Fired Insomnia Cookie Employees Protest Alleged Labor Violations, Call for Higher Wages

Four fired Insomnia Cookies employees and a group of their supporters staged a rally Thursday outside the company’s Harvard Square location, highlighting a week of picketing in front of the store.

The demonstrators, who rallied Thursday with support from the Boston branch of the Industrial Workers of the World union, protested the dismissal of the employees, alleged that Insomnia Cookies has violated labor regulations, and called for higher wages, health care benefits, and the ability to form a union.

The protests began after the store’s four night-shift employees launched a strike at midnight Sunday, shutting down operations for three hours in what one protester called an “occupation” of the store. All four employees were dismissed on Monday.

Christopher J. Helali, one of the fired employees who has been protesting outside the store, claimed in an interview Tuesday that managers at Insomnia Cookies refused to give workers who worked more than eight hours a legally mandated one-hour break. The protesters also allege that Insomnia Cookies did not meet the legal requirement to ensure their drivers made minimum wage when their tips and commission were insufficient. The protesters said they plan to file a formal complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

The fired workers said that Insomnia Cookies has not communicated with any of them since their dismissal Monday. The eastern regional manager of Insomnia Cookies, who was staffing the location during the protest on Tuesday, declined to give his name or comment on the protest. Insomnia Cookies’ public relations also did not respond to repeated requests for comment throughout the week.

Helali also voiced concern about wages that he said did not represent “a livable wage for the area.”

On its website, Insomnia Cookies describes its wages as “above average.” Helali said that bakers and cashiers at Insomnia Cookies are paid $9 an hour, while drivers are paid $5 an hour in addition to a $0.50 commission and tips.

“At some point, we have to pick up the sign and go protest,” Helali said.

Although the minimum wage in Massachusetts is $8 an hour, the MIT Living Wage Project, which provides minimum estimates of the cost of living for low-income families, calculates that the “living wage” for one adult without children is $12.62 an hour in Cambridge and $12.65 an hour in Boston.

According to Helali, the reception from the public to the protest has not been enthusiastic, but he hopes to reach out to workers at other Insomnia Cookies locations to gain their support. While the Harvard Square location is the only store in Massachusetts, Insomnia Cookies has more than 30 stores across the United States.

“We’re hoping for some solidarity, but all we’re seeing are some negative looks,“ Helali said on Tuesday. “But we need this, the workers around this area need this, and for those more privileged people who come to this area, they need to support this movement.”

Helali said in a phone interview Friday night that he and the other protesters plan to continue picketing “as long as necessary.”

Luke C. Robinson, one of the fired drivers, said that he and his co-workers explained their motivations to customers in the store on Saturday night as they prepared to shut it down, with mixed reactions.

“We got sympathy,” said Robinson, “and also a lot of drunk people who said they wanted cookies.”

—Staff writer Michael C. George can be reached at mgeorge@college.harvard.edu.

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