Emmanuel Segura leads a chant at a May 14 protest on Bourbon Street organized by the Coalition to Create a Fair Fund for Hospitality Workers. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

“Pardon my expression, but kiss my ass,” Kathleen Redmann told four of her employees during a May 14 conference call. 

Redmann owns Still Perkin’ Coffee Shop in the Lower Garden District. After closing for two months due to coronavirus restrictions, she was planning to open in two days, May 16, the first day of New Orleans’ “Phase One: Safest at Home” plan to gradually reopen the economy. But some of her employees were concerned, not only about the health risks, but about taking those risks for roughly half the pay they were getting before the pandemic. 

Redmann informed her employees a week earlier that she was calling them back to work. In a short text message, she told the staff that there was a mandatory in-person meeting and store cleaning on May 13. The text didn’t include any information about masks, social distancing or any other new safety protocols.

“So the stay at home order is still in place and I’ve been told to come back into work with no safety information,” Still Perkin’ barista Charlotte Willcox told The Lens in an interview.

Hospitality workers across New Orleans are facing similar dilemmas, forced to weigh the health risks of following their boss’ orders to return to work. And they’re having to make these decisions while navigating uncertainties about their rights and the details of new federal programs like the Paycheck Protection Program and special pandemic unemployment assistance.

Before the pandemic, Willcox made about $15 to $16 per hour. But nearly half of that came from tips, she said. At least in the initial stages of reopening, the store expects to see a fraction of the customers it once had coming through the door. Local data analyst Jeff Asher published a story with the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate on Thursday, illustrating data trends that suggest that although New Orleans stores are opening, people aren’t yet ready to shop.

Without being able to rely on tips, the four baristas were looking at a base pay of $8.25 an hour. The four got together and drafted a list of demands that ownership would have to fulfill before they came back to work. The central demands included adequate personal protective equipment, sick leave and a temporary base pay increase to $15 an hour to make up for lost tips. 

The owners agreed to some of the demands at the May 13 meeting, but didn’t budge on paid leave and would only increase their base pay to $9 an hour. 

“You’re asking us to come into work for half the pay, risking our health in the process at an uncertain time,” another barista, Max Spedale, told Redmann on the May 14 conference call. Spedale was recording the call, and the recording was provided to The Lens.

“I’m not asking you to risk your health,” Redmann responded. “If you wear a mask, you’ll be fine.”

Redmann’s casual response to the employees’ health concerns, however, didn’t match the warnings that the baristas were hearing from the city government. Although the city was dropping some business restrictions, Mayor LaToya Cantrell warned that the virus was still here, and that there was still a potential for another peak in infections like the city saw in early April. 

At a Friday press conference, city Health Department Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno stressed that hospitality workers, in particular, are at risk of infection as the economy reopens. She said the city was starting a program to specifically test hospitality workers returning to work.

“We think this is an area that has been overlooked as we focus on our high risk individuals, and these are the workers that we need to protect as we reopen,” she said.

Redmann co-owns the coffee shop with Michael and Elizabeth Fontham. Elizabeth Fontham was the founding dean of LSU’s school of public health and is a well known cancer epidemiologist. She did not respond to a request to comment. 

Michael Fontham, a local attorney and Elizabeth Fontham’s husband, told The Lens in an interview that ownership agreed to all the health-related demands at the May 13 meeting. He said that they also offered to increase wages to $9 an hour. They were only unwilling to budge on paid leave and $15 an hour wages.

“Kathy [Redmann] was there and my wife was there,” he said. “She is one of the leading epidemiologists in the world.”

Willcox disagreed that ownership acquiesced to all their health-related demands. She argued that paid sick leave was a public safety demand. She said that she was frustrated that Fontham, a public health expert, wasn’t speaking up about it.

Four baristas from Still Perkin’ Coffee Shop in uptown New Orleans went on strike on May 16, 2020 (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

“She kept saying, ‘I’m here in case you need any epidemiological advice. I’m here to give you any public health advice.’ Well, the public health advice you could give is telling your co-owners that paid sick leave is a public health strategy. That’s what we need you to do.”

The federal Center for Disease Control put out safety guidelines for employers as the economy reopens. Implementing flexible sick leave is one of them. 

And on Friday, Avegno said that the new testing program for hospitality workers will focus on establishments that provide sick leave.

