Over the weekend, Portland temperatures hit record highs on both Saturday and Sunday, temperatures high enough that heat stroke was a serious problem for food service workers across town. After two working days at three-digit temperatures, employees at the Voodoo Donut facility in Portland’s Old Town strike protest against the company’s working conditions. Now these employees are saying that the company is dismissing employees in retaliation, which would be: in violation of the national industrial relations law.
As early as Thursday, when temperatures in Portland were around the 70s, Voodoo Donut employees began to experience symptoms of heat exhaustion. A current Voodoo Donut employee, who wanted to remain anonymous fearing reprisals from the company, said she felt sick when she started work Thursday morning. „The building was (temperatures) in the 80s and working with deep fryers was absolutely miserable,” she says. „At the end of the day, I was curled up in a trash can with my head.”
Employees said they accused management of improving the cooling system or closing the store over the weekend for fear that conditions would worsen; The fear was heightened by the fact that employees had to contend with the heat at the Voodoo Donut location on the west side for years leading up to the recent heat wave. “This is not the first year that heat has been an issue at this location. The current AC unit, which didn’t fully cool the site, wasn’t installed until this year. It’s a daily conversation, ”says Samantha Bryce, a Voodoo Donut employee and organizer of the Voodoo Donut workers’ union, Donut Workers United. „The only reason you haven’t heard of a strike or a work stoppage in the past is that we didn’t have a union at the time.”
On Saturday, staff began bringing ambient thermometers to the store to measure the heat in the kitchen; The readings rose to around 96 degrees in the store without taking into account the heat around the deep fryers and ovens. On Sunday June 27, employees proclaimed to the store’s manager that the heat had reached dangerous temperatures and that the location should be closed. Several employees say the general manager told them they could leave if it was too hot for them.
On Sunday, Donut Workers United released a statement saying a number of staff at the donut shop had decided to go on strike. „Other establishments have taken the sensible step to shut down during this time, while Voodoo Donuts, with its large SW-facing windows and deep fryers, has not,” the statement said. „Attempts to remedy the situation, such as Gatorade and wet towels, are not enough and the current air conditioning system is not up to this heat wave.” Seven employees left that day.
The strike continued on Monday, a day when temperatures again exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit; During the strike, around 11 employees either left the office or stayed at home. Voodoo Donut’s corporate office, which doesn’t recognize the union, responded that in addition to wet towels and gatorade, the company was shifting production hours to cooler times of the day and extending employee breaks. “The safety of employees and customers is our top priority; If we felt that either was at risk, we would not be open to business, ”said Monday’s statement.
But a current Voodoo Donut employee, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of professional retaliation, says the company hasn’t extended breaks or postponed production times. She says managers only allowed employees to stop work outside of their traditional break times if they were externally showing signs of heat exhaustion. Now the union says the company is laying off employees who have decided to quit.
José Luis Espíndola, a former employee of Voodoo Donut, felt the effects of heat exhaustion as early as Thursday. „I was exhausted from heat earlier in the week and I didn’t suffer the most,” Espíndola said in a Donut Workers United press release. „Others suffered even more and that was enough for action to be taken.”
Spinola told Willamette week that a representative of the human resources department accused him when he arrived on Tuesday and finally fired him for „giving up his job”. According to the union, the company fired two other employees who left during the strike. The union has creates a GoFundMe for workers affected by the strike.
Voodoo Donut spokeswoman Audrey Lincoff says that Voodoo Donut „does not provide employment details about current or former employees,” and has not made specific comments on the employees’ recent allegations.
While only four workers were laid off in response to the weekend strike, Donut Workers United expects more workers to be laid off as the week progresses. „The right to strike for unsafe working conditions is protected by the National Labor Relations Act,” said Mark Medina, union organizer for Industrial Workers of the World. „What the company does is absolutely illegal and no one should be expected to work in unsafe conditions.”
According to Bryce, this is not the first time the company has laid off employees who have participated in union actions; she named three other well-known union workers who were sacked ahead of the NRLB election. Medina says the union is planning legal challenges to the layoffs as well as protests, pickets and other direct actions in protest of the management of Voodoo Donut. „The company seems to be working on this assumption that workers do not have collective rights because they are not legally obliged to negotiate with their workers,” he says. “We’re not going to go away, this problem is not going to go away anytime soon. We will escalate immediately. „
Voodoo Donut will remain open for business in the old town.
• Voodoo donut [Official]
• Donut Workers United [Facebook]
• DWU Strike and Hardship Fund June 2021 [GFM]
• As refrigerators break and air conditioners stall, Portland restaurants struggle against rising temperatures to stay open [EPDX]
• Voodoo donut workers claim management has laid off three employees since Sunday’s strike [WWeek]