Oasis Tea Zone fired five workers at the chain’s U-District location during a strike sparked by management’s dismissal of staff complaints following an incident where an intruder threatened an elderly immigrant worker with a knife. Accounts from workers shared in a widely circulated Instagram post, a Reddit thread, and in several interviews with The Stranger contextualize the firings as the latest episode in an alleged history of management’s disregard for worker concerns about violence, sexual assault, food safety, and pest control.
Oasis Tea Zone owner I-Miun Liu said he did not know about the online posts or his unhappy employees. When The Stranger showed him the Instagram post, he called it “sad to read.”
“People can say nasty things about me, none of them know me, but I can take that kind of stuff. [The negative attention] sucks for the current staff working here,” Liu said in a text. He defended his company, saying that Oasis Tea Zone hires a diverse staff and donates to organizations such as API Chaya and The Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority.
He added that he can understand how the staff felt “under-appreciated.” Oasis Tea Zone cut down on staff parties and bonuses after the pandemic put the business into survival mode. “That’s on me,” he said. He committed to celebrating current workers more going forward.
But for the complaining workers, the issue is larger than staff parties. Workers told The Stranger they filed complaints about safety and retaliation with the Washington State Department of Labor & Industry. While they await a response, some past and present workers are calling for a boycott of the boba chain.
“There’s a million boba stores on the Ave,” said one worker who quit in solidarity. “I think we’ll be fine without Oasis.”
Danger in the U-District
On May 28, just before closing time, a woman went into the kitchen at the U-District Oasis Tea Zone and threatened the cook with a knife, according to accounts from workers, management, and the owner. One bobarista escorted the woman out of the store and another called both 911 and the store manager. The police never came.
Initially, the shift lead told the cook she could leave because she was drenched in sweat and obviously rattled. When the store manager arrived, he checked on the cook, then went to the register and continued to take food orders, making her work for the last 30 minutes of the shift. The shift lead pushed back and argued with the manager in front of customers, as workers and management both described.
Three workers sent messages in the store’s group chat apologizing for not closing the store properly that night, saying they were “shaken up” after the incident. The workers told the group chat that they received “no support from management on how [they] were feeling or if [they] were even okay.” They told the group chat that management made them go “immediately back to work.”
The manager responded in the thread. He said he would have had “no problem” closing the store if the cook had asked him to, but he claimed she did not tell him–her boss–that she wanted to leave work after being threatened with a knife. One of the workers said in the group message that management should have made the executive decision to stop work rather than leaving it to workers to advocate for themselves after a traumatic experience.
The manager added Liu, owner of Oasis Tea Zone, to the chat to back him up. Liu thanked the cook for “keeping a watchful eye” and thanked the manager for his quick response to the situation. He said these sorts of incidents happen to all businesses, a comment some said amounted to minimizing their experience.
Workers also said Liu unfairly blamed the staff for the intrusion. He wrote: “I’m disappointed to see in the [security footage] that the intruder entered through the upstairs break room door that was left open. This could have been prevented, so in discussion for safety at this store, we will be permanently closing that door.”
The workers said they regularly kept that door open so they could more easily access the bathroom. They also cited other entrances the intruder could have used.
One worker wrote, “Instead of being disappointed in the employees, be disappointed in the LACK of SAFETY MEASURES.”
The knife incident was the final straw for the U-District Oasis Tea Zone workers, who recalled at least seven other recent dangerous incidents at the store. On June 1, the workers went on strike, ditching work to demand a security guard, proper safety training, and a well-fitted first-aid kit. And an apology would have been nice, some workers told The Stranger.
“I am just as frustrated with the public safety issues on the Ave,” Liu told The Stranger. “All the other small businesses have a hard time with how to balance this problem.”
The workers felt that Oasis Tea Zone could afford to address their long-standing safety concerns–after all, the store had recently paid for new TVs and a fresh coat of paint on the walls. According to the owner, Oasis Tea Zone paid for the paint job with a grant from the U-District Partnership that only allowed them to use the money for signage and beautification. They bought TVs at the request of a former employee who wanted to host trivia nights, Liu said.
During the June 1 strike, Oasis Tea Zone sent five workers termination letters. According to the letters, the company fired one person for leaving the break room door open, three people for “insubordination” towards the manager in the group chat and in person, and one person for disabling security cameras.
Liu said the employees were not fired due to the strike, as he did not terminate the only worker he knew of that actually did not show up for a shift. He claimed he fired workers before the strike, but the action began as the store opened at 11 am and the workers received their termination letters at 2:14 pm.
Other striking bobaristas decided to quit in solidarity. Now the store is mostly staffed by workers from the Chinatown International District (CID), Renton, and Edmonds locations, according to current employees.
But Wait, There’s More
Bobaristas at the CID location have expressed similar concerns about dismissive management and alleged retaliatory firings.
In March, Phillip Hart reported that another worker sexually assaulted him at work. P. Hart said the accused assailant came up behind him, reached around, and touched his chest.
