Tensions have been building for months within Ann Arbor’s Mighty Good Coffee, and the future now seems uncertain for the 13-year-old café chain and roastery.
In July 2018, conflict was ignited within the company when senior barista Nya Njee submitted her two weeks’ notice and informed Mighty Good Coffee owner Nic Sims that a racial pay disparity had motivated her decision, according to a report by Vice’s Munchies. Njee had been working for the company since August 2016, had been given the title and responsibilities of Senior Barista, and received two strong performance reviews, but was still only making the $10 per hour that she had been making when she first started at Mighty Good. Njee alleges that she had been verbally told that she would receive a raise after six months and a year working at the company, but never received extra compensation. She assumed that no one was receiving raises, but discovered that her white co-workers, including some whom she was training, had received higher compensation than her and received raises and promotions during her tenure at the company. Njee was the only black woman employee at Mighty Good Coffee.
After submitting her two weeks’ notice, Mighty Good offered Njee a raise of $11.50 per hour. She considered, and estimated that she should have been making at least $12 for the past year if she had been given the raises promised to her. Njee counteroffered with $11.90 and backpay for the lost wages. Management refused and reportedly told Njee that her hiring manager had been lying or was ignorant of compensation policies. Other employees dispute that claim.
Njee left the company in early August 2018, accusing Mighty Good of racial discrimination. The company issued a public statement saying that they would conduct an internal review to see if there were changes needed to be made. Njee later sued the company and the matter was settled out of court in December 2018, which included a non-disclosure agreement, barring Njee from further discussing the case.
By the fall of 2018, Njee’s former coworkers had decided to take action: 13 of the staff’s 15 baristas joined to form the Washtenaw Area Coffee Workers’ Association (WACWA). The labor union focused on negotiating better working conditions and wages for baristas. On April 8, 2019, an unfair labor practices complaint of short staffing was filed with the National Labor Relations Board.
On April 15, a letter from Timothy Ryan, the attorney representing owners Nic Sims and David Myers, was sent to employees informing them they were being laid off and that all store locations would be closing soon. The letter also included a short explanation of the closure:
“Nic and David have concluded that they are not well suited to operate a retail operation. They have found the experience to be overly stressful. It has created an unworkable burden on their relationship and their family.”
The following day, WACWA members demonstrated outside of the company’s Main Street and South University locations. Later that same day, organizers met with Sims and Ryan to discuss a severance agreement.
As of now, all of Mighty Good’s locations are still planned to close within the coming weeks. However, a post on WACWA’s Facebook page suggests that workers are exploring the possibility of opening an employee-owned café (no word on if this would be one of Mighty Good’s locations), and announced plans for a crowdfunding campaign.