Lanesplitter Pizza employee walkout sparks public debate

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Lanesplitter Pizza employees' walkout on April 15 launched a public controversy about the food service industry. (Photo credit: Jeremy Brooks on Flickr)

Employees at the East Bay chain restaurant Lanesplitter Pizza have taken conflicts with ownership to the public and the Internet, leading to a public debate about their pay, health care and management.

On April 15, two servers stopped work in the middle of their dinner shifts at Lanesplitter’s Temescal location. They cut the music, made a public announcement, and handed out fliers listing grievances. The complaints included inadequate pay, what they called unreasonable restrictions on access to the company’s health care plan, sexism, and “the treatment of all employees as replaceable.” They then left the restaurant, traveled to two other Lanesplitter locations, in West Berkeley and Emeryville, and repeated their announcements. The move was conceived of as a strike – not as a way to quit publicly – although the two servers were officially fired a few days later.

“We are starting a union of the workers,” reads the open letter the two servers sent subsequently to Lanesplitter management. “Two of the union members are currently on strike and will not return to work until the following demands are met” – demands such as an increase in wages and health care access as well as anger management classes for all senior management staff. While these two workers have now lost their jobs, one of the workers, under the pseudonym Amanda Swift, said that she didn’t feel this was a failure. “Just because we’re gone doesn’t mean there’s going to be an end to the resistance,” Swift said.

A press release circulated and signed by Swift has made waves on Reddit, Facebook, and Yelp. The release’s post on Reddit has generated 416 comments and 235 “up” votes so far, including many supportive responses from those who identified themselves as current or former Lanesplitter employees.

Lanesplitter management responded with its own press release, a statement on the Lanesplitter website, and a comprehensive response to the growing debate on Reddit, providing a rebuttal to concerns, point by point.

On the Lanesplitter website, owners said that they strive for a providing the best workplace that they can for their employees and clarified that “25% of our staff is on our group health policy (including one of the two employees who walked out) and another 8% are eligible but have declined it for their own reasons.” On Reddit, the response is more detailed. “It has become apparent that our poor ways of communicating have resulted in feelings of lack of respect for our staff. We are very sorry. It is not the truth,” the post reads.

“Of course they’re going to make it sound like they had no idea,” Swift said, “but the truth is people have been giving notice for some time now and doing it in quieter ways.”

Swift and several current Lanesplitter employees who requested anonymity confirmed that on Friday night, April 19, similar fliers were passed out again at several Lanesplitter locations. This was “to make sure,” Swift said, “that management knew that this wouldn’t be some isolated incident that they could push under the rug. There was going to be pressure from the community.”

A current employee who spoke anonymously suggested, like Swift, that the walkout was representative of more than just the two workers’ views. “Maybe the management and the owners are under the impression that because more people didn’t do something like what happened on Monday, people are content. That’s not the case,” the employee said. “It’s more due to the fact that people are concerned about their jobs because many people depend on this job for their livelihood.”

Another anonymous employee said, “the vast majority of people who work there were in total agreement with the things [the workers] were saying, but they either needed the job or didn’t have another job to go to.”

Lisa LaMagna, a public relations representative for Lanesplitter, said that the owners Vic Gumper and Daniel Rogers were very disappointed, and stressed an “open door policy” that Gumper and Rogers have always offered to employees. “They want anyone who works with them to feel like they can come in at any time and sit down and talk with them,” LaMagna said. “If people didn’t feel that way before, they will now.”

Over the next two weeks, LaMagna said, “Lanesplitter managers are touching base with every single employee” to understand each worker’s views and preferences.

According to LaMagna and to the letters published on the Lanesplitter website and on Reddit, not only is a group health care plan that’s available to employees who work 30 hours a week for six months unusual in the industry, but it is also in management’s best interest to help workers access it. It’s a way to reduce the expense of turnover and training.

Amanda Swift and two anonymous employees said, though, that it is more accurate to say that health care is offered after nine months, since each employee is given a three-month probationary period before the six-month window begins. All three also suggested that it is difficult to get 30 hours of work per week, even if an employee is available full time. Although Swift claimed that scheduling conflicts were among employees’ top frustrations — managers would “rewrite the schedule the day before and punish you for not coming to work when you didn’t know you were working,” she said — management’s Reddit post states that “the fluid schedule” represented “efforts to accommodate people’s non-work priorities” and promised to address the frustrations as soon as possible in conversation with employees.

The Lanesplitter owners did not address the demands for wage increases, but wrote on the Reddit page that they have not made a profit in two years. One current employee said wages were more than adequate, and that “it’s the food service industry; profit margins are really slim.” But another employee agreed with one of the fired workers’ grievances, that the restaurants’ practice of using a percentage of server tips to subsidize kitchen staff wages was unfair.

While a conflict that might have been addressed internally has now been catapulted into the public sphere, that’s precisely what Swift and some employees said they feel is needed to change things. Some employees, Swift said, didn’t feel welcome to voice their concerns at the owners’ weekly office hours. “People were legitimately bringing up concerns for some time and they fell on deaf ears,” Swift said. “Now they’ll listen to us because the whole public is watching.”

Still, no one involved said they want to see business suffer – not Lanesplitter owners, not the two servers who coordinated the walkout, and not current employees. The walkout caused a dip in sales, according to management’s Reddit post, but no one on staff or on strike is calling for a boycott.

“A huge portion of people in the Bay Area work in the food service industry,” said Swift, echoing a line at the end of her original flier acknowledging that “these things are very common in our industry; we do not claim to have it worse than many people who work in food service.”

Job insecurity is one of those concerns, Swift said. “You can get fired for the smallest of things. You don’t know if you’ll have your job tomorrow. They can punish you by taking away your hours or putting you on the worst shifts. My point is our only strength is our collective strength to act together and make sure they realize that they actually need us. Individually, we’re replaceable – they make that really clear – but collectively, we’re not replaceable.”

“I’m not going to say we did everything right,” she added, “But we brought them into communication and we expect them to come up with some answers.”

2 Comments

  1. local loudmouth

    Who cares? Lane Splitters won’t deliver in North Oakland anyway.

  2. Brent Green, Ph.D.

    The tensions voiced are extremely common to organizations large and small. Leadership is on the right track by asking employees about their views, however, a true climate of trust is needed first in order to receive candid feedback. That’s why a professional organization development outsider can be invaluable as a neutral resource to negotiate a settlement. I’m happy to discuss the issues.

Comments are closed.