Employees rail against Colorado Springs cafe owners, citing unfair work conditions

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COLORADO SPRINGS — There were no open tables left in the patio area surrounding the Wild Goose Meeting House at N Tejon and W Boulder Streets in Colorado Springs at lunchtime on Friday. All that despite the heat provided by the afternoon sun — and a number of the restaurant’s employees, who set up camp just a foot away.

Employees prepare to rally in front of the Wild Goose in downtown Colorado Springs on October 9, 2020.

More than a dozen staff members of Wild Goose and Good Neighbors Meeting House, both owned and operated by Russ Ware and Yemi Mobolade, signed off on a list of grievances which they handed over on Monday.

“What we were requesting, Tuesday morning at 8 a.m., meet here,” said Michael Smith, gesturing toward the Wild Goose, where he has worked as a bartender and barista for about five months. “Just have a team meeting where, for once, the employees would actually be able to ask the owners questions.”

Michael Smith, Wild Neighbors Workers Association

Smith said Ware “shot down” the meeting request, but said a group of employees gathered as planned anyhow. He said Ware and Mobolade were in the restaurant at the time, but did not address the group, aside from offering a two-page long, typed response.

“That wasn’t enough,” Smith said.

And he said later that day the owners took two managers, one from Wild Goose, the other from Good Neighbors, offsite and fired them.

“We are labor organizing,” Smith explained. “So retaliating against employees is an unfair labor practice violation.”

“I get it,” Ware said. “I understand the timing, I understand the difficulty of the situation. I can unequivocally state that it was not retaliation for what has gone on in terms of the concerns made this week.”

Yemi Mobolade, Co-owner, Wild Goose & Good Neighbors Meeting House

“Nothing in our bones wants to retaliate,” Mobolade offered. “That’s just not who we are. We lead with kindness, we lead with love, these are things we train our staff. These are things that we embody. I’m not going to say we’re perfect, but we’ve always taken pride in being the business owners that are orthodox, in that sense.”

Still, a group of employees banded together to form the Wild Neighbors Workers Association. They’ve gathered at least twice since Monday, rallying on the sidewalk in front of Wild Goose.

But, Smith says, the group wants the restaurant to succeed and grow. He and his cohorts continue to work their regular shifts – where Ware and Mobolade agree they’ve been dedicated and responsible.

But they’re also not planning on quieting down anytime soon.

The items on their list include:
– Earning fair wages, citing pay that falls below legal limits
– A sexual harassment policy, following an incident between two employees
– Sick/vacation time
– Investor transparency

The group is also asking for the reinstatement of the two managers who lost their jobs this week.

“No. That is not on the table for us.” Ware said. “Sadly. We love those guys and they’ve done a lot of good work for us.”

He could not elaborate on the reasons behind the two terminations, but did confirm a separate employee was fired in relation to sexual harrassment/abuse. He described the process leading up to that termination as “sloppy,” admitting it could have been handled better. Still, Ware said that individual was fired only two days after he was made aware of the situation.

As far as the group’s allegation of unfair pay practices, Smith said repeatedly that employees do not take home minimum wage.

Ware challenged that allegation.

“Our final pay which is tips and base pay combined, which is standard for our industry, is higher than average locally. And we’re pleased by that, but we’re not satisfied with it,” he said.

In Colorado, minimum wage is currently mandated at $12 an hour, though tipped employees may be paid $8.98 an hour.

“We’ve just ended a four-year-stretch of minimum wage increases, we were for that. Like – politially – we were supportive of that, even though we knew it was going to be hard,” Ware said. “And the reason we were supportive of it is that we wanted to be able to pay our employees more, but it’s hard to do that when you’re the only one doing it.” The state mandate, he said, leveled the playing field in that regard.

Smith said it isn’t only about the amount staff is being paid.

“Wage transparency is something that needs to not be stigmatized. We should be able to talk about it. It shouldn’t be a taboo subject. It is what’s keeping people oppressed in this country and it needs to change,” he said. 

He also called upon his bosses to release information regarding the businesses’ investors.

“We’re not a publicly traded company,” Mobolade said. “Our investors are citizens of this community. They’ve taken a chance on us and we’re also trying to pay them back.”

Mobolade and Ware say they have created a staff event, this weekend, to address employee concerns and try to move forward.

“It would be really great for our industry to grow up – fix some issues. There’s huge inequalities in the traditional restaurant industry,” Ware acknowledged. “These are all things that we have to work on together. We are not the only coffee shop in town – or anywhere – that operates like we do.”

He said he hopes to reinstate quarterly raises “the minute we get over this COVID winter,” describing the difficulties in operating a small business during unprecedented times.

“Goose has taken at least a hundred thousand dollar hit this year out of COVID. We show a tremendous loss. We’re still here because of relief funds and things like that, which we use for staff primarily,” he said.

Mobolade said, regardless of how this discord began, he and Ware are dedicated to clearing the air, and righting whatever wrongs that may exist.

“This season has been hard for me.” he said, proudly recounting his journey as an immigrant, working for and obtaining citizenship, and eventually becoming a business owner.

“[This] is not my story,” he said. “We’re trying to reclaim that story and who we are.”

FOX21 News will update this story as new information becomes available.

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