Caribou Coffee workers protest company's coronavirus response

Workers are protesting the chain's Roseville location Monday morning for better pay and safer working conditions.

Workers are protesting the chain's Roseville location Monday morning for better pay and safer working conditions. Associated Press

When COVID-19 came to Minnesota, Claire Umolac-Bunker waited to hear what her employer, Caribou Coffee, was going to do about it.

She and her co-workers at a Caribou in Roseville silently worried as they greeted customer after customer without a sneeze guard or a mask, handled cash, and did the math on how many people they’d been exposed to that day. Umolac-Bunker says their Caribou has seen at least 300 transactions a day throughout the stay-at-home order. 

While they waited on instructions from corporate headquarters, they did what they could to stay safe. But they quickly ran out of sanitizers, hand soap, towels, and disinfectant sprays. Asking for more, she says, was out of the question.

“My boss had to go out and buy disinfectant,” she says. “At one point, it got so bad we were ripping up our own aprons to wipe down the counters…. Not every store got as bad as that, but ours did.”

Caribou has more than 400 locations nationwide, 297 of them in Minnesota, where the coffee chain originated. (German investment interest JAB Holding Company has been Caribou's majority owner since 2012.)

So workers reached out to the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) of Minnesota, an advocacy group for the service industry. With ROC’s help, they demanded that Caribou provide them with protective equipment like gloves and masks, give better support for furloughed workers, and provide hazard pay for working on the front lines during a pandemic.

The company responded to these demands earlier this month. In a letter obtained by Twin Cities Business, it told employees protective equipment was on its way, and would be available in all of its stores by May 4. (Colorado, the only state where such precautions are mandated, got the first shipment.)

As for pay, workers could expect a 10 percent increase during the month of May, plus paid time off, unpaid leave, and assistance applying for benefits like unemployment insurance. Caribou also said President and CEO John Butcher and the rest of the executive team had taken pay cuts, though it didn’t disclose how much they were giving up.

Umolac-Bunker and other workers aren’t satisfied yet. A lot of Caribou employees make minimum wage, she says, and an extra buck or buck-fifty an hour isn’t going to make much of a difference to them. (She's aware some Starbucks workers got as much as a $3 hourly bump for working through the pandemic.) There's also the issue of backpay for all the hours they’ve already potentially exposed themselves to disease.

As for protective equipment, Umolac-Bunker's not optimistic based on how the rollout’s been going so far. Some stores say they’ve been receiving their masks, others haven’t.

“It took like three weeks before we even saw things like mandated hand soap and paper towels,” she says.

At 10 a.m. today, Caribou workers and supportive community workers will protest outside the Roseville store, with the plan to roll on up to the drive-thru, put it in park, and get nice and comfortable—a sort of socially distanced sit-in.

“We’re going to peacefully demonstrate and demand they take the workers’ demands seriously,” ROC spokesperson Eli Edleson-Stein says. “I think what workers are noticing is that the measures being taken are the bare minimum.”

In a statement, Caribou says the company has “closely followed and [is] implementing fact-based guidance and mandates” from national and local health authorities, and is “supporting” employees through “many work initiatives,” including the temporary 10 percent pay raise.

It also added that since the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended face protection earlier this month, “sourcing bulk, non-medical face coverings for essential workers has been difficult and delayed for most businesses.”

Umolac-Bunker says she’s worked for Caribou for four and a half years. She wants it to do well. But that includes doing well by its workers. If the company doesn’t have the capability of protecting them yet, she says, it should shut down stores until it does.

“The whole process has been very fast-paced,” she says. “The pandemic does not slow down for anybody.”