On the Floor with Starbucks Workers: A “Partner” Speaks Out

What’s it like to work at Starbucks? Alyssa Alfaro, a DSA member and Starbucks worker  (SW) interviews an anonymous colleague who works in a non-unionized Starbucks store. 

AA: How long have you been a barista?

SW: I’ve been a partner for about two years now.

For the readers, What do you mean when you say “partner”?

It’s Starbucks’s way of referring to their employees. Everyone finds it weird and too familiar. You’re my boss, not my girlfriend, you know?

Does it add on to other parts of your experience there?

Sure, when I’m reprimanded for wearing my own pronoun pin instead of a Starbucks-branded one, or my shoes aren’t the right color because I can’t afford to keep up with the constantly changing policies, it feels like a slap in the face.

So you have to pay for your own uniform?

All they give you when you start is an apron, a name tag, and some pieces of flair. If you’re lucky they may be releasing a new shirt,  but sometimes even that might not be compliant. 

Does the dress code factor into why you want a union at your store?

Sometimes, our dress code violations are like someone putting a false name on their nametag because we’ve had instances of stalking, both online and in person. Or someone not being able to get new pants or shoes to perfectly match code. And there are even bigger issues, I have a coworker who is transgender and can’t always get the required weekly hours to qualify for her healthcare. At a previous store, I had a friend who got [gender affirming] care through Starbucks and was financially ruined when only a bit was covered and she couldn’t work while recovering. A union will help us make sure we get all of our needs met. 

Do you think that goes against Starbucks’s brand as a progressive company?

Starbucks is not progressive. They like to have LGBTQ folx around to give their stores the vibe of some progessive coffee shop, but a progressive company would negotiate. They yap on and on about how they help you transition, but having seen my friend left holding the bag, I’m doubtful. 

Are there any other benefits you think are suspect?

The whole Arizona State University deal [in which Starbucks workers can enroll online for free]  is pretty cool at first. Finishing college sounds cool, but I think you might lose it if you leave the company and then you gotta take out loans and stuff. It just feels like another thing they can hold over us to keep our heads down.

They are also rolling out a raise, but it’s not enough to keep up with inflation. It just seems like hush money to keep us from asking for more. 

Are there other conditions you’d like to change?

Safety is one of the main reasons we want a union. Safety from the customers, safety from disease, and safety from the abuse we suffer from management. 

The hours are hard, our openers have to wake up at 4 a.m. to get to the city and open the store in time. Then we may not have enough people on the floor during peak, so a job for four or five would be done with two people.I don’t know why, but the stores I worked in in San Francisco were allergic to having a midday shift. It’s like they want to reduce the amount of chances we get to communicate with the people on the opposite shift. That means that cleaning tasks are neglected in the closing shift, which slows us down in the morning. We had our hours cut, too, during the “Half off Tuesdays” in July. So we had a huge crowd of people come into the store for the promotion, while we were understaffed on purpose in order to pay for the promotion. 

When I brought this up to my manager he just mumbled about how many hours he was given for labor, even though our previous manager could swing it. 

So your managers haven’t been helpful?

Totally not. We used to have a decent manager who tried, but when people started talking about a union,  they moved him and hired some new guy from outside. Our new manager hasn’t even worked as a barista, so he’s completely out of his element and people are leaving. I thought he would be better seeing as how they micromanage so much.Our district manager comes in multiple times a week to correct us on little things like how we hand someone a drink.

They also refuse to define a policy with regards to masking. Most of the baristas wear masks, while management claims it’s a “personal choice we shouldn’t shame anyone for.” That “worked” until that same unboosted manager brought in COVID and gave it to two of my coworkers. 

They got COVID from your manager?

Yes, I guess it was his personal choice. 

And this was the outside hire Starbucks brought in after “people started talking”?

Yeah, he seemed very overwhelmed and was always on the phone with someone else trying to figure out scheduling or some other duty. He was so unaware; he changed the schedule of a barista who was opening the next day to a closing shift the night before but didn’t cancel their morning shift. So when the barista got to work at 5 a.m., they found out they had wasted an entire morning. The manager ran out to apologize when they left, but I was scared my coworker was going to fight him. I would too if he did that to me. 

You said some of your coworkers left, was this one of them?

Yeah, most of my coworkers from that time have transferred out or left Starbucks altogether. I think the new manager was brought in just to make our lives hell with his stupidity and burn us all out.