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Via 313 management meeting with employees amid protest of working conditions

Employees of the Austin pizzeria have said they feel pressure to go into work sick.

AUSTIN, Texas — Via 313 Pizzeria says management is meeting with employees individually to discuss "the current situation, how to reach a peaceful resolution and how to maintain a positive work environment." This comes as workers have staged a protest, asking for paid sick time and more transparency during the ongoing omicron surge.

On Saturday, Jan. 9, some employees protested in the streets of Downtown Austin. Many said they feel pressure to go into work sick without the benefit.

Organizers of the protest alleged management retaliated by suspending workers who were asking for sick pay, hazard pay and COVID-19 safety measures. Supporters said 46 employees signed a petition asking for safety protocols.

“Via 313 has failed to adequately protect the health and safety of its employees and customers during the pandemic,” the group said. “In the last two weeks alone, at least 15 workers have contracted the virus. Management failed to properly notify those in close contact. Unaware of their exposure, many potentially infected employees kept showing up to work and spread the virus further. Via does not offer paid COVID leave, so sick workers are struggling to pay their rent and other bills.”

District 2 City Councilmember Vanessa Fuentes backed up the workers on social media, calling on management to hold an open conversation with workers about possible changes.

“I stand in solidarity with their demands for paid sick time and safety amid this omicron surge,” she said.

KVUE reached out to Via 313 for its response to the protest and were initially sent the following response: 

"We at Via 313 Pizzeria care deeply about our employees. Their health and safety is top priority. Like everyone, this is our first time facing a global pandemic, and with that comes a learning curve. Since March of 2020 we have followed CDC guidelines, along with federal and state regulations, mandates, and protocols to protect the health of our team and guests.    

"We are aware of certain employee allegations and take their concerns seriously. No employees have been suspended or terminated for signing a petition that was submitted to the company. The employees who were suspended allegedly created a hostile work environment that made others feel unsafe. As a result, those employees have been suspended pending an internal investigation.

"Along with our peers in the hospitality industry, we continually evaluate efforts needed to provide a safe environment. We have a team dedicated to COVID-19 protocols to ensure the safety of not only our team but our customers. As we strive to have an open and transparent culture in our company, we welcome suggestions and recommendations made by our employees. Senior staff has been on-site at our various restaurants over the last two weeks to assist and answer COVID-related concerns and questions raised by our employees. We always encourage open communication, but we cannot condone hostility in the workplace for our other team members. We are not only reviewing our safety protocols daily but are also working with management to review our paid sick leave policy and other allowances that further support and protect our employees."

Public relations firm Giant Noise shared the following statement with KVUE's media partners at the Austin American-Statesman: "We at Via 313 Pizzeria care deeply about our employees. Their health and safety is top priority. Like everyone, this is our first time facing a global pandemic, and with that comes a learning curve. Since March of 2020 we have followed CDC guidelines, along with federal and state regulations, mandates, and protocols to protect the health of our team and guests."

On Jan. 12, Via 313 responded to a KVUE request for additional information, stating that it had "seen many untruths circulating" and it would like to provide "some facts to help provide a more complete picture."

Via 313 said that starting on Monday, Jan. 10, management began meeting with employees individually to discuss the current situation and try to find solutions. In its email to KVUE, Via 313 addressed some of the protesting employees' concerns.

The first was transparency.

"Under HIPAA Law, we cannot share the names of employees who have tested positive for Covid as requested in the prior demand letter. This is a federal law followed by workplaces across the country. Asking management to share who has tested positive is the same as asking management to do something illegal," Via 313 said in its email to KVUE. "Threatening a fellow employee to share these names publicly is unlawful. This was one of the most serious demands made to us for transparency. Following federal and state laws will remain the policy of Via 313 to further protect our employees."

Via 313 also said prior to the list of demands, the company had instituted a policy to inform employees when someone tested positive within its restaurants. Anyone who has direct contact with a COVID-19 positive employee is informed in a one-on-one conversation of their exposure, but Via 313 said it always maintains confidentially. The company then provides instructions on monitoring symptoms and getting tested if symptoms occur.

In response to allegations that management retaliated against some employees by suspending them, Via 313 said that 46 employees signed the petition asking for safety protocols, but 43 of those employees were never suspended and remained employed. 

Via 313 said eight of the employees who signed the petition "aggressively approached" a management team member, causing that person to feel "threatened and bullied," and "other employees and customers were about to step in to defend this employee because of the hostility present." Of the eight, three employees were suspended during Via 313's investigation "due to creating a hostile work situation and threatening their coworker in front of other employees and guests," the company said. 

Via 313 said it has contacted the three employees who were suspended to be reinstated and instructed them on company policy "regarding how to address their concerns." Via 313 said it will also be providing each of them backpay for the shifts they missed.

Finally, in its email to KVUE, Via 313 addressed the protesting employees' call for paid sick leave, saying, "We continue to monitor state and local sick pay policy requirements. Once it is determined how all businesses are to provide and fund sick pay, Via 313 has always and will always comply to the full extent of the law."

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