PHILADELPHIA - In the fall of 2017, Todd Carmichael, CEO of the coffee company La Colombe, a national brand based in Philadelphia, came out swinging at Sen. Pat Toomey.
The Pennsylvania Republican, Carmichael said, doesn't support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. But Carmichael - an entrepreneur who employs nearly 700 across the country - does.
"I am living, breathing, profitable proof that raising the minimum wage is good for business and workers," he wrote in The Inquirer in a 2017 op-ed. "I'll go even further and say that unless you pay your employees a nonpredatory living wage that keeps people and their families above the poverty line, you don't deserve to be in business."
There's just one catch. Carmichael didn't pay all his workers $15 an hour back then, and he still doesn't.
It's more like $9 an hour, according to several entries in a crowdsourced spreadsheet of Philadelphia baristas' wages. An executive with La Colombe, which has 30 cafes across the country, confirmed that barista wages start at $9.
Some former La Colombe workers say the op-ed was misleading and hypocritical.
Carmichael said it was not intended to be misleading. He said La Colombe ensures that take-home pay for baristas is at least $15 an hour. He's making a distinction between wages paid by an employer - what his op-ed called for - and take-home pay that includes customer tips.
The allegations of hypocrisy are in stark contrast to the image of a socially conscious business owner that Carmichael has sought to project - an edgy entrepreneur who isn't afraid to speak out against unfairness and do the right thing. In July, when a northeastern Pennsylvania school district threatened to put a group of kids into foster care because their parents hadn't paid their school lunch debt, Carmichael stepped in and paid off the debt of about $22,500.
"It's outrageously bold to blatantly misrepresent the wages you pay your employees," said Dermot Delude-Dix, an organizer with Unite Here, a union that represents thousands of service workers in Philadelphia. "It's galling that he gets all these plaudits and praise for being a progressive business leader on the basis of his claim to be paying a fair wage, and ultimately, it seems to be nothing more than another branding strategy from a giant corporation."
Brian Hart, La Colombe's vice president of retail operations, confirmed that the starting wage for Philly baristas is $9 an hour. After a six-month probationary period, he said, they get bumped to $9.50 an hour, with another bump six months later and further raises annually. Ultimately, baristas should be making $10 an hour after a year at the company.
La Colombe baristas in Philly make $16 an hour when you count tips, Hart said.
Some baristas found this explanation frustrating, especially those who worked at La Colombe stores when the op-ed was published, winning Carmichael "woke" points from consumers, progressive politicians, and workers' rights law firms.
"People kept coming in and telling me how cool it was that our boss is so progressive," said Emilio Flores, a former La Colombe barista, who was getting paid $9 an hour at the time.
Kimberly Capehart, who worked at the Fishtown flagship when the op-ed ran, said it was difficult to see Carmichael when he'd come into the office, knowing that he'd boasted about something that wasn't true.
"It wasn't La Colombe, the company, that was paying me $15 an hour," she said. "It was customers being generous."
There was also what she called "a gray zone" of customer awareness about who was working for tips and how much tips made up one's wages.
Calvin Okunoye, an organizer with the Restaurant Opportunities Center in Philly, said there is a level of confusion among customers: They see a tip jar or a tipping button on the point-of-sale system, but they don't know where that money goes.
Hart said La Colombe designed its point-of-sale systems to encourage customers to tip.
The company, which employs 60 baristas in Philly, offers 17 days' paid time off to its full-time baristas, as well as health-care coverage and opportunities to move to other departments in the company. Besides cafes in cities like New York and Washington, the company supplies coffee to thousands of wholesale customers and sells its canned "draft lattes" in stores around the country.
"Baristas know that we're a premium place to work in the (coffee) space," Hart said, which he says explains why turnover is low: The average La Colombe barista has been working for the company for two years.
In a statement, Carmichael said La Colombe is "constantly looking at how to ensure folks earn a take home pay of least $15 an hour."
"The tip/base system in America can be acutely frustrating for all involved, especially when concerned about our stakeholders' well-being," he said. "But my position in my op-ed from 2017 remains the same: Successful businesses evolve, working to make adjustments to meet specific goals."
The recent effort to crowdsource wages and create wage transparency, along with a wave of worker activism across the country, is likely empowering workers to call out employers like Carmichael, according to Tim Newman, campaigns director at the digital worker organizing platform Coworker.org.
He pointed to how museum workers across the country have been speaking out against what they say is a mismatch between the values espoused in art exhibits and a museum's business practices. Tech workers, too, have protested when their seemingly progressive companies have, for example, forced employees to sign away their rights to collective legal action.
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