A Black-owned human services company is thinking about looking for new office space after the owners say they experienced discrimination in their coworking space.
Partners in Care: S&N Helping Hands co-owner Nicole Pecku said in an interview Tuesday that the business, which operates an adult family care home in Fitchburg, recently secured a Dane County contract to provide case management and support services for people with disabilities, including medication management, job readiness support and so on. Pecku said in September, the business rented an office in the Novel Coworking space, which had just opened in the 300 Block of West Washington Avenue.
Novel Coworking is a nationwide office space company with locations in 27 cities. In a coworking space, tenants can rent a private office or join to use common areas for a smaller monthly fee, while tenants share services and amenities like internet access, reception space and kitchen facilities.
The front wall of each office at Novel Coworking are clear glass, so Pecku placed a privacy film over a portion of the window to help protect the privacy of her clients — something that is required under HIPAA and their County contract.
Pecku said Novel Coworking site manager Stacey Lewis Norland approached the office in early October while she was meeting with a client to ask that the privacy film be removed, since it was against the rules of Novel. Pecku said she pointed out that another office nearby also had a privacy film installed and was not being asked to remove it.
“She said, ‘based on our policy here at Novel, you guys can’t have that up,’” Pecku said. “We asked when we first rented that space, would this be a place where we would have privacy? We were told all sorts of different things.”
Pecku said the client she was meeting with when Norland approached became “extremely paranoid.”
Pecku said Norland offered to allow them to move to an office with more privacy, in the back of the coworking space, but Pecku said she preferred the space they had paid for.
Pecku said Norland approached her business partner in mid-October, again while a client was present, and insisted they take down the privacy film and expressing that she was upset that the pair had ignored her earlier requests.
Pecku said one of the two clients present during these encounters no longer wishes to come to their office.
“We have lost a lot of money due to Ms. Stacey’s unprofessional behavior that transpired in front of our clients,” Pecku said in a text message to Madison365 Wednesday.
Pecku said she reached out to a regional manager in Chicago who apologized and said “we don’t condone that type of behavior, we’ll look into it.”
But Pecku said they never heard any more from the regional manager, and Norland approached them again last week to say the regional manager had said they could have a privacy film up if it was professionally installed. Norland said she wasn’t sure how much that would cost.
Pecku caught this encounter on video and posted it to Facebook Saturday. In the video, Pecku and her business partner, who asked not to be named, express that they would prefer to speak directly to the regional manager because they felt Norland had been disrespectful in previous interactions, especially with clients present.
In the video, Norland says, “I sincerely apologize. I do need to have a softer approach.”
In the video Norland states that she could enter the office to remove the film, and says she wanted it down while leaving the other office’s privacy film intact because S&N’s privacy film “looks like garbage.”
As of Tuesday, the privacy film had been removed from the S&N office, but a larger privacy film remained intact on another office. Pecku said neither she nor her partner took their privacy film down.
Pecku said she and her business partner are the only Black tenants in the Novel Coworking space.
A Novel Coworking manager who was visiting the Madison location to do some training said Norland was not available, and that privacy films aren’t allowed in any Novel Coworking location because they interfere with the “vibe” of community-focused coworking. She said she understood why S&N felt unfairly treated and intended to “address” the privacy film that was still up as of Tuesday.
However, Novel Coworking Marketing Director Allison Voigt said in an email to Madison365 that the company would allow the privacy film if it is professionally installed.
In a statement attributed to Novel Coworking’s Chief Operating Officer and Sales Director, Voigt wrote, “Novel Coworking offers workspace environments to all businesses without discrimination. In providing workplaces consistent with Class A building standards, our agreement states: ‘1e. The office accommodations are rented in as-is condition. Novel Coworking is seeking to maintain the office center to the “Building Standard”, as of the Effective Date of this Agreement. No alterations may be made to the office accommodations including the addition or changing of locks/bolts to the windows/doors.’”
The Novel Coworking website says that tenants are permitted to decorate offices how they see fit, including painting and hanging pictures, as long as they return the offices to their original condition when they move out.
“Our offer to SN Helping Hands (as evidenced on the video recording) was to allow them to keep the film, and to have it professionally installed,” Voigt wrote. “We take every customer’s concern seriously, and are actively working with the client to resolve the issues related to the modification to their office and hope to find a positive resolution.”
In a follow-up email, Voight said privacy vinyl is allowed as long as it would not inhibit natural light from entering common areas. She also said Novel Coworking would arrange for it to be professionally installed for a one-time $150 fee.
Pecku said they were interested in finding office space elsewhere but have a 12-month lease with Novel, paying over $600 per month for the office.
“We still do feel profiled against” despite the offer to allow a professionally-installed privacy film, Pecku said Wednesday. “It’s not so much about the privacy adhesive film on the glass anymore. It’s about equality that wasn’t provided to us upfront … After (Norland) suggested another space that was out of sight, out of mind, it still bothers me that we were the only Black people there and to also have been the only people who were getting harassed is beyond me.”