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Public asked to support Stella's employees amid harassment allegations

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Christina Hajjar (left) speaks at a press conference about harassment and labour violations at Stella's in Winnipeg on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Christina Hajjar (left) speaks at a press conference about harassment and labour violations at Stella's in Winnipeg on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/11/2018 (338 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The deluge of allegations about worker harassment, abuse and exploitation at Stella's shows no signs of slowing.

Now, some of the women at the forefront of the #NotMyStellas movement are calling on Winnipeggers to support former and current workers, whose livelihoods may be at risk as allegations pile up and the public fallout mounts.

On Saturday afternoon, three former Stella's employees met the media to reiterate their five calls to action against what they describe as a toxic and often abusive culture that "permeated every level" of the local restaurant chain.

Those calls begin with two very clear requests: one, for a full acknowledgement from the company of the abuses and harassment reported by workers. Two, for a formal apology from company owners and top-level management.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/11/2018 (338 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The deluge of allegations about worker harassment, abuse and exploitation at Stella's shows no signs of slowing. 

Now, some of the women at the forefront of the #NotMyStellas movement are calling on Winnipeggers to support former and current workers, whose livelihoods may be at risk as allegations pile up and the public fallout mounts.

On Saturday afternoon, three former Stella's employees met the media to reiterate their five calls to action against what they describe as a toxic and often abusive culture that "permeated every level" of the local restaurant chain.

Those calls begin with two very clear requests: one, for a full acknowledgement from the company of the abuses and harassment reported by workers. Two, for a formal apology from company owners and top-level management. 

"We remain open to a forward-moving dialogue that results in a positive outcome for the current employees, and creates a safe space where people can share their stories," said Amanda Murdock, a former general manager. 

They are also asking for the "prompt removal" of vice-president of operations Grant Anderson and regional manager Brad Burrows, who feature heavily in many workers' reports of mistreatment, as well as the launch of a human resources department. 

"I can honestly say I don't think the company can move forward positively with Grant and Brad in charge," said Kelsey Wade, 22, who worked at Stella's for nearly three years as a server and supervisor. 

"They have a complete lack of empathy and respect for their employees," Wade said. "They're abusive, they're manipulative, there is the most unhealthy power dynamic within that company. And they're honestly very scary." 

Finally, the movement also wants funding for past and present staff to access mental health services. 

That's because the stress of their experience lingers, former workers say. For instance, despite leaving the company three years ago, Murdock said she "lived in fear" of sharing her story, before coming forward recently. 

"The whole experience is terrifying," she said. "It's been difficult to even speak about that publicly, with that extended distance... it brings up a lot of trauma." 

The company posted a lengthy statement to its Facebook account on Friday afternoon, signed by owners Tore Sohlberg and Lehla Abreder, acknowledging what it called critical "activity by a few individuals on social media." 

In response to the allegations, Stella's said it has hired People First HR Consulants to review its workplace safety and harassment policies, and improve its training for management and staff to ensure "clarity in the organization."

The statement did not offer a direct apology to present or former staff who have spoken out. At the time the statement was posted, the @NotMyStellas Instagram account had posted over 100 reports of mistreatment. 

By Saturday afternoon, that statement had garnered 375 comments on Facebook, the vast majority expressing disappointment and anger at the response. At the news conference, the three women echoed those thoughts. 

"We do not accept their publicly issued statement because it lacks remorse, accountability, and fails to address our demands," Murdock said. 

While soundly pinning responsiblity on Stella's upper management and ownership, the women also affirmed their solidarity with current front-line workers, whose income could be jeopardized by the burgeoning public outcry. 

"We are not calling for a boycott of the company," Wade said. 

Instead, she continued, patrons should call the Stella's head office to voice their concerns. They could also buy a small item, such as a coffee or baked goods, and tip workers in cash, as well as voicing support on social media.

Other employers open to hiring Stella's staff could also publicize that fact, she suggested. 

Though reports of worker mistreatment at Stella's had circulated quietly for years, the dam broke last week when former server Christina Hajjar posted on Instagram about her own bad experiences, one year after she was fired. 

As stories from other workers flooded in, she created the @notmystellas Instagram account to give them a platform. In just 48 hours, the movement posted around 180 stories, and received many more — a rush that has not stopped. 

"We are still getting messages right now," Hajjar said, nodding at her phone. 

To those critical of the movement's choice to take their experiences to social media, Hajjar had a clear response. 

"I think people who belittle this strategy are not listening," Hajjar said.  

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca 

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

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