“We plan to focus on businesses that offer paid sick leave to their employees because that is the most effective way to prevent the spread of a disease in a business,” she said. “And we do not want a worker to have to choose between not going to work and not making a livelihood because they get a positive test result.”

The Still Perkin’ workers felt backed into a corner. They didn’t think the owners were taking the health risks seriously enough or compensating them fairly. But if they didn’t cave in, they risked the loss of both their jobs and government benefits. The four baristas decided to take the risk and go on strike. They’ve been picketing the store every day for nearly two weeks.

Since the store opened, Redmann has filed a “separation notice alleging disqualification” for at least two of the striking baristas to the Louisiana Workforce Commission — the state agency that administers unemployment assistance. The forms say the baristas quit their jobs without good cause, meaning they are not eligible for benefits — a claim that’s disputed by both employees. (Participating in a strike can also make workers ineligible for benefits.)

‘Now that you see us, here’s what we need’

Willcox started mobilizing when she realized the store was “gunning to reopen as soon as the stay-at home order lifted.” 

“I’ve never been in a union before, never been on a picket line before,” she said.

She reached out to Meg Maloney, an organizer with the New Orleans Hospitality Workers Alliance, who helped the Still Perkin’ workers create a list of demands and understand their rights. Members of the alliance join the picket line outside Still Perkin’ daily. 

“We’re getting calls from hospitality workers about these issues day after day,” Maloney told The Lens. “And people don’t know what to do. They don’t know what to do and they’re terrified. And they’re scared that they’ll be fired and kicked off unemployment, and that’s why people are being spurred to organize.”

Labor activists and experts that spoke with The Lens said that they’re seeing a surge in labor organizing in the city, or at least an increased awareness and buy-in to labor organizing efforts. 

“I think at this moment, workers are kind of waking up,” Leah Bailey, a New Orlean-based researcher with the Unite Here union, told The Lens. “They’re worried about their health and safety. They’re worried about their customers’ health and safety. That’s in the forefront. And it’s gotten people ready to stand up. And that tends to help people evaluate the job.”

But as it stands today, New Orleans doesn’t have much formal labor organizing. Only 5.2 percent of employed Louisiana workers belonged to a union in 2019, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s roughly half the US average. 

“We’re in the South. We’re not in an environment where people know about unions,” Bailey said. “We’re in a city where people don’t really understand the concept.”

The hospitality industry, meanwhile, has low union membership rates across the country. In 2019, only 2.9 percent of the country’s 12.5 million leisure and hospitality workers were union members. 

“We’re not an organized workforce. We know that,” Maloney said, “Workers are in a position right now where to fight to their safety they have to get together with their co-workers real quick.”

Louisiana is also a “right to work” state, meaning that employees don’t have to join a union, even if their workplace has one. Labor advocates argue this makes it harder to organize, and makes it impossible to sign contracts that compels employers to only hire union members.

“Even though it’s not a legal impediment to organizing, it’s a cultural impediment to organizing,” Ericka Zucker, a policy advocate with the Workplace Justice Project at Loyola College of Law, told The Lens

But Zucker hopes that culture is starting to change. 

“I do think organizing has picked up,” she said.

Some of that, Zucker said, is because people were out of work, were stuck at home and finally had the time to think and talk about issues that were exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis, but were present long before the first Louisiana resident was infected. 

“Workers are bringing forward the same concerns they have with their regular employment — safety concerns, low wages, not being paid all the money they’re owed. But now they’re really exposed on the front lines. We’re calling them essential workers, we’re talking about them as frontline workers. And they’re using that visibility to say, ‘Now that you see us, here’s what we need to be treated properly.’ “ 

Some of that organizing has taken the form of industry-wide efforts to change laws and redirect public dollars. Zucker pointed to the Coalition to Create a Fair Fund for Hospitality Workers, which sprouted up in the early days of the crisis. The group has been calling on the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to donate $100 million to hospitality worker relief funds and has so far pushed the center to donate $1 million.

This week, Gambit published an interview with local hospitality worker and advocate Mark Schettler. According to the interview, Schettler has helped establish two organizations since the pandemic began, including the Hospitality Employees’ Active Research Development Cooperation. The group aims to push for state legislation that benefits hospitality workers. 

A May 14 protest on Bourbon Street organized by the Coalition to Create a Fair Fund for Hospitality Workers. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Local workers in New Orleans have been actively lobbying the City Council in recent months, and have gotten the council to make formal resolutions supporting rent cancellation, eviction bans and a “sustainable tourism” plan that focuses on spreading the benefits of the industry more equitably. 

