Doggy day care workers at Downtown Dog Lounge say they are up against a real-life "Cruella De Vil" in their eight-month struggle for a fair union contract. But these workers are biting back. The workers, who are organizing with UFCW 3000, ask customers, dog-lovers, and other working people to sign their petition to get the owner, Elise Vincentini, to stop dragging her feet.

“[Vincentini] thinks if she waits long enough, we’ll just give up and walk away,” said Justin Kahn, a “Pack Leader” at Downtown Dog Lounge. “But that’s absolutely not going to happen.”

If Vincentini does not agree to a contract that meets their demands in their upcoming bargaining sessions this week, then 60 workers may soon go on strike, leaving potentially hundreds of dogs without day or overnight care right as spring travel picks up. 

In a phone interview, Vincentini said she's not dragging her feet. She said she will keep bargaining in good faith whether they threaten to strike or not. From her perspective, the union is wasting time at the bargaining table on silly things such as the right to wear tube tops and crocs. "We're here for the safety of the dog," she said. "So if the union is fighting for the safety of the dogs and the employees, I'm all ears, but I really haven't heard very much about that at all."

Sit! Stay! Roll Over to Worker Demands!

After winning their union election almost a year ago, the Downtown Dog Lounge workers are still fighting for four core demands: Higher wages, a safe dog-to-worker ratio, standardized emergency protocols, and regular workplace maintenance. 

According to a recent wage scale provided by workers, Downtown Dog Lounge workers make between the City-mandated minimum wage of $19.97 and $25 an hour. That puts the company’s best-paid, full-time worker’s annual income at about $52,000 before taxes, which falls well below 60% of Seattle area median income (AMI). That means every single Downtown Dog Lounge worker qualifies for many of the City’s and County’s low-income programs, resulting in taxpayers potentially subsidizing Vincentini’s low wages. Workers think this reality is particularly unfair because the business received $1.13 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans in 2020, according to Propublica

Vincentini told The Stranger that she's happy to give them a raise. She believes her wages are already "at or above" market rate. She said they also enjoy other perk,s such as holiday pay and the privilege of bringing their dog to work at no cost. 

Not only do they feel underpaid, the workers feel overworked to a point that they feel jeopardizes dog safety. The International Boarding and Pet Care Services Association recommends a ratio of 15 dogs to one worker. At the Ballard location, workers claim that one employee may be responsible for 20 to 30 dogs at a time. Even worse, at the South Lake Union location, workers claim an employee may be responsible for 30 to 50 dogs at a time. 

For overnight care, workers say Downtown Dog Lounge may staff just one person to look after as many as 75 dogs. 

Vincentini disputed those claims. She said that Downtown Dog Lounge sticks to a ratio of one worker to 20 to 25 during the day, with about a quarter of those dogs in crates at a time. She said the workers' numbers fail to consider the watch of groomers, bathers, and other positions. At night, she usually staffs two people once they reach 70 dogs, which she said is better than other places. 

But the workers' safety concerns don’t stop there. They also want Downtown Dog Lounge to establish better emergency protocols. Worker Elsie Hedberg told The Stranger that Vincentini created a fire safety plan a couple of years ago that instructed workers to put up to 15 dogs on a very long leash and then walk them to safety. When the team practiced the protocol with five to ten dogs, Hedberg said that one dog got tangled up and choked by the long leash. If they had not been quick enough to cut the dog off the leash, the animal could have easily died, she said. 

Vincentini remembers that incident but said Hedberg greatly exaggerated it. She said the point of drills is to work out the kinks, and obviously the workers conducting the drill did not properly use the leashes, which she said many other dog caretakers use. She said Downtown Dog Lounge is constantly updating its safety protocols regardless of the union contract. 

While not included in the four demands on their website, day-to-day safety seems of concern to workers, too. In a now infamous Slack exchange last November, workers fought Vincentini on her suggestion that the company put rocks in the dogs’ food bowls instead of buying new slow-feeders. Vincentini claimed she had fed her dogs using that method since 2002. “This is the safest method, it’s cost effective and impossible for a dog to chew,” she said, sending a photo in Slack of her dog eating kibble around a large rock. Her workers raised concerns that the dogs may break their teeth or the rocks may not be sanitary.

