Daily operations at Cholmondeley’s Coffeehouse have been suspended following an incident on Friday, March 6, and the employment status of its 13 student workers still remains under dispute.

In an interview with the Justice, four students who worked at Chum’s described the incident: on that Friday, the smoke alarm went off in Chum’s because students were smoking in the coffeehouse’s back room. The two student workers who were staffing the coffeehouse that night did not evacuate it. When Public Safety arrived at the coffeehouse and found that occupants were still inside, they evacuated the facility and closed it for the night.

According to Niri Halperin ’15, Halperin and her co-general manager Josh Berman ’15 received an email that night from Robert Steinberg ’13, the Student Activities specialist who acts as a liaison between Chum’s and the Department of Student Activities, saying that the venue was closed for the weekend and that the staff was not to go into the space. The next day, Halperin said, when Chum’s staff members tried to get inside the coffeehouse, they found that all of the locks had been changed.

In the weeks since then, the staff of Chum’s has met with several members of the University’s administration—including Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Student Activities Stephanie Grimes, Dean of Students Jamele Adams and Senior Vice President for Students and Enrollment Andrew Flagel—to sort out the situation.

The University community has seen widespread social media response to the March 6 incident, in which students and alumni have used the hashtag #FreeChums.

Social media and email communications from both the Cholmondeley’s Coffeehouse Facebook page and Flagel have led to the circulation of dissenting opinions over the fate of the 13 students who were employed by Chum’s.

While the students claim that they have been told several times that they have been fired from their positions as Chum’s workers and that they have also been told that their positions are “under review,” in an interview with the Justice on Monday, March 23, Flagel said that the 13 students “were not fired.”

In an interview with the Justice, Halperin, Events Manager David Stiefel ’16, Co-Advertising Manager Jenn Largaespata ’16 and new hire Saren McAllister ’18 discussed the work environment and practices during their time at Chum’s.

While Chum’s is a student-staffed business, it is officially overseen by the Department of Student Activities. According to Halperin, she and Berman met weekly with Grimes and Steinberg. After Chum’s hiring practices became a topic of public debate last year, Halperin said they began to talk collaboratively with Steinberg about hiring and worked together to reform practices for this year.

When they were hired at Chum’s, Halperin, Steifel, Largaespata and McAllister said, they did not receive any sort of orientation or training from Student Activities or any written materials in the way of training. “There was one time I remember they [Student Activities] said, ‘You guys should have trainings, you should come back early during winter break to have trainings,’ but didn’t give any more specific direction,” Largaespata said.

This year, Halperin said, Student Activities “didn’t really provide us with any training, except they said that a staff member had to get Serv-Safe [certified],” which would let the staff legally serve food in Chum’s.

“Now, I think they see that that is an issue,” Largaespata said of Student Activities’ lack of training for Chum’s employees. “It’s kind of gross, the way we had this incident and then came to them and said, ‘We want to work with you on this’ … and they have disregarded it,” Halperin added.

On the Wednesday following the March 6 incident, the four said, the entire Chum’s staff met with Grimes and Steinberg and brought a nine-page long proposal they had drafted which focused on issues of accountability and the rights and responsibilities of workers. The proposal included measures to add positions to the student management structure they had practiced at Chum’s this year, to implement fire safety trainings, as well as proposing that student employees sign contracts, they said.

On Monday, March 23, the 13 student employees of Chum’s sent an email, obtained, by the Justice to Flagel, Grimes, Adams and Steinberg seeking to repair Chum’s relationship with the University administration. “While Chum’s staff maintains that Student Activities has not handled this in the best way possible, we feel that our relationship can be repaired,” the email reads. “We are enthused to move forward if you agree with the following conditions we discussed.” The email lists as its conditions that current Chum’s employees are not to be terminated or relocated to other positions without “documented evidence as proper justification;” that Chum’s is “immediately opened, so that it may return to business” and that “any revisions to the managerial structure of [Chum’s] are fully approved by its staff.”

Flagel responded to the 13 students in an email provided to the Justice, writing that “it does not seem reasonable to demand the commitments you suggest ahead of a reasonable review process in response to serious concerns that have been raised.”

“As it stands,” he wrote, “Chum’s will be open for regular operations as soon after that General Manager hire as possible, and following a reasonable and collaborative review of current staff members.” He added that his expectation is that “most if not all staff members will resume work at Chum’s,” contingent upon review of documented performance reviews. “In the meantime, also as discussed, events will continue to take place [at Chum’s] and your wages will be sustained, to minimize any negative impact on you or the community,” he wrote.

In an email to the Chum’s staff sent Monday, March 23 by Flagel and provided to the Justice, he wrote that the students “do not have hours while operations are suspended,” but added that this is “functional suspension WITH PAY.”

“I assured students Friday that they will be paid for the hours they would normally be working to ensure that no student loses income while this review is completed.”

Grimes and Steinberg did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Since the March 6 incident, the students said, changes have been underway to Chum’s physical appearance. McAllister mentioned that she was back in Chum’s this Sunday night for an event, saying that “they washed all the chalk off the walls and took down all the momentos [sic] and stickers that were up, even behind the counter.”

Formerly covered in student’s chalk drawings, with posters, pictures and other souveneirs hung all over its walls, McAllister said that she was “shocked and saddened” to see Chum’s barren. “The walls are clean except for one spot they couldn’t reach... It was really weird. It made it clear that they don’t appreciate what the students created.”

Moving forward, Steifel said, “We really see no reason why any employee who has a completely clean record can’t get their job guaranteed back to them.”

“In addition to being able to get the space back open again so we can resume service to the student body—” Steifel started, and Largaespata continued, “We maintain that current Chum’s employees have the best understanding of the historical value of Chum’s and how to maintain it as a space for creative expression.”

“A sense of community is necessary for generating a safe space amongst the student body,” Largaespata said.