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Demand for workers drives some Upper Valley employers to roll out their own minimum wage

  • A sign at the entrance to North Country Smokehouse in Claremont, N.H., solicits new employees with its recently raised starting wage at $15 per hour. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Shipper Dylan Kemp pulls a pallet of applewood bacon from the warehouse shelf while preparing shipments at North Country Smokehouse in Claremont, N.H. The company recently raised its starting wages to $15 per hour. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • North Country Smokehouse CEO Aaron Corbett. (Courtesy photograph)

Valley New Business Writer
Published: 4/17/2021 9:39:57 PM
Modified: 4/17/2021 9:39:56 PM

At North Country Smokehouse, workers are bringing home more bacon.

After suffering an initial shock as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the restaurant and hospitality industry — its principal customer for smoked hams, sausage, bacon and turkey — the Claremont cured-meats purveyor pivoted to the retail market, which has led the company to hire 20 more employees and adopt a $15 minimum wage policy for all production workers.

With the move, North Country Smokehouse joins a handful of other employers in the Upper Valley, such as King Arthur Baking Co., Hypertherm, the owner of Vermont Castings and Boloco that have a companywide $15 or higher starting minimum wage. Domino’s Pizza in West Lebanon and Hanover earlier this month also began paying inside store workers $15 per hour and is “guaranteeing” $15 per hour for drivers.

The reason is a familiar one: Unemployment, at least according to government statistics, is low in the Upper Valley, and many businesses struggle to fill entry-level positions despite an economy pounded by the pandemic.

“We just started offering $15 because there is a shortage of applicants coming in,” said Will Buckwold, supervisor for the Upper Valley region at Domino’s, who said that with tips drivers are earning more than $15 per hour.

At Hearth & Home Technologies, which owns the Vermont Castings brand wood-burning stove and operates a foundry in Randolph, the starting wage is now $16.50 per hour. Most of the plant’s 140 workers are earning in the $17- to $18-per-hour range, and an open melt and mold technician job is paying $21.50 per hour, according to Jeffrey Nelb, general manager.

Nelb said HHT has been gradually “ramping up” pay since acquiring the stove maker several years ago as an inducement to attract employees and in a sign of “respect” that shows the company values their work.

(Spokespeople at the region’s two biggest employers, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Dartmouth College, said neither institution has a formal minimum $15 wage policy although most employees in fact earn more than that.)

At North Country Smokehouse, chief executive Aaron Corbett said the new $15 “across the board” wage policy is the result of significant growth at the Claremont company since a division of Quebec pork giant duBreton acquired the smokehouse business from Mike Satzow and opened a new $30 million, 62,000-square-foot facility in Claremont’s Syd Clarke Industrial Park in 2016.

“The business has grown a lot the last few years. We had a challenging but successful year in 2020,” Corbett said. “We’ve gone from a relatively small company in Claremont to one of the biggest. And now we’re able to reward our employees with better wages.”

Although the pandemic has sent many businesses up in smoke, North Country Smokehouse, like others in the food category such as King Arthur Baking in Norwich, Vermont Packinghouse in Springfield, Vt., and several Upper Valley farms, has seen a surge in demand for its products because home-bound people are cooking more or concerned about the quality and provenance of their food. (All the pork products made at the Claremont smokehouse are raised at duBreton-operated farms in Canada.)

At the time duBreton bought the smokehouse in 2015, the company employed 34 people. Following last year’s hiring spree, it now has 117 employees, 90 of whom work in production and the warehouse and are hourly wage earners.

“The entire wage scale moved up,” Corbett said. “So if anybody was making less than $15, they are now making $15. But the majority are now making more than $15,” he said, with certain “lead-type positions” commanding $21.50 per hour.

The total additional cost from the increase on the company’s payroll is in the “mid-six figures,” Corbett said.

State policy and consumer trends

Upper Valley employers have been slow to embrace President Joe Biden’s call to guarantee workers a $15 minimum wage, long championed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and many Democrats. New Hampshire and Vermont are widely divergent on the issue.

Vermont on Jan. 1 increased its minimum wage by 79 cents to $11.75 per hour for non-tip workers, and the floor is set to rise again to $12.55 per hour in 2022. Lawmakers are vowing to make another push this year to seek an increase to $15 per hour.

New Hampshire, which historically has largely subscribed to laissez-faire economic policy, pegs its minimum wage to the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour, which hasn’t increased since 2009 (The U.S. Senate blocked a Biden administration attempt to increase the minimum wage to $15 as part of the massive American Rescue Plan Act earlier this year).

North Country Smokehouse officials maintain the company’s decision to adopt a $15 minimum wage was not done in anticipation of any potential future action at the federal level.

“The first reason I did this is because it was the right thing to do,” said Corbett, who grew up and was educated all the way through business school in Southern California before moving to New Hampshire and joining North Country Smokehouse in 2015.

The yearlong pandemic has dramatically shifted the smokehouse’s customer base.

Before the pandemic, 70% of the smokehouse’s sales were to the restaurant and hospitality sector, while 30% of sales were to consumers through supermarkets. Today, sales are nearly evenly divided 50/50 to each market.

“It flipped in a matter of days last March (2020) and for about a month was 100% retail, and retail was three times the volume it was previously. It came back a little but it was gradual, (and) for most of last year it was the inverse,” Corbett said, adding that total sales for the smokehouse now exceed the pre-pandemic levels.

“We took advantage (of the disruption in the market) as there were a lot of people in the meat industry having problems filling orders,” Corbett explained, which he said was possible because of the expanded production capacity at the new Claremont plant.

Corbett foresees “ultimately a long-term shift” in the smokehouse’s customer base toward consumers because “you’ll see a lot of people eat more meals at home even post-pandemic.”

As North Country Smokehouse has added retail chains such as Wegmans, Shaw’s, Target and Whole Foods markets in Texas and Florida, the growth in sales to the consumer market will become a bigger factor in the smokehouse’s business. Corbett declined to specify how many pounds of cured meat the smokehouse ships each week other than to describe it as “five full truckloads.”

He’s more candid about what is required to produce those truckloads of cured meats: The smokehouse burns about 3,800 pounds of wood chips and goes through 600 gallons of maple syrup (purchased from Mac’s Maple sugarbush farm in Plainfield) each month.

“We’re not burning down forests,” he said.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.




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