In a May episode of the Hacks & Wonks podcast, Seattle City Council candidate and Fremont Brewing co-owner Sara Nelson claimed the company “managed not to lay anybody off" during the pandemic. "We kept everyone employed,” she said. Throughout the rest of spring and summer, she told the same story to the South Seattle Emerald and the Seattle Times Editorial Board.
All of this was news to the seven "beertenders" the company laid off in mid-November of 2020, around the time Washington tightened capacity restrictions on activities after loosening them in the summer.
Though the employees assumed Fremont laid them off due to the new lockdown, managers told the workers that their position simply "no longer existed," three employees said. During the layoff, one worker asked managers "repeatedly" whether they were being laid off due to COVID, and the two managers in the room "didn’t say yes or no, they said you’re being laid off because of overstaffing," this person said.
Nelson points to the "no layoff" claim as evidence of her business savvy and her support for workers, especially those hit hard by COVID-19. It's a potentially powerful line for her campaign, given her lack of early support for the city's $15 minimum wage, secure scheduling, and paid family leave laws. (As she told the Seattle Met in 2017: “One-size-fits-all laws about wages, or scheduling, or paid family leave, they just don’t work.")
But paystubs, contracts, emails, and interviews with three of the seven employees laid off in November show that Fremont did boot people out of work a week before Thanksgiving in the middle of the pandemic.
The company, co-owned by Nelson and her husband, Matt Lincecum, runs a large urban beer garden in Fremont and a production facility in West Woodland. When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, the former employees said the company offered assurances at meetings that no one would lose jobs or pay due to COVID-19.
When capacity restrictions slowed or stopped work in the beer garden and taproom, managers found menial tasks in the production facility for beertenders. (Two employees said they'd bleached the doorknob on Nelson's office more than once.) To account for lost tips, Fremont instituted a new policy to pool 2020 tips and pay out the money based on 2019 averages. In an email, Nelson also claimed "we managed to get every non-management employee a cost-of-living pay increase," though she didn't say when the brewery implemented that policy, and the employees with whom I spoke said they didn't receive such a raise. A June 2020 COVID case in the brewery only shut down operations for less than a week.
Aside from the ongoing takeaway and distribution business, over $1.9 million from two Paycheck Protection Program loans helped Fremont stay afloat during successive waves of coronavirus outbreaks and their corresponding capacity restrictions. The first round of funds, approved in April of 2020, amounted to nearly $914,500 for 80 jobs. The second round of funds, approved in January of 2021, amounted to nearly $981,900 for 75 jobs. Those numbers could suggest Fremont cut or consolidated some positions and just didn't call them layoffs for some reason, though it's unclear which ones.
In separate interviews over the phone, the former Fremont employees, whom I've granted anonymity for fear of retaliation, all said the November 2020 layoffs came to them as a surprise, mostly because the company talked such a big game about keeping everybody on.
Furthermore, the explanation that their beertender positions "no longer existed" didn't compute. The laid-off employees said the company hired "several" new beertenders— as many as six—in June of 2020, around the time the state lifted capacity restrictions, but Fremont only laid off one person from that cohort in November, according to the employees. Neither Nelson nor Lincecum responded to requests for comment about those new employees.
The laid-off employees suspect Fremont let them go because the company needed to downsize due to overstaffing (as they say they were told), and, though they can't prove this, they say at one point each of them had expressed concerns to managers about working during the pandemic and about the company's stances on community issues.
"I think people get unhappy and jaded, so I think getting rid of these people who were vocal about not being happy working there and hiring fresh faces gave them a chance to hit reset on the culture button," one of the laid-off workers said.
Whatever the case, two days after these layoffs, according to an internal email, the company promoted a manager to a higher position. "It felt like a slap in the face," one laid-off employee said.
In an email, Nelson said, emphasis mine:
The employees you mention were part-time and/or seasonal hires, and the busy season — as much as there was a 'busy season' in 2020 — ended. The part-time, seasonal nature of the work was made clear during the hiring process and in the contract. On average, about 90% of our employees are full-time, based on a 32-hour work week and receive full benefits. We kept on every full-time employee who was on payroll when the pandemic hit and offered our tasting room staff positions in other departments, even though we didn't have work for many of them or any confidence we could do this in the face of the uncertainty of the pandemic.
Just to clarify, we did more than keep on all of our regular, full-time employees. We worked to make sure they wouldn't lose a dollar of income, by covering the average of their tips from the prior year, or any of their benefits (retirement plan, healthcare, Orca card, etc.). We managed to get every non-management employee a cost-of-living pay increase. I don't have statistics on it, but I expect you won't find many businesses our size who can say that.
In what may or may not have been an accidental reply-all, Lincecum complimented his wife and co-worker's "perfect tone:"
Though the employees say the response from Lincecum accurately reflects the culture at Fremont, they say—and contracts, pay stubs, and emails show—that Nelson's statement isn't accurate.
In total, those records show that two of the employees laid off in November were full-time, benefitted employees, though one of those employees worked part-time and medical leave made up for the rest of the hours. Both of those employees started in 2019. One laid-off part-timer worked full-time starting in early 2019, took a voluntary layoff in April of 2020, and then took on only part-time work again in June of 2020, according to emails. Three of the others worked part-time for over a year, though two of those employees were full-time employees for over a year before they started working part-time due to what they referred to as stress related to the pandemic, the laid-off employees said. The other employee was one of the June 2020 new hires.
When I brought all that back to Nelson, she said: "It appears you misread 'part-time and/or seasonal.' No regular, full-time employees were laid off due to COVID."
Records show that's not true. One "regular," full-time employee was laid off, and so was one full-time employee who was also on paid family leave. But in that response, Nelson newly emphasized that no full-time employees were laid off "due to COVID," opening the door to the possibility that Fremont laid off the workers for some other reason.
But, again, all the laid-off employees said their managers told them at the time they were being laid off because their position "no longer existed." A termination letter dated November 18, 2020 attests to that fact.
All told, Fremont Brewing either laid off seven workers just before Thanksgiving in the middle of a pandemic "due to COVID," or because they needed to downsize for some mysterious, non-pandemic-related reason, or because of some reason management failed to relay to the employees.