James Dutton was the depot’s longest-tenured non-managerial employee. He was laid off with the rest of the nonprofit’s staff in March. Credit: Amir Aziz

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For over 35 years, the nonprofit East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse diverted junk from landfills and put it in the hands of artists, educators, and other creators. Known informally as “the depot,” the Temescal storefront sells inexpensive second-hand odds and ends, art supplies, and what ex-worker Joshua Hyman described as “little mysterious pieces of material culture.”

But when Alameda County’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order forced the nonprofit to close its doors last March, the depot’s workers were all laid off. Though the depot received over $81,000 in federal paycheck protection program loans in May, its non-managerial staff weren’t rehired, and its storefront has remained closed since then.

In September, the depot’s managers stated their intentions to reopen and posted job listings on their website. However, ex-workers say none of them were contacted or offered their jobs back, which now offer lower salaries. Many of the depot’s ex-employees believe that the nonprofit’s managers and board of directors used the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse to fire its workforce of about a dozen people. 

Conflicts had been brewing for years between the depot’s employees and management over competing visions of who it should primarily serve and how decisions should be made. Many of the workers advocated for the nonprofit’s mission to be oriented toward helping artists and teachers and remaining as affordable as possible, while the board, according to the ex-employees, moved it in the direction of becoming an expensive boutique.

The Oaklandside interviewed 10 of the depot’s ex-employees over the past two months. Many of them said that before the pandemic, staffers were organizing for greater worker control over the nonprofit, but the board didn’t entertain the worker’s proposals. Some were concerned about what they felt was racial profiling of customers and steps management took to make the depot unfriendly toward people perceived to be homeless. Other former employees said that depot managers were verbally abusive to staff and that the organization’s board didn’t take complaints seriously.

One ex-employee, who asked not to be identified because they’re worried about securing future employment and fear retaliation, said the mass firing put an end to the workers’ advocacy. “This was the perfect opportunity for them,” they said.

Management paints a different picture. The depot’s current interim executive director, Ben Delaney, told The Oaklandside that the layoffs were unfortunate but necessary for the depot to survive the recession. The depot declined to make other managers and board members available for interviews and respond to more specific allegations by ex-employees.

A long list of grievances before the mass layoff

Several ex-employees described issues stretching back at least three years before the pandemic, when the depot’s managers used “abusive language,” ignored concerns about how customers of color and homeless people were treated, and ignored requests by employees to revamp the depot’s decision-making process.

“I didn’t feel like we had any agency over how we were being treated,” said one former employee, a multidisciplinary artist who worked there for about two and a half years. At first, this employee had been optimistic about their job due to the depot’s overall mission of serving artists and educators, but they eventually quit in 2019, a decision they described as heartbreaking.

“I felt like I got hired to make them look more woke,” said the employee, who is a person of color. As with several other former workers, they requested we not publish their name. “I really felt disrespected working at the depot,” they said.

The ex-employee felt that management had staff excessively monitor customers of color in fear they would shoplift, and pressured staff to not be welcoming to homeless people in order to make the space less inviting. According to this former employee, when they expressed these concerns, they were ignored.

Aware that the depot was having difficulties bringing in money, depot workers suggested hosting concerts, open mics, art-making nights, and exhibitions to bring in customers. But management never let such events happen.

James Dutton, who is in his late-30s and, after almost 12 years of work, was the depot’s longest-tenured non-managerial employee, was laid off with the rest of the nonprofit’s staff in March. He said managers made workers accept unusable and occasionally dangerous materials.

“It was all about making the donors feel happy and then us suffering,” he said. When one manager forced workers to accept things like clothes hangers and broken electronics, materials that the depot’s policy forbade donating, workers had to make trips to the dump, wasting time and money.

“There was a system that worked for accepting donations, but management was out of touch,” said another ex-employee who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation and not being able to secure a new job. “They didn’t have a good perspective on what was dangerous, biohazardous, or rotten.” The former employee recalled feeling scared when handling donated medical waste containers with no training or personal protective equipment.

