Trouble Brews at Rain OR Shine Coffee House Around Reopening

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Photo by Kate Patterson.

***Disclaimer***

Rain OR Shine is a long time sponsor of the Franklin Post. However, this article aims to include multiple perspectives and showcase the experiences of all parties.

Rain OR Shine Coffee House on the corner of 60th and Division is an important part of the South Tabor neighborhood, having served coffee, tea, and delicious foods like bagels and sandwiches since 2011. It’s also an important part of the Franklin community, with many students going there after school to enjoy such treats. Their place in the community made it even more shocking to Rain OR Shine patrons when on May 1 former employees started posting on social media that they were fired from the coffee house for organizing in opposition to reopening. These statements left many confused as to what happened. It only got harder to understand when Rain OR Shine’s social media accounts posted a statement that was contrary to what the former employees were saying. Bystanders were concerned and didn’t know whose story was right. Although the truth lies somewhere in the middle, both parties are right in a way. Much of what is being debated has to do with the different interpretations of communication, which is understandable due to the uncertainty of the pandemic. Everyone is valid in their feelings over this situation.

Let’s go back in time to April 17, when most of this started. That day, the owners of Rain OR Shine, Claire Teasdale and Molly Boyl, began calling the employees to gauge enthusiasm about reopening and to announce their intent to get back to work soon. They continued contacting employees, through phone calls and text, until April 20. According to them, “It seemed like most folks were chomping at the bit to get back to work.” Because of this, on April 24, the owners announced intent to reopen May 1 via the company’s private Slack page. Teasdale and Boyl said that they did this with “the needs and desires of the crew” in mind, and not necessarily because they were eager to reopen. A former Rain OR Shine employee, who will be called Jessie to protect their anonymity, felt otherwise. “The owners claimed it was a financial necessity for them to reopen ASAP, but wouldn’t explain to us why that was the case.” The owners don’t recall being directly asked why it was financially necessary to reopen. The differences in these accounts highlights how everyone’s perception is likely rooted in the high stakes and emotions that were involved due to the instability brought by the pandemic. Either way, the fast pace of the reopening date left staff members concerned. “I was concerned about the safety of the reopen, the loss of hours & income, my and the community’s health, and the quickness of it all,” said another anonymous former Rain OR Shine employee, who we will call Rory.

The next day, on April 25, one of the staff members posted on the business’ Slack page outlining the staff’s concerns. “As an unessential business, we felt it wasn’t responsible to be reopening at this time,” said Jessie. Teasdale and Boyl stated that the post felt “accusatory and combative,” while the former employees say that it was merely expressing collective concerns with reopening.

With these concerns out in the open, the owners scheduled a Zoom meeting for April 27. This meeting was ultimately unproductive on both sides. “They insisted that we just had to learn to live in a world with the virus, ignored our ideas for alternatives to reopening, decidedly left people with health conditions (asthma) who shouldn’t work with an ultimatum of health vs poverty,” said Rory. Some of the alternative ideas staff had in mind were fundraising, doing an art auction, and other similar methods of getting money without needing to open. While the employees felt like their concerns weren’t being addressed, Teasdale and Boyl felt like they were under attack. “The meeting was hostile from the beginning… We tried to learn where the misunderstanding was coming from but we weren’t able to have a productive, solution-based discussion during that call.” This situation has been very high stress for everyone involved, and the fact that any communication had to be done online instead of face-to-face made it harder to address concerns or feelings around reopening on both sides.

Also, it came out later that an employee had recorded the meeting, which made the meeting feel like a trap to the owners. They asked, “What would be the purpose of secretly recording such a meeting if the goal had truly been collaboration and problem solving?” Rory said that the recording was meant for any staff members who couldn’t make it to the meeting due to it’s hasty planning. The Franklin Post was unable to gain access to the recorded meeting.

On April 28, with the unproductive Zoom meeting behind them, Teasdale and Boyl announced the postponing of their reopening date on the company’s Slack. The next day, they set their intentions to return to work on May 2. The owners said that they also offered work options that could be done at home or during off-hours. These tasks were created for employees who were uncomfortable working with the public, whether for the health of themselves or others. Some of these things were to curate a playlist, graphic design for fliers, refinish furniture, and deep cleaning, along with other similar tasks. This list also continued to grow as Rain OR Shine began to reopen. But the initial list only gave vulnerable staff members so many hours they could work. Additionally, Rory said that this specific list of tasks were never mentioned to them. The only tasks they say they received were cleaning duties that were completed by another staff member with six hours of labor.

