Via 313 Workers Protest for COVID, Employment Protections

Protesters chant and hold signs outside Via 313 on January 8, 2022 to challenge the restaurant’s treatment of employees (photo by John Anderson)

On Saturday, January 8, about three dozen Via 313 employees and their supporters gathered on the corner of 30th and Guadalupe to protest the suspension of four workers after they presented a petition to management.

The petition expresses concern about worker protection while Omicron burns through the community, and requested sick leave, hazard pay, enhanced COVID safety protocols, and more transparency around COVID-related communication from management. Forty-six employees signed the petition, and seven of them presented it to Via 313’s VP of operations, Michelle Dahse. According to the workers, management suspended the workers, claiming that they had created a “hostile work environment.” (See end of story for full statement from Via 313.)

The protesters chanted “no sick pay, no peace” and “people over profit, health over wealth” as passing cars and Capital Metro buses honked in support. A few customers trickled into the North Campus location of the Detroit-style pizza spot during the protest, while a few hecklers opted to dine at the adjacent stoner-sandwich joint Cheba Hut.

Protesters took turns delivering impassioned messages on a shared bullhorn, including a health care worker who said, “Without the workers we have nothing, and they are asking for basic dignity to stay home and take care of their kids. Instead, they are having to work 50, 80, 90 hours a week. This system is doomed to fail. This is a very quickly sinking ship.”

Another Via 313 worker said, “We are treated like shit by the customers, by our bosses, and when we came with a reasonable request for sick pay we were essentially fired.”

“We are treated like shit by the customers, by our bosses, and when we came with a reasonable request for sick pay we were essentially fired.”

Elyanna Calle, a server at Via 313 and UT sophomore, was among the seven employees who delivered the petition to Dahse. “We have the recording of when we confronted her, and there’s no threats. Maybe people sound angry because we are angry. But we were not threatening her by any means. If she was threatened, that’s really her problem there. They could have responded kindly. But they decided to suspend their employees [for creating] a ‘hostile work environment,’ and that’s just not okay. That is not what a company does when they care about their employees.”

Calle went on to describe the conditions that led to the workers’ petition. After Christmas, more than a dozen Via 313 employees fell ill with COVID. “As people started to contract the virus, they didn’t have any system that they enforced widely across the stores to notify their employees if they worked with someone who is contagious or who had the virus,” Calle explained. “That created a bigger staffing issue than we already had before. And so that created obviously a lot of long hours, a lot of picking up shifts. I worked with someone who tested positive a day later and I did not hear anything from my managers. I only heard it from my coworker. That’s not how it should be happening. You should tell me, and I should say, I’m going to not come in to work until I get my test.”

Calle pointed out that failure to notify employees that their colleagues have COVID is a threat to public health, because servers and bartenders who don’t know that they’ve been exposed in the workplace could be unknowingly transmitting the virus to the guests with whom they interact in the dining room.

While sick leave has been a flashpoint in the Austin hospitality industry for years, the coronavirus pandemic has resurfaced discourse around how hospitality workers – especially tipped workers – are treated and whether they are entitled to the same kinds of benefits their white-collar counterparts (and customers) enjoy.

These issues are not unique to Via 313. Across the country, as the service industry faces a labor shortage twice that of other industries, it’s becoming clear that command-and-control workplaces are not sustainable. Workers are claiming their voices but need the support of their clientele and the broader community in order to enjoy a more equitable, cooperative work environment.

Calle pointed out that boycotting is not always the answer, especially when you consider the harm it does to tipped employees, who stand to lose the most if customers stop coming. “What would be really beneficial is if you speak up on social media or call or email Savory Restaurant Fund. Call Via and say you don’t support these practices. Post online, get the word out. When you go to a restaurant, tip at least 20%.

“But apart from that, if you’re a business owner, you may think it’s going to put you in a deficit or cost you way too much to pay workers well or give them sick leave. But your business is going to be so much better off for it. And when you respect your employees, they’re going to respect you.”

On Friday evening, Via 313 sent the following statement from Via 313 management to the Chronicle‘s news department:

We at Via 313 Pizzeria care deeply about our employees. Their health and safety is top priority. Like everyone, this is our first time facing a global pandemic, and with that comes a learning curve. Since March of 2020 we have followed CDC guidelines, along with federal and state regulations, mandates, and protocols to protect the health of our team and guests.

We are aware of certain employee allegations and take their concerns seriously. No employees have been suspended or terminated for signing a petition that was submitted to the company. The employees who were suspended allegedly created a hostile work environment that made others feel unsafe. As a result, those employees have been suspended pending an internal investigation.

Along with our peers in the hospitality industry, we continually evaluate efforts needed to provide a safe environment. We have a team dedicated to COVID-19 protocols to ensure the safety of not only our team but our customers. As we strive to have an open and transparent culture in our company, we welcome suggestions and recommendations made by our employees. Senior staff has been on-site at our various restaurants over the last two weeks to assist and answer COVID-related concerns and questions raised by our employees. We always encourage open communication, but we cannot condone hostility in the workplace for our other team members. We are not only reviewing our safety protocols daily but are also working with management to review our paid sick leave policy and other allowances that further support and protect our employees.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated since publication to include Via 313’s statement.