A storefront window with a sign above it reading "East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse."
The Depot for Creative Use in Oakland's Temescal has struggled with labor and financial issues through the pandemic. Credit: Amir Aziz

Since its founding in 1979, The East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse, a nonprofit with a storefront in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood, has diverted used art materials, school supplies, media, fabrics, and other goods from landfills, selling them at a discount to teachers, artists, parents looking for craft projects, and anyone browsing their Telegraph Avenue storefront.

But the depot has faced serious difficulties in recent years. In March 2020, when Alameda County’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order forced the depot to close temporarily, it laid off most of its staff. Ben Delaney, the nonprofit’s then-interim executive director, said the layoffs were unfortunate but necessary to survive the recession. But some workers told The Oaklandside they thought the layoffs came in retaliation after they organized for greater control of the store and complained that depot leadership racially profiled customers and was verbally abusive to staff.

The depot ended up hiring replacement workers, but last July, a similar crisis unfolded. Almost all the new staff, including managers, clerks, and an education specialist, quit or were fired. The store’s then-executive director, Jasmine Fallstich, who had replaced Delaney as the store reopened, left at this time as well. She told The Oaklandside she was burned out. 

According to four other former staff members, the depot’s financial difficulties were directly tied to the mass layoff in 2020. Although the store was permitted to reopen as COVID guidelines changed in October 2020, leadership didn’t have enough staff to do so until February 2021. Then, for about the next three months, it was open only on weekends, missing out on months of potential profits. While facing a tenuous financial situation, workers say tensions arose between them and Fallstich and that, ultimately, a stressful environment and conflict with Fallstich reached a breaking point that caused them to quit or be fired.

Mary Miller, the president of the nonprofit’s board, said that while COVID and its related staffing issues posed challenges, the store has also faced financial difficulties for the last ten years. The rise of online markets, like eBay, Craigslist, and Facebook Marketplace, has affected not just how people shop but how they get rid of their unwanted goods. These days, the depot receives less resellable merchandise than before.  Both the continued financial problems, along with Fallstich and the workers leaving, have had a lasting effect that could put the depot’s future in jeopardy.

“With these staffing issues, diminished grant funding availability, and a lackluster economy, we realize that we cannot continue with our mission and programs without assessing the organization and options for moving forward,” Miller said. “This could include a merger, partnership or downsizing or closing our doors permanently.”

Limited hours, layoffs, and understaffing contributed to more stress and financial problems

Fallstich became executive director when the store reopened in February 2021. That same month, she wrote in a statement on the depot’s website that she was excited about its mission, but stressed the need for the nonprofit to become “financially solvent.” She also addressed some concerns of laid-off staff members who felt the nonprofit’s leadership had mistreated them.

“In terms of operational and cultural best practices, we are decades behind where we should be,” she wrote. “Our HR practices are not up to the standards and expectations of employees in today’s workplace.”

Fallstich also wrote that she “had the opportunity to be in dialogue with a few of the former employees directly” and that she had begun to “understand the pain caused—even though unintentionally—by this layoff.” She promised “to do better by all our future employees” but did not address the possibility of rehiring laid-off workers. 

Fallstich told The Oaklandside that shortly after taking over, she emailed every employee who was laid off in 2020 letting them know she would like to connect and ended up speaking to four of them. She said she “did not offer them their jobs back but encouraged them to apply when new roles were open.”

One of these workers, Nathan Seaman, who had worked at the depot for over five years before he had been laid off, decided to reapply. He told The Oaklandside that due to his experience, he felt he would “be a shoo-in” to get the job. He didn’t.

Fallstich told The Oaklandside she interviewed Seaman but decided not to hire him. Seaman felt he was not interviewed in good faith.

“I felt like she had already decided before the interview,” Seaman wrote in a message to The Oaklandside. “Like she just did it to say she tried to hire me back.”

Fallstich said she also contacted former depot worker James Dutton. With over a dozen years of experience, Dutton had been the depot’s longest-tenured in-store employee before being laid off in 2020. He wanted his job back and asked for it. Dutton told The Oaklandside that he met with Fallstich, but the two only discussed depot operations in general, and she never offered him a job interview for any position.

Fallstich told The Oaklandside she had eliminated the role of “full time donation receiver,” which was Dutton’s former job, due to the depot accepting less donations after their reopening. But she said she told him he could interview for a store staff position.

In May of 2021, around the time the depot shifted from operating only on weekends to operating five days a week, Fallstich interviewed Sophie Spindel for a “customer service associate” position. Spindel had grown up in Berkeley but had gotten priced out and was living with her parents in Napa. She longed to find steady work so she could return to the area. Spindel, who was unaware of the previous layoffs, said Fallstich told her about the situation. 