Along with their announcement to return to work on May 2, Teasdale and Boyl sent an email outlining their intentions to maintain sanitary conditions while open, including requiring masks and gloves, designating work zones to keep social distancing, and no-contact service for orders. At the end of the message, they requested employees to respond to the email by five PM April 30 with their decision on whether or not they would return to work. A lack of a response would lead to their employment at Rain OR Shine being “terminated.” Teasdale and Boyl said that they were in contact with Human Resources (HR), a lawyer and their insurance company through this process. “We were strongly advised by all parties to send an official offer of work to all members of our furloughed staff and to identify a ‘start date’ of employment in that communication,” said the owners. “We were advised to be transparent with staff in this communication that we could not guarantee work would be available at a later date if they did not accept the current offer of work.”

The email was sent at 3:56 PM on April 29, leaving less than 26 hours for employees to make a decision. Concerned with the safety of their at-risk employees and family members, many of the employees sent a collective letter to Teasdale and Boyl. This letter outlined the staff’s concerns with reopening on such short notice, along with two demands. Without these demands being met, the participating employees would refuse to work. The two demands were:

“Reopening the shop should be delayed until at least June, at which point we will decide collectively on our options moving forward,” and, “during this time, Rain OR Shine should use the Paycheck Protection Program for all employees’ payroll and benefits regardless of hours worked.”

The aforementioned Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was a loan created by the Small Business Administration to help businesses stay afloat while facing COVID-19-related closures. Rain OR Shine got accepted for the loan on April 17, when Teasdale and Boyl first set intentions to reopen. As experienced business owners under pressure to reopen due to concerns about financial stability, the owners felt that these demands were unreasonable for them to grant. “These demands were unrealistic and we were not, and are not, in a position to spend a loan in a manner dictated by folks unfamiliar with the ins and outs and the financial standing of our business.” Teasdale and Boyl never responded to the letter for that reason, and because she said the letter claimed that “further communication with that group would not be possible without [Boyl and I] first agreeing to those demands.” Rory insisted that the staff were open to communication and compromise, and that one of the staff members posted a message on Slack to the owners about communication being open. The owners didn’t recall receiving the message.

To the staff, with their health and livelihood on their minds, these demands seemed reasonable. The reduced hours that would be in place concerned them for multiple reasons, including everyone’s financial stability. The money from the PPP had the potential to help ease those concerns and secure a more reliable income in this uncertain time. Additionally, if the PPP loan was used to pay the employees their normal salary pre-COVID-19, it would have the potential to go from a loan to a tax-free grant. They were also worried about the health of themselves and their fellow staff members. “We had coworkers who are at high-risk of COVID-19, or who live with family members who are at risk,” said Jessie. “We were worried that those individuals who could not take the risk of returning to work would be financially neglected.” Teasdale and Boyl tried to keep in mind staff members who may have been uncomfortable returning to work. They said that they understood that there would be some people who would be uncomfortable returning to work for health-related reasons, and that they had an option to stay furloughed if they couldn’t come back to work. This message wasn’t communicated well to the employees, because all of the former workers that the Franklin Post has contact with felt like it was a choice between returning to work or being unemployed.

But the letter went unanswered. On April 30 at 12:51, Teasdale and Boyl sent out another email to employees who had not answered the previous one. At the end of this email, unlike the last one, it said that a lack of a response would be considered ‘a voluntary resignation.’ “The second letter reiterated that inaction on their part would be considered a voluntary resignation; this rewording was an effort on our part to avoid any confusion for staff about what the outcome would be,” said Teasdale and Boyl. The rewording led to confusion amongst staff members, due to the idea that ‘terminated’ means ‘fired.’ Ryan Gibson, an employment lawyer who has been practicing law for twelve years, says that “a resignation is a form of termination,” so the word change isn’t legally significant. “While I could understand how employees who are not lawyers may have been confused by the different messages, I don’t think the employer did anything wrong,” said Gibson. 

