Emma is not disposable

September 30, 2013

The story of Emma Bern Bell and why she was fired dramatizes the issues that low-wage workers are confronting in their struggle, writes Chicago activist Trish Kahle.

EMMA BELL BERN had been working at a Peet's Coffee and Tea store in Chicago for five years and was a customer favorite when she fired via voice mail on August 30.

The company terminated her for violating its attendance policy. Scheduled to start at 4:45 a.m. on August 28, Emma slept through her alarm. As soon as she woke up, she rushed to work. "I don't make enough to live in the same neighborhood where I work," she said, "and I also don't make enough to afford a car, so I'm forced to rely on public transportation and my bike," both of which extend commute time.

Although she clocked in 30 minutes late, Emma still opened the Near North Side store on time. But because this was her third time clocking in late this year, the company decided to terminate her.

"Getting to work on time sounds like such an easy to do," Emma said. "But it's made more difficult by the fact that we don't have any set scheduling. So you can start as early as 4:45 in the morning and end at 10 p.m."

Such irregular scheduling practices are common in low-wage retail and food service jobs--most workers receive their schedules, at most, a week in advance. Managers claim that it's impossible to make schedules more regular or plan them further in advance. But Emma says that it's "a company-perpetuated myth that we can't have regular schedules," which would make it easier for employees to plan for work and have more meaningful lives outside of the workplace.

Emma Bell Bern outside the Peet's store where she worked for five years
Emma Bell Bern outside the Peet's store where she worked for five years

THESE SCHEDULING policies are part of what Emma and her fellow organizers involved in the fight for low-wage workers in Chicago call the "disposable employee" model: workers are pushed in and out of companies through a revolving door that keeps wages low, jobs insecure, and service-sector workers constantly living on the edge.

While the company claims it was just following policy in deciding to terminate Emma, there is much more to the story. "It wasn't the first time an employee had exceeded six points [which results in termination]," Emma said. Often, the store would neglect to enforce the policy if firing an employee would leave the store understaffed.

What made this time different? For almost a year, Emma had been organizing with her co-workers to improve working conditions. Demanding paid sick days, livable wages and respectful scheduling practices, Peet's workers petitioned the company to live up to their stated values of community and sustainability.

After she was fired, Emma and some of her co-workers decided to take action. They started by gathering petition signatures of customers opposed to Emma's firing. "Customers were shocked I had been fired," she said, "because they don't really understand how it works. They thought that if you were good at your job, you wouldn't lose it."

What you can do

To support Emma's struggle to win her job back and the organizing of Peet's workers for livable wages, paid sick days and respectful scheduling, sign and share the online petition.

In two hours, more than 50 customers signed a petition opposing Emma's firing. The store manager called the district manager, who drove to the store immediately and threatened to fire employees helping to gather signatures and to call the police. Two days later, at a sit-down meeting, Emma gave the district manager the signatures she had gathered, but the manager told her that she would not be getting her job back.

Instead of giving up, the Peet's Workers Group moved the petitioning effort online. So far, they have gathered more than 1,000 signatures. As Emma said:

We want to make this bigger than me. We want to educate people about the disposable employee model and really try to build something that everyone can come together on. We want Peet's to be up there with Walmart and McDonald's [when people think about companies that need to treat their employees better]. We don't just want me to get my job back, we want the company to admit the policy was unjust in the first place.

THE STAKES of this struggle extend far beyond the Peet's location where Emma worked, at the corner of North and Sheffield Avenues in Chicago's Lincoln Park.

Because of a corporate buyout, the number of Peet's stores is growing. There will soon be many more in Chicago and nationally, despite a track record of lawsuits filed by employees throughout their supply chain--delivery drivers and retail store workers alike have said there is rampant wage theft, and drivers are fighting for worker's comp for injuries sustained during long hours spent in delivery trucks.

Peet's also uses their disrespectful scheduling practices to deny workers health care benefits--even though, like Whole Foods, the company claims to provide competitive benefits in appealing to a customer base attracted to companies that treat workers more fairly. "Peet's does a good job at advertising their offered benefits," Emma says, "and it's hard to explain the fact that benefits are offered but almost unattainable."

