Starbucks announced Monday that it’s ending COVID-19 benefits such as paid time off to isolate or get vaccinated for all workers, according to a notice distributed to managers this weekend.
The move will affect “all partners,” otherwise known as Starbucks employees, according to the notice. But some workers have accused the coffee behemoth of hypocrisy. As the Starbucks union campaign has accelerated this year, Starbucks has repeatedly argued that it can’t change benefits for unionizing stores.
The company confirmed in an email to VICE News Monday that the end of the COVID benefits would still apply to unionized employees as well. “Because these programs were always intended to be and communicated as temporary, conclusion of these programs will apply to all stores,” Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges told VICE News.
"With all this in mind, on Monday, Sept. 19, we will share with all partners that temporary self-isolation pay, vaccine pay, and side effects pay will conclude for all stores with the close of the fiscal year on Oct. 2,” stated the Sept. 15 notice, which was first reported by More Perfect Union. The company notes that “some local jurisdictions” still mandate such pay for workers.
Starbucks Workers United, the union representing Starbucks workers, denounced the move as hypocritical in a statement to VICE News.
“Starbucks is unilaterally taking away benefits from union stores while also claiming that they cannot legally give union stores new benefits,” the union said. “Both are calculated moves to inflict punishment on the over 6,000 Starbucks workers who have exercised their right to unionize and attempt to intimidate workers who have not yet organized their stores. Doing both at the same time is a brazen admission that this is nothing more than union-busting.”
Contrary to Starbucks’ claim that the COVID benefits were temporary, the company put out a one-sheet called “We Are Creating Our Future Together As Partners” published by Starbucks in May lists “COVID benefits” as a benefit alongside “tuition-free college” and “best benefits in retail.” And last October, then-Starbucks executive Rossann Williams cited the company offering part-time workers “our total pay and benefits package and COVID benefits” in a letter to workers asking them not to unionize.
Starbucks has consistently said that it can't "unilaterally" change the benefits offered to unionized workers, and told workers at a store in Washington before a union vote there that "pay and benefits will essentially be frozen while parties negotiate the contract." Pro-union employees and labor law experts have said that while it’s true Starbucks can’t unilaterally change benefits for unionized employees, the company can offer new benefits to union stores.
The notice provided to managers stated that the company will soon share more details on “faster sick time accrual” as a way to offset the lack of COVID benefits. But the company said Monday that it can’t guarantee unionized stores will also be able to accrue sick time faster.
“Changes to wages, benefits, and/or terms and conditions may not be unilaterally implemented in stores with organizing underway or will be subject to collective bargaining for stores with certified union representation,” Starbucks’ Monday announcement said. “For these reasons, Starbucks cannot determine or predict whether changes to sick time accrual will be implemented at stores that have union representation or are involved in union organizing on or before May 3, 2022.”
Starbucks Workers United sent a letter to the company Monday demanding that Starbucks bargain with the union “immediately” over the benefits in a statement shared with VICE News.
“We hereby request to bargain about Starbucks’ decision to eliminate Covid-related benefits, including but not limited to self-isolation pay vaccine pay, and side effects pay,” Workers United International President Lynne Fox, whose membership includes Starbucks Workers United members, said in a letter to Starbucks’ vice president for “partner resources.”
“We are aware that the company has communicated to Store Managers that these benefits will be eliminated for all Starbucks partners approximately two weeks from now, at the end of Starbucks’ fiscal year,” the letter stated. “Covid benefits are of the utmost importance to the Union to ensure partner health, safety, and well-being.”
Since the union campaign at Starbucks began last year, more than 300 stores nationwide have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for union elections and more than 230 people have voted to unionize.
At the same time, the union has alleged a pattern of retaliation against pro-union employees: More than 100 workers who’ve supported union efforts have alleged that they were terminated or forced out of the company. Jaz Brisack, a leading organizer at the first location to vote to unionize in Buffalo last December, recently resigned from Starbucks and said in her resignation letter that she was forced out after managers refused to accommodate her scheduling requests, the New York Times reported last week.
As of Sept. 13, there were more than 300 active charges against Starbucks filed by workers with the NLRB, according to NLRB statistics. In several instances, the agency has sided with workers and filed complaints against Starbucks, taking them to court to attempt to force the company to provide reinstatement and backpay to the affected workers.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Starbucks was not offering gender-affirming care and abortion travel benefit to unionized employees. All employees enrolled in the company's insurance plan are able to access those benefits.