Other labor organizing has been focused on individual workplaces. One example that made headlines is the ongoing dispute between sanitation workers and Metro Disposal Services, a city contractor. The workers have been on strike since May 5 with a similar set of demands to the Still Perkin’ employees — greater safety and $15 an hour.

At least 144 “bad actor” businesses 

In a town hall hosted by The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate on Wednesday, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said that while most businesses were following the city’s guidelines for safe reopening, some were not. 

“We have some bad actors,” Cantrell said. “We have about 144 in total businesses that have not been in compliance and that we are focusing on.”

Maloney said she’s been getting reports of unsafe work conditions as well.

“We have workers calling us saying that managers are telling them they can’t refuse service to customers without masks,” Maloney said. “Workers are being told they can’t enforce safety guidelines. So the reason we’re organizing is because we literally have no other choice. We’re being told either come back to work in these unsafe conditions or we’ll get you kicked off unemployment. That is the tune the bosses are telling us across the city.”

Not all frontline workers in New Orleans are dissatisfied. The Lens has spoken with hospitality workers who describe good faith efforts by employers to work with the staff to stay safe and maximize their pay and government benefits.

Earlier this month, The Lens spoke to Wilson McCullough, who works at Juan’s Flying Burrito.

“I have a great employer at Juans, who I’ve been working with for many years as a bartender. They worked with me. They heard my concerns and said, ‘That’s unfortunate, we hate to hear that. Here’s what we can do for you. We want you to be able to put you in a safe working environment where you can make money.’ “

Generally, businesses with the highest reviews from employees have maintained clear lines of communication for staff to express concerns, ask questions and propose ideas.

“Two-way communication is key,” Michael Hecht, the CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., told The Lens. “I have been both an employee, and an employer, in a restaurant.  Without question, the two fundamentals are empathy and communication.”

Communication has become all the more vital for employees given the uncertainty of the moment and massive new federal programs with evolving rules. Hecht said that in particular, employers and employees will have to work together to take full advantage of new federal supplements to unemployment assistance. 

Unemployment benefits in Louisiana are relatively low in normal times, maxing out at $247 a week. But from April until August, the federal government is supplementing those benefits with $600 weekly payments for residents who qualify for any amount of state unemployment assistance. For Still Perkin’ baristas, going back to work now at $8.25 an hour with few tips could mean they’re making less than they were on unemployment.

“When you’re making more money because the federal government is kicking everybody $600 a week, that’s a problem that is systemic,” Zucker said. “It’s not that everyone shouldn’t get that $600, it’s that you shouldn’t have to go back to work for less.”

GNO Inc., along with Mayor Cantrell, have encouraged employers to work with their staff to hit a “sweet spot” where employees could stay employed, but get paid at a rate just low enough to remain eligible for $600 weekly federal supplements.

But not all employers are going to the same lengths to keep their employees’ interests at heart. Redmann, for her part, was blunt when The Lens asked whether she considered that she was effectively lowering some of her employees’ income by reopening. 

“No, no thought to that. My thought was I’m gonna get my business open,” she said. “If you don’t get your business open, people start going other places and then they get in that habit. I want the habit to be Still Perkin’. … You get back to work, you get rewarded. You don’t get rewarded by standing out and alienating the neighborhood.”

In a May 6 text to employees, Redmann implied that they couldn’t both get paid by the store and keep receiving unemployment. 

“You can’t double dip,” she texted the employees. 

‘Great news’

When Still Perkin’ opened its doors on May 16, only one barista out of seven returned to work. Redmann told The Lens that the returning barista was a long term employee that already makes $15 or $16 an hour before tips.

One worker, who asked The Lens to omit her name, said she couldn’t come back until mid-July in order to take care of her fiance’s child. She told The Lens that she didn’t consider it quitting, but Redmann did and filed a “separation notice alleging disqualification” for her.

The other five didn’t come into work, and four have been on strike for nearly two weeks, forming a daily picket line outside the coffee shop on the corner of Washington Avenue and Prytania Street. 

“We aren’t quitting our jobs,” Willcox said. “We want our jobs. But if they want us to come back they have to do these things. They have to make us feel safe.”

