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Seattle baristas walk out because of 'toxic work environment'

caption: Samantha Capell (second from left) managed Slate Coffee Roasters in Ballard until she led five other employees in a walkout June 22, 2019.
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Samantha Capell (second from left) managed Slate Coffee Roasters in Ballard until she led five other employees in a walkout June 22, 2019.
Courtesy of CoffeeAtLarge

Baristas at Slate Coffee Roasters claim late or missing pay and 'discrimination of many kinds.'

After walking off the job on Saturday, six former employees of Slate Coffee Roasters in Seattle are now trying to build a movement for coffee worker rights.

Five baristas and one manager left signs in the window and started an Instagram account, @coffeeatlarge, which drew close to 5,000 followers in a few days.

“Good morning!” one of the signs read. “As you may notice, there are no baristas here to serve you coffee. Awkward? We know. And you're probably curious as to why — so we're happy to explain.”

They went on: “We have experienced a toxic work environment: this includes but is not limited to dishonesty; discrimination of many kinds; bullying and intimidation; late and unreceived pay; disingenuous promises and so much more. Our expressed concerns have been met with silence at best, and more often condescension.”

Since the walkout, Samantha Capell, a former Ballard location manager and coffee trainer, said she has done little but respond to messages from sympathetic social media followers, speak to the media, and sleep.

“We have no idea what we’re doing — we’re baristas, not activists — but we’re hoping that we can take the traction we have and do as much good (as we can),” Capell said.

The group is trying to improve working conditions for baristas and coffee industry workers.

“Baristas are expendable in the eyes of coffee owners,” so they’re not treated with respect, she said.

Late and missing paychecks were common at Slate, Capell said, including one she was due in January but didn’t receive until March, she said.

Slate owners did not respond to requests for information from KUOW Monday.

The company posted a statement on Instagram, citing “personal unhappiness with Slate” as the cause of the walkout and pledging to “work collaboratively” with staff to “better shape” business practices.

“Just as we value sourcing coffees in alignment with sustainable and equitable practices, we are committed to building a culture, internal practices, and safe work environment in line with those values,” the statement said.

On Monday, the University District Slate location was open for business, staffed by an employee behind the counter, and Juan Diaz, the current coffee trainer and manager for two downtown locations.

“We have been kind of scrambling to fill out shifts and bringing on management to help out,” Diaz said. “So it’s very difficult for the company right now; it’s pretty stressful losing them.”

Diaz said he has not personally experienced discrimination at the company or late pay, but he has “huge respect” for the workers who walked off.

“I understand their concerns. I feel for them,” he said.

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