Via 313 employees protest for sick pay and safety measures amid Omicron surge

Sheryl‌ ‌Lawrence‌ ‌, News desk editor

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Jan. 21, 2022 flipbook.

About 150 workers and Austin community members protested at Via 313 Pizzeria Jan. 8 requesting their management company provide workers with sick pay and improve COVID-19 safety.

Workers at Via 313, a Detroit-style pizzeria in North Campus, wrote a petition in late December 2021 to their management company, Savory, after many workers tested positive for COVID-19 as the new Omicron variant surged in Austin. Workers held a protest to influence management to provide notifications when a coworker tests positive and to provide sick pay for a maximum of 14 days.

From March to December 2020, the federal government mandated employers provide COVID-positive workers with sick pay. From April to September 2021, the IRS issued tax credits to employers who provided COVID-positive workers with sick pay. Management has not provided workers with sick pay since the end of September, according to the employees.

Communication studies senior Joshua Gamboa said he used to work as a cook at Via 313 in North Campus. Gamboa estimated about 15 workers contracted COVID-19 amid the Omicron surge, but management did not notify workers of the positive cases or provide sick pay for workers who tested positive.

“We acted like it was normal, and nothing ever happened. You’d just wear a mask,” Gamboa said. “Even then people weren’t required to wear masks.”

A support staff employee at the North Campus location, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her employment, said a management employee texted COVID-19-positive employees, pressuring them to come back to work regardless of symptoms or test results.

“All of those things, but especially that, were really the main catalyst for us to … start talking to each other about what was going on and decide to do something together to approach management about…the situation,” the employee said.

Gamboa and Savory said 46 employees across different Austin locations signed a petition demanding sick pay, and some of the workers who presented the petition to management were suspended.

“They retaliated by basically firing people indefinitely, just for trying to bring awareness to the cruel COVID-19 measures they were not even taking seriously,” Gamboa said.

Savory told The Daily Texan in an email that the suspended employees “allegedly created a hostile work environment that made others feel unsafe.” The suspended employees received back pay for their missed shifts, according to Savory.

The support staff employee said management has started texting employees who recently worked with a COVID-positive colleague, but do not name them due to HIPAA laws. The support staff employee also said that workers have been required to wear masks since the protest. Savory said they are working with employees to review the paid sick leave policy and “other allowances that further support and protect (their) employees.” 

The support staff employee said they decided to stay with the company despite the conflict because they do not think they will feel safer at another restaurant.

“I have made friends and connections there that I don’t really feel like leaving right now,” the employee said. “At this point, my coworkers and I have gone through so much because of trying to make our workplace better, and I don’t really want to just abandon that now.”