Forced to choose between their beliefs and their jobs, four restaurant workers say, they walked out after they were threatened with being fired for refusing to help fill an order for a law enforcement agency that was policing nearby race protests.
The employees at a Columbus location of Condado Tacos, a regional Mexican chain, walked out this week over a catering order for 250 Ohio Highway Patrol officers who were working the protests of the Minnesota death of George Floyd.
Now, the modest actions by just a few workers have generated national publicity that led managers to temporarily shutter two locations of the rapidly expanding chain, and have sparked a conversation about free expression in the workplace.
Jake Widdowson, 25, clocked in for work Monday to learn of an order for 500 tacos for the patrol.
Widdowson opposed cooperating on the order in light of the Floyd protests and told the manager so.
Floyd, a black man who died while being restrained by police, has galvanized protesters of racism and police brutality across the country. The protests in Columbus have brought complaints of excessive force, including the use of tear gas and batons.
“I have been participating in the protests in Columbus, and seeing the way that police have been treating peaceful protesters, it was immediately clear that it was against my principles to be complicit in that order,” Widdowson said in an interview.
Store managers were supportive, Widdowson and other staff members said. Things escalated, though, when a district manager who happened to be visiting got involved, Widdowson said.
“Tell anyone refusing to work that they are fired,” Widdowson quoted the district manager as saying.
Widdowson and three other workers who also refused to help fill the order at the restaurant, which employs a diverse staff, left. At that point, the district manager urged them to reconsider, Widdowson said.
The story made the rounds on social media as the protests happening nearby intensified. Managers closed the location the next day, along with a second store that employs a worker who tweeted a letter to managers.
Condado did not fire the workers, a spokesperson said in a written statement, but staff “must understand that Condado Tacos is an inclusive business and that we will continue to serve everyone, including law enforcement.”
The Highway Patrol was unaware of the walkout until a news report on it appeared the next day, said Lt. Craig Cvetan, an agency spokesperson.
The patrol, he said, was “treated with nothing but kindness and respect” by the staffers who ended up filling their order. There was no patrol reaction specifically to the walkout.
But state Attorney General Dave Yost, a Republican, did not stifle himself, tweeting, “I’ll miss their tacos. I’ll patronize any restaurant that posts a sign outside that says ‘Law Enforcement Welcome Here.’”
The restaurant held a meeting Thursday, discussing the dust-up and staff safety following the closure of the two locations, which previously were open only for delivery and takeout because of coronavirus restrictions.
The company said Friday that it plans to reopen next week.
After hearing workers’ feedback, the chain hopes to donate to charities that support criminal justice and fight racism, Widdowson said.
Farnoush Amiri is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.