Compass Coffee Responds to Union Drive With Mass Hiring

Compass Coffee, a regional coffee chain, has been facing controversy over its union drive. Workers United, the union supporting the organizing drive, submitted petitions to the National Labor Relations Board for elections at seven cafes in five bargaining units with 47 employees. In June, management at the Washington, D.C.-based company began adding scores of workers, including executives of other companies, to the list of potential voters. On June 19, Compass CEO Michael Haft told Restaurant Dive that there were about 100 workers at the seven cafes. However, Compass told the NLRB and Workers United that the seven cafes have 167 potential voters.

Many of the workers named by Compass as prospective voters appear to have been hired recently, and some are not hourly cafe workers. Some have worked shifts as baristas, according to shift supervisors who worked alongside them. Both the scale of the hiring and the inclusion of individuals who are not baristas or barista apprentices could raise problems ahead of the upcoming union election, which is scheduled for July 16. Tyler Hofmann, a staff organizer at Workers United, said the union plans “on challenging voters who we have reason to believe have not worked any shifts at these locations, and the many people brought in specifically to dilute the vote.”

Among the Compass documents listing potential voters is Jacob Tyner, who is general counsel to the U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska). Restaurant Dive confirmed Tyner’s identity by comparing the information on the Compass list and on LinkedIn with information from the Maryland Bar and the George Mason Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution. Neither Tyner nor Sullivan’s office responded to requests for comment by press time.

Compass Coffee CEO Michael Haft said that workers in high-turnover industries with many small workplaces, like coffee shops, did not need unions. He said that workers dissatisfied with the company “might be better off going somewhere else.” Tizzy Brown was also on the Compass list, working in national partnerships and federal affairs for Uber. David Rosenfeld, a labor lawyer at Weinberg, Roger, and Rosenfeld, said that claiming people who don’t work at a company are workers there is uncommon in NLRB elections.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is attempting to establish the appropriate bargaining unit for an election, but who gets to vote is not yet certain. Larger employers often swamp a bargaining unit with new hires or by drawing in additional job classifications and departments of workers already employed by the company. However, smaller employers, such as regional coffee chains, are uncommon in this regard.

Parties to NLRB elections frequently challenge ballots cast by workers they believe are not members of bargaining units. In some cases, this comes down to job duties: managers with hiring and firing power are barred from voting. Shift supervisors with limited supervisory duties, such as Babin and Penina Meier-Silverman, another pro-union shift supervisor, are not always excluded, because of this ambiguity they frequently vote in union elections. If the number of challenged ballots is enough to impact the outcome of an election, the NLRB’s regional office holds a hearing to determine voter eligibility and then counts the eligible ballots.

The final voters will be determined through a collaborative process between the NLRB, Workers United, and Compass on July 14, a couple days before the scheduled election. According to an election agreement between Compass and the union, workers employed at Compass in the payroll period ending July 14 and those averaging four or more hours per week in the quarter leading up to that date, are eligible to vote. Some of the workers on the list are transfers from other stores, while many are new hires he said were necessitated by seasonal fluctuations in employment at locations near colleges.

Compass Coffee, according to Haft, is “busiest during the warmer months, which we refer to as ‘cold brew season,’ so there is always an annual uptick in employment this time of the year.” However, on June 19, Haft showed Restaurant Dive records indicating that foot traffic at Compass locations in downtown Washington D.C., including one union location, lagged behind June 2019 foot traffic by more than 50% on comparable days.

New hires who have been joining cafes recently were not hired through the company’s normal process, which requires one-on-one interviews with a cafe manager. Instead, the new hires were put through group interviews and hired en masse by one of the company’s executives. Adams said the Wisconsin Avenue location normally operated just fine with nine or 10 employees on its overall roster.

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