*Updated Friday, July 12*
Baristas at the Second Cup on Quinpool Road are speaking out after a slew of alleged firings following a union vote last month.
Kathy Attis, owner of the Second Cup franchise location, allegedly fired three baristas after they voted to unionize on June 5, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) said Tuesday.
SEIU Local 2 filed complaints with the Labour Board on June 11 and June 28 alleging Attis “engaged in a pattern of violations of the Trade Union Act” before and after a vote for union certification.
The SEIU is holding a rally on Saturday to draw attention to the alleged firings.
Reached Friday by phone, Attis declined to comment on the situation and what it meant to her as a small business owner.
‘We’re voting yes’
Former employee Andrew Gouthro began working at the Quinpool Road Second Cup in mid-November. At the time he had a good relationship with his boss and enjoyed his job; it was “peachy,” he said Tuesday.
But the alleged labour law violations began immediately after he and other employees filed for a union vote.
Baristas at the Quinpool café filed for the vote in late May. Around that time, SEIU Local 2 representative Jason Edwards took a photo of six employees who intended to vote in favour of a union, with the caption “We’re voting yes,” and posted it in the café (see image above). Edwards said he did this to ensure the owner couldn’t deny knowledge of the unionization attempt.
In a letter to employees dated May 31, Attis said she preferred workers to vote against joining the union, but said they were free to make up their own minds.
“As a small business owner, I recognize your right to join or not join a union. It is your choice. However, please make an informed decision.”
“…Remember, our pay rates are reflective of industry standards. Our working atmosphere is clean, safe and friendly. You now have the ability to express your concerns or needs directly to me without the necessity of someone speaking on your behalf.”
“…I remain committed to ongoing, open and straightforward communication with you. Please consider whether you really need a Union to speak for you. It is my preference that you vote ‘NO’ and reject the Union; however the decision is up to you.”
On June 5, the majority of employees wore their SEIU T-shirts to vote, Gouthro and Edwards said.
Gouthro and the SEIU are confident the employees voted in favour of unionizing, though the Labour Board has not yet released the results.
Gouthro voted yes: “I personally wanted to unionize to strengthen my job security. I wanted to strengthen the voice I could have in the café as a worker and as part of the team.”
‘Punishment for supporting the union’
In the 10 days following the vote, however, he said Attis reprimanded him four times—for not wearing the full uniform, not attending a mandatory meeting, taking tips home when he wasn’t supposed to, and not covering a shift.
He contends these incidents were misunderstandings—for instance, his boss did not give him a uniform—and Attis had not expressed concerns about his job performance prior to June 5. She wrote him up for all four incidents, but dictated the letters to him and did not give him copies, he said.
“All of the disciplinary notices had never been issues before, like the uniform. It all seemed blatantly to me to be a punishment for supporting the union,” Gouthro said.
On June 8, Attis told Gouthro his hours would be reduced from 25 hours a week to 16 hours a week, according to an SEIU document filed with the Labour Board.
Gouthro said Attis fired him on June 15 after he failed to open the café on a Saturday morning. The June 28 complaint states Attis took his key prior to the Saturday shift and did not provide a replacement although he repeatedly asked for one.
According to documents filed by the SEIU to the Labour Board, three employees including Gouthro were fired after the June 5 vote. One person was fired in late May, Edwards said.
According to the June 28 complaint, “immediately subsequent to the vote” one employee’s hours were reduced by more than 50 per cent. On or around June 20, she was fired.
The majority of employees at the Quinpool location had their hours cut, Price wrote. Gouthro and Kennedy confirmed this.
SEIU lawyer Bruce Price called the reduction in hours “draconian.”
In a document filed June 11, the SEIU alleged Attis had introduced a new policy under which tips would be “taxed.” By altering the terms of employment, Attis contravened the Trade Union Act, the SEIU alleges.*
Sales declining at café, worker says
Shelby Kennedy, a barista at the Quinpool Second Cup, said four employees were let go after the photo was posted in the café.
She believes she hasn’t been fired yet because she’s an impeccable employee. Following the union vote, however, she was written up for letting someone who wasn’t a customer use the washroom.
Kennedy began working at the Quinpool café soon after it opened in April, 2012.
“When I first started working there business was great; we had lineups all the time, we had lots of people working, we were growing relationships with customers, we were gaining new people.”
“It has definitely changed since last year. Net sales have gone down significantly since then.”
The café owner has cut down on labour costs, Kennedy said.
“Last year we always had at least two people on all the time. Now we usually have just one person and sometime two people during certain periods.”
Attis initially cut labour costs around Christmas, Kennedy said, but within days of the union vote the owner announced she would be cutting hours “because she couldn’t afford full-time employees.”
After June 5, Attis cut Kennedy’s hours from 41 hours a week to at most 18 hours per week.
The owner hired three new people after June 5, Kennedy said.
Attis could not be reached for comment, so it was not possible to confirm whether hours were cut or sales were down.
Baristas treated as ‘disposable’
Kennedy and Gouthro are typical of Halifax’s café workforce. They’re millenials; they’re over-educated and under-employed, Gouthro said.
Gouthro works in the service industry and does theatre on the side. He says people his age have to maintain an “occupational mosaic” of jobs in order to live in Halifax.
“The idea is that [baristas] are transitional workers. That’s as untrue in my case as it is in Shelby’s. I use money from my job to pay for school, but there’s always rent, medical.”
Though they rely heavily on their work in the service industry, baristas are treated as “disposable,” he said.
Kennedy, who has worked as a barista for seven years, uses her café job to pay tuition fees. However, she also enjoys working in customer service.
“I believe that many employers in the café industry view their employees as transitional workers: they’re not planning on staying in that industry long term and that they’re only using this as a way to pay through school,” Kennedy added.
“…[T]herefore those people aren’t being taken very seriously, employers’ opinions of them aren’t very high and they aren’t being respected for their opinions and their experience.”
Kennedy worked at Perks on Quinpool before it went out of business in August, 2010. Second Cup moved into the same location in early 2012.
Kennedy said Perks neglected to pay employees for their last month of work. The baristas filed a complaint with the Labour Board, but the matter wasn’t resolved. She still hasn’t received payment for those hours.
After her experience at Perks, she decided a unionized workplace would lead to greater job security and more respect for workers.
“I support the union because I’ve been working in this industry for seven years and just like everybody else I want security in my job and I deserve respect and dignity at work.”
*Correction: The Halifax Media Co-op originally reported the alleged tip "tax" contravened the Labour Code when in fact the SEIU says Attis' actions contravene the Trade Union Act. HMC regrets this error.