Unemployed barista Sharyn Sefton learned less than two weeks ago she would not get her job back, even though the Crazy Mocha coffee shop she had led until COVID-19 hit had already reopened – and even though the Cranberry-based chain is sitting on federal money meant to encourage the rehiring of workers.
Now, Sefton has filed a federal complaint against her former employer, alleging that she and others who have criticized the company are being retaliated against.
Sefton, who had served as the head barista for the chain’s Oakland location, found out she would not be reinstated from a co-worker, who was also laid off in March. After stopping by the Oakland café, the co-worker texted a group of other unemployed Crazy Mocha baristas to tell them Sefton’s replacement had joined the company about a year ago and had never worked at the Oakland shop before. Sefton, by contrast, had worked for the chain for more than a year-and-a-half when she lost her job. Others on the group text had been with the company for about a decade.
“It makes no sense.” Sefton said. “Why would you put someone in that store who has still never worked in that store before bringing back me or any of my co-workers who did work in that store [or someone else who is] more experienced?”
Sefton admitted that the news was not entirely unexpected: In May, she and six other laid-off baristas wrote a letter to Crazy Mocha executives to demand more communication regarding reopening plans. They also called on the company to guarantee personal protective equipment for staff, as well as job descriptions and a clearly defined pay scale.
Sefton said the baristas did not receive a response to the letter, which 30 of about 90 front-line staff members signed. So, they turned the letter into a petition and posted it online. The petition, which has gathered more than 1,200 signatures, prompted Crazy Mocha management to hold two online meetings with the baristas in May and June. But the two sides could not come to an agreement, and in late July, the employees again voiced their grievances in a Pittsburgh City Paper report. They demonstrated outside the company’s Oakland location a week ago.
Despite the conflict, Sefton said, “I do still really love that store that I worked in, and I loved all my customers. And I really do miss being there every day.” But she said she remains committed to defending the limited rights she and her co-workers have as at-will employees – especially since the economic upheaval caused by the pandemic puts them in a particularly precarious position.
So on Friday, Sefton submitted a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board, with the assistance of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Pittsburgh. The complaint alleges that Crazy Mocha illegally retaliated against Sefton by refusing to bring her back to work after she and other baristas “engaged in protected concerted activities” to protest work conditions.
"I believe my coworkers and I are being not brought back because of our organizing efforts,” Sefton wrote in the complaint. As evidence, she cited an email from the company’s general manager which said, "If Crazy Mocha were not being publicly attacked, there is a strong possibility that we would have rehired you and others."
Crazy Mocha general manager Kim Garrett sent a similar message to 90.5 WESA in a Friday afternoon email. In it, she said she opposed reinstating Sefton and the other employees who were behind the May petition “because of their actions in publicly disparaging the company and its owner.”
“We have a big task ahead of us to rebuild the company amid and post pandemic,” Garrett wrote, “and we need employees who believe in the brand, are respectful of our leadership, and work well for the mutual benefit of the entire team.”
Garrett said at one point she was “likely going to call” the baristas who spoke out to see if they wanted to be rehired. But she changed her mind when the baristas continued to publicize their grievances.
“It is my responsibility to protect the company and hire individuals who work for the flourishing of the company and all of its employees,” Garrett wrote to 90.5 WESA.
‘They don’t see everything that’s going on’
Crazy Mocha President Ed Wethli denied that Crazy Mocha is retaliating against baristas for organizing. And he noted that his company, which had employed nearly 160 people before the coronavirus crisis, has also suffered severe losses. With only six of the chain’s 23 locations open for business today, sales have dropped between 60 and 70 percent, he said.
“I wish we could have just opened back up and been right back to it, and brought everybody back,” Wethli said. And while he gave concerned baristas credit for “asking realistic and honest questions,” he added, “I think they have a picture of what they think is happening, and they don’t see everything that’s going on. And I feel bad for them, and I feel bad for everybody in this situation.”
