Starbucks is holding gender-affirming care for transgender employees hostage as part of its fight against the unionization wave sweeping the country, according to a new National Labor Relations Board charge filed by workers at a store in Oklahoma.
The unfair labor practice charge, filed Monday, says Starbucks has “interfered with, restrained, and coerced its employees in the exercise of their rights” under the National Labor Relations Act. It’s a complaint common among unionizing Starbucks workers; more than 200 unfair labor practice charges have been filed against Starbucks with the NLRB in the past year.
But employees at the Oklahoma City store also accused Starbucks of “threatening employees with the loss of benefits (including the loss of gender-affirming healthcare for transgender employees) if they voted to be represented by a union,” according to a copy of the charge obtained by VICE News. The new charge was first reported by Bloomberg.
Neha Cremin, a worker at a Starbucks store in Oklahoma City, told Bloomberg that she recently had a one-on-one with her manager where she was told, “just know that if you unionize, when you are negotiating your benefits, you could gain, you could lose, or you could stay the same.”
Cremin also told Bloomberg that the manager told her: “I know specifically, you have used the trans health-care benefits.”
“I think the company realizes that we as trans partners feel particularly vulnerable at this time,” Cremin told Bloomberg. “I think that in some cases they are willing to take advantage of that.”
Reached for comment about the allegations in the complaint, Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges told VICE News: “Claims are false. No truth to them.” Borges also told Bloomberg that the company is “not threatening our partners with the loss of benefits if they join a union,” and that Starbucks takes “a great deal of pride in offering industry-leading benefits and have done so for more than 50 years.”
Mila Ward, a barista at a store in Indiana that last month became the first in the state to file for a union, told VICE News that she initially wanted to work for Starbucks because she’d heard that the company would “pay for all transition-related medical costs.” But the reality of the situation, she said, has been more complicated.
In March, Wade underwent facial feminization surgery, which she says is rarely provided by employer-based insurance; Starbucks covered 100% of that procedure, Wade said.
Getting that coverage, though, required purchasing Starbucks’ primary employer-based insurance, and she also resorted to starting a GoFundMe in order to pay for travel to get the procedure.
Wade also said the range of coverage depends on the procedure. Hair removal, she said, is not covered outright but is reimbursed by the company; Wade said she’s paying $270, a “massive percentage of my take-home,” and the reimbursement checks can take up to three months to come in. (The hair removal procedure is required for bottom surgery, Wade said, which is covered by her primary insurance plan.)
Starbucks workers have previously accused the company of threatening to take away benefits as part of a bad-faith effort to dissuade workers from unionizing, including pay raises and benefits, any help the company might provide to DACA recipients who work there, and unionized workers’ ability to transfer to other stores—an option frequently used by the many college students who work for the company.
Starbucks has repeatedly denied the claims, saying that federal labor law prohibits the company from unilaterally setting benefits, which is true. But both the union and labor law experts say the company could simply offer such benefits to unionized workers, and unionizing workers have insisted that they wouldn’t sign a contract that doesn’t exceed the benefits Starbucks already offers.
Pro-union workers have also repeatedly accused the company of retaliation, including firing leading organizers. In several cases, including in western New York, Memphis, and Phoenix, the NLRB has sided with the workers and their union. A federal judge last week ruled against a petition from the NLRB to immediately reinstate three fired workers in Phoenix.
“Most of my coworkers are queer, and many of us rely on the transgender healthcare benefits. We are uniquely vulnerable when Starbucks makes veiled threats that gender-affirming healthcare could be taken away,” Cremin said in a statement to VICE News, provided by the union. “We deserve access to healthcare. We deserve to be paid enough not just to survive but also to transition, to love, to thrive.”
Wade said she has conflicting feelings about the healthcare Starbucks currently provides.
“On the one hand, yes, I’ve been able to use it and it’s made a massive difference in my life, I would never have access to that surgery otherwise,” Wade said.
“On the other hand, it definitely feels like they are using it to continue to market their allegedly progressive image and have this captive workforce of highly-exploited, very poor trans people.”
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