By Victor Tence
In a move to continue their expansion, the San Francisco offices of Airbnb ended their contract with the Flagship Food Group, effectively terminating the positions of 94 contract kitchen workers on Nov. 2, some of which were City College alumni.
Backlash from the entire department, with critical support from the Airbnb office staff, forced a renegotiation with the new food service company Bon Appetit, winning the contractors guaranteed positions and maintained wages.
The bustle and kinetic energy of the Airbnb cafeteria kitchens, manned by a crew of over 200, ground to a halt shortly after receiving an email calling for an “important and mandatory meeting for the entire SF food team.” The workers were divided; the 94 contractors were sent to a separate conference room on the ground floor where they were abruptly informed their positions with the company were terminated.
“People were frustrated, sad and confused,” said Mike Ibe, a full time cook at Airbnb.
Aggravating the situation further, the contractors, who primarily speak Spanish were not provided a translator during the meeting. When this was pointed out by their co-workers, the meeting organizers expressed sympathy, however, they pushed forward, asking those who spoke English and Spanish to “relay it amongst themselves.”
“They were asking us to play telephone with something so important,” said Jennifer La, a contractor and City College alumnus.
At this meeting, the contractors were informed of the company’s transition of food service groups and the termination of their jobs. They were invited to reapply for their positions without the guarantee of a job which the full-time kitchen staff received.
The news was devastating in both content and delivery.
Reeling from the meeting, the contractors left the conference room confused and upset, Ibe recalls “there were people crying.” With the open air kitchen, a central fixture in the new Airbnb office, it did not take long for their office staff to notice the disruption.
Messages of outrage and solidarity for the contractors flooded the inboxes of the Airbnb founders. The following day, a Gofundme page to support the contracted workers was created by Jake Silver, an IT support specialist. On the website, Silver reaches out to his co-workers, “today our food team needs us and we have the ability to help.” Within five days it raised $25,000 and now sits just over $31,000. Donating staff left messages of gratitude and anger.
“This is an unbelievable and devastating loss to our company and our culture. I can’t count the times that I proudly told friends, family and visitors about Airbnb’s food program. The way this was handled by leadership was shameful and cruel,” wrote Benjamin Wilkins, a design technology lead at Airbnb.
The staff also began adorning the hallways with handwritten notes and illustrations of sympathy and support for the contractors. One note reads, “You are the heart & soul of Airbnb! Thanks for always being a host.”
By Nov. 6, the founders of Airbnb held emergency meetings with the kitchen crew and the rest of the office staff to address the backlash. They announced all contractors would be guaranteed a job with Bon Appetit. Within days they would also secure an agreement to maintain all hourly wages. When asked about the correlation between the employee outcry and the renegotiation with Bon Appetit, Airbnb refused to comment.
Despite securing their jobs and wages right before entering the holiday season, the handling of this transition has left many of kitchen staff with a bad taste. Bernadette Ramos, a City College alumnus and lead baker at Airbnb compares returning to the kitchen like seeing someone from a recent breakup. “It’s hard to come back 100 percent…and to care.”