Augie’s employees file unfair labor charge after stores close abruptly

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

On Independence Day the baristas of Augie’s Coffee Roasters received the shocking news that they no longer had jobs.

The Redlands based company sent out a mass email informing 54 employees that due to the uncertain business climate created by the coronavirus and the recent surge in new cases, Augie’s was closing its five retail locations, including the one in Claremont’s Packing House. Around that same time the company posted an announcement of the closures on social media and on its website.

Augie’s will continue to operate its Redlands warehouse, which offers online orders of packaged coffee and other merchandise including masks emblazoned with the Augie’s logo.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic started, our sole purpose was to keep as much of our Team employed for as long and safely as possible. We had to innovate to continue operations and keep the lights on, however, as time progressed we have realized that just surviving may not have been the best goal. Now with California spinning out of control with COVID-19 cases, we cannot ask and do not want to risk the health and safety of our staff, or customers,” the announcement read.

The company also claimed that an employee’s quarantine due to a possible recent exposure led to a reevaluation of the risks that continuing to operate posed for their employees and customers. “Serving coffee is not worth that; it is too big of a risk and is not the priority. We are choosing to focus on our families and do what we can to keep our neighbors and communities safe.”

However, many of Augie’s employees tell a different story. They claim the layoffs are a direct result of their successful effort to form a union, which was approved by about 80 percent of Augie’s workforce.

The newly unionized workers held a meeting in Redlands on June 26th with Augie’s management including the owners, Andy and Austin Amento.

Employees put forward some of their concerns including workplace safety during the pandemic and the desire to have more of a voice within the company, according to a person who attended the meeting. They also expressed frustration with compensation, particularly for baristas who earn minimum wage and do not qualify for raises.

During the meeting Andy Amento, who is Austin’s father, communicated that he felt the employees were trying to attack the company, according to Jonnie Taylor of Claremont, who has worked at the Claremont location for two years. She indicated that Austin Amento, on the other hand, seemed more open to the idea and told the employees he would look into the union and get back to them.

She said the two sides never met again and since the announced closure, communication has stopped.

Ms. Taylor, 22, joined the union shortly after an organizational meeting at a coworker’s home on June 12.

“We are the ones day in and day out making coffee, forming relationships and keeping the shops running,” Ms. Taylor said. “All we ask is for a voice and the respect to have a conversation. We want a say in our livelihoods and a seat at the table.”

Ms. Taylor said that the company was slow to provide safety equipment and proper sanitation supplies to employees during the pandemic. She said Augie’s was selling masks to the public, and including them with online coffee bean orders, before they provided masks to the baristas.

Additionaly, Ms. Taylor said a Plexiglas divider between the employees and the customers, which has become common in retail locations, was never installed at the Claremont location.

Employees claim they received no advance warning that Augie’s was closing, but were told at the same time as the public, which Ms. Taylor said is symbolic of the poor communication from management.

Augie’s has stayed open throughout the pandemic, but some employees chose not to continue working out of concern for their health, including Ms. Taylor who stayed home for most of April and all of May.

Ms. Taylor was earning California’s minimum wage of $13 per hour for a company Augie’s size, which she says is the same wage all baristas earn regardless of how long they have worked there. She maintains that the only Claremont store employee earning more than minimum wage was the manager, who supervised a staff of eight to 12 employees.

Even without a union, the workers were scheduled for a raise in January under California’s minimum wage law. Because Augie’s has more than 26 employees they are considered a large business and would have to pay $14 per hour starting on January 1, 2021 and $15 a year later.

“Compensation was not our number-one concern. We were feeling unsafe at work and wanted to work in collaboration with Augie’s without hindering the company. Our main goal was to have communication between employees and the company,” Ms. Taylor said.

Lynzee Corbett, who works as a stylist at Ilo Collective in the Packing House, was one of Claremont Augie’s loyal customers.

She said baristas like Ms. Taylor always remembered her favorite drink and had it ready when she got in line.

“I thought they must pay their employees pretty well because everybody was so proud of their jobs and were happy to be at work,” Ms. Corbett said. “This place is what brings culture to the Packing House. Everybody knows it’s the baristas that makes Augie’s special.”

“We risked our safety to keep Augie’s open during this pandemic. In return, we merely asked that our voices be heard. For the owners to now take our jobs away shows a real disrespect for the community that we serve,” Kelley Bader, a six-year Augie’s employee, said to Mark Meinster of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, who is assisting the workers’ efforts to organize.

On Monday, Mr. Meinster helped the workers file an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board alleging they were laid off in retaliation for forming a union.

“It is illegal for an employer to retaliate against employees for union activity and it appears as if Augie’s illegally laid off almost their entire workforce as a direct response to their efforts to unionize,” said Anna Rose, who also works for United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.

Phone calls to Austin Amento were not returned as of press time; however, on Tuesday an updated announcement on the company’s website provided some further details about the company’s actions.

The statement began with an apology, “To our former team members, we are sorry.” The owners reiterated that the store closures are indefinite, but said the decision was not made because of the union organization but as an attempt to make the company survive “physically, mentally, and economically.” 

“Our PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loan has helped us to stay open over the past 8 weeks,” the statement read. “It provided for all of us during this emergency when our sales would not have. We do not have cash reserves, we do not own our locations, and we do not have a retail model that works during a global pandemic.”

Augie’s statement also noted staffing problems—two managers had resigned and an employee had been quarantined after exposure to coronavirus.

“And other staff had been refusing to cover shifts (rightfully so) because it would interfere with unemployment benefits,” the owners said.

With so much uncertainty about the future, the owners said they opted to close.

“This is the hardest decision we have ever made and it would be reckless of us to make promises to anyone. We honestly can’t even promise that Augie’s will survive this.”

Further, the store owners were facing new regulations from the governer, which included ending sit-down dining.

“Governor Newsom made statements Wednesday, July 1st, pulling back on dine-in operations and predicting going back to Phase 1,”?the statement read. “With that in mind, we didn’t see how we could make it through another wave of this.”

Ms. Taylor said it was informative to hear management’s side of the story even though she has doubts about its veracity.

For example, she said that business has picked up in Claremont with foot traffic increasing in the Village. She wonders why, if the company was in such financial trouble, they did not tell the employees in advance so that they could plan better for becoming unemployed.

She is particularly concerned about co-workers with families and those who will have trouble paying rent or buying food.

Augie’s employee’s union set up a GoFundMe page to help with these expenses and Ms. Taylor says that the employees who are more fortunate financially are helping their co-workers directly.

“We formed a family at Augie’s,” she said “And you take care of family.”

 

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