Over the weekend, temperatures in Portland hit record-breaking highs on both Saturday and Sunday, temperatures high enough that heatstroke was a serious concern for food service workers around the city. After two days of working through triple-digit temperatures, employees of the Voodoo Doughnut location in Portland’s Old Town went on strike to protest the company’s working conditions. Now, those employees are saying the company is firing employees in retaliation, which would be in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.
As early as Thursday, when temperatures were in the 70s in Portland, Voodoo Doughnut employees began feeling symptoms of heat exhaustion. One current Voodoo Doughnut employee, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of company retaliation, says she began feeling ill when she started work on Thursday morning. “In the building, (temperatures) were in the 80s, and working by fryers was absolutely miserable,” she says. “By the end of the day, I was doubled over with my head in a trash can.”
Employees say they approached management about improving the cooling system or closing the store over the weekend, concerned that conditions would get worse; the fear was compounded by the fact that employees have struggled with the heat within the west side Voodoo Doughnut location for years ahead of the recent heat wave. “This is not the first year that heat has been an issue at this location. The current AC unit, which did not fully cool the location, was only installed this year. It’s been a daily conversation,” says Samantha Bryce, a Voodoo Doughnut employee and organizer of Voodoo Doughnut’s workers union, Doughnut Workers United. “The only reason you didn’t hear about a strike or a walk-out in the past is because we didn’t have a union then.”
On Saturday, employees began to bring ambient thermometers into the store to record the heat in the kitchen; readings climbed up to around 96 degrees inside the store, not accounting for the heat around the fryers and ovens. On Sunday, June 27, employees approached the shop’s general manager, saying the heat had reached dangerous temperatures and that the location should close. Multiple employees say the general manager told them that if they were too hot, they could leave.
On Sunday, Doughnut Workers United released a statement saying a number of employees of the doughnut shop had decided to go on strike. “Other establishments have taken the reasonable step of closing during this time while Voodoo Doughnuts, with its large SW facing windows and deep fryers, has not,” the statement reads. “The attempts made to provide relief, such as Gatorade and wet towels, are insufficient and the current air conditioning system is not up to the task of dealing with this heat wave.” Seven employees walked out that day.
The strike continued on Monday, a day when temperatures again exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit; around 11 employees either walked out or stayed home during the length of the strike. Voodoo Doughnut’s corporate office, which does not recognize the union, responded by saying that in addition to the wet towels and Gatorade, the company shifted production hours to cooler times of day, and extended employee breaks. “Employee and customer safety is our highest priority; if we felt either were at risk, we would not be open for business,” the Monday statement reads.
But a current Voodoo Doughnut employee, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of professional retaliation, says the company did not, in fact, extend breaks or shift production hours; she says managers only allowed employees to stop working outside their traditional break periods if they were outwardly showing signs of heat exhaustion. Now, the union says the company is firing employees who chose to walk out.
José Luis Espíndola, a former Voodoo Doughnut employee, started to feel the effects of heat exhaustion as early as Thursday. “I had already had heat exhaustion earlier in the week, and even I wasn’t suffering the most,” Espíndola said in a Doughnut Workers United press release. “Others were suffering even more and that was enough to take action.”
Espíndola told Willamette Week that a human resources representative approached him when he arrived at work on Tuesday, eventually firing him for committing “job abandonment.” According to the union, the company has fired two other employees who walked out during the strike. The union has created a GoFundMe for employees impacted by the strike.
Voodoo Doughnut spokesperson Audrey Lincoff says that Voodoo Doughnut does “not provide employment details about current or former employees,” and had no specific comment on the recent claims made by employees.
While only four employees have been fired in response to the weekend strike, Doughnut Workers United expects more employees to be fired as the week continues. “The right to strike for unsafe working conditions is protected under the National Labor Relations Act,” says Mark Medina, a union organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World. “What the company is doing is absolutely illegal, and no one should be expected to work under unsafe conditions.”
According to Bryce, this is not the first time the company has fired employees who have participated in union action; she named three other well-known union employees who were fired ahead of the NRLB election. Medina says the union is planning both legal challenges to the firings, as well as protests, pickets, and other direct action in protest of Voodoo Doughnut’s management. “The company seems to be working on this presumption that because they’re not legally compelled to negotiate with its workers that therefore workers have no collective rights,” he says. “We’re not going away, this issue isn’t going away anytime soon. We’re going to be escalating immediately.”
Voodoo Doughnut remains open for business in Old Town.
• Voodoo Doughnut [Official]
• Doughnut Workers United [Facebook]
• DWU Strike and Hardship Fund June 2021 [GFM]
• As Refrigerators Break and Air Conditioners Falter, Portland Restaurants Fight Rising Temperatures to Stay Open [EPDX]
• Voodoo Doughnut Workers Allege Management Fired Three Employees Since Its Strike on Sunday [WWeek]