Caribou Coffee workers rally for coronavirus protections

A person in a mask holds a sign that reads "Workers' health is essential"
Lynn Avery protests Monday during a car rally outside the Caribou Coffee store in Roseville. Caribou Coffee employees and community allies are calling on the company to provide safer conditions and demanding emergency paid leave, a companywide sick pay policy, and higher wages for front-line workers.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Blasting Madonna and chanting, “No honest pay, no lattes,” dozens of Caribou Coffee employees and their supporters rallied Monday morning outside a Twin Cities Caribou shop. They’ve been mounting a campaign in recent weeks calling on the company to provide more protective equipment and benefits for essential employees at coffee shops during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Caribou has moved too slowly in getting employees protective equipment like gloves and masks, said Claire Umolac-Bunker, who has worked at a Roseville store for more than four years. She said a customer donated masks to employees at her shop. 

”I have to go to work and not have the proper [equipment] then I have to go home to my six roommates not knowing if I’m exposing them or not because my job hasn’t provided me with everything they could,” she said.

Umolac-Bunker also wants Caribou to create policies to keep employees safe, including around the handling of cash and transactions at the drive-thru. 

“We’re 3 feet away from these people, grabbing their money, having them touch our hands, having us touch the drink, then giving it back to them, then dealing with the next customer after them,” Umolac-Bunker said. “We can’t minimize contact that way.”

A person wearing a mask and gloves speak into a mic.
Lux Wildenauer speaks during a car protest outside the Caribou Coffee store in Roseville.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

In a statement, Caribou Coffee said the company hopes to provide all employees with masks by May 4 and are giving workers a 10 percent boost in pay during the month of May. 

“Since the onset of COVID-19, the safety and livelihood of our team members has been our number one priority,” according to the company’s statement. “We have closely followed and are implementing fact-based guidance and mandates from both national and local health authorities to protect our team members.” 

Caribou said it has also taken other steps, including the installation of sneeze guards on counters, curbside pickup of orders and offering assistance to furloughed workers. 

In the last five weeks, more than 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Employees at restaurants and coffee shops were especially hard hit by layoffs. 

The public health crisis has turned into an economic crisis for restaurant workers, said Eli Edleson-Stein, lead organizer with the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Minnesota, a nonprofit organization advocating for restaurant workers.  

"We’re seeing ‘essential workers’ in the coffee industry and fast food who are being paid the same low wages that they always have, and being asked to risk their health, especially when companies don’t provide adequate personal protective equipment or contactless service,” Edleson-Stein said. 

Caribou is owned by JAB Holdings, which also has a controlling interest in Peets Coffee, Panera Bread and other food service businesses. 

“There are folks who are profiting massively and have been profiting off of workers’ backs and low wages, so the money is there,” Edleseon-Stein said. “Will CEO John Butcher and Caribou Coffee and JAB Holdings do the right thing?” 

Caribou Coffee has about 450 locations in the United States, 65 of which the company said are closed due to the pandemic.