Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Lanesplitter Workers Quit in Protest

By Luke Tsai
Tue, Apr 23, 2013 at 8:00 AM

Last week at the Temescal district location of Lanesplitter Pizza, two employees quit their jobs in dramatic fashion: At around 8 p.m. on Monday night, when the Telegraph Avenue restaurant was at close to full capacity, the servers cut the music, stood up in front, and announced that they were walking off the job.

“This is the culmination of many conversations with management that haven't been heard,” one of the servers told What the Fork, paraphrasing what she said that night. “We hope that people will get in contact with management to show that the community is on our side.”

Then, the two proceeded to leave — to resounding applause from customers, by their account —and headed over to Lanesplitter’s other two pub locations, in Berkeley and Emeryville, where they made similar announcements. Finally, one of the servers put up a post on the Oakland forum of the social media site Reddit, under the pseudonym “Amanda Swift,” in which she outlined a series of grievances that included alleged misogyny, emotional abuse, and a deceptively inaccessible employee health care program.

As of this posting, the Reddit post has received 231 “up votes” and sparked 435 user comments, prompting Lanesplitter’s founders to issue a formal response. Whatever discontent may have been fomenting behind the scenes at this local chain, the discussion — for better or worse — has now been taken into the public sphere.

Swift, who declined to reveal her real name out of fear that it would hurt her future employment prospects, explained that she and her co-conspirator also passed out flyers that alleged, among other complaints, “sexism and misogyny that ... pushes out female management or forces them to resign,” “constant harassment by management to long-term employees,” and “Lanesplitter touting themselves as benevolent employers that offer their workers good benefits when in reality very few employees are able to use these health benefits.”

Currently, employees need to work at the restaurant for six months (after a three-month probationary period), during which they log an average of at least 30 hours a week, in order to qualify for health insurance. Swift conceded that she had qualified for the healthcare plan, but argued that the requirements were untenable for the vast majority of employees because the restaurant’s management could not — or, in some cases, would not — offer a sufficient number of hours. She contends that the restaurant’s owners should reduce the threshold to 25 hours and allow employees to have access to the plan immediately after the probationary period. (How much leverage Swift has at this point is an open question. She maintains that, even though she doesn’t work at Lanesplitter any more, she will continue her public campaign against the chain until her various demands are met.)

Swift said she’s aware that Lanesplitter’s employees are better off than workers at the many other restaurants where, for instance, there is no employee health plan at all. The problem, she says, is that Lanesplitter tries to pass itself off as better than those other restaurants. “They’ve had this narrative of, ‘We’re this great restaurant that takes care of our employees like they’re family,’” she explained — but, according to Swift, that legacy is no longer merited. “Just don't think you're doing some great thing for humanity when you go to Lanesplitter. Treat it like you're going to Domino’s.”

Lanesplitter co-founder Daniel Rogers acknowledged that the culture of the restaurant has changed somewhat as it has grown to five total locations and more than one hundred employees. But he’s insistent that the company treats workers well. “We pride ourselves in providing the best workplace we can for our employees,” Rogers and Vic Gumper (Lanesplitter’s other co-founder) wrote in a response posted on the restaurant website. Rogers and Gumper denied the charge of misogyny, saying that, while the company doesn’t currently have a female general manager, “the most recent management vacancy was offered to a woman first.” And, according to Rogers, about 25 percent of Lanesplitter’s employees are on the company health plan, and he’s hopeful that that number will increase: “I want people on this policy because it’s good for them and it’s good for us. … It’s not a bogus program.”

Nevertheless, a number of former and current employees said they were either unfamiliar with the details of the company’s health insurance policy or felt it was unattainable. One current Lanesplitter employee, who spoke to What the Fork on condition of anonymity, said she couldn’t recall having a single conversation with management about health insurance. She also described the managers of Lanesplitter’s three pub locations as “bullies” who get away with bad behavior because of their friendship with the owners: “The bosses are responsible because they turn a blind eye. They play a passive role.”

Will O’Connor, who worked as a delivery driver for Lanesplitter for nearly three years, until last July, described the work environment as “pressured, cramped, and stressful,” and said that management was highly controlling. For instance, he described a “no-talking policy” wherein “employees would be told to immediately stop talking to one another out of nowhere, with no clear criteria given as to why they had to do so.

“What happened Monday night was a long time coming,” O’Connor added.

Ryan Lee, who worked as a dishwasher for a little more than one year, described the sanitary conditions at the restaurants’ kitchen as “disgusting,” as a result of the staff being overworked and underpaid. Lee said he hoped the walkout would lead to management allowing workers to have more input into how the restaurant was run.

According to Rogers, no employee has missed a day of work since last week’s walkout. He also stressed that the company has an “open door policy” with respect to staff concerns.

But in spite of the owners having put a sunny face on the situation, at least one local union is talking about a boycott. “Our union's official position is to stand in solidarity with the Lanesplitter workers and encourage our members not to patronize Lanesplitter until the dispute is resolved,” Katy Fox-Hodess, unit chair of the UC Student-Workers Union, said via email.

Correction: A previous version of this article in correctly identified Katy Fox-Hodess as unit chair of the UC Berkeley Student Workers Union; she is in fact Berkeley unit chair of the UC Student-Workers Union, which covers academic student employees at all UC campuses. This version has been corrected.

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