Augie’s Coffee is laying off its entire staff and closing all retail operations, owner Austin Amento announced Saturday.
Amento cited issues relating to the pandemic, including the risk of staff or customers contracting COVID-19, and said that an employee had recently gone into quarantine “as a family member was in contact with the virus.” But Augie’s employees said the move was a response to their unionization in order to advocate for safety measures, better pay and responsiveness from management.
“We risked our safety to keep Augie’s open during this pandemic. In return, we merely asked that our voices be heard,” employee Kelley Bader said in the statement. “For the owners to now take our jobs away, it shows a real disrespect for the community that we serve.”
The 11-year-old coffeehouse and popular hangout spot for 5C students operates at the Claremont Packing House and has four other locations in Redlands and Riverside.
The stores stayed open amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers had to choose between quarantining at home and being terminated, Claremont barista Jonnie Taylor said in an interview. Some “were told there was no room for them in the schedule” when they tried to return after staying home, the union wrote on Instagram.
“I suffer from severe asthma, so working during a pandemic when there’s a virus going around that causes respiratory issues is very terrifying for me,” Taylor said. “I took two months off from work to try to stay safe. But when it came to the point of either losing my job or staying home and not going back to work, I had to go back to work. I couldn’t live without my job.”
Management also dragged its feet implementing measures to protect workers from COVID-19, the union alleged. Taylor said Plexiglass barriers to separate baristas from customers still hadn’t been installed at the Packing House location by the time it closed July 4, even though they had been at other locations.
“They blatantly ignored us for a long time or pushed things back. Even up until before they closed, they still had not put in all the safety regulations,” Taylor said. “They hadn’t even gotten masks to their employees yet before they started selling them online. It’s really frustrating.”
Workers also complained about compensation. According to Taylor, most employees — including eight-to-ten-year veterans — were paid minimum wage, unless a specific exception was made.
Taylor said workers started organizing around these issues in late March. Eventually, more than 80 percent of Augie’s employees signed on to a June 26 request that management recognize the union, according to the statement.
Augie’s management has repeatedly refused to engage with the union, members complain. Some visited the company’s Redlands warehouse Monday to try to talk with the leadership, but Taylor said no one responded. Video from the union appears to show employee Melodye Anderson waiting to receive her final paycheck from under a closed warehouse door.
Amento did not respond to requests for comment. His letter said the stores’ closings are “indefinite as we need time to reevaluate how Augie’s can operate safely in the future.”
Augie’s continues to sell coffee online out of its warehouse, the letter said.
The union’s complaints quickly elicited community support, garnering more than 2,800 signatures on a petition to rehire the workers and recognize the union, as well as almost $18,000 raised in a GoFundMe to support those who lost their jobs, as of Tuesday afternoon.
Employees and their supporters rallied outside the Augie’s downtown Redlands location Sunday as the workers collected their last paychecks.
“It’s wrong what they’re doing and it’s hurting a lot of families and hurting a lot of people,” Taylor said. “All we want is justice and basic human respect for our work and our jobs.”
This story was last updated July 10 at 11:05 a.m.