In order to keep health care benefits, workers must first work 500 initial hours to qualify, and then maintain a 21-hour a week average during their time at the company. As Emma says:

That's actually a lot of hours for a retail shift worker. And although the company makes it sound like you can get that if you ask for it, in practice, that isn't the case. Employees will keep working for a long time in the hope of getting benefits, and it strings them on longer before they realize they aren't going to get more hours.

Like so many retail workers, the threat of abuse by customers is ever-present, according to Emma. "Whoever is on the ordering side of the counter has more value and is more right than anyone taking an order," she said. "We aren't really trained to think we can stand up for ourselves--that we have rights."

Most Peet's store workers are women, and according to Emma, they are often forced to tolerate sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior from customers:

A lot of customers who come through our lines don't actually see us. They spend so much of their time, so much of their day, ordering different things from different people and expecting these things to materialize that the people part of those transactions become invisible...The less you know about what it's really like to work bagging groceries or making coffee, the easier it is for you to stand there and imagine that the person doing that job is slow or stupid or incompetent, and that's why you're not getting the service in the time and way you want.

By keeping the people serving and being served apart, there becomes less of a chance that those people will ever join together and work to make it better...There's a tendency for people who are organizing to throw off an oppressive system to misdirect their anger, and we knew the reality of the situation is that our customers don't know the reality of our lives or our struggles.

Many customers support fair working conditions and are an untapped resource of support for low-wage workers. Working together on campaigns like the one at Peet's can be transformative for workers and customers alike, and result in a better working environment.

Emma drew out one lesson from her own experience: "Don't be afraid to invest in the relationship with the people you serve. If our employers can always convince us to remain silent and ashamed of our working conditions, afraid of speaking out, the ignorance will continue."

Peet's workers also face constant pressure from management to work faster and use fewer resources to accomplish the same task. "Everything that can be measured is, everything is timed, everything is evaluated," Emma said--describing conditions similar to assembly line speed-ups. "They do a good job of creating a false feeling of perpetual scarcity." This means Peet's workers often are forced to make do with broken equipment. "Because we're not prepared with the tools to do our job, it makes our job a lot harder."

IN THE context of the larger fightback among low-wage workers--from food and retail work, to home health care, to independent grocery store workers in New York, to domestic workers and agricultural workers--employess at Peet's are using this opportunity to push the struggle for dignity at work forward.

"One stumbling block in communicating with customers is that while the individual tasks we do may at first seem simple, they need to understand how quickly and for how long we have to repeat those tasks," Emma said. "There's this idea that 'oh, you're job's not that hard,' but any job is hard when you have to do it over and over again for a long period of time."

Emma also challenges the stereotypes many people hold about Peet's employees and other low-wage retail and food workers:

Even though it's obvious to most people at this point that most people working our jobs aren't teenagers, I would say that people still accept this idea that we are just teenagers who decided not to grow up and get real jobs, and because we're still not taking life seriously, we don't deserve to be taken seriously at our jobs.

Still, Emma remains hopeful, convinced that workers can turn the tide on low wages and poor working conditions. "I see that the world has changed a lot over the past couple of years," she said. "For me, a lot of that happened in the Wisconsin Capitol building in 2011, because it was a place that was so connected to me and who I am, where I grew up."

That was the first time Emma got the sense that there were thousands who felt like she did--and that they could occupy the Capitol for weeks to prove their point. As she said:

A lot more people are starting to realize they can make a difference. This is a really exciting time to be organizing, because when someone else finds out that another person agrees with them that their situation isn't good and that they have a right to speak out about it, that empowers them...

Seeing people feeling empowered is really exciting. It's a real thing that's happening more and more. It could be that I'm a different person now than I was, but I'm sure I'm not the only one. Don't be afraid to think you deserve better. Don't be afraid to imagine that your job could actually be good. Find what you like about your job, and then work together to change what you don't like.

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