P. Hart is a trans man and has had top surgery. Still, P. Hart felt violated because the accused may have perceived him as the wrong gender, since he dresses feminine, or maybe the accused did know P. Hart was trans and wanted to “check,” which would be a transphobic invasion of his personal space. Either way, P. Hart does not like to be touched without his consent and he is entitled to as much at work and anywhere else he may go.
In May, the company’s Human Resources specialist acknowledged multiple complaints against the accused assailant in a group message to the CID shift leads. The HR specialist said she conducted an investigation and disciplined the accused. She asked that the shift leads notify her if the inappropriate behavior continued.
This message did not satisfy shift lead Ashton Hart, who is married to the alleged victim. A. Hart accused management of doing “nothing” to address such a serious complaint. Some of the shift leads in the chat also felt that Liu downplayed the complaints, calling sexual harassment an “inappropriate” conversation and the alleged groping a “hug.”
Liu took issue with the assertion that Oasis Tea Zone did “nothing.” He texted, “We’re a small business trying our best to navigate many, many factors. We’ve got a lot to improve on, but we’re not Starbucks, we don’t have unlimited resources.”
Still, Liu defended the investigation and undisclosed disciplinary measures as “fair.” He wrote to A. Hart, “Maybe you don’t think people should get second chances, but I do.”
After more back and forth, Liu said it’s not A. Hart’s job to “have a bad attitude and make everyone do things your way or else” but rather to work with management to improve the business.
A. Hart said that they can “either care about the success of [Oasis Tea Zone] or ignore the assault, the rat feces, and the verbal abuse from [Liu]. Not both.”
According to emails between HR and A. Hart, HR tried to call them, but A. Hart insisted on only speaking during work hours. HR emailed back and said a conversation would no longer be necessary. Both A. Hart and P. Hart were kicked off the employee interface app, 7shifts, without a termination letter, they said. A. Hart told the same story to a coworker over text immediately following the incident.
Liu said the employees both quit and were not fired. He did not initially provide any emails, messages, or documents as proof because he wanted to protect the workers' privacy, but he no longer cared about that after The Stranger originally published this story.
A. Hart and Liu provided screenshots that presented a muddy sequence of events. In the text logs the day before the alleged firings, Liu told A. Hart they could quit if they were unhappy with the company. A. Hart sent a message about how they intended “continue to do [their] job” as they all have the same goal to improve the store.
After receiving the emails from HR, which they assumed to be the precursor to termination, A. Hart wrote in the group chat that they would not return to work until the accused assailant was fired.
On top of the terminations, workers exposed the boba shop for what they called unsanitary practices. Three bobaristas from the U-District location said that Oasis Tea Zone does not have a working dishwasher, so they wash everything by hand, which causes chunks of tea powder to build up in the blenders and shakers. The Instagram exposé post included a video that showed a brownish puddle inside the fridge, which the workers said was leaking.
Workers at the CID location complained about a rat problem. The workers took pictures of holes in the wall that they suspected rats crawled out of, wood planks taped over the holes to hold the rodents back, what appeared to be rat feces near the tea powder, and a dead rat in the store lobby. Additionally, a worker took a video of a box of raw chicken sitting out unattended on top of a garbage can, which they said is a normal occurrence in the kitchen. The workers sent the pictures in a work group chat, told management, and filed a complaint with the King County Department of Health.
In response to the complaint, the department sent a health inspector to the CID location in May. The department said the inspector found evidence of rodents and directed the restaurant to store food in rodent-proof containers, seal entrances the rats might crawl through, and clean up food and drink spills promptly. The department’s rodent control program is still working with Oasis Tea Zone to resolve the issue. The health department’s spokesperson said that the pictures The Stranger shared with them, including a photo of raw chicken on a garbage can and evidence of rats in the facility amounted to a potential food safety violation and an investigator would pay them a visit this week.
Liu said the workers are exaggerating about the rat issue. He and management pushed for better cleaning practices, but some workers thought it was “not reasonable” for him to ask employees to clean the store, he said.
As for the concerns over the chicken, he’s not really sure what the issue is. The health department told him to divide chicken into smaller batches and so Oasis Tea Zone is going to do that going forward.
“If the health department found it unsafe for us to operate, they would have shut us down,” Liu said.
One worker said it is too late for Oasis Tea Zone to smooth things over with the workers they fired or with those who quit in solidarity, but she encouraged them to fix their sanitation and safety issues for remaining employees and customers.
Until then, workers encouraged patrons of Oasis Tea Zone to express their disappointment in online reviews and to stop giving the company their money. While some commenters claimed that all restaurants treat their workers like shit and the CID has a rat problem in general, the internet seemed to be on the workers' side for the most part.
One Instagram commenter said, “Oasis tea is so canceled.” And it did not appear that everyone’s torn up about sipping boba elsewhere. Another commenter concluded, “oasis is mid af anyway.”