By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
Like a lot of businesses in March, coffeeshop Enrico’s Tazza D’oro shut down in an effort to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 virus. That left its employees, like others across the country, without a job for an unknown period of time.
Then in May, employees received a message from the manager of the Highland Park and CMU locations asking who was ready to return to work.
That gave employees some mixed emotions. Sure it was a positive step that the business was talking about reopening. But what would a reopened venue look like? What precautions would be put in place to protect workers from COVID-19.
“We hadn’t heard anything the entire time we were off and then all of a sudden, we hear that we are opening. It was all very abrupt,” says Jesse Shussett, one of the Tazza organizers. “There were a lot of questions that weren’t addressed at all. And there were other issues that existed before the pandemic like getting raises and employee healthcare.”
So, before they would even consider going back to work, Tazza’s baristas started meeting and developed a list of requests that they wanted action on. Last month, Shussett was involved in a video conference held by Stacey Abrams that highlighted the conditions service workers deal with both before and after the pandemic.
“We can’t afford to get sick. We can’t afford to wait for politicians to debate over what we need to survive. A demand we’ve raised for years, even more critical as service workers are crushed by the pandemic and recession, is a living wage: $15/hour, at least, plus tips. We’ve seen organized service workers fight for and win this in other parts of the country, like Seattle – we need to take the fight everywhere else and demand more,” Shussett said at the time. “Essential workers in the coffee and fast food industry are being paid the same low wages that we always have, while being asked to cut back on hours and risk our health as housing, healthcare, and education costs soar.”
The list of demands were sent to Tazza D’oro owner Amy Enrico and posted in the form of a petition online, where it has garnered more than 800 signatures. Still, Shussett and co-organizer Grace Geisler said they’ve never heard back. On June 3, the employees were told in a message that because of the uncertainty of conditions that
The requests were:
Health Insurance for all baristas.
Raises promised prior to COVID19 along with a “clear understanding of what raises we each will receive, as this information was never conveyed.”
Paid Time Off with clear information regarding employee sick leave allowance and an updated employee handbook with that indicated. The city of Pittsburgh mandated paid sick leave to begin in March.
Hazard Pay at all locations until the danger of COVID-19 has truly passed, according to medical professionals and scientists. Baristas will refuse to return if an additional 30 cents is not added “to each dollar of our regular pay.”
Clear security actions taken to protect baristas from customers. Beyond providing us PPE and installing plexiglass, we also request that all customers clearly be required to wear a mask when they come into the stores.
A clear outline of how the hours and pay for the security training will be handled in order to ensure that all baristas can maintain unemployment benefits.
While Enrico did not respond to her employees in a manner they found sufficient, she did respond to a request for comment from the Pittsburgh Current, including responding to each of the employees’ requests. She said she communicated with “all” employees prior to the petition and through the company’s communication platform after the petition was posted. “I put out four communications prior to our decision to shut down completely, then another after the shutdown, again on April 20th, May 29th and June 3rd,” Enrico said. “The last 2 communications provided all info about a possible, voluntary, return to work with information pertaining to raises, insurance, etc.”
Shussett said Enrico did reach out in the manner described, “she continued to neglect to respond in a way that actually told us how to go about getting health insurance assistance, what the raises would look like, or what amount of paid sick time we would receive. Additionally, they went ahead and developed a plan for safety without actually talking to those that would be directly affected by it. As a small business, it shouldn’t be difficult to be in direct contact with the workers to have a conversation about what priorities should be in place. At no point have we been a part of the conversation.”
Prior to the statewide lockdown, Enrico says the shops in Highland Park and two on the CMU Campus provided 730 barista hours per week and 250 kitchen hours. She says if the cafe can reopen this year it will be just the Highland Park store at severely reduced hours–60-70 barista hours and 20-30 kitchen hours.
“This takes us from 33 employees pre-COVID to about three or four part-time employees,” Enrico wrote in an email. “ In our most hopeful projections, our business will not reach the pre-crisis employment levels until 2022. The news coming in daily of Pittsburgh restaurants and cafes closing for good remind us that the future of our business is unsure.
“We communicated to all workers (not just those involved with the petition), prior to when the petition was made public, that four of the five items in the petition are things we planned to do (on health insurance, continue to do) if we can reopen.”
In regard to health insurance, Enrico says the shop reimburses half of their employees healthcare premiums purchased on the ACA exchange because, she says, any insurance the small business could offer would be worse.
Enrico says pay raises were to be announced prior to COVID-19 that would be based on testing that was administered prior to the lockdown. Those assessments were received in April. Enrico says wage ranges were expected to increase $10.50-$14.50 an hour to $11-$17.50 an hour. She said the raises would be implemented if the business reopens. Enrico also said the mandated paid sick time would be instituted.
In regard to hazard pay, Enrico said “our understanding of hazard pay is that it is intended for essential workers when conditions are known to be high risk. … We will not re-open in an environment that the public health officials and scientists considered hazardous. A safe environment for our employees and customers is the deciding factor for the owner of the business. Charging customers a Covid-19 surcharge in order to increase employees’ pay by 30% would likely further hurt business during the pandemic if we are able to reopen.”
Finally, in regard to safety measures, Enrico says when they originally announced a reopening, there was limited information included that all employees and customers would wear masks and there would be other safety measures that would be implemented and explained at a future training. However, the increase in COVID-19 cases eliminated the need for training.
In response, Shussett, who says it was “absolutely infuriating” that Enrico responded to a reporter but not to workers, says Enrico’s answers don’t explain away many of the requests. For example, while half-payments for health insurance exist, Shussett says the information is not clearly passed on to employees nor is there a clear path to actually getting the reimbursement; the process, they say, is not clear and transparent to employees. When it comes to raises, Shussett said amounts of raises were never conveyed; and they say employees knew paid sick time was coming but never received any specific information on the program. And hazard pay?
“Hazard pay has been offered to those that are working in the midst of this — all of those that are essential workers. To say that we are not essential workers but try to make us work is frustrating and disrespectful,” Shussett says. “We are seeing rises in cases across the country and in our own city that are unparalleled to those prior. Service workers are getting sick at higher rates. We would be thrown on the front line, so to speak, in Highland Park, where we have seen former customers walking around without masks. We feel unsafe contemplating returning under those conditions.
“The reason this shop never opened is because we refused to return without either having our demands met or having had a conversation at the table with management to negotiate those demands. It has nothing to do with the rise in cases, as the initial plan to reopen was prior to the resurgence.”