Sick surcharge signs brew up controversy at local coffee shops

SEATTLE - Controversy is brewing at a chain of local coffee shops after a new paid sick leave policy hit the books in Seattle.

Business owners say the new policy costs them money - and one coffee shop owner passed that cost on to customers, then posted signs explaining the sick leave surcharge.

Ali Ghambari, owner of Cherry Street coffee houses, says he loves his customers, and the last thing he wants is negativity. That's why he pulled those signs after only a few days.

Customers say the local coffee shops add flavor to the community. They often make time in their busy days to stop in.

"This is my neighborhood hangout, for sure, I would not stop coming here for sure," says customer Stephanie Cummings - even if it means paying a few extra cents for a cup of coffee.

"You don't need to give us an itemized list of where all of your proceeds are going," she says.

But Cherry Street Coffee's owner wanted people to know. He says he wanted to be transparent.

"Because that's the way I am - as real as that 'good morning' I just shared with you. It's that simple," says Ghambari.

So last week, he posted a sign right by the cash register. It said: "Sick leave surcharge: To help offset the cost of the city of Seattle's sick leave policy, we're adding a 1.5 percent surcharge to all orders. We appreciate your understanding and your continued patronage."

But some customers say they found the signs offensive.

"Actually, yes a little bit," says Cummings. "It almost sounds like they're disagreeing with the city of Seattle's paid sick leave policy."

Cummings says it was the wording of the sign. This is how she interpreted it:

"We don't agree with this. These are costs that are coming from your pockets, not necessarily something we agree with. But because of the city of Seattle doing this for you, we're going to raise our prices," she says.

But that's not what the owner says he meant at all.

"It's a fantastic policy," he says, then he adds that he doesn't have the $25,000 extra in his budget to fund the city's new law.

But, he says, so many people were reading the wrong message between the lines - and blogging negatively about it - that he pulled all the signs after three days.

Not every customer was upset about the signs.

"I'm kind of surprised that people around here would have gotten mad about that," says customer Dana Johnson.

There is now an empty space by Cherry Street's cash registers where the signs used to be.

"I didn't even dwell on it," says Ghambari.

He still has to add 3 cents to the price of a 12-ounce cup of coffee. You just won't read about it at the register.

The city's sick leave law went into effect last September.