In response to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Ithaca, Collegetown Bagels and Ithaca Bakery employees have circulated a petition demanding better virus safety measures.
“We started hearing about winter and how it’s going to get so much worse,” said Star Hanner, an employee at the downtown CTB location “[We were] seeing graphs and statistics about how it’s about to be really bad and the [company] still wasn’t doing anything about it or even communicating with us, so we just got together.”
Hanner said employees first started to feel unsafe around Halloween, as customers packed into dining areas, against social distancing guidelines. When a few employees tested positive, staffers received no communication from management, according to Hanner.
In the “CTB/IB Workers for Covid-19 Safety” petition, employees have demanded that the company shut down indoor dining until a vaccine is widely available and create more physical barriers to separate employees and customers. Employees are also asking the family-owned company to provide hazard pay of at least $2 per hour and to outline clearer protocols for sanitation compliance and for employee positive cases.
In April, the company laid off about 400 employees between CTB, Ithaca Bakery, Rulloff’s and Agava — two-thirds of which were full-time workers. These layoffs reduced the total staff to only 50 across the three CTB locations and two Ithaca Bakery locations — with Rulloff’s and Agava closed.
Across the company’s CTB and Ithaca Bakery locations, the petition has received support from more than 25 of the company’s employees. The public petition, circulated on social media platforms and by word-of-mouth, has collected more than 1,200 signatures total from customers, college students and Ithaca residents as of Sunday evening.
Though about half of the current employees are calling for more extensive public health measures, at the start of the pandemic, the company implemented a slew of COVID-19 regulations and precautions in March — later rearranging stores for physical distancing, and adding protective barriers, mask reminders and distance markers.
“We enforced a ‘no mask, no service’ rule from the get-go even as some objected, placing large signs on, in and around each facility to drive the point home,” Gregar and Ramsey Brous, two of the company’s four co-owners, wrote in an email to The Sun.
Gregar and Ramsey doubled down on the COVID-19 precautions they implemented, maintaining that they went beyond New York State requirements.
“Much of what was done was above and beyond what was required by any law or agency,” they wrote.
Still, many employees across the company’s five locations said they believed that the company has not done enough to protect employees and customers.
“Seeing our regulars and people that we care about at risk because we’re not doing all of the things that we could be doing is really sad and it’s very overwhelming,” Hanner said. “Your heart goes out to everyone. Your heart goes out to your community. This is where you live. These are the people that you love.”
“We have these demands not for our safety but for the safety of everyone, including the management,” added Nadia Vitek ’22, an employee at the College Avenue CTB location. “This isn’t coming from a place of wanting to crash CTB economically.”
Beyond their pre-pandemic duties, many employees said they have carried the added responsibility of enforcing COVID-19 regulations. “It’s just added responsibility to the job that I’m already doing which is already very stressful,” Hanner said.
Like Hanner, other employees also felt that they were not compensated enough for their efforts.
“I do about the work of between three to five employees on the daily, but I get paid barely above minimum wage for that,” said Julia Dreitzer, an employee at CTB’s downtown location. She disclosed that employees make $12.25 per hour — which will be under New York State’s minimum wage of $12.50 as of Dec. 31.
“There’s a lot of stigma around organizing in workplaces. There’s an attitude that things are fine … and I think people become complacent without even realizing,” Dreitzer said.
In response to the petition, the company’s management has agreed to meet with concerned employees, hoping for more “open, honest” communication.
However, many employees have been disappointed by CTB management’s response to the petition. Vitek said she and other employees have asked for a Zoom call, but the owners have pushed back. On Dec. 11, petition supporters invited community members to participate in an open forum on Zoom and requested management, but they did not show.
“We will not be debating those in a public forum as we feel that would be both disrespectful and inappropriate,” the owners wrote.
Instead of inviting all employees to participate in a single conference, Vitek said management asked to schedule in-person meetings with one to three employees at a time — a decision she felt was made to weaken the group’s bargaining power.
“They definitely seemed really nervous and scared of our collective power,” Vitek said. “It just feels like they’re trying to split us up to make us weaker.”
Even though the company’s management was not present on Friday, Vitek said employees and community members still joined in a productive conversation, sharing personal stories about their experiences at the company.
Ultimately, Dreitzer said she doesn’t anticipate the employees backing down any time soon.
“We definitely have strategies to keep antagonizing if [the management doesn’t] give us what we want,” Dreitzer said.