Demonstrators shut down Caribou drive-thru demanding worker protections

Demonstrators shut down a drive-thru at a Caribou Coffee in Roseville, Minn. demanding greater protections for workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

About three dozen honking cars blocked the drive-thru of a Caribou Coffee in Roseville Monday, calling on the chain to provide more personal protective equipment, sick time and hazard pay for workers.

As Gov. Tim Walz’s order closing dine-in restaurants, bars and coffee shops stretches into its seventh week, Caribou workers say they’ve been required to provide their own face masks, gloves and even hand soap, on occasion.

“I think it’s absurd the amount of responsibility we’ve had to take as workers to protect our own safety and the safety of our customers during this time,” said Lux Wildenauer, who has worked at Caribou for about three years.

The Minnesota-based coffee chain said in a statement that it purchased masks from Faribault Woolen Mill Co. for its 5,000 employees that should arrive in Minnesota stores beginning May 4. The first shipment of masks went to Colorado locations since that state began mandating people wear masks in essential businesses on April 17.

“Since the CDC announced updated face protection recommendations on April 3, 2020, sourcing bulk, non-medical face coverings for essential workers has been difficult and delayed for most businesses,” Caribou said in the statement. “Caribou provided updated information for employees to make or source their own face protection until company-provided coverings could be rolled out two weeks later.”

The Caribou protest comes a day after workers marched outside an Amazon warehouse in Burnsville. Workers at meatpacking plants have also shown sporadic signs of activism after outbreaks have swept through plants across the country, including in Worthington. Some labor activists hope the pandemic will spur a new workers’ rights movement, just as the Great Depression helped catalyze organized labor.

Caribou protesters shut down the drive-thru for about an hour with their cars while they blasted music and held signs reading “#BooToCaribou” and “Life is short. Stay alive for it,” playing off Caribou’s slogan, “Life is short. Stay awake for it.” The protest was organized by workers and activists with the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a non-union worker advocacy group.

About three dozen cars circled a Caribou Coffee in Roseville, Minn. demanding higher pay, more paid sick leave and more personal protective equipment. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Caribou workers also say they aren’t receiving additional paid time off or hazard pay increases like essential workers at other companies have. Caribou’s largest competitor Starbucks increased worker pay by $3 an hour and offered 30 days of “catastrophe pay” for workers who must stay home because they were exposed to COVID-19 or are especially vulnerable to the disease.

Caribou, whose founder John Puckett appeared with Walz when he announced restaurants and coffee shops must shut down, said in a statement it plans to provide a 10% pay increase for the month of May. For Wildenauer, who earns $12.25 an hour, that works out to an extra $1.22 an hour.

The company also said it would continue providing eligible employees with paid and unpaid time off as well as help accessing state and federal assistance programs.

Workers who test positive for COVID-19 or must care for someone who is sick are eligible for two weeks paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, but that only applies to workers at companies with fewer than 500 employees.

The company also said it plans to introduce new safety measures in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including installing acrylic sneeze guards at every counter, pre-shift wellness checks and guest and team member social distancing guidelines.

Wildenauer, who uses they pronouns, has been furloughed since the store they worked at in downtown Minneapolis was forced to close — one of 65 Caribou locations across the country that have had to shutter in recent weeks.

They say they’ve been offered hours at locations that remain open but has declined to pick up the shifts until the company provides face masks and gloves for its workers. Wildenauer is currently collecting unemployment while waiting to get back to work.

Ezra Jones, another furloughed Caribou worker, said she’s also reluctant to pick up shifts at other locations.

“I have pre-existing health conditions and without the PPE, I really can’t be working,” Jones said.

Wildenauer said the lack of additional sick time related to the pandemic puts workers and customers at risk. While many Caribou workers do get paid time off, they may not have accrued enough to be able to afford staying home.

“Not having paid leave means people have to risk spreading it to others if they are asymptomatic, which is just unacceptable,” Wildenauer said.

Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak is a reporter for the Reformer focusing on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.