On an early Saturday morning last month in Ballard, five baristas taped resignation letters to the front door of Slate Coffee Roasters in hope of shaming their bosses for issuing late paychecks and for failing to address what they claim is a “toxic work environment.”
Slate, a local chain that was started in 2011 by Lisanne Walker and her son Keenan, has five locations in Seattle, including two in Pioneer Square, and one each in South Lake Union, University District and Ballard. The flagship shop in Ballard has remained shut since the walkout, but all of Slate’s other locations have stayed open.
In a phone interview with The Seattle Times this week, Walker acknowledged having paid the Slate Ballard employees late but denies allegations of a toxic work environment. She expressed a desire to hear out her employees’ complaints and work toward improvements.
“I’m really sorry that people are hurt and disappointed,” Walker said. “We need to go through all the things that people have concerns about. For us to be a better company, we need to address those things and make the working environment better for our employees.”
Walker said her family was floored by “the coup.” Slate management confirmed at least nine employees, including the head roaster, have quit. Two weeks after the walkout, the Slate coffee house in Ballard still has not reopened as management is scrambling to train baristas to staff up.
After the Slate Ballard walkout on June 22, several Slate baristas took to social media to air their grievances and also encourage other baristas to “shed light upon workplace injustice” in their coffee shops. Their Instagram account, @coffeeatlarge, has picked up 7,200 followers since the walkout. Other baristas have used that forum to complain about their work environments.
At a time when coffee companies have evangelized about “fair trade” beans and fair treatment of third-world workers, former Slate Ballard store manager Samantha Capell says it’s ironic that coffeehouses aren’t addressing these same issues behind their own counters.
“It’s so sad and so funny that companies can brand themselves as being so thoughtful and caring about the environment and how the coffee is sourced and not treat their employees well,” said Capell, one of the protest organizers.
The dispute started at 7:30 a.m. on June 22 when patrons came to the coffee shop and saw a note posted along with resignation letters.
As you may notice, there are no baristas here to serve you coffee. Awkward? We know. And you’re probably curious as to why — so we’re happy to explain.
The note and letters went on to allege “bullying and intimidation” by management and “late and unreceived pay.”
Several employees later told The Seattle Times that they did not receive their January and February paychecks until March. Walker admits that paychecks were delayed but denied any bullying or intimidation.
Financial records filed with the King County Superior Court and the state Department of Revenue indicated Slate coffee has a history of falling behind on its taxes, owing $41,516 as recently as 2018.
Walker won’t discuss the company’s financial situation but said her attorney and accountant will work with the government to work out a payment plan.
She said the late payments — including at least one bounced check — were unrelated to the company’s financial situation and were due more to them being understaffed and overwhelmed with all the paperwork. She said some paycheck delays resulted from employees being too lax in “clocking in and out,” and it was time-consuming trying to unravel what hours the baristas had worked.
Slate has hired a human resource specialist and plans to hire a bookkeeper to make sure paychecks aren’t late again, she said.
The late paychecks were the least of Slate’s problems, several former baristas said.
Three former employees, Capell, Meri Novascone and Tatiana Benitez, have called Slate a “toxic work environment.” Benitez, who worked at the Slate’s University District branch, claims Walker repeatedly bullied and screamed at her in front of co-workers and customers.
“It was not worth it to be berated constantly,” said Benitez, who quit after four months.
Walker denied she acted inappropriately toward Benitez but said she didn’t want to rehash this and other accusations. It’s time to move forward and start the healing, she said.
“We just have so much on our plate as owners. But that is not an excuse,” she said. “We are working toward having an environment where people can feel safe. They can go straight to the owners or manager. I think that is what we learned from this. We have to make changes. We want to make people feel comfortable.”
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.