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Boba Guys Suspends Workers Without Pay After Public Backlash

After a week of public backlash, Boba Guys management temporarily closed their Mission District store on 19th and Valencia, made their Twitter account private, and disabled comments on their Instagram posts. Workers at the Mission store received an email early Thursday evening from HR director Marisa Bowman-Frye and were notified that they were suspended without pay, “to refrain from entering Boba Guys business locations,” and that “an investigation is pending.”

Xiaojun Zhou, a bobarista who worked at the Mission store for two years and had a semi-viral Instagram post that led to the public backlash, already resigned before the email was sent out but expressed frustrations for other employees that received it.

“My frustration comes from watching them [management] making super drastic decisions that heavily affect the livelihoods of their employees, and only thought to notify them after the changes were implemented,” they said.

Zhou also witnessed the treatment of other employees, where “people are taking on the workload above their positions and not getting fairly compensated for it” and heard that “other stores have rats and worked with broken air conditioners during the heatwave this summer.”

Two weeks before the abrupt email announcement, employees were already facing reduced hours and met with CEO Andrew Chau in a meeting, only to hear him praise himself for building up this company while also claiming he could lose everything if it went under. But employees pushed back and expressed their concerns about being put in a position with no safety net and that there was no consideration from Chau that this could also impact their livelihoods.

Madeline Urso, who was in that meeting, was fired from the Mission store after facing retaliation from leaked audio during her shift. She said there was nothing in the company policy that explained what the store cameras were used for and that it was unclear how they planned to use the recordings.

“We weren’t aware that there was any audio recording, at least to the best of my knowledge, and no one has ever consented to that or was even fully aware of the extent of it.”

Urso also described the instance after her termination, which included Bowman-Frye and Lindsay Marlow, the Director of Retail Operations, storming into the store after employees closed it early in protest, with two police officers arriving soon after. According to her, both the police and the employees were confused about why they were called in.

“The police asked, ‘What’s going on? Like, do you need anything? Okay, there’s nothing that we can really do here’ and packed up and left immediately. I don’t know if they intended to report us for trespassing or if it was intimidation or show of force.”

Zander Moreno, a shift lead at the Mission store, put up signs that evening that read “Upper management retaliates against boba employees” and “Boba Guys ‘People Care’ (HR) union busts boba employees” after closing the store early. Also sharing frustrations with management, he felt the public needed to know how they treat their employees.

“It’s like I make the products for this company, but they are so ungrateful that we are just asking for a little bit more,” said Moreno. “It doesn’t make sense why they would take that all away from us. It’s honestly more than sad to have to experience that.”

Several employees shared that the starting wage is around $17 per hour, and shift leads can make $18.99 per hour. However, with the reduced hours and suspension without pay, they said they’re now unsure how they will be able to pay rent and other bills.

Jalila Tesoro, a former shift lead at the Union Square store, said that Boba Guys “promotes several ‘Boba Guys university classes’ for them to take to receive bonuses, but have personally never received any, and she took all of them.”

Boba Guys had previously been under fire for a pattern of racial discrimination and harassment toward their employees. It was publicized right after the uprisings of the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

This past week of unrest at Boba Guys is part of a larger trend of workplace unionizing across the U.S. — workers are organizing for higher pay, safer working conditions, and stable hours. Employers, whether big or small, have also gone against the National Labor Relations Act, which makes it an unlawful practice to use union-busting tactics.

With the Mission store temporarily closed until further notice, it’s unclear what the future will hold for the suspended employees and the company itself.

Photo by Savannah Kuang

Savannah is a freelance writer and photographer, organizer, and San Francisco resident. She (or they) covers actions, police, and labor for SFIJ.

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