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Caribou Coffee workers join in national campaign for better COVID-19 protections

Caribou Coffee worker rally
Restaurant Opportunities Center
One protestor carried a massive cup that played off Caribou Coffee's slogan.

Caribou Coffee’s long-time slogan is “Life is short. Stay awake for it.”

When around 100 people showed up outside of Caribou Coffee’s Roseville location at the end of April, one protestor’s sign had a different take: “Life is short. Stay alive for it.”

The rally in Roseville was the second protest outside a Caribou location in the same month, with workers demanding a $3/hour hazard pay increase, safer working conditions and paid sick leave during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The company did briefly pay workers “hazard pay” in April,  increasing their pay 10 percent on top of base-pay. But while working in public didn’t get any safer, hazard pay ended after just one month. On top of that, workers also say that the company bungled implementation of it’s COVID-19 safety plan.

While the effort to prod Caribou has involved hundreds of local workers, the campaign is also part of a national movement to demand better wages, better benefits and better safety precautions for thousands of restaurant workers during the COVID-19 outbreak. Behind many of those efforts, including the one targeting Caribou, is the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), a nonprofit based in Washington D.C. that was founded in 2001 to improve wages and working conditions for the nation’s restaurant workforce.

ROC United

While the ROC was founded in 2001 to take on working conditions more broadly, during the COVID-19 pandemic the group has focused on protecting health and safety of restaurant workers, applying pressure to restaurant chains around the country.

Over the past few months, the group has engaged in targeted campaigns to support workers at specific franchises. For example, the ROC called for Applebee’s and IHOP to provide comprehensive paid sick leave, paid family and medical leave and income relief to all its workers affected by COVID-19 — and shamed them for not providing it (see: applebeesisrotten.com).

Applebee’s did announce a paid leave policy. But according to the ROC, that policy only applies to corporate-owned Applebee’s locations, meaning it doesn’t apply to a plurality of Applebee’s restaurants, which are franchises. “Essentially 95 percent of their workers are not going to be covered by that policy,” said Anthony Advincula, public affairs officer at the ROC.

During COVID-19, the ROC’s approach has been three pronged: to push for protections at specific companies; to advocate for changes at state legislatures; and to lobby Congress to ensure the next coronavirus aid package includes protections for front-line workers.

The organization has been supportive of the Essential Workers Bill of Rights, a plan put out by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and California Rep. Ro Khanna. The two members of Congress say that the next COVID-19 aid package must include a variety of reforms, including universal paid sick and family leave, protections for collective bargaining, a livable wage and protections for whistleblowers.

“Essential workers are the backbone of our nation’s response to coronavirus,” Warren said in a statement. “We have a responsibility to make sure essential workers have the protections they need, the rights they are entitled to, and the compensation they deserve.”

Advincula said that the push for such protections is an “uphill battle,” especially considering the resources that private restaurant groups have in comparison to workers. But he insisted, some progress is being made.

“We are working on this concurrently, but some of these are moving faster than others,” said Advincula.

No response from Caribou

Caribou Coffee, which has 603 locations nationwide, was founded in Edina in 1992. But the company was purchased by JAB Holding Company, which owns properties like Peet’s Coffee and Einstein’s Bagels, in 2008.

In Minnesota, Caribou workers started to organize after one staff member didn’t think the company was doing enough for workplace safety. They contacted the ROC, and from there the movement just sort of grew organically, said Alexis Callen, a Caribou worker involved in the campaign.

Caribou Coffee workers carry out a socially-distanced rally in Edina, asking for better benefits amid COVID-19.
Restaurant Opportunities Centers
Caribou Coffee workers carry out a socially-distanced rally in Roseville, asking for better benefits amid COVID-19.
“We were seeing the recurring issue where we’re going to see big announcements from Caribou that will not be followed up on and on the individual store level,” said Callen. “So the masks that were promised took a long time to get where they were supposed to be.”

Since the initial conception to organize workers, Caribou staff members are now asking for more COVID-19 protections, in addition to the company updating their sexual harassment policies and more tangibly responding to anti-Blackness in the workplace.

Callen said that while Caribou’s corporate office has put out communications material in support of Black Lives Matter, there’s a “discrepancy between this seeming like a show of support and what team members have experienced on the ground in their stores.”

So far, Caribou has tried to redirect their concerns to the Human Resources department.

“We have had a lot of trouble getting a straight answer from them about anything to be honest. They won’t really communicate with us directly,” said Callen. “When we attempt to communicate with them, their response has largely been to say individuals should reach out with concerns to the HR line.”

When asked about workers’ requests, the company provided a statetment: “Since the onset of COVID-19, Caribou Coffee has and will continue to support the physical and financial well-being of our team. We have made several changes over the past few months to preserve jobs, enhance social distancing, promote overall safety, and introduce contactless interaction in every store.” The company also cited increased handwashing, gloves, wellness checks before shifts and curbside pickup.

But to Callen, and other workers, that answer is not good enough. Callen sees the work on the ground in Edina, and elsewhere in Minnesota, as just a small part of a much bigger struggle.

“This is a fight that we’re involved in because it is a microcosm of a much larger issue: the way that workers are being treated and the way that, that corporations are being run in the country as a whole,” said Callen. “So it’s understood that we are not an isolated incident that’s being dealt with exclusively, like within the borders of like Minnesota and Wisconsin. It’s understood that we’re part of something that’s a lot bigger.”

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