Starbucks Employees Got Sick, But Stores Stayed Open

Starbucks Employees Got Sick, But Stores Stayed Open
Photo: Christopher Furlong / Getty

As covid-19 continues to spread at a rapid rate, it has become alarmingly clear how many companies are willing to sacrifice the health of their employees (and their customers) in the name of continuing to make a profit. Amazon has long been known for the egregious working conditions in its warehouses, but on Thursday, it came out that the company has also been failing to notify warehouse workers when people who worked in their facility tested positive for covid-19.

Starbucks is the latest retailer whose policies and practices surrounding the covid-19 pandemic are coming under scrutiny for putting people at risk of contracting the disease. According to an ongoing Buzzfeed News investigation, it’s just one of many major companies who have kept stores open, despite providing minimal guidance to their employees around how to actually operate during the pandemic. It’s no secret that service industry workers, many of whom were already living paycheck to paycheck and whose jobs can’t be done remotely, are particularly at risk during this pandemic. But investigations like this are revealing that many companies have been failing to take even the most basic steps—say, providing hand sanitizer or letting employees wear masks—to keep themselves and those around them safe.

Buzzfeed spoke with more than 70 Starbucks employees (the chain calls them “partners”) at stores across the country, and their findings reveal an environment where sick workers were knowingly encouraged to continue working in stores, and employees were given barely any protection from potentially sick customers.

“I either go to work and risk infecting my vulnerable father or I stay home and isolate and receive no pay,” an employee in Massachusetts told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday, March 18, as the number of confirmed US cases reached 13,700.

And that’s not even getting into the lack of safety procedures surrounding employees’ interactions with the customers coming and going from the various Starbucks locations. Shipments of hand sanitizer never arrived, face masks were officially permitted but often discouraged—even for workers with health conditions that left them at greater risk of falling gravely ill if they contracted the virus.

Others recalled customers who “don’t stand more than a few feet apart,” “lick their fingers before handing us cash,” “burst out into a coughing fit all over my barista on register,” and are generally “acting as if the virus doesn’t exist.”

Even as the number of confirmed cases of covid-19 continued to rise, the company continued to operate in ways that showed a disregard for the safety of their employees. Despite the well-known shortage of tests, positive test results were often expected in order to access the limited support Starbucks was providing.

… They were told that those without the required underlying conditions or travel history were only eligible [for expanded catastrophe pay] if they or someone they were exposed to had been tested for COVID-19 — even though tests are “damn near impossible to get,” in the words of one employee. Without a test, an employee who had symptoms was eligible for just three days of catastrophe pay.

There was a significant amount of pressure on store managers who were often put in the position of deciding whether or not to shut down a store after potential exposure to covid-19—essentially, asking these managers to choose between their workers’ health and their financial stability.

“Our baristas and shift supervisors are scared and are turning to me for guidance, but I am scared as fuck,” a store manager in Northern California told BuzzFeed News on March 18. “I’ve cried every day since last Friday.”

In recent days, Starbucks has implemented more stringent safety policies, including going entirely to drive-through service, expanding catastrophe pay (up to 30 days for any reason), and offering workers who choose to continue to work a $3/hour raise. While many of the employees Buzzfeed spoke to support the changes, they can’t help but wonder what took so long.

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