Vincentini told The Stranger that the staff "boo-hooed" her out of the idea, and to her knowledge Downtown Dog Lounge does not use the rock method.

Finally, the workers are also fighting for more regular maintenance to the Downtown Dog Lounge facilities. When asked to name specific maintenance requests, Hedberg said, “Everything… it feels like the buildings are falling apart.” Another worker, Maribeth Fletcher, sent pictures to The Stranger showing temperatures from 48 degrees to 90 degrees in their boarding facilities. According to the Animal Welfare Act, dogs should not be boarded at temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit or above 85 degrees Fahrenheit for more than four consecutive hours. The allegedly poor temperature regulation worried Fletcher so much that she told her friend to cancel a boarding reservation.

Vincentini said that "things break" and Downtown Dog Lounge tried to address temperature issues as soon as possible. 

Workers in the Dog House

Workers told The Stranger that the bargaining team hasn’t made much headway on any of their demands because of Vincentini’s antics. They allege that she derails focus to smaller details such as dress code and she retaliates against workers when they push for their demands.

For example, Fletcher said she used to be the go-to on-call worker, and she was always working overtime. Then, in September, after Vincentini learned Fletcher was on the bargaining team, management cut Fletcher’s hours so that she basically only works when someone calls out sick or during busy seasons. According to screenshots of documents The Stranger reviewed, Fletcher lost her benefits in March because she no longer worked enough to earn them. She enrolled in COBRA health insurance even though she does not make enough money to pay for it. 

Fletcher felt that Vincentini seemed poised to fire her several times since September. According to screenshots of a November 2023 Slack message, Vincentini threatened to fire Fletcher over an anonymous post on Facebook showing temperatures in the Ballard facility at a borderline unsafe 48 degrees Fahrenheit. Fletcher admitted she took the picture, but someone else posted it after she sent it in Slack.

In January, Downtown Dog Lounge launched an investigation against Fletcher related to the Facebook post and other allegations of rule-breaking, including bringing too many dogs to work and not clocking out in a timely manner, adding up to about 12 extra hours, according to a letter from the Ballard general manager. Vincentini said the investigation is ongoing.

Fletcher speculated that management is targeting her because she’s older than many of the other workers and has more experience in animal care and child care. She said she knows what’s safe, what’s unsafe, and she’s not scared to speak out. “The moment you show you’re not an absolute sycophant, [Vincentini] is watching you and she has a target on your back,” she said. 

Vincentini rejects Fletcher's characterization.

"We have had no retaliation toward any of our employees," she said. "[Fletcher] makes a lot of accusations that are not true as you can see."

The workers believe their petition will pressure Vincentini to act. 

Vincentini said she's not giving the petition much thought.

"We started this business out of my love for animals, and I have treated my employees exceptionally well. Unfortunately, this group of people feels differently, but my focus is and always will be on my client, employees, and the dogs," she said. 

So far, only about 270 people have signed the petition, but in a city with more dog parents than, well, actual parents, the workers have a broad base of dog-lovers to sic on their boss. 

One signatory wrote that she stopped taking her dog to Downtown Dog Lounge because he could “feel that stress.” She continued, “Please take care of your staff, they are lovely and deserve the best!”

Another signatory also said she stopped taking her dog to the Downtown Dog Lounge. “I can't trust a place to take care of my pet if they don't take care of their workers,” she wrote.

Another signatory told Vincentini, “I love my dog, and when she needs care I insist that there be sufficiently well-paid and unstressed workers to care for her. I will not use your services until your conditions improve for staff and pets. Please get a grip.”

Fletcher told The Stranger that their customers understand that better working conditions for them means safer conditions for their dogs. “We’re not at [Downtown Dog Lounge] because we love how [Vincentini] treats us or because we get paid so well,” she said. “We’re here because we care about these dogs.”