Bakery volunteer pitch sparks controversy

Alpine Bakery owner Suat Tuzlak found himself in a hotter kitchen than he bargained for when he posted a newspaper ad looking for volunteer bakers in mid-July.

Alpine Bakery owner Suat Tuzlak found himself in a hotter kitchen than he bargained for when he posted a newspaper ad looking for volunteer bakers in mid-July.

He says that the whole controversy was blown out of proportion by a misunderstanding, and he wants to set the record straight.

Last month, Tuzlak placed an ad seeking volunteer bakers to help out in Alpine Bakery’s kitchen. The ad mentioned that volunteers would gain valuable experience, and could eventually become full bakery staff. The volunteer would be expected to assist bakers in the kitchen two to three times per week from 6 a.m. until noon.

The ad also appeared online, and social media exploded. Jeff Sloychuk, the Yukon Federation of Labour’s director of education and training, tweeted a photo of the advertisement, saying “‘Socially-Conscious’ #yxy biz Alpine Bakery gives you the opportunity to work for FREE? Ridiculous. #Yukon #Labour.”

Tuzlak received a number of angry letters accusing him of unethical employment practices.

In response, Tuzlak explained the bakery also works with formal apprentices from schools like the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, and that the volunteers don’t take away from that opportunity.

“Just like any other employer we welcomed them, they performed well and they got paid,” Tuzlak said.

The volunteer program wasn’t his idea, Tuzlak said. A couple of years ago, people approached him – one business owner and one retired government worker – and asked to volunteer.

“They said they still have lots of energy, they appreciate our bread and they would love to learn to make bread for their wives. We would welcome them, and once or twice a week they would come. It has made the place more cheerful, with lots of good energy. They were here to learn. They would only accept a loaf of bread or produce with reluctance, saying, ‘No, I am here to help you,’” he said.

Tuzlak insists that the volunteers are not taking work away from any of his staff, and they are not necessary to run the bakery.

“We still have our head baker and assistant baker and then a third person comes and firstly just observes. Then, eventually, they are interested in dough handling. They get the feeling of how bread is produced. I felt, and they told me, it is something precious to be able to learn,” he said.

Tuzlak said that some schools charge $20,000 a year for students to learn the same skills, and many of the professional baking schools in North America are geared towards learning industrial baking, not the artisanal baking that Alpine specializes in.

When he was first approached by his two volunteers, he called the Department of Community Services to ask about whether volunteer employees were allowed under the Yukon’s employment standards. He said they never gave him an answer.

But according to Michael Noseworthy, director of employment standards, Tuzlak’s unpaid workers may not qualify as volunteers.

“The Yukon Employment Standards Act clearly states that the definition of an employee is a person who receives or is entitled to wages for employment or services performed for someone; this includes a person who is being trained by an employer for their business,” said Noseworthy.

“Typically, volunteers are persons who choose to provide services for non-profit organizations or charities for which they do not expect compensation. Generally, in a profit-based organization, any person allowed, directly or indirectly, to perform work normally done by employees is considered to be an employee, not a volunteer. However, every situation would require an individual assessment and determination.”

The ad itself, which sparked the controversy, was placed after his most recent volunteer went on holiday, Tuzlak said.

“It’s also good to have back up. Things happen. My head baker may get sick, or break his leg. It would be fabulous to have someone to call on, someone who has at least set foot in a bakery before,” Tuzlak said.

Everyone is making a fuss over volunteer bakers that don’t even exist right now, he said.

When Tuzlak took to Facebook to explain his move, he said that the ad was intended as an “open-ended offer” to find out if anyone else wanted to be a volunteer. He also laid out the in-kind benefits that volunteers receive, including free bread and produce, a free breakfast and free lunch during work mornings.

The post got 40 responses, some defending the bakery and others attacking it and Tuzlak’s reputation.

He said he was hurt and taken aback at the negativity, especially given all the work Alpine does to try and run a sustainable and ethical business, including treating employees well and being the only business in Whitehorse to compost every piece of its organic waste.

Now in his 30th year at Alpine’s helm, Tuzlak said he first began his career as a volunteer, working in exchange for room and board above bakeries in Austria, Germany and California.

“This artisanal baking was just coming to the U.S. Up until that time it was all Wonder Bread. I knew some friends who were starting a bakery. I went there and stayed with them. We slept on the floor. You would help. I would have vegetables from their garden.”

The Yukon Federation of Labour could not be reached for a comment by press time.

Contact Jesse Winter at

jessew@yukon-news.com

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