Matt Birong: The Pudzer puzzle

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Matt Birong, the owner of 3 Squares Cafe in Vergennes who is board member of Main Street Alliance of Vermont. 

President Trump has nominated a fast-food CEO who is anti-minimum wage, pro-automation and has fought against basic employment benefits for his workers to be our next secretary of labor. I could go on, but maybe you should hear it from him. Here is a quote from Mr. Puzder on why he believes automation is a logical and cost-effective approach: “They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”

As an employer, Andrew Puzder’s unique approach to labor policy has left me scratching my head. What Mr. Puzder doesn’t seem to understand is that employees are more than just a tool to turn a profit. Shortchanging and devaluing employees harms our economy.

Most small business owners, like myself, take pride in our businesses, the people we employ and the way they are treated. We want nothing more than to pay livable wages, offer appropriate and necessary family leave when a child is born or to take the time to tend to a sick loved one or care for themselves. And we can proudly say we have fought alongside labor in Vermont to ensure paid sick days. We do this because we know it’s not only what’s best for families but it’s what’s best for a healthy Vermont economy.

When our employees are well, our businesses do well. And when our businesses do well, our communities do well. This is a philosophy Mr. Puzder does not employ.


As a small business owner, I am calling for us to stand alongside workers and fight against corporate interests that exploit employees, exploit tax policy and create an economic environment that only benefits a small fraction of the population – the Mr. Puzders and Mr. Trumps of the world. While labor and business are inextricably linked, I cannot think of a man more ill-equipped to lead a federal department whose purpose is to protect the working class. Mr. Puzder’s company has been investigated for numerous wage-theft complaints, while he and his C-level colleagues have done beyond well for themselves.

Small business owners have a much different story to tell. Our employees are a representation of us, our philosophy and, many times, the face of our business. Our success is wholly dependent on the decisions of one another. We are as much a part of the workforce as any employee. When our employees are well, our businesses do well. And when our businesses do well, our communities do well. This is a philosophy Mr. Puzder does not employ.

Mr. Puzder’s confirmation hearing has been rescheduled four times – which means someone in Washington might be listening to those of us speaking out against him. Thus, I urge small business owners across our state and country to consider making their priorities and commitment to their employees known. Tell your employees that they matter, tell your community that your investment and commitment will not waiver, and, perhaps most importantly, tell your elected officials that they MUST act now.

What we need now, more than ever, are smart state-level measures that stimulate small business growth, improve health care and require large corporations to pay their fair share of taxes. We need to focus on incentivizing small businesses to grow and stay in Vermont. We can do this through the creation of programs like family leave insurance and public retirement. Creating these portable benefit programs seizes an opportunity to support small businesses, while also helping families. A public retirement option and family leave will help level the playing field for small businesses as we continue to compete with big corporations – like Mr. Puzder’s – whose primary goal is the bottom line with little regard for the labor that rewards them.

In this uncertain time, when the values that have defined our nation are under attack, we must band together, and throw our weight behind smart state-level policy, so that we can protect and grow a healthy Vermont economy.

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