Two weeks after going on strike, one of the things that bothers Willcox the most is that she believes they could be getting $15 an hour without the owners or business spending any of their own money. Under a plan proposed by the four striking Still Perkin’ employees, the owners could have theoretically gotten a federal grant to pay for 8 weeks of $15 an hour wages.

In a May 14 letter to the owners, the striking workers said they could do this through the federal Paycheck Protection Program. Still Perkin’ had already received a forgivable loan from the program at that point, but the workers said it was possible to expand the size of the loan. 

“We have done additional research into the Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program guidelines. Our findings are presented below, but the basic idea is: you might be able to get a loan increase to cover what we would have gotten from tips. If this is possible, then for the duration of the loan, you could pay us $15/hr at no extra cost to you.”

The Paycheck Protection Program was set up in response to the coronavirus crisis and allows some businesses to take out loans to cover up to 10 weeks of payroll. If certain guidelines are followed, including spending 75 percent of the money on wages, the loan is forgiven. 

“To put this in perspective, we’re asking for eight weeks of $15 an hour, with free money,” Willcox told The Lens. 

A bigger loan could also represent a potential advantage for the shop’s owners. Although they would have to spend 75 percent of the loan on payroll to have it forgiven, they could still use the remaining 25 percent for other business costs, including utilities and rent.

The loans are calculated based on a business’s payroll costs prior to the pandemic, including tipped wages “based on employer records of past tips, or, in the absence of such records, a reasonable, good-faith employee estimate of such tips.”

Still Perkin’ had already received a $27,000 loan through the program, Redmann told The Lens. But Redmann didn’t factor tipped wages into the application, meaning she only got enough funds to pay base wages — $8.25 for the striking baristas. 

Willcox ended up calling and speaking to Michael Ricks, the district director of the Louisiana SBA. According to Willcox, he said at that point, the Still Perkin’ owners still had time to increase the loan amount.

“I thought this was really great news,” Willcox said. “We’ve got this guy on pretty good authority that they can ask for a loan increase and include our tipped wages. This is awesome, this might solve our problem.”

On the May 14 call, Redmann told the workers that she wouldn’t try to increase the loan, at least not before the store opened. She gave several justifications. She said that she didn’t have records of their tips, and wasn’t willing to submit employee records to the federal government since she didn’t collect them herself. 

Michael Fontham later conceded that they could calculate tipped wages from their records, but that the potential loan increase wasn’t worth the effort. He argued that even if they could increase the loan by $3,000, “in the meantime you’ve spent $4,000 of time and effort doing it.”

Redmann’s main objection, however, was that she didn’t believe the loans would be forgivable and didn’t want to increase the debt. 

“After Katrina, they said all these loans may be forgiven, the same language,” Redmann said during the call. “And none of it was forgiven. So it’s pie in the sky mentality. It may happen, I’m not saying I’m 100 percent that it won’t happen, but im 95.”

But according to Hecht, businesses should feel pretty comfortable that the loans will be forgiven as long as they follow the basic guidelines, such as using 75 percent of the loan to cover wages. 

“We believe that businesses, especially smaller businesses, that use the PPP within the stated parameters, should not have a problem getting the appropriate amount forgiven,” he said in an email.

Ultimately, Redmann wouldn’t budge. She told them that if they didn’t accept the $9 an hour offer and show up on May 16 , “I’m assuming y’all don’t want the job.”

“You don’t know how frustrated we are, because we thought we were being so kind.”

“If you were really being kind you would at least try to get a second opinion on the loan,” Spadele responded.

Willcox said Redmann’s reaction was disappointing.

“We were all kind of shell shocked after that phone call with how degrading it felt to be talked to like that,” Willcox told The Lens. “We had done so much hard work in good faith trying to make this work out and trying to let her know that there was an option to get more loan money. And they just shot it down.”

It’s unclear what comes next for the striking workers. Willcox said she still wants to go back to work.

“I like being a barista,” she said. “I do this to pay the bills but I like it. I enjoy it.”

Whether or not she gets her job back, she doesn’t think she’ll regret making demands.

“Even if we don’t get what we want, I will be forever grateful for learning from the organizers who taught me so much just in one week,” she said. “I think this is worth fighting for because I think this pandemic has really revealed what the working class is dealing with here.”

This story has been updated with additional information about one of the affected employees.

Correction: As originally published, this article misreported that two out of seven baristas at Still Perkin returned to work on May 16. It has been changed to reflect that only one barista returned.

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...