Labour con­cerns at Freak Lunch­box

For­mer candy shop em­ployee says she was fired af­ter or­ga­niz­ing staff to ask for bet­ter work­place con­di­tions.

The Coast - - THE CITY - BY JACOB BOON

It’s an­other story of work­place un­rest in a year of re­newed labour fo­cus on the lo­cal ser­vice in­dus­try.

Two long­time em­ploy­ees at Freak Lunch­box are no longer with the pop­u­lar candy store, with one telling The Coast she was fired with­out cause af­ter or­ga­niz­ing staff to voice their con­cerns.

Te­gan Mac­far­lane, 24, was dis­missed from the com­pany’s flag­ship store on Bar­ring­ton Street back in Au­gust, two years to the day af­ter she was hired. Her co­worker and friend, Ni­cholle, 26, quit at the end of Septem­ber af­ter five-and-a-half years. (For pri­vacy rea­sons, Ni­cholle re­quested her last name not be pub­lished.)

Both say the com­pany’s own­ers, Jeremy Smith and Erin Sch­wanz, cre­ated an en­vi­ron­ment where work­ers felt un­heard. They say they re­peat­edly brought up con­cerns to man­age­ment—con­cerns such as in­tro­duc­ing paid 15-minute breaks, get­ting a slip mat for the front en­trance and an anti-fa­tigue mat for em­ploy­ees stand­ing be­hind the cash—all to no avail.

An anti-stress mat was brought in for a short while, but taken away by the own­ers who felt it was un­san­i­tary and en­cour­aged em­ploy­ees to stand be­hind the cash.

“It’s us just go­ing above-and-be­yond what our re­spon­si­bil­i­ties are as laid out in the em­ployee hand­book and still get­ting this feel­ing of mat­ter­ing less than a used tis­sue,” says Mac­far­lane.

So the work­ers de­cided to or­ga­nize. Group meet­ings were held af­ter-hours, off-site. The em­ploy­ees drafted a letter, ask­ing the own­ers for a meeting to for­mally ad­dress their con­cerns.

Af­ter Smith found out about the letter, Mac­far­lane says she re­ceived a text can­celling her shift and call­ing her in for a meeting to “clear the air.” Dur­ing the meeting, Mac­far­lane was fired.

The store was “in need of a change,” says Smith.

“It had reached a point where I think [Mac­far­lane] would be hap­pier some­where else if she’s start­ing to nit­pick lit­tle prob­lems she sees with the busi­ness,” he says. “It was def­i­nitely nec­es­sary, and I’m sorry some­one’s feel­ings got hurt, but it’s over and I’d like people to move on, ideally.”

Ni­cholle was then of­fered a pro­mo­tion to as­sis­tant man­ager, which she says she ac­cepted as a way to “put more space” be­tween own­ers and staff. In that role, she says she was told to look back through the man­ager’s old emails to view past or­ders, which is how she came across mes­sages about her­self and Mac­far­lane.

“There is ab­so­lutely no room for this type of drama,” reads one letter from Sch­wanz’s email ad­dress. “Clear­ing this type of poi­son out will make all of our lives easier and the store will run bet­ter/staff will be hap­pier.” A week later, Ni­cholle quit. Smith says he’s un­fa­mil­iar with those emails and de­clined to ver­ify their con­tents. The busi­ness owner does con­firm Ni­cholle quit be­cause she was no longer com­fort­able in the work­place af­ter her friend’s dis­missal.

“We re­ally just want en­thu­si­as­tic, bub­bly em­ploy­ees,” Smith says. “They were look­ing for more from a job that couldn’t give them more.”

The proto-or­ga­niz­ing ef­forts of Freak Lunch­box’s staff are not a unique oc­cur­rence this year in Hal­i­fax. Mac­far­lane and Ni­cholle say they were di­rectly in­spired by for­mer Smil­ing Goat em­ploy­ees who opened the coop Glit­ter Bean cafe this past summer.

But Freak Lunch­box is no Smil­ing Goat. As Smith points out, there are no labour vi­o­la­tions here. An owner does not need a rea­son for fir­ing an em­ployee of fewer than 10 years. He paid Mac­far­lane the re­quired sev­er­ance and Ni­cholle left of her own vo­li­tion. This is the only work­place issue Smith says the com­pany has had among its 40 or so em­ploy­ees, spread across five stores in three prov­inces.

Three other cur­rent and for­mer Freak Lunch­box em­ploy­ees con­tacted by The Coast, how­ever, back up Mac­far­lane and Ni­cholle’s ac­counts of their work­place. One of those in­di­vid­u­als re­cently con­tacted the Labour Board to look into the staff’s com­plaints.

Smith says an in­ves­ti­ga­tor vis­ited the Bar­ring­ton Street lo­ca­tion but found no cause for con­cern. Freak Lunch­box is a “happy, pos­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment,” he main­tains.

“It re­ally was a neg­a­tive at­ti­tude to­wards own­er­ship, is what it was,” Smith says about his for­mer em­ploy­ees. “Un­for­tu­nately, that’s the struc­ture of a busi­ness. There’s an owner.”

Nev­er­the­less, the for­mer Freak Lunch­box staffers hope their story in­spires other em­ploy­ees across the city to stand up, to­gether.

“The power that we have comes from our re­la­tion­ships with each other and what we can build with each other,” says Ni­cholle.

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