Back in March, when the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to become starkly apparent, many (if not most) coffee companies went into hibernation. They shut down, furloughed or laid off their staff, applied for government assistance, and waited.
Starbucks was different. Although they claimed to be “closing” their US stores, those with drive-throughs stayed open. To their credit, they did begin paying the baristas who weren’t furloughed an extra $3 per hour and created various other assistance programs for their employees.
Now Starbucks is back up and running, is projected to turn a profit this year, and at the end of the second quarter had $2.6 billion in cash reserves. The company recently announced plans to offer a dividend to investors.
What has it been like for the baristas throughout all this, risking their lives to serve frappuccinos from drive-through windows?
I spoke with five Starbucks baristas from around the country who, on condition of anonymity, described their experiences on the front lines of the service industry during an unprecedented (and ongoing) collective catastrophe.
(All names have been changed, and answers have been lightly edited for clarity.)
How has Starbucks handled this crisis, in your opinion?
Alex, a barista, has worked at Starbucks for two years.
I feel like Starbucks went above and beyond for their partners to make sure they were taken care of. We had one of the highest rates of hazard pay, while some companies only gave an extra dollar. They made sure that if partners were in a difficult financial situation they could reach out to the company and apply for the CUP Fund [an employee-funded emergency assistance fund started in 1998] and almost always get approved for it.
Blake, a barista, has worked at Starbucks for six months
I think the company did act fast with social distancing guidelines and shutting down lobbies, and the hazard pay probably saved me my apartment because I was about to start looking for a second job. Initially, the company did a pretty good job protecting partners [what Starbucks calls employees] and customers. The lobbies are opening too fast though, especially with crazy anti-mask people about.
Riley, a barista, has worked at Starbucks for a year.
For such a huge company as Starbucks I believe they handled the situation to the best of their abilities. It's hard because as much as we appreciate working, there's still discomfort having the lobby open. But considering that so many stores have closed, I can understand why they did. We need business to stay afloat to make sure baristas can keep their jobs.
Jordan, a shift supervisor, has worked at Starbucks for one year
The company did an okay job handling the pandemic. They offered everyone paid time off to quarantine. They could have offered it sooner but at least they paid people at all. Another action the company took was shutting down all cafe stores. I believe this was a good choice.
They recently reopened cafe stores and the cafes inside drive-through stores. I believe they may have done this too early.
Reese, a shift supervisor, has worked at Starbucks since 2013
I think the company initially responded wonderfully, but dropped the ball. They had an opportunity to lead by example and be the change we strive to see in the workplace. My store has closed on multiple occasions due to exposure to the virus but our [district manager] reopens our store as soon as they can, and with bare minimum staffing. I haven’t had a day off in almost two weeks straight.
Have you been given sufficient Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to do your job safely?
Blake: Masks were made available from the day they started requiring them, [and] we always had the option to use gloves. The plexiglass barriers at the registers came in soon after lobbies opened.
Reese: We have PPE, and plenty of it. I think they excelled in getting us our PPE. I feel unsafe working and being immuno-compromised with the company’s decision to allow customers to enter without a face mask, and allowing customers more close contact interactions with us. I think we’ll see increased exposure[s] with the opening of our cafe and restrooms.
Alex: I feel like in a lot of ways [Starbucks] truly let their partners down. They never installed plexiglass in [our] drive-through as an extra safety caution; they never found a way to make it so we didn’t have to directly hand food and drink to customers; they consistently had partners bouncing from store to store to help the ones that were close to closing.
Jordan: Starbucks did not provide enough PPE for my store. They waited for a while to send us masks and the first set of masks they sent were basically T-shirt material which offers no protection.
How have customers treated you?
Blake: There are a lot of people clearly disregarding our directions on social distancing, no masks. I saw someone throw a hot drink at a partner a few months ago. I feel like the only reasons I’ve felt unsafe is because of customers' ignorance. Some have pulled through the [drive-through] visibly sick, but my manager would throw a fit if I denied service to someone.
Alex: We have customers who are completely understanding and really grateful that we decided to stay open, and there are other ones that don’t fully grasp the reasoning behind the precautions.
Riley: I personally had to experience a disgruntled retired vet who came in and proceeded to yell at me over [the mask policy], saying he faced horrors in Iraq so he had no fear of the virus. I had to stand there while he listed awful details... This is probably one of the worst cases I have seen, but it's not uncommon to have people make a big fuss and take it out on our baristas.
I guess a little kindness goes a long way when coming in for your coffee. We all understand the stress of everything going on in the world, and we are happy to be here for you and make your coffee. But I feel like some people forget we are all in this situation together and doing the best we can. Tips are great and all, but a simple thank-you goes miles.
Jordan: My store's customer base is actually surprisingly kind. Our tips have basically doubled during the pandemic and people have been overall extremely understanding about longer wait times and our rules about masks and social distancing. We have definitely had a few people who when asked to get a mask, sigh and don’t come back in but luckily no one has really put up a huge fight about it.
Has your opinion of Starbucks changed over the past few months?
Reese: Starbucks has shown during this that we aren’t partners. We are employees and we aren’t valued.
Riley: Starbucks has done a lot already and it is appreciated. I feel like it would have been nice to keep the hazard pay a little longer, considering that hours have dropped [off].
Jordan: My opinion of Starbucks has not really changed. They are a corporation whose bottom line is profits. I was aware of this before I started working here and it has remained true throughout this pandemic. Even though Starbucks puts up a front that they treat employees well, their only concern is how much money they can make.
I reached out to Starbucks to address some of the concerns raised by these interviews. Specifically, I asked about the phasing out of hazard pay while the pandemic is still ongoing, and about support baristas may have received for dealing with irate customers. A Starbucks spokesperson pointed me in the direction of the company’s COVID blog and info for customers.
When I followed up to reiterate my specific questions, the spokesperson did not respond.