Striking workers air grievances
- Published: July 10, 2014
A small group of employees at the Spirited Goat Coffee House went on strike in mid-June, asking for a host of rights including legal pay, workers’ compensation benefits and a higher wage: $15 an hour. The workers say they have been asking for better conditions for the past six months but that the cafe’s owner Michael Herington has not been open to discussions. When a disagreement between Herington and one of the employees occurred on June 11, several employees decided it was time to do something. Three of the cafe’s six employees have not returned to work since June 12.
According to Katheryn Amend, who has worked at the cafe for two and a half years, the grievances were multifarious.
“There is a lack of professionalism in general at the Spirited Goat … it’s an unsafe work environment there, employees are threatened there, and we brought it up to Mike, and he did nothing,” she said. “Now we’re looking for ways to stand up for ourselves … we would love it if he would come to the table with us and make the business more legitimate and legal.”
Cafe owner Michael Herington claims that the demands his employees are making are impossible for him to meet with the profit margins of an independent coffee shop. He pays his employees $8 an hour, just above Ohio’s minimum wage of $7.95 an hour, and well above the state’s minimum tipped wage of $3.98 an hour. With the tips his servers make, Herington says that take-home pay is actually closer to $10–$13 an hour.
“I don’t believe tips should supplement someone’s salary — that’s why I went above minimum wage,” he said. “If I’m going to complain about minimum wage, I’m going to beat it.”
But wages are actually the least of the workers’ concerns, they said. The hot espresso and coffee makers they work with are not well maintained and pose a burn hazard. None of the employees has worker’s compensation benefits, or any benefits, because the pay, they say, is cash only, with no paper trail.
“The cash he owed us would just be in the register — there was no social security, no W-2,” said Ian Brackman, who worked at the cafe for two weeks before the strike. “The illegal payroll really had me on edge because if I got hurt on the job, I wouldn’t have workman’s comp and I’d be screwed.”
Amend and Kate Crews, who have both been with the Goat since around the time it opened in 2011, have had the same concerns. They say Herington always said he was going to make the pay legal, but then let it drag on in an unofficial manner, which made them feel uncomfortable.
“He was asking us to fill out a 1099, which is something a plumber who brings his own tools to the job and sets his own hours does,” Brackman said, referring to the tax form for independent contractors, which, according to the Ohio Department of Taxation, cafe servers are not.
But of even deeper concern for some of the workers was the work environment at the Spirited Goat, particularly the relationship with Herington. He was sometimes “on edge” and spoke to staff in a disrespectful, aggressive manner, the three employees said. If a worker had a question, be it for additional stock or when they could leave (hours that were not fixed), he would often bark or tell them to “figure it out yourself” or “deal with it.”
And then there were, as Crews put it, “the creepers.” The cafe’s culture of tolerance invited all manner of people both morning and night, including regulars from Yellow Springs who could be lewd and harrassing and sometimes physically threatened the wait staff. When staff brought the issues to Herington, he did little to discourage the behavior. Though the conflict that precipitated the strike did not directly involve the employees on strike, the strikers said the incident was typical of the ongoing disrespectful interactions between the cafe owner and its staff.
“The whole thing is related to [Herington’s] irrational behavior and inconsistency, and it’s gradually been getting worse and worse,” Crews said. “He takes his stress out on us.”
Crews said she had thought about quitting many times but feared she wouldn’t find another job to supplement the income she was getting from her job at Corner Cone.
“I’ve worked at the Corner Cone since I was 16, and I love my job there — I feel completely safe and respected, and I’m trusted to make the decision about when to tell people to leave,” she said. “The juxtaposition is completely insane.”
The workers have asked to meet with Herington through the Village Mediation Program, but he declined the offer. The three employees who are not involved in the strike did not respond to requests for interviews.
In an interview last week Herington said the employees never came to him with the complaints before the strike and that now they’ve created a “frenzy and a mob mentality.” Indeed, the day of the strike the workers put their list of demands on Facebook’s Yellow Springs Open Discussion page and generated a discussion thread with over 800 comments from dozens of community members.
Herington believes he has been mischaracterized. As a business owner, he believed he had the option of hiring independent contractors who worked at their own risk. And the conflict between him and one of his employees was an isolated event, which is now over, he said last week. He can sometimes be informal and gruff, he admitted, but he loves and supports his employees and feels they are part of a community. If his temper has shown recently, it might be because of the stress the particularly slow winter had on his personal finances.
Herington also acknowledges the culture of openness the Goat is known for, and believes that as a community venue, the Goat should be welcoming to everyone. And when one particular patron physically threatened an employee, he handled the issue publicly in the cafe, and that patron has not returned since, he said.
But in many cases, Herington feels unwarranted in acting against a patron if he can’t prove that harrassment or even illegal activity, such as drug use or sales, are happening.
“Until I was more sure of what was going on, I couldn’t do anything,” he said, adding that he prefers not to involve the police. Herington, who spent many years in the Ohio Correctional system for an alleged crime he committed as a young man, doesn’t feel that law enforcement is helpful or rehabilitative for most people.
Herington agrees that minimum wage is a national problem that needs to be addressed, but believes workers should do so as a unified, organized group. The tactic that the employees and other local supporters of an increased minimum wage have taken in forcing an immediate change for one small business could be deleterious for him. He has already felt the negative effects since his employees have not come to work, he said.
“We’re not going to be able to do anything about minimum wage if we’re not together,” he said. “Coersion is not compassionate.”
The three strikers have contacted the National Labor Relations Board to seek pay for wages lost during their strike. And according to the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, every business, no matter how small, is legally obligated to provide the benefit for its employees. And as far as legal pay, according to the Ohio Department of Taxation, “with rare exception, employers … are responsible for withholding Ohio individual income tax from their employees’ pay,” the exeptions being some agricultural and domestic labor and services not in the employer’s trade.
The wage the Spirited Goat offers is within the range that some other local food service businesses offer. According to an employee at Ha Ha Pizza, he makes more than minimum wage but less than $10 an hour, plus tips, and he gets the federal minimum for healthcare coverage. Kurt Miyazaki at the Emporium has two salaried employees and eight people on the business’ healthcare plan, though his employees don’t make the $15 an hour wage the Spirited Goat employees were asking for. According to a manager at Peach’s Grill, some employees make over $15 an hour, though bussers and other staff start at minimum wage and work their way up. The wait staff at Peach’s makes the server minimum wage of $3.98 an hour.
Herington agrees that he couldn’t live on the minimum wage, but he knows that as a business owner he doesn’t have the margins to suddenly double his workers’ wages. The price on his goods would have to increase beyond what customers would be willing to pay. The conversation is more appropriate for the bigger businesses, he said, not for small, or tiny businesses like his.
“If I try to raise wages mid-stream in a national economic system that’s based on the current minimum wage, that’s not reasonable or realistic. It’s not even nice,” he said.