Mary Gmaz, 30
Position: Manager of Killer E.S.P.
Started: July 2020
Quit: November 2020
Salary: $20.00 per hour (though was never paid that)
As told to Matt Cohen
Mary Gmaz quit her job, along with all of her coworkers, at a coffee shop in the Washington, DC suburb of Alexandria, Virginia. The owner frequently sexually harassed women on his staff and refused to follow COVID safety protocols, they say. Shelton did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the allegations of sexual harassment made in this article. He told the Washingtonian, which first reported on the entire staff quitting, that those claims were “outrageous” and “lies.”
Incredibly, this isn’t the first time owner Rob Shelton’s entire staff has quit in rage. In June, Shelton’s staff quit collectively over what they said were racist social media posts and COVID denial, as detailed in the same Washingtonian story.
Killer E.S.P. is—well, I don’t know if it’s still around anymore—but it’s a coffee shop in Alexandria, Virginia. It’s in Old Town. And it’s been around for about nine years now. It was my favorite coffee shop for about three years, back when I was still a contractor. I’d bring my laptop in and I would just do work there because it was open ’till 10:30 at night. But with COVID and everything I lost my contracting gig. I had to find some new work. I found the job at E.S.P. on Indeed.com. I thought, why not try it?
When I went in, the owner seemed a little odd. He wasn’t wearing his mask completely. He had his nose just sticking out. But he offered me the job and I was ecstatic at the idea of being able to pay my rent. I was just going to be a plain old barista coming on in. And I was okay with that. I was told it was $10 an hour not counting tips, which I thought was a pretty good wage.
In the beginning, it seemed not too bad. But he seemed a little odd. He had a lot of weird conspiracy theories that he would throw at us. He would talk about the Titanic and say that the government actually sunk the Titanic because there were people that were on the ship that were rich and wanted to change the world and make it a better place and change the monetary system. And the iceberg was really a missile from a submarine. He also said that COVID was a conspiracy by the government to make the people submit under the government’s control and give up all of their rights. Just crazy crap like that.
It didn’t feel like a hostile environment until the beginning of October. My coworker had left—he was the one that was the original manager. And when he left, I was promoted to manager. So I thought, “Oh, this is great. I’m going to be a manager!” He told me I was going to have a $20-an-hour income and that I was going to be a full-time employee. I thought, “20 bucks an hour full-time during COVID? This is great!”
But a week into it I realized that my paycheck was actually a lot lower than it was before the promotion and I thought this was kind of odd. I went up to him and I approached him and he told me that “because I’m a manager now I can’t have tips anymore.” I mean, I understood that. But he also said he couldn’t afford to pay me the $20 an hour. So, I was still only making $10 an hour, but with no tips. I was making less as a manager than I was as a barista.
After that, I started noticing that the girls who I was working with seemed a little off. They were sweet, little teenage girls. All the energy in the world, just big smiles on their faces all the time. But then they started to seem kind of—they didn’t have the energy that they used to have. They were sad when they came into work. They had bad attitudes. Things like that. And I would ask them, “Are you okay? What’s up?” And nobody really wanted to talk about it.
Finally, one of the girls came forward and talked to me about it. She said that she had been put in an uncomfortable position. The owner had picked her up—to move her out of the way—and when he picked her up, he put his hands underneath her boobs. When she approached him about how it made her uncomfortable, he just gave her a ceramic bowl that was her favorite bowl that was used for customers and told her not to worry about it. I thought that that’s kind of what a predator does: Whenever you question something, they’re like, “Here’s something shiny, now shut up and go away.”
I started kind of pushing all the other girls to explain things to me; tell me what was going on. And they started giving me similar stories like that. I hadn’t experienced that at that time, so I thought this was kind of weird. And then I started noticing he was doing it to me too. This is not like when I first started in July, when it was just weird old Rob who was just this odd dude that had conspiracy theories. Now, he’s created this creepy, uncomfortable environment where you dread coming into work. I used to wear like V-necks and skinny jeans and stuff like that. And then I stopped wearing them because I thought maybe if I wore ugly grandma clothes, he would leave me alone. But it didn’t work.
On Friday November 13, I went into the basement with Rob to go through the teas. We were trying to figure out what teas we were going to be doing for the next few months, and trying to organize stuff in the basement. He started touching me inappropriately. He started rubbing me by trying to get past me and rubbing his crotch up against my butt and slightly touching the side of my boobs with his hands. I was getting very, very uncomfortable. I told him, “You know, can you be more careful?” And he’s like, “Oh, it’s just clumsy me! Sorry about that!” But he kept doing it over and over and over again. To the point where I was done. I stopped everything. I said, “I’m not doing this anymore.” And I started going upstairs. When I got to the top of the stairs, he grabbed me by the wrist. He told me that he wanted me to sit down and have a conversation with him that we needed to have a meeting. So I said, “Okay, fine, we can have a meeting.”
He sits me down and he tells me he’s been noticing that I’ve been coming in a lot more, that my hours have been a lot higher than normal. I told him that the reason for that was because he had taken the security cameras in the shop down. And as soon as he took the cameras down, the girls started complaining about him being inappropriate with them. So, I was coming in more to make sure that he wouldn’t go behind the bar and bother them, in case he was making all of the girls feel uncomfortable. He told me that they can make their own decisions, that they were old enough—bear in mind they’re between the ages of 15 and 16—and that I needed to know my place. So not only did he cut my pay again, but he cut my hours to about 10 to 15 hours a week—only to come in when I was needed.
Me and the other girls that worked there had a group chat on WhatsApp, and they sent me a message the next day basically saying, “Hey Mary, we have a lot to talk about with you and we were wondering if we could have a meeting with you tomorrow?” I came in about 12:30 and they took me to the back area and were like, “Okay, what’s been going on?” And I told them what had happened the day before.
So on Friday, after the meeting with Rob, I got up and I stormed out. I was just like, “I’m done.” And then the girls sent me that message later on Saturday evening. They told me that they were done with everything. They were sick of the environment, that it was toxic. Like the stuff that he wasn’t doing when it came to COVID—the food safety protocol issues that he was not following. And they said they were quitting.
I supported them and told them that if they were all going to walk out, I was going to walk out with them.
We told the customers that were in the store that the espresso machine was broken—which it was, it had been broken for about three weeks. We thanked everybody, everyone left, we locked the doors and we completely cleaned the store as best as we could. We did all the closing protocols and everything and then sent him a text saying that all of us had quit because of the toxic work environment and that we expected our paychecks by the end of November.
He tried to call us, but at the time one of the girls’ mothers had come in because she wanted to make sure that if he had come in, he wouldn’t retaliate against her. She advised us not to pick up the phone. He only tried to call that one time. After that, he didn’t try to call again. I got home and told my husband what had happened. I told him that we had all walked out and we all quit. He looked at me and he asked me how I felt about it, and I said that I felt like a huge weight was lifted off my chest and that I kind of felt free.
The nightmare was finally over.