ON VALENTINE'S DAY, ex-New Seasons employee Ryan Gaughan waved a deceptively sweet message on a giant sparkly heart amid a crowd of over 100 protesters outside the grocery chain's SE Division Seven Corners location: "Take Me Back."
Gaughan's recent firing—over alleged tofu theft—has brought out some long-simmering frustrations among the workers of Portland's champion chain. Now that the city's homegrown "Friendliest Store in Town" has expanded and acquired new investors, interviews with four longtime workers at New Seasons' Seven Corners store and two recently fired employees reveal a fear that their beloved employer will grow up to be a bully.
The controversy and public protest comes at a tricky time politically: Mayoral candidate Eileen Brady has built her campaign on her role co-founding New Seasons and faces a tough primary election fight in May.
Since December 2009, two of New Season's founders have stepped down from CEO and board positions, and the grocer received an infusion from Endeavour Capital, a West Coast equity fund whose portfolio also includes Bi-Mart and WinCo. Since then, the company has opened or announced plans for four new branches.
"Since Endeavour came along, things have gotten less relaxed," says a worker who's been at the Seven Corners store for four years. "The rules seem to have gotten much stricter. New Seasons reflects the odd character of Portland and they're in danger of losing that."
"I think there's been a definite change in management style," says another four-year employee. "People are being written up for really silly things."
While New Seasons took great pains not to lay off a single employee since the beginning of the recession, firings have become more frequent, say workers. Workers cited cases of employees being written up for drinking coffee while sweeping, showing too much cleavage, and using the bathroom after clocking in but before checking with a manager. They also mentioned the case of a worker who showed up late for several shifts but whose last strike came after calling to say he needed to take his girlfriend to the hospital.
"That's straight up Walmart," says a third worker. "A few years ago, a manager would have told that guy, 'You go deal with your stuff, it's okay.'"
New Seasons CEO Lisa Sedlar says some worker frustration is due to the stress of the chain opening two new locations in 10 weeks during the holiday season, but that management has never discussed cracking down harder on store rules.
"As far as having Endeavour as an equity partner, it hasn't changed our day-to-day operating of the business," says Sedlar. "Most of our good ideas come from staff. I don't think our company culture has changed at all."
Sedlar says she's heard complaints about stricter enforcement only from the Seven Corners location.
"It's possible that there are some newer managers who may be super black and white about applying policy," she says, "and that's something I'm looking into."
Gaughan, who worked for New Seasons for more than nine years (the last seven in Seven Corners' bulk aisle), attended a hearing with the National Labor Relations Board last week, arguing that his firing was retaliation for pro-worker activism.
Seven Corners workers say they've been meeting on the down low for the past two years, voicing complaints and coordinating to bring attention to specific issues, like advocating for transgender health care.
In the month before he was fired, Gaughan confronted Sedlar at an employee "Coffee Talk" session over the lack of cost-of-living salary increases. In his employee file after his firing, Gaughan found the company had combed through security camera footage to gather shots of him getting lunch and heading through the checkout line over five separate days after the Coffee Talk. On February 7, he was fired for allegedly stealing two scoops of rice and two scoops of tofu.
"They compiled a dossier on me," says Gaughan.
"No one has ever been fired for speaking up," says Sedlar, who can't speak to the specific firing. "We've had that culture of speaking up since the very first day of New Seasons."
New Seasons notes that Gaughan declined to follow through on its preferred "mediation" method of settling disputes over dismissals. Gaughan says mediation is unfair because employees never learn the name of the mediator who reviews their testimony—which is passed through New Seasons' human resources department—or even the name of the third-party mediation company New Seasons uses.
The company's laidback attitude when it comes to ringing up employees for (maybe not) every ounce of food and every cup of coffee may be changing, say workers, but they're still excited to work for New Seasons.
"The good culture is not all gone," says one employee who compared the current situation to her experience working at a Wild Oats during the "very sad" transition of the kookier local chain into Whole Foods. "We need to come together and get management to back off a little."