Several ex-workers said disputes about donated materials often ended with a manager yelling and cursing at them. In an incident on the donation loading dock that Dutton experienced and another ex-employee witnessed, a manager left Dutton feeling “demoralized and confused” when they screamed “lots of profanity” at him in front of customers.  

“Tensions were often so high,” said a former employee. “Many days we would go into work and not know if we were going to get fired.”

“I felt like I got hired to make them look more woke. But I really felt disrespected working at the depot.”

Ex-employee

In the years leading up to the layoffs, workers say managerial abuse was common. Between 2017 and 2018, workers complained that another manager would regularly drink alcohol on the job, yell at workers, and treat customers and workers of color especially cruelly. Their presence was a large part of why a Black worker named Solomon Sofolawe quit.

“I have watched [the manager] disrespect the two women of color who are our co-workers again and again,” Sofolawe wrote in a letter of resignation to the depot’s management and staff in March 2018. “I’ve seen her raise her voice [at them] and micro-manage over the simplest and basic things, over and over again with no rhyme or reason.”

Workers felt they had no method of effectively addressing tensions they had with management. The depot is a relatively small organization and has no human resources department. Although grievances can be submitted to the nonprofit’s board of directors, the depot’s employee handbook states that “the board of directors decision constitutes the agency’s final word on the matter.” 

In recent years, several depot managers, and the depot’s former executive director, Linda Levitsky, who quit after the depot closed its doors last year, served on the organization’s six-person board. The depot’s ex-employees felt this was a conflict of interest that made any action by the board to address worker complaints against managers less likely. 

Dutton said that when he filed a complaint about a manager’s behavior, a retired HR worker who was not formally hired, but was a friend of Levitsky and the manager, was brought in to mediate. According to Dutton, the retired HR worker took him out to lunch and then told him “nothing could be done.”

The depot’s Telegraph Avenue store has been closed since March due to the pandemic. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Workers tried to organize and advocate for change

In February 2019, about ten workers developed a plan they hoped would improve their workplace. It called for consensus-based decision making that prioritized worker input, pay increases, the creation of a conflict-resolution process, the inclusion of one employee on the depot’s board, written guidelines for hirings and firings, and the removal of a manager the workers described as “abusive.”

The workers delivered their proposal to then-Executive Director Levitsky, but their plan was tabled. Levitsky, who worked at the depot since its founding, recently retired, although she still serves on the board.

Tensions kept building. In November, the workers attended a board meeting without Levitsky and other managers present. According to one depot worker who was at the meeting, the board seemed “nervous” and “pissed” about their presence. Ex-workers say they had shown up unannounced because management had discouraged them from attending board meetings in the past.

“There were many meetings we were not told about or told we couldn’t attend,” said a former employee. Workers described this attempt to communicate their concerns directly to the as “unsuccessful.” 

“The board definitely was not on the staff’s side,” said an ex-employee involved in the effort who did not want to be named because they’re searching for a job and worried employers would hold it against them.

“We all fought so hard to keep the depot community-and-artist-based. It would be cool to get my job back, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Ex-employee James Dutton

The Oaklandside contacted the depot’s former executive director, Levitsky, one of its former managers, Bethany Kaufman, and board president Mary Miller for an interview. Levitsky and Miller never responded. Kaufman told us that all questions should be directed towards the depot’s new interim executive director, Ben Delaney. 

In an email, Delaney wrote that the board asked that he be the media’s “sole point of contact with the depot.” The board hired him in September 2020. 

Delaney described the November board meeting as “productive and amiable,” and wrote that staff was always informed of when board meetings occurred. He added that while “board meetings are not generally open to the public or staff,” he doesn’t “believe any request to attend has been refused.” 

He denied that depot management engaged in “abuse of employees, verbal or otherwise.” He also disagreed with staff’s accusations of mistreatment against people of color. “We state specifically that we have never done any sort of racial profiling or monitoring,” wrote Delaney.

Delaney confirmed that “the entire [depot] staff was laid off and advised to apply for unemployment and look for new jobs” last March. He wrote that he and the board “are now focusing on reopening the depot,” and “are putting in COVID safeguards for both staff and customers.” 

