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State Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, a longtime advocate for fair-employment issues, scolded state liquor leaders Tuesday for alleged mistreatment of workers.
Mayne said in recent weeks she has received dozens of email complaints from upper management, retirees and workers from the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC).
"Morale is low, way low," Mayne, the minority whip, told members of the DABC's liquor commission and department leaders.
Most of Mayne's comments were pointed to DABC Executive Director Sal Petilos and Deputy Director Tom Zdunich, saying she was most disturbed by the claims of "bullying and spying" by managers.
"I would not be here if there wasn't a problem. And if you don't do something now, there will be many of me here," she said. "If you're wrong, fix it. You are a very powerful board and you produce a ton of money for us. We don't spy and we don't bully and we don't hurt people."
Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, also attended the commission meeting, but did not speak. Stevenson has been named in various circles as the lawmaker who will lead any future liquor-law changes replacing former Sen. John Valentine, who left the Legislature last year to head the Utah Tax Commission.
After the liquor commission's monthly meeting, Petilos defended the department, saying leaders "are not treating employees arbitrarily."
Several years ago, the DABC was hit by legislative audits that noted a lack of proper policies and procedures. Now, as the department implements tougher rules, "designed to mitigate fraud, waste and abuse," we are "hit on that end as well," he said. "Change is difficult for everyone."
During the meeting, Mayne specifically asked Petilos to address the practice of placing employees who had announced their retirement on immediate administrative leave.
Last month, Ron Harris, the longtime manager at the Metro Wine Store in downtown Salt Lake City, was placed on administrative leave just days after announcing his retirement. Gary Clark, the store's assistant manager, quit in protest. Customers were outraged at the treatment of the two veteran employees, who had a combined 55 years of experience and were known for their wine knowledge and attention to customer service.
Mayne also noted the high turnover rate among store managers and that instead of hiring replacements, the DABC is having managers oversee two stores.
"In retail," she said, "if you did that, you would have a catastrophe."
Mayne asked DABC officials to look at why store managers were leaving. Since 2011, at least 15 of the 43 store managers have retired, quit or in the case of a Park City manager, died.
Mayne blamed much of the manager turnover on statistics showing 80 percent of DABC employees work part time and make low wages.
"You don't have loyalty with part-time people; you don't have stability with part time," she said. "This is a skilled craft; maybe it should be treated that way. People who go into stores want someone who can show them what is a good bourbon or a good wine."
During the 2013-2014 fiscal year, Utah liquor sales were $367.2 million, a jump of nearly 6 percent from the previous 12 months. Sales figures for the first nine months of the current fiscal year July 2014 through March 2015 have shot up nearly $21 million or about 7.56 percent, DABC reports show.
Rather than reinvesting in the liquor program, state law requires the DABC to return its profits to the state. Most of the liquor funds go into the general operating fund and sales tax revenues go toward the school lunch and public safety programs.
Mayne said she would be willing to work to get more funding for the department.
Petilos said employee retention is a problem in every state agency, especially as the economy improves and state workers find higher-paying jobs in the private sector. He noted that DABC recently increased part-time employee pay to $9 an hour, but that is still behind large stores such as Wal-Mart and Costco, which pay $10 an hour. "I'm still behind the curve," he said. The DABC has 498 liquor store employees, 203 are full time and 295 are part time, according to the 2014 annual report.
Some of the problem, said commission member John T. Nielsen, is the lack of funding from the Legislature.
The DABC budget "got a $500,000 cut this year and that hurts. It doesn't help us do what we need to do," he said. He asked that customers and business owners help bring the issue to lawmakers. "We know that they respond to constituent concerns, particularly if it has to do with economic development and the financial well-being of the state."