Closing of Meadworks in Medina shows need to level field for small business owners

Posted 30 September 2022 at 8:04 am


The abrupt and shocking close of 810 Meadworks last week in Medina was felt throughout the region. 810 Meadworks had a  business philosophy built on owner Bryan and Larissa DeGraw’s artisan approach to mead-making combined with community building by creating a unique event and gathering space in Medina’s historic district.

One of the harsh realities of owning a small business, especially one with employees, is that the owner is the last one to be paid, after employees, insurance companies, landlords, the government, and vendors take their piece of the pie, there isn’t much left to scale up.

In recent press releases, Mike Norris, and our other local representatives, Robert Ortt and Steve Hawley, acknowledge the “distinctive industrial circumstances” surrounding ag, and are fighting for reform in that sector, but fail to acknowledge those same types of seasonal challenges and labor regulations faced by micro- and medium-sized businesses, especially in the hospitality sector.

Moreover, we have witnessed mass subsidy programs offered by the state to build a huge stadium for a football team that has no trouble selling out home games, and little in the form of real help for small ventures. The justification is that sports teams are cultural institutions crucial to the identity of a region.

Ironically, our current governor Kathy Hochul was a patron of Meadworks, I personally waited on her multiple times. In a small way, that demonstrates that 810 Meadworks had become as important a cultural institution to Medina as the Buffalo Bills are to the region-because clearly the governor was directed towards Meadworks by somebody who knew the community.

So where is the disconnect? Simply stated, we have minimum wage laws so that employees will be paid a reasonable amount of money, but there is zero protection for a small business owner who goes without pay for months, or even years. It has become an expectation that in order to build a business from the ground up, you cash out retirement accounts, take on debt and then build up “sweat equity.” Unless you are independently wealthy, or have a spouse that brings in a decent income, it is unrealistic to expect someone to work for little or no wages for an extended period of time.

Then we have the aforementioned dispute over farm labor laws. As much as I understand why our local representatives are fighting hard against the overtime threshold for migrant workers, why hasn’t there been the same type of advocacy for businesses that employ three or four people and are getting crushed with employee-related payroll, insurance and tax requirements? In simplest terms, the negative impact of labor regulations go well beyond the ag sector.

In Bryan’s case, he had a marketable product – and I can vouch for the fact no one ever questioned the quality of his work. While there are a myriad of reasons why Meadworks shut down, if Bryan was compensated to the level he deserved, shutting it down would never have been a consideration.

In the process, the ripple effect is that other people lost jobs, including myself. That means more money is taken out of the local economy, and while it may not seem significant, it certainly doesn’t help.

So where are our priorities, as a state or a nation when we can’t figure out a way to reward master artisans and keep them in business? This is not a partisan issue, both parties need to find common ground, and work together to solve this problem.

While there is no magic bullet, there are viable solutions such as loosening the restrictions on independent contract employment – like we have done for ride-sharing and grocery shopping services. That would go a long way to help small businesses scale.

Consider this, Uber’s gross revenue for 2021 was $25 billion dollars with a profit of around $5 billion, and they can operate almost exclusively without paying for the types of insurances and benefits afforded to the small business sector or agriculture. They are only one of the many gig economy companies afforded those benefits.

If small business owners were able to pay part-time workers as independent contractors, it would discourage them from hiring workers under the table, which usually isn’t done because of owners evading the law, it is an economic necessity. Part-time employees would likely be paid more, and business owners could scale, much like Uber did on the backs of independent contractors.

In addition, creating a small business owner earned income type credit for hours worked, would encourage business owners to continue to build their business and provide hurdle help. No owner of a business should feel obligated to work for little or no pay for years, while being required to pay employees wages and benefits. Even if that earned income credit kicked in after a year or two in business, we could potentially save businesses and create more local jobs.

It all comes down to leveling the playing field and expanding benefits already afforded to mass corporations to small- and medium-sized businesses. Basic economics tells us that increased competition benefits the consumer. The state simply cannot afford to continue to ignore this disparity.

Thom Jennings