The email also stated that if someone would need accommodations to perform their job, they would need to get a doctor’s note by May 4. “They gave us only four days to acquire such a note,” said Olivia, an anonymous former staff member at Rain OR Shine. “That is an unreasonable expectation in the midst of a pandemic, especially when not everyone has the privilege of having health insurance and or an established doctor.” The owners say that they included this part to try to set a deadline for the purposes of wanting to progress in opening, but accommodations could have been made for anyone who couldn’t get a note by May 4.

In addition to the doctor’s note, the email said that “if Rain OR Shine Coffee House is contacted by the Employment Department (ED) we are required by law to provide them with a factual timeline of when work was offered. To withhold this information would be insurance fraud.” According to Olivia, this statement is legally untrue. “When reaching out for help, we were connected with an employment attorney… The attorney stated that employers are NOT required by law to respond to the [ED]’s inquiries at all, and suggested that the owners’ choice to include that message in their email was meant to intimidate us.” Gibson said that it may actually be a requirement for Rain OR Shine to notify the ED in this circumstance. Even if they aren’t, he said that “The employer is charged more in taxes for unemployment insurance in part based on how many of its employees claim unemployment, so the employer will often want to notify the ED when employees are not eligible.” The owners also emphatically denied any malintent, and said that this addition was at a recommendation from their lawyer and HR representative. “When [we] explained that [the message] may come off as coercive to some staff members, the representative emphasized that it would be unfair not to paint a realistic picture for people about the possible consequences of their decision and it could even lead to a lawsuit,” said Teasdale and Boyl.

 But, whether or not it was a legally sound claim, staff still felt threatened. “They made us feel like either we bend to their demands within 26 hours, or we lose our jobs and our [unemployment insurance], leaving us without any income at all during a global pandemic,” said Jessie.

After this email, the staff collectively sent out a second letter to the owners, declaring their discontent with the short time frame, their feelings about the perceived threats in the last email, and their rights under the new unemployment laws in place due to COVID-19. These laws gave leniency to employees, and extended unemployment benefits to those not accepting work due to a recommendation to stay home from their health care provider or a public health official. This could be for the health and safety of themselves or the people they are in close contact with, like family or other people they live with. The owners didn’t respond to this letter for multiple reasons. They would have preferred to communicate with staff individually or via the company’s Slack, so that they know that they knew everyone was getting the information. “While many of the employees had signed their names to the PDF included in the communication sent from the collective employee email address, not all of our employees had done so,” said Teasdale and Boyl. Replying to the collective email sent would have left some staff members out of the loop, which they saw as unfair and was a legal risk that could lead to a lawsuit. There had been three people who hadn’t signed the letter out of the twelve staff members, one of whom was a manager. They also preferred individual communication so that someone’s personal information regarding unemployment wasn’t exposed to the entirety of the staff.

The final email from Teasdale and Boyl was set out at 9:20 PM on April 30. This email was sent to the Rain OR Shine staff members who never responded, saying that the owners accepted their voluntary resignation. Four out of their original twelve employees accepted work. “I worry about me and my old crew’s ability to pay our bills, feed ourselves and pay rent,” said an anonymous ex-employee. “Seeing as I have asthma, I worry that my next job will follow trend [and be] as a service worker, putting my life in danger for minimum wage work.”

The former staff all seem hurt and saddened by the situation. “Rain OR Shine was my second home. My coworkers… they were my family,” said Olivia. “But I needed communication from [the owners]. It was denied, I was fired, and I will miss working at Rain OR Shine so much.” Rory feels similarly. “Many of us, myself included, have been a part of the community that gathers at Rain Or Shine for a long time, and to see how the owners handled this situation has left many of us with our hearts hurt.” Teasdale and Boyl are also sad about how everything happened. “The lack of understanding that surfaced following the response deadline both saddens and frustrates us because it feels like an unnecessary outcome. We truly cared for those staff members and we still do.” Ultimately, both the owners of Rain OR Shine and the former employees had hard decisions they needed to make, and unfortunately both parties lost in the end. 

Here is a link to the former employee’s public statement

Here is a link to Rain OR Shine’s public statement

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