Starbucks workers in Buffalo, NY created a national buzz when they filed to unionize in December 2021. More Starbucks locations are following Buffalo’s lead, including “The Barn” on East Colfax in Denver.
Often considered a good company to work for among other customer service roles, employees at the East Colfax location expressed it was a steady job with good management.
Then the pandemic hit. Starbucks locations weren’t immune to the mental, physical and emotional toll put on essential workers. Workers at The Barn claimed a lack of support from management, enabling an unhealthy and often unsafe work environment to persist. They’re seeking collective representation as a means to reclaim normalcy at work.
Workers Experience High Stress, Danger At Work
Within the Starbucks company culture, employees are referred to as “partners.” Yet, workers expressed they haven’t felt like true partners in quite some time.
The onset of COVID-19 created a high-stress environment for employees, management and customers alike. Employees risked physical safety as essential workers, and experienced damages to their psychological safety, reporting poor customer behavior. One partner, Michaela Sellaro, said people face behavior ranging from rude to full-on dangerous.
“I was pepper-sprayed by an irate customer in the drive-thru window in December,” Sellaro said. “My shift supervisor was punched in the face. We’ve had drinks thrown at us, kicked at us. These are the notable instances, then there are the everyday ones that are like death by a thousand cuts. It’s been increasingly difficult to feel that as part of the labor force, that my safety matters, and I think that can be said for a lot of people in our position.”
Workers Claim Lack of Accountability
Regarding safety and support in the workplace, workers claim a lack of accountability with leadership. The Barn continues to experience high turnover in management, which started during the pandemic. Sellaro and her co-worker Trey Slopsema attribute this to a dysfunctional, poorly managed workplace. They also expressed management’s unwillingness to listen to workers.
“It’s just been so chaotic with [various] changes in management … we’ve basically just had to go in and run [the store] ourselves without support,” Slopsema said.
Sellaro mentioned that workers can speak with management about concerns, but that the conversation ends there. Workers expressed feeling a lack of support in regards to employee safety, new hire training and even essential building maintenance.
“It felt from the meetings we were having that we had to fight for basic protection of ourselves and our fellow partners. I didn’t feel like we were leading with integrity and humanity,” Sellaro said.
The alleged lack of accountability for management is a strong factor in workers’ decision to unionize, as they feel a total inability to make themselves heard without collective representation.
Workers At ‘The Barn’ Prepare for the Future
Workers at The Barn made a point to emphasize the benefits of unionizing for themselves and their customers. Under current circumstances, workers feel they can’t facilitate or guarantee the Starbucks experience customers spend quite a lot of money for.
“It’s harder for your barista to be present for you for 30 seconds to give you that cup of coffee, smile and connection that people have been starved for during the pandemic. People expect a connection from us, but it’s been really hard for us to provide that,” Sellaro said.
Each Starbucks location receives a monthly Customer Connection Score, which is determined by customer surveys. Sellaro explained that most stores aspire for a score in the 40’s and 50’s, but for some time, The Barn has received rankings in the 20’s. Slopsema expressed that workers at their store want to provide that customer connection, but continue to face roadblocks. Collective representation is a potential path towards restoring a functional workflow.
“The Barn didn’t come to this decision lightly,” Sellaro said. “We were inspired by [Buffalo], but the situation at our store specifically has been very difficult for partners. We’ve had people walk off of their shifts. We’ve had shift supervisors start crying on the floor, leave their keys and never come back. We genuinely believe in the Starbucks mission and values. It’s been difficult to watch a decline in adherence, and we’re just trying to improve conditions.”
Their petition to unionize is under review from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). You can stay updated by following Starbucks Workers United on Twitter.