise calculation, he said. He uses both calculators every year to help the Co-op make adjustments to starting wages. The last time he ran the MIT model, $12.60 was considered a livable wage for Waldo County for a single individual with no dependents, then it jumped up to $15.16 last spring.

“Almost overnight we ran it and it had jumped up to $15.16,” he said. “… We had always been working toward a $15 starting wage and when that jumped that significantly, we knew that we just had to get in front of it,” he said.

He surmised the calculation jumped so dramatically because of the rising cost of housing, but the models do not provide specific details about why wages go up or down, so he cannot be sure of that, he said.

The Co-op has always been concerned with improving workers’ lives, he said. The pay increase is not about workers working harder, but rather to make sure employees can meet their needs and not have to worry about whether they can feed themselves or their families.

“They are the backbone of everything we do at the Co-op,” he said. “The economic model can’t exist without having workers that are invested and engaged in their work.”

Many employees will still have a hard time living on $15 an hour, he said, but it is better than the federal minimum wage, which he called “criminal,” and the wage increase is what the Co-op can do this year with an intention to do more every year.

The Co-op did not close down during the pandemic or experience a decrease in its income, he said. In fact, the Co-op helped provide food to the community during a time when not a lot of other services were available. The store took the opportunity of the pandemic to become better connected with the community, Johnson said.

“For us it also kind of solidified our role in the community. We were a place of comfort for people and we were a place that people could feel safe when they came to meet their basic human needs, like people needed food and we were able to do that in a way where they felt like they were being cared for,” he said.

He was able to get the budget for the next fiscal year approved recently and, after careful planning over the last few months,he  thinks the Co-op can be profitable with the wage hike. He will continue to run the models to help the Co-op maintain an appropriate wage scale.

“A year from now, hopefully we will be in as good financial condition as we are now, but I think that it would be irresponsible for us not to do what we’re doing,” he said. “So, we’ll just have to see how it plays out and do what we have to do to make it work.”