Restless coffee addicts emerging from lockdowns are doubtlessly cheering the return of some normalcy, after Starbucks said it would be reopening almost 90 percent of its locations by June 1.
But many employees are questioning why a company known for its highly personalized drinks is opting for a one-size-fits-all policy when it comes to nationwide reopenings amid a public health crisis.
"It seems to be bad to reopen when you have an ongoing worsening pandemic," said one barista in Chicago who is currently on quarantine after his manager came down with a fever.
At a time when few other companies have made a definitive public statement about their timeline, Starbucks began reopening stores May 4, with new sanitation and safety protocols that include worker temperature and health checks, required masks, closed seating areas and only drive-thru or mobile orders.
But even with these precautions, workers are terrified of going to work and say it is difficult to stay safe among eager customers, some of whom do not follow health protocols.
Just weeks into reopening stores, workers are already going into quarantine with suspected or positive coronavirus infections, according to NBC News interviews with more than a dozen Starbucks managers and baristas who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation. At one central Jersey store, the Starbucks team switched to block scheduling in which the morning shifts and the afternoon shifts never cross, to decrease chances of spreading the virus. The company rolled out the new scheduling strategy after someone at a nearby store tested positive for the virus, the store's barista said.
Starbucks said that while it can’t speak to individual store formats because the situation is fluid, changes in scheduling are being considered and discussed with local leadership in markets where applicable.
"I don’t think any store should have been open until we had a better handle as a nation on this outbreak. I think opening right now is a risk to employees and the public," one manager in southeastern Massachusetts said.
"We are borrowing strongly from our lessons navigating this in China," Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson wrote in a blog post Thursday. “We have stood strong, together — ALL of us — and made a commitment to do our part to keep partners’ care front and center as we weather the storm."
The company said that its decisions to support its frontline store employees go back more than three months and include extending child care benefits, mental health benefits and catastrophe pay.
But Max, a barista in Chicago who asked to only be identified by a first name out of fear of retaliation, said workers are still at risk.
“Why are we putting out all the people at Starbucks, many of whom are parents and care workers, making them decide to risk their own life to serve someone who thinks they’re helping the economy by ordering a frappuccino?” Max asked.
The pandemic pummeled the retail and the restaurant industries as states announced stay-at-home orders to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Starbucks kept about half of its 15,000 U.S. stores open during the pandemic. But its sales still plunged 25 percent during the first three months of the year compared to the same time last year, “related to the COVID-19 outbreak,” the company reported last month.
Starbucks workers, referred to as “partners," said that when their stores open, they can either go back to work or use accrued sick time. They also have the option to take unpaid leave through September, but may not qualify for state unemployment benefits. The company's catastrophe pay, which is an average of a worker's usual pay, ends May 31. However, Starbucks will cover the health care premiums for eligible workers on COVID-19 leave.
“It felt like an ultimatum to me,” one barista in Phoenix said. “It felt like any way I go, I am screwed.”
More than a dozen Starbucks workers interviewed said they felt they had to choose between returning to work or losing income.
Every day, workers get their temperature checked and use an iPad app called “Covid Coach” that takes them through a list of symptoms of the virus, including questions about recent travel or contact with anyone who has been exposed to the virus. The survey is confirmed by the store manager and sent to the district manager, according to one barista in central Jersey.
Yet even though some employees say the policy is "one of the most effective in the market, supplying us with masks, disinfectants and regular washing procedures,” they still ask themselves if it’s worth it.
“Right now I need a paycheck, I need benefits. Most of us working at Starbucks are working because we need a paycheck,” one manager said.
Already, some workers have refused to go back to work or are planning to leave out of fear for their health. A barista in South Carolina said that she plans to quit her job at the end of the month when the hazard pay ends. One store manager said five workers quit, which amounts to about 22 percent of her team not returning to work.
“We’re not forcing anyone to come back, but it is a managed risk,” she said. “We have no idea which customers have been following procedures or who has been in hospitals.”
If any store has a suspected case of the coronavirus, Starbucks closes the store and sends a third-party work crew to do a deep clean, according to multiple workers. The company said that infected person and anyone who has been in contact with the person is quarantined with pay for two weeks, while the rest of the workers are asked to return to the store after it is cleaned. The store will not reopen if there is not adequate staffing, the company added.
A barista in Fremont, Nebraska, said the store closed after the district manager came into a meeting with a fever. The store hadn’t even opened yet. A shift supervisor at a Starbucks in Anaheim, California, said that a worker showed coronavirus symptoms just two days after the store reopened. The store closed for two days for deep cleaning and reopened with reduced hours because only four workers did not come into contact with the symptomatic person, according to the supervisor.
Some workers have started online petitions on the nonprofit website Coworker.org calling on the company to close stores, require customers to wear masks or continue pay boosts for working through the pandemic that is set to expire at the end of May. Starbucks did not specifically respond to questions about the petitions.
"Not only should every grocery and retail company mandate the wearing of masks and social distancing, our state and local governments must establish these uniform safety standards,” Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which does not represent any Starbucks workers, said in an emailed statement. "For as long as this pandemic endures, companies must implement and enforce store safety measures, and customers must be encouraged to shop smart."
Starbucks employees are just some of the workers across the country who are dealing with issues around safety protections, low pay, and contact with angry or overbearing customers.
Many businesses that stayed open through stay-at-home orders offered workers hazard pay in the form of an hourly pay boost. The Kroger grocery chain announced employees would receive a one-time $400 bonus after outcry that it planned to cut its hazard pay. Target extended its $2 an hour hazard pay through July 4.
Masks have become a political issue, pushing some companies to avoid insisting upon face coverings, while others make it a rule. President Donald Trump has refused to wear one in public, leading some of his supporters to also refuse to wear any face covering.
In one recent incident posted to Twitter, a Costco employee was berated by a customer who refused to wear a mask. It's a reality for many retail workers who find themselves having to enforce store rules and public health guidelines on masks.
Several Starbucks workers interviewed said customers are often aggressive when staff try to encourage social distancing at the stores. One barista in Arizona said he’s heard customers say they don’t believe in masks and they don't think COVID-19 is “a big deal.”
Another barista in Arlington, Virginia, said she has received complaints from customers who feel the social distancing measures were “unnecessary.” She said the most frequent question customers have is “Why can’t I come in?”
A barista in Phoenix said that during training on the new protocol, the store's crew of 15 had to huddle together with no room for social distancing — and not everyone wore a mask.
“They kept stressing that we’re still a part of the community and part of the reason we’re an essential business is because we’re trying to bring normalcy and joy to people,” he said. “They say partners are the biggest priority — but they’re not showing that.”