Workers at Donut Friend, a popular donut store with locations in Highland Park and Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA), are organized as Donut Friend United to raise several concerns about workplace conditions and safety. According to Cass Vogel, a current employee at the store’s Highland Park location, the past and current store employees in Donut Friend United are hoping to gain voluntary recognition from Donut Friend in order to form an independent union.

Vogel said the organized workers have been meeting a representative from the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America since the summer, who has advised them on unionizing practices and navigating labor laws. According to Peter Dreier, politics and Urban & Environmental Policy professor at Occidental College, unions are an important tool for workers who are trying to organize and advocate for their rights in the workplace. 

“[A union is] organized, it has members and represents workers in comparable [positions],” Dreier said. “They decide they need a voice on their job, so that they can bargain and negotiate collectively — it’s why it’s called collective bargaining — as opposed to each person being on their own and taking whatever the employer says is what [they] deserve.”

According to Dreier, the process of forming a workers’ union has different phases. He said employees can ask an employer to voluntarily recognize the union, but if the employer refuses, then employees must run an organizing campaign and election that is supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). If more than half of the employees in a workplace vote to join the union, then the union and employer work to negotiate a labor contract until an agreement is reached.

According to Jacob Posega, a Donut Friend DTLA employee, Donut Friend United’s employees are still in the process of organizing.

“We still haven’t gotten to the point of being able to ask for recognition, so now it’s kind of all-hands-on-deck to make sure we have the really solid majority that we need should it come down to an election,” Posega said.

Donut Friend’s workplace garnered viral social media attention after a Twitter post Jan. 19 alleged the company fired workers for trying to unionize. Donut Friend owner Mark Trombino has since denied that the employees were fired for unionizing.

In a post on Donut Friend’s Instagram account, Trombino writes that he was not made aware of any effort to organize, nor has he ever prevented anyone from doing so, emphasizing that Donut Friend is neither anti-union nor anti-labor.

According to Vogel, concerns over workplace health and safety during the pandemic first arose among staff early in the summer when her coworker tested positive for COVID-19. At the time, employees expressed concerns over the store’s lack of transparency with the public and its response to COVID-19 cases among employees, Vogel said.

“It feels we’re asking very little here, and also we can see that a lot of other businesses in the community have done this and they’ve been super transparent about it,” Vogel said. “That, for me, is when our organizing picked up momentum because this is an imminent health and safety risk that management seemed to have no care about.”

Posega and James Marshall, another former employee at both Donut Friend Highland Park and DTLA also said a lack of communication from Trombino has been a long-term concern that Donut Friend employees have had. They said there were employees who had stopped working towards the beginning of the pandemic because they had been uncomfortable with working in-store or wanted to give other employees the chance to work more hours, due to store hours being cut. However, according to Posega and Marshall, the lack of communication from Trombino caused these employees to be confused about the status of their employment.

“We had a lot of people that were sort of just abandoned by Mark, left in limbo about the nature of their job — whether they were actually employed or would ever be allowed to come back to work,” Posega said.

Employees first organized to raise concerns about the workplace in September in a letter that they presented to Trombino, according to Posega and Flynn Nicholls, a former employee at Donut Friend Highland Park. Vogel said the employees focused on five main issues in the letter: communication, management’s transparency, COVID-19 health and safety procedures, scheduling and hiring practices.

Signage painted on the window of Donut Friend restaurant on York Boulevard in Eagle Rock, CA. Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. Dominic Massimino/The Occidental

“We all [contributed] to a document where we were putting in all of our grievances and concerns, things we wanted to see improved or changed at Donut Friend — long-term complaints that past and current employees have had about management and everything. Then we distilled that down into a letter,” Posega said. “The final point of the [letter] was, ‘We want to make Donut Friend the awesome workplace that it could be, we want to work with you on this.'”

Trombino said via email that Donut Friend is committed to creating a respectful, safe and productive workplace and that the company values its employees.

“There is a lot online right now that is either untrue or lacking context, but instead of focusing on that we’re talking as a team about actions we’re taking to make sure Donut Friend is the workplace we all want it to be,” Trombino said in an email to The Occidental.

Vogel said she was suspended from work for three weeks in January and that she believes she was suspended for whistle-blowing health and safety concerns regarding COVID-19. After calls to action posted on Donut Friend United’s Twitter account asked people to support by calling Donut Friend to ask for Vogel to be reinstated. Vogel has returned to her regular work schedule.

“She was speaking about working conditions and safety hazard and [Trombino] enacted disciplinary action. That’s 100 percent not cool,” Marshall said.

On Donut Friend’s Instagram, Trombino said that he has tried to make an effort by creating an open-door policy for his team so that he can checkin one-on-one with his staff, but recognizes that he has not done so to  the fullest extent possible. 

“I am still so new to this and have a lot to learn, but I am always willing to rectify my mistakes,” Trombino wrote in the post. 

Posega said that Donut Friend United posts updated organizing demands and calls to action on Instagram and Twitter, and he encourages people to share them and to become informed about workers’ rights.

“We’re hoping to grow this beyond, ‘Here’s the union for Donut Friend,’ but maybe we can work this out to help other people that are on similar situations, because honestly, Donut Friend’s not the worst by far,” Posega said. “The food service and service industries, food and beverage, are notoriously awful for people and we want to change that at large.”

Correction (2:02 pm Feb. 11) Jacob Posega is a current employee at Donut Friend DTLA.