Boba Guy’s tea chain faces worker anger and social media backlash

“Join the Boba Revolution!” is the catchphrase for Boba Guys, a San Francisco-based Boba chain that has developed a cult following for drinks made with organic milk, loose teas and homemade syrups.

But the revolution has turned chaotic at the chain’s flagship store in San Francisco’s Mission District after some employees postponed short-time work, talked about forming a union and put up signs criticizing management.

Now the store is temporarily closed and at least one worker has been laid off, several others are unsure if they still have jobs, and Boba Guys management is being blasted on social media.

The labor unrest at Boba Guys comes amid a nationwide surge in union interest as workers navigated unstable, potentially hazardous workplaces during the pandemic. Employees of independent companies and international chains alike are organizing for better protections within the hospitality industry, such as the right to stable shift hours and safeguards against management retaliation.

Union campaigns at companies like Starbucks have spread across the country. More than 300 Starbucks stores have held union elections, including more than a dozen locations that are unionizing in California. Amazon is struggling with union efforts at a handful of plants.

Over the summer, workers at Genwa, a Korean grill restaurant in Los Angeles, formed a union. In 2021, employees at Los Angeles vegan donut chain Donut Friend tried to unionize, but failed.

Boba Guys started out as a pop-up by founders Andrew Chau and Bin Chen in 2011, when chilled tea drinks with chewy tapioca balls were still a novelty in most parts of the country. The first brick-and-mortar store opened in 2013, and the chain now has 24 locations in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.

Chau said the company does not comment on personnel matters.

“We are aware of the concerns raised by some of our San Francisco-based retail team members, and we respect employees’ rights to organize or bargain collectively,” Chau said in an Instagram message.

After a summer of busy sales, staff at the chain’s flagship store in San Francisco’s Mission District felt the company was doing well. But in early October, workers said, they were briefed on a significant reduction in working hours across the board, a reduction in the time it takes stores to open and close and fewer employees per shift.

Reducing working hours and operating with fewer employees are common measures taken by companies faced with a tight labor market where wages have risen.

One worker, Ashley Paredes, said her hours had been cut from 5½ to three hours a day five days a week.

“It caused confusion, frustration and anger within the team,” said Madeline Urso, 22, a worker who started at Mission District’s store in March.

Several workers said they met on October 10th. 16 to vent her frustrations on Chau and other members of management. The workers said management did not respond to their concerns.

The next day, Urso said, she posted links to a channel on the company’s internal Slack communications system about unemployment benefits and union basics.

On October 10, Urso received a disciplinary notice alleging “inappropriate, derogatory” comments of a sexual nature in a conversation with colleagues that she recorded while at work.

Urso said these comments, while vulgar, were not uncommon in the business and directly criticized Chau, the founder. Urso was subsequently fired in what she says was retaliation for her Slack postings about the union organization. Urso said she doesn’t recall ever giving consent to be recorded at work.

Although firing based on recorded comments is legal if the recording was consensual, according to Catherine Fisk, a professor of labor law at UC Berkeley, those comments are legal.

A comment may lose its protection if it is “extremely rude, aggressive, [or] abusive,” but the simple use of profanities doesn’t make them vulnerable, Fisk said.

After Urso was fired, she and other workers put up signs at the mission site that read, “Senior Management Retaliates Against Boba Employees,” “Boba Guy’s ‘People Care’ (HR) Union Arrests Boba Employees.” , “Boba Guys Employee Can’t Pay Rent” and “Union Busters”.

According to Urso and Paredes, a member of management showed up with police officers and told them to leave the store. Video captured by Paredes shows a San Francisco police officer standing in the doorway of the Mission store.

“When they asked us to leave, we left,” Urso said. “Trying to use these officers to intimidate their workers … it felt extremely aggressive, unnecessarily aggressive for what was happening.”

In an email to employees dated Feb. 10, Boba Guys said the company will temporarily close the mission site until staffing issues are resolved.

“We believe in listening to our team members and engaging in mutual respect and constructive dialogue,” the email reads. “It is our policy to treat all HR matters confidentially and comprehensively. Therefore, we cannot provide any further information at this point in time.”

Since then, almost everyone who works at the Mission site has lost access to the Slack channel and the ShiftPlanning app — without receiving a notification of their position at the company, Urso said.

Paredes said she was not allowed into the store to collect the tip she earned during her shift.

At a Boba Guys location in San Francisco’s Union Square, shift supervisor Jalila Tesoro and two other employees decided to put up signs. 19 in their shop in solidarity with the mission workers. They said they, too, were suspended without pay “until the investigation is complete.” The workers said they were instructed not to enter Boba Guys stores.

Dozens more former employees have taken to Instagram and other social media to speak out about working without air conditioning through heat waves, being underpaid for the positions they worked, dealing with bugs and suffering reduced hours when they left have complained to management.

Her posts caused significant outrage, particularly on Twitter, and the company suspended his account, allowing only approved followers to see his tweets.

“I think it’s been a long time coming,” said Xiaojun Zhou, 18, a worker who resigned in solidarity at the mission site.

“This isn’t the first time a big company has done something like this to its workers and it won’t be the last, but now is the time for all of us to stand against them and we will continue to do so.” do,” said Paredes.

It’s not the first time Boba Guy’s management has come under scrutiny.

In 2020, workers complained of a pattern of racial discrimination and micro-aggression toward Black and Hispanic employees by managers, problems dealing with racist customers, and a lack of support in reporting issues to management.

A manager who allegedly made racist comments in 2018 was fired in the wake of a social media backlash.

Times contributor Stephanie Breijo contributed to this report.

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