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Local Uproar: Popular Bed-Stuy Coffee Shop Faces Boycott Over Allegations of Labor Injustice

Long touted as a community space, Playground Coffee Shop is facing a boycott amid claims of wage theft and allegations the business profited off the images of its young, LGBTQ+ employees of color.
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Playground Coffee Shop. Photo: Google Street View.

A Bed-Stuy coffee shop and nonprofit that built its reputation as a safe space for LGBTQ+ people of color and an anti-gentrification force in the neighborhood is now facing calls for a boycott, amid claims its owner had a years-long pattern of underpaying and unfairly firing its staff.

The campaign to boycott Bedford Avenue's Playground Coffee Shop was launched on Instagram on July 31 by a group of former employees alleging a toxic work environment, payment issues and an "abuse of identity politics that advance corporate brand partnerships."

Playground Coffee Shop — which also operates a bookstore, a non-profit for youth, a free fridge and a radio station — opened in 2016 and has touted itself as a community space “focused on social and conscious awareness” that provides mutual aid and community programming.

A group of former Playground Coffee Shop workers are calling for a boycott of the space. Image: Credit / Boycott Playground Coffee Shop.

The boycott came as a reaction to five employees being let go without notice in the past month after they raised concerns about late and short paychecks, the group claims. The group has also launched a GoFundMe for those workers that have been let go, some of whom are now facing eviction due to missed rent.

Workers allege a years-long pattern 

Since the boycott launched, former Playground employees have come forward with their own stories.

In interviews with five former Playground Coffee Shop workers who worked at the business from October 2016 through July 2023, employees illustrated a pattern of allegedly unethical labor practices stemming from Playground Coffee Shop Founder Zenat Begum.

Image: Credit / Boycott Playground Coffee Shop

BK Reader reached out to Begum for comment or insight, but Begum declined to comment on the allegations raised in this article.

Tann Koga, Playground's first barista, worked at the coffee shop for about 18 months before they realized, for two tax years in a row, Begum hadn't been taking taxes from their pay, despite Koga raising it with her. Soon after Koga confronted Begum about the issue, they were fired, Koga said.

Koga said they tried to warn other employees about Begum's management style afterward, but the shop's reputation had grown big enough already to evade scrutiny.

"I just felt like people didn't believe me. So I stopped talking about it," Koga said. 

Djozef Reid said they were employed in March as a shopkeeper and associate curator at the company's bookstore Playground Annex for $18 an hour, but problems arose when Reid realized they were being paid $15, not $18 as agreed.

After calling a meeting with Begum about it, she apologized and gave Reid a partial raise to $16.50, they said. 

"I didn't really say anything about back pay because I figured nothing was written down, so it's kind of hard to stake your claim, and I just had this trust that she didn't pay me the wrong amount intentionally," Reid said.

Four former Playground Coffee Shop workers alleged that employees were working without written contracts and were paid under the table, which made it harder for them to assert their rights.

Not long after, on July 7, Reid got an offer from another employer and went to management to discuss the potential for a more central role at the Annex that had been floated earlier. Later that day, Reid said they got a call that Begum had decided to let them go, effective immediately. 

Public image 'not lining up' with business practices, workers say

Another Playground Annex worker who asked not to be named said that checks were either late or short for three months in a row.

"I was like, 'This is just not lining up for me that your workers who work full time aren't getting enough pay or aren't getting their pay on time,'" she said. 

The worker said she gave her two months' notice but left earlier when she alleged the workplace became "hostile" due to a rumor she was organizing to criticize Playground publicly. 

"A lot of times I'll say it feels like a photo-op of, like, a lot of cool, young, Black and Brown folks in the block party ... And it's really beautiful, but it's a facade and we all think we're supporting something greater for the community, whereas the flip-side is it's something that is harming community members who work there." 

Employees left in precarious positions

Meanwhile, some of Playground’s most recently-fired staff members said they have been left broke and scrambling for work after being let go suddenly.

Ishwara Grant-Harrison, 23, and Tyas Garner, 24, both started working as baristas at Playground in 2022 and said, initially, Begum made them feel like they were valued members of something beautiful. 

"The way she would talk to me made me feel really happy to be part of something, and like I was in a space where I could do something important bigger than myself," Garner said. 

However, when biweekly paychecks frequently started coming three or four days late in 2023, Grant-Harrison decided to crunch the numbers in their check and realized it was more than $300 short. Sharing the information with two fellow baristas, they realized their checks were hundreds of dollars short, too, and that they'd all been underpaid for months.

Garner and Grant-Harrison said they decided to all send Begum a text. When the issues were not resolved over text, a meeting was called for the three baristas. All were fired without warning, they say.

"I was really scared right away because I had no money," Grant-Harrison said.

The pair said Begum alluded to financial issues and an inability to pay them in the future. In January 2022, Playground launched a GoFundMe asking for urgent financial assistance to stay afloat. The campaign raised more than $50,000 in three days. In October 2022, while marking its 6-year anniversary, the request for donations was repeated.

Overall, Grant-Harrison estimates they are owed around $5,000 in unpaid wages. The realization explained why they felt they were working so much this year but still struggling.

"I was feeling a lot of shame about how broke I was," Grant-Harrison said.

Meanwhile, the pair started to reflect on how the images of young, LGBTQ+ people of color were being used to advance the company. 

"A lot of businesses now benefit from using what is popular. And queer aesthetics, especially Black queer aesthetics, especially in Brooklyn, are popular,” Grant-Harrison said. "Aside from the money that we were owed, we were all participating in an image that we were not being compensated for."

In the past two years, Playground Coffee Shop has shouted out brand partnerships or sponsorship from Perrier, Oatly, Carhartt, Kith, Timberland, vitamin company AG1, skincare company Topicals, Arizona iced tea and more. Workers that BK Reader spoke to claimed they sometimes received merchandise when their pay was short — like a pair of Jordans given as promotional material for a Nike-sponsored event at Playground.

Like many Playground workers, Grant-Harrison and Garner said they both loved the job, coworkers and regulars, and saw a future there, which made the situation all the more heartbreaking. 

"I just felt like I got duped," Garner said.

Workers want what they're owed

Right now, Garner said they want everyone who is owed to get their money. They also want to see Begum removed from a position of power.

On Aug. 3, in light of the boycott, Begum emailed a group of former staff, inviting them to a "brave space" for accountability through a virtual town hall with a mediator. 

The workers rejected Begum's invite, calling it a "publicity stunt." They said they had tried to talk and would not attend a forum mediated by a person of Begum's choosing.

"We demand the wages we are owed, a formal and public apology including a committal document to transparency and better wage practices from Playground Coffee Shop," they said.

Alternatively, they would like to see the business transferred into a co-op model, which workers said would put Playground in a position to start practicing some of its publicized values that have not been upheld. 

As of Aug. 15, the call to boycott Playground Coffee Shop had at least 2,000 likes across various accounts who shared it on Instagram. The GoFundMe for laid-off workers had raised upwards of $8,400 from more than 200 donors, and is seeking $20,000 in total. 

Jessy Edwards

About the Author: Jessy Edwards

Jessy Edwards is an award-winning news and feature reporter whose work can be seen in such publications as NBC New York, Rolling Stone, the BBC, CNBC and more.
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