People march during a protest in support of Amazon and Starbucks workers in New York City on Nov. 26, 2021. (Photo by Yuki IWAMURA / AFP) (Photo by YUKI IWAMURA/AFP via Getty Images)

Union organizing at Starbucks stores across the country has gained steam, with at least 55 stores in 19 states petitioning to unionize. In New York, two Buffalo-area stores recently voted to unionize, and a third store voted against it. 

Concerns about worker safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic have been a primary reason behind the push to unionize. Stores have been understaffed as workers—called “partners” in the company since they technically hold Starbucks stock—have tested positive for COVID-19 or have been exposed and needed to quarantine. Starbucks employees say they have lacked support in dealing with understaffing, don’t receive adequate paid time off, and are forced to work in unsafe conditions without proper masks and other safety precautions.  

“I think a lot of people still feel unsafe,” said Liz Alanna, a shift supervisor in a Mesa, Arizona, store that filed to unionize in November. “If we are able to unionize, part of that is going to be that we get to tell them what we believe might be a little bit better suited to helping protect us, because we’re the ones that are in the store.” 

Rachel Ybarra, a barista and organizer in a Seattle store, said partners want to have a say in such decisions. 

“I love this work … I’ve worked in the restaurant industry my entire working life,” they said. “But it is really hard to come into work every day knowing that I may be bringing back a potentially fatal disease to my sisters or to know that I might be spreading it to customers.”

Starbucks employees in New York recently showed how impactful unionizing could be for safety. In January, at one of the unionized stores in Buffalo, employees went on strike over a lack of COVID-19 safety precautions. Workers demanded that the store be closed until it could be fully staffed and pay for employees’ lost hours. They returned to work five days later when they felt it was safe, and Starbucks expanded its self-isolation policy to pay vaccinated workers (not just unvaccinated ones) when they need to isolate after being exposed to COVID. 

Starbucks offers catastrophe pay for partners who need to quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure, but only two rounds of isolation are allowed per quarter. This isn’t enough, said Nikki Taylor, a barista who has been organizing at a store in Memphis, Tennessee, that filed to unionize on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In Taylor’s store, the company took down the plexiglass that had been in place in front of the cash register and no longer required customers to wear masks, she said.

“I was personally approached by a customer a few weeks ago that told me he had COVID [and wasn’t wearing] a mask,” Taylor said. “They’re not really protecting us at all at this point.” 

In early January, Starbucks announced plans to require workers to either be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested weekly, in line with a Biden administration mandate for large employers. But after the Supreme Court blocked that mandate on Jan. 13, Starbucks reversed course and said it would no longer require vaccination or testing. 

Dropping the vaccine-or-test mandate leaves employees less protected because they have to work in close proximity to each other. Starbucks schedules at least two baristas per shift, and stores often schedule more during peak hours, leaving little room for social distancing. After initial excitement about the vaccine and testing mandate, some workers were disappointed when Starbucks backtracked because they believe the decision doesn’t align with the missions and values to inspire and nurture people. 

“Starbucks has decided to revoke its vaccine mandate, not because they have discovered some new science that proves that it’s not effective or because they’ve figured out that a lot of people would be hurt by it, but because they don’t have to anymore,” Ybarra said. 

Safety is the number-one reason Starbucks needs unions, but Taylor said it’s not the only reason. Efforts to unionize would have moved forward even without COVID-19, “but I definitely believe that COVID-19 put stores unionizing into hyperdrive,” she said.

Starbucks employees say they want to have a voice in decisions that affect them.

“Starbucks says they leave a chair empty at the table [to represent partners] when they have their corporate meetings,” Alanna said. “For partners, we don’t want an empty chair. We want to have someone sitting there to actually represent us.”

Organizers hope to negotiate better pay. Ybarra said partners would like to earn something closer to a living wage, which is nearly $20 in Seattle. Baristas start out making under $18, they said. For many Starbucks workers in other locations across the country, wages start at $12 an hour, although Starbucks promises a base pay of $15 an hour by the summer of 2022.  

“We’re looking to see some pay that reflects how hard we’re working,” Alanna said. “If half the store is out sick with COVID and we’re still running the whole store with four less people than we normally would, we’d like some pay differential so that we can continue to keep working.” 

Unlike many companies during the pandemic, Starbucks’ sales made a “full recovery” in early 2021. But those resources haven’t been shared with the people who made that recovery possible, employees say. 

“We’ve worked so hard, especially during this pandemic, to keep the doors open and continue to serve people,” Alanna said. “I think that’s possibly why the company has really seen record-breaking profits in the last year.” 

Ballots for employees in the Mesa store were due Feb. 2. On Jan. 24, however, Starbucks asked the National Labor Relations Board to interrupt the voting, arguing it should be conducted by region rather than by individual store. The company made the same argument in Buffalo but was unsuccessful.

In a letter to employees, Starbucks Executive Vice President Rossann Williams wrote: “From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we do not want a union between us as partners, and that conviction has not changed.” 

Employees say Starbucks has engaged in widespread union-busting activities. One of the Buffalo stores filed a charge with the NLRB in November, saying that Starbucks has been “engaging in a campaign of threats, intimidation, surveillance, solicitation of grievances, and the closing of facilities, among other conduct.” 

These tactics have included the company installing upper-level managers in stores at all times, Alanna and Taylor said. The company has also sent messages to partners by email, mail, and text telling them to vote no and that a union would be a third party in between them, Alanna said. 

“They’ve told us on more than one occasion, ‘Well, we don’t know if you’re going to lose your benefits’ [if the store unionizes],” Alanna said. 

In Ybarra’s store, multiple managers have been meeting with a single barista or shift manager to discourage them from voting to unionize, they said. 

“They claim that this is not an intimidation tactic. But I don’t know that anybody could really say that—if they are in a meeting with three of their bosses who control their paycheck—that’s not at least a little scary,” Ybarra said.

Starbucks employees say they are concerned about their safety and livelihood. But also, Taylor said, “We’re doing it for the bigger picture … so that people who come behind us and people that surround us are treated fairly also.”

Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer and editor in the Detroit area.