Last month, Eric Warnstedt of Hen of the Wood, along with multiple downtown Burlington businesses, published a statement claiming that their employees and taxpaying customers “do not feel safe” going to and from their restaurant at night. The letter, which focuses on nebulous safety concerns for customers and staff, circulated widely and was part of a successful push to institute and fundraise for the Burlington Business Association’s private security Downtown Ambassador Program.
Within this context, the recent release of a Hen of the Wood company-wide email seems to be at odds with their stated concerns for safety of staff and customers. The email from a manager to staff states: “If you feel sick with a cold and do not have coverage for your shift, you are expected to show up for work.” Management suggested that symptomatic staff could wear a mask but are not required to. The Rake Vermont contacted Hen of the Wood Founder/Co-Owner Eric Warnstedt, who stated that he would like employees to “stay the fuck home” when sick and that this was an unfortunate miscommunication from a stressed manager.
Warnstedt also shared the email he sent to all staff in hopes of providing clarification around his manager’s statement. In that clarifying email however, Warnstedt continued to send mixed messages around coming to work when feeling ill, stating that his original “misunderstood” message to management was that: “There is a seasonal cold going around.…If you have a little lower energy, sniffles, please mask-up, wash and sanitize, and carry out your duties as a manager. If symptoms carry on to include flu-like symptoms of fatigue, fever, chills, body ache, worsening sore throat, nausea, vomiting, etc. then get a Covid test as soon as possible and let us know. In no way was this guidance intended to force employees to work with Covid-like symptoms.”
The email, which is provided in full below, goes on to focus on procedures around Covid exposure but does little to suggest that an employee who is feeling mild symptoms of fatigue or runny nose should feel empowered to take time off. The CDC lists both runny nose and fatigue as potential symptoms of Covid.
Two former employees of businesses owned by Warnstedt, who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns of retaliation, weren’t surprised by the email. One told us: “I remember that we would be expected to have our shifts covered if we weren’t coming in for any reason, including sickness. The schedule is being made months in advance, and they don’t take any conflicts into consideration.”
A second former employee showed us an email exchange with human resources from 2020. In the exchange, the employee expressed they were sick and needed to call out. HR seemed to ignore this message, responding “only you can make that call.” This employee stated that they felt immense pressure to show up to work that day in part because two other staff members had shown up to work while feeling under the weather.
Given the current global pandemic’s unprecedented threat to customer and worker safety and The Hen of the Wood/BBA publicly stated concerns for both, The Rake looked into paid leave advocacy and policy recommendations of both organizations during Covid.
The Burlington Business Association has no documents on their website in support of workplace safety or paid sick leave policies for hourly or salaried service workers. At the time of publishing, they have not responded to requests for statements regarding these policies. When asked if Hen of the Wood had a sick time policy, we received no response from Warnstedt.
According to a recent Seven Days article, Hen of the Wood will require proof of vaccination or a negative test for all customers moving forward.
With additional reporting by Charles Winkleman.
Mike is a social worker type who attempts to stay politically active in a positive way. Results may vary. He is on the editorial collective of The Rake Vermont.