Crafting caffeinated beverages and slinging flakey pastries at Chromatic Coffee in Santa Clara, the baristas and roasters who served the front lines say they expected growing pains when the cafe reopened under a new name in early 2020.
The newly dubbed Paper Moon Coffee, which split into its own brand at the same location along Stevens Creek Boulevard, centered its business around a mission to support the South Bay’s community inside and outside its doors. However, that transition—unknowingly at the onset of a global pandemic—came with its own logistical and managerial issues, eventually leading to the exodus of numerous employees.
Baristas formerly employed with the Santa Clara coffee house told San Jose Inside that feelings of being overworked and undervalued stem from a phenomena continuing to beset the service industry: a lack of empathy around mental health.
Sara, who requested to withhold their last name to speak candidly about experiences working at the cafe from February 2020 to May 2021, says they saw first-hand how the mental wellness of many of their fellow employees hinged on feeling validated in the workplace by managers and ownership, especially at an establishment that boasts a staff of transgender and nonbinary workers, as well as folks who are neurodivergent.
Unfortunately, after management of the still-developing cafe asked its crew how to communicate better, they said not even rudimentary resources on the subject proved helpful.
“Nobody in that meeting read the materials, even going as far as saying, ‘Just tell me what I have to do,’” Sara says. “You want a ‘one size fits all’ solution, but when I told them that [communication] can vary from person-to-person, they just kind of moved past that.”
The coffee industry is notorious for back-to-back shifts and longer hours, leading to high turnover rates—for both entry-level baristas and long-term managers—but the Covid-19 pandemic and its accompanying restrictions and prejudices exacerbated issues for cafes across Santa Clara County.
Guests have often disregarded the indoor mask mandate when coming picking up their coffee, said Chromatic Coffee barista Zoe Martin. The waves of people coming into the coffee house near downtown San Jose grew as the pandemic dragged on, they said, to the point where they started to feel resentment for the guests.
“I continue to mask whenever I'm out in public and I don't dine out, which is extremely rare because I'm still very cautious,” Martin said. “I don't understand—why don't customers adopt that same sense of caution and care for me?”
Describing the potential exposure to Covid-19 through maskless guests as a threat to her safety and her family’s safety. Martin said they had been locking down at her father’s house with her brother and sister before she was able to move into an apartment.
Another symptom of the pandemic, concerns about mental wellbeing clashed with a rising number of hate crimes and incidents against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in the spring.
Former Starbucks barista Arthur Arboleda says he was subjected to racist slurs from a guest while working at a Cupertino location. When a woman began yelling at a group of regular customers outside the coffee shop, Arboleda intervened and tried to scare off the maskless aggressor; that’s when she turned her ire toward him.
“She called me a dirty Korean over and over again, saying I didn’t belong in this country and we should’ve been kept in camps,” Arboleda wrote in a May 28 Instagram post. “I tried to keep calm but I also thought about all of the potential guests she could be endangering by yelling this much. I put both my hands on her shoulders and forced her outside and held the doors closed while my barista called for 911.”
Arboleda says the managers at his Starbucks location suggested he take an unpaid leave of absence to recover emotionally from the ordeal that left him traumatized.
But describing a lack of support from management after they refused to accommodate his new schedule amid his wellness break from work, the barista stated he retained an attorney to represent his case. Arboleda did not respond to requests for further comment regarding his situation.
“I hated that I had to deal with her on my own, despite the cafe being full of people that could intervene or even record the situation. No one intervened,” Arboleda continued online. “Now, I don’t feel safe at work.”
Rovina Nimbalkar, the National Alliance on Mental Illness Santa Clara County chapter’s executive director, says any job involving dealing with the public every day can get stressful, and the financial instability that came along with constant openings and closings throughout the pandemic has only added to the pressure.
“I think all of us have paid more attention to mental health in the last one and a half years like no other,” Nimbalkar says. “That’s because it impacts not only people with a [mental illness] diagnosis, but everybody.”
Locally, she said NAMI fields numerous requests from corporations to give presentations on mental health—whether that means explaining the basics of talking about wellness in the workplace or detailing ways to create a space for employees to feel comfortable reaching out to management for resources.
“One of the things we want to do at NAMI is normalize being able to express to your boss or your supervisor or your manager how you feel, like if you're feeling stressed out or if you have a mental health diagnosis,” Nimbalkar said. “It should be done without making any assumptions that it might impact job performance. Workers shouldn't feel scared to disclose that information.”
Sara says the combination of ineffective communication with colleagues at Paper Moon Coffee and the continued mistreatment they’ve faced as a Chinese-American was just too much; after working on-and-off in the coffee house industry for the past seven years, including a stint as a roaster, Sara doesn’t plan on returning for the sake of retaining her emotional wellbeing.
“It was just so bad, I probably might not ever go back.”