“She seemed to recognize the feelings of the old crew,” said Spindel. “But I feel like her reasoning was she wanted a fresh start and a crew of her own.”

While she had doubts about how Fallstich was handling the hiring process in relation to the previous workers, Spindel took the job and was paid $18 an hour. None of the previously laid-off staff ended up getting their jobs back.

After it reopened in 2021, the depot had significantly fewer workers than it had had before COVID hit. Former employees said this created a huge amount of stress.

According to Jessie Fritzen, who was hired as a green education specialist and outreach coordinator in August of 2021, worker turnover was high. 

“The employee list was a revolving door,” said Fritzen. “There were people that would work three times and then say they were getting a different job.”

Fallstich told The Oaklandside she felt “staffing was a challenge” but that the situation was not unique for the depot, which was faring “no better or no worse than the average retail store in the Bay Area during that time.”

Spindel said that she would often feel overwhelmed because it was impossible to complete all allotted tasks within her scheduled hours. During one several-month period, she was in charge of accepting and organizing donated goods. In the past, that task had involved multiple workers, but Spindel was mostly doing it alone and she couldn’t keep up. 

Goods piled up chaotically and Spindel would work extra unpaid hours to prevent things from getting so crowded that staff would have “no place to walk.”

“I would choose to stay a couple of extra hours for free to make sure that when I came in the next morning, I didn’t go crazy,” said Spindel. “It all came back to understaffing.”

The depot’s challenging financial situation also stressed out staff members. Tay Majernik, the depot’s facilities manager, said he felt he was hired in large part to help Fallstich and the board with “saving the depot” from going out of business. At first, he was optimistic and thought it was a difficult but important mission.

“I thought everything was going to be okay,” said Majernik. “It would be hard, but we were going to keep this nonprofit that was so important together.”

According to Fallstich, the nonprofit was “working with a 5-8 month runway,” meaning the amount of time before a business runs out of cash. Fallstich wrote that working under such financial pressure was “incredibly stressful for all parties.” 

According to the nonprofit’s tax records, by the end of 2020, the depot had run about a $103,000 deficit. But the depot was able to secure federal paycheck protection loans to cushion the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The nonprofit received over $160,000 in federal funds, including one loan in May of 2020 and another in February of 2021. The government forgave about $120,000 of these loans. 

The nonprofit’s most recent tax records aren’t publicly available yet, but according to the depot’s leaders, it’s still struggling financially.

Depot staff said that the risk of the nonprofit going out of business affected their pay. Although Majernik was a manager, he was paid $20 an hour and said he was told he’d receive no raise unless the depot could reach financial goals that would ensure it could stay open.

“It was my eagerness to meet those goals,” said Majernik, “and to create something that could stay that made me think the pay was ok.”

Fallstich called the wages, which she budgeted with the board, “typical for retail in this area” but acknowledged they “were not a living wage.” She said she had been planning with the board to increase wages so that everyone would make more and that the lowest-paid workers would make at least $21 an hour.

Employees again tried to participate more in the nonprofit’s governance

East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse
The depot’s storefront in Temescal. Credit: Amir Aziz

Starting in February 2022, Fritzen, along with other depot staff, began pushing for the nonprofit to be open with the public about the possibility of it having to shut down. They hoped the board would allow the store to ask community members for financial help. 

“We needed to let the public know that we were going to lose our jobs if there’s no more money,” said Fritzen, “and they were going to lose a community resource.”

Fritzen sat in on two board meetings and asked to organize a fundraiser, but she said the board wouldn’t give her permission. She remembers the board being concerned about the depot’s reputation and wanting to do work to improve it first before considering asking the public for money in a formal capacity.

Fallstich said the board created a financial committee that met with a nonprofit financial planner. According to Fallstich, this committee included a depot employee, but Fritzen said that was not true and that workers “were never allowed to join the meetings.” Through these meetings, Fallstich said the committee ultimately “decided to undertake a strategic planning process before making the financial situation public” and that the goal was to start fundraising sometime between August and December. 

Miller, the nonprofit’s board president, told The Oaklandside the depot did fundraise and that it was successful in receiving a grant. 

The depot has consistently had a donation button on its website over the last few years. Miller also created a GoFundMe fundraiser to help replace a stolen truck shortly after its reopening in 2021 that the depot had owned. But the board never organized the type of fundraiser the workers were requesting, one that was open with the public about its financial difficulties and the need for greater help.

A new idea to ‘save the depot’ leads to more staff tension

Fallstich said the depot secured a $41,000 grant from the Altamont Education Advisory Board in late April 2022 to create a new space in the store, called Re:Studio, where community members could take classes, gather, and make craftwork and art. Fallstich wanted to “expand the offerings of the depot” while increasing profit.

Marco Vargas, a depot staff member who was hired in December of 2020 and became a manager in February of last year, felt that the new space was Fallstich’s idea of how to save the depot. 