Wethli said executives have taken every measure possible to keep Crazy Mocha alive. He said that while the company has spent $150,000 in federal business disaster loan money, it is “sitting on the vast majority” of the $506,000 it received through the Paycheck Protection Program in April. PPP loans can be completely forgiven if businesses spend them within 24 weeks on eligible expenses, at least 60 percent of which must cover payroll costs.
Originally, firms were required to spend at least 75 percent of the funds on employees over an eight-week period – even if COVID-19 prevented employees from working. But Wethli said, “If I would have used [all of Crazy Mocha’s PPP money] early on in April and May, I would totally be out of business at this point. There really needs to be more [government funding] to make this work for all of us.”
Regarding employee complaints, Wethli agreed with Sefton and her supporters that “it is in [Crazy Mocha’s] best interest to bring back experienced employees.” During a phone call Friday morning, he said he did not know why a store supervisor passed over Sefton in favor of a less experienced employee.
Nine-year Crazy Mocha employee Emily Raden-Shore seemed more certain about why she hadn’t been called back. Raden-Shore, who had led the chain’s Bloomfield café until it was forced to close in March, learned a few weeks ago that she would not be asked to return.
“One of the hardest parts of this has been not getting to have any closure with my regulars,” said the barista, who was part of the group that circulated the May petition. “These are people that I see every day, once a week, once a month … and I feel personally invested in their lives at this point. I know them. I know their kids. And I’m just never going to see them again?”
Regardless, like other Crazy Mocha baristas who have not been asked to return to work, Raden-Shore said she has interviewed for jobs elsewhere.
That could be a wise choice. Attorney Christine Elzer, who represents workers in employment disputes, said she generally advises laid-off clients to look for new jobs or to apply for unemployment compensation, rather than hold out hope that they will be asked to return to work. Elzer said that at-will workers throughout the region have been learning of colleagues returning to work – without ever hearing from employers about whether they, too, will be reinstated.
“Unfortunately … their employer doesn’t owe them anything most of the time,” Elzer said. “You can be a very loyal and dedicated employee, and if your employee decides to let you go for whatever reason, a lot of times, there isn’t a lot you can do.”
But employees could have recourse under labor laws, the attorney said, if they can prove their employer illegally discriminated or retaliated against them in deciding who to rehire.
Elzer said the Crazy Mocha baristas who have not been reinstated since writing to company leaders could potentially claim that the coffee chain illegally retaliated against them for engaging in “concerted action.” While Elzer said it’s often difficult to prove retaliation, “If there’s any direct evidence – if the employer said, ‘We’re not bringing these people back because of this letter’ – that’s obviously a different story.”
The lawyer said it sounded as though the emails from Garrett, the general manager, had provided “direct evidence that [those workers] were not brought back because of [their] statements.”
Elzer noted that under the National Labor Relations Act, employees are not protected for making public statements that are considered “disloyal, malicious, or untrue.” But, she added, even a public statement that some might consider disloyal “would be protected as long as it’s not outrageous.”
‘That place is very much ingrained in my soul’
Wethli, the company president, said he would welcome another chance to speak with the workers even though “it does not make sense to open more [Crazy Mocha] stores and so we don’t have opportunities at this point for employees.”
In fact, Wethli and Garrett, offered to meet next month with one of the seven employees who publicly criticized the coffee chain. Barista Melissa Ciccocioppo had sent the executives a deeply personal email in mid-August about what the coffee shop meant to her.
“It was transformative for me, moving into the city from a small town in central Pennsylvania as a weird art kid, growing up getting bullied a lot, and moving to Pittsburgh and finding my people,” Ciccocioppo said of starting her job at Crazy Mocha’s Bloomfield location 13 years ago. She remembered thinking, “Look at all these weirdos and artists and interesting people that come in here, of all walks of life.”
“There are some people that I saw every day for 13 years, and they are like family members,” Ciccocioppo said. “That place is very much ingrained in my soul.”
While she grieves the loss of her job, Ciccocioppo does not plan to accept the invitation to meet with Wethli and Garrett. “I don’t trust them at this point. So it didn’t feel genuine,” the barista said.