Sick at Starbucks

On Christmas Eve in 2021, Sam Cornetta, a Starbucks barista in Suffolk County, New York, found out that she had been exposed to COVID-19. She told her manager that she would need to get tested; her manager brushed her off, saying “secondhand contacts” were nothing to worry about.

By the following week, Cornetta’s coworkers were calling out sick in waves, bringing the store to a standstill. “We could have closed the store down, at least for a day or two,” says Cornetta.

But the store didn’t close. Instead, the district manager kept it open with the help of a skeleton crew of non-COVID-19 suffering employees who worked outside their normal hours.

“I have co-workers who have long COVID because they caught COVID from working at our store,” Cornetta tells The Progressive. “I have a co-worker who can’t eat meat anymore because the taste of meat repulses him because he caught COVID twice from our store.”

Early on in the pandemic, Starbucks as a whole had put in place various benefits like self-isolation pay and extra free drinks and food for workers on their days off. But the company later retracted these perks, according to Cornetta and the media.

COVID-19-related health and safety issues have frequently been identified as a source of energy behind SBWU’s organizing drive over the past year. But several other instances of health and safety violations in the various unionizing Starbucks stores show that the issue isn’t just the pandemic or the disappearance of self-isolation pay. Rather, workers at the coffee chain are struggling to get their issues heard—the union, many members say, has been one of the few outlets where their complaints about working conditions are taken seriously.

“My job, I’d at least like it to be, like, safe,” says New York City barista Alex Hall, “I don’t like the fact that I could go into work and bring home bed bugs or get attacked by mice, or get burns and stuff because of faulty equipment.”

The upscale Starbucks Reserve Roastery that Hall works at in Manhattan was suspected of having bed bugs in the break room and black mold in an ice machine. A state inspection later confirmed a “mold like residue,” and also found moths and dead moth larvae in the store’s coffee storage area.

“I have co-workers who have long COVID because they caught COVID from working at our store.”

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), mold can cause asthma and irritate the eyes, skin, nose, and throat and recommends avoiding eating or drinking where mold issues are being addressed.

In the meantime, Hall and his coworkers were forced to go on strike for weeks as the company stonewalled workers seeking answers. Starbucks even went so far as to deny that any mold had been found on November 11, two days after the government inspector had already issued its report to the company.

A spokesperson for Workers United, the parent union of SBWU, tells The Progressive that management also eventually confirmed that bed bugs had indeed been in the store. The union was told that a particular manager had been bringing them in from home.

The Reserve Roastery wasn’t the only Starbucks where black mold was found. In Memphis, Tennessee, at the same store in which seven employees were fired for attempting to unionize (they were later dubbed the “Memphis 7”), workers went on strike in November after mold was allegedly spotted in the ice machine at their outlet, too.

But the mold in the ice isn’t just an issue for consumers, Starbucks workers add.

“A couple of people were tasked with cleaning it, they got immediately sick,” says Joel Foote, a tours, tourism, and events partner at the Roastery in October. “I was tasked with cleaning the machine the next day after, and I was sick for three weeks after that.”

Perhaps the most egregious case of ignoring health and safety norms is at a store in Ithaca, New York, where an overflowing grease trap with maggots on top of it was tolerated until workers went on strike.

“It was so bad that the smell had leaked out into where the customers were and the customers were asking what the smell was,” says Evan Sunshine, a barista at the store. The grease trap itself predated Starbucks occupying the facility, says Sunshine, who estimated that it had been there for around fifteen years.

From COVID-19 to maggots in the store, health and safety issues have been central to a number of Starbucks’s union efforts. Starbucks has demonstrated a similar lack of responsiveness on these issues as well as many others, contributing to the impetus behind a 270-plus store union drive that took off in December 2021.

Beginning in mid-2022, the company engaged in a fierce union-busting campaign, while also refusing to negotiate with most SBWU bargaining committees. When it did eventually sit down at the table, the negotiations have been pro forma, with Starbucks and their legal team exiting after a few minutes.

Starbucks has also fired about 150 SBWU members in retaliation, members say, and engaged in other union-busting tactics like offering higher benefits and raises to nonunion stores. “At the end of the day, this is just a fast-food company,” Cornetta adds. “They truly are going to put their profits first, no matter what the company has ever said.”

The heavy-handed tactics by Starbucks eventually produced a reaction from SBWU, culminating in two coordinated strikes, each at about 100 stores, at the end of 2022.