Caribou Coffee Workers Plan Protest; Company Announces Pay Increase, More Protection Against Covid-19

Caribou Coffee Workers Plan Protest; Company Announces Pay Increase, More Protection Against Covid-19

Executives take a pay cut while frontline workers get a 10 percent wage increase for May and more protective gear in stores.

A group of Caribou Coffee frontline workers, with support from advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Center of Minnesota, are planning a Monday morning rally to protest what they say are unsafe working conditions and demand the company take action to protect employees from Covid-19.

“We’re asking the company to step up and be proactive—this is our lives, our health, our customers’ health,” says Claire Umolac-Bunker, a shift leader who has worked at a Caribou Coffee in Roseville for more than four years. She says her store ran out of hand soap and disinfectant spray, which didn’t immediately get replaced. Gloves arrived just last week, and employees still don’t have face masks. They’re worried about a lack of sick time pay and a lack of communication from management.

But Caribou Coffee, responding to a reporter inquiry on Saturday, shared the letter it sent to ROC-MN on April 10, along with an updated statement on the steps the company said have already been initiated including a 10 percent pay increase for team members during the month of May, announced last Tuesday; paid time off, assistance with state and federal programs, unpaid leave, and benefit eligibility protection. President and CEO John Butcher and members of the executive team have also taken pay cuts, although the company did not disclose the amount.

Protective masks have been difficult to source, a company spokesperson said, but with help from Faribault Woolen Mill Co., Caribou expects to have face coverings for all of its 5,000-plus store employees by May 4. The first shipment went to stores in Colorado, the only state where face masks have been mandated. Gloves are available at all stores, but the company has wrestled with conflicting advice on whether they help or offer a false sense of security as some studies show germs can live longer on latex and washing hands frequently is more effective.

In a Sunday morning call, president and CEO John Butcher said one of the biggest challenges is communicating the company’s efforts effectively with frontline workers who don’t have their own company email addresses and have historically received company communications through their general managers. “Under normal circumstances that works fine, but a couple of weeks into this, we started to communicate bi-weekly and directly to general managers and team members because employees were saying they’re not hearing from us,” Butcher said. “It’s very fair for many of them to feel like it’s hard to get the latest information—we have a fragmented and antiquated communications system that has made it difficult to get news out as it’s happening. We are working very hard to communicate more frequently and with team members directly.”

Headquartered in Brooklyn Center, Caribou Coffee is owned by Luxembourg-based JAB Holdings, parent company to several major restaurant and coffee chains including Panera Bread, Peet’s Coffee, Intelligentsia, and Krispy Kreme. There are nearly 700 Caribou locations worldwide, including company-owned stores, which are concentrated in the Midwest, licensed locations in 22 states and international franchise stores.

Caribou has temporarily closed 65 locations due to Covid-19—many of which are in malls or office buildings that are currently shuttered. Others were closed by the company because they didn’t have a setup conducive to drive-through or curbside pickup.

But frontline workers say they’ve felt left in the dark. “Communication has been minimal,” Umolac-Bunker said. “When the stay-at-home order was put in place, we weren’t told the plan. We reached out to HR.” Umolac-Bunker said she started talking to other Caribou employees—many of whom have taken to the Internet to voice their complaints by way of a petitions on coworker.org and change.org.

She and a small group of employees connected with ROC-MN, a chapter of the national nonprofit which is “dedicated to improving wages and working conditions for the nation’s restaurant workforce.” Lead organizer Eli Jonathan Edleson-Stein said ROC-MN conducted an anonymous survey of employees at 23 Caribou locations in Minnesota. “The overwhelming majority said it was impossible to social distance, lobbies were open (to customers), and they were very unclear about emergency protocol,” Edleson-Stein said. “Workers in our industry live paycheck to paycheck and they’re one paycheck away from catastrophe. We’re calling for a closure of (Caribou) shops until it’s safe enough to go back.”

Caribou’s April 10 response to ROC-MN outlined more than a dozen steps the company had taken or was in the process of implementing for the safety of staff and customers, including Plexi-protection at store counters (which have been installed at company-owned stores, but not at all licensed locations like Lunds & Byerly’s stores), floor markers to emphasize social distancing, call-ahead order capabilities and added sanitation products. The company said it did not receive a reply or any further communication from ROC-MN.

Butcher said he has visited Caribou stores every day since the pandemic hit and has talked to dozens of frontline team members directly. “I’m so proud of the thousands of team members who are coming together and rising to the daily challenges presented by constantly changing circumstances.”

The “drive-through for justice car rally” is scheduled to take place at 10 a.m. Monday at at the Tower Glen Caribou Coffee on County Road D in Roseville.