Compass Coffee Workers Accuse Management of Sketchy Hiring Spree Amid Union Drive

CEO Michael Haft says he hired new employees for busy "cold brew season."

Photograph by Elvert Barnes/Flickr.

One morning in June, Bri Adams, a manager at Compass Coffee’s Georgetown location, logged into her scheduling system to see her store had hired 16 new baristas.

It was a shock to Adams, who hadn’t interviewed any of them—but had just spoken in favor of unionizing, following workers at DC-based cafe chain Compass Coffee going public with their unionization drive on May 31. Then, the following Monday, Haft called Adams to let her know it’d be her last day as the Georgetown location manager, as he’d be taking over duties. She says she wasn’t given any further reason for being let go.

Adams and unionizing Compass workers allege the recent influx of new hires—124 across five stores in total—is an attempt from Compass Coffee CEO Michael Haft to stymie the unionization push, as workers across the chain’s DC and Virginia locations seek higher wages and more workplace protections. The workers allege some on Compass Coffee’s initial list of new hires are “active plants,” including people close to Haft and owners of other food businesses.

Haft, in an email to Washingtonian, declined to comment on specific hires for privacy reasons and disputes the reason for the influx of new employees: “Compass Coffee has always strived for ‘legendary customer service’ and as part of that, we increase employment when there is increased customer demand. Summer is, by far, our busiest season which we refer to as ‘cold brew season.’ So, we staff accordingly. Our business is seasonal and so staffing increases accordingly, each year.”

As for the circumstances of Adams’s dismissal, Haft declined to comment, citing Compass Coffee’s “longstanding policy not to comment on individual employees regarding performance without their consent.” Adams, however, has her own theories: “I was very vocal about being an advocate for the baristas and trying to bring their perspective to the meeting,” says says. “Being so vocal, I believe that I essentially put a target on myself.”

Meanwhile, some employees don’t buy Haft’s “cold brew season” explanation. “This is not normal hiring. This is very clearly to dilute the election,” says Penina Meier-Silverman, a supervisor at Compass’s Georgetown location. She and Compass Coffee United members organizing under the SEIU affiliate Workers United say they had approached management to hire more people for years only to be rebuffed.

“A normal day right now at a union cafe looks like coming into work, and then a bunch of people we don’t know, that we’ve never met, show up,” Meier-Silverman says. “We’ll have four or five people at a time show up with no direction… You’re outnumbered by people that are new and have no experience and need to be trained.”

On social media, Compass Coffee United publicly called out several of the “newest baristas” they found questionable, including Union Kitchen Vice President Elena Rosenblum and CEO Cullen Gilchrist, who fought against a union effort in his own food incubator business. Neither Gilchrist nor Rosenblum responded to requests for comment.

Also on the list: Grant Sarvis, the founder of Union Kitchen-backed Poppy’s Bagel. He tells Washingtonian that while he was friendly with Compass management, he has never worked a shift at the chain. Another, Tizzy Brown, who works with Uber’s federal affairs team, says she was shocked to see her name as a union voting-eligible employee at the Georgetown location, as she had only attended one training session. She decided against pursuing employment further.

“I recently attended a training on June 9 alongside several other new hires at Compass, and as part of that training I signed the same paperwork everyone there did,” Brown says in a statement to Washingtonian. “However, I never worked a shift beyond that initial training, and as soon as this all came to light I reached out to Compass and asked to be removed from their employment system.”

Haft declined to comment on why specific workers appeared on the voting roll. Meier-Silverman says that neither she nor her coworkers have seen Gilchrist, Sarvis, or Brown work at the stores. However, one employee, Joey Babin, posted a video on Instagram saying he’d worked a shift with Rosenblum of Union Kitchen. “We have lawyers, high powered executives, and even government employees coming into our cafes pretending to be baristas,” Babin alleges in the video.

“Our employee list is a dynamic one, especially given the natural attrition and turnover in the service industry — and our final list of eligible voters will be determined on July 14th through a collaborative process between Compass Coffee, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Job Board and the National Labor Review Board,” Haft’s statement says.

Still, the hiring spree caught the attention of Senator Bernie Sanders, who decried it on Twitter as an “absurd & disgusting” attempt “to rig a union election.”

Adams says that while she didn’t know about the union effort until it went public on May 31, she supported the workers. She alleges Compass baristas dealt with substandard equipment and a lack of communication from upper management during her year working there.

“Compass has this company ethos of ‘always find a way,’ that’s in all the training issues,” Meier-Silverman adds. “But what that translates to is that we have to find a way to work with broken equipment, while being watched all the time, with no support from upper management.”

For one, when her Georgetown location’s washing machine was broken for over a month, Meier-Silverman says management told employees to hand-wash the towels in Tide Pods dissolved by boiling water.

“At Compass Coffee, our team is dedicated to maintaining our equipment and cafe experience to the highest standards. We follow strict maintenance schedules and team-building best practices to ensure reliability and accountability as part of our dedication to legendary customer service,” Haft wrote in response to the allegation.

While the washing machine may have been in disrepair, the cafe’s surveillance cameras were up and running the entire time, Meier-Silverman says, creating what she says was a difficult work environment, as workers constantly feel like they’re being watched.

“Compass Coffee has a security system to protect our employees and customers. Our security system enables us to investigate incidents and work in partnership with local law enforcement in the case of crimes committed,” Haft wrote when asked about Compass’s security system.

Meanwhile, Adams says that her baristas felt unsafe after the influx of new hires. People would come in daily, she says, claiming they were there for training, and she had to take their word for it. And, she adds, the cameras didn’t stop someone from walking behind the cafe counter during a shift November and stealing their safe.

“The cameras are just there, honestly, to surveil the employees,” Adams says. “To wage World War III on people who just want to be heard is quite ridiculous to me.”

Arya Hodjat
Editorial Fellow