Starbucks, Labor, and Social Justice

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In March, Starbucks found itself under a scorching spotlight for racial profiling when a manager called the police on two African American men who were waiting to conduct a business meeting in one of its stores.

Since then, the coffee chain has launched into a corporate crackdown on discrimination in efforts to restore trust with customers, and on May 29, all of its 8,000 US stores will close for racial bias training.

As Green Americans observe Starbucks’ effort to address this crucial social justice issue, evidence shows that the dominating coffee chain still has blind spots to other areas of concern—in particular, its labor practices—as employees continue to speak out against corporate failures to improve worker conditions.

In June 2016, ten-year Starbucks shift supervisor Jaime Prater published an online petition on to address what he described as an “infuriating” labor situation in which understaffed and overworked baristas are struggling to keep up with the demand for service. Prater’s petition also noted that Starbucks’ pay and the lack of full-time work hours made it difficult for employees to financially support themselves. Since its 2016 posting online, Prater’s petition has garnered 20,470 signatures.

While Starbucks provides a number of competitive benefits to employees, including college tuition assistance, 401(K) matching, and the opportunity to purchase Starbucks stock via the company’s Bean Stock program, the average Starbucks barista earns about $10 an hour and $20,000 a year. Though many Starbucks retail workers appreciate these benefits, they have also voiced frustrations with not being able to cover necessities.

One store employee told Business Insider, "My team wants to be able to afford rent and groceries. If you had asked partners if they could have the option for higher pay or the college achievement program, somewhere around 90 percent of all partners would have asked for increased pay."

Valuing Customers AND Workers

Starbucks executives call store employees “partners” to communicate how central baristas and other retail workers are to the corporation’s success, yet many employees have expressed concerns that the corporation prioritizes the customer experience over their strenuous working conditions.

In April 2017, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson introduced the North Star Initiative, a two-year program led by executive vice president Kris Engskov, which aims to strengthen the emotional connection between employees and customers. The North Star program emphasizes five pillars: Recognize me, Include me, Appreciate me, Support me, and Delight me, where the “me” represents the Starbucks customer.

Since its 2017 roll out, Starbucks baristas—the people largely responsible for establishing these connections, have criticized the North Star agenda for failing to outline specific and tangible practices to improve performance and for making it seem like baristas aren’t trying hard enough to provide good customer service.

For baristas, North Star’s expectation of personal connections and speedy, high-quality service cannot come without proper support. In 2017, Starbucks had $22.3 billion in revenue and operation expenses totaling to $9.6 billion, according to data collected by the NASDAQ stock exchange. NASDAQ also reports a net income of $2.88 billion for the company.

What's Next at Starbucks?

The world’s most successful coffee chain can afford to pay its approximate 250,000 store workers a living wage and hire enough of them so their workload is manageable.

Following the corporate tax cuts Congress approved earlier this year, Starbucks announced plans to roll out new employee benefits, including wage increases, $500 in stock grants to its retail workers and $2,000 to store managers, accrued time off for sick leave, six weeks paid leave for non-birth parents, and the creation of 8,000 new jobs, according to USAToday. The six weeks paid leave for non-birth store employees is half of what the corporation's salaried employees receive, and as Starbucks celebrates these improvements, there's still work to be done to ensure that all of its partners are supported fairly.

Green America's Green Business Network emphasizes the importance of caring for workers and improving communities, in addition to being a leader in social responsibility. To make the strides it desires in building personal connections, Starbucks should develop more rigorous frameworks in support of living wages and investments in community development. On the discrimination front, Starbucks executive vice president Rossann Williams said to employees, "May 29 isn't a solution; it's a first step." Experts say both recognizing individual privilege in race, gender, class, and sexual orientation—and the fact that everyone has unconscious biases— is essential to making this day of action effective.

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