He declined to answer specific questions about former employees’ allegations because an ex-employee filed a complaint with the National Labor Review Board, a federal agency that protects workers’ rights to organize for better working conditions and wages, and that case is still open pending appeal.

The depot sells what ex-worker Joshua Hyman describes as “little mysterious pieces of material culture.” Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Federal labor regulators dismissed ex-employees’ complaint

The labor complaint was filed by a former employee on October 14. It included statements from five ex-workers who alleged that they were dismissed due to “protected concerted activities,” meaning their proposal for pay raises, better working conditions, and more say for employees on the depot’s operations, as well as their attempts to communicate with the board. 

The Oaklandside obtained a copy of the complaint through a Freedom of Information Act request. While the names of the employees were redacted from the records, we were able to identify and interview several of the workers who signed the complaint. They asked to not be named out of concern for future job prospects.

The ex-employee who filed the complaint told The Oaklandside that workers decided to try to get federal labor regulators involved when their attempt to negotiate with Delaney about rehiring ex-employees came to a standstill.

In an email the ex-employee sent to Delaney on October 11, they wrote “the staff and I are very confused as to why there are job postings online. We haven’t been informed we were formally terminated or what is going on.”

Delaney responded by writing that he was “unable to meet with former staff members,” and added that they are “welcome to reapply for the new jobs.”

The ex-employee then emailed Delaney to ask if ex-employees would be prioritized for rehire at the depot, but they said Delaney never answered this question.

The NLRB rejected the ex-employees’ complaint on December 2, stating there was insufficient evidence that the layoffs were in retaliation for the employees’ collective action to advocate for themselves and working conditions.

“These guys are good hardworking artists and they’re getting a bad deal,” said Brian Brooks, who used to own Smokey’s Tangle, a studio and gallery close to the depot. He said interactions he’s recently had with Delaney left him with concerns about the depot’s reasons for laying off its workforce. During a one-day street sale the depot organized on October 19th, Brooks noticed Delaney selling a curated booklet of CDs that were marked as “not for sale.” Ex-employees told The Oaklandside these were part of a shared music collection that they listened to while working. 

“When I saw those CDs, I knew they were cleaning house,” said Brooks, who confronted Delaney about it. According to Brooks, Delaney claimed the store was preparing to make a pivot as a result of bad habits that had developed. Although Delaney told him ex-workers could reapply, Brooks said “he was definitely alluding it was time to sweep the old workers away.”

Conflicting visions over the depot’s future

Several ex-employees said management seem to want to turn the store into more of a boutique experience with expensive items for richer clientele, abandoning the scrappy, affordable vibe, and its focus on serving low-income artists and teachers.

“We wanted to be a non-profit arts supply store, not a boutique,” said a former employee. “We were all about making customers happy that we’re selling cheap art supplies instead of waiting on one person to buy a vintage cabinet.”

“Hostile management gave the impression they didn’t care about artists or teachers,” said another former staffer.

Ex-worker Joshua Hyman, who quit in 2017, recalled one time when a co-worker spent hours creating an animal-themed display, only to watch a manager force another employee to dismantle it.

They “hated the funky collage vibe we created,” said Hyman.

“It’s been upsetting to learn you are not offering your employees their positions back after all of these months,” Brooks, the former gallery owner, wrote in an email to the depot’s board in October. “Don’t turn the entire depot into a stiffer/colder all business non-profit culture—I’m afraid that is what’s going to happen. I hope you reconsider.”

Brooks said no one replied to his email.

Delaney said that the depot is “hoping to open this month” but that he and the board are watching pandemic case rates to ensure the safety of customers and new staff. 

The workers recently filed an appeal to have the NLRB reconsider its decision to dismiss their complaint. Several former employees said they’re pessimistic at this point about changing the depot.

“I’m extremely disheartened,” said Dutton. “We all fought so hard to keep the depot community-and-artist-based. It would be cool to get my job back, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Editor’s note: this story was updated on Jan. 25 to remove the name of a former employee who did not want to be identified.

Zack Haber

Journalist and poet writing about homelessness, housing, and activism in Oakland and the East Bay.