Liquor plan hits home

While politicians in Harrisburg debate Gov. Tom Corbett’s liquor privatization proposal, thousands of state store employees – including those at dozens of area stores – face uncertainty over whether their jobs will exist much longer.

If Corbett’s plan passes the General Assembly, Pennsylvania’s 620 state-owned liquor stores would be shuttered and replaced by roughly twice as many privately owned businesses.

“It’s going to put a lot of people out of work,” said Jim Snively, Blair County steward for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, which represents state store workers in much of the state. “These jobs are not going to be replaced by CVS, Walmart, Rite Aid, in terms of wages.”

The state liquor system employs about 3,500 store workers, as well as several hundred managers and hundreds more administrative staffers. Managers operate under a separate union.

The newly unveiled plan would allow grocery, convenience and big-box stores to sell beer and wine, while allowing beer distributors to sell six-packs. Liquor would remain largely in specialized stores.

Corbett’s proposal, revealed in a Pittsburgh press conference Wednesday, includes a program to educate and re-employ those who would lose their jobs in the transition to privately sold liquor.

“It’s important to the governor. We know we have good employees there,” Eric Shirk, a spokesman for Corbett, said Friday. “You want them to have jobs, obviously.”

Corbett’s plan detailed a series of training and education grants, as well as preferred government rehiring and tax credits for businesses willing to hire state store clerks.

But behind the promises, like preferred hiring in civil-service jobs, there’s little substance, UFCW Local 1776 President Wendell W. Young IV said.

“How many people do you hire each year in the entire freaking government? It’s, like, a few hundred,” Young said. “There will be very few employment opportunities for these people.”

Shirk took a more positive view: newly opened businesses, he said, will have to hire clerks and managers, while grocery stores and supermarkets may hire new workers to deal with beer and wine sales. Workers would likely see a net job increase, he said.

The governor’s office studied other states’ experiences privatizing liquor and found newly created jobs carried similar pay and benefits, Shirk said.

“History in other states shows that many of the private sector jobs created will have comparable compensation,” a Friday press release from Corbett’s office stated.

But the 20-page analysis Corbett commissioned makes no mention of employees’ futures or comparable pay. Representatives from his office didn’t provide information Friday to back the claims of similar pay in other states.

Employment information from Washington – which enacted a similar privatization last year – is scant, as the state’s 1,000 unionized liquor clerks were cast into new careers when the system closed, Washington State Labor Council spokeswoman Kathy Cummings said.

“We don’t know [how they’ve fared] – they couldn’t be union anymore. They had to find other jobs.”

Young said the stores opened to beer and wine under Corbett’s plan wouldn’t hire many new employees, as existing workers and floor space could easily be rededicated to alcohol.

But workers at Blair County’s five state-owned Wine & Spirits stores haven’t lost their morale yet, Snively said. Many support families, he said, and the job provides benefits including health insurance.

State store clerks made $31,338 on average as of January 2012, the PA Independent reported last year. If they lose their jobs, Snively said, the financial benefits the state reaps from license sales would be outweighed by thousands of former clerks and managers collecting unemployment and food stamps.

But despite the uncertainty, most employees in Blair County are staying put, he said.

“Right now I don’t see people leaving. There’s nowhere to go – nowhere to defect to, honestly,” he said. “We’re prepared to fight. We’re prepared to beat this.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.