Labor Unrest Ensues as Via 313 Fumbles Worker Appeal
A hot, melty mess
On Saturday, Jan. 8, about three dozen Via 313 employees and their supporters gathered on the corner of 30th and Guadalupe to protest the suspension of four workers after they presented a petition to management. Forty-six employees signed the petition, and seven of them presented it to Via 313's VP of operations, Michelle Dahse, at the Oak Hill location. Via 313's response was to suspend four of the workers, claiming that they had created a "hostile work environment."
In a statement issued Tuesday morning, Jan. 11, Via 313 says, "8 of the employees who signed the petition aggressively approached one of our management team members, causing this person to feel threatened and bullied. Other employees and customers were about to step in to defend this employee because of the hostility present. Of the 8, only 3 employees were suspended during our investigation due to creating a hostile work situation and threatening their coworker in front of other employees and guests.
"Via 313 has contacted the three employees that were suspended to be reinstated to their original jobs and instructed on company policy regarding how to address their concerns. We will also be providing each of them back-pay for their shifts missed," the statement reads.
According to the Chronicle's sources, seven workers presented the petition, five from the Guadalupe location, and two from the location on East Sixth. Four of these were suspended; one quit and three have been reinstated. The worker who quit has since "un-quit" but has not yet been reinstated. Elyanna Calle, a server at Via 313 and UT sophomore, was among the employees who delivered the petition to Dahse. "We have the recording of when we confronted her, and there's no threats. If she was threatened, that's really her problem there. They could have responded kindly, but they decided to suspend their employees and that's just not okay. That is not what a company does when they care about their employees."
What Actually Happened?
The Chronicle has obtained a recording of the workers' confrontation with Dahse. The meeting starts cordially; they explain that their appointed representative who'd had a 1pm meeting scheduled with Dahse had contracted COVID, so they came in her stead. At this point, Dahse and the workers leave the restaurant and continue their discussion on the sidewalk outside. Dahse refuses to meet with all seven of them, because "we're not doing group meetings right now." A worker points out that the company is making all of the employees work with sick people in all of the stores. The workers insist that they don't want or need to meet, they just want to give her the petition. They explain that nine workers at the North Campus location had tested positive in the past few days, and that COVID-positive workers keep coming back to work because they don't have a choice in the absence of paid sick leave. Dahse insists that management has been openly available and sent out COVID guidelines to the restaurants and apologizes if they haven't received those communications.
"Do you have plans to implement sick pay?" one of the workers asks. "Not right now," says Dahse.
Dahse offers to meet with one or two people in the conference room adjacent to the restaurant. "I feel very intimidated with a group of people with angry looks on their faces handing me a list of demands," she says. "This doesn't feel right, we're distracting the business," she says. "To show up in a group when I'm expecting one person, that's not a two-way conversation. I wouldn't do that to you."
At no point in the conversation does anyone threaten Dahse or even raise their voices. Ultimately, Calle and another worker presented Dahse with the petition and explained that everything they wanted to say was in the document.
The petition expresses concern about worker protection while the Omicron variant burns through the community and requests sick leave, hazard pay, enhanced COVID safety protocols, and more transparency around COVID-related communication from management, including a request that management notify staff when a co-worker tests positive, weekly updates of how many people have tested positive for COVID in the restaurants, and signs on staff entrances noting the date that a staff member last tested positive for COVID and the date that employee last worked.
At the protest, Calle pointed out that failure to notify employees that their colleagues have COVID is a threat to public health, because servers and bartenders who don't know that they've been exposed in the workplace could be unknowingly transmitting the virus to the guests with whom they interact in the dining room.
While sick leave has been a flashpoint in the Austin hospitality industry for years, the coronavirus pandemic has resurfaced discourse around how hospitality workers – especially those who are mostly compensated through tipping – are treated, and whether they are entitled to the same kinds of benefits most of their customers enjoy.
"We continue to monitor state and local sick pay policy requirements," reads the Jan. 11 statement from Via 313. "Once it is determined how all businesses are to provide and fund sick pay, Via 313 has always and will always comply to the full extent of the law."
These issues are not unique to Via 313. Across the country, as the service industry faces a labor shortage twice that of other industries, it's becoming clear that command-and-control workplaces are not sustainable. Workers are claiming their voices but need the support of their clientele and the broader community in order to enjoy a more equitable, cooperative work environment.
Calle pointed out that boycotting is not always the answer, especially when you consider the harm it does to tipped employees, who stand to lose the most if customers stop coming. "What would be really beneficial is if you call Via and say you don't support these practices. Post online, get the word out. When you go to a restaurant, tip at least 20%. But apart from that, if you're a business owner, you may think it's going to put you in a deficit or cost you way too much to pay workers well or give them sick leave. But your business is going to be so much better off for it. And when you respect your employees, they're going to respect you."
In response to reporting about the protest, the restaurant says, "Via 313 has always been about positive company culture and supporting our team members with any concerns they might have. In no situation can we condone hostility in the workplace. As we mentioned before, we have always had an open-door policy at Via 313. As we continue to have one-on-one meetings with employees, before and after this unfortunate situation, we continue to reiterate our desire to answer any questions or concerns that may exist for our employees. Starting this morning, management is meeting with team members individually to discuss the current situation, how to reach a peaceful resolution, and how to maintain a positive work environment within Via 313."