But Vargas said creating Re:Studio meant putting even more pressure on staff members, especially the management team. They describe the work as being “insanely hard” as it involved moving all the inventory in the store to create new space while still keeping up the store’s normal operations. Depot staff members worked on creating the Re:Studio project during a roughly six-week period between June and July of last year. During that time, work hours increased, and tensions ran high.

“The energy that everyone was feeling was we’re gonna close the depot since we’re so in debt,” said Vargas. “The harder and more you work, the more likely it’ll survive.”

Some staff members said as this work progressed, their relationships with Fallstich deteriorated. Fritzen, who had gotten along well with Fallstich in the past, said Fallstich criticized her work and stopped collaborating with her or allowing her to do any events Fritzen had been able to organize before the Re:Studio project started.

Fallstich denied speaking to Fritzen harshly and doesn’t recall barring her from working on other projects.

According to Vargas, around this time, workers would complain about how Fallstich was talking to them.

“I heard she would only give negative feedback, not positive,” said Vargas.

Fallstich denied giving negative feedback directly to workers. Instead, Fallstich said she told Vargas any feedback she had about depot workers and then asked Vargas to relay that feedback to workers. She said not all of this feedback was negative, but that “we certainly would have spent much more time discussing how to give difficult rather than positive feedback” as “positive feedback is fun and easy to give” while “negative feedback needs to be handled much more carefully.”

Vargas and Majernik said tensions between workers and Fallstich reached a breaking point on July 7, the day before the Re:Studio space opened. Vargas and Majernik described their memories of what happened that day in open letters they taped to the door of the depot about a month later.  

“My mental health had been wearing on me because of the pressures and hostile work environment, so l communicated to Jasmine how I was feeling and what I needed,” Majernik wrote. “She responded with defense and started yelling at me in front of my peers and staff members.”

According to Vargas, who also published their statement on Instagram, Fallstich yelled at them and Majernik.

“This abuse continued all day, yelling at me in front of my store crew, yelling at us when we asked if she had time to discuss the incident,” they wrote.

Fallstich denied yelling and said she “mostly stayed quiet and tried to listen” and “offered to call for mental health support,” but that she “eventually asked them both to leave.”

There was major fallout from the argument. According to Vargas, Majernik, and Fritzen, the day after it occurred, a clerk who objected to Fallstich’s actions stopped coming to work out of protest. 

Vargas, Majernik, and Fritzen kept coming to work, but they began requesting a formal meeting with Fallstich in order to work through the issues. 

“The discussion didn’t go well,” said Vargas about the meeting after it happened. “It felt like she only apologized because we asked her to.”

Fallstich said that during the meeting, she remembers the staff members “sharing their perspectives on the events of the previous week while I listened and took notes.”

The tensions were never resolved, said staff, and Fallstich decided to resign from her position, giving her two weeks’ notice on July 13. Workers told The Oaklandside they weren’t aware at the time that she had quit. 

On July 16, Vargas and Majernik chose not to show up for work until Fallstich and the board addressed their complaints. Then the rest of the store’s workers, except for one employee, joined them in not attending work.

On July 17th, Fritzen formally quit. In an open letter to the board of directors, she blamed Fallstich’s “inconsistency in leadership” and said the depot’s mistreatment of workers was the reason she was leaving.

On July 18th, five days after she had submitted her resignation but before her final day as the depot’s executive director, Fallstich fired Vargas and Majernik, informing them in a letter that their termination came as a result of “purposely abandoning” their jobs.

According to Spindel, the depot asked her and other workers if they wanted to come back by email a few days after the walkout started, but none of them chose to do so. In the end, only one accountant and one worker remained.

The depot is still open, with reduced hours

Following the mass worker exodus in July 2022, the depot has remained open but at reduced hours. Pre-pandemic, the store had been open every day. Now it’s open four days a week. Miller, the president of the depot’s board, said that the reduced hours come as a result of understaffing, a problem the organization is still trying to fix.

“The Depot is now working to replace the positions and get back to full strength, albeit in a very difficult hiring environment,” she told The Oaklandside. “In the interim, we have been forced to reduce the hours we are open and receive donations due to the staff shortage.”

Miller praised the “passion and commitment of the few staff that we have managed to retain,” saying that “their herculean efforts keeping the store and the donations dock open have been daily miracles of tenacity and dedication.”

Recently, the depot has been offering entirely new programming, like classes held in its Re:Studio space, where community members have learned about sock puppet creation, 3-D collage, and sewing. In addition to expanding the work at Re:Studio, Miller said the depot hopes to offer other classes on reuse at local schools as it has in the past. But it’s continued to struggle to keep its doors open. 

According to Miller, the depot has been “launching an aggressive grant writing campaign” in the hopes of recovering financially.

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