EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to include a statement from Stone Brewing VP of Hospitality Gregg Frazer.
REGION — Businesses in San Diego County have started reopening in the past couple of weeks after lockdown restrictions due to COVID-19 shuttered businesses for months. In trying to creatively adapt to these uncertain times, however, some companies are being criticized for mishandling layoffs.
As businesses reopen, many of those who were furloughed are returning to work, while employees who were permanently laid off must grapple with the fact that they have been left behind.
Last month, health care workers and nurses held protests in response to the layoffs of more than 300 Palomar Health employees, becoming one of the first and perhaps the most vocal group of employees to speak out about layoffs.
More recently, Stone Brewing, the largest brewery in Southern California, has also been scrutinized for claims that they mishandled companywide layoffs.
The brewery, which has two World Bistro & Gardens locations, including one in Escondido, as well as several taprooms in San Diego County, reopened their doors at the beginning of June after statewide orders forced them, and numerous other businesses, to close down back in March.
A former employee, who wishes to remain anonymous, told The Coast News that they worked at Stone for several years before being laid off on April 6 via a roughly seven-minute conference call with more than 300 other employees.
“It was very cut and dry,” the former employee said. “It wasn’t a furlough or anything like that. It was just like, ‘We’re restructuring the company, we’ll be running on a skeleton staff,’ which they didn’t even tell us what that meant.”
According to the source, the staff, which included servers, bartenders, bussers, hosts, food runners, kitchen personnel and retail personnel, were told that they could reapply once Stone reopened again but were given no indication that they would get rehired.
“I think a lot of people were planning to reapply, but as time went on, we started realizing that they might not be having us back because they started utilizing GoTab, which was something Gregg Frazer was really pushing even before COVID,” the former employee said. “There was a lot of suspicion that he wasn’t going to bring servers back because it means less labor costs for Stone.”
Gregg Frazer is Stone’s vice president of hospitality who was hired in December 2017. He began implementing a mobile ordering and payment platform called GoTab in September 2019.
This former employee told The Coast News that they were not contacted once Stone reopened, and when employees searched for positions on their website, they rarely found any listings.
“We found out that they’ve been calling people and handpicking who they want to come work for them,” the source said. “They also don’t have servers anymore. They’re using GoTab exclusively. So it looks they’ve eliminated the position of server completely, at least at this point.”
The source said they are disappointed by the situation, but not surprised that the company would seemingly prioritize GoTab over their employees.
“Because many restaurants are in this same situation and are trying to operate with these new regulations, it’s a little bit more understandable right now, but I think, in the long run, they should go back to having servers, and I honestly don’t know if they ever will,” the employee said.
A different Stone employee, who wishes to remain anonymous, told The Coast News that they were one of a handful of people who were rehired.
The source said there are currently around 10-12 front of house employees working at each World Bistro & Gardens location, pointing out that before the layoffs, servers alone made up about 30 of the front of house employees.
This employee confirmed that there is, in fact, no longer a server position at the moment. Instead, orders are made through GoTab and everyone is a “crew member.” The hourly pay rate has remained consistent, but employees are now required to pool their tips.
Frazer responded via email to the criticism regarding the brewery’s handling of the layoffs.
“It’s incredibly unfortunate that we had to lay off employees due to COVID-19,” Frazer said. “We are, in fact, taking a slow approach to re-hiring, as we’re still not sure what the hospitality landscape will look like in the coming months, weeks or even days.
“Contactless ordering via GoTab has not been put in place to eliminate positions, but as a safety measure to protect our team members and guests during these early days of re-opening.
“Immediately following our layoffs caused by the COVID-19 shutdown, we created a fund to support all laid-off employees. Our co-founder, Greg Koch, contributed his entire 2020 salary. Co-Founder Steve Wagner, CEO Dominic Engels and other executives also contributed. We opened it up to the rest of Team Stone and are proud to have offered additional support to these employees during this time.”
Ballast Point Brewing Company, which has two brewery locations and a homebrew mart in San Diego, also reopened at the beginning of June.
Vice President of Retail Operations Jeremy Kirby spoke to The Coast News about how they are adapting to business changes amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We furloughed our employees,” Kirby said. “We did weekly Zoom calls just to keep everybody engaged, and when the time came, we brought everybody back. We’re still trying to figure out how everything is going to look in regards to staffing levels and the new measures, but we don’t plan on reducing staffing because that would also mean sacrificing the comfort level of our customers in the process.”
Ballast Point is open for dine-in with all of the county’s safety regulations in place and, according to Kirby, the feedback from the community and their employees has been encouraging.
“It’s fun to have the staff back together again, and they’re excited to show our customers what we can do to meet their needs,” Kirby said.