Earlier this month, allegations that a transgender employee was fired from Function Coffee Labs in Philadelphia swept the coffee internet. We break down what happened and provide accounts from both the employee and the employer.
BY RJ JOSEPH
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE
On Sunday, August 13, a story surfaced on the internet alleging that a transgender employee was fired from a coffee company because a customer was uncomfortable with their gender identity. This story, quickly and widely shared, made waves in coffee’s social media circles. Given the progressive image of the coffee industry, many coffee professionals were shocked to hear that an employee would be fired for their gender identity.
The story started when a Facebook post and screencapped tweet went out from Katelyn Burns, a trans-rights activist and writer, alleging that Philadelphia-based coffee company Function Coffee Labs fired a trans employee because a customer was uncomfortable with their presence, an act which is illegal under Philadelphia’s employment laws.
As the story made the rounds on Facebook, Twitter, and even Instagram, Function’s Facebook page quickly dropped from 4.9 stars to a nadir of 2.4, as pro-trans coffee workers left pointed 1-star reviews to express their dismay.
A few hours after Katelyn’s post and tweet, Function put out a statement in response to the allegations:
Two days later, the employee, who has decided to remain anonymous, put out a statement of their own, detailing their experience.
In their statement, they thank the coffee and LGBTQ communities for the support and clarify that they never alleged that Function fired them for their gender identity. Then they tell their story.
Here is the full text of their statement:
Hi folks, I am the person who was fired from Function Coffee Labs on August 10, 2017. Given the social media attention this has sparked, I have decided to release a statement, which is neutral and fact-based. I am choosing to remain anonymous because it is often difficult for transgender people to find employment. However, before I get into it, I would like to give a huge thank you to the coffee and LGBTQ communities, and their allies, for supporting me. Your support has been warming and empowering.
I would like to make it clear that I have never accused Function of firing me because I am transgender, nor am I trying to do that now. However, this is a challenge to employers who foster an environment that is not safe for people of marginalized experience, in order to appease target customers – even those who have historically been disrespectful to one or more of your employees. As an employer, it is your responsibility to protect your employees, regardless of their identity/ies. Being well intentioned is not sufficient. Educate yourselves on the experiences of people who hold different identities than you. Ask them what you, as their employer, can do to ensure their safety. If these are not tasks you wish to take on, perhaps being an employer is not for you. But nobody, of any identity, should ever go to work feeling scared and unsafe.
Statement, August 15, 2017
About me: I am a trans identified person, I use they/them pronouns, was assigned female at birth, am mixed race/POC, in my late 20s. I was employed at Function Coffee Labs for 8 months, and my direct supervisors were also the owners, Ross and Megan. In that time I received 2 promotions, and was given quality control and employee training responsibilities. I would like to make it clear that I am not responsible for the social media outbreak that is currently taking place, though I thank the coffee, LGBTQ and allied communities for their support. I provide this statement as a neutral and fact-based account of the events that led to my being fired on the evening of August 10, 2017.
I was fired in response to being harassed and physically threatened by a regular customer. The harassment had been taking place since April. In that time, myself, Ross and Megan had engaged in two conversations about this individual, as well as the specific difficulties I face as a gender nonconforming person in the service industry. In those conversations, I recounted this customer’s derogatory comments, including one he made about my ability to count money. I expressed that he frequently referred to me as a girl, and that that made me uncomfortable, as it is not an identity I hold. I told them that this customer, along with others, frequently made me feel unsafe and violated as a trans identified person. However, because this customer was a “regular” I was forced to continue interacting with him, but relied on my coworkers to serve him whenever possible.
In his most recent complaint at the end of July, this customer told Ross and Megan that I had made gay slurs at him and his friends, and that I was homophobic. I had never made gay slurs or any disrespectful comments to him at all, and I never saw him enter with any friends. However, Ross and Megan asked me to apologize to him in order to “smooth things over,” even though we all agreed that I had never made such slurs.
On August 6, this customer entered the store and approached me while I was working behind the counter. He leaned over the counter, put his face inches from my face, and shouted at me, “Good morning sunshine.” I redirected the conversation outside of the store, and as requested, apologized for making him feel disrespected and hurt. He proceeded to verbally harass me, including statements about my age, and how “young girls should behave.” His volume and physical proximity to me escalated to a point where I felt physically threatened and unsafe, and needed to end the conversation.
