Anyone looking for a cup of milk tea to quell the heat at Boba Guys on Wednesday would be disappointed. It’s closed, with no scheduled reopening.
The closure came on the heels of an escalating conflict between the Mission store’s employees and the company’s management. On Tuesday, two workers said they were fired for being caught on tape insulting the company’s founder during an in-store chat. The recording was made without their consent. On Wednesday, some 13 of the store’s 15 employees found they could no longer access the company’s internal communication tools and their accounts were deactivated.
Although management did not respond to multiple messages from Mission Local, Boba Guys leadership announced in an email to workers that “The Mission location is temporarily closed until we are able to staff a full team to uphold our standards.”
Although it may sound untenable to fire an employee for a conversation, it is, in fact, legal. “They’re at-will employees, so a boss can fire them for any reason, that’s not unlawful,” said Veena Dubal, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. “Unless it was illegally recorded, termination itself was likely legal.”
As the founding store of Boba Guys, a bubble milk tea brand that owns two dozen locations nationwide, the Mission store at 19th and Valencia streets used to be packed with customers. But in July, the location started bleeding money, employees were told by management. Soon after, in early August, the company suddenly informed workers that their hours would be drastically reduced, employees said.
Several bobaristas (the name for Boba Guys’ entry-level position) who used to work nearly 25 hours a week were given only nine hours, according to Madeline Urso, who was fired on Tuesday. At an hourly rate of $17.52, they found it next to impossible to make ends meet.
Also reduced was the time allotted to open and close the store. Given that boba takes 50 minutes to be fully cooked and must be prepared in advance, the store had no boba to offer for the first 30 minutes of opening, Mission store employee Zander Moreno said.
Urso proposed a strike, but there was little response from her co-workers. A Sunday meeting between the store’s workers and management became a watershed moment, employees said, with the workers calling for increased hours. The management refused, workers said.
Workers said they were enraged by what they perceived to be the arrogance of one of the two founders, Andrew Chau, who attended the meeting by video chat. “He said if Boba Guys closes, he can lose everything. That it’s not just us that are going to lose things, that he will also be losing everything,” recalled Moreno. Several other workers confirmed Chau’s statement.
On Monday, the anger inside the Mission cafe built. On the store’s internal Slack, Urso sent out several links to government websites that provide information about unemployment and unionizing. That same day, she explicitly insulted Chau in a conversation with Skylar, then the assistant manager of the store.
The hand-scrawled dismissal notice stated that Urso “Conducted conversation with coworkers that was inappropriate, disparaging and in violation of Boba Guys Team Member Handbook policy” including a reference to another employee at the meeting “touching himself underneath the camera.” The notice also alleges that Urso said the CEO could “eat shit.”
The allegations were sourced to a conversation recorded by security cameras – a recording that was made without the workers’ knowledge, according to the workers.
“Our anger comes from the indignity of being forced to listen to this man flaunt his wealth while telling us that we will have to compete with each other for the meager scraps he’s going to throw at us,” Urso wrote in a text message to Mission Local.
On Tuesday afternoon, Boba Guys’ human resources director arrived at the store and handed Urso a “Discipline Notice” and terminated her for “Sexual Harassment” and “violation of Boba Guys Team Member Handbook policy” (“conducted conversation with coworkers that was inappropriate, disparaging,” as stated in the notice).
In the verbal exchange with the HR director, she mentioned that Monday’s in-store conversation was recorded. Soon after, the director also fired Skylar.
To protest the dismissals, workers closed the store two hours early. Two police officers were summoned to the store by HR to supervise the departure of the workers.
Multiple emails by Mission Local to reach Boba Guys’ founders, the human resources director and other members of management have gone unanswered. An email Mission store workers received around 9 p.m. on Wednesday stated: “It is our policy to treat all personnel matters confidentially and comprehensively. Therefore, we are unable to provide further detail at this time.”
Urso feels she may have been targeted by the company in retaliation for the Monday conversation. “The kind of language used (in the recording) was in no way uncommon or out of place at the store, so it feels difficult for me, and maybe too generous, to separate that from my having posted unionizing literature not 24 hours before.”
The workers sparked a frenzy of messages on Instagram and Twitter. On Wednesday, workers from a Boba Guy store outside of San Francisco approached Urso and said they were also trying to unionize and wanted to cooperate in some way.
Moreno, a shift lead at the Mission store, found that unsurprising. “Definitely. Yes. They have not only treated our branch like this, but also other branches,” said Moreno, who put up signs protesting management on the store’s glass façade on Tuesday. Moreno said upper management quickly took the signs down.
He’s not sure whether he still has a job with Boba Guys, but his access to the Boba Guys Slack has been deactivated.
Xiaojun Zhou, a two-year bobarista at Boba Guys, submitted her resignation letter to the company Tuesday night. “Andrew was very unsympathetic, very uncaring that doing this threatens our livelihoods, and doing this with no warning was very detrimental,” she said.
Ashley Osorio Paredes, who has worked as a bobarista at the store for a year, said that when Human Resources Director Marisa Bowman-Frye came in and instructed all the workers to leave last night, the manager prevented Osorio Paredes from getting her tips. “I even tried to get my own earned tips, but Marisa stopped me, telling me the store is closed and that they’ll be in contact with me soon, and shut the door on me,” she said.
It may be a while, however, before Mission residents can drink their boba tea again. “To my knowledge, nobody, or almost nobody, that was working is willing to come in to continue running the store,” said Urso.