Faced with selling a product in high demand during a time of emergency, Wadena Municipal Liquor Store employees are now receiving a temporary $3 per hour pay increase during the COVID-19 emergency.

Liquor Store manager Tim Booth brought the recommendation to Wadena City Council members initially looking for an increase between $2 - $4 an hour based on what he was hearing from other businesses offering hazard pay to their essential employees.

The liquor store employees see more people in one day than other city departments may see in a week or month, Booth said. And while that may seem like a good reason to halt operations, the sale of alcohol is considered an essential service.

“With the stay-at-home directive, we are seeing more and more people every day,” Booth wrote to council members. “Now that spring has arrived we are also seeing many customers that are not from this area. Potentially, these customers are from areas with a higher number of positive Covid-19 cases. With the closing of on-sale liquor establishments we are seeing more and more customers, which increases our risk of contracting COVID-19. Unlike the other city departments, we cannot modify our operation to see less people.”

What they have done is add a plexiglass barrier between the cashier and customers. They’ve marked the floor with tape to direct people to keep 6 feet apart. They also are provided masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. Booth said they wipe down surfaces hourly and provide curbside pickup on request. Booth said few people request the service.

What the numbers say

The liquor store is not seeing a drastic increase in people from 2019, according to data Booth provided. Both years saw about 8,000 during the month of April. But Booth explains those 8,000 customers spent an extra $6 each time they visited compared to 2019 -- an extra $48,000 in revenue. In May, Booth said they are seeing an extra $2,400 in revenue a day. Another factor to include is that the liquor store is now open 35 hours per week less than normal, meaning the city is saving that much on payroll. On top of that, access to the liquor store has never been worse with Hwy 10 having limited access on the south and Hwy 71 under construction to the west.

A $3 an hour increase for employees is about $3,500 a month in extra pay, an amount Booth says the Liquor Store can now afford to pay. For the year, the store is up $130,000 compared to the same time frame in 2019. The gross profit on alcohol is about 24% for the liquor store, Booth added.

City administrator Janette Bower said the $3 an hour increase is sustainable during the pandemic.

“There is some hazard and risk to working retail especially at the volume they are,” Bower said. She noted that some other retail locations such as gas stations, Walmart and Super One were providing hazard pay.

Council member Bruce Uselman was on board with hazard pay but had concerns about when the end would be. He asked to set a time frame with a future meeting to discuss extending the pay increase. Booth said other municipalities have done that and continue to extend the time frames as they reach those deadlines. Uselman said, in the past, some employees received hazard pay during an emergency.

Uselman suggested Sunday sales be reconsidered as the city enters into summer soon and there will not likely be major community events where people can partake in buying alcohol.

“That isn't going to happen,” Uselman said. "So that's why we really need to look at that Sunday sales.

Booth mentioned that Sunday sales are typically slow.

With all council members in favor of the temporary $3 an hour increase for 60 days, the council agreed to review the decision at their July meeting.