Immediately, I recounted the details of this incident to my bosses in an email, and told them I did not feel safe. They responded three days later, on August 9, saying that they were concerned about how I interact with customers, and that we would discuss things further when they returned. They were out of the country at the time of the incident and the email, and did not inform me of when they would be back. In response, I told them I felt unsafe and unsupported, and that I would call the police should this customer return and harass me again. I told them that I felt like they were making me out to be a problem employee. I highlighted the “harassment and discrimination” section of the employee handbook, and left it out for them to see when they returned. I fulfilled all my work shifts through August 10, even though I did not feel safe in that space.
On the evening of August 10, I received an email from Ross and Megan, telling me that they had returned, and that I was fired, effective immediately. Their reasons were for defacing the handbook, and creating a “hostile space.” Three days later, on August 13, I received another email telling me I was fired for not performing the job duty of “being friendly to customers.” Alongside this email, they made a public statement, which claims that I was fired for “not adequately performing job duties.” Additionally, they voiced their support for the LGBTQ community by citing an internship with the Attic Youth Center, a connection that I had established and facilitated.
Thank you for reading.
The industry response to their statement was emphatic, as several prominent coffee leaders shared the story and condemned the alleged transphobia.
Two days after the employee’s statement went out, Function released a new, lengthier statement in response, relaying their own perception of the events that led to the termination:
In light of recent accusations, we’d like to make it clear that we pride ourselves on being a welcoming and friendly coffee shop to employees and customers alike. Our owners and employees work so hard to make our shop stand out for its dedication to high quality customer service and we hold all of our employees to the same high standards when it comes to providing this service.
We agree with many of the comments we’ve seen: the customer is not always right. We do not tolerate any customer behavior that is intolerant, bigoted or discriminatory and we did not fire an employee in response to being harassed or physically threatened.
To provide some clarity, on July 12, it was first brought to our attention in an email that a customer had made a disrespectful remark to one of our employees. During their next shift, we confirmed receipt of the email and asked our employee if they wanted to have a larger discussion regarding the matter. Our offer was denied.
As the next two weeks passed, we could see that a discussion needed to take place. On July 27, we sat down again with that employee and asked what we could do to support them. We did not ask our employee to apologize to this customer, but rather asked if they would like us to talk to the customer on their behalf. Again, our offer was denied.
It was not until August 6, after an intense interaction with this customer, that our employee made us aware that they felt threatened, harassed and unsafe, feelings we never want our employees to have in our shop. As we were out of the country for our wedding, we replied on August 10th asking them to file a report with the police and stating that we would ask the customer not to return.
We regret that we did not respond earlier and as a result, our employee was not sufficiently reassured in this matter. Since then, this particular customer has not entered our store but if they do, we will immediately ask them not to return.
Again, in order to protect employee rights, we cannot disclose specifics regarding the reason for termination, but we can confirm that neither gender identity, nor this incident, nor the ongoing relationship between our employee and this particular customer was the reason for it.
These are the facts. We hope we can turn this situation into a positive one and find a way to learn and grow from it. The fact that our employee felt this way is deeply upsetting and we recognize our duty to protect them. Furthermore, as a neighborhood shop that provides a space for the community to congregate, we have a duty to make that space welcoming and safe for everyone that walks through our doors. We would love to know how we could have done better and we welcome a larger, more productive discussion that will take us forward.
When asked for further comment, Function reiterated that “it is our objective to be inclusive of everyone we serve in our community, both our customers and our employees.”
What the two accounts do have in common is that the trans worker in question was harassed, and that they were let go shortly thereafter. Whatever else transpired between Function and their employee, one thing is clear: The greater coffee community is not going to stand for discrimination against transgender coffee workers.
According to one Philadelphia barista, “Function was uninvited to the TNT by this month’s hosts, and future hosts have expressed they’ll do the same. The Philadelphia community does NOT support ‘the customer is always right,’ especially when it comes to employee wellness/safety.” In fighting anti-queerness in service culture, she said, “It’s a start.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
RJ Joseph roasts coffee and writes a blog called Queer Cup in addition to her other adventures in coffee journalism. Her writing focuses primarily on equity, workers’ rights, and alternatives to the status quo. In her free time she loves cooking, reading, and being in Oakland. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter @rj_sproseph.