BRATTLEBORO — Mocha Joe’s Cafe temporarily closed due to a strike organized by employees over wages and other grievances, including their hopes of reinstating an employee who was fired for writing “ACAB,” which stands for All Cops are Bastards, on the bottom of a coffee cup served to a police officer.
Other employee demands include being able to refuse service “that makes them feel unsafe, including (to) law enforcement,” and working through issues related to the pandemic.
Employees picketed in front of the cafe on Main Street on Saturday and Sunday. One sign said, “Pay your workers!!!”
“Your latte can wait!!!” read another.
On Sunday, an employee picketing in front of the cafe said the group would be declining interviews with the Reformer and wouldn’t say why.
In a telephone interview, Mocha Joe’s co-owner Pierre Capy said eight employees at the cafe signed a letter outlining demands and one employee later expressed regret for signing it. The cafe employs 11 people including substitute workers.
In the letter, staff demanded they receive $15 an hour while receiving tips and $16.50 an hour during “project hours.” They said the increase should not change coffee prices. They called for a bump in compensation before any more investment in new infrastructure, machinery or appliances is made.
They demanded that if quarantine is needed for any employee, they “will receive two weeks of paid time off equal to a total of 30 hours of labor if the employee is not receiving unemployment during that time. This time will not be counted as paid vacation time.”
Staff demanded that the cafe not reopen indoor seating or allow public use of the bathroom again until the employees deem it safe. They called for “adequate” personal protective equipment for the duration of the pandemic including disposable masks for customers and employees, hand sanitizer, nitrile gloves and cleaning supplies.
Employees demanded that Mocha Joe’s provide employees with full disclosure and transparency of company finances. That includes plans for the use of the federal Payroll Protection Program and grants, salaries of managers and owners, and profits made by its companies.
The letter also called for an employee to be reinstated with no prerequisites, stating that staff should “have the ability to refuse service that makes them feel unsafe, including law enforcement.”
Capy said an employee was fired for writing ACAB, which stands for All Cops are Bastards, on the bottom of a coffee cup served to a police officer and long-time customer of the cafe after another employee drew a pig on the officer’s cup in an earlier incident. Both were offered a “path” to return to work, which involved apologizing to the officer.
The employee who wrote ACAB didn’t feel comfortable doing so, Capy said, “so we weren’t able to reinstate that person.”
His wife Ellen Capy, co-owner, said the issue hadn’t been resolved before the letter of demands came in.
“We were just trying to figure out what to do next,” she said.
Brattleboro Police Captain Mark Carignan, a long-time Mocha Joe’s customer, posted on Facebook a couple months ago that he got a coffee cup at the cafe with a pig drawn on it. He hasn’t said whether he got the ACAB cup, too.
Carignan released a statement about Mocha Joe’s on Sunday. “Mocha Joe’s appears to be working through a labor dispute,” Carignan said in the statement. “It is a successful Brattleboro business and I hope they are able to resolve the matter to both parties’ mutual satisfaction.
“I have patronized the business for nearly two decades and have almost always found their staff friendly and helpful,” Carignan said. “They also have delicious coffee. I know both Pierre and Ellen Capy, as well as several of their employees, and hope to patronize their business again soon.”
The owners addressed the picketing in a letter to the community in which they noted their appreciation for the cafe staff who are “serving the community in a truly difficult and confusing time, with the pandemic, election season, and all that is going on in the world.”
“Throughout our 30 years in business here in Brattleboro, we have led with our values of serving great coffee while empowering people in our local and global communities, including own employees,” they wrote. “Unfortunately, we had to close the cafe today because some of our staff refused to come to work, refused to meet with us, and picketed outside.”
The owners received a letter signed by some of their staff at 1 p.m. Friday. They said the employees refused to come back to work unless all the demands were met in nine hours.
“One of the demands is that cafe staff be allowed to refuse service to police officers, or anyone else for that matter,” the owners wrote. “Not only do we disagree with this position, but we are not sure it is even legal. We support calls to fix policing and we support the Black Lives Matter movement, but our cafe’s doors are open to everybody.”
Ellen Capy said the essence of the cafe is being welcoming and serving coffee.
“You can’t discriminate against anyone,” added Capy.
In their letter, the owners described telling employees they wanted to meet to discuss the issues but they refused to do so until all the demands were met.
“We want to be clear — all cafe staff receive $15 per hour or more,” the owners wrote. “We ran the numbers and with tips, the range is $15 to $18 per hour. This range does not account for the $3 per hour hazard pay that we paid to all cafe employees for hours worked during the three-month period when we reopened. We added this hazard pay in recognition of the difficulties working in the service industry during the reopening.”
The cafe closed in March and didn’t reopen until June with limited hours and no indoor seating, according to the letter. The owners said they followed state guidelines and while other businesses allowed for indoor seating, they have not.
The owners said they believe they have fulfilled every request for personal protective equipment. They described being “hugely sympathetic to those working in the service industry during a pandemic.”
“It’s hard, sometimes underappreciated work and we’ve always aimed to take care of our people above and beyond the industry standards,” they wrote.
The cafe was closed for three months and Mocha Joe’s roasting business experienced “a dramatic decrease in sales,” according to the letter. The owners said it’s been difficult to stay afloat and are grateful they received federal Payroll Protection Program loans to cover some of their labor costs this summer.
“These loans have very strict usage guidelines and we’ve followed them to a tee, including spending at least 75 percent of the loan on labor,” they wrote.
The owners credited loyal customers for their ability to keep the business going this year.
“Indeed, this is a challenging time,” they wrote. “At this point, we are closing the cafe temporarily out of respect for our customers and existing staff, while we evaluate the best options for the community and Mocha Joe’s. We wish it didn’t have to come to this, but 2020 continues to baffle us all.”