As revered for its coffee by its customers as it is by its employees, one Santa Barbara branch of The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf has recently become a site for controversy for its alleged decision to not only fire three long-term employees, but to fire them four days before Christmas. Stephanie Ingoldsby, Jamie Harmon, and Jenna Douglas — the former currently in her second trimester of pregnancy, the latter two both single parents, all three shift supervisors — adamantly deny any wrongdoing on their parts.
It could be said that the firings all started with the Gap, Tea, and Jesusita Fires of 2008 and 2009. Because of the De La Vina Street branch’s proximity to Earl Warren Showgrounds — the main base camp for all of the firefighters and EMTs — many Coffee Bean employees, Ingoldsby, Harmon, and Douglas included, donated thousands of cups of coffee to the rescue personnel over the three fires’ span, claiming they only did so having received prior permission from previous general manager, Lindsey Evans, as well as the company’s main office. With each delivery to the showgrounds, Ingoldsby estimates that about 5 to 10 gallons of coffee and its accoutrements were supplied. According to the Loss Prevention associates of The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, however, those donations added up, with the cost to the company totaling to somewhere between $1,000 and $3,000.
That issue, though, would remain under the radar until months later. With the aforementioned fires’ ashes settled, a new, figurative fire was about to cause some damage, this one sparked by outdoor furniture. According to Ingoldsby, current store manager Alicia Simpson offered her three of the store’s Adirondack chairs, claiming — according to Ingoldsby — that she was sick and tired of the chairs, that they were cumbersome, and that Ingoldsby could use them to furnish her new house. Ingoldsby also asserts that Simpson, who declined to comment, told her not to mention the offering to anyone.
Shortly thereafter, in late November 2009, Ingoldsby — having told fellow supervisor Jenna Douglas about the offer — asked her husband Brian and his friend to come to the store to pick up the chairs. All was without incident until December 16, 2009 when Brian allegedly saw Loss Prevention associates looking around his and Stephanie’s front yard. The Loss Prevention associates — according to Ingoldsby — deemed the Adirondack chairs accidentally delivered yet also stolen property.
The following day, December 17, Ingoldsby herself was visited by the Loss Prevention associates when they came into the coffeehouse to ask her questions. According to Ingoldsby, the associates went above and beyond asking questions, claiming they “interrogated” her for “about 45 minutes,” and not just about the chairs.
Upon being questioned about the chairs, Ingoldsby attempted to set the record straight, asking that Simpson be brought in to verify that she granted her permission to take the chairs. However, Simpson allegedly denied ever granting Ingoldsby such permission, claiming that she only said Ingoldsby could take some other, older furniture.
Furthering the confusion, the Loss Prevention associates — Ingoldsby claims –— went on to accuse her, as well as Harmon and Douglas, of stealing money from the store’s tip jars, proclaiming the situation — as Ingoldsby remembers — “a circle of thievery,” supposedly proven by video footage that the associates failed to ever produce. The three were also questioned about the legality of providing the coffee to the firefighters and EMTs.
That very same day, all three women were suspended, with Douglas and Harmon told to leave the premises and surrender their aprons and keys. Ingoldsby, although initially given the same instructions, was immediately thereafter told to open the next morning because she was already scheduled. Her keys and apron were returned to her.
The following Monday, December 21, while working at the coffeehouse, Ingoldsby was confronted by a corporate Human Resources representative, Sarah McKinney. Together with Simpson, McKinney allegedly asked to speak with Ingoldsby outside. Ingoldsby, having sought out legal counsel from employment attorney Erin Parks following the incident days prior, informed Simpson and McKinney that she would be recording their conversation. McKinney then claimed that to do so would violate company policy, yet Ingoldsby refused to talk without the tape recorder rolling. Having reached an impasse, Ingoldsby walked away, at which point she claims McKinney yelled, “You’re fired!”
Days later, Ingoldsby received a letter in the mail from The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, asserting that she was “fired for stealing patio furniture,” with nary a mention of the tip jar accusations or the coffee donations.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Attempts by The Independentto speak to McKinney and other representatives from Coffee Bean’s Human Resources Department were met with open hostility and exasperation. McKinney accused writer Lyz Hoffman of being “best friends” with three women discussed in this article, and claimed Hoffman was using the The Independent to publicize their complaints in an “intentionally one-sided and negative article.” We feel it is important to emphasize that Ms. Hoffman has no personal relationship — prior or current — with former Coffee Bean employees Ingoldsby, Harmon, and Douglas, and that every effort was made to speak to Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf corporate representatives about the allegations. McKinney refused to comment in any way on the claims of the former employees, citing company policy of not discussing the of the hiring and firing of workers because of privacy issues.]
Ingoldsby believes ulterior motives may have had a role in her termination. For instance, shortly before the maelstrom, Ingoldsby (along with Harmon) sought out unemployment paperwork, having had their hours drastically cut — Ingoldsby’s from a steady 25-35 hours per week to, at one point, 9 hours per week. She believes it hardly coincidence that she was fired so soon after receiving her paperwork. Ingoldsby also wonders whether or not her upcoming maternity leave may have played a role in her firing.
Most notably, Ingoldsby finds it odd how previous manager Lindsey Evans was likewise accused of stealing prior to her leaving the store, her position thereafter filled by Simpson. Hinting of a possible set-up, Ingoldsby — employed by the coffeehouse for over 7 years — asserts that she “never had issues with anybody before Alicia [Simpson].”
Now Ingoldsby is nevertheless looking for a new job, having submitted approximately 50 resumes and received three responses, one of which is from another coffeehouse. “I’ll take what I can get,” she said. Meanwhile, Harmon and Douglas — who were also purportedly interrogated and accused of stealing money by the Loss Prevention associates — are striving to start over as well.
Employed by the coffeehouse for nearly a decade, Harmon, who is also under the legal aid of Erin Parks, has proclaimed the accusations against her and her former coworkers as “ridiculous,” dubbing the whole process “morally corrupt and wrong.”
Douglas, a seven-year employee and the mother of a special needs child, feels betrayed. With a strong enough penchant for coffee that she one day hopes to open a coffeehouse of her own — one that “supports the arts and local schools” — Douglas chose The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf over former employer Starbucks, saying it “felt like a company that cared for their employees.” Her ordeal, however, has taken its toll: Douglas is relocating to the San Diego area, despite being born and raised in Santa Barbara and still having family here. “I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the back,” Douglas said.